The 26th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition

by Herr M. (2020-10-02)

You are watching a screen. It is showing some lines of text. The text is talking about the 26th Interactive Fiction Competition. There are reviewers here. Exits are to the competition’s website and the Interactive Fiction Community Forum. A sign reads: Last updated on 15th of October 2020

Welcome to our collection of general thoughts, comments and reviews about 2020‘s celebration of text-drive games. I will try to cover as many candidates as possible, but with the plethora of games there seems to be quite a task ahead of me. Many thanks to all those creative people out there, offering such a wild bunch of ideas and experiences!

As usual I am gladly taking request for feedback, transcripts and/or reviews. Just drop me a mail at: Hr(dot)M(a)gmx(dot)net. Alternatively you may contact me in The Spam Club.

Games We played

Congee - by Becci - Hypertext

Played by Herr M.

You are lying sick in bed at night and really crave for something to eat!
+ writing sounds authentic, not overly flowery, fitting to the scenario
+ focused story, just the right length
+ "list of the top 10 things that made the UK a funny place" -> made me laugh more than it should ;)
+ reads like a really personal story, like someone writing about an actual experience
- fake choices, forcing you to pick the “right” one
- short non interactive passages of text, followed by an obvious "continue" link feels choppy
- tells me who and what I am, which makes me feel disconnected from the main character
=Nice vingette about friendship and being far away from home.

Seasonal Apocalypse Disorder - by Zan and Xavid - Parser

Played by Herr M.

Full review of the game

In summary this is a promising game with lots of potential but the overall impression is that it lacks a final polish. If you are into time travelling stories you could definitely do worse because it is far from being a bad game: Its main selling point is done excellently, it is just a shame that the actual “meat” is a bit lightweight.

The Impossible Bottle – by Linus Åkesson – Parser

Played by Mr Creosote

Has a full review as well!

Six-year old girl caught in the middle of the preparations to entertain some guests… and her stressed parents seem in dire need of some support.
+ consistently written from the protagonist's perspective
+ puzzles follow a stringently logical and fairly original gimmick
+ learning curve concerning said gimmick follows a good slope
+ some really hard puzzles towards the end without turning player-unfriendly
+ context-sensitive hint system…
- …which sometimes believes the player to be working on a different puzzle's solution
- the girl's unquestioning and limitless dedication towards her parents' wishes and goals sounds too good to be true
- unnecessary twist at the very end introducing forced, awkward topicality
= Delightful!

The Eleusinian Miseries – by Mike Russo – Parser

Played by Herr M.

Wodehouse goes to Athens: a religious ceremony gets out of hand
+ Good humour packed in well done writing
+ Ancient greece is a underused setting, so this feels kind of fresh; even comes with a bit of a history lesson
+ Very lively and distinguishable characters which are even helpful at times
+ Lots of variety: good old dungeon crawl, a social part, some puzzling and a chariot race lead up to a chaotically grand finale
+ Background characters act on their own so the game feels a bit more lively
+ Lots of amusing things to do which have nothing to do with the main plot
- Parser is a bit picky at times (does not accept "search for branches" only "search for branch")
- Some of the interludes feel a bit long, i.e. several pages of text until you get back to the action
- Mentioning some of the more important items right away while keeping other things hidden in plain sight
= Really solid debut that plays like a mix of Asterix, Monty Python and Terry Pratchett

Terror in the Immortal's Atelier – by Gevelle Formicore – Hypertext

Played by Herr M.

KABOOM - you just entered the Autarch's Chamber in order to open the Ilfarne holding the Knot
+ You can get eaten by a whole bunch of fantastic creatures
+ Reading twisted fairy tales is always fun
- Gets a bit carried away with the pseudo-exotic names
- You are given next to no information on what to actually do
- Seems to consist of only one inscrutable puzzle
= A mix five alchemical ingredients game with a bit of flavour text

Thanks to a clue I finally solved it! Once you know how to do so it is a rather clever idea and if you do it right it can make for a unique experience. I do not want to spoil it too much but since the actual solution is rather obscure and might take some extreme thinking outside the box I will just mention that the game cannot be solved on its own.

As fascinating as this elaborate puzzle might be it is certainly risky too: Just keep in mind that there are after all games that are just a puzzle or two with no deeper thought put into them. The good news is: This one is not one of them, on the contrary it is certainly worth your while once you know how to pull it off.

The Arkhill Darkness – by Jason Barrett – Hypertext

Played by Herr M.

