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Reviews by Victor Gijsbers

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Stuck in a room!, by andrus7789

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Stuck indeed, September 28, 2018
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Extremely spare prose and implementation; no plot to speak of; and, as far as I can see, you quickly end up getting stuck in a room with no exits and a single item that doesn't respond to any commands. Oh well, at least the game is true to its title.

Rape, Pillage, Makane!, by Chandler Groover

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Bitter satire, August 16, 2018
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
From a misogynist adolescent to a fun-loving Roman to the victim of a self-important sex-hater, Stiffy Makane is surely the IF character to appear in the most different guises. Here, he appears as a knight whose repertoire of actions consists of exactly two things: Slay and Lay. When Sir Makane slays, he brutally murders; when he lays, he is often engaged in rape or something very close to it. (The game never explicitly mentions consent, though it sometimes stops short of telling us that the laying was non-consensual.)

The game reminded me of a sequence early in Ludovico Ariosto's magnificent (and feminist) 16th century epic Orlando Furioso. In that sequence, a knight has rescued a naked princess chained to a rock by defeating the monster that was planning to eat her. The princess expresses her gratitude. And then the knight tells her that he knows just the way for her to really show her gratitude, and he proceeds to undress -- he does not even consider the possibility that she might not want him sexually. But taking off his armour is such a laborious process that the princess has fled far away before he finishes it.

Ariosto and Groover are both trying to expose the violence inherent in stories of chivalry and the culture that generates them. (For Groover, of course, these stories stand in for many other kinds of narrative we find in contemporary works, all of which work in fundamentally the same ways.) But there is a distinct difference in tone. Ariosto is always generous and humane, while Groover's satire is bitter. Ariosto doesn't express his disapproval of the knight, but by making him the butt of a joke, he ensures that we cannot mistake the author's intent. Groover, on the other hand, makes his narrator express constant approval of the actions of Sir Makane -- an approval that is obviously ludicrous and often supported by bizarre non sequiturs, but which makes reading the piece a constant struggle against the narrator. Ariosto believes that if one presents the real, people will be able to see and embrace the truth. Groover, living in the age of Trump and looking at U.S. responses to police violence, believes that powerful authorities are giving false interpretations of the real and often succeeding in getting people to embrace those interpretations. His strategy is to make the tension between reality and interpretation so strong that something must give.

Perhaps that is necessarily a weakness. A piece like Rape, Pillage, Makane can hardly open anyone's eyes, since one either already believes that X is an egregious example of violence and false ideology, or one does not believe that the events in this game and X have anything to do with each other. Let X be police violence; would anyone not already sympathetic to the Black Lives Matter movement believe that Sir Makane and the U.S. police are like each other? Probably not. Here, a more detailed piece about the topic under consideration might be more effective.

Rape, Pillage, Makane thus remains somewhat abstract; but its bitter satire is a new way of taking up the Makane character and an interesting addition to the IF corpus.

Earth and Sky, by Paul O'Brian

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Not enough fun, August 15, 2018
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
I'm not, in general, a fan of superheroes; but I can be persuaded to like them. I really enjoyed the Lego Batman Movie, for instance, and I thoroughly enjoyed the one superhero comic I've ever read, Watchmen. What those two works have in common is a good story. The Lego Batman Movie's story is of course to some extent silly, but it is about something real -- Batman's solipsistic arrogance -- and it explores that idea in a very coherent way. A story can be funny, even zany, and still make sense.

The story of Earth and Sky makes no sense at all. Little is lost by spoiling it, but I'll put it between spoiler tags nonetheless: (Spoiler - click to show)your aunt comes into contact with an ancient bacteria, which turns her into a gigantic evil monster until you give her antibiotics, after which she not only returns to her normal state but is also freed of some kind of mind control that will probably be explained in the sequel. This is hardly a story at all; it's just a sequence of events between which the authors posits causal links even though none of the usual laws of causation apply. Several other reviewers have likened the plot to that of a B-movie. Perhaps this is accurate; but of course the problem with B-movies is that most of them are bad. ("But they're so bad they're good!" Uh, no.)

Alright, so maybe you're not playing this game for the story; you're playing it for the chance to use some super powers! Nothing wrong with that, actually, and the game certainly provides you some opportunities to do so. But -- and this is my most important complaint about the game -- the time spent doing fun stuff with superpowers is a very small portion of playing the game. You have to slog through too much information and two rather unexciting sequences, and then you're rewarded with exactly one fight, which itself turns out be rather repetitive. There's just not enough fun stuff!

I've heard that the second game delivers much more in this respect, and if so, playing this first game might still be worthwhile. Just don't expect too much of it.

(I replayed this game recently as a preparation for tackling part two, and wasn't happy with the review I penned eight years or so ago. So while my star rating remains unchanged, the above is the new review to go with it.)

Superluminal Vagrant Twin, by C.E.J. Pacian

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Jump to Conclusion, July 29, 2018
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
In Superluminal Vagrant Twin, you explore the galaxy as you attempt to collect enough cash to rescue your twin. The game's main selling point is the sheer size of the galaxy: by the end of the game, I had visited no fewer than 44 planets, and I think I may have missed out on a few, since I didn't seem to have the necessary objects to complete absolutely every side quest. In order to make this size manageable, the planets are implemented very lightly: there's just a few things you can interact with, and those interactions are mostly restricted to "talk", "take", "buy", and "sell". Even the "examine" verb has been disabled. This gives the game its strange feel of being both extremely limited (at any location you can just do a few things) and extremely expansive (from each planet, you can jump to every single planet you have discovered, and you keep discovering more).

We have, then, a game that is sharply focused on a few activities, but gives us a lot of freedom in when and whether we engage in them. First, we explore. Exploration is simple -- you just "jump" to a planet, although you'll have to learn the name of the planet first. Or you have to guess the name, something that is by no means impossible and got me to quite a number of planets I would not otherwise have encountered. (A nice reward for out-of-the-box thinking that the game's restricted verb list otherwise cannot provide for. Unfortunately, you cannot "jump to Conclusion", although the game does acknowledge the command.) At those planets, you buy or sell exotic goods, upgrade yourself and your ship, restock on fuel, arrest some criminals, deliver some packages, and perhaps learn about one or two other planets. As you proceed, you get a good understanding of the universe around you, although the complicated social and political arrangements never become entirely clear. Great fun; and I suspect the game has the exact right length to maintain a sense of wonder without becoming tedious.

The game this reminded me of most is Sunless Sea, which also features journeys from port to port and very limited, text-based interactions when you arrive. But Superluminal Vagrant Twin is smaller, faster, less impenetrable, and a lot friendlier. Highly recommended.

Gun Mute, by C.E.J. Pacian

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Violence is the answer, July 29, 2018
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
You are Gun Mute, and your friend Elias is about to be hanged by the evil sheriff. So what's a man to do? You grab your trusty six-shooter, enter the post-apocalyptic Western town, and shoot anyone who tries to stop you.

Gun Mute is an almost pure combat game, where you move through a completely linear series of encounters most of which end with either you dying to your enemy's bullet or your enemy dying to yours. The fights are not based on a numerical combat system à la Treasures of Slaver's Kingdom or Kerkerkruip; instead, each encounter is a puzzle in which you have to identify your enemy's weaknesses and use them to prevail. Failure means death, but you can always undo. Some of the puzzles are better clued than others, but for the most part, they are enjoyable. Along the way, there is some room for non-combat discoveries; and the ending is particularly satisfying.

Essential playing for anyone who wants to design a puzzle-based combat game; recommended playing for all others.

Murder Simulator (How To Get Away With Murder), by S.P.A.K.

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Remember kids: murder is bad., July 28, 2018
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Murder Simulator is a link-based game -- if that's the right word -- in which you have just stabbed someone to death and now have to hide the crime. The basic idea is that you choose a place to hide the body, a way to clean the knife, and so on. Unfortunately, the game doesn't use any form of state tracking (it doesn't remember which choices have been made). You can first hide the knife in the woods, then, back in the house, proceed to clean it with your shirt, and so on. Not knowing which choices you have made, the game also can't tell you whether you got away with murder. Instead, it discusses all the options you had.

The game's core message seems to be this: "There's only so much you can hide, even with an alibi. And with forensic technology getting better by the day, it's becoming harder and harder to cover up crime-- as it should be. The only real way to get away with a crime is to not do something you have to get away from in the first place."

Is this what the game was supposed to convince me of? Sure, if you stab someone to death in your own house with no premeditated idea of how to get rid of the body, then the probability of getting away with murder is low. But in the U.S.A., only 64% of homicides lead to arrests, which suggests that if you are smart about murder the chance of being convicted is relatively low. Anyway, surely the important point about murder is not that it's hard to cover up, but that it's wrong?

One positive point: in this game, you can ask Siri what the best place to hide a dead body is. That was pretty awesome. If I could give half stars, that would make it 1.5.

Cursed Odyssey, by Creaky Gate Games

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Simple CYOA, July 27, 2018
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Cursed Odyssey is a CYOA-style game in which you have to bring a merchant vessel home after it has been cursed by a witch. You meet about five obstacles on the way, each of which you'll have to overcome by making the right choice out of two or three possibilities. If you choose sensibly, you'll probably get to the best ending in one playthrough; which is good, because most of the wrong choices lead to instant death.

There's nothing really wrong with this short adventure, but there's no particularly good reason to play it either. Perhaps its worst aspect is the layout: by using only a very small part of the screen, the game forces you to scroll much more than necessary, and if you scroll too far, the game itself scrolls away.

Apparently, the people who made this are also planning to develop commercial games. If so, they need to work on their craft. Cursed Odyssey stands to, for instance, the Choice Of games as a high schooler's short story stands to a professional novel.

The Bookshop Poisoning, by Daniel Winterstein

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Original puzzle idea, July 24, 2018
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
The Bookshop Poisoning is a short story in the tradition of Sherlock Holmes mysteries, although Watson has become an Edinburgh police officer and Holmes is called Bell. Bell will attempt to solve a murder in a bookshop, but you, the player / Watson, have to activate his thinking by showing him books that contain certain keywords. To take an example that does not appear in the game, you might have to come up with a book title that contains the word 'poison' -- e.g., "Strong Poison" by Dorothy L. Sayers. You can type in any book title you wish and the game uses, I suspect, some kind of online database to check whether the book exists and who its author is. This works very well.

It's a nice and original puzzle idea, perhaps let down a little bit by the fact that there are so many books that just attempting titles at random is a pretty successful strategy. The game is short and the story appropriate to the puzzle theme, if not particularly engaging. Three stars because it is worth trying.

Sorcery! 2, by Steve Jackson and inkle

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Fantastic gamebook adaptation, July 24, 2018
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
I wasn't blown away by the first Sorcery! That game hewed very closely to the standard gamebook format: you traverse a garden of forking paths by making unmotivated choices ("go left or go right") towards a predestined end. To its credit, it managed to be quite a bit more merciful than the original books while keeping the charm of such adventures intact; but all in all, it wasn't precisely a shining example of game design. I hesitated for a bit about whether I wanted to buy the second part as well. I'm very happy I did.

On the surface, Sorcery! 2 looks a lot like the first game. Combat works in the same way, there is still the same rather cumbersome magic system, and you still drag your character across a nicely drawn map. This time, the map is a of a city and we also get maps of the interiors of buildings and even of a sewer system; but that alone need not make a major difference.

In other ways, however, Sorcery! 2 differs markedly from its predecessor. Most importantly, instead of the uninspiring quest of getting to the other side of the map, we are now tasked with finding four missing nobles, each of whom knows one line of a crucial spell. Successfully completing this mission requires the accumulation of many hints and clues which allow us to slowly understand what is happening in the city. Combined with a game mechanic -- I won't spoil it -- that allows the player to traverse the city almost at liberty, what we have is much less a traditional gamebook structure and much more an interactive investigation in which the player can make informed choices about where to go next. The plot is good; the sense of discovery is real; and finding all the clues feels very satisfying.

It also helps that the game is much, much bigger than the first game. I assume that the makers felt more free to take liberties with the source material, because there is no way all this content could have fitted into the original book. There is so much to discover, there are so many pieces of the story to fit together, and there are so many opportunities to just have fun in the game (including by challenging people to play the excellent little mini-game Swindlestones), that Sorcery! 2 will keep you busy for quite some time.

To a certain extent, the aims of the game are limited. This is still very much a sword&sorcery fantasy yarn with much emphasis on plot and adventure and very little on emotional or philosophical depth. But I find it hard to imagine a game that would more successfully combine the sensibilities of a fantasy gamebook with those of the modern player. Coupled with my intense enjoyment of the experience, that leads to a 5-star rating. Highly recommended.

RPG-ish, by Stuart Lilford

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Extreme minimalist RPG, July 24, 2018
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Apperently, this game was written for a game jam in which the games could contain no more than 300 words of text. As a proof-of-concept that that is enough to build a rudimentary RPG in Twine, I suppose RPG-ish is a success. But I will ignore such issues of context and history; the aim of my review is, as always, strictly to assess whether you, as a player, should be interested in playing this game.

The answer is a resounding 'no'. This is surely one of the most boring RPGs ever made. There are no tactical decisions, there is no interesting prose, there is no sense of discovery -- indeed, there is nothing worth seeing here at all. The only way to lose is through boredom, when you really can't be bothered to check how much health you have left or go through the grind for more XP. Best avoided.

Another reviewer tells us that the game is a critique of RPGs. But can something be a critique of a genre if it is indistinguishable from the worst examples of that genre? There are some very interesting critiques of RPG tropes and game mechanics (the pen-and-paper meta-RPG Power Kill comes to mind, as does the cRPG Undertale; I myself once tried something in this vein with my pen-and-paper game Vampires; but really, such critiques are almost as old as the genre). RPG-ish isn't one of them.

For Me It Was Tuesday, by Soda51

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
You're not bad... for a guy, July 18, 2018
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Soda51's oeuvre consists for the most part of extremely short games with ham-fisted messages. For Me It Was Tuesday is no exception. Here, we follow two girls as they go to the arcade to comment on two boys playing Street Fighter. At least, that's what I think is going on; on the one hand, the game suggests that you are playing one of the girls and are also playing the Street Fighter game, but on the other hand, the girls continually make sexist remarks that would make no sense when addressed to another girl. So the fiction of the game refuses to become very clear. Either the girls are commenting on two hapless boys, or they have some thing going on where they trash talk to each other as if the other girl were a buy.

The piece is highly non-interactive; you just press a couple of links, and they change what you see next, but there's no meaningful agency.

So why am I giving the game 2 stars? Because the stream of insults the girls engage in are sometimes spot-on as gender-inverted parodies of the stupid things that some male gamers say to female gamers. This makes the current game slightly better than the other Soda51 games that I've played, and that should be rewarded.

Sorcery!, by Steve Jackson and inkle

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A fine but inessential start of the series, July 14, 2018
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
The Sorcery! games are recreations of four of Steve Jackson's Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. In this first instalment of the series, the gamebook origins are still quite obvious: you journey through a rather literal 'garden of forking paths', making relatively unmotivated choices between one road and another, and dealing with the creatures and situations that you happen to come across. Continuity is provided mostly through your inventory and health. If you find a giant's tooth here, you'll be able to use it later; if you lose much health in this fight, you might not survive the next. Otherwise there is little in the way of a coherent narrative to bind all the events together.

This means that at bottom the game is a learn-from-previous-attempts exercise in optimisation. You won't be able to follow all paths; some paths are more lucrative or less dangerous than others; some paths may open new options later; and the challenge is to find a way through the game that gets you to the end with a maximum of useful items (to be used in the next part of the series).

Of course, in the original gamebooks, the challenge was less one of optimisation and more one of survival. Death could come swiftly and unexpectedly, and the non-cheating player would usually need many playthroughs to achieve victory. However, the electronic Sorcery! makes some very welcome changes to the original format. Combat is less random and the game allows you to redo fights if they went badly. If that isn't enough, there is a handy system for going back to any previous point in the game. While this makes Sorcery! much easier than the book on which it is based, this is a welcome change -- especially if you are not a kid in the 80's with limited access to games and limitless amounts of free time.

Sorcery! looks quite beautiful even on a mobile phone, even though the modern art doesn't mesh that well with the original pictures from the gamebooks. (I would have preferred to see this original 'ugly' style of fantasy, where people are likely to be dressed in rags and deformed by diseases, throughout the game.) The writing is good, though nor particularly distinctive.

Should you play Sorcery!? If you have any fondness for gamebooks, or just enjoy a nice combat-filled fantasy romp, the answer is probably affirmative. (I bought the game for 5.49 euros, and that seems okay.) But the best reason for playing Sorcery! is that it is a good introduction to Sorcery! 2, a game that is much, much better, and that I would wholeheartedly recommend.

The Dreamhold, by Andrew Plotkin

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Teaching the spirit of experimentation, July 11, 2018
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
The Dreamhold is presented as a game suitable for beginners, complete with a tutorial voice and the choice between a normal mode and an expert mode. And yet Plotkin's aim is not maximal accessibility or minimal resistance on the way to a winning ending. He is not here to hold your hand. If you expect him to, you will be disappointed; as some of the reviewers have been, who complain about the openness of the world and the complexity of some of the machinery one meets.

But Plotkin signals his intentions early on, when the player is brought into a room stuffed with useless objects that one is nevertheless encouraged to examine one by one. This, surely, can be intimidating to the new player. Yes. But it is also something one must absolutely learn to cope with if one is to navigate any of the classic parser games. The same is true about learning to explore large worlds, about making leaps of dreamlike logic, and about thinking through possible interactions with complex machinery. Rather than hold your hand, Plotkin drops you in the thick of things, with one message: trust me. And you can trust him. Everything will make sense; you won't get the game into an unwinnable state; and with some determination, you will probably be able to win.

But Plotkin takes things a step further. He is not only introducing the player to the skills and techniques need to play old-school parser IF, he is also introducing them to a particularly fine example of the aesthetic of those games. The mysterious, abandoned world; the slow accumulation of hints that build up a narrative framework; the spirit of experimentation; and especially the being rewarded for your hard work with strange and unexpected experiences -- it is all there. Introductory games tend to be limited and boring; and in a sense that means that they do not teach the player the right mindset. They teach her to think in limited and boring ways. The Dreamhold teaches players to persevere, to try strange things, to try and step off the seemingly beaten path.

Whether it actually succeeds is less sure. The existence of a simple solution, bypassing large parts of the game, might fool people into thinking the game has less to offer than it has. (It fooled me, but luckily I replayed it using David Welbourn's walkthrough.) Approached with the right mindset, however, it does a great job preparing player for the world of old-school parser IF. Although it might spoil the player in the meantime -- it's kind of hard to go back to Adventure after playing a game as polished as this!

Main Hall & Beginners Cave, by Donald Brown

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Extremely sparse dungeon crawl, July 11, 2018
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Something like this used to crop up with distressing regularity in the Interactive Fiction Competition: an extremely sparse dungeon crawl that offered little in rewarding prose and nothing in tactical challenge, while promising to be the first instalment in a long series of adventures. Of course there is one crucial difference between Beginner's Cave and those unfortunate entries: Donald Brown's 1980 game actually was the first instalment in a long series of adventures. It spawned an entire movement of games using the Eamon system and is thus of obvious historical importance.

Considered from the point of view of a 2018 player, however, there is not much to recommend this game. We crawl through a rather linear cave that is described in drab prose and offers few opportunities for interaction. The combat system is similarly uninspiring: you type 'attack' until you win. There are some opportunities for tactics by selecting weapons and armour, but it doesn't amount to much. There is some unclued instant-death as well. The most original aspect of the game is no doubt the fact that you can easily find allies who will follow you around and help you in combat.

The great selling point of the game is the fact that you can take your character through hundreds of additional Eamon adventures, keeping the weapons and gold that you earned in this one. This surely taps into a very basic wish of many gamers -- the wish to accumulate, to get better, to be rewarded, to achieve domination. Everything has changed in gaming since 1980... and yet, everything has remained the same.

(I played the game's online version at eamon-remastered.com.)

Tonight Dies the Moon, by Tom McHenry

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Cold war longing, July 31, 2015
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Like Horse Master, Tonight Dies the Moon is a futuristic game set in a dystopian world that is sketched in few but striking and imaginative details. Also like Horse Master, it contains some sequences that are reminiscent of existing computer game genres -- a sort of reverse Space Invader and a market-simulating farming game -- but neither deliver nor want to deliver the kind of victory that such games promise. Add the instantly recognisable visual style of the games, and there can be no doubt that you are playing another Tom McHenry game.

(Spoiler - click to show)Tonight Dies the Moon is actually two related games: one where you play on Earth and one where you play on the Moon. In one sense, these sequences are entirely different. On Earth, you are obsessed with the war against the Moon, you go to work to shoot some lunar bases, you say goodbye to your best friend, and then you escape to the moon. On the Moon, you've apparently never heard of a war; you spend turn after turn planting crops for both the government and yourself, raking in big profits for the former and meagre earnings for the latter; you have some non-interactive interactions with your fellow colonists; and finally, you get blown up by an attack from Earth. (Perhaps it is also possible to die earlier from starvation, if you don't manage to be successful at the farming game; and maybe, just maybe, it is possible to earn enough money for a ticket to Earth.) So where the Earth story is a more traditional piece of linear fiction ending on a high note, the Moon story is a farming game with some episodic fictions sprinkled through it and a predetermined loss looming over you.

