The First Annual Pseudo-Official XYZZY Awards Review

If there's one thing better than people telling you they like something you did, it's having them explain why they liked it, in detail. ("Go on," you say, inclining your head in a sagacious manner and attempting to suppress a gleeful squeak.) And since the XYZZYs are intended to pick out the best of the year's IF, we decided that the finalists deserved some detailed reviews. (If they're any use to players or other authors, that's a bonus.)

We had hoped to get two reviewers per category, but what with one thing and another we didn't manage to cover every category. Apologies to the authors of games nominated for Best Story, Best Puzzles, Best Individual NPC. Next year we'll do better.

All reviews should be expected to contain *** honking big spoilers ***. You have been warned.

Best Writing: Sam Kabo Ashwell on Cryptozookeeper, Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis, Zombie Exodus and Taco Fiction

Best Setting: Jacqueline A. Lott on Cryptozookeeper, Marine Raider, Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis, Six and Zombie Exodus
       Marco Innocenti on Zombie Exodus, Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis, Marine Raider, Six and Cryptozookeeper

Best NPCs: Aaron Reed on Zombie Exodus, The Play, Six, Cana According to Micah and Cryptozookeeper
       Sam Kabo Ashwell on Cana According to Micah, The Play, Cryptozookeeper, Zombie Exodus and Six

Best Individual Puzzle: Lucian Smith on The Race, Indigo and How Suzy Got Her Powers

Best Individual PC: Marius Müller on Alistair Liddell, Mangiasaur, Mentula Macanus, Morgoth, Lord of Darkness and Nicholas St. John

Best Implementation: Joey Jones on Six, Taco Fiction and Zombie Exodus

Best Use of Innovation: Joey Jones on Kerkerkruip, maybe make some change and Zombie Exodus

Best Technological Development Iain Merrick on ADRIFT WebRunner, Hugor, TADS 3.1 and Vorple

Best Supplemental Materials: J. Robinson Wheeler on the Almanac from Lost Islands of Alabaz, manual and screencast tutorials from Kerkerkruip, and the manual from Six

Sam Kabo Ashwell on Best Writing

Cryptozookeeper; Robb Sherwin

Robb's games live or die by his writing chops. I usually think of him as being in the same bag as things like Achewood or Templar, Arizona; idiosyncratic, making up its own slangy speech patterns in a highly contemporary-Americana style, a distinct style born from entertainingly profane Internet reviews of crazy-ass shit. It revels in inelegance, as long as it's strikingly inelegant. It's a thoughtstream kind of writing: its basic subject is how crazy the world looks through the author's eyes, so its use can turn even mundane subjects into surreal epics. So, magical realism, basically.

The corner of this building has a window at ground level. There aren't any security signs upon it, or systems that seem to be in place, other than 'windows make a lot of sound when shattered', which is a feature you get for free with windows, even the ones in this town sold door to door. You were under the impression that the place was recently constructed, but judging by the deep scratches along the exterior, the place has apparently been under siege by either a pack of ravenous, wild, raving bobcats or sentient handclaws.
The standard, design-theory-driven ideal of IF prose is that you keep it short and to-the-point, focused on the critical information; apart from being a good principle of writing in general, this makes it less likely that the player will get bogged down in big blocks of text or distracted by irrelevant details. Robb, however, is rarely very interested in the conventional wisdom of IF design, and here, as so often, his writing looks like a runaway stream of consciousness. But it rarely lurches far without doing important work on setting and characterisation. Another important thing that prose should do in a game is reward the player. When you find some significant new text, that should feel like a small gift from the author, it should contain something that's immediately pleasurable in its own right. Robb really gets this: his jokes are good, but even when there isn't anything that works as a joke, per se, there's usually a juicy little phrase or a striking image. Sometimes this can start to feel as if it's trying too hard — really, sentient handclaws? If you look too closely, there are plenty of things that fall flat. But if you're playing naturally, you don't really notice the flat notes; and you're still getting regular nuggets of goodness.

On the large scale, Cryptozookeeper's episodic structure affords it the space to try a number of writing experiments; some of them are pretty weird. There's an (optional) section that's rendered as lamentable poetry, for no very clear reason. (The solution to that section relies on your having picked up on a turn of phrase that's used repeatedly elsewhere in the game, so paying attention to style is clearly important).

One of the bigger disappointments in the game, writing-wise, is the combat that's at the centre of everything. Obviously it's likely that you're going to do a lot of it, and the cryptids are so numerous and weird that any approach to describing the fights in a non-crap way would represent a huge amount of work. Instead of a giant pile of hand-crafted individual responses, or a tangled web of context-sensitive code to generate engaging and appropriate responses, combat operates at about the level of two ASCII characters nutting each other in a roguelike. Robb's writing is generally loaded with pop culture references that few people will get, but the combat text is boiled down until there's little remaining but references. The result is that animal combat, which elsewhere in the text is generally presented as a brutal, morally unsavoury thing, feels a lot more like a cartoonish arcade game than anything. (Which is rather plainly acknowledged by how you set fights up.) Writing interesting combat (and action sequences generally) in IF has always been a difficult task, so this is an understandable failing; but, still, it's a very visible one.

Probably the worst thing that I can say about the writing is that it's relied upon to cover for shortcomings in implementation, and at the nuts-and-bolts level does not always succeed. In terms of the total experience, however, it works for me.

Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis; Adam Thornton

There are two ways to talk about the writing in Mentula. One is the text as it appears in the game, and the other is the source code files.

