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IF Comp 2013: 'The Wizard's Apprentice' by Alex Freeman

I reviewed the games entered in the 19th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition that I completed within the two-hour time limit for open judging.

Unlike the other Comp games that I've reviewed, this one is not playable in web browsers.  To play it, download the file 'apprent.gam' (link is to IF Archive competition listing) and use the official interpreter software (Windows), QTads (Linux, Mac, Windows), or Gargoyle (Linux, Mac, Windows).

A plainly-presented text adventure that feels old without evoking much of a retro feel, The Wizard's Apprentice is straightforward and mediocre.  Still, the game holds some interest due to its attempted characterization of a conventional text adventure scenario.  The game attempts to use the stereotypical text adventure conventions in a patronized, cute way.  Although that attempt fails, the failure is itself somewhat interesting.

The game is implemented in the older version of TADS, and its design and world model would probably have be…

IF Comp 2013: '100,000 years' by Pierre Chevalier

I'm reviewing the games entered in the 19th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition that I complete within the two-hour time limit for open judging.

Brief and intriguing, 100,000 years is an interactive poem.  It uses the hypertext medium better than parser-based attempts at interactive poetry tend to use either the command prompt or keywords.  Its strength lies is its innovation, the way it uses its extremely minimalist interaction mechanic to reveal the poetic technique.

The method of interaction actually feels like an organic part of the poetic structure.  There are no choices to select or links to click; the interactive poem is simply controlled by clicking ASCII arrows to move between the six stanzas.  This should be too minimal to be effective, but the way that this mechanical is tactically related to the content of the stanzas is actually quite interesting.

Not to say that the poem's minimalist design isn't a problem.  Although the minimalist mechanic is integrated perf…

IF Comp 2013: 'Tex Bonaventure and the Temple of the Water of Life' by Truthcraze

I'm reviewing the games entered in the 19th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition that I complete within the two-hour time limit for open judging.

Science fiction shows like Doctor Who and to some degree Star Trek often embrace their own campiness and geek appeal, while still telling serious stories in their genre.  Tex Bonaventure and the Temple of the Water of Life does this with the conventions of traditional parser IF.  Very meta without quite becoming parody, Tex Bonaventure pays enthusiastic homage to the tradition of old-school text adventure games.

The game's design hybridizes the puzzlefest tradition with the IF community's modern expectation of convenience.  Most modern text adventures merge puzzles with convenience by making sure that the puzzles are fair, not too difficult, and (if the game has a significant narrative framework) organic to story and setting.  Tex Bonaventure instead teases the unfairness of the early text adventures, while framing the unfair p…

IF Comp 2013: 'Solarium' by Alan DeNiro

I'm reviewing the games entered in the 19th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition that I complete within the two-hour time limit for open judging.

Unlike most of my reviews, this one contains a spoilery addendum, which is marked.

Solarium is all about the arcane and the obtuse.  Its plot and themes reference Gnostic mysticism, while its interactivity demonstrates mechanics that clearly relate to the premise but remain confusing and distant.  My experience with this choice-based web game was slow, often bordering on tedious.  However, the game succeeded in making me feel unsettled, and both the premise and the implementation are interesting enough to sustain through the boring parts.

The story is an alternate history of a world ravaged by nuclear war.  Set primarily in a post-nuclear-apocalypse version of the 1950s, the story tells how disillusioned supernatural entities strive to destroy and to save the world, infiltrating cults and secret societies as they reincarnate through the …

IF Comp 2013: 'Moquette' by Alex Warren

I'm reviewing the games entered in the 19th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition that I complete within the two-hour time limit for open judging.

Most choice-based IF games leave me unsatisfied due to a lack of simulation and mechanics.  Simply varying the text based on player choice is not enough for me.  I think simple hypertext stories have a place, and I would like to see web-based IF integrated into online short-story publications.  However, when I'm judging the Comp, I'm looking for a different experience. I can't feel satisfied with a game unless it simulates something tangible, whether or not the simulation includes the typical conventions of room-based geography and object-based inventory.


Moquette functions mechanically like many of the hyperlink games entered into this year's Comp, but it incorporates a framework of tangible simulation. Powered by Quest, Moquette features special effects that seem native both to the medium of text and to the browser.

Bo…

IF Comp 2013: 'Dream Pieces' by Iam Curio

I'm reviewing the games entered in the 19th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition that I complete within the two-hour time limit for open judging.

Surreal is a genre in IF, perhaps vaguely related to magical realism, but dependent upon the text-based simulation and interactivity of traditional text adventures.  Despite being native to text adventures and at least somewhat common in the annual Competition, surrealism seems difficult to pull off well.  Dream Pieces makes a haphazard use of many of the conventions of IF surrealism, creating a disjointed and relatively weak but not altogether unsatisfying experience.

The atmosphere of the game feels bizarre.  I appreciate abstraction, but the abstract nature of Dream Pieces is too unfocused for me.  There is something slightly horrific behind the two elements that form the premise: you are dreaming, and it is your birthday.  The game attempts to break the fourth wall by having the player enter his or her birthday at the first command p…

IF Comp 2013: 'Imposter Syndrome' by Georgianna Bourbonnais

I'm reviewing the games entered in the 19th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition that I complete within the two-hour time limit for open judging.

