2007 Interactive Fiction Competition

Last Updated October 17, 2007
(added 'puzzles' item to my list, and games in 'other' section)

I played the Z-code games in the 2007 Interactive Fiction competition. Here are my thoughts on them.
     -- Cathy

Note: I tried to avoid spoilers below, but just knowing what I liked and how I rated the games is likely to bias your opinions of them to some extent. So, proceed with caution!

Some things I like to see in a game:

  • Fun puzzles. It should be possible to figure out a solution without resorting to random guessing or a bunch of trail and error. Puzzles should have logical solutions, or the game should contain enough information that a player can determine the correct course of action. The game shouldn't provide unsolicited hints (e.g. from an NPC).
  • Good vocabulary. In addition to recognizing nouns for all the objects in the descriptions, the game should have a variety of ways of letting me express my intended activity.
  • A clear goal. This can be explained in the opening description, in the first few turns of play, or as I explore. Before I'm out of things to explore, I'd like to know what I should be trying to accomplish.
  • Non-linear play, where appropriate. This isn't practical in some scenarios, but when possible, it's nice to have multiple puzzles to work on. This lets me work on what I find most interesting, and also can add a bit of a challenge.
  • Good grammar and spelling. Poor syntax is very distracting.
  • Nice help system. I want something other than a walkthrough, which can often give away the answer to puzzles I'm not concentrating on. A good help system will offer a list of puzzles, but in such a way as not to give away future puzzles. The hints themselves should start out simple, getting more detailed. One game had a nice feature where it warned when it was about to give a spoiler.
  • Minimal bugs. That should go without saying, of course, but it's not always easy to achieve.
  • Gender-neutral role. I realize I'm probably in the minority, but it would be nice if the game didn't tell me I was a guy...

Recommended Games

I liked the following games well enough to recommend them. They're listed in order, with my favorite one first. The ratings are based on my impressions during the first two hours of play (as required by the IFcomp rules). Most of them I had not completed by that time, but I spent time after that finishing those games.

Lost Pig
Grunk needs to find and retrieve a pig. Score: 9
This one just edged out the next couple of games because I thought it was hilarious. Its vocabulary was excellent, play was non-linear, puzzles were logical and reasonably challenging, and there was a good help system. There were one or two puzzles that I thought could have been made a little less frustrating, and I found one minor bug, but overall the game is very well done and was certainly a lot of fun to play.
Lord Bellwater's Secret
You are suspicious that the recent deaths in Lord Bellwater's mansion weren't accidental, so you sneak in to explore his office. Score: 8
I think this one had the best puzzles of the competition; they were interesting, made sense in the context of the game, and had just the right amount of challenge without getting stuck for too long. It's amazing how many puzzles you can find in one room. It was a little confusing with all the different kinds of papers, but the game did a good job distinguishing among them, so it wasn't really an issue. The endgame was a little hard to figure out, but I think there was sufficient time to muddle through. Vocabulary was decent, but there was one time I struggled to get it to understand what I wanted to so. Non-linear play, nice help system. A bit of a male bias to this game (mostly as motivation for investigating).
My Name is Jack Mills
You help your professor (who's in jail) retrieve something that was stolen from him. Score: 8
Fun, reasonable puzzles; they were pretty linear, but that was okay because the story needed that. I got a little stuck at times, but there were minimal objects, so it wasn't too hard to get unstuck. There were also nice decoys, so it's not too obvious. But, it felt a little too easy, maybe just because it was a bit shorter than most of the others. The endgame could easily have become frustrating, but the game deals with this gracefully, letting the player experiment without multiple restarts/restores. A bit of a male bias to this game (player name, and a bit in the gameplay).
Across The Stars
You're the only one on board a ship that's attacked by pirates, they you're stranded on a desert planet. Score: 7
Fun, good puzzles, nice worlds. This game took much longer for me to finish than the others, but the slow progress of my score indicated that it would take a while. The hints (in a separate file) weren't as useful as they might have been, but were helpful a couple times and warned before providing potential spoilers. A few of the puzzles were a bit weak, but for the most part they were logical or could be solved with discoverable information. The use of inventory is somewhat tedious, having to explicitly get something out of your pack before you can manipulate it. In general, vocabulary was ok, but not great; there were several things that took multiple attempts before I could convey my intentions. There was one thing I did early on that I'm convinced prevented me from getting to the next step and required a restart, but other than that, I don't think you can lock yourself out of a win. Nice gender-neutral role; your name is described as misspelled, and it's done in such a way that you could interpret it as either gender.
Fox, Fowl and Feed
Classic puzzle of getting them all across a river, with a twist. Score: 6
Fun premise, reasonable problems and solutions for the most part, nice help. Vocabulary is weak in places.
Wish
You're a young girl in a wish/dream state to heal your grandfather. Score: 6
Fun, but easy and pretty linear. The gender bias in this one didn't bother me so much! (grin)

