Interactive Fiction Competition: Fan Interference, Cana According To Micah, and Last Day of Summer

The results are in for the 2011 IFComp. Below the fold, I have my final three reviews for games that I played. But first, a few comments on the competition as a whole:

  • I played 11 of the 38 games, and chose them randomly so there would be no selection bias when I submitted my votes. Of these 11, I only played 2 games in the top third and 3 in the bottom. Apparently, I ended up with a lot of the average games.
  • I suspect that I was grading slightly too kindly, and that seems confirmed now that I see how many high-rated games I missed. I am staying consistent with my scoring for the reviews here, but will probably be slightly harsher next year. My normal standard for giving something a B is “would I recommend this?”, which works well for books and CDs, but may be a little too low a bar for a free half-hour game.
  • Though my scores may have been a little too generous, I see that 9 of my reviews were pretty close to the universal consensus, but I liked 2 of them much better than most people. I stand by those, though: Blind was a surprisingly immersive and tense experience, and The Guardian was a strange but successful experiment in “interactive” storytelling. It’s possible that my years away from the IF scene made those seem more creative to me than they actually were, but that’s the only possible argument I can come up with.
  • I’ll definitely be playing again next year. It was fun, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that about half of the games are now designed to be completed in well under the 2-hour time limit. That will make it easier for me to commit to.

My previous reviews can be found here, here, here, and here. Now, on to three puzzle-based games: Fan Interference, Cana According To Micah, and Last Day of Summer.

Christopher Huang’s Cana According To Micah is an example of how a community of amateur enthusiasts can create works with a focus that simply wouldn’t be found in commercial games. Not that the Bible is an unpopular topic, but Cana presents it with a pseudo-scholarly depth. The introduction is a 19th-century article about this alleged apocryphal text, written convincingly enough that I had to do some Googling to confirm that it was not real. (Huang even published this as “The Reverend Stephen Dawson” rather than under his own name.) And some of the jokes and plot points show some depth and care for the subject (such as the Hebrew language humor of “I wish there were a word for brothers and sisters who aren’t actually your brothers and sisters, don’t you?”)

The game, though, is a pure text adventure with puzzles. You play the role of a servant at the wedding party where Jesus turns water into wine. The introduction posits that this Bible story was written in the second person to make the reader feel that they were there to witness the miracle, but the story doesn’t actually feel proselytic or hung up on religious reverence. The game spends a lot of time on the puzzles that lead up to the miracle, while the main event is handled quickly and non-interactively.

Though you can get more accurate detail in the game’s Help system, the main game plays fast and loose with some Biblical characters and events. For the most part, it’s to make sure that the story is populated with people the player will recognize, and to keep it fun. John the Baptist is surly and anti-social, while soldiers sent by Herod to arrest him are bumbling fools. It strikes the right note for a story that relies on sometimes-arbitrary puzzles.

Those puzzles are fairly standard and of moderate difficulty. I liked most of them, but did find a couple to be unfair. Even those make perfect sense in retrospect, but I’d needed more information about what the next step should have been. The atmosphere and attention to detail does a lot to elevate the puzzles, though. The game is character-based and relies on conversation, and it can be fun to hear different Biblical characters’ opinions of each other. Details of the plot revolve around rabbis, honeyed locusts, and other elements of the culture, shown in enough depth to feel honest but casual enough not to be off-putting to a general audience.

There are also multiple paths through the game, with the choices you make leading you to different puzzles or requiring different solutions to the same ones. This is unusual, and requires a lot of additional design effort to pull off. It even provides different epilogues based on your actions. Those are a little more focused on a Christian message, but they are fun to find and feel perfectly appropriate (in fact, it’s good to see them address the bad acts you can potentially do during the game).

Cleverly integrating fun puzzles into an original environment, Cana is one of highlights of this year’s competition.

Grade: B+

Similarly, Fan Interference seems to be based on a deep interest of the author. In this case, Andrew Schultz is obviously a big fan of baseball. Not only is the game filled with factoids and footnotes to help out anyone unfamiliar with the pastime, but the plot is based around a fairly in-depth alternate history of game 6 of the 2003 National League Championship. Schultz has definitely thought out the baseball details, though it would be nice if some of his actual excitement carried through in the text. Between the plain descriptions and sometimes awkward pacing, players aren’t going to identify with the baseball-obsessed protagonist.

This is a puzzle-fest, in which you must explore the stadium and make a few specific changes to history. How you know about these changes isn’t quite explained, but a mysterious man does have instructions for you. (A detailed background of what can and can’t be done when changing history plays right into the strengths of text adventures – basically, that an unknown person needs to manipulate events behind the scenes. This game was definitely thought through.)