Can you stop the Darkness from falling upon Arkhill?
+ Captures the spirit of the good old gamebooks just well enough to keep you interested
+ Bit short but focused, does not overstay its welcome and tells a nicely tight story
+ Some of the monsters are quite creatvive and fun (multiheaded horse thingy, sabretooth gorilla)
+ The more important battles are quite involved, offer several options and come with a bit of variery…
- …but quick time events in a browser are a bad idea nevertheless: Even if you are fast enough it does not mean that your browser is so too.
- As short as the game is it still features a bit of grinding
- The rpg aspects stay somewhat limited: no stats, not that much equipment you are basically an Adventurer
- Characters are simply called by their profession, there is The Tavern, The Adventurers Guild, The Market
- The writing could be a bit more involving: Most of the text contains simple statements like "He is doing this" or "He tells you that"
= A hyperlink adventure in which you are the hero!

Sheep Crossing – by Andrew Geng – Parser

Played by Herr M.

Your grandma wants you to bring her some cabbage, a sheep and a bear. But you will have to cross a river first.
+ Solid implemantion, no bugs and the parser is quite responsive
+ You can try to fail your task in several amusing ways
- Basically it is just the well known Wolf, Sheep and Cabbage conundrum
- The one extra step that it takes made me hope that there is more to it, sadly the game plays it straight afterwards
= Too short, really makes me wish the author had expanded on the idea because what is there shows quite some promise!

Elsegar I - Arrival – by silicon14 – Parser

Played by Herr M.

You just woke up in a strange new world
+ Puzzles are logical and seem quite organically placed in the game's world
+ You can pull off some non-essential and even funny stuff
+/- Might just make you feel terribly nostalgic (tough for the wrong reasons: see below)
- Weak parser, cannot even look at things that are mentioned in descriptions!
- Running along empty corridors
- Maze with no way to tell where you are except for getting out some paper
- Rather basic story and somewhat short: stops when you might have expected it to start
= Reminded me off my early attempts at interactive fiction. Up to making this a first part of a longer series. ;)

For a Place by the Putrid Sea – by Arno von Borries – Parser

Played by Herr M.

How far are you willing to go in order to get a new appartment?
- Portagonist comes across as either extremely cold blooded or weak willed which makes her unsympathetic
+ Ocassionally you can break the circle and end the game prematurely, so at least it has multiple endings
- Tastelesss handling of a suicide: "Hey, why don't you get rid of this corpse?" "OK, I need a new appartment anyway. And it isn't like there is anything else I could do…"
- Police only answers your call if you name your health insurance number and of course takes your money nevertheless
- Which ultimately made me give up on the game because I got stuck when I was supposed to make that one emergency call I was allowed to do but had wasted my money already
- Unorganic puzzle flow: How do you get an appartment? You get rid of its tennants. How? Convince them to go fight for the right cause in China! How do you geht them there? Do some random diving in the bay.
- Picky parser: Sometimes does no even allow you to do things you are ordered to do the way they are written, you will have to guess a new phrase first
+ The setting is really nice: Japan is a bit underused and the descriptions create quite some atmosphere
+ Drops just the right amount of Japanese phrases and words in order to make it feel exotic yet still keep things intelligible
+ As unlogical as their setup might be, the individual puzzles are actually done rater well
+ Hints at the protagonist's mysterious past sound nice…
- but they are ever so subtle that mostly you are just wondering what your motivation should be?
= Really has me torn: There was just enough great stuff to make me really interested and invested but also just enough annoying things to finally turn me off

Fight Forever – by Pako – Hypertext

Played by Herr M.

The name says it all
+ Plethora of options concerning your training which seem to actually make a difference
+ Several different stats that seem influence your success…
- which is kind of hard to tell since you get next to no information why you win or lose a fight…
+ yet it is still fun to watch those numbers grow into arbitrary heights
+ It does have a certain kind of twisted humour…
- But stoops at a very low level at times: “You just got an STD, you horny creep. Your strength level has been decreased.” or “Would you like to do the horizontal bop with Busting Beaver?”
- You fight, you lose. You fight, you win. You fight, you lose… etc. Even with all those options it gets really monotonous after a while
- Some of the actions can be repeated at will between the fights -> possible to grind your way to the top
- “Breeding” got me stuck with only being able to go surfing or making a booty call
? Age: 17.384615384615383 <- should not that change noticeably after the 8th decimal place?
= Fighting manager sim with a juvenile touch

Stoned Ape Hypothesis – by James Heaton – Hypertext

Played by Herr M.

