It's time for the annual text adventure competition again! This year (2013), I'm going to take a different approach: Instead of dishing out as many reviews as early as possible, I'm going to collect my initial thoughts only here on this page and then, after conclusion of the list, maybe write a couple of dedicated individual reviews. This should avoid the problem I had last year when some of the best games only appeared at the bottom of my playlist and so these games didn't receive the attention they should have anymore.
Notes to Authors
I'm happy to send you the transcripts of my playthroughs and discuss specifics about your game. You have to take the initiative of contacting me, though. If you rely on e-mail, please understand that I will not respond if you're using a Google mail address.
Ollie Ollie Oxen Free
Played & finished 2013-10-01: We're off to a very good start! Behind the incomprehensible title, a very tight and action-packed adventure awaits us. The game is set in a school on a military base. The base is under attack. Who is attacking and why? Mercifully unimportant. The thing is just that you and a couple of your pupils (elementary school age) are trapped in the partly destroyed building and it's your task to get everybody out safely.
Since the player's avatar (the teacher) is badly hurt himself, Ollie gameplay-wise basically comes down to using the different kids as tools. All you can do is lead them around and ask them to do things, like carrying objects and putting them to use. Unlike last years Escape from Summerland, the player never takes over the different roles directly, though. That is where persuasion comes into play: All interesting commands are written as orders to other characters and they might refuse.
Not just in those situations, the human nature of the 'objects' becomes relevant. For the most part, the game is excellently implemented, both with regards to a shitload of interestingly appropriate responses to even some weirder player input and issues as far as game state are concerned. Entering the girls' restroom with a boy? You're sure to get a custom reaction. You're asking one kid's opinion about another while the latter is there? This will trigger a reaction, too. Each of the kids manages to get its own discernable character and the glimpse into this microcosm is delightfully human.
In spite of the grim subject, the game's tone manages to sneak in quite a few laughs without ever feeling forced. Just one of my favourites:
You ask, “Tyrone, can I have a hug?”
Tyrone might be a badass in the making, but he's also eight. He gives you a big hug.
Ollie differs from the author's also well-received One Eye Open in one major respect: The player is always in control. Without him, nothing ever progresses. In the older game, the player was never really in the driver's seat: The plot would progress with or without him. The player could change it, but even if he did nothing, things would happen. So the plot drove the player rather than the other way around. As long as the player does not get anything done in Ollie, time will basically stand still. This makes for less replay value, but it's also certainly more engaging in the first run.
What I personally could have done without is the kitschy 'twist' ending. This was completely unnecessary. It's easily forgiven, though, given the entertainment experienced before. Thumbs up!
Trapped in Time
Played & finished 2013-10-04: This is a game book. Literally! The game comes as a PDF file and the accompanying README advises you to print it out in order to play. I didn't go that far, but it is true I had to take notes as I went along.
As one might expect, Trapped in Time throws the player into the classic time loop scenario where one situation repeats itself again and again until he finds a way to break the circle. This is an interesting design choice, because the format usually does not lend itself well to repeated visits to the same sections of the book. The issue being one of state: How does the game 'remember' whether a player has previously visited this section, how does the game know what he's carrying and so on? Things like this can and should influence paragraph and the player's options, though, because otherwise, things really turn into an unbreakable loop.
From the 1980s, like many people I guess, I'm most familiar with the Fighting Fantasy line of books. So I'll use a couple of examples from that line to illustrate the point.
Scorpion Swamp allowed the player relatively free movement back and forth between the locations. The book tried to handle this by including the infamous If you've been here before… lines. This is awkward, because it presents options to the player he shouldn't see yet and the lure to cheat becomes very strong. Also, many location descriptions did not really account for the fact that the player might be visiting for the second or third time. This technique was hardly ever used again.
Caverns of the Snow Witch was more straightforward with its options, but there was one point where the book flat out asked the player if he had drunk a certain potion earlier (i.e. it checked the player's state). This is extremely awkward, because it reveals information to the player he really should not have at this point, i.e. that the potion is important in the scene.
The finale of Deathtrap Dungeon has the player using various gems collected throughout the adventure. Of course, it's up to the player's honesty to only use those he actually has. This is not worse than the handling of the battles or basically anything else in such a book. So such state enforcement is alright within the limits of the format, but it also does not allow for particularly complex state interactions.
Finally, The Citadel of Chaos has one section where it tells the player to turn the numbered section of a combination lock if he knows it, i.e. the combination is the number of the section to turn to. This is probably the cleverest way of handling state information, because unlike in Snow Witch, there is no information leak within the game mechanic. However, this gameplay device cannot be used too often, because it really only works for number combinations.
Or so one might think. Trapped in Time takes this latter idea to the extreme. Every time the player learns something important or picks up a device for later use, he is instructed that to use this item/piece of information, he should – in the appropriate situation – just add X to the section number given in the text (X obviously being different for each device). This is quite clever and works reasonably well – allowing for the typical issues of not knowing exactly when something is supposed to work and when not (i.e., in the terms of the game mechanic, to what to add X).
However, in spite of being published in textual (book) form, Trapped in Time does feel like an advertisement for all those HTML-based choice systems out there. Why is that? Well, this is a game book which, as described, makes heavy use of state-dependent and conditional branching. And after going through this admittedly cleverly constructed plot using the nostalgia-inducing technique of turning pages, one can't help but admit that there might be machines out there which are better at keeping track of state and checking conditions than human beings. We call those things 'computers'. Though, as with every tool, the product which comes out is only as good as the talent and effort of the creator allows for – which is why Trapped in Time is without a doubt still several levels above 99% of all those games made in 'Twine' and all.
The Paper Bag Princess
Played & finished 2013-10-07: This is one of those very short games typical for the IF Comps of recent years. Apparantly, it is an adaption of a children's book which I wasn't aware of when I played it. Retroactively reading the Wikipedia page, the game seems to follow the original story very closely. The necessary actions comes fairly naturally, though. Apart from one case, that is, where the game is heavily prompting the player instead (tricking the dragon).
This leads me to believe that the game has been tested very well with regards to its straight solution. Of course, this is hardly the case as far as any other attempted interaction is concerned. Pity, because as small as it is, it could have been much more entertaining otherwise. The way it is, it's a one-joke oddity which lasts for about ten minutes. Admittedly, it's probably meant to be played by little children under supervision, though, so who am I to judge?
Played & finished 2013-10-09: It's hard to be mean about this game, because its author sounds quite enthusiastic about the genre in the in-game meta texts. However, Will, you just have to understand that designing & writing a game usually takes more than two sittings for a reason! It's just a complex undertaking.
The basic game mechanic could be interesting: As a recently deceased soul, you find yourself in an only partly discernable world which needs to be solidified by triggering memories about your former life. Technically, this boils down to collecting items and bringing them to the right places. Though the way this is implemented, it's not much of a game. You will never have more than one item/memory to unravel at the same time. Making matters worse, the items also double as a compass outright showing you where to go next. This discourages any willingness of the player to explore the world by herself.
Design weakness aside, the implementation outside the straight walkthrough makes the short development time painfully obvious. An envelope cannot be opened, a robe cannot be worn and a tree cannot be climbed. Not citing in-game reasons (which would be perfectly acceptable and could even make things more interesting), but because the author simply didn't account for such obvious actions.
The final nail in this game's coffin is the usage of the 'Player Experience Upgrade' engine modification. Folks, don't do this! Treating your players like idiots does not earn you points, it's annoying!
So, Mr. Author, please don't be discouraged. Your idea wasn't bad and you can code well enough. If you are as enthusiastic as it comes across, you just have to understand that what you delivered is still just the bare skeleton of a game which needs fleshing out and much (much!) tweaking before it can be truly fun.
The House at the End of Rosewood Street
Played & finished 2013-10-10: Let's get one thing out of the way first: There is a reason why most games, even these days, use compass directions for movement. It's not just a stupid convention to be overcome. It's so convenient, because compass directions are absolute directions: west is always west, north is always north. Most other directional schemes are relative. You can easily try this out by going from your living room to your bathroom. Wait, before you start: From where you are in the living room, is the bathroom right of you? Let's say it is. Now stand up and start walking… yes, take that corner… and that one… ah, there is the bathroom door. But wait… it's now on your left side? That is because 'left' and 'right' (being relative directions) change their meaning at every turn. Not so with compass directions: If your bathroom is east of your living room, this is true regardless how you have to go there.
The House at the End of Rosewood Street makes an attempt to use 'up', 'down', 'left' and 'right' (in relation to the street) as possible directions. It uses these directions as if they were absolute ones, though; either that, or the protagonist likes walking sideways and backwards in order to keep the 'left' and 'right' directions consistent. Way to confuse the player! Even worse, the game introduces shortcuts for these directions, and guess what the one for 'left' is… yes, it is indeed 'l'. Which, in 99.999999% of all games stands for 'look', i.e. it prints the room description – one of the most used commands in any game. So this is how my initial attempt to play this game looked (shortened):
(first opening the front door)
The front door swings open.
Right Side of the Street
Left Side of the Street
(first opening Maurice's door)
This is where I almost gave up, believing the game to be unplayably buggy. Please, folks, feel free to try different movement schemes, but don't mess with the most basic commands – or, if you really cannot resist, at least make this visible and don't hide it in some help text!