One of the huge things about Inform 7 is that it makes it much more easy for people who aren't awesome coders to experience the shape of a game through its source. For me, there have been two games where reading the code was at least as important as playing the actual game. (Well, those two and Bob's Garage, which is also mostly of value for amusingly bad penis code.) The first was Sand-dancer. Aaron Reed has talked about I7 as poetry, but the experience of reading Sand-dancer code is not what I'd call poetic, or even artistically transformative. It's what it was designed to be: an explanation of design. The code doesn't make your reading of the text more richly aesthetic; rather, it draws attention to the text's function.

The source of Mentula is much more obviously intended to make an entertaining read. It's colourful, well-annotated, and it has a great feel for the weird Chinese Encylopedia dialect that is I7 English, all stiff diction, formal rhythms and overconstructed coinage:

Ponciness is a kind of value. The poncinesses are poncy and philistinic. The current ponciness is a ponciness that varies. The current ponciness is poncy.

Referentiality is a kind of value. The referentialities are referential and mum. The current referentiality is a referentiality that varies. The current referentiality is referential.

Horniness is a kind of value. The horninesses are horny and unaroused.

Now, obviously this sort of thing goes on all the time in every piece of I7 code ever written, but Mentula's code is written to be read and giggled at. You don't write something like "A vagina is a kind of container", or list all those improbable penis synonyms, without hoping that someone will appreciate how awesomely ridiculous it is. And a lot of code blocks are, well, fairly good explanations of the person Stiffy is. In order to not be totally turned off by MM:A, you have to have a grasp of the ridiculous logic that drives its world and its characters; and that logic is laid out in the code, not as a partial simulation but as a specification. Stiffy is a guy for whom 'what objects can I stuff up my butt?' is a subject more worthy of detailed consideration than 'what does the sky look like?', and the code shows you precisely how much more.

Much of the prose itself is in a very familiar IF style: matter-of-fact terse efficiency, hitting all the relevant information, deeply tied in to signalling game-world facts. As much as any other aspect of the game, it's responsible for the feeling of late-90s IF. The writing does not attempt to make you forget that you're playing an IF game. This style feels so comfortable and easy-going that you can forget that it's actually pretty difficult to craft these information-dense sentences in a way that flows naturally. And there are a lot of randomly-generated jokes, which I'm always a sucker for.

And then, on top of all that, you have the quotations, the references, the taste for a particularly juicy word. To a great extent Mentula is a scrapbook, something in the tradition of Melville and Rabelais, a big pile of things that Bruce thinks are awesome and would like to share. The paper it's stuck on (and the somewhat troubling paste) doesn't always seem like the focus. But in the era of Neutral Library Messages, when the mood is often against the Standard Narrative Voice of IF, this is writing that knows that voice, is very comfortable with it and can consistently deliver; it's a reminder of why that voice is standard in the first place.

Zombie Exodus; Jim Dattilo

Choice of Games has never been notable for flashy, strong-voiced prose; rather, their approach has generally been to produce sturdy, functional, inobtrusive writing, getting out of the way of the content. While the content is heavily reliant on established genre conventions, the prose rarely goes out of its way to adopt the distinctive styles of those conventions. The works produced by Choice of Games are all what I'd call career plots: long-arc narratives focusing on key scenes and situations, covering a substantial chunk of the PC's life. A good number of the hobbyist Choicescript games, though, opt for the more familiar approach of continuous action over a much shorter period. Zombie Exodus is action-survival: its events take place over the course of a single day, and it's not all that interested in the long-term effects of your actions. The characters don't even speculate very much about the shape of the future; they're all very focused on the present.

There are basically two kinds of apocalypse stories: ones that focus heavily on the collapse, and ones that are mostly about what happens afterwards. Collapse stories are basically war stories, descended from invasion literature via War of the Worlds. The happens-after stuff, on the other hand, is closely related to the castaway/utopia genre, direct from Crusoe. Zombie Exodus is unequivocally an invasion story: its characters are entirely focused on their immediate survival, and the story cuts off just at the moment where membership of a larger group is introduced. This is not a story about the looming, undefinable horrors presented by the collapse of society, or the work of making a new one; it's a story about finding a gun, getting from Point A to Point B, and not dying in the process.

The collapse story is usually, and this is important, not a refugee story; its characters are heroic, free agents, who don't get caught up in the great mass of displaced people. They do their own thing, and it's an unspoken rule that their best chance of survival is by acting alone. The resourcefulness of the characters, their reassuring ability to survive on their own without society supporting them, is one of the central motivations of the form. Note that the archetypal collapse story, War of the Worlds, takes an entirely contrary stance; heroic action exists, but it's irrelevant, dwarfed by the scale of the calamity:

And this was no disciplined march; it was a stampede — a stampede gigantic and terrible — without order and without a goal, six million people unarmed and unprovisioned, driving headlong. It was the beginning of the rout of civilisation, of the massacre of mankind.
ZE don't roll like that; it's the story of one person and their concerns, and the bits where we get a glimpse of the wider world feel artificial and perfunctory. And there are really very few humans either alive or dead; it's a world that's mostly deserted already. Exodus is therefore an odd choice for the title, because an exodus is by definition a refugee story, a story of a people displaced.

