Too Much Free Time

Discussion and reviews of games for NES, Intellivision, DOS, and others.

Archive for November, 2012

IFComp 2012: J’dal

Posted by Tracy Poff on November 10, 2012

J’dal by Ryan Kinsman is an entry in the 2012 ifcomp, in which the player is on a quest to retrieve an artifact from a mine.

(This post contains spoilers. Read at your own risk.)

J’dal, unlike most modern IF, recalls the appellation ‘text adventure’. The PC, J’dal, is, if I understand correctly, a drow in some fantasy world. She and her adoptive father, Wendal, together with two others, Stolas and Roderick, have been tasked with collecting a magical artifact from a nearby mine. After a meal and a good night’s sleep, the party sets off, led by J’dal, whose ability to see in the dark is very useful in the unlit mine.

The game is pretty much on rails. A couple of situations admit multiple solutions, but the possiblities are very limited, and I can only find two endings–either the PC dies, or she is successful, and either way the game ends quickly. The puzzles are pretty straightforward, although it did take me a few tries to work out exactly how to word my solutions.

The game could really benefit from a little more depth of implementation. There are missing objects, and some of the descriptions are rather lacking. The characters don’t have much to say, either, so we can’t really get a very good picture of their motivations, except in broad strokes. There are also some bugs–the dead beart’s body is inaccessible, for some reason, and the behavior when the PC is wearing her blindfold isn’t good, for two examples that caught my attention.

J’dal is pretty short and pretty sparse, but it’s not bad. If it were cleaned up, and fleshed out a bit, it could be a nice, if short, little fantasy adventure. I can imagine recommending something like this to new players of IF.

I struggled with what score to assign this one. It’s unpolished, short, and easy, but I did enjoy it, which is more important. I’m giving it 5/10, which is actually on the higher end of my ratings this year. I may be rating this year’s games a little harshly. Perhaps a revision of my scores will be in order, before the competition ends, but I’ll wait until I’ve played a few more to make that judgment.

Play time: 38 minutes.

Posted in 2012, Decent, Full Review, Interactive Fiction, Platform Independent | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

IFComp 2012: Signos

Posted by Tracy Poff on November 8, 2012

Signos by Mauricio Diaz Garcia is an entry in the 2012 ifcomp in which the player seeks enlightenment.

(This post contains spoilers. Read at your own risk.)

I had a great deal of trouble with this one. The version I was initially playing didn’t function at all correctly–the pictures weren’t displayed and the sound didn’t play, among other problems. These problems were resolved by playing a more recently updated version.

The premise is that the PC has created the environment of the game within his imagination to search for answers to the big questions in life, such as “Why am I here?” and “What’s my purpose?”. Attempting to answer those questions in an IF game would be pretty ambitious! Signos is not that ambitious.

For a game with such a lofty premise, Signos is remarkably simple. If the game would provide better responses to guide the player as to what is useful and what is not, it could be beaten in ten minutes by anybody. There’s nothing to it: imitate a few NPCs and use some items in the obvious ways and the game is done.

But the game is a little bewildering. The PC begins the game wearing a mask, and carrying a bottle of essence and a book, which is initially blank. Performing certain actions, such as removing the mask, will add a page to this book, on which is written the name of some vice, like “PRIDE”. If you perform none of the actions, you can hand over the bottle of essence to the buda you encounter, and win the game with no points. If you do perform some such action, you must start a fire and burn the pages before the buda will accept your bottle of essence. What exactly is the meaning of all of this? I guess that the PC is letting go of his vices by burning them, but why can you win without experiencing and renouncing all six?

The actions you have to take to get all six pages are sometimes quite obscure, too. In order to get page 4, “GLUTTONY”, you must drink water twice while in the lake, but not at the lake bottom. And just drink won’t do. How are you meant to figure this out? To get page 3, “WRATH”, you must yell at the buda. Why would you do that? If there are clues in the game to do these things, I missed them. Even guessing that the missing vices should be wrath, gluttony, and envy (which actually isn’t featured in the game), it doesn’t make it any easier to figure out what you’re supposed to do. I even had tried to kill buda, which seemed the thing to do when I met him, to no avail. The walkthrough was necessary.

Besides the general obscurity of the game, it had some other problems. It was generally underimplemented, missing many objects mentioned in the scene descriptions, and really needs synonyms–wake should do the same as wake up, and drink should have worked for drink water when swimming in the lake, for example. Furthermore, the help command just gives generic how-to-play-an-IF information, the hint command was useless, and the walkthrough command isn’t mentioned anywhere–I just guessed that it existed. Games should really always implement about, too, in my opinion, but I suppose that one didn’t really impact the gameplay.

I hate to be so negative. I do think that the idea (as I interpeted it) of experiencing and then letting go of vices could have some potential, but it wasn’t realized in Signos. I enjoyed this one even less than Murphy’s Law, so I fear I must give it only 1/10.