How did humans get so smart after all?
+ Interesting twist: You dumb… but you get smarter and so do the description of your surroundings and actions.
+ Curious interpretation of an even more curious theory about how homo sapiens became intelligent (always nice to learn something new)
+ Liked the story about stone agers, learning how to use tools and how a fur vest will gain you lots of admirer
+ Help system is actually helpful
+/- Couple of mini games: Tic Tac Toe and Mancala
- Bit short and a tad bit too easy
= Charming little game that might just make you smile

Tavern Crawler – by Josh Labelle – Hypertext

Played by Herr M.

Full review of the game

“You all meet in a tavern…” is an opening as old as role-playing games themselves. Even after decades of evolution in playing styles, settings and even formats, Ye Good Olde Inn still is the number one meeting place and quest hub. If you think about it more closely it actually makes sense: Lots of different folks coming together, being in a talkative mood either because they are naturally chatty or because they have been quaffing just one ale too much. An ideal atmosphere for sharing information and lending a helping hand. Where else can you speak so openly about all of your troubles to total strangers? Where else are you going to make hasty promises based on alcohol fuelled solidarity and overconfidence? Some might say it is a rather cheap hook, some might wish for a more personal character motivation and some might want to draw more attention to their elaborate backgrounds. Others might just create an excellent game about it, a game like Tavern Crawler.

#VanLife – by Victoria – Hypertext

Played by Herr M.

Buy a van, put a solar panel on it, be energy-self-sufficient!
+ Really interesting concept for a simulation
+ Might teach you a thing or two about wasting (or saving) energy
+ Shows how hard it can be to balance life style with resources
+/- Asks you to make some calculations of your own
- Physics are wrong: confuses power (Watt) with energy (Joule) and the numbers are a bit off (over 100A for running an electric kettle?)
- Online only
= Good idea but the actual implementation still needs a bit of work

The Cave – by Neil Aitken – Hypertext

Played by Herr M.

Run around a cave in almost total darkness
+ Nice writing, manages to create a lot of atmosphere with just the right amount of words
+ Keeps track with your actions and shows a bit of summary in form of stats in the end
+ Randomised layout and different results to different approaches so there is a bit of replayability
+ It seems like you can neither get stuck nor fail at your escape (though I might not have tried hard enough)
- While keeping things mysterious might make them more interesting this one keeps it a bit too vague: I did not even notice I was in a fantasy world until I could cast spells
- The random layout comes at the cost of coherency, most rooms play out for themselves
= Great intermezzo between longer games, one of the better shortish games

A Calling of Dogs – by Arabella Collins, Grey Havens – Hypertext

Played by Herr M.

You have been kidnapped and trapped in a cellar.
+ Offers different approaches to get out of this dilemma
+ No overlong exposition but actually quite interesting flashbacks (who are probably even more interesting than the actual action)
- Characters are one-dimensional and not really believable
- Writing sounds a bit awkward at times: "His exhale whistles out of his mouth, like he's trying to calm himself down.”
- Tells me how I feel, does not let me decide anything for myself
- Game broke when an item to look at showed up twice and I re-clicked it
= Far too serious topic handled in a cliched and Hollywoodesque way

Turbo Chest Hair Massacre - by Joey Acrimonious - Parser

Played by Herr M.

This one cast you in the role of a young woman setting out on a date. But oh my god! What is that on your chest? Hair! Wow, what kind of downer is that. Strange setup aside it is actually played for great humouros effect and you get several options to attempt to solve this particular problem. Sadly that is almost it: Getting rid of your chest hair can be done in a matter of minutes and the game even outright hands you the device for doing so. Afterwards you get just one more puzzle which is a bit more confusing but can also be solved quite easily. At least I solved it by just doing some random things and it was gone.

So not much there on the puzzle front, but I have to say that I liked the very detailed apartment and the nicely cool futuristic setting. Described from two very different perspectives nevertheless (nice touch there!). Too bad that your actions remain very limited nevertheless. Well, at least you can dance. But the interaction with non-plot-essential items stays on a superficial level at best. That is until you want to go through each and every item of clothing in your closet. Or maybe I have missed something, but I had solved this so fast that I did not really get to search each and every nook and cranny.

Be prepared for some strong sexual overtones and some innuendo about a very nasty gynoid fan (as in cooling device).

Overall: Weird story featuring some interesting ideas but it is just too bad that the actual game is rather short and simple.

Stand Up / Stay Silent – by Y Ceffyl Gwyn – Hypertext

Played by Herr M.

This one made me realise what annoys me most of the time, when playing one of the Choice-based games: Most of them boil down to a binary selection. What makes it especially glaring in this particular game’s case is that it is about political problems. If you really think about it most problems do not have a black and white solution, there is no yes and no. As soon as you start categorizing this way people will come up with extreme solutions because as soon as things get simple they simplify problems. And as soon as you simplify things really get ugly. Do not agree with me? Hey, I just stood up to what I belief in. ;)

PS: Kind of ironic to have a non-binary gendered character in a binary-choice game. Liked them nevertheless, even if they were a bit superspecial.