The Choice of Games standard is to have the protagonist heavily shaped by player choices, and to receive little characterisation beyond the direct effect of those choices; the result, as in most RPG-inspired computer games, is that the protagonists are tactically fairly different but, in writing terms, feel very alike. Zombie Exodus follows this path but seems somewhat at odds with it; you get the sense that it really wants to be writing an action-hero male character. Trying to play as a woman who's unfamiliar with guns and not particularly is possible, and opens up some different options, but this is clearly an avenue that the author's not very interested in; at various points the story basically takes over and shoves a gun into your hands. Okay, fine: if you want to write a story about being an athletic guy with a lot of guns who saves cute girls from zombies, focus on that! Make the scope of options operate within that field.

Oh, another thing I noticed. As an example, let's have a look at options for female character names:

Isabella, Sophia, Olivia, Abigail, Maria, Elizabeth
In terms of popularity, those are girl names 1, 2, 4, 7, 12 and 87 — for people born in the USA in 2010. (Your sister, Emma, has name #3). In usage terms, the first four of those names are basically identical: they're extremely popular now, and were far less popular twentysomething years ago when the PC was born. They imply similar things about class and region: these are names most likely to have been given by educated, well-off, white New Englanders. Even if you're not obsessive about this kind of thing, you probably get a general feel for the style of that name list; even if you don't get the feeling that this is the roll-call of a kindergarten class, the list doesn't exactly say 'people demographically likely to own lots of guns.' Names are highly evocative, and when you evoke something accidentally, it confuses what you're trying to get across.

(This is nothing unusual; most authors name their characters according to their own tastes, rather than the likely tastes of their character's parents. There's no way around it, and that's okay. But word choices need to serve your aims, and it looks as if the aim here was, as with the male list, to provide generic, anywhere-in-America names.)

More generally: one of the things that sets tone most strongly in CYOA is the list of options. The aesthetic power of a list, its power of implication, the shape of its set, really can't be overemphasized; being aware of it is a basic skill in both parser IF and CYOA. In ZE you often get the sense that this isn't really understood. The option lists end up with weird tunnel vision, giving you a set of options that all say pretty much the same thing. And often it feels as if what it's saying isn't really planned.

This is particularly important because, in the CRPG-based ChoiceScript ethos, character choices generally take the weight off character writing. Ideally, the stylistic and strategic choices that you make build up a character who handles differently; in Zombie Exodus you feel shepherded towards the same general style of character; you feel male-default even when you pick a female character, you always end up relying on athletics and gunplay even if you don't invest in those, you're always the leader regardless of how much Charisma-type stuff you track.

Prose-wise, ZE tends to overdescribe. This is particularly unnecessary since it's working in a well-established genre and a familiar setting, and is quite comfortable there: it has at its disposal a lot of shorthand devices that it doesn't take enough advantage of. We don't really need to have global contagion-by-bite-virus zombies explained to us again. Nor do we really need to be told what an American town looks like during a zombie invasion: if you're not going to do anything unexpected with it, just take it as read. What about the writing in action scenes, which are such a crucial part of the game?

You carefully climb the stairs and help him limp step-to-step. Midway up the stairs, you feel a hard tug and see the splint around his leg give way. He falls to the ground and rolls down the steps. You run after him and stop as you see the three zombies poke their heads up like a pack of hungry hyenas. They turn and spot him and rush over to his side. He screams as they dig teeth and claws into his skin.
This is sorely in need of some loving attention from a good editor. For a frantic, high-tension scene, it feels oddly emotionless and matter-of-fact; the flesh-tearing zombies are described in a tone no more heated than the careful ascent of the stairs. The short, action-to-action sentences keep coming at the same rhythm; it feels stiff and ungainly, partly because there's only one comma in there. There's no spark, no fire in this; it's a list of events, not the telling of a story.

And the PC's immediate reaction to this:

You leap down the stairs and crouch low to avoid detection. While the zombies are distracted, you grab an assault rifle and night vision goggles and head further into the subway.
Lots of focus on the hardware and tactics, nothing about a reaction to seeing someone torn apart before your eyes. This might be reasonable as a reflection of a character so wracked by PTSD that he no longer reacts to carnage: but the writing is pretty much like this regardless of what your humanity score is. Almost invariably, encounters read like a police report rather than the direct experience of a flesh-and-blood person. There's something to be said for emotional understatement, of course, but that's a different thing entirely from non-statement. Here's the closest thing I can find to a PC reaction:
Things just got more real. Sure, it was disturbing to watch on TV but dealing with an actual infected person -- a zombie -- kicked up the intensity.
This is one of the reasons why I can't take the character seriously as ambiguously gender-coded: this is very clearly male-voice narration, and probably a male for whom the Spike channel is a cultural touchstone. Most of the writing is not quite this bad; most of the time it's merely bland. If, as with the standard Choice of Games model, this was a larger-grained story with a broader range of character styles, the lack of affect might be more acceptable (though I still wish that, say, Vampire wasn't quite so bloodless); but for the story it is, it needs to do a lot more.
Taco Fiction; Ryan Veeder

I am generally a picky bastard about the intro text of games. If you haven't got your audience interested before they type in anything, you're going to have a much harder job gaining their interest thereafter. (Also, because I'm incapable of turning off my critical brain, I don't expect an writer who fails to understand this to understand very much else.) You need to provide cold hard evidence that your game is not going to suck, and you have to make it clear that you're a decent writer (but without being a dick about it.) So it's immensely comforting to fire up Taco Fiction and get the story's core delivered right up front: here's the general shape of the protagonist, here's what's at stake, here's the problem. And also: I know what I'm doing here, I know this bit has to kick ass; don't worry, I've got this.