Play time: about 45 minutes for two playthroughs, counting time with the broken original version.

Posted in 2012, Bad, Full Review, Interactive Fiction, Platform Independent | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

IFComp 2012: Murphy’s Law

Posted by Tracy Poff on November 7, 2012

Murphy’s Law by Scott Hammack is an entry in the 2012 ifcomp. The player character has one last payment to make on his mortgage, but things keep going wrong.

(This post contains spoilers. Read at your own risk.)

As soon as I saw the title, I had a good idea what to expect, and the game didn’t let me down. You spend Murphy’s Law trying to send in your final mortgage payment, but problems keep cropping up that you have to deal with first. You get a papercut and have to bandage it, then you have to get a stamp, then your mailbox is destroyed so you have to drive to the bank to make the payment, but your car won’t start… and so forth.

On my first playthrough, I actually bled to death from my papercut before I managed to get the bandage on. That amused me, and I hoped that the rest of the game would be similarly over the top. Unfortunately, this hope was not realized. If I had to describe Murphy’s Law in a word, that word would be tedious. You must complete every boring step of every boring thing in order to complete the game. For example, when your car won’t start, you must use an emergency jump start kit to start it. To do this, you must pull hood lever and pull trunk lever, open trunk, get kit, open hood, put red cable on positive terminal, put black cable on negative terminal, and finally start car. Of course, you also have to remove kit and close hood before you can go anywhere. That’s just way too much work.

I suppose that the tedium was probably intentional. It shows that you have to go through so much, just to make a simple payment. But it was boring. There wasn’t nearly enough humor to make up for it. The game could have been much better, had it been funnier, or if it hadn’t insisted on making the player actually go through with all of the minute details, but, alas, it was not to be.

The game mostly worked as expected, but I did experience a bug when trying to start the car:

>start car
You’ll need to get inside first.

>enter car
But you’re already in your station wagon.

I got it to work, eventually, though.

This one gets only 2/10. I might have given it another point, because of the general competence of the implementation, but I only gave Escape From Summerland 3/10, and I liked it much better than this. Being boring is a bigger sin than being buggy, I fear.

Play time: 20 minutes for two playthroughs.

Posted in 2012, Bad, Full Review, Interactive Fiction, Platform Independent | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

IFComp 2012: Body Bargain

Posted by Tracy Poff on November 7, 2012

Body Bargain by Amanda Lange is an entry in the 2012 ifcomp about transhumanism.

(This post contains spoilers. Read at your own risk.)

You wake up cold and naked, with an IV stuck in your arms.

But this is all as it should be. The PC has gone to a black market doctor for a replacement body, and the surgery appears to have been a success. There’s just one difficulty: she couldn’t afford the surgery, so she’ll be working off her debt, assisting the doctor, Doctor Overclock. Body Bargain is a work of horror, and in the process of assisting the doctor, you will probably do and see some horrible things. But the ends justify the means, right?

Body Bargain is fairly straightforward. One thing that struck me was that the game was clearly designed to be played more than once. Since you’re just starting out as an assistant to Doctor Overclock when the game opens, he doesn’t expect you to know what you’re doing, so you’re given explicit instructions about what to do. If you follow his instructions, you’ll complete the game, though you might not much like the ending. During the course of the game, though you learn some things that you can investigate on further playthroughs. I think this worked quite well. I am sometimes bothered a little by using knowledge that the player character shouldn’t have yet in order to change the course of games, but I also kind of like it; it makes me think “what could have happened, if only the PC had known?”

This is the first game I’ve played from this year’s competition that I really enjoyed. The setting is interesting, the puzzles are fairly logical, and the horror theme works. Unfortunately, the game does suffer from a few problems.

First, the game is a little underimplemented. For example, the PC can pick up her old clothes in the beginning, and it’s mentioned that they include jeans, a shirt, socks, a bra, and panties. However, none of these individual items exist, even as synonyms for the whole pile of clothes. For another, there’s a stool in the initial room, which has a nice description, but:

>sit on stool
That’s not something you can sit down on.

The lack of depth of implementation isn’t really a problem–it doesn’t hamper solving the puzzles, except in one case, which I’ll describe shortly. I kind of feel like I’m unfairly in a beta-testing mindset when I complain about this, but I do enjoy games that are very thoroughly implemented. I wanted to sit on the swiveling stool and spin around, enjoying my new body. I wanted to be able to flip every switch and smell every table, or whatever. Well, it wasn’t to be.

There was, as I mentioned, one time when the lack of synonyms caused me difficulty. Near the end of the game, the PC’s sister is strapped to an operating table, and it may transpire that you wish to free her. I tried all sorts of things to accomplish this. I tried to release straps and just get straps. I tried to cut straps with various things. No luck. It turns out I needed to untie savannah. You mean she’s tied down with the straps? Not what I expected, and I didn’t figure it out without using a walkthrough.