Another link-based web story, Imposter Syndrome voices the internal conflict of a black woman working in a near-future tech industry.  As a social piece, the story criticizes the sexism and misogyny in the contemporary tech industry, and the specific criticism is more effective than a generally feminist theme would have been.  Its greatest failing is that there is not much to the game as a whole beyond its social purpose.  There is characterization, but the plot, the interactivity, and even the setting could all use more development.

I agree with the slightly uncomfortable theme -- that for all our advancing technology and our supposed progress, we aren't even coming close to eliminating the conventional prejudices and basic human cruelty.  The game offers no optimistic hope that we might transcend this.  In fact, the end of the ga…

IF Comp 2013: 'Bell Park, Youth Detective' by Brendan Patrick Hennessy

I'm reviewing the games entered in the 19th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition that I complete within the two-hour time limit for open judging.

Here is a mechanically simplistic web CYOA that transcends the simplicity of its design by the the strength of its storytelling and its gently resonating themes.

Bell Park, Youth Detective uses a minimal CYOA framework to tell a lightly humorous detective story, a 12 year-old girl cast as the detective.  The detective plot feels relatively unimportant, even though there are no non-plot-related goals to explore or substantial side plots.  There is a murder at a technology conference.  By some unclear reasoning, the conference director decides that asking the preteen to solve the murder might prevent the police from ruining the conference.  The best thing about the plot is that the young protagonist doesn't turn out to be an obnoxiously infallible prodigy, and with the possible exception of the potential villain, the conference direct…

IF Comp 2013: 'Sam and Leo Go To The Bodega' by Richard Goodness

I'm reviewing the games entered in the 19th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition that I complete within the two-hour time limit for open judging.

This hypertext game is small, unambitious, and personal.  As the game makes a point to tell the reader, there is practically no conflict.  There is even very little atmosphere.  All of the interest comes from characterization, and the point seems to be demonstrating the characters are valuable, sympathetic people.

Sam and Leo Go To The Bodega depicts two marijuana addicts shopping for snacks.  There are a few different categories of snacks, and the player chooses the characters' selection from a list of possible choices in each of the categories.  Every choice produces a screen of backstory about the characters, and then the checkout sequence has some variation depending on what the characters are purchasing.

The game shifts viewpoints at the end, giving the reader control over the cashier's choices.  The cashier's available…

IF Comp 2013: 'Our Boys in Uniform' by Megan Stevens

I'm reviewing the games entered in the 19th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition that I complete within the two-hour time limit for open judging.

Self-described as "cynical" in its blurb on the Comp voting page, Our Boys in Uniform explores the viewpoint of an unwilling American soldier during World War II.  There is no satire for the cynical attitude to hide behind, and the final screen has a "Message" link where the author gives readers a relatively non-controversial pep-talk related to the theme.  The result of the combination of cynicism and openness is that although the game feels somewhat preachy, it also feels less manipulative and heavy-handed than an overtly cynical work should.

The narrative technique is interesting.  The first screen briefly explains the relationship between the links and progression through the narrative -- a technique that I wish more Twine games would adopt.  The narrative is structured around the commentary of the first-person …

IF Comp 2013: '9Lives' by Bill Balistreri, Hal Hinderliter, Sean Klabough, Luke Michalski and Morgan Sokol

I'm reviewing the games entered in the 19th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition that I complete within the two-hour time limit for open judging.

Interactive fiction often excels at changing milieu during the course of a game by segmenting the game world into scenes set in different locations and/or times.  The scenes are related to each other thematically, and the player can journeys either at the whim of the plot or deliberately by a magical (or mystical, or surreal) mechanic.  9Lives takes this approach, presenting a dramatic method of travelling across different times and places within the framework of a strong theme.  Although possessing some memorable elements, 9Lives largely fails to give each individual scene an interesting characterization.  The player's experience is dampened by too much handholding, as well as by shallow implementation.

The theme and the primary mechanic of 9lives are based on reincarnation and karma.  Quotations attributed to Buddha appear at the…

IF Comp 2013: 'Saving John' by Josephine Tsay

I'm reviewing the games entered in the 19th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition that I complete within the two-hour time limit for open judging.

Psychological themes appear to be common in choice-based IF, where choices or links represent the perception of the protagonist.  The psychological narrative of Saving John feels like a well-worn convention among web-based Twine games.  The plot branches are fairly independent from each other but are also interwoven, and the choices made between the branches determine the outcome.  This simple mechanic is implemented well, and the strength of the story's theme makes the game relatively worthwhile.

The choices are usually separated from the text, rather than sprinkled throughout each screen as links.  This avoids the inherent confusion about the relationship of a linked word to the narrative consequence of the choice, which some Twine games probably turn into a feature.  The result here is that there is a strong sense of agency -- m…

IF Comp 2013: 'Captain Vedeterre's Plunder' by Ryan Veeder

The 19th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition is underway.  This year, I plan to review the games that I finish within the two-hour time limit for open judging.

Captain Verdeterre's Plunder uses the turn-based time system of the traditional text adventure to create a small but clever treasure hunt.  The game feels old-school, and the concept would probably not work in any medium other than parser IF.  Still, the streamlined efficiency with which the game uses the mechanic of turn-based time puzzles and the convention of treasure hunting feels innovative.  I imagine that all this has probably been done before in larger and better games, but maybe these specific mechanics have been done so effectively and elegantly.

Although designed to be played and failed repeatedly as the player learns the mechanic and memorizes the map, the game rewards the player for modest success.  It would be logical for a crueler game using these trial-and-error mechanics to disable the UNDO command.  Howe…

Lament of the Lost Moon

Review of Under Every Moon by G.L. Francis
Disclaimer:  I received a free digital copy for review.
The poetry anthology Under Every Moon by G.L. Francis uses the pigments of world folklore and nautical tradition to color a subtle vision of reality, full of spiritual depth and of the fantastic. The poems largely forsake traditional meter and familiar rhyme schemes, and the themes and references can be obscure. These are not poems that would show up on the back of your church's Sunday bulletin.
The poems are diverse from each other in topic, style, and mood. Most are not viscerally emotional. Presenting life from a strange or fantastic viewpoint seems to be a greater priority than using poetic language to elicit strong feelings. Wonder mingled with gentle longing is the primary emotional cast for the collection as a whole. The ballad-like “Wolfiranas” evokes a sense of adventure, and several of the poems – including the opening poem “Dreamspinner” – create strong secondary impres…

Ice and Fire

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What makes me like stuff that I don't

I typically hate sentimental stuff, especially Evangelical sentimental stuff.  Still, sentimentality can carry both truth and beauty when conveyed with skill and genuine sincerity.  This simple, sentimental song from YouTube that may or may not be titled "Pray" has affected me profoundly.


I first encountered this song several months ago, at a meeting of a Christian group in an online roleplaying game.  Since then, the words have come back to my mind much as themes and significant moments from my favorite high fantasy novels and space opera shows come to my mind.  I don't know that I actually like the song as a song.  It's not to my taste.  However, the song inspires truth and realism, and truth itself is beautiful for its own merits.

The song initially appears to be darkly ironic.  As the singer prays for difficulty and worldly failure for her friend, the realization that the song is totally open and up-front in its meaning c…

The Old Tree

Review of Bid the Gods Arise by Robert Mullin

Bid the Gods Arise by Robert Mullin takes the basic materials of ancient Judeo-Christian legend and gives them life and coherence in a mythic universe.  In doing so, it avoids falling into the Evangelical stereotypes of the same source material, and it is definitely not “biblical fiction.”  The myth-creation leaves intriguing implications, and few individual novels cover as vast a scope.  The worldbuilding does not quite live up to the vast scope of the mythopoeia, and the pacing and characters seem geared toward creating a lighter, entertaining adventure.

It is practically impossible to say very much about Bid the Gods Arise without the risk of spoiling the main plot hook.  Most readers who have followed reviews of Bid the Gods Arise before picking it up were probably spoiled, since even a discussion of genre in relation to this novel can imply part of the plot hook.  Although I do not intend to reveal plot details unnecessarily, this revie…

The Anomalous Archive, Part XXIV: 'Bloomship' by G.L. Francis

[This review was originally posted on the Anomaly forum on November 25, 2011.]

"Bloomship," 1st in Issue 9 of The Cross and the Cosmos


Characterizing the template world of the Bermuda Expanse from the "Twin Universes" of The Cross and the Cosmos, G.L. Francis has written an episode that captures what may be the best application of science fiction -- the existence of mystery beyond our experience. The mystery of this story is centered in a feature of the Bermuda Expanse boilerplate -- a gaseous cloud within the Bermuda solar system called the Anomaly. The protagonist's awe of the Anomaly is transferred to an awe of the universe, and of its Creator. The race called JellyFish is brought to life in such a way that they seem bizarre without feeling sinister. Even though the more proper name for this race (in this story) is "Medusaens," these creatures are not necessarily ugly. Like the Anomaly itself, the Medusaens are beyond understanding.

That protagonist…

The Anomalous Archive, Part XXIII: 'Forgotten' by Edward D. Casey

[This review was originally posted on the Anomaly forum on July 21, 2011.]

"Forgotten," 3rd in Issue 8 of The Cross and the Cosmos

“Forgotten” by Edward D. Casey contains an interesting hybrid of science fiction ideas. First of all, the futuristic vision and the conception of space travel are realistic and familiar, feeling like an extension of NASA and the current space situation. In fact, Casey seems to be predicting a trend toward corporate space technology that recent news seems to support (I just read an article about the end of the shuttle program). All of this gives the space travel a hard, classic feel.

But the technological device around which the plot is structured is different. I think the concept of faster-than-light travel could fit within the framework of a relatively near-future, hard science fiction, but I wouldn't expect it to be portrayed anything like the way it is in “Forgotten.” Although the story explains that the technology is not brand-new, and ev…