Small enough to be carried inconspicuously in your pocket, but big enough to scare anybody it's pointed at, this is a kind of gun with a specific name--a brand name, like cars have. It also has a "caliber," which is a number that refers to what kind of bullets you can put in it, but you can't remember that either.
There's a lot of signalling going on here. The presence of a lead character with a gun usually means that macho bullshit is going to be a major driver of the narrative, and detailed technical specifications about those guns stand in for Manly Competence. This is more like, oh,
Dead Milkmen: the presence of a gun in a story is a sign that everything is going to go terribly wrong. Taco Fiction is very much opposed to Manly Competence as a defining feature of story; there isn't really any character who has a solid, heroic grasp on what they're doing, and the writing is tuned to constantly remind you of that. It's a world of small, frail people, some of whom are bigger assholes than others.

It manages to pull off a rambling conversational tone while remaining efficiently terse; it generally avoids lavish descriptions, focusing hard in on the stuff that's relevant to the action. The action often comes down to very standard IF-type closely-examine-the-object gameplay, though, but the writing zooms in (mostly) unerringly on the Relevant Thing. This is fine design work for a piece that wants to keep the plot rolling along, and particularly savvy for a Comp entry. At times this gets kind of obtrusive and starts edging over in the direction of the fourth wall, but it's mostly saved because the parser voice is heavily framed as the internal monologue of a nervous, uncertain character trying to pull themselves together. (Like a lot of cool stuff in Taco Fiction's writing, this effect gets less pronounced after the early game.)

So, on the whole, the impressive thing about Taco Fiction's writing is that it handles a lot of difficult things and does a consistently good job. It manages to give its PC enough characterisation to establish their motivation and narrative role, while still keeping most particulars about them vague (even down to gender, technically speaking, although I'm not sure how successful that is). It delivers the idea that a female character is interestingly attractive without making you feel that the PC or the parser are leering. It's capable of implying a great deal in a very small space.

But then there's — well, look at this:

>eat cone

The first few licks are tart enough to give you goosebumps, and pinch the skin at the nape of your neck until your head is drawn up and back as if by a string. This ice cream has taught you good posture.

That's evocative, true to life without falling into cliche, does a little character-building and has a decent joke at the end. But it's also sort of leaning back, laconic, quirking the eyebrows a little at the protagonist. How much of this is just the parser I'm not certain: the weight of tradition, the long-established Parser Response Tone, makes it all too easy to revert to arch observations about what's wrong with the player or PC. But Taco Fiction has a fairly distinct style of doing this, a very matter-of-fact, deadpan archness. It's pretty subdued about it, so it doesn't jar horribly with the PC (who's rather too desperate to be this deadpan.) There's this odd mix of plain-faced sincerity and guarded deadpan irony running throughout Taco Fiction that makes it hard to quite know where its heart is. This seems deeply tied in to its concern with authenticity (Zuleika and her rural organic family-owned creamery) and inauthenticity (the faker protagonist, the illusion of free-market business, the sham Illuminati, the cops' lame pop-culture jokes). The of ice-cream clearly should be about the rich variety of authentic joys, and we can see that for Zuleika that's true; but the PC and the narrative voice never quite shake off anhedonia.

Jacqueline A. Lott on Best Setting

Cryptozookeeper; Robb Sherwin

I have three things that I consider when analyzing setting in pieces of interactive fiction.

The first of these is that I'm hoping for a game that puts me in a world I want to inhabit, a place where I'm going to want to spend some time. So you take a game like Cryptozookeeper... and it doesn't take long to realize that its world is not exactly a world one would hope to inhabit. (Perhaps it's just me that feels that way, but tough — because I'm the one writing this review...)

My second hope for setting in a work of interactive fiction is that it's a world that's deeply implemented, where I don't hit jarring ommissions of detail and unimplemented objects. Unfortunately, not far into Cryptozookeeper I found that I couldn't examine the lock of the cell I was stuck in, and though the cell was fashioned of 'brick, stone, and cement,' I couldn't examine any one of those potentially clue-imbued elements. Even larger things which were mentioned prominently in the text were often left unimplemented.

So then we come to the third thing I look for in setting: a game which does an excellent job of developing a coherent sense of the world. And here is where Cryptozookeeper not only gets it right, it shines. We have some very nice touches, right from the start, where a 'sky waffling between deep blue and indigo' is juxtaposed against a grotty rock garden made of broken cinder blocks tinged with crimson from the heads they've bashed in. And he addresses other aspects of the world as well, not merely the visual: in another locale we are told that the place 'smells quite musty, like old newspapers browning in a storage closet.'

It's good stuff. It gives you a sense of being in a gritty, dark world. No doubt the use of images in the game are big part of this, because they themselves are gritty and dark. The generally lower-res images are perhaps used merely to cut down on the (already massive) file size of the game, but I'd like to think that it's intentional, because they make things feel rougher, grimier somehow. There's also generous use of dark colors: deep blues, purples, browns, and black.

So not only are the descriptions themselves gritty, the accompanying graphics are equal to the task, and together it makes for solid, albeit a grim and often uncomfortable setting. A recurring thought that I had while playing Cryptozookeeper was that I was really glad I'd already met Robb Sherwin and found him to be a really nice guy. (I almost typed 'a very sweet guy' but I don't want to mess up his reputation.) If you had not yet met Robb when you played this game, you might worry... and then when the time came that a mutual friend said, "I'd like you to meet my friend, Robb Sherwin," you'd consider politely declining, or possibly just fleeing. But rest assured, this is just the world he writes and these are just the people and things that populate it.