Other Games

The following games were overall not worth playing in my opinion. Again, they're in order according to my preference. I didn't complete most of these; I played each of them for at least an hour, but most didn't hold my interest up to the two hour mandatory maximum time.

An Act of Murder
You're a detective interviewing five people in a mansion to determine who killed the owner. Score: 5
Interesting idea, fun at first, but it got tedious to repeatedly wander from room to room to question everyone each time I discovered some new piece of information. I found it difficult to get the game to understand what I wanted to ask; I often had the right idea, just couldn't communicate it in a way the game understood. This was especially true when trying to recap, and I found it frustrating that I couldn't just explain my conclusions. Nice gender-neutral role. The changing plot (each time the game is started) is a neat idea, but does it really help one gameplay? Does adding that flexibility mean that the resulting scenarios aren't as polished or feasible as a single plot would be?
Packrat
You're wandering around a castle full of sleeping people. Score: 4
Funny mocking of inventory games, some interesting puzzles. Vocabulary was weak, there were a few bugs, and some commands need to be repeated several times before the game decides to let you do something (which is horribly annoying, in my opinion). The game treats 'examine' and 'search' differently, which makes this more of a guessing game to figure out how to explore. No help system.
The Immortal
You're wandering around an asteroid base. Score: 4
The goal wasn't very clear; I felt like I was wandering aimlessly for a while. Some typos, grammar a bit off in a few places, no help. The exit list is nice. There are too many times where you die without warning (although undo does help here). Many puzzles seem non-intuitive.
Orevore Courier
You're the security officer (locked in your room) on a ship doing a delivery. Score: 3
I found that just sitting in a room operating controls got boring pretty quickly. I disliked that making progress was accomplished by failing and restarting, needing to use your knowledge of what will happen to take action before it happens in the next run-through.
Press [Escape] to Save
You start in a cell and then go with a stranger to another world. Score: 3
Interesting premise, but an abundance of grammar errors detracted from that. Vocabulary was weak. A lot of the story unfolding at the beginning seems to take place regardless of player actions; it was almost 30 minutes into the game before what I did seemed to matter. There is no scoring in this game, so it's unclear when you've actually accomplished anything important. Dying again and again isn't fun, and bugs in the description text may have prevented me from getting past this part.
Beneath: a Transformation
You're exploring a run-down town. Score: 2
I have no idea what the goal is supposed to be. There are lots of things you can buy, but no obvious motivation for why you'd choose specific items (you can't afford all of them). Poor vocabulary, no useful help. Discovering interesting aspects of items required things like 'look in' since 'examine' didn't even indicate that there was anything inside. After doing some of the walkthrough steps I decided it was just too random and abandoned this game.
Eduard the Seminarist
In dormitory, presumably want to get out. Score: 2
I had no idea of the goal until I looked at the walkthrough, which pointed out that my explorations hadn't found a piece of paper giving me motivation for why I wanted to leave the dorm. I think the game could have helped with this, giving a more useful description when I looked at the item that was hiding the paper. Even so, I'd been trying to leave without success, and the walkthrough steps didn't work for me (I failed the same way I had when I was exploring on my own). Poor vocabulary, no help.
Deadline Enchanter
I think you're retracing the steps of an enchanter. Score: 1
'Playing' consisted primarily of typing in walkthrough-like commands found in books. I tried playing without that, but room descriptions didn't include exit information, and a lot of the puzzles were completely illogical.

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