But I persisted and finally understood how this game works, so let's talk about this further experience now.
This is one of those games which really try to do something. The player finds herself in the role of some sort of errand boy for the whole neighbourhood, or so one might think at first. Of course, this is just the front for some surreal occurences which really mean something else.
The latter part could be interesting; after a couple of days, a new house with a new neighbour suddenly appears out of nowhere and of course, everybody claims this house has been there the whole time. Even before that, the large manor at the end of the street also (admitted by everyone) receives a new inhabitant: a mystery man with a magnetic personality. And then, after a week, the woman has disappeared again as suddenly as she had appeared and things suddenly wrap around and everything starts from scratch again.
Some passages are very well written and really get the sense of mystery across. On the whole, though, the world remains very static. Same for the player's activities: Every day consists of first doing a paper round. You actually have to walk up to every single house, knock on every single door and hand over each paper personally. Yes, every day. People's reactions to your visits never ever change. Every day, one of them will also ask you to do some other job for them, like fixing or retrieving something. This never amounts to anything apart from one case which represents the sole plot trigger of the game.
It is very hard to suggest improvements for this game. It probably already became clear that the player interaction consists of way too much routine work. Though there is a reason for this: Without these long scenes of samey tasks, the small changes would not nearly have the impact they need to be effective. Also, the task of delivering the papers is the the very plot moment which motivates the re-exploration of the whole street every day, which is essential to discover those small other tasks which, in the end, drive the plot. This does not change the fact that the endless trips to deliver all those papers again and again and again and again first become tiresome and then annoying very quickly.
Given the entertainment value per time unit, I honestly doubt that many people will even make it through to the ending. Even the decision to wrap the story around instead of just giving it a bad ending is questionable: Who would seriously want to go through all those eventless days again?
The House at the End of Rosewood Street is a game which does not really work as a game. Regardless of all the implementation issues. The concept inherently does not manage to make progressing through the game any fun. I could argue that the final payoff is not satisfying enough, because the plot remains too vague. I could list many more irritations about the parser reactions. All of this should probably be changed, but it still would not solve the main issue this game has. It's a pity, because as I said, in places, it is quite well written. It doesn't happen often, but here, it did: I can only put my finger on what I believe does not work, but I'm completely stumped as to what to do.
A Wind Blown from Paradise
Played & finished 2013-10-14:
No, you don't appear smart writing stuff like this. All this achieves is to make you look pretentious. Why? Because it doesn't mean anything. A Wind Blown from Paradise has got one interesting idea, and that is revisiting a fading memory again and again. So in a way, the usual way the genre works – finding out more and more each time you visit a place – is reversed.
If the player were given time to explore this memory each time, with the game giving appropriate responses about the degradation of the level of detail, it could have been pretty cool, because it would have enabled the player to experience what you're trying to get across. As was to be expected after reading this is an offshoot of a 'static fiction version of the story', the implementation is not up to it, though, meaning that absolutely nothing apart from the three commands meant to 'solve' the game are implemented. 'Interactive', if done right, means more than letting a player just trigger a scene. And the horribly convoluted language does not help, either. Nothing to see here, move on.
Robin & Orchid
Played & finished 2013-10-15: Robin is a girl working for her schools newspaper. Orchid, apparently, is a colleague of Robin, but she isn't in the game much. They are supposed to investigate… ghost sightings (?) in a church. Orchid, I guess, was the initiator of this attempt. Why this vague language? Because it's all left rather vague in the game. In spite of the game starting out with approximately a thousand words. How such a chatty introduction manages to get across so little relevant information is probably a bigger mystery than the existence or non-existence of those ghosts!
Anyway, the player, aka. Robin, sneaks around the church at night, Polaroid camera ready to take snapshots of anything which might hint at supernatural occurences. The map is of relatively extensive size for a competition game. So you explore it. Pick up a couple of objects. There's a cat running around. Some strange lights and some slime appear. Finally, there is even a ghostly figure floating around. And then, you find a secret passage which opens the way to a key object giving access to the one locked door in the game which solves everything. Game over. Huh? Why design this huge smoke screen if in the end, everything comes down to just opening two locked doors? This will probably always remain the authors' secret.
It could also hint at bigger initial plans which just couldn't be implemented in time. This is never a very good strategy, though, because the mismatch between scope and contents is quite apparent. Or it could be intentional, but then, I would question the soundness of this design decision. The presence of the assumed central game mechanic, taking snapshots of evidence, which is very well implemented with lots of custom parser responses, but turns out to be virtually unused with respects to the solution, hints at the former theory.