As unfortunate as the underimplementation was, I was more annoyed by some bugs I encountered. Particularly, upon incapacitating the doctor, the game helpfully informs me (every turn, and sometimes twice a turn) that “–> The scene change machinery is stuck.”. Spectacular. There were a few other, more minor bugs, too, including one that wouldn’t let me get the scrubs at the beginning, so I couldn’t even leave the starting room on one attempt.

Despite the game’s problems, I did enjoy it, and I think that it has the potential to be really great if it gets a post-comp release cleaning it up a bit. Body Bargain gets a 6/10 from me, the highest score so far. I’d like to rate it higher, but the bugs are severe enough that I can’t justify it. I’d be happy to play it again, if it’s updated, though!

Play time: 78 minutes for six playthroughs.

Posted in 2012, Decent, Full Review, Interactive Fiction, Platform Independent | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

IFComp 2012: Escape From Summerland

Posted by Tracy Poff on November 6, 2012

Escape From Summerland by Jenny Roomy and Jasmine Lavages is an entry in the 2012 ifcomp with multiple player characters, set in an amusement park.

(This post contains spoilers. Read at your own risk.)

This game had some real promise. The idea of allowing the player to switch between multiple player characters isn’t, of course, completely new, but it’s rare in IF, so I was excited to see where the game would go with it. Unfortunately, Escape From Summerland just proved to be frustrating.

The game begins with the PC waking up in front of his caravan, which has been bombed. He notices that someone seems to be trapped inside, and when you enter to try to rescue him, you see that he has already died. Upon closer examination, the unfortunate man is revealed to be the player character–you are a ghost! Scene transition…

The player character is inside her home. There’s a branch, some hay, and a water thing within reach, and a shiny thing out of reach. Here, I encountered my first problem. The PC here eats hay, so I assumed it must be some sort of grazing animal, or maybe a rabbit, or something else that I knew ate grass and hay. It turns out, though, that the PC here is a gelada, a type of monkey that, it turns out, eats grass. I suppose the monkey-like emoticons (like this: @(^m^)@) ought to have tipped me off, but I didn’t work it out immediately. This is important, because I assumed the PC wouldn’t have useful hands, and so I didn’t immediately try to use the branch to retrieve the shiny thing, and until I did, the scene wouldn’t end.

This was really my fault–the solution was obvious, but I didn’t actually try to get branch. Instead, I used play with branch, which didn’t indicate to me that the PC had hands, and so I ended up restarting to see if there was something I should have done while I was the ghost. Eventually, I realized what I was meant to do, and proceeded. Having taken and played with the shiny thing, the scene again changes.

The player character is again the ghost, Amadan, who intends to make sure the monkey, Jacquotte, is safe. Along the way, you may note that a “fightbot” has crashed in the park. Upon reaching Jacquotte and verifying her safety, the scene again changes.

The player character is now the robot, and the player may switch freely between the ghost, monkey, and robot. Each has certain advantages: the monkey can manipulate certain things and go certain places that the robot may not; the ghost cannot interact with anything, but does recognize and describe objects in a useful way for the player; the robot is very strong and has a light emitter, to light up dark rooms.

After this point, I began to experience trouble. I collected a part of the robot with Jacquotte and brought it back to the robot to be installed, but couldn’t drop it, and got an error with I tried to play with it. After quite a bit of frustration, I found a walkthrough and learned that the component should have dropped into another location when I took or played with it, but for some reason did not. Upon returning to the screen I found it and playing with it there, I was able to proceed.

A little further on, I had to use an elevator. I entered it with the robot and monkey, got it to start moving up, and got totally stuck. The robot, while on the elevator, told me I needed to enter the elevator, then complained when I tried to do so that I was already there. There were no exits from that room. When I changed to the monkey, it could see the buttons in the room description, but when I tried pressing them, it “couldn’t see any such thing”. I fumbled around for a while, trying to get something to happen, but ultimately just gave up.

On the positive side of things, I really enjoyed seeing the world from multiple points of view. Jacquotte’s descriptions, in particular, were pretty fun.

As I said above, I think Escape From Summerland had promise, but it needed more work. I wish I could rate it higher, but I’m giving this one 3/10, which seems pretty generous for a game that made me quit in frustration.

Play time: about 45 minutes.

Posted in 2012, Full Review, Interactive Fiction, Platform Independent | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

IFComp 2012: Kicker

Posted by Tracy Poff on November 6, 2012

Kicker by Pippin Barr is an entry in the 2012 ifcomp in which the player takes on the role of a kicker on an American football team.

(This post contains spoilers. Read at your own risk.)

