The 20th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition

by Herr M. (2014-10-02)

Welcome to our coverage of the 20th Interactive Fiction Competition!

Here you will find the list of games plus some short comments and thoughts on the games I played more than a couple of minutes. Below you will find my summary and final thoughts about this year's entries in general.

The Games

AlethiCorp - Simon Christiansen - Web

Played it, but didn't finish
The author made an excellent job of portraying and mocking modern day business procedures… in fact he did so well, that I felt instantly repulsed by this fictitious corporation and resigned my new position as information Junior Cloud Analyst almost immediatly. So cudos for making this game so very lifelike, and I guess there is a great game behind it into which went a lot of effort (at least the initial phase looks like it was a lot of work), but it is a bit too lifelike to my liking.

And yet it moves - Orion

Arqon - H. J. Hoke - Glulx

Played it, but didn't finish it

This one is a bit of the odd one out for being a hack&slash game instead of the typical adventure game or hyperlinked text. For better (like the well-done combat system) and for worse (like the lack of actual puzzles). Judging from the extras/feelies there also went a lot of effort into the creation of the game's background, that is it's world. Too bad you don't see that much of it in the actual game, for almost all of the monster's are of the typical fantasy standard fare. Still as far as text based combat goes this one is quite decent. My only gripe is that I didn't quite grasp how the strength(=health) regeneration worked (or maybe it was a bit bugged), for although I started off with a value around 20 I could only heal it up to 5 after reaching level 2.

You can also cast several spells, which need a bit of memorising. And that is were the game gets a bit clunky: You have to take the spell into your hand, have enough strength points, memorise it and only then are you able to cast it at someone/-thing. The parser is especially picky, sometimes needing an extra the, sometimes not. The latter goes for conversations too: Try asking someone about a certain topic and sometimes you will have to ask 'about the topic' and sometimes it is enough (or even necessary) to ask 'about topic'.

Overall I think it is quite a feat to create an RPG with a parser, but it still needs a bit more flesh to it. Like utilizing the parsers strengths with some serious puzzles, more elaborate descriptions and a more complex storyline. A little bit of bug hunting and typo fixing and it could become a very interesting hybrid game.

Begscape - Porpentine

Played and 'finished' it
You are in a begging sim.

It puts some random text here.

And some more here.

Click here to keep on begging with the same text above…
or here to re-seed the random generator.

I don't want to be mean to this game, because I think there went at least a bit of effort into it, but I guess anyone who ever got their hands on a random number generator and a case or if statement has created something similar. The 'begging' might be a more interesting twist than the usual random monster/name generator, yet it looks like an old hat to me. The random adjectives or races on the other hand are rather imaginative, like half-harpies, gladiatrices or quasi-elven folks.

Building the Right Stuff - Laura Mitchell

Caroline - Kristian Kronstrand

Creatures Such as We - Lynnea Glasser

Played it and finished it
This one gave me the impression of being more of a survey about computer games than an actual game itself. The choices you make seem to have only slight or cosmetic effects, and most often you are asked outright how you feel about this or that topic of video gaming. There are some interesting thoughts about the industry in there, but they distracted me from the actual game too much.

Eidolon - A.D. Jansen - Twine

Played it, could not finish
The prose in this one is a bit of hit an miss. Some of the metaphors are nice, others are a bit awkward. The semi-philosophical thoughts were kind of interesting though. I liked the mystery about the math homework and the imaginary numbers… until I saw what it lead up to: I am not a fan of mocking villians forcing you to do their bidding, especially if you have no choices to makes besides selecting the next link leading (nine out of ten times) nowhere. Some passages in which you just click word after word in order to reveal bit after bit of text are rather tedious. I liked the Library very much though, with the interactive books and their interwoven text. As straightforward as the game seems to be, I still got stuck in the end, when I couldn't re-enter the library and had nowhere else to go. Which was kind of a pity, because by then the plot had finally started to thicken. Just wish I had found out what was behind that asbestos door…

Enigma - Simon Deimel

Played and finished it
As the name implies this is about solving a mystery, a special one at that. You are standing – frozen in time – somewhere and somewhen and have to find out what's going on. A really interesting setup, which suffers under its slightly flawed implimentation. Not that its actually bad, far from that, but most of the time you only 'think' about things and as soon as you get stuck, you notice the 'guess the right keyword' gameplay. But the writing, in its short and matter of fact way, suits the story really well. Said plot itself might be slightly cliched and the endings are a bit unsatisfactory, but I still had a good time with it and the game kept me interested enough to play it until the end. There is an intersting twist too: As soon as you reach a critical phase of the game there is no undoing or saving. A brave design decision, which gives you final choice just the right amount of weight.