Emily Boegheim, one of the authors, was responsible for the delightful It two years ago. That game had even less of a 'central point' gameplay-wise, but it was still excellent. The difference was, though, that it was immediately apparent what the (small) scope would be. It balanced this out with excellent implementation of countless side actions and giving the characters believable human profiles. Robin and Orchid has the excellent implementation as well: It entertains in every situation, almost regardless how obscure the attempted actions of the player are.
However, its main weakness lies in the characters. We never learn much about Robin and much less about Orchid, let alone any of the other people involved. Later on, there are hints about some sort of rivalry between the two titular characters, but this is neither explored further, nor is it developed up to this point – it's just dropped into the plot at a random.
So Robin and Orchid is a curiosity: It's polished and there seems to be some sort of solid foundation, but it just never delivers. The central payoff which should be at the heart of things is missing. It is excellent craftsmanship, but it's not good art and therefore leaves me (and, I would assume, many people) cold.
The Wizard's Apprentice
Played & finished 2013-10-16: The Wizard's Apprentice is an old-school adventure set in a fairy-tale world. As the young apprentice, you're put to a test by your wizard-teacher. This covers the classics of the genre: First “escape from a locked room”, then some fetch quests (some character telling you “Get me A and I'll give you B”). Nothing really wrong with that per se.
Most of the game is solid enough, in fact. Sure, it would need some more synonyms for actions (to name just two examples framing the complete game: right at the beginning, kicking something works, but hitting it is rejected with the default response; the very last action requires pouring something, not putting it on the other object) here and there. You can even pick up a lake and, to make matters even more surreal, then walk around on its surface while it is sitting in your inventory. Also, there is a glaringly obvious state problem (not making an action mandatory the result of which is expected to exist in a later scene) which leads to an un-unravelable dead end. Seeing that this game had six beta testers, this all seems rather strange; what did these people test? Was there not enough time for the tests or for bugfixing after the tests? Didn't the author listen to the testers' advice?
Though, honestly, this is not the biggest issue this game has. It's all on a forgivable level for such a small game. The real problem is “that last lousy point”. The game even makes direct reference to this genre tradition. Whether it's a funny tradition or not, I don't even want to get into. It is established, however, that getting “that last lousy point” is optional in order to finish the game. It's a bonus meant for crazily dedicated players. That is why it is alright that achieving this point is usually next to impossible.
The Wizard's Apprentice, on the other hand, requires a similarly unprompted action to open up a convenient, but completely unhinted secret passage, as part of the main solution. There is no way around it; it's a mandatory action which is impossible to figure out. Not only is it impossible to figure out what to do and how to do it, there isn't even any prompting that there is something to do in the appropriate place with the appropriate object.
This sort of thing is not a technical implementation issue. It's an unforgivable design mistake.
The Cardew House
This is a haunted house game. A long time ago, some family tragedy occured here. Why the protagonist is trying to solve this old mystery? Doesn't matter.
The game is apparently untested and the implementation is paper-thin. The author programmed exactly the minimum set of commands necessary to finish the game. Not one more. So everything else shows the default behaviour of the Inform 7 engine. This leads to comical situations such as these (non-consecutive quotes):
You feel nothing unexpected.
The entrance hall
[...] There is a strong smell of damp hanging in the air. [...]
You smell nothing unexpected.
[...] There are some scratches on the surface.
You can't see any such thing.
>look in mirror
You find nothing of interest.
For a moment you see the image of little girl looking back at you. She looks sad and scared. Suddenly, she disappears and only your own reflection is there...
>sit on toilet
That's not something you can sit down on.
>get on toilet
That's not something you can enter.
That's not something you can open.
>lie on bed
That's not a verb I recognise.
>get on bed
That's not something you can enter.
These are just examples. This is supposed to be an atmospheric game, but it does not manage to get much atmosphere across. Sure, there are repetitive random messages about hearing something from some different direction, lights flickering on and off… this is a good start, but even if it has no bearing for the solution, you need to enable the player to follow up on them at least cursorily.
Of course, the same thing affects the actual puzzle solutions as well. As I don't believe I will spoil much for anyone, I'm just quoting some things anyway:
You find nothing of interest.
As you look more closely at the mattress, you notice that there is something hidden underneath it...
This one is also great:
Violence isn't the answer to this one.
Cutting that up would achieve little.
You slash the painting. [...]
Or what about this one? Priceless:
That's not something you can stand on.
>get on stool
That's not something you can enter.
You stand on the stool and pull yourself up.
The game is full of 'funny' situations like this, killing any engagement or immersion the player might have felt otherwise. It's therefore easy to dismiss it. But let's talk about some advice I can give.