This is another fairly on-rails game. The PC has a defined role to play in the game, so the player’s options are somewhat limited. You can choose to walk out on your team, but the game ends when you do. If you choose to play your role, you spend most of your time on the sidelines, occasionally interrupted when you’re needed on the field. Then, you run onto the field, give the signal, kick the ball, and once again run off the field. Your options there are pretty limited, too–you can’t actually do much other than what you’re supposed to. You can waste some time by failing to give a signal, or waiting around rather than kicking the ball, but eventually you have to either do what you’re supposed to or the game ends.

So, the only real options you have, as a player, are how you will spend your time while you’re on the sidelines. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot to do. You can watch the crowd, or watch the game, or try (and fail) to talk to the various NPCs. You can practice kicking. You can drink a cup of sports drink. You can stretch or jump or sigh. You can smell things. Ultimately, all this means that you can’t do much of anything. It’s pretty much a game about not having anything to do.

Some of the responses the game gives are funny, and there are quite a few of them. If you choose to inspect the crowd, for example, it might say “Right at the back of the stands you seem to see the figure of death, with cowl, scythe and all. Was that fancy dress or your imagination or what?” or “You see a guy clad only in a g-string shaped like a football helmet. How did he even get in?”, for example. It’s a nice detail.

There are a number of puzzleless games that let you fill time however you can in a constraining situation. Aisle by Sam Barlow is a great example, and Galatea by Emily Short is another. I suppose that Kicker was aiming to be this sort of game, but I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much. Kicker seems to be about trying, and failing, to avoid boredom in a boring situation. The game is very competently done, but it just didn’t manage to keep my interest. If I could do more, or interact with the NPCs more, it could have been quite fun, but I think that would miss the point of the game.

Kicker is probably better, as an IF game, than The Test is Now READY, but I got bored with it more quickly. Overall, I figure Kicker, too, merits about a 5/10. Not enough fun to make me want to play it again, but not too bad.

Play time: 25 minutes for seven playthroughs.

Posted in 2012, American Football, Decent, Full Review, Interactive Fiction, Platform Independent | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

IFComp 2012: The Test is Now READY

Posted by Tracy Poff on November 6, 2012

The Test is Now READY by Jim Warrenfeltz is an entry in the 2012 ifcomp in which the player is presented with a series of moral choices.

(This post contains spoilers. Read at your own risk.)

The game began on a fairly strong note. In the opening sequence, the player has no choice but to run and hide from a group of zombies, which feels right for the situation. After a few turns, control is turned over to the player, along with a pressing problem: both the player and an NPC, Frank, have been infected by the zombies. You have a gun, with a single bullet. Frank has a single dose of the antidote. What will you do?

I initially thought that I was playing a game about a zombie apocalypse, but completing the first scene disabused me of that notion. Upon choosing how to deal with the zombie problem, you find yourself in a concrete interrogation room, with a prisoner before you, who you are told has information about an upcoming terrorist attack. It is your job to torture the prisoner in order to get the information you need to save thousands of lives. But the game hints very strongly that the prisoner is just an innocent person, and any information you get is just whatever the prisoner made up to stop the torture. How far will you go to get the information your superiors want?

The rest of the game follows the same formula. The player is presented with a series of well-known moral dilemmas, and is left to choose how to deal with them. The titular ‘test’, then, is a test of the moral opinions of the player (or, as it turns out, the AI which is the player character). After you’ve completed five tests, you are presented with a brief description of what your choices meant (for example, “When presented with the opportunity to live a life of meaningless pleasure, the testee chose to ignore temptation.”), and it is explained that the player character is an artificial intelligence, which has had it morals investigated to determine what sort of job it might be suitable for.

I’m of two minds about the game. On the one hand, putting these moral questions into an interactive fiction game makes the what-would-you-do question much more personal. I think this is a great success. On the other hand, the game isn’t that interesting. I was already familiar with the scenarios, so I wasn’t being presented with new and exciting moral questions, and the game is very much on rails. You can’t do much else than make a decision, and then you’re whisked off to the next scene. The game would have been stronger if the player had more options. The depth of the implementation was also unsatisfying–it didn’t know what a floor was, and ‘wall’ didn’t work as a synonym for ‘walls’, for example. A minor detail, but I enjoy being able to investigate absolutely everything in a game.

I’ve got to rate this one 5 out of 10 (subject to change as I review more games, I suppose). From the standpoint of ethical thought experiments, The Test is Now READY is a pretty good use of medium, but from the standpoint of interactive fiction, it lacks interactivity and depth of implementation. I played through three times, to make sure I’d seen all the game had to offer, but I don’t see myself revisiting it, in the future.

Total play time: about 40 minutes.

Posted in 2012, Decent, Full Review, Interactive Fiction, Platform Independent | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »