The 21st Annual Interactive Fiction Competition

by Mr Creosote (2015-10-03)

It has become a tradition already that at this time of the year, we will feature coverage of the annual interactive fiction competition. This time, Herr M. and me have decided to share the work. This looks like an especially good idea now that we see that there will be a whole 55 games running (a new record).

We won't be doing this in a too formal way, however. So it may result in two sets of comments for the some games, but still nothing for some other ones. It will depend on what catches our interest. So watch this space for regular updates.

Returning Authors

Before playing anything, let's check the ratio of newcomers (who nevertheless may have a large portfolio outside of the competition already) and names recognized from previous competitions (not necessarily exhaustive):

So, overall, a nice rate of returning authors, including some to whose games I'm really looking forward to!

The Games

The Sueño

Played, but not (yet) finished by Mr Creosote (2015-10-13)

Marshall Tenner Winter's games are very atypical for our times. They are usually strictly object-based, centered around mechanical manipulation. Also, where most strive to have as little padding as possible, he routinely includes vast areas which serve no purpose, where no objects can be found and nothing can actually be interacted with.

This avoids irritations along the lines of all too packed worlds, but it also makes his games appear much larger than they actually are. If you count just the number of objects and the necessary actions, this would not even be a particularly large game. What it does, however, is increase what I call potential space. This measures the number of possible combinations of locations and objects to try out if you run out of ideas or, even before that, the number of ideas which pop into your head to use a certain newly found object. So even without a large amount of objects or puzzles, this game takes quite some time. I was not able to finish it in the two hour period subscribed by the competition rules.

The game takes place in dreamscape, first the protagonist's own and then somebody else's (I think). Dream imagery and logic and therefore prevalent. This is definitely a fascinating subject, but also a tricky one. Countless works (written stories, films, anything really) have crashed and burned trying to properly portray dreams.

The Sueño offers a dream model which is still fairly well grounded in reality. There is at least one special command originating from the concept, but it seems underused so far and its effect differed a bit too much in the two incarnations I found so far for my taste. In fact, many puzzles do seem to fall into the two extremes of being very straightforward (OPEN LOCKED DOOR WITH KEY) or quite obscure (no spoilers yet).

Nevertheless, the basic architecture is sound, the world is interesting enough, the interaction is generally not frustrating… well, all this may not sound like great praise, and in fact, it isn't meant to be. This is just a solid game which I recommend. It is likely I will finish it after the competition.

The King and the Crown

Played to two endings by Mr Creosote (2015-10-13)

This one falls well into the genre of tiny joke games. You dream you're a king receiving peasants seeking audience. Though when the peasants actually arrive, you wake up and depending on how well you did in the dream, your “real” life is described a little differently in the closing text.

What's unfortunate about this is that the scored actions required to change the ending are seemingly unrelated to anything which may make sense in the context. Some are sort of hinted in the ending, but this still doesn't make it clear why they have said influence. I'm missing causality here. It also doesn't help that the one room the dream takes place in isn't sufficiently described to encourage experimentation (I stumbled across some objects only by chance).

The writing style is one of fairly forced humor which also doesn't sit too well with me. In two attempts, I didn't get the “ideal” ending, but I'm not motivated to try further.

5 Minutes to Burn Something

Played by Mr Creosote (2015-10-13)

The only tester credited in this game is the author's wife, who is explicitly listed as having had no prior experience with text adventures. It shows. The potential is there: the clear, concise introduction gives and motivates the task at hand: the fire alarm went off just because of some burnt toast and if the firemen find it was a false alarm, you will have to pay. So you have to actually start a fire so that it looks genuine. Funny idea. Reminds me of the German game Allein mit Kai which had the player avoid (or straighten out) various catastrophes his date's little son may cause.

Unfortunately, the implementation is not nearly sufficient. The first issues I encountered weren't so much with the puzzles themselves, but with typical wording issues: only very specific commands are accepted while similar ones give discouraging responses (indicating I was on the wrong track when I wasn't). Example:

>open door with knife
(first taking the porthole door)
That seems to be a part of the washer/dryer.

>unlock door with knife
(first taking the porthole door)
That seems to be a part of the washer/dryer.

>open dryer with knife
The butter knife fits neatly in behind the porthole door. […]

On top of that, there are really bad instances of guess the verb:

>knot stockings
That's not a verb I recognise.

>tie stockings
What do you want to tie the pair of nylon stockings to?

You would achieve nothing by this.

The solution reveals I should have typed MAKE LASSO WITH STOCKINGS. Ouch. Such specific commands need a lot of alternatives.

Third, the implemenation is rather thin. Obvious actions are rejected in ridiculous ways:

>x toilet
You see nothing special about the plain white toilet.

>flush toilet
That's not a verb I recognise.

>push toilet
It is fixed in place.

>sit on toilet
That's not something you can sit down on.

>open toilet
It isn't something you can open.

The same objection of thin implementation seems to apply concerning the solution, although I haven't played to the end (more on that later). It seems there is exactly one right path to solve the game. From the well-written introduction and the credits text, I assumed there would be various ways to set fire to multiple things, i.e. that this would be a highly replayable game which allowed for many possible solutions. My first attempts went into the direction of overheating the ceiling fan to cause a short circuit, but to no avail.

I gave up when the game suddenly ended with an incorrect state check, claiming I hadn't disabled the alarm in time (which I had). I'll be happy to give it another try if there is ever a new version with some major overhaul at least on the implementation depth and technical sides. For now, I cannot recommend it.

Played and finished by Herr M. (2015-10-11)

The clear cut scenario and its weirdness promise a bit more than the game is able to live up to. Start a fire and be quick about it is a great way to kick things off, but the main problems are the constrictions found everywhere. Like there seems to be only one way to pull this off. Or that the parser is very specific about some of the actions you have to do. Or how each and every ending is not so much about that fire itself, but the protagonist hooking up with someone. Although the latter might actually be an interesting way to interpret things: Maybe the game is not so much about starting a physical fire, but about rekindling old relationships or becoming inflamed with someone new?

In the end what brought the game down to me (your opinion might differ though) is the rather serious topics (arsonry in the name of almost psychotic revenge) which are handled in a very light hearted fashion. After a while the humor just does not work: It might be fun to fraud you insurance company with the strangest thinkable way to start a fire, but no I do not think its particularily funny to almost kill yourself in order to pay someone back for something which is not even all that clear. It might have been a bit more entertraining or insightful, if that lead to a more sinister ending too.

Still, to end things on a positive note: I liked the multiple endings and some of the actions you have to do, as illogical as they might be, are actually quite hillarious.

Darkiss – Chapter 1: the Awakening

Played and finished by Mr Creosote (2015-10-19)

Charming game about being a freshly resurrected vampire out for revenge. Well implemented, well clued, well (over-) written (appropriate for the genre)… it even manages to pull the stunt of coming to a rather satisfying conclusion off while leaving enough threads open for the story to continue (usually, “chapter 1” in the name is a sure sign of a big disappointment). It will be voted down mercilessly in this competition for being shameless schlock, but it made me smile several times. Recommended as a light-hearted old-school experience!

Final Exam

Played and finished by Mr Creosote (2015-10-27)

Solidly made, but rather unexciting virtual reality game. The big issue is that all steps are explicitly laid out for you in-game, these instructions not just containing orders where to go, but even which exact commands to enter. This feels very railroaded and uninteractive. The idea not to make things too hard in the frame of this competition where there is little time for each game is probably a good one, but it's not a good decision concerning life after the competition. Not recommended.

Life on Mars?

Briefly played (but not very far) by Mr Creosote (2015-11-02)

I stopped playing just a few turns into the game, because it exceeded my threshold of negative points early on:

If you can live with all of this, there may be a good game developing from it later on. By all means, try it out and let me know! With such a large amount of choice still to pick from, my patience does not go this far.

Grandma Bethlinda's Variety Box

Played to completion by Mr Creosote (2015-11-02)

Like DiBianca's game which ran last year, this one uses a command set reduced to EXAMINE and USE. Problem is, unlike last year's game, this one is just a somewhat elaborate puzzle box without any disguise. So basically, the game has you typing U BOX repeatedly, with BOX being replaced by parts of it as you go and more buttons/cranks/etc. appear. If nothing happens using something, you just try the next one. So basically, this is solvable by just applying USE to everything available in circular fashion. This is fairly boring, sorry.

Laid Off from the Synesthesia Factory

Played to an ending by Mr Creosote (2015-11-03)

This is one of those games where you enter a command and the game will respond with a totally unrelated block of text, to make matters worse, in a pretentious writing style. After this became clear to me, I got through the rest simply typing Z. Undoubtedly, as it is always the case with this pretentious crud, some people will claim this it a “bold experiment”. Don't listen to this nonsense! It's a hat as old as the genre. I discourage everyone from wasting their time with this!