But in another sense, the two halves of the game are very much alike. Both protagonists live in poverty and must scrape to get by. Both are pawns in a political system that doesn't care about them and with which they collaborate for lack of an alternative. Both keep their lives tolerable through a friendship with a single person. Both dream of a different existence, and look at each other's world in the night sky with the vague hope that maybe there is a better life up there. We, of course, after playing both halves of the game, know that those dreams are only that, dreams; they have no base in reality. But we understand why people would think differently. We understand why they must think differently in order to keep life bearable. As a tale of misguided and yet understandable longing, Tonight Dies the Moon is quite beautiful and affecting. The Moon-sequence could have been a bit shorter (the game goes on and on long after the episodic fiction has stopped), but all in all, not in the least because of the many original details (like ChangeNames and the process of copying and changing books on the moon), it works and stays with the reader.

Less successful is the political side of the game. Earth and Moon are quite obviously meant to be modern-day versions of the U.S.A. and Russia in de cold war. Earth is a hyper-individualistic and shallow society obsessed with a war fought with drones, and even more obsessed with its bad health care system. The Moon poses as an egalitarian community, but the government is just profiting from the people, its plan-based economy is a disaster leading to famine, and anyone who wants to read something good must engage in samizdat. The former, if read as a critique of current right-wing political trends in the U.S.A., is over-the-top and lacks the kind of truth that would make it sting. (After all, not even Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are in favour of expensive health care or ineffective wars, even though their policy decisions might lead to that.) The latter, if read as a critique of the Soviet Union, is like kicking someone who is already dead; while I don't see how it would apply to current left-wing movements. The entire game might have been more successful if the personal stories of longing had been emphasised more and the political background had been emphasised less.


In total, I think Tonight Dies the Moon is less successful than Horse Master, but still a great play. I'm looking forward to more games by Tom, because his imagination is a fecund (and I suspect scaly) thing that takes us to wild and aberrant places!

CAPITALISM: The Role Playing Game, by Soda51

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Hamfisted political satire, July 30, 2015
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
This game is a political satire of capitalism. The premise is that you choose to be one of five classes of capitalist scum, and then battle it out with the 100 people who are richer than you in order to become #1. Battling is an automatic, RPG-like system of seemingly random rolls.

As a game, this has nothing to offer. I assume that that is deliberate; what it wants to be is political satire. But this game is to satire what a cask full of elephant piss is to a glass of gewürztraminer -- not the clearest metaphor I've ever employed, perhaps, but you know what I'm getting at.

After playing three of Soda51's games today, I can reach the overarching conclusion that this author, who obviously wants to make political statements, should read and watch some good political satire to find out what works and what doesn't.

Priapism, by Soda51

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Exploding penis fun, July 30, 2015
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
I wrote a Stiffy Makane game, so one would expect me to be favourably disposed to games where the central premise is that you have an erection that won't go away and you NEED TO DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT. Preferable something in all caps.

But, man, this is juvenile. If exploding dicks are your idea of funny, or "The police shoot you because you are a black man" is your idea of interesting political satire, go play this game. If not, not.

Garden of Steven, by Soda51

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Unnecessary, July 30, 2015
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Perhaps the aim of this game is to undermine the claim "God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve" by showing that the sentence remains true under any random combination of names in its second half, including those of 99.999999% of all heterosexual couples, and can therefore not be used as an argument against same-sex marriage. But surely, that is already to pay too much attention to something that doesn't even rise to status of an argument in the first place?

As a piece of communication, I think the game serves only to say "I'm not an extremist evangelical from the USA!". Good for you, but I don't think you need to make a game to communicate that. It comes too close to trolling.

Let's Go Eat, by Tom McHenry

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Unsuccessful restaurant finding simulator, July 30, 2015
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
The game's premise is fun, but I think it would be fair to label it as a design failure. It just doesn't seem to fulfil the design goals the author set himself. That goal is to simulate the frustrating experience of searching for a restaurant with a group of people, and to comment on that experience. (Spoiler - click to show)In the credits, McHenry explicitly tells us what his message is:

Without autopsying the work you just played too much, I wanted to assure you it's not the worst thing to express your preferences. It doesn't hurt your friends to communicate your needs, but it will hurt you if you wait around for them to guess exactly right. It's how you can starve surrounded by food.

In my opinion, the game fails on two levels. First, it fails because the analysis of the situation given in the quote doesn't go to the heart of the experience that McHenry is drawing one. Second, it fails because play doesn't effectively engage us with either the situation or the message.

Let's look at the first point first. Is the problem of finding a restaurant really a problem of people not expressing their preferences? While a certain fear of making things difficult or less pleasant for other people ("really, everything is fine with me") may play a role, this is at most a very small part of the problem. Suppose that you gave everyone in the group a list of cuisines and asked them to grade each of them ("Steak: 8; Indian: 4, ...") That would in no way solve the problem of finding a restaurant, because the space of restaurants is incredibly complex and so is the space of preferences. Perhaps I'd love to eat Italian, but not a pizza, since I already ate pizza yesterday. What I want is a pasta, but preferably not one with tomato sauce. I'd kill for a pasta with cream and truffles; and also for a dish with anchovies, pine nuts and parsley. However, my budget for the entire meal is $20, so if it's more expensive than that, I simply must look somewhere else. Atmosphere is also important to me; if it looks like a fast-food joint, I don't want to go there. But I don't care whether all twelve of us can sit at one table; I'm fine with splitting up and meeting each other again after the meal. And so on, and so forth... Our preferences are very, very complicated, and there's no way we could possibly communicate them all in advance. We don't even know about all of them in advance. So just "expressing your preferences" is not going to help very much.

The problem is exacerbated by two other factors. First, even if we have the preferences of everyone in our dinner party, there's no clear way of weighing them against each other. Is it worse for you to have to eat Indian or for me to have to pay a few bucks more than I intended to? Is it worse for you to have to walk another five minutes or for me to have to sit in a neon lit restaurant? It is here, I think, that self-effacing tendencies are much, much more prominent than in the initial state of communicating our preferences. But even if people didn't have those tendencies, there is no way you can weigh this stuff. Second, unless you are a well-informed local, you're always in a state of incomplete information. You don't know which restaurants exist, how good they are, how busy they will be, and so on.

So the problem of choosing a restaurant is that you only have a vague inkling of people's preferences, have only a vague idea of how to weigh them against each other, and have incomplete information about the possible choices. Solving the problem means that you try to get at least some clarification on all three of these issues, without taking too much time doing it. That's hard, and criteria for success are not obvious. But [i]Let's Go Eat[/i] places so much emphasis on people not expressing their preferences, that it doesn't get to the heart of the problem.

That wouldn't be too bad if play itself had been engaging and enlightening. But in fact, you just choose a restaurant and click "eat here", without any serious discussion ever happening between the people in your party. Since everyone has their own preferences, these generally balance out; and the numbers you get at the end of your meal are so abstract that they don't mean much. The game doesn't succeed in making you care about the score you get; and that means that you are not invested in finding a place that will actually make people happy.

I would have preferred a game where it is actually hard to find a place that your group will even enter. Perhaps you have dozens of restaurants, all of them imperfectly described on your map; and when you try to enter one, it turns out that Jackie will not eat sushi, at all, and that Frank cannot pay anything above 25$; and so on. Or Lydia starts to complain that she preferred the Italian restaurant you passed by three minutes ago. And so on -- give the people in the group some personality, have bickering and discussion, and make the player's goal to find anything that will be acceptable. That could have been more fun as a game, and also much closer to the real experience.


Horse Master, by Tom McHenry

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
The illusion of perfect happiness, July 29, 2015
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
I don't know whether like is the right verb, but I certainly had a positive response to Horse Master. The game has imagination, especially when describing the central fiction of the horse and the process of mastering it; and it delivers it with good pacing. (Spoiler - click to show)From the very first scene it is obvious that these horses are strange; then the physical details start coming in and our mental image becomes more and more alien; and finally, at the great day, it turns out that all the preconceptions we still had about horse mastering were wrong as well. For it turns out -- and this is of course a brilliant thematic move -- that we are not trying to master any abilities that have to do with horses; we are trying to master the horse itself, to be its master, to dominate it to the point where it wont eat us and will let itself be killed. There is no achievement and no intrinsic worth to the procedure at all. There is only the prize conferred on us by a society that wants to witness a bizarre and gruesome spectacle.

The game poses, at least for a while, as a sort of time management game, although it quickly becomes apparent that the optimal strategy is also the simplest one. This raises the suspicion that the game is not about any kind of player skill. Then, when you get the hang of it, the game kicks you out of your house, and suddenly the time that was your resource becomes your greatest enemy, something to bridge and survive. That too was a neat trick. The fact that you can lose the game during this period does reveal a weakness, though: when one replays, one clicks through all the choices without reading or thinking. There's not enough variation in the game to support the kind of replaying that is demanded.

Other reviewers have pointed out that the piece is, at least on one level, about bodybuilding and/or animal shows, both activities where one is manipulating a body to conform with weird standards in order to gain praise and approvan of spectators. On an even more obvious level, the game is about the pains that someone will go through if they are desperate enough, and how a competitive system can create a kind of race to the bottom. But I guess that I'm actually most intrigued by the game's portrayal of the end goal of the endeavour: a state beyond all wanting, where one has transcended all cares. Horse Master is about people who are willing to give up everything because they believe in a reward that is so big that it equates happiness forever; and of course, some people do think that way about particular kinds of success. But, and the game makes this abundantly clear, that is an illusion. It is unreal. The whole bizarre fiction of Horse Master works, I think, precisely because the game wants to tell us that anything that is worth sacrificing everything for must be unreal.


The game may be a bit simple and repetitive when replayed; and the imagery is certainly a bit heavy-handed, both when describing the icky things happening to your body and the horse's body and, especially, when trying to set a political mood. But Horse Master is nevertheless impressive, because it manages to pack a lot of thematic into what is, after all, quite a small game. A great piece of choice-based fiction.

Savoir-Faire, by Emily Short

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
One of the great puzzle games, July 28, 2015
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
I still haven't finished Savoir-Faire. I played through almost the entire main part of the game a couple of months ago, but then I had to move house and the game languished for a while. Returning to it, I was overwhelmed by the amount of objects I had collected and the amount of information I had at one time processed. I found it very hard to get into the game again. Enough had slipped away that I needed to replay the game, but enough remained in my memory that this would have been mostly boring. No matter. I'll put it aside for now and return at some later point in time, knowing that there will be still more for me to discover -- including de denouement.

For let it be clear that Savoir-Faire is a game you will wish to return to, not so much because of its plotting (which is slow) or its characterisation (which isn't exciting), but because of the beauty and intricacy of its puzzles and of the model world that supports them. Savoir-Faire is in many ways an old-school puzzle game, which means that it is hard; but it is also fair. Banging your head against its mysteries is bound to be a very rewarding experience, and I would encourage you not to use a walkthrough or a hint file. This game is worth persevering.

A large part of the game's beauty comes from its central puzzle mechanic, which is incredibly flexible but also strict enough to give coherence to the whole. This mechanic is the Lavori d'Aracne, which I suppose translates to the "labours of Arachne", that is, the spinning of spider webs. It is a kind of magic in which you can link objects that are like each other, and they will then start exhibiting the same behaviour. E.g., you link two boxes, and then, when you open one of them, the other will be opened as well. A large part of the game is spent exploring the possibilities and limits of this system, and while these limits may sometimes feel a bit arbitrary, they are consistent enough that one will keep faith in the game.

Savoir-Faire is possibly my favourite large puzzle game. And next time I return to it -- perhaps in a year or two -- I'll finally solve it! I'm sure of it.

Escape from the Man-Sized Cabinet, by The Late Show with Stephen Colbert

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Nice pictures, not as great on the humour, July 17, 2015
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
The visual aesthetics of this short twine game are very good: deliberately retro fonts are coupled to colourful, old-school pictures. The story features Stephen Colbert getting lost in a fantasy plot, and mostly revolves about twisting clichéd adventure and fantasy tropes. But this twisting is itself highly unoriginal, and the author tries a bit too hard to be funny. There is, unfortunately, none of the sharp political satire that made Colbert's show work.

Not a bad way to spend a few minutes, but forgettable.

Dulle Griet and the Antenorian Icebox, by Sam Kabo Ashwell

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Impious adventures in Hell, March 19, 2015
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
You are Dulle Griet, from the Pieter Bruegel the Elder painting, who returns from a lucrative trip into what seems to be Dante's version of Hell. Now all you need to do is get your war engine running again. Unfortunately, it has been infested by imps.

This is a short game: you have to find and kill three imps, each of them requiring you to solve a relatively simple puzzle. The game could be more responsive to synonyms, but should be solvable with a little patience. Otherwise, there is always the ClubFloyd transcript.

The main strength of the game is the writing, which goes over the top with archaic and difficult words, but does it well enough to make the reading process enjoyable. Ashwell's Hell is inventive and evokes an entire mysterious universe of stories. Recommended.

The Stars Are Right, by Michael C. Martin

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Made me laugh, March 19, 2015
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
This is a speed IF written on the premise that there are floating children and you have to bring them back down. It's also a Christmas game.

Like most speed IF, The Stars Are Right is very short and revolves around a single idea. In this case the startling plot development and ridiculous solution made me laugh, and that means that the game succeeded at what it was trying to do.

Within the context of a speed IF competition, this might get 3 or even 4 stars. Outside of that, I'll stick with 2.

Time and Dwarves, by Graham Nelson
Demonstration of real time Inform 6, March 18, 2015
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Time and Dwarves is a very small Inform 6 game consisting of two rooms and six dwarves who randomly move between these locations. What makes it an interesting tech demo is that this movement happens in real time, which is of course not the way Inform games usually work. Comes with, or rather as, source code.

Monsters, by Magic Orange
Bog standard zombie game, March 17, 2015
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Raise your hand if you have ever played a game with this premise: "Almost everybody in the world has turned into zombies. You have to search for weapons, defend yourself against attacking hordes, and meet up with some other survivors because there might be strength in numbers ... if you can trust them."

Now raise your hand if you've lost count of how many games with that premise you have played.

Right. I wonder why people want to remake the same game over and over again. Surely it is more fun to write something with at least some originality? But here we have another bog standard zombie game. It is not helped by bad spelling and writing, by having little content, and by having few if any meaningful choices. Best avoided.

The Lady in Green, by D. F. Stone

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Old and sparse AGT game, March 17, 2015
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
I used IFDB's random game function and it came up with The Lady in Green, an old AGT story that I had to compile from the source on the archive.

The game is very sparsely implemented. Many nouns that are prominent in the room descriptions are not recognised by the parser, and not all exits are well described. For instance, in early location you see you car. "Enter car" does not work, but "north" does, because, apparently, your car is north of you. This game, then, is certainly from an earlier era of amateur IF programming.

The story starts of in a modern day hotel, but you are soon transported back in time where you have to rescue a lost boy. This involves a few simple puzzles. The main difficulty, however, is that it frequently and unexpectedly becomes impossible to go back to where you were earlier, and if you haven't found all the items yet, you're stuck.

At the end of the game, you can choose between staying in the past and returning to the present, but the story is so sparse and perfunctory that the player will have no preference and the choice is moot.

Not an awful game, but I also cannot think of any reason to recommend it.

Fallen London, by Failbetter Games

11 of 12 people found the following review helpful:
Great atmosphere, bad story, detestable design, December 17, 2014
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Fallen London is a game specifically designed to get you playing it in bite-sized bits throughout the day, every day. It accomplishes this by limiting the number of turns you are allowed to play, and then replenishing this resource by one whenever ten minutes of real time pass. When you log into the game, you can play the maximum of 20 turns; after that, you will be allowed to play a new turn every 10 minutes. This means that optimal play requires you to log in every 200 minutes (slightly over 3 hours), while the temptation to get back to their website and play one more turn will re-arise every 10 minutes. (Probably while you are trying to do productive work.)

There is -- of course -- another way in which you can replenish your turns, which is by paying real money. You can restore 20 actions by paying $2.50. Tempting you to spend real money on replenishing turns is in fact the only reason that Fallen London uses a real-time limited number of turns; for the rest it is just a frustration-creating device that has no advantages for the player.

Of course, getting people to pay real money for more turns almost requires an in-game economy where turns can be exchanged for in-game benefits. In order to supply this, Fallen London sets up a core game system that revolves entirely around grinding. You'll have to increase four main stats, dozens of story stats, and dozens of ingredients in order to unlock new stories... and of course in order to improve your ability to grind and increase your main stats, story stats and ingredients, which can then be used to ... well, you know how this works.

Many of the game's grinding loops are based on trading time for security. You might, for instance, decide to become a great writer. You'll need to increase your "Potential" to do that, which you do by writing stories. If you try to write an easy story, you'll have a high chance of success, but your Potential will increase only a little. If you write a hard story, you have a low probability of success, but the potential reward is great. You can, however, increase your probability of success by writing more pages of draft material. This costs turns. So you will be spending dozens of turns clicking just the same few links again and again in order to create draft material, always wondering whether the time has already come to hazard your investment on the roll of the dice, or whether you should spend a few more turns in order to increase the chance of success.

This design is not just terrible, it is detestable. Fallen London wants to seduce you into logging in again and again, every couple of hours, or even every ten minutes, so you can engage in meaningless grinding that will allow you to improve some numbers on the screen, the prime use of which is that they'll help you in grinding more to improve them even further. While it may not quite be the interactive fiction equivalent of World of Warcraft, it certainly tries to get close. If you value your time and have even the slightest tendency to lose yourself to addicting game mechanics, you'll want to stay as far away from Fallen London as possible.

So why do people spend time with this game, and why do they even enjoy it? This has much to do with the game's primary strength, which is its writing and atmosphere. A Gothic, Victorian, subterranean London may sound trite, but Failbetter Games manages to make Fallen London feel fresh and engaging by taking the material in all kinds of weird and mysterious directions. The player is thrown into the deep, and is left to construct a coherent vision of the world from the many tiny fragments that he or she is given. Combined with the generally very good prose, this makes Fallen London a world that one is eager to explore and learn more about.

What is ultimately disappointing, though, is the quality of the story that arises. Fallen London feeds you many "storylets", but they rarely come together to form a "story", a greater narrative in which your character develops, acts, and changes the world. Two phenomena that show this problem vividly are the infinite repeatability of storylets -- you can just go to the same person again and again and play through the same story involving them again and again -- and the utter abstraction of most of what happens. For instance: you follow someone through town, and as a result you get... 10 whispered secrets. Not 10 actual secrets, with actual content, but the value "10" next to a piece of in-game currency called "whispered secrets". Or you spend dozens of your turns writing a literary tale, and when it is finished... the game doesn't even tell you what the tale is about. Of course, limitless grinding requires repeatability and abstraction, but it is here in particular that we see how the basic game design of Fallen London, while it might lead to money being made, is incompatible with achieving excellence in what ought to really matter to a story game, namely, story. The game continually promises to give you a great narrative, and it consistently fails to deliver.

Fallen London is a game on which a lot of creativity and obvious talent has been spent and, I'm afraid, wasted. Reactions to the game vary wildly, though, so you might want to try it out for yourself -- if, that is, you think you can resist the lure of a game that always wants to tempt you into wasting your time grinding to increase meaningless numbers.

Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, by Herman Melville and Jesse McGrew

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
Precisely what it promises to be, October 21, 2014
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
You are in a room with a book. All you can do is read the book, and this will present the text of Moby Dick to you, part by part, with no means to go back and forth through the story. I guess that makes this the least convenient way of reading the book that exists.

I was sort of hoping for an eastern egg if I had the patience to "read more" through all of it, but alas, when you reach the end you just get the question whether you want to quit or restart.

Now there could be changes to the text, either deterministically or randomly, which would constitute an original contribution of mr. McGrew to tale of the whale; but the slight possibility of this is not enough for this reader -- or, I venture, any other -- to actually read through this.

The Cursed Sword of Shagganuthor, by Laura Michet

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Missed opportunities, July 9, 2013
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Related reviews: CYOA, fantasy
The Cursed Sword of Shagganuthor is a short, CYOA-style sword & sorcery tale about a small band of villagers who attempt to protect their land and family from the endless hordes of the evil sorcerer-king. Once the artifact from the title appears, bad news gets worse, and some gruesome horror scenes are to be expected.

According to her website, Laura Michet works as a professional game writer. Unsurprisingly, then, the writing is fine on the surface level. However, at the deeper level of theme, things are less satisfactory. (Spoiler - click to show)Scars that grows tongues and teeth and devour or scar others is of course a great literalisation of the idea that being hurt makes people, paradoxically, hurt others, including the others they love. Used to say something about the human condition, this horrific metaphor could have been at the core of a memorable fantasy tale. But "The Cursed Sword of Shagganuthor" remains at the most literal level and eschews the opportunity to explore the theme of emotional scars in any depth.

What is truly a missed opportunity, though, and what explains my low rating of the game, is that absolutely nothing has been done that justifies this piece being published as interactive rather than static fiction. Your choices do not matter at all; they at most change the descriptions of the immediately following scene slightly. Any two playthroughs of the game, even one where you choose to be as honourable and brave as possible and one where you choose to be a moral and physical coward, will be virtually indistinguishable. So why not just write a short story? Perhaps I am too harsh, but interactive fiction that lacks interactivity, and that lacks a damn good reason to be non-interactive, just seems lazy and ill-designed to me. So without wishing to imply that this story is badly written, I still cannot give it more than two stars.

Deathbox: 2013, by Tylor

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
All buddhists are damned!, June 13, 2013
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
The claim -- made by Paul and John the Evangelist -- that salvation can only come through Christ is of course deeply problematic, and has been felt to be problematic for a long time. For Christ is a historical phenomenon, with whom many have not been acquainted. How could their ignorance warrant damnation?