Sage Sanctum Scramble – by Arthur DiBianca – Parser

Played by Herr M.

What is there to say about a game that kept me glued to the screen almost a whole weekend?

It is a game full of word puzzles. So you will see quite a lot of ciphers, crosswords, anagrams, riddles and word chains. Naturally they vary quite strongly in their difficulty but I would say most of the time the game remains really fair, at times it even drops a hint or two if things might get too tough.

What I really liked is that the game offers quantity as well as quality. There is next to no repetition (except for some variations on the more prominent puzzles) and none of them feels like a side-though. No on the contrary: Coming up with all those brain teasers must have taken quite a while. As might solving all of them, a task I have not quite finished yet (about 5 out of 60 remain).

There is a story framing all the puzzling but while this might be a nice touch the main draw most certainly lies in coming up with yet another clever solution to one of those brain twisters. Though come to think of it: Somehow there is quite a difference between simply solving a puzzle and having someone standing nearby motivating you to keep in puzzling and congratulating you on your success. And most of the characters you meet (and set you a task) are lively and distinct enough to make them likeable. Well, the magic is in the detail.

Overall: Great big puzzling gem offering a plethora of mental exercise.

Equal-librium – by Ima – Hypertext

Played by Herr M.

And another one featuring binary choices about topical themes: This one is about wasting resources, exploiting people and corporate greed. I admire the passion put into games like these and I am always open about spending some thoughts on more difficult topics. Yet most of those social critiques do not offer particularly good gameplay. Reading some text and choosing between two options one of which is obviously in line with the game‘s ideology and one which mocks it is neither overly subtle nor that convincing.

Instead of boiling your problems down to whether you want to complain about coffee spilled on your shirt or not it would be more interesting to offer the player some real choices. Like whom do you want to call to fix your problems? How do you wish to take responsibility for your actions? Or simply let us share some thought about how we think about the topics of our own and do not tell us how to think and feel about something.

Plus this one here has a couple of bugs too: A missing link replaced by a „I can't run the macro 'text-type' because it doesn't exist.“ and a blinking „Call Vincent“ dead link that broke the game for me.

Overall: I guess its shortness saves it from becoming too preachy and well it made me think about the topic, so to some degree it is successful.

Captain Graybeard's Plunder – by Julian Mortimer Smith – Hypertext

Played by Herr M.

Tells and re-tells a story about a battle between two ships. The first version sets up the plot and sounds like a typical pirate story. But along comes the second part were things get creative and fun. The protagonist starts using his imagination and you get to decide from which parts of famous literature you want him to be inspired. This works to great effect because for one the chosen passages are from classics after all, so they show some quality writing in nicely lettered fonts, and to some degree you get the feeling that you make a couple of decision. Sadly the actual outcome is just a summary of your choices but it is fun to see how the tables are turned nevertheless.

Interesting idea with a solid implementation. If you are either into pirate stories, classical literature or mad-libs you should definitely take a loot at this plunder.

The Turnip – by Joseph Pentangelo – Hypertext

Played by Herr M.

Let us start with the bad news: This one is not really interactive. You follow a narrow path with a couple of optional descriptions and the links describing your actions are just a “continue” wrapped in fancier wording.

The good news is that the short story within is perfectly weird and entertaining. I especially liked the subtlety of the writing. Some things seem a bit off and strange, but once you reach the end they become clear enough to make for a twist, which might not be that super surprising but it is a nice touch.

So what you get here is a wonderfully strange short story about a turnip.

Amazing Quest – by Nick Montfort – C64

Played by Herr M.

You have to lead a fleet of ships home after a great battle, in what seems to be either some kind of fantasy (sacrifice to the gods) or science fiction (shuttles, moons and planet) setting. Sounded like an interesting concept but the actual game goes like this:

You find a text game.
Speak plainly-Y/n? n
Well-you see an amazing sky.

You detect a huge pattern.
Seek out help-Y/n? Y
Yes! You win bread.

Answer another dozen or so of similar yes or no questions and you will reach an ending. I guess there has to be a good ending, one which takes understanding the logic of the game, of when to say yes and when no, but honestly: Things remain far too simple to really get me interested in finding it. Some bit of extra flavour text, some status information (like how far away from home you are or how many ships do you have?) or maybe some feedback from the crew (morale) would have helped big time. As it is this might be fitting for a home-made C64 game and I guess playing it on a real retro machine might give it that bit of extra flair it needs, but overall I could not get into it.