Played to an ending by Mr Creosote (2015-11-05)

For the first 30 minutes or so, I was afraid this would turn into a pure moping game (you know, where the author complains about her life in a thinly veiled autobiographical fashion). However, it did show enough craft to keep me going and after reaching the ending, I have to say this is a pretty well constructed story.

The central gimmick is that the protagonist is thrown into flashback memories where she is confronted with central decisions of her life. Depending on the player's choices, the present adapts. Also, there is the interesting motif of the house changing subtly every day illustrating the state of mind of the protagonist.

Sure, the decision points are maybe a little too unsubtle and some of the imagery maybe goes a little over the top. Also, the technical implementation is a little shallow at some points. Nevertheless, this is a worthwhile and respectable entry which I wholeheartedly recommend to the thoughtful!

Midnight. Swordfight.

Played to some endings by Mr Creosote (2015-11-09)

This is a short game about not dying in an inevitable duel. However, it is less Duel in the Snow than Absturzmomente: moving freely through frozen time snapshots, you have to manipulate the state of things so that you will stand a chance.

Florid language and references to Edgar Allen Poe aside, stripping the pointless references to a this basically being a stage play and mentally reverting the renamed movement commands (“north”/“south”/“east”/“west” became “future”/“past”/“clockwise”/“counterclockwise”) to the original ones, this is a really nothing but a minor trifle; a tiny one-trick game without much going for it. It achieves what it attempted, however, so in that respect, it is a winner.

P.S. Who calls a woman “Ferdinand” (clearly a male-only name)?


Played to the end by Mr Creosote (2015-11-09)

Another one of these basically serviceable, but nevertheless fairly disappointing games. This one is set in some lazy medieval fantasy world where you do… search for… something. It doesn't really matter. Travelling across the different corners of the world, but only in ultra-brief flashlights, the game fails to build up any recognisable flavour.

Gameplay-wise, it is nothing but a static series of single-room scenes, half of whose description is always the description of the act of travelling there (awkward, shouldn't be part of the room description) and mostly without any indication where to go next. Trying out a direction at random, you are told where to go and what to do here first – because each screen is gated with one or two actions which you have to carry out before being allowed to go on. This becomes tired really fast. Please go for something more ambitious next time!

Untold Riches

Played through by Mr Creosote (2015-11-15, before the voting deadline)

A very pleasant, non-pretentious treasure hunt game! The world is small, the puzzles definitely on the light side. So far, so good, but what really makes the game is the deep implementation (virtually any silly action attempt will be recognised) paired with the witty writing style, describing past episodes of the sidekick protagonist's adventures with his hapless professor. Too bad that this quality of entertaining players when they go off on a tangent while still leading them back on the right track has been almost lost completely (looking at this year's competition). Unreservedly recommended!

Closing Comments (Mr Creosote)

This was a large competition. Well done and thanks to all participants! This high number of games, of course, had its downsides as well, however. Namely that the time spent per game may not have been sufficient. In fact, apart from the games listed above, I started playing The Problems Compound, The Baker of Shireton, Sub Rosa and Brain Guzzlers from Beyond, but they looked dauntingly large or otherwise ambitious to really play in a way which would do the work obviously put into them justice. So I didn't play them sufficiently to give a final judgement (because, obviously, I don't like just copying commands from provided walkthroughs), but all four looked like excellent games which I will definitely dive into now that the judging period of the competition is over.

That more or less organically brings me to a major issue I have with appreciating the overall quality (as opposed to quantity) of this year's competition. I skipped some of the games which obviously had the potential to be the big winners. I skipped many other games on other terms as well; objective ones like inaccessible formats or purely subjective ones like thematic aversions. Some, I quickly looked into, but didn't even find anything worth saying about them as they offered no interactivity above “click here to read the next chapter”.

Among the games I played, there were good ones which entertained me well. If you have read our coverage of the past IF Comps, you know that I try to strictly separate between my own rating and my prediction of how well a game will do overall. This reflects my acknowledgement that I'm not a representative player. Meaning that games like Darkiss or The Sueño, for example, are – although I enjoyed them – not likely to place above the middle.

Now, this year, I have a hard time predicting the winner. The only one which may have the potential of those I played until the ending is Map. Though it did have its very own issues; even with it, I didn't have the feeling that this would blow people away and definitely sweep the vote (as it was usually clear with past competition winners).

So to me, although there were a number of serviceable games, this competition has presented itself as so-so at best.