First, to Andrew, the game's author: Familiarise yourself with the vocabulary of the system you're using. That means: Get a list of the commands understood by Inform (or, if you decide to switch, whatever other system). Print it out and put it on your desk. Then, for every action you require of the player, think about different ways to word them using this standard vocabulary. After that, go through every object you have in the game and think about which of these actions the player might try. You don't need to implement a custom response to EAT MOON (that's just weirdos like me who try this). Please do implement custom responses to the ones which might make sense, though (like SIT ON TOILET). It hardly matters whether you actually allow those actions to be carried out of not – just show the player you considered these options.
Second, try to get at least one tester to run through the game a couple of times. You can (and should!) ask strangers. There are websites and forums dedicated to such games. I believe everybody who asks for testers will get them (if it doesn't work, i.e. nobody volunteers: shame on the 'community'!). Ask your testers to play with the transcript function activated and just let them play. Afterwards, go through their transcripts, see what they tried, see what would make sense to implement as well.
Third, to those prospective testers: Sure, everybody has limited time. Maybe you'd rather test the game of some established author. Maybe you believe it will give you more prestige, then. Why don't you think about it from an efficiency point of view, though: If you test an experienced author's game, you will have to dig very deeply to find major issues and areas of improvement. You will have to follow up your test runs with long discussions about details. I know, because I have tested a good number of games myself before release.
This game, on the other hand, I have played less than an hour. The areas of improvement are obvious. Even just going through my transcripts and implementing some of the stuff I tried, this game could have been improved dramatically! The reason being that the foundation is solid enough: The barebone plot is alright (the adaptive diary is even kind of cool), the puzzle structure is sound and there are no major technical showstoppers. It's just that the game hasn't been developed to the end. It's basically incomplete. With very little effort from the testers' side, the author could have benefitted immensely and this could have become a decent enough game. Not one which would have won this competition, but a fun one which, I think, would have been much more satisfying with respects to the author's vision as well. One hour of someone's time for a quality improvement of probably 500% – not a bad quota, is it?
If, of course, the author would have rejected the testers' advice, they could also rest with a good conscience, knowing that it was not their fault. So, this goes to authors again: You have to let people help you.
Played 2013-10-18: I included this in my playlist, because unlike all the other “games” from the “web” category, this one came as a collection of plain HTML files which (looking at the first pages) did not include any embedded client-side code. Turns out I had put my hopes up too high: The “hyperlinked” first few pages are just the setup and there is absolutely no interaction in those, because everything always leads to the same point – there are three or so other options, but they don't do anything. Nothing happens until you finally select the one option the author intended you to. Which, in itself, is bad design, because if you don't allow the player some actual choice, you should not call your “game” interactive.
Anyway, arriving at this choke point, what the author probably considers the “meat” of the “game” begins. The player is supposed to do some transformations from one numeral system to another. So, for example, the “game” asks you what the decimal representation of the base-36 encoded number “love” is. Wait, you call this a puzzle? Also, it asks some uninteresting trivia questions about the years certain events took place. We have Wikipedia these days. This is not a game. Oh, and “of course”, this part required client-side scripting, so I quit. This concludes my foray into “web” “games” this year, having had all my prejudice confirmed.
Played 2013-10-20: The author says his intention was to create “a teen-centered creative work” that is “intended to be simple and replayable and hopefully not too moralistic or squishy-feely”. I applaud this sentiment! There is way too much pretentiousness floating around in “interactive fiction” circles. So let's test this declared goal.
Teen-centered: A group of four teens is trapped on an island (which is possibly located in the realm of dreams). They need to get off. The usual stereotypes (the nerd, the jock,…) apply. This is adventurous enough, so check.
Simple: The tasks are basically simple enough, yes. Their execution is not due to the horrible implementation. Building a fire or pushing crates around has never been this complicated! Also, the game never really states any goals. One guy, for example, pushes crates around, because he's apparently afraid someone or something might come in. Would have been nice to tell me (the player) that, game! So, sorry, no points here, in spite of your good intentions.
Replayable: Depending on a set of initial questions about some personality traits, you play one of the four main characters while the other three become NPCs. Each character has to get through a unique first scene and there seems to be some variation later on, too. So I'll give this a check.
Not too moralistic: Not in the part which I have played, but I can't judge it overall, because I never finished the game.
So, two, possibly three out of four points. Still, I cannot recommend this game at all! You see, there is a basic quality level you have to achieve in each category to score a passing grade on the whole. This game is so extremely fussy and fuzzy that it is hardly playable! Even the adaptive in-game hints don't help half of the time. In the better cases, these hints will just plainly tell you what to enter, although you would have never guessed this action (bad enough). In the worse cases, the hints will talk about objects which don't even exist and actions which therefore cannot be carried out. I gave up on two protagonists' stories after the latter happened, barring me entry from the shipwreck. I gave up on the third, after I had actually managed to get on board that damned shipwreck and had repaired the helm by typing in the impossible command from the hints, but then still didn't have any idea how to start sailing the thing – and the hint system also admitted to be out of ideas. Sorry, this was no fun at all, so I didn't even bother with the fourth.