Excelsior - Arthur DiBianca

Played and finished it
Two words: Very minimalistic.
The main problem with an almighty use command (like featured in this game) is that you start to solve most of the puzzles by brute force, that is u(se) anything with anything else. On top of that it is not always obvious what 'using' will lead to, like will I open the door knock on it? On the other hand I have to admit, that I didn't get stuck for not knowing the right words, or phrase to build the right command.
The story was a bit too streamlined to my likings too.

Fifteen Minutes - Ade

Played and did not finished it
As interesting as the story of this one is, and as cool as the puzzle design might be, I just could not get into it. Maybe it is because I prefer word puzzles (like in Ugly Oafs or last years Threedioppolis) in my interactive fiction games, or maybe that I have to solve more than enough equations in real life already. Yet hats off for the idea and the rather creative handling of the overused time traveling thingy.

Following Me - Tia Orisney

Played and finished it
The writing was fitting (although there was a bit too much text between choices) and the story quite intense… yet I disliked the sexist stereotype of the male psychopath roaming the woods in search for hapeless victims (female ones of course).

HHH.exe - Robot Parking - Twine

Played and finished it
This one is rather short and might be finishable in under 15 minutes. Accordingly there isn't that much of a story to speak of, just your average pick up the items and get them to right place routine, placed in a mash-up of Hugo's House of Horrors (an old Shareware adventure game) and some other games (I think I recognized Might&Magic and NetHack in there).

While I still like the vibes of this combined with that weird system crash theme (mainly manifested in distorted imagery, which admitetly was cleverly done), I think what rather ruins it for me is the writing. The deeper meaning of sentences like

It's dark out; religiously dark. You squint and think you see a shed in the negative space of shadow and rain.

The kitchen is fucking nuclear with top-of-the-line slimepliances.

are simply lost on me, to me they sound rather pretentious.

Hill 160 - Mike Gerwat - Glulx

Played it, could not finish

Somehow I had very high expectations for this one, probably because we just finished the WWI theme on our site, for which I had been searching for a piece of IF. Sadly the game didn't quite live up to them.

Mainly for two reasons: Restrictive gameplay and bugs. I don't think there is very much you can do aside the critical main path. Sometimes you can't even look at things, and some of the descriptions are only given to you for one time. So good luck with trying to remember the names of the men in your platoon, for you will only see them once. It's also a shame that there are such detailed area descriptions, yet you can almost never look at all those things. Sometimes you will have to guess the correct verb, for as close as you might be to the right solution, there is only one command that will let you advance (e.g. you have to gather some supplies, which you can't just give to your commanding officer, but have to drop on a table). While this slight inflexibility might be OK, the bugs are not. I was just one minute into the game and could already pick up an item that wasn't really there. Then there were situations were I stumbled upon scenes I already had finished, so things started repeating themselves. And this finally led to me giving up, after having to replay a scene from the start long after I had already solved it and getting killed in the act.

Still, I think this game is worth a look or two, and maybe after giving it some rest I might try it again. Especially the writing is really great and creates a very tense atmosphere. There are lots of smaller details, that show that the author seems to know a lot about the scenario, and you might even learn a thing or two about the war. He also makes use of some unusual situations, like a rat attack, being burried under earth after a shell attack and trying to get hysterical men back to their senses, which is a refreshing change from all the fighting usually found in games set in the Great War. I also liked the very elaborate inventory, which might hint at a lot of interesting puzzles.

With a bit of polish and some bug hunting this could be a great game after all and I am actually really curious what the story boils down to.

Hunger Daemon - Sean M. Shore - Glulx

Played and finished it
At the beginning, when it was starting off with some Cthulhuoid chants, I feared that it might be utter garbage, yet another stupid horror shlock… but luckily it turned out to be, quite on the contrary, an original game about a tag-along cultist that tries to put things right for once. It has some excellent humour (the endings actually made me laugh rather hard), proper programming (only leaving the car bugged me a bit) and just the right amount of puzzles. To round it off there were also some stupid things you could do (or at least attempt to do), which shows a bit of extra dedication. One of my favourites of this years competition so far!

