What the hell is "interactive fiction"? Remember the classic 80s text adventure Infocom games like Zork? The tradition is alive and well with a dedicated freeware development community running an annual talent contest. I've dredged up my batch of reviews from 2001...
Presented here are reviews of every TADS game entered in this year's comp, in order from worst to best. Overall, there were no classics in this line-up, but then again no clinkers either. Unsurprisingly, the actual winners turned out to be all Inform games.
A Galatea-style conversation piece... not being a fan of Galatea, I didn't get much out of this one. I ASKed and TELLed as much as possible but soon ran out of ideas. Didn't give it a high score as this kind of thing can't be hard to implement.
Volcano Isle (2/10)
A white on yellow colour scheme? This author needs help! I hope they didn't decorate their own house... Volcano Isle is not a game I could get into. There's just way too many items lying around, too much mapping & exploration required, too much inventory juggling. In short, too much effort. The appearance of the Zork thief was enough to convince me that this was a strictly old-school adventure, not something I was willing to subject myself to.
Apparently a game with lots of depth, but it's way too hard and unintuitive. There is a huge forest to explore and map (no thanks), and in the middle of it a castle where you receive a quest... to find and capture an unicorn. So I went and captured the unicorn and brought it back to the castle... and got the "losing" ending. Did I do something wrong? I didn't get any prompts to do anything different... The walkthrough indicates there is much, much, more, but I doubt many players are going to get that far, the rest of the game is so well hidden behind obscure puzzles. Not much is implemented in terms of verbs/actions, which hinders the game severely.
Journey from an Islet (5/10)
More of an art-piece than a game, Journey has some nice imagery, excellent HTML-TADS presentation, and... not much more. Its strangely unengaging to play, and the puzzles tend to be very unintuitive. By the end I was simply following the walkthrough. The appearance of some strange red herrings (the sharp rock and the string) left me thinking that perhaps something more was planned?
No Time To Squeal (5/10)
The legacy of Photopia lives on... here we have a game that starts off "in real life", shifts perspectives to different characters, then leaps into a fantasy world... all the while revealing different aspects of a central event. So no marks for originality. But there is one great technical innovation: the game saves the vignette you are currently in to an external file automatically, so when you quit and restart, you restart in the latest vignette, and as a result never need to manually SAVE. While this may not sound extraordinary, experiencing it for the first time is a real thrill. Game-wise, initially it follows the Photopia mould, with not much to do except perform the obvious action. Then suddenly you are presented with puzzles, and sadly they're just too damn hard. What killed the game for me was some bugs with the sword that made the game apparently uncompletable.
A virtual-reality themed game.. but its no Matrix... Grayscale seems to be attempting to do something clever (are you playing this game or beta-testing it from the inside?) but unfortunately the implementation quality is not high enough to enable this aspect to come out. There is a surprising number of simple spelling mistakes (unusual for a game obsessed with poetry), puzzles are made much more difficult than they should be because certain actions/verbs are not available, and there is a very frustrating bug with the secret compartment, that almost makes the game uncompletable.
Unusual and interesting, Fusillade is innovative in two ways. Firstly, a full midi soundtrack! This really works in adding atmosphere. Secondly, the game mechanics - you are thrown from one vignette to another, with little or no connection between them, and therefore are constantly having to work out who you are, where you are and what you're supposed to be doing (a bit like Sam Beckett in Quantum Leap). Credit to the author for somehow making this style of game interesting and absorbing, even though it seemed to me to be completely random. Perhaps a pattern to it all would have been revealed had I reached the end, unfortunately the game became uncompletable when i got stuck unable to throw rocks in the Doctor Who scenario.
The Cruise (6/10)
Pretty obviously a "my first game" effort, Cruise suffers from all the usual beginner's flaws: inventory limits, bugs (try dropping and picking up the suitcase) and a ridiculous plot ("get the 3 magic crystals hidden on a cruise liner to destroy a demon" or something). But what sets it apart from the more mediocre efforts is the surprising attention to detail (try entering the restaurant wearing a bathing suit), good writing, and puzzles that are actually fun.
The Beetmongers Journal (7/10)
Can't fault the quality of presentation in this one: it makes full use of HTML-TADS, with atmospheric pictures, a nice colour scheme, and generally a professional, polished look and feel. Game-wise, its playable enough, although there were often periods where I was wondering around looking for something to do, and when I did figure out what was next, I found the puzzles a little too difficult for my liking. This is the type of game that wins IFComps, but for me there's just something about the pretentious wordy writing style (that seems to afflict most "serious" IF these days) and the stories-within-stories that annoys me. Probably because its deliberately designed to appeal to the English Literature crowd that dominates the IF scene.
The Coast House (7/10)
A very straight-forward "uncover your ancestor's secrets" type of game that evokes Anchorhead in some respects. It's perfect for the IFComp as it hits just the right level of difficulty, is short enough, and intriguing enough to keep you playing to the end in one sitting. While one or two bugs were present, they didn't detract from the fun-factor. Rather abrupt ending.
A Night Guest (8/10)
Nothing more than an interactive poem... and even then, the interaction is limited, as the poem will remain unchanged whatever actions you perform as a player, all you must do is guess-the-verb in order to get the next verse. However, it must be said that the poem itself is very entertaining (in that old "jolly victorian" style), the woodcut style illustrations are *fantastic*, and the numerous responses to your incorrect commands are very humorous. In fact, it succeeds perfectly in its aim.. If that aim had been more ambitious (a "branching" poem based on the choices made?) this would easily have been a classic.