"Deathbox: 2013" wants to ask this question, but it runs into a problem of its own. For on the one hand, the only people for whom the question has any real interest are highly orthodox Christians. But on the other hand, the author's beliefs are so different from those of a highly orthodox Christian that it is doubtful there will be any serious communication between them. Indeed, it is doubtful that any of the real target audience would ever start up a game called "Deathbox: 2013 -- God's endless love."

So that leaves Tylor with people like me, who are already convinced that a theory which entails that virtuous Buddhists will burn in Hell is not a theory worth having. (I would add that, obviously, only universal reconciliation makes sense.) People like me will not be particularly challenged or surprised by the game's message. That leaves only the game as game, but unfortunately, it consists of little more than a single choice in the beginning and some mostly non-interactive sequences leading to an often pre-determined end. So there's not much here.

Two stars for the writing, which is competent and fast-paced.

The Hunt for the Gay Planet, by Anna Anthropy

3 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Finding Lesbionica, April 5, 2013
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
The Hunt for the Gay Planet is a small CYOA fiction, centred around Anna Antropy's trademark themes of lesbian love and deviant sexuality. It is well written and has some surprising moments; but there is little depth, there is little game, and the deviancy is not deviant enough to sustain interest. I'd recommend playing her Encyclopedia Fuckme instead.

Attack of the Mutaydid Meat Monsters, by Duncan Bowsman

4 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Bad taste, July 29, 2012
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Some games present us with a serious issue, but refuse to deal with it in a serious manner: for instance, The People's Glorious Revolutionary Text Adventure Game treats communism and capitalism as jokes. This is kind of okay. But some games present us with a serious issue, seem to engage it with it in a serious manners, but then turn everything into a cheap joke at the very last moment. This is problematic. The game trivialises the issue and breaks its contract with the player at the same time.

Now one could argue that the title of this game should have given me enough warning that it would not be serious. But Bowsman actually presents us with a set of powerful images and ideas, and a slowly rising tension as we contemplate the horrors of meat --

You shudder, knowing as only you may that all butchery hides under the shadow of anthropophagy.

-- and one's expectations change. Attack of the Mutaydid Meat Monsters starts to look as a profound meditation disguised as a cheap joke. And then, at the final moment, it turns out to be in fact just a cheap joke, which is disappointing and in somewhat bad taste.

(Until one starts thinking about the fact that every year, nine billion animals are slaughtered in the U.S.A. alone, at which point "somewhat bad taste" turns into "very bad taste". One might want to continuously chant the nonsense word "Mutaydid" to avoid this thought, because, well, if seen as nonsense, the game is a lot more palatable. The author undoubtedly saw it that way, and you will enjoy it more if you do as well.)

Although I generally like the works of this author, this is one game I cannot recommend.

Logic Puzzle Sampler, by Andrew Plotkin

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
The wrinked paper is red, May 3, 2012
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Logic Puzzle Sampler is not a game; it describes itself more accurately as a toy, and it is also a programming example that comes with Inform 6 source code. As a toy it will probably not hold your attention very long, but as a piece of Inform programming, it is worthy of respect -- and could perhaps even be useful, in a somewhat bizarre game.

Playing with Logic Puzzle Sampler consists in manipulating a SHRDLU-like world of blocks and balls, and writing sentences about this world on sheets of paper. If the sentences are true, the paper turns green; if they are false, the paper turns red. Of course, the game accepts only a very limited set of sentences, but this is still impressive.

Even more impressive is the fact that you can write sentences about the colours of the pieces of paper themselves. And yes, this does allow you to have some self-referential fun -- luckily, Logic Puzzle Sampler has not restricted itself to a two-valued logic!

As the about-text indicates, the model beneath the toy is somewhat limited, and doesn't always analyse the situation perfectly. (Spoiler - click to show)For instance, if A says "B is green"; B says "C is green"; and C says "B is red"; the game will correctly turn B and C grey, but it will then incorrectly turn A grey as well, while it should simply be red. Still, what it can do is striking and well worth a look for those who are interested in such things.

The Twelve Heads of St. John the Baptist, by Jake Wildstrom

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
No Salome in sight, May 3, 2012
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
I played this game because of the title. Just think of the possibilities inherent in a game called "The Twelve Heads of St. John the Baptist"! We get to play Salome as she is given the Herculean task of learning and performing twelve increasingly erotic dances, each successful performance being rewarded with a new head of St John, who was a very capital fellow to begin with. Or we are cast as the executioner who faces the even more straightforwardly Herculean task of beheading a saint from whose wounds two new heads grow immediately. Or...

But let's not get carried away. "The Twelve Heads of St. John the Baptist" turns out to be a SpeedIF, which means that it is very short, very silly and not as polished as a normal game. (These are perhaps not necessary qualities of SpeedIF, but they are certainly very common.) You are carrying twelve heads, and you have to find clues that allow you to determine which head is the real head of Saint John. Which is fine as far as puzzles go, but not having a dance of the 84 veils seems like a wasted opportunity to me.

Dragons and Tears: Part 1 of The Spiraling Darkness Trilogy, by Volition, Inc. and Anna Anthropy

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
The so-bad-that-it's-funny theory, May 2, 2012
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
There is a theory that if you make a game that is really bad, but you know that it is really bad and signal this to the reader, the game will be funny. This theory is false.

There is another, even more popular, theory that if you make a game that is really bad in the same ways that some other bad games are really bad, but you know this and the other guys were just incompetent, then your game is a piece of satire. This theory is also false.

Here we have a bad fantasy title, useless choices, arbitrary deaths, a (paradoxically enough) lame running gag, and a story that doesn't make sense. Perhaps this adds up to a brilliant joke when you encounter it in the middle of Saints Row 3, from which the game is apparently taken. Outside of that context, it certainly doesn't.

Encyclopedia Fuckme and the Case of the Vanishing Entree, by Anna Anthropy

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Pig piggy pig pig pig, May 2, 2012
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Encyclopedia Fuckme is a fast-paced, action-packed lesbian BDSM-themed CYOA game, written in breathless prose that is certainly meant to be hot and sexually arousing. Does that make its purpose "clearly pornographic", as Sam Kabo Ashwell claims in his review? I do not think so. It seems to me that an essential part of pornography is that it gives the reader (or watcher) exactly what he or she desires, which is why (a) most pornography is very formulaic, and (b) it is always clearly classified, so the consumer can choose the exact right product and not be confronted with kinks he or she doesn't like. Wittgenstein famously claimed that there can never be surprises in logic, and the same is true for pornography -- which makes it somewhat surprising that sex is more fun than logic, as John Cleese once proved, or rather, did not.

Anyway, what I want to say is that Encyclopedia Fuckme doesn't spell its specifics kinks out in advance; and that given their bizarre nature, and the way they are played out, it will be the rare reader who finds this game arousing all the way to the end. This is intentional. Encyclopedia Fuckme wants us to explore the weird tensions that arise when sexual arousal meets (Spoiler - click to show)revulsion, revulsion not in the shape of disgust, but in the shape of fear and uncertainty.

As far as I have seen, the game has two endings: a bad ending that you'll probably reach the first time, and a good ending that takes a little thought and exploration (or dumb luck) to find. The good ending is (Spoiler - click to show)hilariously over the top. For me, at least, it provided the catharsis needed after the rest of the story by making me (Spoiler - click to show)laugh out loud in disbelief and delight.

The Race, by Andy Why

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Impressively puzzle-rich for CYOA, March 9, 2012
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
The Race portrays a puzzle-based race for 50 million dollars through the most scenic locations of Peru. With one friend at your sight, you must defeat eight other teams striving for the prize by interpreting clues, thinking up the fastest ways to get from A to B, and solving puzzles along the way.

In terms of writing and characterisation, The Race is not very memorable, though the Peruvian setting partly makes up for this. However, as a puzzle-rich piece of CYOA, it is fun and of considerable interest. Anyone who would like to think about how puzzle design in a multiple choice medium works, should take a look at this piece. The Race is also to recommend to all those who simply want to play such a game.

(I do think that the piece would have been improved by scenery photographs to accompany the location descriptions.)

Zombie Exodus, by Jim Dattilo

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Fine but formulaic and unfinished, March 9, 2012
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
There are those who claim that zombies symbolise consumerism and mass culture. Perhaps they do, and perhaps some writers and directors use them to explore such issues. But it seems to me that most zombie fiction receives its appeal from that peculiar combination of nostalgia and distrust that forms the core of "apocalypse survivor" scenarios: nostalgia for the old U.S.A. frontier values (radical self-reliance, man's ability to form small groups that can survive in a hostile environment) and distrust of one's fellow men and especially the government. Add to the that facile good versus evil thinking that zombies encourage more than any other type of monster -- being unconscious, they cannot even be in the right from their own point of view, since they have none -- and you can understand why the genre might be attractive to some, and also what is so dubious about it.

Zombie Exodus is a typical example of the genre. It is focused on survival, and the player is supposed to ransack apartments and loot bodies in order to get food and weapons. A deep paranoia about government runs through the work: police and army are not there to protect people, but only to hinder them. Luckily, the game does have a strong focus on the most interesting part of the zombie theme: issues of trust and loyalty between the survivors. This is its redeeming grace, and what makes the game worth playing. (The more pity that, in the end, my character made a choice in this regard which I strongly disagreed with and tried not to make.)

Jim Dattilo gives us a competently written and designed piece of CYOA. The choices are often a bit generic (take short but dangerous road A or take long but safe road B), and compared to the Choice Of games they are fairly close together and at a fairly low level of detail. In this regard, Zombie Exodus feels close to parser-based IF, and misses something of the wild exuberance and sense of possibility that CYOA can evoke. On the positive side, this does mean that the connection between what we choose and what happens in tighter, and Zombie Exodus does a good job of putting us in situations that we can easily visualise and make decision about based on rational expectations of what will result from different courses of action.

Unfortunately, the game is unfinished, and stops after the second part. One might want to wait until the exodus can be finished.

Beet the Devil, by Carolyn VanEseltine

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
Celery will never be the same again, November 18, 2011
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Beet the Devil is a fine puzzle game, polished, smart, and often funny. We follow a grumpy, god-fearing old man as he descends into the underworld to beat the devil... using vegetables.

Actually, that is not quite accurate. I almost gave up on solving the puzzles at the beginning of the game because I was working from the rather natural assumption that one should use vegetables to make progress. It turns out that not all the puzzles are of this form, so you should expand your expectations a little.

The puzzles themselves are a mixed bunch. Some of them are clever and intuitive, other require leaps of logic that I wasn't prepared to make. However, which puzzles belong to which category will probably differ from person to person, and since I myself had no trouble at all with the demon of lust, I can only hope that this in no way indicates anything about one's personality. In general the puzzles are perhaps a bit too easy to make you feel smart for solving them, but I don't complain; they were good enough, and the quality of the writing kept the game interesting.

Then there is final confrontation with evil. I am a sucker for this type of ending, then type where you suddenly know what to type, and you know that this specific command will win you the game, and you type it, and it wins you the game. Very satisfying.

As a morality tale it doesn't work at all, of course. But I assume that it wasn't meant as a morality tale, so I won't hold that against the game.

Sentencing Mr Liddell, by I-K. Huuhtanen

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
A rare balance of wonder, threat and sadness, November 18, 2011
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
An interesting game that takes Lewis Carroll and uses him as the basis for an original story. Mr. Liddell spends the entire game trying to catch up to his baby daughter in an underground Wonderland where he is forced to confronted the many weird people -- mostly, but not exclusively, family members -- who shaped his life and his soul. Much of the time, the game achieves a rare balance of wonder, threat and sadness that is very close to Carroll's originals (which are very dark books); this is certainly its finest accomplishment, and I assume it is what the author wanted to accomplish most.

The storytelling is punctuated by puzzles that are less impressive. You have to do a lot of examining and searching to find items, and you sometimes have to try many conversation topics in order to find the right answer. The author has provided a good hint system, but the game would have been stronger if the player's progress had been smoother and less dependent on finding obscure puzzle solutions. This is especially the case because some of the things you have to during the game are matters of choice, and it becomes confusing to the player whether he is trying to make a choice or trying to solve a puzzle with one single, predetermined solution.

The game also loses some of its charm in the final section, where it is plagued with near-identical rooms and confusing navigation and is not quite up to the standard of the rest of the game, the marvellous introduction in particular. The final word-based mechanic also doesn't quite work as it should.

But these weaknesses are not enough to bring down what is essentially a strong and interesting game, imaginative and full of Carrollian, fully human absurdities. Recommended (and not nearly as "disturbing" as some reviews may have led you to believe).

Gigantomania, by Michelle Tirto and Mike Ciul

4 of 8 people found the following review helpful:
Lacks smoothness; makes up for it with inventiveness, October 27, 2011
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Gigantomania is a fascinating piece written by an inexperienced but inventive IF designer. The 5.24 average rating it got in the IF Competition is completely undeserved: this game is worth playing and also worth thinking about. I cannot understand why anyone would give it a 4 or lower, which is apparently what almost 30% of the judges have done.

Gigantomania was entered in the same competition as The People's Glorious Revolutionary Text Adventure Game, with which it shares the theme of communism. Apart from that, the two games are polar opposites. Glorious is a highly polished light-hearted puzzle game that does not take its theme seriously and brings us nothing in the way of innovative design; Gigantomania lacks polish and smoothness, but it takes its theme very seriously indeed and experiments with the medium in quite unexpected ways. If the former is a slick Hollywood production, the latter is an experimental art house movie that sometimes works and sometimes does not.

This characterisation should give you a good idea of whether you want to play the game or not, which is the only thing I want to do in this review. Everything else I have to say about the game would be so full of spoilers that the IFDB is not the place to post it.

Love, Hate and the Mysterious Ocean Tower, by C.E.J. Pacian

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Short, but vintage Pacian, September 27, 2011
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
If there is one constant quality throughout Pacian's games, it is the strengths of the prose: always clear, always doing a lot with few words. This is an excellent match with this world building, which is also geared towards creating a mysterious but coherent image by giving us just a detail here and a phrase there. Pacian will never explain anything that doesn't need to be explained. His prose is lean and mean -- or at least lean and a little sad (I don't consider him to be an especially mean writer). This is as true about Love, Hate and the Mysterious Ocean Tower as it was about his previous games.

Unlike some of his other games, Love, Hate and the Mysterious Ocean Tower is all about choice. Structurally, it divides into two parts. First, as we move to the final scene, we make several choices that will decide what possibilities are open to us at the end. Then, in the final scene, we can choose between them (supposing that we are smart enough to realise all the possibilities). This last scene is a great set piece of love, hate, (Spoiler - click to show)betrayal and fighting, which, even if it doesn't manage to pack an emotional punch, at least interests and surprises us.

I can even imagine Love, Hate and the Mysterious Ocean Tower as the final sequence of a larger game, in which case it could be quite powerful emotionally.

Also, a moment of self-knowledge: I would never have made Nicholas the protagonist, would I?

I-0, by Adam Cadre

14 of 19 people found the following review helpful:
Immature in more ways than the most obvious, September 18, 2011
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
It surprises me a little that Adam Cadre's first game won the 1997 XYZZY Award for Best Game. While I-0 certainly isn't bad, and may have broken some new ground, it is a bit too immature to be counted among the greats.

The immaturity is clearest, of course, in the game's depiction of sex and sexuality. I-0 is famous for the fact that its protagonist, who is just one day shy of being 18 years old, can undress everywhere and can attempt to perform sexual acts with every NPC (not always successfully). Cadre doesn't take sexuality seriously enough to say something substantial about it; but he doesn't take it lightly enough to turn it into matter-of-course actions either, as Adam Thornton would do in Mentula Macanus. Nor does Cadre go for straight pornography or erotic romance. Rather, it feels as if the narrator (I will not judge the writer) is fascinated by sex while being too ashamed by this fascination to truly admit it. He flirts with being transgressive, but generally pulls back at the last moment.

An obvious example of this can be found in the final scene, where (Spoiler - click to show)the command "rub clit" leads to the following response:
You don’t get very far before Trevor pounds on the wall. “Hey, keep it down!” he shouts. “Some of us are trying to sleep! Can’t you at least go use the tub faucet like usual?”
That is the narrator being 'knowledgeable' about female masturbation and therefore 'cool', without having the guts to try to describe the experience. Hence, he turns it into a joke at the crucial moment
.

However, it should be stressed that I-0 is not just about sex; indeed, one can perfectly well play through the entire game without engaging in it. In fact, the game's main interest is probably the plot structure, which is widely branching. There are several ways to get home, and they sometimes involve completely different locations and NPCs; and there are even more ways to die, get arrested, or end up in the hospital.

In this respect I-0 is also an immature game; though not in the sense of "adolescent", but in the sense that the form of puzzle-light games with branching narratives was still in its infancy. With the benefit of hindsight, it is obvious that some of the design decisions in I-0 are not particularly successful. For instance, the use of completely disjunct and unrelated narrative strands only means that we can play two more or less separate games if we have the patience to search for them; here is no meaningful connection between these playthroughs. Playing one of the strands does not throw new light on the other. This means that the branching narrative is little more than a gimmick.

Another defect of the design is that most of the branches are hidden quite well. It is entirely possible to play through the game, finding the way forward only with some difficulty, and never getting an inkling that there were other possibilities as well. This lack of the obviousness of choice undermines the power of having a branching narrative. (Not all choice needs to be obvious, but by making some choices obvious a game can indicate that it has branching plot lines and will reward further exploration.)

Be that as it may, I-0 is still an easy game to like. For an IF game, the setting, plot and characters that Cadre give us are fresh; the writing is often good; and fooling around with Tracy is fun. On top of that, it was an innovative game in its time, and deserves some historical recognition. One of the essential IF pieces? Perhaps not, but it is not too far removed from that category.

(Prospective players may wish to know that on some playthroughs, the game contains sexual abuse, though this is not described in any detail.)

Textfire Golf, by Adam Cadre

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
IF game and golf simulator in one package, September 18, 2011
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
I know little about golf; in fact, my golf knowledge has increased significantly by playing Textfire Golf. So I cannot comment on the accuracy of the representation of golf that Cadre gives us, but it feels realistic and detailed to a non-golfer.

That is important because Textfire Golf is, first and foremost, a golf game. You get a description of the course you are on, you select a club, and then you type "swing". This will open up a little semi-graphical interface in the title bar in which you have to press a key at the right time to indicate first the strength and then the direction of your shot. The aim is... well, the aim supposedly is to finish the 9-hole course in as few hits as possible. So at the core, here, we have an arcade game. (Don't worry if you're really bad at this, though: you can "undo" whenever you want.)

But there is also real interactive fiction going on. You can type any command you want, and interactions with the environment and with your three fellow golfers (some guys from work who have invited you to join them) are possible and sometimes lead to startling results. Your fellow golfers continually comment on how the game is going, and the final result of the game will depend on their scores as well as yours.

The combination works surprisingly well. The arcade game is entertaining and gives us something to do, while the characters keep us interested in completing the game. It's a weird little set-up, but definitely worth experiencing.

Should that be four stars? In the end, I decided to give the game three stars because the arcade part of the game is just not that interesting in the long run. Replaying the game will give you different endings, but not many people will be replaying this game more than once or twice.

Shrapnel, by Adam Cadre

11 of 13 people found the following review helpful:
Sorry, do you mind if I put a fragmentation grenade in your mind?, September 4, 2011
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
In certain respects, Shrapnel is a lot like Photopia: a distinct lack of freedom for the player, a fragmented narrative. But where Photopia's story is merely told non-chronologically and from different points of view, Shrapnel's story has quite literally been blown apart by a fragmentation grenade.

The strong point of the game is its presentation. Using several fun gimmicks and some surprising twists and turns, Cadre manages to keep us interested in playing the (short) game even when the story doesn't make much sense.

The weak point of the game is that there isn't much of real interest to be found in it. The basic story might have been powerful if it had been expanded upon, but is hardly moving or illuminating it its current fragmented state. And the deus ex machina explanations of the meta-plot that we get at the end do not rise beyond the level of forgettable SF.

Two stars because the story is lazy and the gimmick mostly gimmicky, or three stars because the execution is very good? I'm going with three stars, partly because the game is so streamlined and short that it is worth checking out even if you probably won't be blown away by it. Bad pun very much intended, of course.

The Last Dark Day, by Bob Reeves

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
I doubt it is the last dark day, August 29, 2011
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
This is a tiny game that puts the PC in a situation we have not often seen in interactive fiction. Saying anything more would spoil all.

I suspect the game would have been more interesting if it had taken me more than two turns to understand what was happening. Or, rather, I think the game should have allowed me to express that understanding and should then have skipped to the ending immediately. As it was, my third or fourth command was (Spoiler - click to show)"be born", but that didn't do anything; and that meant I just had to wait it out. Which is realistic, I guess, but not necessarily fun.

Let me finish by saying that the title of the piece is perhaps a tad optimistic. But that, I suppose, will be the subject of Painless Little Stupid Game 9.

All Roads, by Jon Ingold

10 of 12 people found the following review helpful:
A big meta-puzzle in an alternate Venice, August 29, 2011
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
By now we have all become familiar with films that give us a narrative that is somehow cut up -- either in space, or in time, or in levels of reality -- and then ask us to sort it all out into a coherent story. Memento is an obvious example, as are Donnie Darko, Inception and eXistenZ. These films are like puzzles, in that we are constantly coming up with theories and testing them against what is happening on the screen.