Tex Bonaventure and the Temple of the Water of Life
Played & finished 2013-10-21: Tex Bonaventure, the person, is an Indiana Jones style adventurer on a mission to explore an ancient temple. Apparantly, this adventure involved shooting a lot, but when the player takes control, most of this is already over. So in the actual temple, he will need to use his wits (primarily).
Tex Bonaventure, the game, first of all, pokes fun at this adventure story genre: The nonsensical layout of the temple, the existence of various rooms which would have absolutely no function in an actual temple, the stupid actions of the adventurer… In addition, it also takes some light-hearted stabs at the computer game genre called 'adventure'. At least I think so – depending on how you read sections like this:
This game not being written in Twine, its style is much more classic than even in most of the remaining parser-based games these days. Meaning that there is quite a number of abstract puzzles involving physical manipulation of your surroundings, an appropriate number of deadly traps and consequently, many ways to die or get stuck. Still, it remains fair at that.
So while half of the jokes may be of an inside nature, there is still enough to see for all kinds of open-minded players. It's a very well made game and I can proudly claim to have finished it with 351 out of 142 possible points – try to beat that!
Played 2013-10-22: This is a maze/crossword puzzle game whose solution lies in decyphering some mapping between movement commands and riddle solutions. I'm not interested in the slightest.
Played 2013-10-23: This seems to be some moralistic piece about responsibility and the consequence of choices. Each episode was written by a different author (I assume). I only saw the first one. It was unplayable: I was sitting in a sinking lifeboat. The game didn't let me SWIM. Then, another character actually told me to SWIM. But it was still impossible to. The game, not in the voice of a character, then put a gun to my head and told me to make a decision: STAY or SWIM. I entered SWIM. “You can't swim here.” >QUIT
Addition: Our crewmember Herr M. tells me the right command would have been SWIM ACROSS WATER instead of SWIM or SWIM TO BOAT or just SWIM ACROSS. This does not change my opinion a bit; it is just guess-the-verb at its worst.
Played & finished 2013-10-24: Coloratura uses one of the classic horror genre setups: A group of scientists retrieved an artifact from the deep seas. What they didn't know is that they just took an ancient lifeform up with them to the surface. This lifeform, previously unknown to mankind, is now running amok on the ship (i.e. a confined space).
The twist the game puts to the story is that it is told from the perspective of the 'monster'. Actually, all it tries to achieve is just to return home again. But obviously, communication is a problem. Not just that, physical interaction in general is hardly possible for the protagonist.
This leads to some interesting aspects, like imaginative room and object descriptions (the human world being alien to the protagonist). The perception (and sometimes manipulation) of emotions represented by colours plays a central role. This makes for some interesting puzzles and some interesting language.
It also makes things a little hard at times for the player, though. Particularly, the game does not introduce the protagonist to the player very much. For example, there is never any explicit explanation what abilities this being has; the player is supposed to figure this out by herself. Though the being itself would already know it. So there is a knowledge gap which would admittedly be hard to fill organically.
Putting this aside, Coloratura is a very enjoyable and fascinating experiment which works surprisingly well – although it's definitely not one for beginners and I doubt anyone will have managed to finish this within the two hours alotted for an IF Comp game!
Captain Verdeterre's Plunder
Played & finished 2013-10-25: You play as the first mate of a pirate ship. The ship is sinking. Captain Verdeterre (described as a rat – which is probably meant in a literal way, given the overall tone of the story) wants you to grab as much loot as possible before you two escape in a lifeboat.
Since the water level is rising with every move and the game consists of various decks with different treasure objects lying around, this is basically a game of optimisation. Of course, getting some of the more valuable treasures is not trivial, as they are either hidden from plain view or even locked away. Assuming that you make it to the lifeboat in time, you get a breakdown of the value of what you retrieved. The sum of what it's all worth then determines the game's ending. There seem to be three different ones: The captain firing you, you two getting along with the money (but living in relative poverty) and you two getting out well-off.
The writing is funny enough and the scenario's inherent urgency works. A playthrough takes about five to ten minutes, so you can (and should) play a couple of times to get better results. Though, of course, as everybody who has ever received some higher level of education is certainly aware, this optimisation task is part of the class of np complete problems – meaning there is no better way than just trying all possible combinations out. Any attempt to find the definite optimal solution is therefore fairly futile.