Academic Pursuits (As Opposed To Regular Pursuits) – by ruqiyah – Parser

Played by Herr M.

It is really hard to talk about this particular game without spoiling too much. My recommendation would be to give it a try for yourself before reading on. The game does not take overly long and is certainly worth at least one playthrough. Last warning: Slight spoilers ahead, though I will try to keep them as subtle as possible.

What seems to be about unpacking random stuff in a new office takes a rather strange turn, which you might see coming, when you read between the lines. I did so, that is I suspected that there was something amiss, and as soon as I tried looking into the mirror I knew the big twist. Although I was convinced that I was imagining things until I read the final summary.

One thing that annoyed me more than it should was how shallow the actual gameplay is. Basically you pick up items and put them somewhere else or into the trash bin. Yes, you can look and think about the items and try to optimize your placement, so you keep as many items as possible. And depending on your choices the protagonist sees things differently in the end, so there might be an optimal configuration for your stuff which opens up some secret ending?

Though simply throwing away all of your stuff and taking that one forced action that triggers the ending leads more or less to the same result as carefully thinking about placing each and every item. The big twist will always be the same, the main difference being how smart/dumb you feel for seeing it coming or not.

And personally the twist was a bit too much for my liking. My main problem with it was that I always find it kind of hard playing a protagonist with minimal info and getting the rug pulled out from under my feet. Why keep this a secret? Has the protagonist some kind of identity problem that she does not know about this? Obviously no, since she hints at the truth several times. So who is she trying to fool? Argh, I guess I am overthinking this! OK, I admit that I also hate that kind of person and stories about them, so I might not be overly impartial here.

PS: Some minor bugs. E.g. closing curtains that are not hanged up.

Move On – by Serhii Mozhaiskyi – Hypertext

Played by Herr M.

The briefcase lands before your feet. "You have ten minutes at most!"

This short story features excellent writing which creates an immediate sense of urgency and puts you right into the action… which makes you wonder why your only (re)action is to Move on? Do this a couple of times and you will crash into several different obstacles, maybe right at the beginning, maybe later. Who can tell the difference, seems to be totally random? That is until you realize that there is more to it and the actual solution might be more clever than you thought.

Engaging short story with a unique idea. Minor gripe: Online play only!

Lovely Assistant: Magical Girl – by Bitter Karella – Parser

Played by Herr M.

You are the assistant of the great magician Mugwort who gets kidnapped right in front of your eyes by The Skeptical Rationalist. The latter claims that there is no such thing as magic. Only with logic and rational thinking you will be able to free your boss. Well, he does not really live up to his name, this rationalist, because his puzzles and clues are neither overly logical nor rational. Or how would you justify using a giant laser to write messages on the moon with logic?

It is OK though because this one is a humorous game after all and the absurdity and irony make it all the better. The weirdness of the scenario made me laugh out loudly several times. Other times though it was a bit too much and seemed rather awkward. Overall it kept me motivated enough to find out how absurd it would get in the end.

Sadly the puzzles are rather average: Get a key to open a door, gather some ingredients to cook something, tie a rope to get somewhere and so on. And most of the time it felt more like an obvious barrier to keep me from reaching certain parts of the game than growing naturally from the plot. You could argue that this might suit the story about the kidnapper setting up a couple of puzzles to test you logic and prove yourself worthy but it feels artificial nevertheless.

While the puzzles difficulty per se seemed about right, there were several problems with the parser. It is overly picky at times on how to do something, which can get really annoying when you know the solution, got enough hints and clues, but have not found the right wording. Or when the parser even outright contradicts itself or (even worse) the solution. Just to give a couple of examples:

> put head in guillotine
That can’t contain things.

> push drill
It is fixed in place.

> put drill in guillotine
You manage to lug the drill of death over to the guillotine

You could pour the wine out now...if only you had a receptacle.

> pour wine into helmet
That’s not something you can pour.

This made me take a couple of peeks at the walkthrough after a while and I was quite disappointed when I actually had found the solution to something but had not worded my command right.

I could go on about how some of the descriptions felt a bit too lengthy, but it feels like I am unfairly bashing the game already. Because deep down it is quite a fun game with an interesting idea to it. The scenario feels fresh, I could not say that I played something similar so far (at least not this year) and the place it is set in feels lively with a bunch of memorable characters thrown in (Hyuk, Hyuk! Chuckles, how happy I was to “help” you with your gardening.)

Overall impression: Really a game I wish it would get a bit of polish. Fingers crossed for a post-comp release!