Jon Ingold's All Roads falls firmly within this genre. It presents us with scenes taking place in an alternate Venice, where the Guard fights against the Resistance. We take the role of an assassin who is about to be hanged, but suddenly manages to escape in what appears to be a supernatural way. The rest of the game consists of weird shifts in place and time, troublesome identities, and the player trying to understand what on Earth is going on.

So, is it any good? On the positive side, the story is complicated and yet coherent enough to excite interest and engage our intellect. We theorise, we adopt and discard theories, and the clear-headed reader will have a pretty good idea of what was going on once he has finished the game. One will certainly have had fun.

On the negative side, however, it must be mentioned that All Roads is a bit too complex for its own good. The central plot could have done with at least one identity less. (Spoiler - click to show)Did we really need to have both the assassin as a disembodied ghost and his brother? A confusion between two identities would have been complicated enough, but now we in fact have three identities. This would have made it easier to solve a story that now appears to be wilfully obscure.

Another negative point is that the game sometimes goes out of its way to hide clues from the player. Not only will some crucial information only be found by players who do non-obvious actions, it is also the case that some clues are actively withheld from you. The "x me" command is particularly bad in this respect. While I can see why the author was hesitant in supplying a more helpful response to such a command, I do not think it was the right decision. It is better to make the central puzzle easier than to tell you players "sure, if I told you this stuff that you should just be able to examine, you could solve the puzzle; but I'm not going to!"

That said, it is still easy to love All Roads. Anyone interested in IF should give it a whirl.

The Possibility of Life's Destruction, by Gunther Schmidl

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Art that isn't there, August 26, 2011
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Written for the 1999 Art show, The Possibility of Life's Destruction is of course not a standard IF game. Instead, we have a piece of interactive poetry. The game starts with the lines
Metamorphosis
The black ant goes to the river;
what it sees there makes it shiver.

At that point, you need to type one of the words in the poem, although only some of them actually work. This will show you a new verse.

Potentially, such a set-up could work. Unfortunately, The Possibility of Life's Destruction contains only three verses. One of them is lifted from a song by Nine Inch Nails, another from a song by Peace, Love & Pitbulls. So there is almost nothing here, and what there is has been literally copied from others. Avoid.

Annoyed Undead, by Roger Ostrander

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Undead diversion, August 26, 2011
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Annoyed Undead is a short game written for I-Comp, a competition in which the game was not allowed to use an inventory. It would be interesting to see how far you can push the standard IF puzzle without requiring the PC to pick up any objects; but Annoyed Undead is altogether too short to really explore the possibilities.

You play a vampire who has awakened after 500 years, only to find that somebody has built a church right on top of his crypt. How dare they! The aim, then, is to escape from the church, and find some humans to kill in the process. This setting allows Roger Ostrander to implement the competition limitation in a neat way: there are portable objects in the game, but they are all too holy for you, a vampire, to pick up. You'll have to find some other way of transporting them.

Annoyed Undead is a simple puzzle game, which may serve as a short diversion. A walkthrough can be found here.

Dithyrambic Bastards, by Sam Kabo Ashwell

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Good ideas somewhere deep down in the mess, August 16, 2011
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Sam Kabo Ashwell has written many short games, and Dithyrambic Bastards is one the earliest. Like the much more recent The Cavity of Time, it greatly enjoys being fiction, being about other fiction, and in fact shamelessly borrowing from other fiction; but unlike Cavity, Bastards is ruined by a lack of self-control. We have everything: a weird writing style that mixes high poetry with low slang; an insane fictional world where people die and kill for poetry; sudden and unexplained plot twists; the author punching the player in the face with a big glove saying "metafictionality!"; quotations from English poetry; puzzles that can only be solved by looking up and reading English poetry -- and all that in the space of maybe five minutes. It is too much, too uncontrolled, with far too little coherence. In other words, this game is a mess.

That doesn't mean it's all bad. For instance, the "private detective who interprets everything as having something to do with Paradise Lost"-joke could have been successful if it had been sustained for longer. There is, after all, nothing inherently wrong with text like this:

She sat down on the desk. Hell, those legs were longer than Paradise Lost, and just as tautly constructed; gave you the feeling that if you went looking for it you’d be headed for a Fall.

“Got a light?”

You size up the flame-shrouded torso. To serve in Heaven doesn’t seem so bad all of a sudden.


I can see how that could work. Or take the puzzles in the end, especially the second (and final) puzzle involving William Blake's The Book of Thel, which you can only solve by looking up the motto of the poem:

(Spoiler - click to show) Does the Eagle know what is in the pit,
Or wilt thou go ask the Mole?
Can Wisdom be put in a silver rod,
Or Love in a golden bowl?


I think there could be a great and educational game with exactly this idea: in order to progress, you must read famous poems and use the knowledge encoded in them to progress. But Dithyrambic Bastards doesn't do much with the idea (except for telling us that a second part will be coming along).

So I would suggest skipping this game, and playing one of Sam Kabo Ashwell's better short-form IFs instead, like Ugly Chapter or The Cavity of Time.

Affrontotron, by Joe Mason

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Decompilation game, August 16, 2011
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Affrontotron should be allowed to explain itself:

Mike Roberts wrote: "This actually has practical applicability to IF, too. You could imagine a game where the winning conclusion is reached by typing GO NORTH 1,000,001 times in a row, and every time but the 1,000,001st, the response to GO NORTH is "You can't go that way." (It wouldn't be a very fun game, but it's still a possible game.) If an automated winnability evaluator were given a limit of a million turns, it would incorrectly call the state unwinnable."

*** Annoyotron IV: Affrontotron ***

has just been uploaded to the incomig directory of an IF-Archive mirror near you! Either I've implemented the game Mike describes above... or I haven't! Is it winable? You decide!


And when we start the game, the only text we get is "You are in a small room with no visible exits. You must escape." As is to be expected, there is apparently nothing we can do. Can we escape by typing "n" a million times, or not?

There are two approaches to this problem:

1) Brute force. It was easy for me to create a string of one million "n."s, but unfortunately, I think Inform 6 or my interpreter has a maximum input buffer far smaller than 2 million signs. So brute-forcing by hand is impractical. Someone more knowledgeable about computers than I am might be able to hook an input generator onto an IF interpreter, but I have no idea how to do this. Anyway, you can only use brute force to show that the program can be won, not to show that it cannot be won.

2) Decompiling the game and seeing whether it can or cannot be won. The author writes that "(No fair decompiling it - that's cheating!)", but really, who is he to judge? I'll play whatever game I want, and in my game, decompiling is not cheating.

The game does contain the following text: "The wall finally falls down from the beating you've been giving it, and sunlight shines through! You've escaped!" (Message S109.) So that would seem to indicate that it can be won. However, S109 is only displayed by routine R0250, which is never called. Now I am not an expert in decompiled Z-code, so perhaps this doesn't mean anything; but on the face of it, I would say that it is suspicious. There are other routines that do not get called, though, and I'm not sure if TXD generates full game information or not. If it doesn't, there might be some part of the game that calls R0250 which I just didn't see.

So in the end, my guess would be that the game cannot be solved, but I am far from sure. May others come and do better. As a puzzle, I actually kind of liked it, which is why I give it two stars.

Edge of the Cliff, by Poster

16 of 16 people found the following review helpful:
Non-interactive satire, May 24, 2011
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Edge of the Cliff claims to satirise the "non-interactive movement in IF". I do not know which games that author is thinking of, though one would suppose Photopia to be one of the prime targets. The work Edge of the Cliff overtly mimics is Blue Lacuna, which is very interactive -- except for the way you are shepherded into accepting your destiny in the prologue, and perhaps that is the object of satire here.

Poster gives us a very small scenario which always ends the same way no matter what you do. This is none too subtle, but the fact that you can only reach the ending through actions that would not seem to lead towards it is a deft touch. You cannot actively jump to your death, because that would be too much player agency.

As a member of the class of "I'm making a small point with a small game"-games, Edge of the Cliff gets two stars. (The author might want to fix two bugs I found: during the first two questions, random input does not give the desired answer; and one of the endings does not end the game.)

A Simple Theft 2: A Simple Theftier, by Mark Musante

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Another theft. Still pretty simple., April 4, 2011
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Like its predecessor, A Simple Theft 2 is a short, easy puzzle game that is evidently meant as a snack rather than as a serious meal. Well-written, well-implemented, and perfect if you want to while away fifteen or twenty minutes, but with little lasting appeal.

Your master Apaman has once again sent you to recover an important artefact from a castle, and this time you don't have to enter through the coal chute. Instead, you have a grappling hook which can use to get to places that would not otherwise be accessible to you. There is a nice plot twist halfway through the game, which is perhaps a hint for things to come in a third instalment. Otherwise the game is unremarkable -- although it does have a 'last lousy point' that I was not able to collect.

A Simple Theft, by Mark Musante

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Simple. And a theft., April 4, 2011
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
In my rating system, a two star rating can either mean that there is something wrong with a game, or that it is competent but without ambition. A Simple Theft falls squarely within the second category: it is a fine little diversion of the common IF-with-puzzles kind. There is nothing wrong with it, but there is also nothing to make the heart beat faster.

You get to play the apprentice of a wizard who is attempting to restore magic to the world, and who tasks you with the retrieval of a MacGuffin from a castle. The game consists of you puzzling your way through this theft. The world is small and implementation is rather sparse, though not uncommonly so for a game written in 2000. The puzzles are run-of-the-mill, involving locked doors and guards, but the implementation is solid and the inquisitive player will be rewarded with funny responses. The entire game can be played in perhaps fifteen minutes.

Wearing the Claw, by Paul O'Brian

7 of 9 people found the following review helpful:
Aged badly, February 28, 2011
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
In the design notes revealed at the end of the game, Paul O'Brian tells us that one of his goals was to experiment with a more natural scoring system. On the one hand, he says, having a numerical score breaks the fourth wall; on the other hand, without a score players may feel lost, since they do not know whether they are on the right way. How to resolve this tension? The problem was discussed in the newsgroup, and Wearing the Claw presents a possible solution.

This scoring mechanism is only a tiny aspect of the game, but I bring it up to show how big the gulf is between 1996 and 2011. The tension outlined in the previous paragraph will strike nobody as a serious problem, because nobody expects to have a numerical score anymore. Progression through the game can be shown in so many ways -- most simply by just having the story continue -- that implementing a magical claw that changes as the player succeeds or fails seems like an attempt to solve a problem that doesn't exist. So much has changed: when Galatea came out in 2000, people complained that it wasn't clear how you could "win" it. Such a complaint would now be unimaginable.

Wearing the Claw is a short, solid game, but one that would not do well in a competition in 2011. It is a string of more or less random puzzles, most of which require at least some experimentation. The NPCs are schematic. The locations are sparse. The story is -- well, there, but that's the most you can say of it.

On top of that, you can easily get the game into an unwinnable state. This makes the game seem very cruel to a modern player, even though the author probably did not design it that way: in 1996, the message that one of your objects was destroyed was a big warning that you had done something wrong, whereas in 2011 it sounds like it is part of the story. What was once obvious is now obscure.

This game, then, would have scored quite well fifteen years ago; but it has aged badly.

(If this is how we look back on games from 2011 in 2026, I will be one happy critic!)

One Eye Open, by Caelyn Sandel (as Colin Sandel) and Carolyn VanEseltine

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
Things that go splut in the night., February 28, 2011
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
I'm not a big horror fan. I especially do not like the kind of B-movie horror where piling on the gruesomely killed corpses seems to be the main point. And yet, within a single week I enjoyed both Leadlight and One Eye Open.

This is a bad game, but it has so much fun being bad that it is hard not to laugh along with it. Another creatively eviscerated corpse? Sure! Another hallway with teeth that eats people? Keep 'em coming! But I'm glad that this was IF, not a movie, because reading about gruesome scenes is a lot better than watching them.

What is weird about One Eye Open is that it combines splatter horror with a far more serious storyline about a psychic research facility, the tensions between the researchers, and the horrible results of their experiments. Fictionally, the two aspects of the game merge seamlessly; but it is perhaps impossible for the reader to both laugh about the horror and take the underlying story seriously. Every gallon of blood and every cubic foot of pulsating flesh distances us more from the characters. I doubt this was the intended effect, but it certainly is the effect.

Nevertheless, One Eye Open is remarkably ambitious and mostly succeeds. The game is very large (and should have been submitted to the Spring Thing rather than the IF Comp). The story is complicated, interesting, and well thought-out. The puzzles are good, and the best ending can only be reached once the player has thoroughly understood what happened in the past and what will happen in the future. Care and attention have been lavished onto the environment. I wouldn't quite call it a must-play game, but it is certainly enjoyable and well worth perusing. I personally prefer it to Babel, which is the game that obviously inspired One Eye Open.

My main complaint, apart from the weird mix of genres, is that the story is mostly told through journal entries and other documents. Journals are the disease of interactive fiction. Using journal entries is almost always the easy way out, and almost never a compelling way of telling a story. In addition, it obviously makes no sense that all these secretive protagonists are writing down their most inward thoughts. People don't act that way. Please, IF writers across the world, stop using notes and journals and sundry scraps of paper as the means by which you deliver your story to me?

But hey, cleaning the suit? The solution to that puzzle was so over-the-top and yet so sensible that I laughed out loud.

LASH -- Local Asynchronous Satellite Hookup, by Paul O'Brian

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful:
Thoughful and serious, February 28, 2011
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
LASH is an intriguing game, and one of the must-play works of modern interactive fiction. (Must-play, that is, for those interested in the development of the medium.) It starts of as a traditional treasure hunt with a gimmick: rather than exploring the ruined building yourself, you are hooked up to a robot you can command around. This is not exactly a split between player and PC, as some reviewers have said; rather, what we traditionally call the PC has been split into two separate parts. The first part gets the roles of narratee and commander; the second part those of executioner and focal character, as well as the normally non-PC role of narrator. This is basically the same set-up as that in Fail-Safe.

But as the player continues, LASH reveals itself to be anything but a simple treasure hunt. Tackling issues of race, violence and slavery, it not only attempt to say important things; it also silently but mercilessly mocks the shallowness of any fiction that revolves around looting, and the mindset of any player happy to just see his monetary score increase. (I suspect we are all of us such players.)

This game deserves to be played. It is well-researched, well-crafted, intelligent, and to a certain extent wise. It is not without its problems, but those can only be discussed within spoiler tags. Big spoiler tags. Huge spoiler tags. Do not enter these spoiler tags, ye who have not played the game!

(Spoiler - click to show)The slavery sequence has several problems, most of which have been pointed out by previous reviewers. The identification of human slavery with robotic slavery is only one of them: pulling this off would require a good amount of setting up the scenario of robotic slavery, and instead, we get almost nothing. A second problem is that the game seems to claim that we need to experience slavery first-hand in order to be changed by it; otherwise, why build something that goes beyond literature, movie and even virtual reality? But if this is true, then the game itself cannot work, since it only offers us interaction with a piece of IF. This weird tension cannot, I think, be resolved. But for me the greatest problem is that the slave narrative ends with apparently successful escape. Rather than exploring the true despair of inescapable slavery, we get something that is a little too reminiscent of Hollywood and historical romance:"it's your father" + somewhat happy ending. Hm.

But these criticisms should be understood for what they are: taking something that is impressive and thinking about how it could be even better. LASH is far more sophisticated and thoughtful than most IF, including most award-winning IF of the past years. And sometimes, it is pure gold, as in this exchange:
> take bolls
[I recognize that you are a human, and therefore unaccustomed to the endlessly repetetive tasks that we machines are asked to do for most of our lives. Therefore, if you like, you may command me simply to WORK UNTIL SUNSET, and avoid any boredom you may be experiencing.]


Finally, a few words about the writing. It is generally very good, although in certain places there are large text dumps of the kind IF readers dread. The fact that they occur as menus helps, but they still should have been paired down or spread out more.

Finally finally, allow me to pick one nit. This is not the way to invoke Dante:

"The drawback is that on summer days like this one, the kitchen is as hot as the bottom ring of Hell."

The bottom ring of Hell, where Lucifer is contained as he tortures Judas and the murderers of Caesar, is a huge lake of ice. As a result, it is not very hot. (I wonder to which circle of Hell I will be condemned for this nit. That of the prideful and the boasters, no doubt.)

The Tarot Reading, by Michael Penman

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Not enough interaction, February 28, 2011
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Tarot, as I conceive of it, is not so much a fortune-telling device as it is a symbolic system used to stimulate reflection. The idea that the cards "know" about your past and your future is preposterous (in the modern age). But the idea that you can gain unexpected insights into your self, your life, your relations, by contemplating the powerfully symbolic cards as if they have some special deep significance for your situation, that idea is persuasive. In order to understand ourselves, we do not need to gain new information and learn new things. Rather, we must learn to see what we have always already known. A Tarot reading, by putting constraints on our thought even as it opens many possibilities of interpretation (through the vast overdetermination of its symbols), allows us to do just that.

Michael Penman's The Tarot Reading allows us to do a very simple tarot reading: by moving, we are transported to four random rooms, each of which is a card of the Tarot. The first card stands for the "past", the second for the "present", the third for the "near future" and the fourth for the "distant future". Only the Major Arcana (i.e., the trump cards) is implemented, but this shouldn't bother those of us who have little prior knowledge of the cards.

As an idea for a piece of IF, this is neat: implement the cards as rooms that can be interacted with. Just as the many different designs of the card-based tarot stand or fall with how well they evoke our symbolic thought, so The Tarot Reading stands or falls by how much our interaction with the rooms serves to explain and explore the meaning of the cards. Here, unfortunately, the piece falls short. One or two of the cards allow for surprising actions (climbing the tower was impressive), but in general the interactivity is very limited. Often, all we have is a description in text of the appropriate Rider-Waite card, and a two or three sentence suggested interpretation that can be uncovered by examining stuff. The effect could have been achieved more easily by simply showing us the card plus its suggested meaning on a web page. What IF should add is interaction, but there is very little of this in the game.

So I appreciate the idea, but am not convinced by the execution.

> by @, by Aaron A. Reed

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Twitter-sized, February 28, 2011
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
This is a Twitter-sized game. I don't mean that metaphorically. The I7 source code literally contains 140 characters, not counting whitespace.

Given those restrictions, the game is understandably sparse. Nevertheless, there is a "puzzle", and you can "win". There is even some "meaning".

You should not forget to read Aaron Reed's own analysis of the game after playing it. That is at least half the fun.

Leadlight, by Wade Clarke

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful:
Surprisingly fun, February 27, 2011
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
When I found out that I had to install an Apple II emulator to play this game, my enthusiasm immediately waned. Partly just because one is lazy: why would I want to install an emulator when I already have Gargoyle? But mostly because the need for such an interpreter suggests that the authors wants to appeal to Apple II nostalgia, and I have no nostalgia for old computers -- certainly not for the Apple II, which I have never seen, but not for old computers in general. Computers simply get better, so why would I want to re-experience the glory of my first 1024x768 monitor, Pentium computer and constantly crashing Windows 1995? Or the even older and more dubious glory of my Tulip 286 with Hercules graphics adapter? And it's not just computers that got better; computer games got better as well. Oh, some of the oldies are still good (I replayed the 1996 game Heroes of Might and Magic 2 not long ago, which was excellent and made me realise what is wrong with the single player campaign design of all its successors). But in general, a game made in 2010 is simply better than a game made in 2000, which in turn is better than a game made in 1990.

But, somehow, Leadlight is fun. The limitations of the tiny Apple 2 screen might seem prohibitive, but Wade Clarke responds by writing terse prose that would simply look bad in a modern interpreter but just works here. It's all like (not an actual quotation):
Natasha is one of the brightest girls in your class. Sometimes, you admire her. She is trying to kill you with an ax.
Now the standards by which that is good prose are pretty weird, but when playing this game, they are in place.

Leadlight makes extensive use of randomised combat. Apart from some very minor choices about which weapon to use, there is absolutely no tactical depth to the combat. Which sounds awful, but is, in fact, once again simply appropriate. The game is exceedingly unfair, and includes many instant death traps; but they can all be undone immediately. The fights are mostly random, but you can save and restore in the middle of them. With a little perseverance, you will always win. And you will be rewarded with some more of the game's weird revelations, unexpected weapons, and easy puzzles.

One aspect of the game that deserves special mention is the documentation, both in the form of two PDFs accompanying the game and in that of a good-looking website. It is great to see an author care so much about his game that he will go to these lengths to present it; and the information given is very useful. It will help you set up the game, play it conveniently, and get unstuck when the puzzles stump you. (Read the manual. Really.)

(But if you get stuck when trying to pull a rope, please read this hint, since the official hint file is less than fully helpful: (Spoiler - click to show)when you need a ribbon but cannot find the person who is supposed to have it, what you should do is wander around in the area near the rope; you must trigger a random encounter to get this item.)

In conclusion, this game is highly recommended to all those who believe they might like a game with random combat and unfair death traps, for it is surely among the best games of that type.

Fragile Shells, by Stephen Granade

10 of 12 people found the following review helpful:
Solid escape game, February 25, 2011
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Fragile Shells was written as an escape-the-more-or-less-one-room game. It embraces all the conventions of the genre: play consists of solving item manipulation puzzles, there are no NPCs, all the story is told through flashbacks rather than actions of the PC. It is a tired old genre, and Fragile Shells does nothing to rejuvenate it.

However, in the hands of Stephen Granade it suddenly doesn't seem so bad to revisit this old acquaintance. The puzzles are fair and of the right difficulty; the flashbacks keeps us interested in what happened to the player character and the environment he is in; and writing and implementation are solid enough that interacting with the game is a pleasure. Add to this that the game feels very coherent -- something that is often difficult to pull off in a puzzle-driven game -- and one has the perfect recipe for one or two hours of straightforward fun.