Robb's actually a very sweet guy.

Marine Raider; Allen Gies

Marine Raider seems an interesting choice for a Best Setting nomination. If it were going to be nominated in only one category, I would have thought that Best Individual PC would have been the one. I say this because it seems to me that the game focuses very heavily on the player character, their conversations, their interactions, and their thoughts as they carefully weigh tactics, timing, and strategy.

It is perhaps because of this perception that I don't have a ton to say about setting — though I should say that I was taken a bit by they way in which the natural setting of the game (sea, beaches, jungle, sky) were sometimes touched on in a way that made them seem like characters who helped or hindered others, soothed them or stressed them out. This wasn't a huge focus of the game, and thus wouldn't have made me think of it as a Best Setting nominee, but I noticed it because I was tasked with playing Marine Raider while specifically looking at setting.

"Sometimes," the game tells you, "when you listen to the pounding surf and take a breather near the end of the day, it is hard to remember your goal: kick the enemy back to their home islands." The surf can lull you, or threaten to bring your boat against the reef. The stars above are blotted out one by one as you draw closer to the island. The vines of the jungle give you cover, but snag at your gear as you try to move across the landscape.

So those are probably the aspects of the game that garnered it a Best Setting nomination. They're done well, but they seemed to be few and far between. That said, I'm not sure I would have encouraged the author, Allen Gies, to change a thing in terms of playing up this aspect of Setting As Character. The real focus on the game lies not so much in the external setting, but the interior of the PC's head — their thoughts and motivations. And all in all, I think that was the proper place for the author to focus his attention. It worked well.

Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis; Adam Thornton

Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis, for the uninitiated, is a work in the genre of Stiffy Makane. Yes, Stiffy Makane is pretty much its own genre. And for you (*ahem*) Stiffy Makane virgins out there, Stiffy Makane is pretty much about scoring. Not points, really, just scoring. No, not that sort of scoring, the other sort of scoring.
Mmhmm. Yes, that.

And so again I will touch on No, wait. No touching. I don't know where anything has been. Let me rephrase...

And so again I will begin by revisiting the three ways that I, personally speaking, approach judging a game when it comes to setting:

  1. Is it a world in which I will want to spend time?
  2. Is it a world which is deeply implemented?
  3. Does the game allow me to develop a coherent sense of the world?
Spending time in Stiffy Makaneland is pretty exhausting in a couple of different ways. First off, you're running around trying to score with everyone. That's exhausting. Secondly, it's juvenile, precisely because you're running around trying to score with everyone. That's also exhausting. As I understand it, this game is one of those games that you either really love or really don't. It's not the sort of game that gets a lot of four or five ratings — mostly nines and tens or ones and twos. I'm definitely not in the nine or ten camp, but I wouldn't say that I'm in the one or two camp, either — after all, that would make me come across as a frigid, prudish goody-goody, wouldn't it?

But yeah, it's just not my cup of tea.

I have tried playing this game a few times, and I've never gotten out of Rome, and I don't really feel I've lost out because of never having gotten further. To give this game the benefit of the doubt for the purposes of review writing, I tried just examining the source code... and that's even more juvenile than the game itself — but brilliantly juvenile and if you've enjoyed the game but not read the code, then I highly recommend it perusing the source. It's spoilery as hell of course, so don't dip into it until you're done with the game (or have given up on it).

But back to why we're here. What about the setting? We know it's not a setting Jacqueline wants to spend a lot of time in, but is it a world which is deeply implemented? Does the game allow me to develop a coherent sense of the world?

I have freely admitted that I haven't seen a lot of this game, and what I did see didn't allow me to focus much on the setting. I was... distracted. So I inquired with others as to why MM:A garnered a setting nomination, and the thoughts are that it is has a rather large world to explore (an unusual thing these days) and that Thornton has a strong command of the classical world, so it's written in a known environment. So yes, the game allows you to develop a coherent sense of the world... if you're able to stick with it and not be too distracted by all the phallus-shaped statues and architecture.

What I have seen of the game and its code actually has shown me Thornton lovingly crafts the environment in a succinct, often surprisingly graceful way, and that he's generally very thorough in his implementation even if the response he gives for a particular piece of scenery is terse — rarely is one jarred by something being unimplemented.

So, at the end of the day, MM:A is, for some people, a world to delight in, deeply-implemented and knowingly crafted. I'm just not one of those people.

Six; Wade Clarke

Six, like a couple of other games I'm reviewing, is not a game that on first pass I'd consider for a setting nomination... I think of it more as about characters and puzzles. But upon revisiting it as part of this setting review exercise I realize that it's actually very strong in terms of setting, that the setting is woven into the puzzles, and it helps us get a sense of the PCs' character, because the environment is described in the voice of our six year old protagonists:

It's super hot today and the sun is pouring down on the grass and the flowerbeds. The trees here reach for the sky. Most of them are green and bright, but a few look unhappy and are covered in loose, dry leaves which wobble in the breeze. A good wind will blow them free.
The descriptions do a great job of not only evoking a sense of place, but how the PC relates to it, and a bit about the PC's personality. I remember being rather sad that the PC, Harriet Leitner, seemed to like the sunnier aspects of playing outside, but was frightened of things like ravens or spiders and getting dirty... unfortunate, I thought, but this gave me a real sense of Harriet. (It also meant that I was just that much more pleased when the PC focus is shifted to her twin sister, who loves all these things, just as I do.)