Talking about each game individually is one thing. Let's try to some overall appreciation of this year's competition. I played 15 games and tried one non-game. A further 19 entries, I skipped because of reasons of technical non-accessibility. Assuming that the type of game I didn't play usually takes much less effort to make, quantity-wise, this is not a great turnup, even considering the the competition has been shrinking for years.
A low-quality Year?
Last year, I complained about the 'big belly of mediocrity', implying that although almost all games were solid, hardly any of them were anything to remember. After concluding my playlist, I had a different impression this time, though not for the better. I thought the percentage of games sporting massive implementation problems was a drop back into past times. Then I sat back and really counted those games. Turns out my subjective impression was wrong: It was just an issue of the random order of my playlist.
Things started out very strong, with Ollie and Trapped in Time, and even The Paper Bag Princess was enjoyable for what it was. Rosewood Street was an odd one, but fascinatingly so. Further, A Wind Blown from Paradise and Robin & Orchid failed to touch me, but they certainly weren't terrible (well, to varying subjective degrees). The Wizard's Apprentice and The Cardew House suffered from severe underimplementation. And it went further downhill from there with the unplayable Mazredugin and 9Lives. The delightful Tex Bonaventure and the two very last games, Coloratura and Captain Verdeterre, saved my mood again. Threediopolis, I'm not including in this imaginary graph, because I did not even play it enough (though it did seem rock solid technically).
What struck me, though, is that there were games which cited beta testers (quite a large number of them, even), but which were still plagued by very obvious implementation issues. Into this group, I include The Wizard's Apprentice, Mazredugin, 9 Lives (although it did not credit dedicated testers, I would assume the five authors would have tested each other's episodes) and Rosewood Street. The latter is kind of a special case; there were parts which I really found badly implemented, but they might have been intentional design decisions for the most part. With the first three, though, there is no excuse. What went wrong there in the testing phase?
The Playlist Issue
Of course, it is always hard to evaluate how much the placement in the playlist affects one's opinion about a game. It is undeniable that the first few games usually have it easier. Certainly Ollie, which I consider the best game of this competition, also has its flaws – just think of the sometimes tedious manual repetitions of various actions and the ludicrous, tacked on ending. However, if its ending is its weakest point, I can still rationalise why this is a much better game than most of the others: The best moments in, for example, A Wind Blown from Paradise or Further were about as 'good' as Ollie's ending.
The games in the middle of the playlist usually have the worst standing mood-wise. Since this was a fairly short list, I would say this effect was shifted a bit more towards the end than usual. Robin & Orchid and Tex Bonaventure probably (unjustly) suffered a little from this unavoidable effect.
Unfortunately, I can't do better than to somewhat rationalise these effects of initial curiosity and saturation as I just did, and ask you, the readers, to probably adjust your own interpretations of what I've written about each game a little by this implicit curve. No matter how I would automatically generate or manually organise my playlist, it would always be unfair towards some of the games.
Predictions & Results
Having played less than half of the entries, it was hard to make predictions. I assumed there would be many players with my playlist inverted, i.e. they would play exactly those games which I didn't: Just playing “web-based” games and nothing else. I also thought that these people would likely to be less critical in general and would therefore vote those games up in the overall ranking. Some words about how this turned out later. First, here are my original predictions compared to the actual results.
Coloratura should please many. Of all the games I played, I believe this one will place best. It's mainly character driven and many judges like atypical points of views. Personally, I don't think it's as good as this author's first game, Divis Mortis, but I'm pretty sure it will be more successful (DM reached a respectable 11th place in 2010, meaning it was very underrated in my opinion).
Actual placement: 1st – congratulations! While I also rated this highly, the top placement could also indicate one thing: Many players are basically playing straight from a walkthrough; so this game's one weakness (outlined above) did not really work against it.
Robin & Orchid will place well. Its implementation quality and the absence of roadblocks preventing impatient players from finishing the game, along with the established-author-effect, will gain the game good scores.
Actual placement: 2nd. While I was not very happy with it and therefore find it overrated, I can understand what made it succeed.
Trapped in Time will place well, because the author has previously established a name for himself and that will make people look more positively on its experimental mechanics. The same game from an unknown author would have been buried into obscurity (undeservedly so).
Actual placement: 11th. Seems I overestimated the novelty/nostalgia factor on this one.
Ollie, although my favourite, will probably land around lower end of the upper third. Although what I considered it strengths, mainly the characterisation of the kids, will score the game good points, and the general setting might as well, the puzzle-centric nature of the game's main act and the inclusion of something which could be considered a maze will put influential opinion leaders off.
Actual placement: 3rd. I would have liked it to win. Nevertheless, this is a great and well-deserved placement!