Icepunk - pageboy

Played and finished it
The intro to this sounded promising. Yet, the long and tedious traveling parts, where you must click your path from cell to cell in a 12x12 matrix combined with the goal to gather text snippets from The Internet or famous books, in order to raise a progress bar in far too small steps, make this a boring experience. This could have been so easily avoided by opening up the whole area to traveling at once and increasing your carrying capacity. As it is now you spend far too much time with the same old routine over and over again, without any feeling of accomplishment. In the end I stopped reading all the text, especially after noticing that they started repeating themselves like all those enter place, get stuff, leave place 'choices', and just gathered the necessary data. Stubborn like I am, I brought it to a 100% end… well, let's put it this way: The final screen, as enthusiastic as it tries to be, wasn't really worth the trouble. I did like the smiley face though.

Verdict: Some good ideas sadly get lost in far too much routine work.

Inward Narrow Crooked Lanes - B Minus Seven

Played and finished it
Gets my Ulysses award for sounding like someone just wrote what was on the top of his/her mind and making the reader wonder whether they are too dumb to understand the text or whether the author simply was too random.

Jacqueline, Jungle Queen! - Steph Cherrywell

Jesse Stavro's Doorway - Marshal Tenner Winter

Krypteia - Kateri

Laterna Magica - Jens Byriel

Milk Party Palace - Alon Karmi & Glenn Parker

Missive - Joey Fu - Web

Played and finished it
After getting a typewriter and some letters as a gift from a good friend of yours, you stumble upon an intriguing mystery about a husband and his mistress. The convincing parallel story telling, a couple of nicely included puzzles and the rather engaging writing style make this one a recommendable thriller.

One Night Stand - Giannis G. Georgiou

Origins - Vincent Zeng and Chris Martens

Paradox Corps - John Evans - Web

This one keeps bugging out on me. Maybe it needs a special kind of browser (like one from Microsoft). Judging from the source files the writing looks OK and it seems to be a story about time travel.

Raik - Harry Giles

Sigmund's Quest - Gregor Holtz - Prototype

Played and finished it
On the plus side, this looks like a promising start: The graphics are nice and the inclusion of the text in form of a book works rather nicely. The controls are intuitive too and I can imagine that the context sensitive words would be a nice tool to set up a really interactive story.
But on the downside, it's only a start: There is far too little content to the game to actually judge it. Just when things start to get interesting, you have already finished this demo. Especially the inventory is heavily underused!

Slasher Swamp - Robot

Tea Ceremony - Naomi Hinchen

The Black Lily - Hannes Schueller

The Contortionist - Nicholas Stillman

The Entropy Cage - Stormrose

Played and finished it
In my opinion this is a perfect example what Twine games are capable of doing in the right hands. Instead of heavy prose and click any word in sight, you actually get to make some choices and can reach several different endings. I would even go as far and say that this kind of game would not have been possible with the use of a parser, because you would have been lost in the syntax instead of unraveling the mystery.

You can utterly fail as well as triumph in glory, which mostly depends on staying alert and making the right choices at the right time. There is also exactly the right amount of background story and the plot doesn't take forever to pick up the pace or come to a conclusion. I also liked the scenario a lot, especially the 'antagonists' goal and motivation (very cool idea!), but maybe that is just because I am a bit of a computer nerd.

The Secret Vaults of Kas the Betrayer - A.E. Jackson

The Urge - PaperBlurt

Read it, did not finish it
Meandering and overly dramatic writings about torture and mutilation with no rhyme or reason, let alone any degree of interactivity = absolutely not my cup of tea.

Tower - Simon Deimel - Inform

Played and finished it
A very classic dungeon romp with some item based puzzling. The descriptions might be a bit sober, but on the other hand almost any command I entered delivered a proper response. The game also features a very flexible hint system, ranging from only listing items of interest or red herrings, over directing you to a place where you should try to solve the next puzzle, to downright telling you the next steps. The story might be a bit bland, but offers an interesting twist ending nevertheless. Overall I liked it for the nostalgic feelings I got while playing it.

Transparent - Hanon Ondricek

Ugly Oafs - Perry Creel- Glulx

Played and finished it
Ugly Oafs starts off with a funny D&D reference, yet the story (and the game itself) goes into a totally different direction. I will try my best to not spoil the game too much, but if you want to keep the surprise better start it up right now and come back here after giving it a try yourself…

So slight spoilers ahead:

The game is less of a text adventure (although it still features some traditional elements) but more of a word puzzle game, with one kind of puzzle in two varietes. Figuring it out took me just the right amount of time to keep me interested, actually solving it was a bit tedious and still needed a lot of guesswork. But in the end it made finding the right words all the more satisfying.