The puzzle solutions themselves are generally clever, as are the ways that Schultz came up with to let a person in the stands impact a ball game. Unfortunately, the puzzles are never clued in, and I usually had to appreciate their cleverness while following along on the walkthrough. Many are timing-dependent (so much so that I had to restart a few times even while using that walkthrough!), or involve several parts so that a player who gets it mostly right will still fail. It’s also quite easy to make the game unwinnable, as many items can be used up or need to be obtained at a specific time. Some of these missed chances are not obvious: The puzzle in the men’s room needs to be solved before the puzzle that involves a bowl of nachos. But if you pick up those nachos when you find them, the game won’t let you drop them and won’t let you into the men’s room with food. There is also an annoying amount of “guess the verb”, and it wasn’t intuitive that it is important to perform various bodily functions after you eat or drink the items in the stadium. (The bathroom humor is unusual for interactive fiction, but appropriate to the baseball stadium.)

Part of my difficulty with this game is that I tried to complete it within the IFComp’s 2-hour time limit. If someone went in to this expecting the same lengthy play as a classic Infocom game, I could see them figuring out many of the puzzles and enjoying it a lot more than I did. A few puzzles, though (including a non-obvious endgame after the Cubs win) would never occur to anyone who didn’t peek at the solution.

The quality of the programming is also uneven. There are a lot of details, random events, and location-dependent checks that were obviously thought through well. However, I ran into more issues than I can forgive even by IFComp standards: For example, I solved an early puzzle after a character mentioned that he’d seen me do it. I also found myself unable to buy a certain object after the seller walked away (you need to do it within a time limit), leaving the object behind, and the game still insisted that the seller would get mad if I just took it. (I played this early in the competition, and it has already been updated. I can’t say for sure whether my issues were addressed, but I’m glad to see the author willing to improve it.)

As promising as some elements of this game were, the overall effect was underwhelming. It repeatedly expected me to read the creator’s mind, and was hard to follow even when I was reading the solution. This was a potentially good 10-hour game that compressed all its puzzles into a buggy, poorly-clued 2-hour game.

Grade: C-

Cameron Fox’s Last Day Of Summer is a very simple series of puzzles in a vague setting, kind of the opposite of Fan Interference:. This could be completed in a half hour even by relative novices. There are five puzzles, and that’s only because the game apparently counts finding a key and using it as two separate accomplishments.

The story, such as it is, is pleasant, with you being a farmer kid who sets off to sell cranberries at the market and gets sidetracked. The majority of the text is interesting and thematic, but the puzzles just seem shoehorned in. For example, a stranger who shows up to trade you an item you need for one you’re done using feels out of place and arbitrary. It also would have been nice if the game had implemented more of the actions you might try to do to your environment. Everything is described carefully, but your immersion will depend on how distracting it is for you to see “That is just scenery, and can’t be taken”. You’ll encounter a lot of scenery over the course of this short game.

Last Day Of Summer is decent and never frustrating, though it’s too short and simple to actually be fun.

Grade: C

    • Andrew Schultz
    • November 23rd, 2011

    Thanks for taking the time to review (and complete) my game, despite the misdirection it caused you. Yes, the table that didn’t disappear but should have was a big error. And that was one the very early revisions–I’m 95% sure! It’s getting tested for the re-release, which is more about trying to do things the right way than for gaining popular acclaim.

    During the judging session I managed to figure a way to clue things better and eliminate a lot of the verb guessing. I also figured out a lot about the Inform IDE that would’ve made things much simpler, if I’d known them at the time.

    I’m frustrated I couldn’t make the puzzles easier–I think that my idea of a fun game is one that does get me stuck and where I can get the hints. I tend to remember the games with odd solutions even if they sacrifice clarity, but that shouldn’t mean deliberately obscured stuff. I think having hints in the flow of the game is less likely to break up immersion than the “hints” command, though I’m not shy about trying hints myself.

    I missed a lot of backstory, and I missed a lot of stuff I wanted to implement, or that I said I’d get around to later but I never did. And seeing other games that were simpler or more effective gives me a better idea of how to do the right things.

    Thanks again. Hope you are able to judge next year, as well.

    • The review of your game was one of the harder ones for me to write, because I really liked a lot of it, but I just didn’t feel like I could give the final result a good rating. I’m glad to know that you’re planning to re-release it with more fixes, because I think that most of the flaws can be addressed, and the puzzles and backstory really were cool.
      The IFComp does tend to skew people’s perception of what makes a game “unfair”. I expect to be able to complete the entries in 2 hours, maybe with a couple hints from the walkthrough. Your game wasn’t designed for that timeframe, and its existence in the comp was almost like a misleading puzzle clue. It told me that if I went 15 minutes without progress, I was doing something wrong. Really, these were the kind of puzzles that a player should spend an hour or two on each, or still be thinking about new things to try the next morning in the shower.
      Also, I should say that this was the first game I played in the competition – I wrote my reviews out of order, based on when I found other ones that fit together to make a theme. So I played the initial version, without the revisions that you made later. If anything I mentioned was fixed by the time I posted my review, that was why. Sorry for the confusion there.
      I’m definitely looking forward to seeing your next game – Your puzzles were some of the most memorable ones I saw.

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