Trees, ambient noises, critters, and other aspects of the setting are woven into the puzzles as well. The game does this so fluidly that I didn't consciously realize it was doing it until I took a look at the game through the lens of 'how well the game deals with setting,' which actually means that it deals with it quite well — and also explains why it won the Xyzzy for Best Implementation.

As for the other aspects of setting that I've mentioned in other reviews, yes, this is a pleasant world to inhabit and a place where I enjoyed spending my time, and yes, it was fairly thoroughly implemented, with setting woven into the plot, and yes, the game does an excellent job of helping me develop a coherent sense of the world.

A solid nomination for Best Setting, and a clear winner in terms of Implementation.

Zombie Exodus; Jim Dattilo

This is the last of the setting reviews that I'm writing (I chose the order based upon the order of the nominees that was presented on the IFWiki). Unlike a couple of the other nominees, which in my mind hadn't really seemed like setting-heavy games, setting is precisely what I enjoyed most about Zombie Exodus.

I've argued back and forth with various people about this game because it was sort of controversial in the Xyzzies for reasons I'm not going to revisit here, and it seems that quite a few people have some pretty visceral reactions about this game because they're unable to separate their feelings about the larger context of the controversy from the game itself. I personally enjoyed this game quite a bit, and when I've told people in the 'core' IF community that I enjoyed this game I generally got a response along the lines of, "Why? It's just another zombie game. It's nothing special."

I thought it was better than other zombie games I've played. Okay, no, I don't exactly go out of my way to play a lot of zombie games, but I've played a few. As the genre goes, this one isn't nearly as good as, say, Jason Devlin's Gris et Jaune, but I liked it better than Choice of Zombies (...sorry, Heather!).

[Caveat: It may appear that I'm on a tangent about the analysis of zombie games rather than setting, and perhaps I am... but please bear with me.]

When I took some time to reflect on why this might be, why I enjoyed ZE more than CoZ but not as much as GeJ, I realized that it came down to setting first, with originality then tipping the scale in GeJ's favor. They're all good games, but I guess I appreciate the more zerious (man, what a typo... I mean 'serious') zombie games. This is why I enjoyed CoZ but not as much as ZE or GeJ... there's something about a more serious setting that grabs you and immerses you in the game.

This is something ZE does really well... I felt like I was physically moving through a world that was falling apart. I got that same sense of fear that I had when watching 28 Days Later, except instead of watching it on the screen I was playing the part of the protagonist and all the visuals were being crafted really well in my head based upon what I was reading on my screen. I didn't always agree with the protagonist's logic, but that was the only jarring bit — she wasn't quite as tactical in some situations as I would have liked, but we got by nonetheless.

And so no, ZE isn't the most novel of zombie games — GeJ is still the reigning champion in that category — but ZE is still a pretty solid game for its genre, and in my opinion it's the setting that sets it apart and makes that happen.

Marco Innocenti on Best Setting

Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis; Adam Thornton

I must admit I suffer from a rarely strong form of envy towards this piece of work from Mr. Thornton. It builds on the fact that on my second play-through — the first was months ago, when I first heard about it — I had the misfortune of actually reading the banner text. Apart from the title and author, it stated that the one I was playing was Release 1.

My game had a Release 1, too. If that number equated to a string, said string would be "buggy, unimplemented, demented." Of course, this is not the case in MM:A. The game's huge. In terms of mere text, maybe I've outnumbered Adam Thornton 10 to 1, but the actual number of responses you can get from a single environment is embarrassing. It is to such a complete noob as I am, at least. I couldn't spot a single typo, a single thing he hasn't thought of when coding his game, at least none evident enough to be caught by every single player who had tried it. Yes, there's a few annoying things*, but still the polish is astonishing.

And that's not the only astonishing thing in Apocolocyntosis.

First things first: Apocolocyntosis is not a porn adventure. Whoever said it was, I believe, stopped at the first crossroads, where you have to "stab" Caio Giulio Cesare (Julius Caesar, for the Romans) with your "dagger" in the most demented orgy of all time. Apocolocyntosis is a game about Ancient Rome and its mythology and history. It's much more, as defined by stronger and far more cultured reviewers than I (look out for Emily Short's review during Spring Thing 2011, which has some very valuable insights), but I want to stop on the fun and setting of the story. It's a trip, in the sense of lysergic trip, if you want. An easy-to-medium trip through funny puzzles, genial writing and a good deal of harsh jokes. And very clever ones, too.
Then there's the sex. But it is so uneven, so absurd and so funny you'll hardly get off on it, even if you're 13.

The game is laid out like a set of smaller games, at first very easy to decipher, then incrementally harder to pick up and mix together. A ship connecting some of the most important places in ancient history is the medium through a series of short, pleasant rendezvous with characters and places you'll learn to like in no time. The strength of Apocolocyntosis is all in that: you simply don't stop playing, and you don't stop enjoying it. It all flows and it's so smooth you have to set an alarm to avoid forgetting going to bed…

The setting is sublime. Or rather: the settings. Each town or place is well-rendered, never commonplace or trivial. Great cities are rendered in a few rooms: Syracuse — home of the great mathematician "Archie" Archimedes — is one single location. Yet they all feel alive and awake in a way I've almost never had the chance to witness. The characters are likewise well rendered. Although the interaction is sometimes limited (and, yeah, among a plethora of NPCs I found just three who didn't want my glowing staff), they all sound more alive than Keith Richards on drugs. Many of the puzzles that don't rely on the verb "f**k [someone]" have funny solutions and give birth to unpredictable interludes. Sometimes, the game relies on highly fantastical NPCs, like talking frogs or the like, but even in those cases the fun is guaranteed and you just never stop playing.