I loved the first ending I got, because it was an unexpected shortcut, that made me feel rather clever (Who would have thought you could use a piece of tape for this?). There seems to be semi-secret super-duper happy ending too, which I haven't got so far.

Overall I think the author made good use of his concept and showed some creativity implementing it. You can certainly tell that he had his fun creating this absurd GREEN TERRA. It's also the most unique of the games I have played so far. Opinions on it might still be divided though, depending on whether you want your games to make you think or feel about something. This one definitely belongs to the first category.

Unform - S. Elize Morgan

Venus Meets Venus - kaleidofish

With Those We Love Alive - Porpentine, Brenda Neotenomie - Twine

Played and finished it
What I liked most about this one was the setting: It is some kind of weird fantasy scenario with a strange (insectoid?) empress figure, for which you (as the royal artificer) have to craft certain items. The prose really suits the dream-like scenario and it is a nice touch that you can actually choose some properties for the items you create. Accordingly the protagonist comes up with quite an interesting question: If you create so much for this tyrant, even replace some body parts, aren’t you shaping the ruler and therefore the kingdom itself?

Spoilers ahead:

Yet, what drags this concept down is the repetitive sleep, work, regenerate cycle you have to go through, until something of interest happens. Also midway through the game, the idea mentioned above gets abandoned in favour of a love story (or friendship at least) that comes a bit out of nowhere.
Why do I have to be an outcast every time? Do I always have to give up everything I have for a supposedly loved one? Why can I not leave the past behind and start something new?
As much as the game tries to illustrate how I should care for that girl, I just sympathised a lot more with the empress, because, to be honest, she was simply a lot more cooler and I would have loved to see if I could really influence her with the items I made. But in the end I just felt cheated and I believe the only effect my choices had where slightly changing a couple of descriptions.

Zest - Fear of Twine (Richard Goodness, lectronice, PaperBlurt) - Twine

Played and finished it
To be honest I don't get this game. Basically it seems like you have two options: Zest or Church, that is reading either horribly garbled text with lots of blinking 'F*CK' or endless religious sermons. What's worse is that some of the options lead to actions which aren't that obvious. E.g. going home after work will always end in a 'Zest'. The only thing worth noticing about it might be the design (some nice retro graphics there) and that there are several different endings (some of which are ridiculously easy to reach).

Concluding Thoughts

While I am writing this lines we are in the final hours of the competition and I have to say that I am slightly dissapointed with this year's offerings. While there were some really memorable titles (like Hunger Daemon, Black Lily and The Entropy Cage), there were lots of games which looked really promising but turned out to be dissapointing for the one reason or the other.

There were especially three things which started getting on my nerves after a while:

click-link-after-link texts: I find it kind of straining to reveal a paragraph sentence by sentence or at times even a sentence word after word, and I always have to wonder what the authors try to achieve with this hacked up reading flow. If this is the only kind of interatcion you have to offer, I have to admit that I prefer to read my non-interactive fiction offline, in form of a book, where I have to make some changes to the text only after several hundred words.

Looping: There were games that let you do the same routine over and over again with ever so slight changes you cannot even influence (in a meaningful way) at times. This might work if you try to say something with those repetitions, or if breaking the circle is part of the gameplay. But repetition for repetition's sake makes for rather boring games which only make you wonder why you didn't end after the first circle anyways.

Random generators: To me these always look like the fast and easy way out to create lots of (meaningless) content. They might be good for a laugh or two, when the random seed creates an absolutely nonsensical situation, but overall it just isn't really satisfying to play a game where you get the feeling even the author didn't care enough to connect all the dots, let alone think about character motivations beyond totally arbitrary behaviour.

To balance things out a bit, here are three things I started to appreciate:

Originality: Whether it was using you very own game engine (as flawed as some of them might have been) or an existing one for an unusual setup, I really liked it when games tried to be different somehow, or tried to stand out of the crowd. With 42 games you start to see a bit of sameness after a while, so something fresh and new is always welcome.

Down to earth writing: It might be because I am a non-native speaker, but I liked all those games that used clear language with concise wording and had a consistent style. Language can be a powerful tool, if used correctly. It can create images in your head, you would not have thought to be there in the first place, but it takes a bit of skill and patience to find the right ways to reveal them.

Proper Programming: Almost all of the games I played seemed to have seen some testing and even polishing. A few bugged out on me, and only two were unfinishable because of a game-breaker… and even those titles had some other qualities that still saved them from being unplayable.

So much for my (highly opinionated) thoughts. Overall I still enjoyed almost all of the games, or at the very least found them to be memorable one way or another. Now I am waiting impatiently for the results…