Fragile Shells does not point towards the future of interactive fiction. But it does prove that recreating better versions of the past will always remain worthwhile.

Dual Transform, by Andrew Plotkin

9 of 11 people found the following review helpful:
Typical Plotkin, February 20, 2011
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
In a review a couple of days ago of Hoist Sail for the Heliopause and Home I wrote that Plotkin is known for giving us "large empty worlds seen from a distance by an almost abstract protagonist". Dual Transform does not belong in this category exactly, since it is placed in a single room (although it is a single room that changes radically during the game). On the other hand, it comes close to being the most abstract game ever, since it is built up around archetypes of "pressure" and "form" that are given shape and materiality by the subconscious of the protagonist.

With this set-up, one would expect a clearly characterised protagonist: if we get to see what he or she subcobsciously links to pressure, to heat, and so on; if the entire world is the product of his or her free imagination; then, surely, we will learn about this person's thoughts, fears, ambitions, and so on? Nothing, however, is less true: no object in the world seems to have any personal significance for the protagonist, nor do we move far beyond, well, archetypal objects like "book", "tree", "church" and "mushroom".

This all might be a very clever application of Jungian psychology -- I cannot judge, since I know nothing about the subject. Ignoring this possibility, there is little to sustain interest in the story and the world: not only is the protagonist highly abstract, but so is his quest. It was never clear to me that the story explored something I cared about.

Whether any of this is a problem is a matter of sensibility: so many reviewers speak of immersion where I felt only distance that I must assume there is a mode of inhabiting these thoughtscapes that is simply inaccessible to me. But I suspect it is inaccessible to many. I cannot, for instance, think of a single book of fiction that is written at the level of abstraction Plotkin brings to the table -- even T. S. Eliot, who can be mightily abstract, infuses his poetry with particular details and (perhaps more importantly) links his philosophical claims to our lived experience.

As a game, Dual Transform is a puzzler that takes its inspiration from the magic system in Emily Short's Savoir-Faire. The puzzles are not difficult once you have realised something that is not quite obvious (Spoiler - click to show)(the single object you can take around with you will change in other rooms, but not when you have it in your inventory, so you must drop it on the ground to have it change), but in-game hints would still have been appreciated. The puzzles are not always logical, and I would have liked to seem them linked more closely to the archetypes we are supposed to be exploring. The final puzzle is better: it can be solved using knowledge you have already gathered and at the same time transforms your insight into all the locations you have visited.

The writing and implementation are good, as we have of course come to expect from Plotkin.

If you generally like Plotkin's worlds, you will like this one as well. If you find they lack characterisation and story, you will find those lacking here as well. A typical work, then, from a writer whose skills are beyond doubt, but whose aesthetics are (one assumes) more divisive.

Hoosegow, by Ben Collins-Sussman, Jack Welch

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Old-fashioned fun with very good writing, February 20, 2011
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
The most impressive aspect of Hoosegow is undoubtedly the writing: from the title (an Anglicisation of a Mexican-Spanish word for "jail") to the character's speech and the narration, the language is perfect for the Western atmosphere the authors set out to establish. (Spoiler - click to show)(The fact that the game is set in the period after the Civil War, while "hoosegow" was first found in English in 1908, is something the reader will either not notice or not care about.) Funny asides, believable interactions between the characters, physical situations described clearly, and as icing on the cake a set of hilarious episodes: everything works. Reading this game is a pleasure.

It puts you in the shoes, or rather the smelly boots, of a Civil War deserter turned train robber, whose partner Muddy has once again gotten them both into big trouble. You will have to escape from the local sheriff's cell before they hang you in the morning -- a time limit that is implemented, but that is so relaxed that I doubt anyone trying to solve the game will come up against it. Complementing the cast of characters are a drunken preacher who randomly bursts out in apocalyptic oratory, a sheriff with the ambition to become an inventor, a deputy sheriff with the ambition to imbibe a lot of alcohol, a nasty dog, and a well-meaning but strict marshal.

Hoosegow is not a very innovative game: you will spend your time solving puzzles that fit perfectly in the tradition of interactive fiction. (If your previous game was Rover's Day Out, you can afford to be a little traditional.) These puzzles are well-clued and not overly difficult, and some problems can be solved in more than one way. For those of us (including me) who nevertheless become slightly stuck and are not eager to spend a lot of time on these somewhat old-fashioned puzzles, there are very good in-game hints and a very helpful PDF-file with the basic structure of the puzzles. (Resize the window of your PDF-reader so that you only see the top of the page, then scroll down until you find something you have not solved yet.)

This game doesn't offer anything that will blow you away, but it does offer a lot that will give you pleasure. Recommended.

The Warbler's Nest, by Jason McIntosh

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful:
Quiet and contemplative horror, February 19, 2011
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Many pieces of interactive fiction have played with a difference in knowledge between the player and the protagonist. Often, the protagonist knows more than the player, since he or she is supposed to be familiar with the fictional worlds; but sometimes, the protagonist is so naive, stupid or self-deluded that the player understands things the protagonist does not. The Warbler's Nest falls into this latter category, although this time the knowledge difference is generated by the protagonist living a long time ago and having beliefs that we know (or at least strongly believe) are false.

In a sense, this is a horror piece, but horror of the most quiet kind. The horrific "revelation" is obvious well in advance, so the interest of the piece has to come from a contemplation of the beliefs, fears and hopes of the protagonist. Jason McIntosh conveys these very clearly, and the fact that they are simultaneously so understandable and so alien, and are combined with the potential for disaster, makes for a stimulating experience.

If one had to complain, one would probably point out that there is not much of a game here, but given the short time it will take you to traverse this piece, this is not a very serious complaint. I would like to see more pieces that are as quiet and contemplative as The Warbler's Nest.

One question that this piece has raised for me: can a story be considered a tragedy if none of the people in the fictional world consider it to be such?

Hoist Sail for the Heliopause and Home, by Andrew Plotkin

7 of 9 people found the following review helpful:
Evocative, distanced, unmoving, February 16, 2011
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Andrew Plotkin's basic aesthetic mode is that of distance and emptiness. From So Far to Dreamhold and Delightful Wallpaper, he has given us large empty worlds seen from a distance by an almost abstract protagonist. This is the poetry of objects and spaces, not of persons and ideas.

In my opinion, Plotkin's strongest works are those where he moves away from this aesthetics and puts more emphasis on the human: Spider and Web comes to mind, but especially Shade. The simple fact that something is at stake for the protagonists of these games serves to give life to what can otherwise be a very abstract experience.

Hoist Sail for the Heliopause and Home falls into the former, less personal and more distant, category. Indeed, it takes the aesthetics of distance and emptiness to the extreme as Plotkin transports us into outer space. Relying mostly on commands that involve movement and rigging the sails of our solar-wind-powered craft, we explore a variety of astronomical objects and find mysterious natural phenomena and alien artifacts.

All of this works very well: if you want to see how to do a travel-based game, playing Hoist Sail for the Heliopause and Home is required homework. The descriptions of the galaxy are evocative and inspire some of the wonder that can be generated by popular accounts of astronomy. But is is all very abstract, very distant. One does not feel involved: certainly not on an emotional or intellectual level, but not even on the more basic level of being in control of a protagonist. We do not feel in control, since the protagonist is exploring but we are not. We have no freedom. We are just along for the ride.

The final sequence of moves is deftly done, as it suddenly transports the story to a different genre. But the admiration it inspires is the admiration with which we look at a perfectly spherical marble ball, not that with which we look at a statue; the pleasure it brings is that of contemplating Peano arithmetic rather than that of contemplating Macbeth.

I love spherical marbles, Peano arithmetic, and Hubble Space Telescope pictures as much as the next guy, but I doubt whether they are a good model for fiction, interactive or otherwise. Count me among those who hope that Hadean Lands will involve human beings with thoughts and emotions and desires that remain unfulfilled. (Although I will probably never get to play that game, given the platforms for which it will be released.)

The People's Glorious Revolutionary Text Adventure Game, by Taylor Vaughan

2 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Harmless, February 16, 2011
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Well-polished low-difficulty puzzlers with little artistic ambition: that might well be the new "standard" for interactive fiction. Although they do little to move the medium forward, and don't exactly give you food for thought, such games are certainly pleasant. "Entertainment not frustration" is the guiding idea. And it's good entertainment. With only slight reservations I would say that the two highest ranking games from this years' IF Competition (Aotearoa and Rogue of the Multiverse) fall into this category.

The People's Glorious Revolutionary Text Adventure Game, which placed a very respectable 7th, certainly does. In this piece, a man called Karl has the task to start a communist revolution in a fictitious American city. You are provided with a list of revolutionary goals, which you can set out to achieve in any order. Each of them will require you to solve a puzzle, which is generally not very hard. If you do get stuck, there is an in-game hint system and a single-use device which allows you to bypass any puzzle in the game. In keeping with the tone of the story, the logic of the game slightly absurd; this is generally not a problem, but one or two puzzle solutions do not make a lot of sense. All in all, this is a game that even someone new to IF could successfully complete.

But let's get back to the tone of the game. It is very light-hearted, so light-hearted in fact that it has become lighter than air and now floats far above all real political problems. In this game, being a communist equals having a name like "Jetski" and feeling pride when you see the hammer-and-sickle; while being a capitalist means that you worship Reagan and believe that life is a book by Horatio Alger. Now you don't have to be serious about political issues: from at least the time of Aristophanes, authors have known that comedy is a great genre for taking on big problems. But The People's Glorious Revolutionary Text Adventure Game is not even satire. Its jokes have no bite. It is harmless.

There are so many ways in which interesting political commentary could have been inserted into this game! But the farthest the author goes is to make fun of one particularly unlikely the rags-to-richness story. Not even Glenn Beck would be offended by that. (Alger, Beck: this is the point where I want to be praised for my encyclopedic knowledge of US culture! :D Though perhaps I should have been spending my time with Faulkner or Melville or some other good stuff.) This is a missed opportunity. Because The People's Glorious Revolutionary Text Adventure Game mentions but does not engage serious issues, its shallowness becomes bothersome.

One could go as far as to argue that any work which reduces political disagreement to harmless humour is thereby strengthening the status quo -- in this case, neo-liberal capitalism -- and thus not harmless. But the extremely slight satire of capitalism that can be found in The People's Glorious Revolutionary Text Adventure Game is probably enough to counterbalance this. Even from this perspective, then, this game is completely harmless.

In conclusion: this game is a fun diversion. It is also nothing more.

Aotearoa, by Matt Wigdahl

14 of 14 people found the following review helpful:
Highly polished children's game, February 15, 2011
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Aotearoa is a children's game. (I suppose that everything for children of 6 years and older is called "young adult" by now, but as far as I'm concerned a young adult is approximately 20.) It tells the story of Tim, who has been chosen to visit a New Zealand that never was: it is a small continent where the Maori managed to more or less stop the English invaders by riding dinosaurs. O, yes. Dinosaurs. Not huge dinosaurs, but still, even a medium-sized dinosaur is fun.

After an opening scene that could use some tightening, Tim's trip suddenly turns into an even more exciting adventure. We're squarely into adventure stories territory, with Tim exploring a forest full of dinosaurs, befriending the local wildlife, and getting shot at by poachers to boot. All of which is good fun. The puzzles are fine, if perhaps at times a little too difficult for the younger part of the audience. The animals you will meet are very well implemented, with the right combination of being a real animal and being cute, and (as every reviewer has pointed out) you can name them. Every small male dinosaur ought to be called Henk. Believe me.

There is other good stuff as well, such as the keyword interface of Blue Lacuna, lists of conversation topics, and exits listed in the status bar. At times the author may have relied on these a bit too much: exits are badly described in the text, and nouns that are not highlighted are almost invariably not understood. But all in all Aotearoa gives a very smooth experience.

My biggest gripe is that unlike some other children's stories, this one doesn't have much to offer to adults. It's just a simplistic adventure story with dinosaurs, and the references to Maori culture, though intriguing, feel tacked on and fail to give any real depth. This isn't a huge problem, but it limits the appeal of the game.

There has been some discussion about whether the game is (inadvertently) propagating racial stereotypes. These discussions are always sensitive, and I'm not particularly eager to take up a position in them. I just want to state for the record that to me nothing in this game felt inappropriate. (Also: the game has the Maori defeating the English by cultivating a relationship with dinosaurs, and states that the fictional New Zealand conservation policies have been an inspiration to the entire world. So any white-boy-saves-the-natives plot seems to be balanced by a Maori-kick-ass-and-teach-the-world-about-environmentalism backstory.)

The Argument, by Harvey Smith

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
There is something here, February 14, 2011
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
This is not a good game. It is almost certainly written by someone who has never written IF before, and it was presumably not beta-tested: as evidence, I point to the woeful underimplementation. In addition, there is nothing for the player to do. The story, about a man who has argued with his wife, tells itself as you walk through the rooms and examine the few objects that the author has bothered to implement. You end the piece by picking something up.

So, the basic criticism is: there is nothing to do. Nothing.

And yet. The plot revolves about a revelation, namely, what the argument was really about. The player may understand this anywhere between the first and the next-to-last room, but the careful reader will notice that the protagonist/focal character has already understood it when the game begins, but isn't quite ready to admit it to himself. So what we are witnessing here is one of those quiet moments when you let something sink in.

Of course there is nothing to do. We're watching something sink in.

That still doesn't entirely convince me that this piece is better as IF than it would have been as traditional fiction, and it certainly doesn't excuse the sloppy implementation. Still -- as an attempt to render a rather subtle state of mind, it deserves some credit.

Fail-Safe, by Jon Ingold

10 of 11 people found the following review helpful:
Intriguing experiment in player-narrator relation, February 10, 2011
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Fail-safe is a very short SF adventure, containing one big puzzle, some less than stellar (but by no means bad) implementation, and a very brief story. That may not sound like much, and it isn't much. But what makes the piece is how it experiments with the relation between the player and the narrator.

This is impossible to discuss without spoilers, so I suggest you play it before reading on.

(Spoiler - click to show)Fail-safe has an unreliable narrator. Not just that, it has a narrator that actively tries to trick the player (or rather, the narratee) into forming a wrong idea about the world. If she does form the wrong idea, the narratee will take an action that will be great for the narrator but disastrous for herself. The puzzle consists in the player (a) finding out that the narrator is lying; and (b) responding with an appropriate double bluff. Great stuff that I would like to see explored further in a more substantial game.

Bellclap, by Tommy Herbert

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful:
If God is omnipotent, can He make a puzzle He cannot solve?, September 26, 2010
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
You should play Bellclap. But you should play it by following David Welbourn's annotated walkthrough. The rest of this review will explain (a) why you should play the game, and (b) why you should not try to do it on your own.

(a) Bellclap is an experiment with the different roles that can be distinguished in a piece of interactive fiction: the commander (the fictional character who decides what actions to try out), the narrator (the fictional character who tells what happens), and the actor (the fictional character who carries out the commands given by the commander). Interactive fiction in general has merged the first and the third role into what we call the "player character", a character who decides what to do and then carries it out. The narrator has usually been a different, and often extra-diegetic character. (This means that the narrator has generally not been a character within the primary fictional world.)

There have, of course, been many experiments with these roles, the most common of which have been either to put the narrator into the world; or to change the expected relationship between the player and the commander/actor-hybrid that we call the player character. Bellclap, however, does something else: it pries apart the commander and the actor. The commander is a god, and the actor is Bellclap, one of the faithful, who has come to the god for assistance. Whatever the player types is interpreted and presented as a command from the God, and Bellclap than tries to carry it out. The narrators is cast as a third person, namely as the angelic messenger who gives the commands of the god to Bellclap, and who informs the god of the results.

This set-up is executed with wit and humour, and gives the piece a very particular feel. You ought to experience it, and therefore you ought to play this game.

(There is at least a fourth important role, namely, the "experiential focus", the character through whose senses we experience the fictional world. This role can be combined with any or none of the three roles defined above. In Bellclap it is more or less spread out over them all.)

(b) Bellclap is also one big read-the-author's mind puzzle. The "short route" walkthrough included with the game is particularly baffling. Imagine that you are stuck in Savoir Faire's kitchen, consult the walkthrough, and see that the first command is "make a mr. potato head" -- that is more or less the experience I had when I consulted this walkthrough. The walkthrough linked to above makes the whole experience far more coherent; but I still cannot see how a player could possibly be expected to hit on the solution. Apparently your godly powers are tightly limited, and need to be triggered in exactly the right way. But there is no way the player can know this, since there is no way you can experiment with them.

As a game, this makes Bellclap pretty much a failure, because you cannot really play it.

Still, you can walk through it, and that is exactly what you should do.

Being There, by Jordan Magnuson

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
Ode to Joy, September 25, 2010
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Being There sounds like it will be an interactive adaptation of a Jerzy Kosinski novel; failing that, an exploration of Martin Heidegger's concept of Dasein. It is neither. This piece is an Ode to Joy.

Joy, the joy of living, the joy of experiencing and acting -- that is what this game is about. It takes you through a series of tranquil scenes accompanied by beautiful photographs, and then it lets you play in them. You can look and touch and taste; you can dance and jump and sing; you can climb and swim and in fact fly into the air whenever you wish. You can lie down and sleep. No duties, no responsibilities, no cares -- enjoyment is everything.

This is a game where when you see a soccer goal, you can type "play soccer" and the game responds with: "You play soccer with an invisible ball... you score!" How cool is that?

I hope it is clear from the previous paragraphs that I absolutely disagree with previous reviewers and commentators about the need to add a story, or puzzles, or a statement about Korea, to this game. Doing any of those things would destroy that which makes Being There special and strangely exhilarating: its celebration of free play. (Which is also why I do call the piece a game, even though the author does not.)

The length of the game is excellent, giving you enough time to explore and then, when tedium threatens to set in, rapidly moving things towards a close -- a close which also serves as an antidote to what might otherwise have been an over-abundance of carefreeness, without falling into the opposite trap of falsifying the game's positive message.

Are there no complaints? Well, certainly: even though there are many things you can do, you will still encounter standard library messages and actions that are refused. While this doesn't matter in a traditional game, a piece that celebrates freedom and experience is hampered by it. I hope that the author will continue to update the game as people keep sending in requests for more actions and responses -- I know that I have just sent in mine.

Backup, by Gregory Weir

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Short, with light sabers, September 25, 2010
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
In Backup, you play a computer that is in charge of a high-tech (but unfinished) base under assault by terrorists. You get to inhabit plasma sword wielding drones in your attempt to kill them all -- although that's not quite all there is to the, admittedly short, story.

Let us talk a bit about the combat system first. Unlike Gun Mute, Backup's combats are not won through solving puzzles, but through choosing the right actions within a consistent system. In this respect, it is a little more like Slap That Fish, although that game too quickly started using puzzles. In Backup, combat is more straightforward: every turn, you get either to attack, to parry, or to feint. Your opponent gets to do the same thing, and each of the nine possible combinations has a certain determined outcome. It's not much of a spoiler, but let me nevertheless hide the pay-off matrix: (Spoiler - click to show)Let the first letter give your action, and the second letter that of your opponent, so that A/F means that you attack and your opponent feints. Then you die in the cases A/A, P/F and F/A. You win in the cases A/F and F/P. The other outcomes are neutral.

In itself, this system allows for no tactics, but only pure guesswork. Now it is, I believe, possible to predict what your opponent is going to do based on the flavour text that is shown prior to your turn; and if you predict rightly, you can choose the optimal action. That is what you have to learn to read in order to consistently win -- but I found the game a bit too short to get the hang of this.

Not that this matters much, since dying isn't much of a punishment, and combat can even be mostly avoided if you dislike it. As the story progresses, you are called upon to make a choice between four different possible endings -- some of these require the solution of a small puzzle, but the difficulty is very low.

All of which makes Backup an accessible little story with some non-standard gameplay that will keep you interested for the short time it lasts.

Babel, by Ian Finley

20 of 21 people found the following review helpful:
A towering achievement?, September 25, 2010
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
I started playing Babel with high, very high expectations. Right now, the game has 27 5-star ratings, 24 4-star ratings, and only 7 ratings below that. This game, I was thinking, must be a towering achievement, one of the true classics of modern interactive fiction.

It is obviously very hard for a game to live up to that kind of reputation, and Babel did not. But I was somewhat surprised at how great the discrepancy between the critical consensus and my own judgement about the game turned out to be: what most people apparently see as a nearly flawless game revealed itself to me as a very problematic piece -- interesting, mostly fun, but ultimately unsatisfying.

Just because other critics have been so almost unanimously positive, I believe it will be most useful if I focus on the reasons why I did not like the game. It's not a bad game. I could say many positive things about it. But you can read up on those in the other reviews (see also here). So, with the risk of sounding like a grumpy old man, let's move on to my complaints.

Babel is set in an abandoned scientific base on one of the poles, far from all human contact. It becomes apparent very early on that the amnesiac player character has a special ability: he can touch certain things in the world, that he perceives as glowing, and these will then project forth emotionally-charged scenes that happened nearby at some time in the near past. Much of the game consists of the player hunting for such glowing objects, so that he can trigger these flashbacks.