I guess the strength of Apocolocyntosis lies in two things. First, the writing is almost perfect. There are no weak lines (by contrast to this review, written during the night at the end of a very hard day), locations are rendered with just a few, simple brush strokes, and there's the exact number of interactive objects to be essential but complex. Second, the game just never stops. You solve puzzles on the go (and there are a lot of them around) and rush to the next assignment or zone.

Talking specifically about the setting, I found Apocolocyntosis at least educational. There's a lot I didn't remember about the parts of history I should have studied better, and something quite refreshing, too. It never gets boring, due to the fact that the map is not just a series of decorated chambers in a huge town but a large set of minor settings very well-rendered. Also, you can find cross-references, footnotes, quoted resources and a whole lotta things to think about.

I'm going to rate this game very high on my personal scale. Although my ratings are just about the setting, you can leisurely take for granted all of the rest is very good too. It is fast, long, exhilarating and fun. A must-play for all, the casual gamer of the dedicated IFer.

That said, be warned. Not all will like (or have liked) Apocolocyntosis. It steps often into vulgarity, although never cheap or gratuitous. Unless you want to think all of the game is gratuitous — and there should be a hell of a discussion about this. But, still, don't be scared by the setting. There is no need to know who Priapus was to play this game and love it.

In conclusion: the best setting so far, among the nominees for this year's XYZZYs. I'm not a big fan of "funny" games (I'm the one who codes unpreventable train crashes with unpreventable eye-to-eye last-kiss-goodbyes to helpless NPCs), but MM:A served me well, nonetheless. Not tasteful to all mouths, maybe, but surely a really well-spent couple of evenings.

That will become three or four, 'cause I really wanna know, now: WTF?!

Irrelevant rating: Giant Red - Small White - Orange Glowing - Azure - Cyanotic.

* Having to touch the details on the gate in Carthage when pushing, pulling, turning and eating them didn't work is a bit of a pain…

Zombie Exodus; Jim Dattilo

Zombie Exodus is the other CYOA nominee for Best Setting in the 2012 Xyzzy Awards. The game by Jim Dattilo goes Lord of the Rings and all of a sudden it gets nominated for every and each of the awards, including but not limited to Best Game, Best Writing, Best Innovation, Best Female Voice and Best Curry Poulet. Very nice.

Let's see how this game behaves in the section I'm interested in.

Zombie Exodus is set in a metropolis in the USA (or so it seems, I'm not quite sure that the location is ever clearly stated, ingame) overrun by famished zombies. The military has assaulted the town to 'protect' the civilians (read: quarantine them/let them die there) and a dark and stormy night is approaching. This time, though, the dark and stormy night is not all there is.

Let's start by saying that, in my eyes, the undead army overthrowing the system is this era's equivalent to the Invasion of the Giant Robots from Japan during the Seventies and Eighties. They were not bad at all (aw, c'mon — the Great Mazinger roxxorzd bigtime!) but, in the end, they were the only thing available. Setting the story in the average unnamed American town doesn't make me feel more comfortable. If I had to limit my impressions on the backstage, I'd have thrown this game outta the window with all the bundled iPhone and cables. Fortunately, although Zombie's pacing is a bit slow, the plot is compelling enough to make me want to get to the next chapter. And let's say this: originality in conventioal settings is something one must use with wits, know-how or extreme caution. Or else you risk inventing ambiguous vampires who glitter under the sun. Be-f**ing-ware.

So: I'd have preferred to read about zombies in a new environment — who knows: the moon? a deep undersea station? Sam Kabo Ashwell's own house? — That would have given the game what in my eyes is the all-area pass to the Best Setting award. On the contrary, to gain my respect Zombie Exodus had to move me to play it three times to completion.

Here's how it went.

By contrast to the other CYOA in this awards' section, Marine Raider, Zombie lets you play the game right from the start and the 'roll your character' part is quick and mostly harmless. Too bad, the 'mostly harmless' part is not rhetoric. The very beginning of the game overwhelms the player with crimes against mimesis. I understand this is how it must work, but I really hate when the game asks you, directly, if you are female, male, sister, brother, tall, young, short, old or what kind of machine-gun you'd like to wield. Ok, the machine-gun part is fine, it's in the game, but do I really have to challenge my already challenged suspension of disbelief trying to understand if I prefer to be a soldier or a preacher?
This kind of choice doesn't seem to really affect the game, unless in a very subtle way. I can be a drag queen or a member of the Sex Pistols and still the same undead will meet me at the same crossroads.
Something struck me as completely off, too: if you choose the shotgun, even the narrator finds it strange that your sister owns one. She left you to fetch some things while you were asleep and the whole town was overrun by a flesh eating mob, and this is awkward in itself, but then you have to dig in her belongings to find a double-barreled thingie stolen directly from the Doom II marine. This doesn't help a lot when you are trying to enter the story and leave this world.