Captain Verdeterre will get a nice placement in the second quarter. I'm sure this game was never intended to win the competition, Its light-hearted nature will be fairly well-received, but its lack of ambition will prevent it from reaching higher levels.
Actual placement: 4th. Although my own impression was rather negative in retrospect (as outlined in the discussion), it was fun while it lasted and it is definitely good to see less ambitious projects are able to place well.
Tex Bonaventure should land right in the middle. It's a good one, but the classic adventurous style just isn't trendy anymore.
Actual placement: 5th. It was even further up in my personal ranking, but I appreciate that such an old-school game placed this well at all!
Paradise, I hope, should place very low, because for me, it represents exactly what these games should not be. Pretentiousness is rewarded by many judges, though.
Actual placement: 28th. I was totally wrong. Probably I'm too cynical at times.
Paper Bag Princess should end up somewhere in the middle, but I have a hard time judging it. It might strike a nerve with people who had the original story read to them growing up.
Actual placement: 17th. A spot in the middle, as predicted.
Further will probably place on the upper end of the lower third. It just doesn't offer enough, neither food for thought, nor gameplay-wise.
Actual placement: 21st, approximately as predicted.
Threediopolis has the popular theme of language mechanics, but it's most likely too abstract. I predict a fairly low placement.
Actual placement: 7th. Another really bad guess of mine. Congratulations, you hit the general taste much better than I thought!
Rosewood Street will get slammed and end up quite low. On the one hand, it deserves this, because it is just so amazingly dull in its repetitive gameplay. On the other hand, if you count ambition, it would deserve more.
Actual placement: 16th. I assumed it would end up even lower, i.e. I'm happy to see that more people looked beyond its obvious issues.
Reels, I can't really tell, but probably quite low. Abstract puzzles without any real plot excuse are usually not well received.
Actual placement: 35th (last). What I didn't know at the time of writing my predictions is that this game even requires one specific browser to work correctly. That sort of thing obviously breaks every game's neck.
Mazredugin is a tough one. The absence of a pretentious plot (as far as I played it) coupled with major gameplay issues will probably prevent it from placing well.
Actual placement: 28th (shared with Paradise). Seems about right.
The Wizard's Apprentice has been made in an old-school style which not many people judging the competition like anymore. It will end up at the bottom.
Actual placement: 23rd. A little better than I thought, a little worse than it deserved.
The Cardew House will place even under Wizard's Apprentice. Most judges seem to give up (and rate '1') as soon as they hit the first guess-the-verb situation and this game is full of them.
Actual placement: 32nd. Well at the bottom, as I expected, though honestly, it was not nearly as bad as this implies.
9 Lives might have chances for the last place. School projects are almost always too detached from what is commonly expected out there. This one has got a moralising theme which is extremely popular, but it is no exception to the rule as far as the game mechanics are concerned. It's great that some teachers try and for the students, it is most likely already a great achievement to have produced something at all. Learning to program and to write a good game with it in the first attempt is almost never possible. It's the nature of school (as I remember it), though, that things never grow beyond the stage of training excercises. Everybody started out this way, but when people do this sort of thing privately, they usually don't publish it. My own first games are worse than this one, by quite a margin. So don't give up!
Actual placement: 30th. We all know why.
So, on the whole, I'm proud to say that my individual predictions turned up pretty accurate (with few exceptions). My general assumption about differences in voting for choice based games was completely off, though. Neither were they voted up (no choice based games managed to break into the top 5), nor did they even receive a higher number of votes.
The latter is fairly surprising. It is often assumed that the entry barrier to play such games is much lower compared to parser games. Maybe this is true, but it did not reflect at all in the voting. One possible reason is there is no real way to gauge how seriously (long) games are played. Maybe people willing play a parser game are, to a good percentage, then also willing to invest themselves as far into it that in the end, they have formed an actual opinion suited for voting in the competition. Quickly making a few clicks into some choice game is easy, but it could also be easily forgotten. Engagement is probably inversely proportional to this entry barrier.
Of course, another reason might as well be that people traditionally interested in parser games were already all registered on the competition website while choice fans weren't. In any case, this year only brought the choice games explosion as far as quantity was concerned; these games did not sweep the competition. At all.
As always, let me leave you with the most important thought of all, neglected all too often: There is a life for your games after this competition!
No matter how mean I might have been about your game, I would appreciate a new (extended or fixed) release of each. Although post-competition releases hardly get the attention the original versions receive now, keep in mind that your game will remain available for years to come. Combined, it will have more players after the end of the competition than in the competition. Think about how you want it to be seen by those future players. Maybe there is still room for some improvement? Maybe, some of the feedback you received from the various sites covering the competition were helpful.
Thanks to all the authors and of course also to their advisors and their testers – you have given us a great time once again!