Although justified in the narrative, this is obviously a plot device thought up only so that the author can bombard the player with non-interactive cut-scenes. Rather than telling a story in which the player (note that I'm not saying "player character") participates, we get to slowly uncover a story that has already taken place. In other words, Babel has fallen into the dreadful trap of excessive reliance on backstory. As Stephen Bond memorably puts it: "If Lord of the Rings had consisted mostly of Frodo recovering lost pages of The Silmarillion, then no one would ever have read it." But this is almost precisely what Babel does.

Playing the game consists of the tired old routine of thoroughly searching everything you encounter, writing down all the clues, collecting keys, and then opening doors that you couldn't open before you found the right key or the right piece of information. This will open up new areas that you get to search thoroughly, find keys in, and... well, you understand what's going on. Except that this time, we also get to read very long cut-scenes whenever we find a glowing object.

It's not that this is unenjoyable per se. Although the puzzles are nothing to write home about (expect combination codes for safes and fiddling with intricate machinery), the environment is interesting, the cut-scenes are generally well-written, and the story, although hardly fresh, is worth perusing. But look at it this way. As an author, you have thought up an interesting story. Now what would be more exciting for a player: (1) being dropped into the middle of that story so you get to perceive it first-hand and act in it, in other words, experiencing your fictional story as interactive fiction; or (2) solve a bunch of thirteen-in-a-dozen IF puzzles and be rewarded by reading excerpts from a static fiction story that you have written out beforehand? Of course (1) more exciting. It is also harder to implement, but nobody said making good interactive fiction was easy.

Okay, so the gameplay is uninspiring and to a great extent detached from the story. Not entirely detached, of course, and Finley attempts to tie in the backstory with the interactive present in several ways. The most important of these is that you get clues to solve puzzles from the cut-scenes. But that's still me just experiencing the story from afar and then opening locked doors. The others are that (a) the back-story gives vital information for understanding who the player character is, which is finally revealed at a dramatic moment; and that (b) we learn the end of the back-story only in the present. But again, all of this is non-interactive. (And the big revelation about the player character will surely be guessed by every player long, long before it actually happens.)

Which leaves me somewhat baffled. This game is more than adequate, but it is definitely not great. It's very standard interactive fiction with a relative standard story pasted onto it a totally non-interactive way. So why do Andrew Plotkin and Paul O'Brian give it a 10 and a 9.8 respectively? Why do half the reviewers on this site give it 5 stars? I have no idea -- but if you wish to comment, please do.

All Alone, by Ian Finley

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
Great atmosphere, lousy plot, September 22, 2010
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
All Alone actually scared me. Oh, it used a cheap trick to do it, but it was effective and very diegetic: my reaction of "Whaah! Oh, wait, how stupid to be scared by that" is exactly the same reaction the protagonist has in this situation.

What is good about All Alone is that it sets a mood and sets it well. It turns the player-character identification that some have seen as a drawback of IF into a great strength. This is how atmospheric horror ought to be done: claustrophobia, being alone, unexpected events. The uncapitalised out-of-viewpoint-character phrases were especially effective.

On the other hand, most of the story is very much clichéd, and the ending, which isn't, is its weakest part. I think this might have worked better as a game with a stronger puzzle content: you get to try and hide, and depending on how well you do it, you may live for a longer time -- perhaps even survive? Or perhaps not. There are possibilities for more suspense and anxiousness here.

Ad Verbum, by Nick Montfort

11 of 12 people found the following review helpful:
Wisely wrought, wicked wordplay works well, September 22, 2010
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Ad Verbum is a great wordplay game, and one of the few works of interactive fiction that can claim to have been inspired by the work of Georges Perec. Its greatest claim to fame are undoubtedly the rooms where all descriptions, including all the library responses, are written in such a way that each word begins with the same letter (w, n, e, or s), and where only input in the same format is accepted. Try taking something and then going south when you only type words that start with an 'n'. These puzzles are excellent and wittily implemented. The same high quality is maintained in the library, where several other forms of constrained writing are practised.

It is really good to see some interactive fiction that takes the textuality of the work seriously, and that manages to craft enjoyable puzzles around it.

I do wonder why Nick Montfort thought it would be a good idea to add some puzzles that have nothing to do with wordplay. (I'm thinking primarily about a light source puzzle and a "bring an object to a person" puzzle.) It's not just that they lack the brilliance of the constrained writing puzzles; it's also that by the time you come to these puzzles, you are so trained to look for wordplay everywhere that you don't realise that these puzzles are not to be solved in that way.

My bigger gripe with the game, however, is that some of the puzzles seem to be excessively geared towards certain cultural backgrounds. To a certain degree this is unavoidable: one cannot play an English wordplay game without having a great command of the English language. But some of the puzzles required the use of what I presume are American slang terms that I had literally never heard of; and there was one puzzle which you cannot possibly even start to grasp unless you already have detailed knowledge of a language game which might be well known in the US, but which, again, I had never before encountered.

(Which ones do I mean? Here are the spoilers. Taking a certain object in the library: (Spoiler - click to show)you need to "rip" the wee writ, where this is apparently a synonym for "take". Exiting the s-room: (Spoiler - click to show)you need to "scram", or "split", apparently synonyms for "go". And the language game you need to know is of course (Spoiler - click to show)pig latin, a puzzle which is by the way made unintentionally difficult by the fact that (Spoiler - click to show)the pig doesn't understand "outhsay" but only "ogay outhsay".)

After encountering one such puzzle, the reader will start believing than any puzzle he cannot solve is such a puzzle -- in other words, the motivation to persist when things are difficult is greatly decreased.

All this might not apply for people who do have the right cultural background to understand the more obscure puzzles, but for me they lessened the fun of the game enough to have me drop my rating from 4 to 3 stars. Still, you owe it to yourself to play this game.

Accuse, by David A. Wheeler

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Works better as a board game, September 22, 2010
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Accuse is recognisable as an implementation of the well-known board game Clue, albeit with some important differences:

1. There are fewer people, weapons and locations.
2. The player character is not one of the suspects.
3. After making an accusation, you do not get to see one card used in your accusation, but you hear whether none or some of the elements of your accusation were correct.
4. Two successive accusation may not have any element in common.
5. You need to carry around the weapons and direct the people to the rooms you want to make an accusation about.
6. You're playing against a turn counter, rather than against someone else; you can only do better or worse by taking more or less time.

Most of these changes don't make a real difference, although they do somewhat change the logic of the deduction. The important differences are 4 and 6: 6 reduces the tension of the game, while 4 introduces somewhat needless tedium. As you can see, I'm not exactly under the impression that the changes make the game better.

The main problem here is that the game combines a certain amount of tedium (having to direct people to locations, having to make "in-between" accusations because of rule 4) with very little pay-off: the logic problem is exceedingly easy, and solving it does not give one a sense of success. For your quick logic fix, you're better off playing some Loopy (or "apt-get install sgt-puzzles").

The Djinni Chronicles, by J. D. Berry

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Unique game - mediocre story, September 22, 2010
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
The Djinni chronicles is a story, or rather a series of linked stories, about humans summoning djinni in order to gain their heart's desires -- beauty, happiness for a loved one, victory over one's enemies, that kind of thing. The player is not put in charge of the humans, but in charge of the djinni.

This premise carries with it all the risk of being used simply to string a couple of not too logical puzzles together without having to worry about narrative continuity, but let there be rejoicing, for J. D. Berry has given us a far more interesting design. First, there is narrative continuity: the different fragments are sometimes strongly connected (when you play with the same character), and sometimes a bit more loosely, but they're all evidently part of the same narrative. Second, being a djinn comes with an interesting set of limitations and powers, the most important of which is the fact that you are confined to a rather small action radius, the size of which is based on the strength of your bond with the human you serve. And third, far from being will-less slaves to their summoners, the djinni actually have agendas of their own, which they must attempt to realise within the limitations set by their respective masters.

All this adds up to an odd and fascinating little game that is definitely worth playing.

One can always complain: once you have solved the puzzle of finding out what on earth is going on, the other puzzles aren't very good; the one long passage of poetry contained in the game is quite bad; and in the end, the larger narrative fell short of my expectations, or indeed any real memorability. That's a shame, because with a better narrative, this game could have been a small jewel. As it is, it's still a very fine imitation.

Ugly Chapter, by Sam Kabo Ashwell

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
Resentment made IF, September 13, 2010
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
One of the best tricks an IF author can pull off is to make the narrator of the game a central NPC; we saw this, for instance, with Violet, and we see it again with Ugly Chapter. Here, the narrator is utterly filled with resentment against the player character, which leads to --

-- really, saying any more would be spoiling this short piece.

Ugly Chapter is a piece of Speed-IF, and it shows: implementation is sparse, the highly linear path through the game is slightly underclued (but see this walkthrough), and the story and setting, though good, are more hinted at than developed. Still, given the small scale, this is an impressive work.

And it makes me itch to see more pieces where the narrator has a strong emotional investment in what is going on in the game.

Custard, by Evin Robertson

3 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Let's pie!, September 13, 2010
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Currently, only 3 out of 8 people found Jeremy Freese's review helpful, but really, he did about the best you can do. This is an exceedingly small game set in a bakery. It will allow you to... oh, let's say... make custard with your computer? Have your computer make custard for you? Pie yourself? Whatever. Giving this game a numerical rating would be beside the point, especially since I can only choose among (a subset of) the integers.

Custard crashed Gargoyle for me, and didn't work 100% perfectly in Nitfol either, but well enough to be played.

Fusillade, by Mike Duncan

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Modelling the unconscious in vignettes, September 12, 2010
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Fusillade is not exactly a standard interactive fiction work. It is a string of twenty vignettes very loosely tied together by a meta-narrative that only becomes somewhat clear at the very end. In each vignette, you play a completely different person in a different setting at a different time, and sometimes even in a different fictional universe. According to the author, these scene together constitute a "battle in my unconscious".

Which immediately shows us the biggest weakness of the piece: I am certain these scenes mean something to the author, but they mean little to the reader, or at the very least they will mean little to the average reader. While a few of them are taken from fiction written by Mike Duncan himself, and are thus presumably hard to follow and devoid of associations for almost everyone, others are drawn from history and popular culture. If one already knows the relevant episodes or works, one will perhaps get a jolt of recognition, and one's own conscious and unconscious associations will be activated. But if, like me, you have to look almost all of them up to even understand what is going on, this will not happen. If you are well-acquainted with SF television series, persons from American history that are popular within but not exactly well-known without the US (Molly Pitcher, Helen Keller, Francis Scott Key), and the exploits of the great British explorers, you are probably better able than I was to enjoy this piece.

The vignettes are mostly written very well, and with different prose styles corresponding to their different moods and settings. Unfortunately, they are barely interactive -- the player is only along for the ride, really. The idea is probably that one "flows" along with them, in the sense that "flow" has become a popular-psychological term. We're on a ride planned out by the unconscious. This doesn't quite work when one does not immediately connect to the events, as described above.

One aspect of the game that cannot be ignored is the music. Each scene comes with its own piece of MIDI-music: an interpreter which can play these is highly recommended. The music helps to set the atmosphere, and is quite listenable. However, if, as I did, you spend a lot of time looking up all these historical situations, you'll be listening to each (looping) short piece for quite a bit longer than the author intended, and this is not an unmixed pleasure.

In conclusion, then, this game cannot be called a success; but it does try a couple of things that we have not often seen before, and if these attempts are not entirely successful, they are not entirely unsuccessful either. As such, Fusillade is worth studying by authors, more than worth playing by players.

Aayela, by Magnus Olsson

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful:
Song of light and darkness -- or rather, three notes, September 11, 2010
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
In Aayela, you play a young and expendable knight off to find the magical stone that will cure the queen's illness. This story is mostly an excuse to get you into a cave, where the game's main gimmick quickly becomes apparent: your lamp goes out, and most of the game is spent in darkness.

Exploring a cave in the dark could be very interesting, but Aayela fails to do its premise justice: not only is the cave exceedingly small, but there is in fact little difference between this game and a game where you explore a cave with light. You do not have to guess the identity of objects from their form, smell, taste or sound -- feeling something will always identify it for you. From the point of view of the player, typing "examine" and typing "feel" is not much of a difference. You do have to discover some things by feeling around, but these quasi-puzzles are familiar from other games where you have to feel under or in things.

What remains is an enjoyable little tale with different endings depending on a choice the character can make at the end. Olsson writes good, if perhaps somewhat overblown, prose, and the final scene is much more memorable than the cave itself. So, as a snack sized diversion, Aayela is certainly worth playing; but much more could have been done with it.

Enchanter, by Marc Blank, Dave Lebling

13 of 14 people found the following review helpful:
Come and get you exploration/puzzle-solving fix!, September 9, 2010
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
After finishing Moonmist and Seastalker, I felt the time had come to tackle one of Infocom's normal difficulty games. Since everyone seems to enjoy Enchanter, that seemed to be as good a place to start as any.

From a modern perspective, Enchanter has a number of features that do not immediately create enthusiasm: you are subjected to hunger, thirst and fatigue; your inventory space is limited; there are many ways to die; and the game can be put in an unwinnable state. Still, Enchanter isn't quite as foreboding as that list may make it sound. There is an unlimited supply of drink and, uh, sleep; a limited but large supply of food; the number of objects you need to carry around is small; you'll generally know when you're about to do something dangerous; and it's almost always clear which actions are irreversible. The result of this is that Enchanter feels quite friendly, even though you'll be seeing that Restore-menu a lot more than is strictly speaking desirable.

Enchanter is slightly different from Adventure and Zork in that you'll need to use spells rather than objects to solve most problems. This difference is of course mostly cosmetic -- it doesn't really matter whether you light up the darkness by saying "frotz" or by wielding a lantern -- but it reduces guess the verb problems and allows the designers to implement some effects that would have been hard to visualise using material objects. Also, learning spells from scrolls is simply cool.

The puzzles are generally good and well-clued. I hardly used hints, and never for the interesting parts of the puzzles. Most of them ask for pretty straightforward application of spells or objects found, but there a few more complicated puzzles which are also more memorable: especially the puzzle with the hammer and the puzzle in the translucent rooms.

In terms of story and atmosphere, Enchanter is functional and no more. You are a young enchanter, you must defeat the evil warlock, his castle is east of here -- that kind of stuff. Still, having a story and a sensible (if fantastic) set of locations is a major step up from Zork. The writing is short and to the point, serious with the occasional joke. Most of the jokes work, too, although the effects of a certain useless scroll were rather juvenile.

So, should you play Enchanter? You should if you would like to explore a sizeable game world, collecting special abilities along the way, and then solve a number of fine puzzles. That is the experience the game seeks to deliver, and it succeeds. If you are looking for story, characters, thematic writing -- look elsewhere.

Moonmist, by Stu Galley, Jim Lawrence

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
Four enjoyable mysteries, September 7, 2010
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Like Seastalker, which I reviewed earlier this week, Moonmist is an Infocom game aimed at younger interactors. However, Moonmist is far more successful. Rather than writing down to children, or assuming that for a kid being given responsibility is enough of a thrill, we are treated to a solid combination of gothic horror and detective stories that is quite enjoyable for readers of any age.

This is not to say that Moonmist's plot and characterisation are deep: this is standard stuff. We are in an old castle. The previous lover of the young local lord has died or been killed; his new lover, a female friend of ours, has been threatened. In addition, a ghost haunts the castle. And finally, the previous lord has hidden a fabled treasure somewhere on the premises and uses hidden clues and audio-taped messages to direct us towards it. The eight guests, all of whom might be somehow implicated in the plot, are quite stereotypical: the older female artist, the grumpy doctor, the young débutante, and so on. Nevertheless: stuff is going on, the characterisations are miles beyond those of Seastalker, the British setting is British, there is atmosphere, the descriptions are almost lush, and we even get Edgar Allen Poe quotes.

After an introductory sequence, gameplay mostly consists of searching the castle for clues. There are of course secret passages, cryptic clues (including wordplay and riddles), and lots of hidden objects. You will be spending a lot of your time walking through the castle, which is large, and although you will unfortunately need to read some of the room descriptions from the feelies (hello, copy protection scheme!) this is generally enjoyable. Plus, you can instantly go to any room, person or object you have previously seen. With several different tasks to perform (follow the clues to the treasure, find out who the ghost is, find out what really happened to the dead woman) you won't quickly run out of ideas, especially since the difficulty isn't high. One tip: if you successfully "search" something, do it again, because there can be more than one object hidden.

At the beginning of the game, you are asked to state your favourite colour. This seems an innocuous question, but it is actually very important: choosing red, blue, green or yellow starts one of four completely different scenarios. (Choosing another colour will randomly select one.) The treasure will be different, hidden in a different place, and different clues will lead to it. The ghost will be someone else, and the real story behind the death will be different too. Thus, Moonmist is really four games in one; and although solving one will help you solve the others, it will far from make it automatic.

All in all, then, very enjoyable. It's not in the end truly memorable, but as a relaxed gothic detective romp, there is nothing wrong with it either. Three-and-a-half stars.

Seastalker, by Stu Galley, Jim Lawrence

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
Okay introduction marred by bland writing and irritating feelies, September 5, 2010
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Once again the urge to play the Infocom games came over me. In the past, this mostly led to me being frustrated, so I decided to play the easiest Infocom game this time. How much trouble could I have with a game explicitly aimed at young people?

Well, still some, because there is a time limit, which can surprise the unwary interactor. But in general the puzzles will not be much trouble for the veteran IF player, and most of them are clearly hinted by either the game or the documentation. Additionally, I hit a show stopping bug once; but it turned out that I was playing version 86, which is apparently a beta version. (What is that doing in the wild?) I will assume for this review that the real game is bug free.

The plot of the game is functional: you are a young inventor who is into submarines, and you have to save an underwater research station from a huge fish. There are some twists, and the story does manage to keep one's attention and put one into perilous situations of different kinds. Unfortunately, the characterisation and writing are very bland. I would have preferred even the cruel humour of Zork to this nondescriptness.

In terms of gameplay, some good things are done here: the submarine scenes are novel and fun (though probably long enough); the freedom in the Aquadome is also refreshing. On the bad side, some of the "puzzles" are so obviously hinted, with characters simply telling you what to do, that you don't feel in charge. This would seem to underestimate the children for whom the game is meant: surely one should design appropriate puzzles, rather than design puzzles that are too difficult and then remove the puzzle-element?

But the worst thing about the game, apart from the bland writing, is its use of feelies. In a design choice that is either incredibly stupid or a copy-protection scheme gone horribly wrong, you constantly have to read descriptions, commands, and maps from the feelies. This is very irritating. It works for the map of Frobton Bay, where having to consult a map is diegetic and even fun, but it doesn't work in the rest of the game. Examining a person and then having to read the description in the manual is simply stupid.

So -- not really recommended. Unless you wish to finish your first Infocom game, in which case I can tell you that with this game, it is possible!

Sand-dancer, by Aaron Reed and Alexei Othenin-Girard

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
In the gloom of America's deserts, August 31, 2010
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
About half-way through playing Sand-dancer (as I was following the rabbit) it occurred to me that this game might well be Aaron Reed's homage to Andrew Plotkin's Shade, centring as it does on a combination of fighting hostile elements and surreal/supernatural occurrences. This idea that was then dramatically vindicated by later events in the story, as one of Shade's central events suddenly turned up in this story as well.

The resemblance is nevertheless relatively superficial: where Plotkin's main interest lies in playing with knowledge and narration, Reed is far more interested in the motivations and choices of characters. In Sand-dancer, the fight for survival quickly turns into a meditation on the protagonist's past and future. Compared to the length of the game, the characterisation is deep, although it must be said that almost all of it is done through non-interactive text dumps. This means that the story is engaging, but perhaps not ideally suited to explore the possibilities of interactive storytelling. There are some choices that have an effect on gameplay, but they lack dramatic import. (Spoiler - click to show)The important choices in the game are, of course, which characteristics you wish to get from the animals. Although it is a need idea that (for instance) a courageous character now dares to do things he would dare before, the actual effects are a little underwhelming. I mean... I'm in danger of dying here, but I am afraid of spiders? I can now smell gasoline? These sequences are fun, but it's hard to take them seriously as important character developments.

The entire work is suffused with elements of U.S. culture, mixing popular entertainment, lower-class life in the nation's more desert-like regions, and native American culture. This makes it somewhat hard for people not from the U.S. to follow what exactly is going on. (It took me very long, for instance, to understand that "the res" referred to an Indian reservation. Which is apparently a place where they have high schools? My ignorance here is enormous, so accept nothing I tell you about the story as true!) Lest this be read as criticism, I actually applaud this move towards more culturally embedded works: it makes the reader learn more, or at least realise his/her own ignorance, and the real world is after all an interesting place.

Finally, a few words about the gameplay. As we can expect, the game is smooth and well-implemented (although attempting to open the rusty tin can with the can opener could have done with a description), we have a helpful in-game hint feature, and the puzzles are always logical. There were, unfortunately, certain points in the game where I had to retry random actions that used to fail, because it was not clear to me where my new-found powers would come in handy. (Spoiler - click to show)That courage would help me with the spiders: yes. That it would help me reach the control room: no. That scent would help me with the control room: no. However, this is a relatively minor quibble, since the game is not large.

Sand-dancer has a good story, an interesting gloomy American atmosphere, and adequate puzzles; it is a recommended read/play for all.

Mariel, by Michael Baltes

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Most interesting as a showcase for the German Inform 7 extension, August 24, 2010
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
As a game, Mariel is a competent and polished, but by no means remarkable. This short story haves you wake up in an unknown hospital after a traffic accident; you're first task is to escape from what is functionally (if not literally) a locked room. The rest of the game is a little more inventive, including a nice variation on one of the most famous scenes of Anchorhead, but there is nothing that will blow you away either in terms of puzzles or of story.

Mariel is in fact more interesting as the example game that accompanies GerX, the German library extension for Inform 7. You can look at the source code and see how the weird combination of English code and German prose works, and how technical details of the German language are managed. It seems to be relatively elegant, actually. There is also a 50-page PDF file which acts like an Introduction to Inform 7 in German that uses Mariel as the running example.

The Ascot, by Duncan Bowsman

6 of 8 people found the following review helpful:
Shake, nod and twist, December 7, 2009
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
The Ascot is a Choose Your Own Adventure game of a particularly restrictive type: at every point, you can only choose "yes" or "no". However, for a game that has choice so obviously at its centre, The Ascot is surprisingly linear: most choices will either stop the game immediately, or have only small effects on the order in which you see things or the contents of your inventory.

The story of The Ascot involves escaping a curse, fighting an evil monster and gaining treasure, none of which is very innovative, although it is brought with zest and flair. More importanly, there are several possible endings and getting to the best one is not easy, but is rewarding. Not hugely rewarding, but rewarding in the sense that you'll think: "That was a neat puzzle!"

If you have not seen the best ending, you haven't really played The Ascot. ("Have I seen the best ending?", you wonder. If you wonder, you haven't.)

Also check out my original competition review and the reviews linked on the IFWiki.

The Hangover, by Will Conine

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Not ready for prime time, December 7, 2009
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Will Conine is probably a young author; at the very least he is an inexperienced one. The Hangover has all the marks of a first game attempted with enthusiasm but little knowledge of how a good game is crafted, including a lack of synonyms, guess-the-verb problems and room descriptions that don't change with the state of the world.

Exacerbating these problems is the prose, of which this is a typical sample:

"You have a horrid hangover and no asprin in the apartment. This is your bedroom. Your ill-loking bed takes up most of the space. You have a closet and a bath robe on the floor. you should really take your robe and put it on. Its a good place to store things. To the east is your bathroom and to your west is the rest of your apartment."

According to other reviews the game is not finishable due to a bug; I can't speak for that myself since I never came that far.

We can safely conclude that the author should not have entered this game in the IF Comp, where it naturally generated harsh criticism. More constructive criticism could have been gotten outside of competitions.

Also check out my original competition review and the reviews linked on the IFWiki.

Dead Like Ants, by C.E.J. Pacian

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Beautiful if slight little game, November 23, 2009
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Dead Like Ants is the only game I know of that uses cylindrical coordinates rather than compass directions, which is logical when the protagonist is an ant living in a tree. More interesting than the physical environment, however, is the social environment of an (anthropomorphic) ant colony, with its lack of individualism. If ant colonies produced literature, it might look like Dead Like Ants.

The game is short and polished, and combines atmosphere and message into an enjoyable package. The gameplay, however, is definitely on the slight side: it consists mostly of exploration, but the exploration becomes predictable rather quickly. Nevertheless, it is recommended.

Make It Good, by Jon Ingold

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
The best IF detective yet, November 23, 2009
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Make It Good is an excellent detective game. It is both a lot of fun and an absolute must-play for anyone interested in puzzle design.

The player is cast as an alcoholic down-on-his-luck police inspector who has one last chance to show that he can still solve a case. A man has been murdered in his house, and the protagonist must search the house and the garden for physical clues, must talk to a number of NPCs, must call on his reluctant assistant to analyse clues, and must, finally, make a successful accusation.

Now most of that may sound rather standard for a detective game, but this game is far from standard. First, the puzzles are simply excellent. Discovering clues is only the beginning--you'll have to think creatively and psychologically manipulate the NPCs if you want to get anywere with them. Second, there are some interesting plot twists, and your ideas of how to find the murderer will change during the game, which will in turn impact what you want to do with the clues and the NPCs.

Make It Good is a hard game. You will not solve it on your first attempt, and probably not on your fifth either. It is true compliment to the depth of implementation and the amount of possibilities that the game remains fun to play for almost the entire time span needed to solve it--and I heartily do recommend you to show some perseverance. I myself took a look at a walkthrough after I had solved all the major puzzles and the only thing that remained was the somewhat tedious process of putting all the details right. This seems to me the right strategy: you are depriving yourself of a great gaming experience if you look at the walkthrough any earlier.

The final stages of playing the game are a bit tedious, though: you'll still be doing small things wrong, and each time you'll have to restart and go through all the steps again. Given the overall excellence of the game, this is a relatively small complaint, though.

My other complaint is that the story does not make perfect sense at the end, even though it presumably has to if I have to be formulating and carrying out the plan that takes me to the ending. That, however, is a major spoiler, and should only be read by those who have finished the game.

(Spoiler - click to show)Surely the maid will retract her confession when she sees during her trial that there is no evidence pointing to Anthony? It seems to me that unless there is also some hard evidence pointing to Anthony, the whole scheme will not work; and in those endings where the maid confesses, there is no hard evidence pointing to Anthony. Certainly not the kind of evidence Joe wants before he arrests him.

The epilogue hints that the vicar has seen you, and that you are going to be arrested because he has told the police about it, right? But he has been telling lies himself in order to cover up for Angela, lies which are inconsistent with him seeing you. Would he really endanger Angela by accusing you, thus reopening the case while at the same time taking away Angela's alibi?


Ralph, by Miron Schmidt

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Short and illogical, but somewhat amusing, October 6, 2009
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
In Ralph, you get to play a dog looking for a bone he buried a long time ago. In the garden. You can bet the family will be happy with your attempts to find it.

The main problem with Ralph is that the final solution to the puzzle doesn't make sense. There is absolutely no reason to believe that the actions you do will result in you finding your bone. So why do them? In the end, this game is only solvable because it is very short and you can simply try out everything until you have done what will turn out to be the right actions. But this is hardly satisfying.

Ralph was nominated for best individual PC in the 1996 XYZZY Awards. Partly this will be because a dog as protagonist is not often seen, and is certainly more interesting than a nameless adventurer; but there is also the fact that Ralph's personality emerges from the storyline. Nothing really special, but I can imagine that it made a favourable impression in 1996.

All in all, this game is not bad, but it certainly not a classic either.

Cacophony, by Owen Parish

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Disorienting in good and bad ways, October 2, 2009
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Cacophony puts the reviewer in a difficult situation: I am certain that this game is worth reading, but I'm not sure that it is worth playing. Reading without playing, is that possible? Certainly--just type in the walkthrough. But read the rest of my review before you decide to do so.

Owen Parish gives us a game that is strikingly non-linear. This is true for the locations, between which you switch almost instantly and as often as you wish. It is true for the endings, of which there are at least three, all of them wildly different. And it is also true for the plot: you can progress towards different endings in completely different ways, and relatively few of the objects and locations in the game are needed for any given ending.

The non-linearity makes for a strange gaming experience that is strengthened by the fact that there is very little hand holding here. There is no list of goals; there is hardly even the suggestion of goals. Even if you have goals, it is rarely apparent which actions will lead to those goals--no ends-means rationality here. Rather, this game is about exploration, and the directions you explore will lead you to one ending or another, to one set of insights or another. We have non-linearity, but we do not have choice.

This may not be the kind of gaming experience we are after regularly, but it is certainly interesting to have it once in a while. However, and this is were the dichotomy between "reading" and "playing" becomes important, Cacophony involves so little hand holding that the player is bound to get stuck very often, and for potentially long times. This game is hard not so much because it has hard puzzles, but because it requires a lot of non-obvious actions. Isn't that the same? No, because a puzzle is an obvious obstacle that the player can circumvent by careful thought and experimentation. But Cacophony is full of points where you have to do something without knowing that you have to do it, without knowing why you would want to do it, without even being able to guess what the result will be. This makes the game very disorienting, which is good, but also incredibly hard to finish, which is not good.

So whether you are willing to take the time and experiment as much as you will have to in order to progress, is very much up to you. I did not persevere, but that is merely my choice. For those who follow me, the author has provided three excellent walkthroughs for three different endings. For those who have a stronger will... well, good luck!

The Milk of Paradise, by Josh Graboff

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Heaven can wait, September 28, 2009
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
(A previous version of this review appeared during the Spring Thing 2009 on my blog, The Gaming Philosopher.)


The Milk of Paradise is too small and short, unituitive, and underimplemented. This is a shame, because the game is actualy trying to do something interesting: there is a narrator who is a character in the story and has a complicated relationship with the player character, and the game is about revealing this relationship and using it to make a point about... about what exactly? Adventure? Identity? Dreams? I don't know, because the game was over so quickly and told me so little that it didn't in the end really say anything.

In a sense, The Milk of Paradise is the opposite of its fellow contestant Realm of Obsidian. The latter is large and carefully implemented (just think of the work that went into the sounds), but suffers from extreme retro gameplay. The former, on the other hand, is puzzleless and focused on story, but it small and sloppily implemented. I have more sympathy for Realm of Obsidian, because if you do something, do it well--even if it's something that other people might not think worth doing.

On the other hand, I'd rather see Josh Graboff make a new version of The Milk of Paradise than see Amy Kerns make a new version of Realm of Obsidian (because she'd do better starting with something fresh and more player friendly). A new version of this game ought to be:

* Extremely polished. The shorter your game is, the more polished it must be. Implement lots of nouns. Lots of synonyms. Lots of conversation topics. In order to make this happen, have a lot of beta testers play your game, and then implement (almost) everything they tried to do.

* More explorable. Make sure that the player can do more stuff. Also, try to reveal the situation slowly through the players actions, rather than simply telling him what is the case in big chunks of conversation that do not really seem to follow from my actions.

* More tightly focused. What is the game about? The political consequences of hero worship? The impossibility of being yourself when you play a major role on the historical stage? Especially in a game of this size, everything should have the single purpose of reinforcing the theme. (Or undercutting it, displacing it, taking a well-known theme and putting it slightly askew so as to reveal another... but then this other is the theme which everything must reinforce.)

Vague, by Richard Otter

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Don't try this as your first Richard Otter game, September 28, 2009
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
(A previous version of this review appeared during the Spring Thing 2009 on my blog, The Gaming Philosopher.)

Richard Otter has written a truly weird game. It apparently consists of rooms taken from all Otter's other games. You have to find items with the name of a Richard Otter game on them, then give those items to people in the location that was taken from that game. Interspersed with this are puzzles of the "give the cloak to the shivering beggar" variety.

I only played one Richard Otter game before (Unauthorised Termination), but you don't need to be familiar with his work in order to play Vague: all locations contain clear hints about what game they are from.

However, walking through a game world that consists of totally different rooms which mean nothing to you, conversing with characters who say little more than "Identify this game!", and hunting down pieces of paper with titles written on them is not fun. There is no story. The puzzles aren't clever. The pieces of the diverse games are not united into a coherent and surprising whole. (At least not as far as I can see, though those who have read more Otter games may find meanings I have missed.)

Vague plays a lot like a failed commercial for the author's other games. It is not itself an interesting game experience.

On top of that, the implementation is far from perfect. Please never write something like this, that takes all agency away from the player:

----------
> wear coat

"For some reason you are unable to do that. It isn't that the coat does not fit, you do not want to wear it."

----------

There are strange parser errors:

----------
> get dart
You pull the dart from the board.

> throw dart at colin
You are not carrying the knife.

----------

There is careless implementation of objects:

----------
> open wallet
You can't open the wallet!

----------

My recommendation is that you first play other Richard Otter games, and tackle this one only if you want more. Unauthorised Termination would not be a bad place to start.

The Bryant Collection, by Gregory Weir

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Four mixed vignettes and a good puzzle, September 28, 2009
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
The Bryant Collection claims to be a set of "story worlds" written by Laura Bryant, which were then found in an old chest and implemented in Inform by Gregory Weir. This conceit adds little to the piece: it remains a collection of five seperate works that are not unified in any interesting way by the person of Laura Bryant. Luckily, the metafiction hardly intrudes on the experience, since you have to type no more than one command to arrive at what is essentially a menu where you can choose between the five stories.

All of the five pieces are competently implemented, but some are more successful than others. Interestingly, though, my ranking of the pieces is almost the opposite of that of fellow reviewer C.E.J. Pacian. Pacian liked "Morning in the Garden" best, "Going Home again" and "Undelivered Love Letter" somewhat less, and "The End of the World" least. He did not rank "The Tower of Hanoi", since he judged himself not to be the target audience.

For me, the puzzle game "The Tower of Hanoi" is certainly the highlight of the collection. Of the four vignettes, I enjoyed "The End of the World" most, "Morning in the Garden" less, and the two contemporary pieces least. As you can see, there is little consensus between us, and the reader must perhaps judge for herself.

So, let's talk about the pieces in turn, from what I found the least to what I found the most enjoyable.

"Going Home Again" sees the player character returning to the home of his parents after a prolonged absence. We get to walk through the house, notice that some things have changed and others have stayed the same, and then we leave again. Not a bad premise, but neither the protagonist nor the parents are well-characterised, the memories remain vague and unspecific, and in general there is not enough to do and explore. It doesn't even evoke nostalgia. More could have been done with this.

"Undelivered Love Letter" is again a good premise: you took the plane for a weekend with your far-away girlfriend, and then she ended the relationship. Now you are on the airport, waiting for your flight, and you have a few last moments with her. The problem here is that the player never really knows what she can do or say--the interaction remains shallow, and little emotional engagement is created.

"Morning in the Garden" is more successful: it is a slightly humorous take on the Eve & serpent story. However, the arguments put forward by the serpent are far from original, and one cannot help but feel that the time would have been better spent rereading a few choice paragraphs of Paradise Lost. Still, the flow is smooth, and the discussion not without its funny moments.

I found "The End of the World" remarkably effective. You are sitting enjoying your lunch as the world is about to end. There's nothing you can really do, and the story unfolds around you, but the piece really manages to evoke a feeling of Gelassenheit. (This German word could perhaps be translated as "serenity", but the connection to "lassen", "let" in the sense of "let be", "let go" would be lost.) This is a difficult feeling to put into your interactive fiction, but this story succeeds well.

Finally, "The Tower of Hanoi" is a puzzle game of the kind I enjoy. There are clear rules, which you can find out through thought and experimentation, and once the rules are clear, the puzzle can be solved by logical thinking. (What I generally do not enjoy are puzzles of the "use chicken with staple remover in order to get a feather which can then be used to tickle the sleeping drunk so a coin rolls out of his pocket which you can then use to do whatever unconnected action the author has implemented next"-type. Think Zork or Curses.) The idea is original: you get to explore a set of rooms which can be rearranged like the disks of the towers of Hanoi (though you can pick up all the disks at a time, so there is no actual Hanoi puzzle involved). The arrangement of the rooms makes a difference to their accessibility, to the paths of beams of light, and so on. It is a good puzzle of medium difficulty.

All in all, The Bryant Collection is certainly worth playing, since even the least successful sections will not take a lot of your time to complete. If you truly hate logical puzzles, you might want to skip "The Tower of Hanoi", but it is otherwise highly recommended.

69,105 Keys, by David Welbourn

12 of 12 people found the following review helpful:
Parsing excercise, September 14, 2009
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
David Welbourn's 69,105 keys is not so much a game as it is a parsing excercise presented as a short and well-polished puzzle. You have to find the one unique key in the room, using commands such as "count green round bronze unscratched Acme keys". Tedious rather than fun, but technically impressive. The source code is also provided, so that you can learn from it.

The King of Shreds and Patches, by Jimmy Maher

8 of 10 people found the following review helpful:
It flows like the Thames, September 7, 2009
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
In one memorable scene (though the associated puzzle is somewhat irritating) of The King of Shreds and Patches, the protagonist is rowing on the Thames, attempting to make headway against the stream. Playing Maher's game is nothing like that. It is, in fact, the exact opposite, a smooth ride along with the flow.

Maher has a satisfying tale of Lovecraftian horror to tell, and tell it he does. The player is along for the ride, although she encounters enough (generally easy) puzzles and has enough influence over the order in which the story unfolds to keep her from feeling powerless. The result is an enjoyable game that is the interactive fiction equivalent of a page turner: it may not always be of the highest literary qualities, but you want to keep on reading nonetheless.

Apart from the often excellent puzzle design, the main reasons that you can keep on turning the pages are the helpful map and "go to..." commands, and the self-updating list of goals. These together ensure that the player cannot get lost, either in space or in story-space.

In other words: this game is not incredible, it does not "advance the art of interactive storytelling", but it is very enjoyable and one can learn a lot of craft from it. I wouldn't be surprised if it gets one or more XYZZYs.

The Nemean Lion, by Anonymous

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Clever, September 1, 2009
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
For a game as short as this, quite clever. However, you might not understand the point of the game on your first play-through: the game's gimmick becomes clear only after certain input.

See Emily Short's and my posts for more discussion: http://playthisthing.com/nemean-lion , http://gamingphilosopher.blogspot.com/2009/09/nemean-lion.html .

To Hell in a Hamper, by J. J. Guest

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful:
Why you don't want an adventurer on your balloon, February 1, 2009
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Related reviews: Comedy
The protagonist of To Hell in a Hamper has a problem: he's taken an IF adventurer on board. That, at least, is my explanation of why his fellow passenger Hubert Booby has collected such a load of junk, and is extremely unwilling to part with it. But part with it he must, or the two of you will fly against an erupting volcano and die!

The rest of the game is a satisfying sequence of puzzles where you have to discover all the stuff that Booby is carrying, and then somehow get rid of it. In some cases this is as simple as throwing it overboard (a Rembrandt painting, for instance), in others it is quite a bit more involved (the boomerang gives an obvious problem, and so does the cursed mummy).

One reviewer complained that you can get rid of some items too early, thus leaving the puzzles unsolvable. This has not been my experience; as far as I could tell, there was always an alternate solution. I cannot absolutely guarantee this, though.

My single complaint is that the game doesn't actually contain that many jokes. It has a good comic setup, and some of the stuff you discover inside Booby's coat is hilarious; but there are few events or descriptions in the rest of the game that make one laugh or smile. This game would have benefited from having Admiral Jota as a co-author; his gift for stuffing a game full of funny remarks would have been very effective here.

Gourmet, by Aaron A. Reed and Chad Barb

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful:
Good comedy, but could use some improvements, February 1, 2009
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Related reviews: Comedy
Aaron A. Reed's Gourmet puts you in the shoes, or rather the hat, of a very good chef. You have just opened a new restaurant, and its succes, indeed its survival, depends on getting a favourable review from culinary critic Mrs. Davenport, who is coming tonight.

There are a few problems, though. First, your entire staff has called in sick. Second, almost no food has been delivered. Third, the only lobster you have left stares at you with really evil eyes...

Gourmet is a comic game which leans towards slapstick. In the first half of the game, you are faced with mishap after mishap; think of stumbling over a lobster and spilling three bowls of soup over your most important client's new suit, and you'll have the right idea. (Though this doesn't actually happen in the game.) Because the pace is right and the descriptions are well written, this is a lot of fun.

Unfortunately, the game stalls somewhat in the second half. The puzzles becomes much more elaborate and involve timed sequences, so that you'll be struggling more to get the story to move on. Sometimes you'll even be doing the same acion two or three times because you weren't quick enough in doing something else; and of course, repeating jokes is fatal to enjoyment. So the second half, although it has a great premise, isn't quite as much fun as the first.

Also, there seem to be some bugs. I, for one, couldn't get the game to end. The final command in the walkthru gave me "I don't suppose the lobster would care for that.", which is strange, given the circumstances.

Had the pacing been better and the bugs been squashed, this would be a must-play comic piece. As it is, it is still recommended.

You are a Chef!, by Dan Shiovitz

14 of 16 people found the following review helpful:
Not funny, January 29, 2009
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
You are a Chef! is solidly within the "look, I have written a really bad game!" school of comedy. We can see this from the very first line: "HELLO CHEF!!!!!1". The string of exclamation marks ends with a '1' because the fictional 'n00b' author put his finger off of the Shift-key a little too early.

The main problem with this approach to comedy is that an intentionally bad game is still a bad game. To take badness and elevate it to another level is possible, but very hard; and I doubt that taking a straightforward approach to it is the way to go. See Mystery Science Theater 3000 Presents "Detective" for a non-straightforward, and much more successful, example. There, a separate "commentary" track is used to make fun of the source material. In You are a Chef!, we are just playing the very bad game.

Nor is the sheer absurdity of the events enough to make the player chuckle. Absurdity is only funny if there is some method behind it. Random objects falling from the sky simply do not qualify as a good joke.

Perhaps the dreariness of the game is best demonstrated by this exchange:

Iron safe falls from the sky!
It lands on top of clown and breaks open!

>x safe
In the iron safe you see a MYSTERY INGREDIENT.

>take ingredient
Taken.

>x it
I cannot tell you! It is a mystery!!


If you thought that was funny, please play this game.

Metamorphoses, by Emily Short

13 of 13 people found the following review helpful:
Puzzles, Plato and Purification, June 26, 2008
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Imagine a puzzle game making strong use of a set of simulationist rules about materials and sizes. Imagine a game set in the only partly material laboratory of a Renaissance magus. And imagine a game where the player character attempts to escape from bondage through spiritual purification.

If you can imagine all of those together, you have imagined Metamorphoses.

It is not just a strange game, it is also a very good game. The writing is impeccable and Short effectively weaves together the PCs current exploits with a more emotionally gripping backstory. The puzzles mostly aren't too hard, and all seem to have multiple solutions. The atmosphere is simply great. And there is also true progression in the story, as the PC purifies herself and finally chooses her own fate.

It is also a short game, and you'll probably play through it in two hours. That does mean that the backstory remains very sketchy, and the story doesn't get the emotional resonance that it might have gotten in a longer game. (I would have liked to see the Master in-game, for instance.) The multiple endings don't really work, since you choose between in your last move and that means that everyone is going to Undo and try out the other ones immediately (right?). And there were one or two details in the setting which I felt didn't really fit into the Universe of Renaissance Platonism.

But all in all, these are insignificant complaints compared to the virtues of the game. If you like puzzles, Plato and purification, you should not give this piece a miss.

Pick up the pine box and die, by Alan Smithee

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Joke without a twist, June 15, 2008
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Related reviews: Short, joke, one-room, phonebooth
(This game was part of BoucherComp. The premise if the Comp was: "No one has ever escaped from Lowell Prison. Why? Because there's only two ways out of here. One is dead in a pine box, and the other is that big wide-open gate over there, which I ask you seriously to please, please stay away from.")

Okay, so this is a SpeedIF game that is based on the infamous Pick up the Phone Booth and Die. It is, therefore, a very short and very sparsely implemented joke. But it is a joke without a twist. It is just PuTPBad plus the premise of the Comp. As far as I could ascertain, nothing else has been done with it.

This game didn't make me laugh, and that is pretty fatal for a one-joke game.

+=3, by Carl de Marcken and David Baggett

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
A game to mention, not to enjoy, May 28, 2008
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
This game makes a point about interactive fiction design. It makes it well and quickly (one you have figured out the solution, probably by reading the source or the walkthrough). So, although this game is not enjoyable as such, it does the one thing that it attempts to do quite well.

What is the point that it makes? According to Karl Muckenhoupt, the point is that "it is possible for a puzzle to have a completely logical solution, and yet be nearly impossible to solve except by randomly guessing commands". Without disagreeing with that, I would say that the point of +=3 is that "conventions of play are there for a reason". Either way, it's a good point, and +=3 is a name that you might want to drop in a discussion now and then.

The Fugitive, by Renata Burianova

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Underimplemented and uninspired, May 28, 2008
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Your phone rings. You pick it up, and a voice tells you that "they" are coming to get you, and you'd better leave your apartment if you wish to stay alive. At that point the game starts. You type "look" and get a room description which mentions a "small table with phone". You type "x phone", and the game tells you "You see no such thing.". After examining a couple of more things (some not implemented), the bad guys enter you room and instantly kill you. Need I say more?

What follows--and I had only enough motivation to follow the walk-through--is a convoluted quest that makes little sense, involves mazes, and has you moving from one sparsely implemented location to another in a city that is far too big for the content it contains. I didn't play it to completion because of a guess-the-verb problem that the walkthrough did not solve for me.

Not recommended. It does come with a map, though, which is good. On a numerical scale, this game would get a 3 or 4.

Iraqi Invasion, by Anonymous

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful:
Doesn't work as IF, March 22, 2008
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Related reviews: Political
Iraqi Invasion is a piece of interactive fiction based on a fake interactive fiction transcript by Matthew Baldwin, that can be read at http://www.defectiveyeti.com/archives/001561.html. The original, where you supposedly play Bush, is quite funny; but it uses many non-standard commands such as "monger fear" and "railroad congress", and it involves many 'objects' that have not been described by the game.

Consequently, without some heavy changes, you can not make an interactive fiction game out of it. Nobody is possibly going to guess that the command to get out of the Oval Office is "GO PHOTOOP" if the game never actually tells you that you could do this. Or that you have to type things like "MONGER FEAR" in order to invade Iraq.

Unfortunately, Iraqi Invasion does not involve any significant changes at all, and consequently, the only way to play it is by typing, one-by-one, the commands from the fake transcript. But that means that you could just read the transcript instead of playing the game.

As far as I could tell, there are not even many alternate responses incorporated (which could have made the game an interesting addition to the transcript). There is almost nothing you can examine, for instance--which is a pity, since, as a non-American, I would have like to be able to examine Jesse Helms and John Ashcroft and find out who these people are and what they were saying about Iraq.

The conclusion, then, is that a funny IF transcript cannot necessarily be turned into a successful IF game, at least not without some major work being done that has not been done here.

Connect, by James Hudson

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Interesting new mechanic is not explored thoroughly enough, March 22, 2008
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Related reviews: Short, connect
Connect is a solid game, if rather short. There are a couple of fine puzzles, which are mostly quite easy, although one of them was (both from my own experience and from what I read on the newsgroup) somewhat underclued. The writing is okay, and the setting might be interesting if it had been worked out a little bit more. But what is certainly most interesting about Connect is, not quite unexpectedly, the special connect ability.

This ability allows the PC to read the thoughts both of those who are spatially separated from him, and from those who used to be in the location he is in now. The connect mode can be turned on and off throughout play, basically giving you two different sets of 'examine' messages.

I found the result quite interesting: you have both the all-too-standard 'physical' description of objects, and another, more 'mental' description. I would love to see a larger game where the possibilities of this command are really explored (with due consideration of the pitfalls, of course: just having two modes of examine might get old quick). In Connect, this is never really done: you use the special command to find out how you might get past the guards, and that is more or less it.

Still, the idea is good, and worth a look.

Except for one bug in the competition release that allows you to bypass a puzzle, the implementation is well done.

The great bane of IF is games that are too short. This, too, is a game that is too short. A couple of puzzles, the first vague ideas about a setting, an exploration of just the first possibilities of the connect ability, and then the game is finished. The end result is certainly not bad, but it is too forgettable.

Slap That Fish, by Peter Nepstad

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Crazy game needs a bit more polish, March 19, 2008
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Related reviews: Combat, IF Comp 2007
If there ever was a game with an original premise, Slap that Fish is that game. You are standing in an alley, and have to defeat, one-by-one, a bunch of malicious fish. If you fail, the fish will take over the city! If you succeed, you can finally avenge the death of your father, who fell in the fight against the fish.

The mechanics of the game are a mix of (non-random) combat involving hit points and several combat actions, and classic IF-puzzles. It turns out, however, that the combat is only another puzzle: since the optimal strategy changes from encounter to encounter and cannot be predicted in advance, this is not a tactical game. It is partly trial and error, partly solving puzzles, as you attempt to get the highest possible score for each of the twelve fish.

It is in the puzzles themselves that Slap that Fish has not been sufficiently tested and polished. Some of the puzzles are badly clued and rather obscure; and there are some errors as well, including TADS-warnings. This detracts from the gameplay in an otherwise very smooth game. I personally used a walkthrough for those parts of the game that I could not quickly solve on my own, and this added to my enjoyment.

In conclusion, Slap that Fish is not a brilliant game. With a bit more polish, it could be a good game. In its current state, it is still a fun game, well worth playing, though you might want to consult the walkthrough when you get stuck.

The City, by Sam Barlow

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Bleak Fragment, February 12, 2008
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Related reviews: bleak, short
The City by Sam Barlow is a short, bleak game. You start out in a bland room, with only a video recorder, a tape, and a remote control. So what do you do? You watch the tape. On it, you see a person just like you, in a bland room.

It won't take you long to realise that this person is you. And then the very boredom of your situation (which is equal for the character and the player) will make you want to break out of the situation that has been set up for you.

The first time I played it, I concluded that this was impossible. It is not--or at least not as impossible as it may seem at first glance. You should persevere: there is more to the story than just the first two location.

But even if you manage to reach the rest of the game and play it through completely, it will not leave you satisfied. There are a number of problems with The City, some of which could have been easily solved, and some of which couldn't. Solving the easy problems would push the game to a 3-star rating, but getting a 4-star rating would involve major extensions.

The easy problems all have to do with guess-the-verb situations, unimplemented objects, and stuff like that. The game was not beta-tested, and it shows. I didn't find any outright bugs, but lack of synonyms and guidance makes the game feel a little rough, and makes some of the puzzles far too difficult. I needed a walkthrough, and I won't be the only one.

The hard problem is that as it is, The City is only a fragment of a successful story. It could be the beginning, it could be the middle, it could even be the end, but we need more background, more action, more identification with the main character, before the situation presented gets the emotional power that Barlow is presumably striving for.

As it is, the game is too inconsequential. Still, it is an interesting experiment, and it could be used to great effect within a more substantial piece.

A Day for Fresh Sushi, by Emily Short

9 of 12 people found the following review helpful:
Good SpeedIF, January 17, 2008
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Related reviews: SpeedIF
I don't like formalised rating systems. How many stars do you give a fun SpeedIF game? Do you compare it to other SpeedIF, or do you compare it to all other interactive fiction? Neither seems a very desirable choice, and that leaves me in an unsolvable dilemma.

Anyway, that's why I don't give rating without writing a corresponding review. Forget about the number of stars: A Day for Fresh Sushi is a very short and ridiculously easy game, but it has a nice atmosphere, more polish and backstory than you may expect from SpeedIF, and an NPC that I would love to see in a longer and more sustained game.

rendition, by nespresso

10 of 15 people found the following review helpful:
Ineffective Politcial Commentary, January 17, 2008
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Related reviews: politics, short
Rendition is nominally a portrait of Abdul, failed suicide terrorist taken captive by a Western army. However, it is impossible to actually get to know Abdul as a person, since the two of you don't speak the same language and the only way of interacting with him is through violence. This, of course, is exactly what the work is all about.

Although it is hard not to sympathise with the political message behind Rendition, the work suffers somewhat from being too obvious. After the first few moves, the player will have formed a pretty clear idea of what the piece is about and what limits to her own actions are, and there is little left to actually shock the player or make her think about political issues.

I think the piece will be more powerful if it is incorporated into a larger work that poses as a game. It could be the epilogue to a thrilling, puzzle-based chase after Abdul which allows us to understand why both Abdul and the protagonist think their causes are good and righteous; then, the sheer pointlessness of the interrogation and the impossibility of communication might have more shock value. My advice to the author is to think about extending Rendition along those lines.

Suveh Nux, by David Fisher

6 of 10 people found the following review helpful:
Solid, Fun, Polished, though maybe too Easy, January 5, 2008
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Related reviews: puzzle, short, linguistic
Suveh Nux is not an ambitious game. Backstory and characterisation are minimal; it is quite short; and all of it takes place in a single, almost bare, room. In this room, the player has to solve a number of puzzles, all of which are based on a linguistic magic system. Figuring out this system is not too hard, though what you can do with it is sometimes less obvious. (I used the hints at one point, though I suppose I might have managed without if I had spent more time on the problem.)

Suveh Nux has a lot going for it. The implementation is impeccable and very polished, making the game a joy to play. The central puzzle is enjoyable, and the progressively harder tasks you are supposed to get done with the magic system are well thought-out. Therefore, I can readily recommend this game.

On the negative side, I can only say that the central puzzle is too easy: I would really have liked to see some more complex grammatical puzzles. Maybe an idea for an extended version?

This gives the game 4 out of 5 stars on an "unambitious IF" scale, which I translate to 3 out of 5 on the scale of all interactive fiction.

Zork I, by Marc Blank and Dave Lebling

12 of 23 people found the following review helpful:
Sic Transit..., January 4, 2008
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Related reviews: infocom
Some people here give Zork four or even five stars. These must be people who have played Zork many, many years ago, when players' expectations were lower than they are today--because, to be honest, playing Zork today is not a four or five star experience.

The depth of implementation of this game is just horrific: it doesn't know half of the nouns it uses in the room description, and 80% of the objects it does know have no description. Sometimes, it doesn't even seem to know the objects it has allowed me to discover by taking special actions. In the beginning of the game, you can find a grating beneath a pile of leaves; but when you try to examine it, the game tells you that it knows of no 'gratin'. (Maybe that was I was asking you about a fence-like metal structure, not a French culinary invention, in the first place?) Also, you can find a trap door beneath a rug, but when you try to open it, the game tells you that you see no trap door here. Look, you just described it to me! (You can open the trap door by first removing the rug; but the appropriate error message would be something like "the rug is still on it".)

The prose is nothing to write home about either. You are walking around through rooms with names like "north-south passage", and descriptions which are hardly more interesting. There are MANY rooms, but I would rather have had a couple of interesting ones than dozens that are strung together in some non-obvious way.

If there is a story in this game, I have no found it. You start outside a white house, but are given no clue as to who you are or what you are doing here. You appear to get points for collecting treasure, but even so it would have been good to know why I am collecting treasure and what lured me to the white house in the first place.

But if there is no story, there IS an irritating carry limit; there is random death whenever you walk into a dark place; and there is a maze of the most tiresome kind. (At least you get to know where the "twisty little passages" come from.)

Is that were the pain ends? Not at all--so much is irritating about this game that you could go on for quite some time. What about the fact that you cannot abbreviate "examine" to "x"? Or the fact that the descriptions in this game seem to have been written with the express intention no to help the player? If you try to open the door to the white house, you get the message "This door cannot be opened." Well-why on earth not? Has it been boarded? Glued to the frame? Tell me more! If you try to hit the door, you will find that the game asks you to specify something to hit the door with. Supplying the commonsensical answer that you wish to hit it with yourself results in the game telling you that suicide is not the answer. Apparently, then, the player character is made of glass.

But this is my favourite proof that Infocom didn't do any serious beta testing:

> enter river
You hit your head against the river as you attempt this feat.


I started up Zork about 5 or 6 times, but I've never managed to play it for longer than 15 minutes; it is just too irritating. This game must have aged very badly, given that people thought it was good when it came out. I cannot recommend it to anyone who is not filled with nostalgia at the very mention of the word "Infocom".

Zork gets 2 stars for basic technical competence.

Conan Kill Everything, by Ian Haberkorn

4 of 8 people found the following review helpful:
Everything? Yes, everything!, January 3, 2008
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Related reviews: short, joke, parody
It is a good thing that Robert E. Howard is not around to see what happened to his barbarian, Conan. Though his original stories are by no means great literature, neither are they the violent, mindless trash that later generations have associated with Conan the Barbarian.

Conan Kill Everything takes that later tradition to its logical extreme. Conan has found the evil wizard, and in order to exact his revenge, he kills everything. Absolutely everything.

In order to kill everything, Conan must solve a couple of very standard puzzles. There are some humorous elements, including the speeches of the wizard and the final move which you need to make to win the game; but in the end, the game is totally forgettable. The jokes are not brilliant; the puzzles are not themselves interesting; and it parodies something that is already so far beyond the limits of good taste and serious intention that it does not allow for parody.

Since you can play the entire game in 15 minutes, you still might want to give it a try.

9:05, by Adam Cadre

5 of 10 people found the following review helpful:
Another Day in the Life, January 2, 2008
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Related reviews: short, joke
You wake up in bed, ready to go to work. Yes, just an another day in the life... but this very short game has an interesting twist at the end. Replaying is a must.

I recommend this piece, mainly because it's going to take less than 9 minutes and 5 second of your time to enjoy it. I give it only 3 stars out of 5: even a funny joke just doesn't ascend to the same heights as a great story.

Attack of the Yeti Robot Zombies, by Øyvind Thorsby

9 of 11 people found the following review helpful:
Snack a Zombie, January 2, 2008
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Related reviews: win on the first attempt, short, horror, snack
I have seen people complain that yeti robot zombies cannot exist, because a robot cannot be a zombie. These people were surely joking, since nobody could have missed the over-the-top action movie and shooter game cliche's that pervade Attack of the Yeti Robot Zombies. This is a game that does not take itself seriously. The highly secret base of the evil boss turns out to be a huge skycraper in the middle of a big city, adorned with inverted neon crosses and a statue of a yeti robot zombie.

Attack of the Yeti Robot Zombies is a 'win on the first attempt' game: you are asked not to save/restore, but to try to finish the game on the first attempt. Since (a) the game is quite short, and (b) the game is not too difficult, this doesn't pose any real problems, and it adds an interesting sense of danger. But save and restore are not disabled, so if you are a real wimp, you can use them.

So what do you do, as player? Well, you walk along the linear path set out for you, getting rid of zombies and cultists as well as you can, and finally reach the end. You will probably be tempted to restart at that point and try to find better solutions, because the game is both funny and short.

This is not a 'good' game. There is no storyline to speak of; there is no depth; no character interaction; nothing that makes it stand out. Attack of the Yeti Robot Zombies is an enjoyable snack, and the 'win on the first attempt' clause is a great idea for a game like this. Play it for the quick fun it will give you.

The Reliques of Tolti-Aph, by Graham Nelson

15 of 17 people found the following review helpful:
Charming Unfairness, January 2, 2008
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Related reviews: dungeon crawl, random death, unfair
The Reliques of Tolti-Aph has been given very negative reviews. Reviewers almost invariably tell us that it is a game with unfair puzzles, too much random death and even--gasp--a huge maze; and therefore, frustrating and not fun. Although I would hesitate to call The Reliques of Tolti-Aph a good game, I believe it is charming and fun, but to enjoy it, you need to be in the right mindset.

What mindset is that? The same mindset which you need to appreciate the first edition Dungeon & Dragons scenario's. These scenario's are often insanely difficult and grossly unfair, so your character is almost certain to die. But, hey, rolling up a new character is a matter of 60 seconds, and with your new-found knowledge that behind the second door on the left is a monster that deals 8d10 damage as soon as you enter its domain, you might actually have a chance of finding the fabled gem! And who knows, perhaps you'll manage find out what that magical staff does without losing more than 4 ability points?

This game is unfair. You will die random deaths. So sit back and relax: rolling a new character (so to speak) is not just allowed, it is expected. Enjoy the ride! You will not survive your first play-through of The Reliques of Tolti-Aph. You will not survive the second or the third or even the tenth. But getting further each time is fun; the puzzles actually have solutions (and you can always peek behind the GMs screen, that is, consult a walkthrough); the locations are well-thought out and well-described; and the maze is very cool indeed.

The only places where I feel the GM (that is, Graham Nelson) went beyond the bounds of fair play is with the stone you absentmindedly picked up and the two spells you learn from the gods. Those should have been described in a more explicit manner. The GM shouldn't write on my character sheet when I'm not looking!

Lock & Key, by Adam Cadre

10 of 12 people found the following review helpful:
Innovative & Flawed, January 1, 2008
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Related reviews: puzzle, innovative, brute-force
If you are interested in designing Interactive Fiction, Lock & Key is a game you should play: the role of the player character in this game is so different from that in every other piece that it is well worth exploring. Unfortunately, this exploration is made less fun because the central puzzle is frustratingly obscure and you can only interact wiht it through a tiresome interface.

In Lock & Key, you play a dungeon designer. You will be spending most of your time placing traps in a 16-room dungeon. Once you are satisfied with your efforts, the dungeon will be built and you can sit back and watch while Boldo the Hero attempts to escape from his cell. If he does--well, you'd better try again.

This idea is original and fun. Instead of being a static environment for you to explore, the game world becomes yours to design and someone else's to explore. Watching Boldo walk through the traps you have laid out in advance is a real treat, especially with all the humorous commentary that the different characters give.

Of course, it becomes less fun when you are reading the same description for the tenth time--and you will read them more than that, because solving the puzzle of optimal dungeon design is a frustratingly slow process based entirely on trial & error and the discover of often very non-obvious chains of causation. Bring whatever mental powers you have to the task: solving the puzzle will still be 80% brute force and luck, as traps that seemed to do nothing turn out to be essential to the final result.

If there were an easy mechanism to tweak one setting of your dungeon and replay the corresponding part of Boldo's journey, this would be a forgivable problem; but since every redesign is followed by at least fifteen intervening turns of background story, this is not the case. This makes solving the puzzle a slow and boring process, and though there is nothing wrong with some brute-forcing as such, slow and boring brute-forcing is not to be recommended.

Should you play this game? Certainly. The writing and the innovative design make it well worth your time. But unless you are a hardcore puzzle addict, you might want to save yourself some frustration and grab a solution once you've seen your first ten designs come to nought.

All Things Devours, by half sick of shadows

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful:
Intricate Logical Puzzle, December 31, 2007
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Related reviews: puzzle, time travel, logic
This game is exactly one puzzle--but what a puzzle. If you like your puzzles logical, requiring in principle no more than strict deduction from a complex set of premisses, then you will love this game. Once you've found out how the game world works, there is nothing arbitrary anymore; there are no intuitive leaps, no bizarre associations; you just need to think carefully. The effect is a little like a chess puzzle, where'll you try out some moves, notice what goes wrong, think deep and hard, and finally arrive at the solution.

I highly recommend it.

A Little Like Rogue, by ifnyou

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful:
Dungeoneering without Tactics, December 31, 2007
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Related reviews: dungeon crawl, rogue-like
Although my roleplaying sensibilities do not in general lead me to dungeon crawl games like Dungeons & Dragons, I nevertheless have an admiration for the third edition of that game. It sets out to deliver a strategical and tactical gaming experience, and it succeeds. Creating the most combat-effective character is a hugely complicated, very intricate and fun puzzle. Fighting difficult battles is equally enjoyable, and you will often need guts, quick thinking and a prepared strategy to win.

A Little Like Rogue, on the other hand, is a dungeon crawl with no tactical depth at all. You walk around, encounter random monsters and kill them - or are killed by them. You find weapons and armour, but your inventory will always contain one that is simply the best. The most difficult decision is when to drink your healing potions.

A dungeon crawl without tactical depth is boring. Mercifully, A Little Like Rogue is quite short. I do hope the author will give us a more interesting experience next time. (A few words of advice for all authors interested in making a dungeon crawl. You need moments where the player must weigh options that give different benefits. It is uninteresting to choose between a weak dagger and a strong axe. It is interesting to choose between a weak dagger and a strong axe that is so heavy that you can't retreat as long as you carry it around.)


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