Another thing that got me was the description of the mayhem and of the zombies roaming the town. Everything is exactly where you'd expect it to be, but that doesn't prevent the narrator from explaining every single blockade, every single military rush, every single wound in the infected zombies' bodies. If they had nailed tentacles coming out of their mouths like in Resident Evil, maybe that would have been worth the effort. But no: they are zombies. With yellow skin. And green wounds. And every time you meet one you have to read it is yellow and green.*

That said, after you get in touch with the setting, the game starts becoming more and more engaging. It's the sheer strength of CYOAs, I believe: you don't have to think much, just decide, and that gives the game a lot of power in building up emotions, which are not diluted by several hours of guess-the-verb. The first run is a chain of suspenseful moments** where you find yourself not exactly willing you had played the game in plain daylight, but at least frankly caught up in it.
The second and third runs are much less tense, but funny nonetheless. You can really take different roads to the same destination, and this is exactly what a CYOA should be. The tension is still there and you really wish for the next chapter and for the next zombie-splattering fest.

In conclusion: the setting may not be the most original, but it's definitely well-rendered. Although Zombie Exodus relies too much on clichés, there's enough under the hood to keep you interested at least for a run or two. Or until the next chapter is available (which is not a bad thing, although I'd have preferred to play a complete game). It's long, the NPCs are easy to cope with (although a bit irritating), and there's much to try.

The verdict is: if one finds (like myself) the same old infested town to be boring, maybe one should try something different (that's why I really can't rate this game's setting too high); if you're an undead true believer and can close an eye on the story being the same old story, you'll find plenty to feed your blood-thirst. Just keep the other eye open for yellow skins with green marks. You may not believe it, but it's likely to be eaten by a zombie.

Irrelevant rating: Giant Red - Small White - Orange Glowing - Azure - Cyanotic.

* One of the apartments in the PC's building is occupied by a tech geek. In the loft is all you'd expect to find: computers (lots of), comic books and graphic novels, Red Bull cans, and -- of course! -- Lord of the Rings memorabilia, along with (lots of) sci-fi posters. This is the kind of cliché one should avoid, in my opinion. After all, I'm a tech geek myself (or maybe I was, once), but I have no damn movie poster or LotR things (the World of Warcraft Warlock statuette doesn't count!).

** Two of the scenes really held me pressed on the couch. In the first I had to go down a dark and debris-filled stairwell. In the second, I had to open and start an abandoned car, in a tunnel. Man, that was frightening. These are the parts that made me think "well, maybe this game is not that bad", had me go on until the end and finally shifted this game's color from Azure to Orange Glowing.

Marine Raider, Alan Gies

I'm not a big fan of war-related stories. Least of all for a war I've only seen in movies. It seems, though, that WWII is still a deserving "best setting" for a story told in the 2010s, given this nominee for this year's XYZZY Awards.

Yes, I'm not a big fan of war stories. Or, at least, I wasn't until I saw The Thin Red Line, some years ago. Before that was Apocalypse Now, based on Conrad's Heart of Darkness which still echoes in my mind for its many unanswered questions and symbols. Stories so moving I had to like the war movie. Or the book (I still remember, after two dozen years, how the African people were depicted by Conrad -- or the Vietnamese by Coppola).

Marine Raider is not, unfortunately, the Apocalypse Now of IF. But, that said, not even Shrapnel is, with all respect to award-harvesting Adam Cadre, so let's go on.

Marine Raider is a short — and somewhat fast paced — piece of IF made using the ChoiceScript CYOA authoring system. The game is set around the American-Japanese conflict in the Pacific, year of our Lord 1942. Pearl Harbor is done and gone, the Axis is winning everywhere, the USA has still to decide whether to be the saviors or the watchers. A pack of Marines (semper fi!) is landed on an island to conquer an enemy base by ambush.
The first half of the game is about reading. This is not in itself a bad thing: reading is the way to a better world, someone once said. In that first part we make the acquaintance of the characters, of the setting, of the story. It all resolves in choosing a weapon from a rack, and that's not the kind of thing I look for in modern IF, but then again, that's not necessarily a bad thing. What I didn't dig a lot was the setting itself.

We are talking about the same old Pacific island scenario. The same old Navy ships. The same old descend-on-them-during-night setting that has frankly been showing its age from quite some time. The places are well described (although with a certain amount of bad spellings and grammar awkwardness*), and the NPCs are depicted with but a few, well done strokes rather than boring the reader with a lot of background and so on.
In two words: it works. All there is to know is there, in a few, often elegant scenes. Too bad, these scenes hold nothing, and I say nothing, new. Nothing that could make me love the scenario as I loved that damn river in Apocalypse Now. Of course, weighing Marine Raider on the same scale as a generation-cult like Coppola's masterwork is a bit much to ask. What I'm trying to convey here is that, well, everything is in place, most of it is even quite well done… but in the end, who cares?

The second part of the game, the read-less and act-more part, is what you'd call the real game. In there, you are constantly asked about what to do next, with just a few real-time descriptions of what's going on. "Assault the barracks" or "Stay hidden"? "Kill'em all" or "Aim before shooting"?
This is the best part of the game, where you actually have to do something and ultimately feel participation in the story. You even get commendations for resolving the situation. I've done it several times and never ever got near a losing condition: maybe I'm too bright, which I strongly doubt, or else there is no "you lose", just a few "you won better". I didn't succeed in getting all of the commendations and I fear, given what they are awarded for, there is no way of doing it.
Once you've learned when to press "next" on a frenzy and when to read the outcome of your commands, Marine Raider gets a lot like a FPS and becomes funny and fast-paced.

The unfortunate part, getting back to the setting of the game, is that Marine Raider is more of a coin-op FPS than something like CoD:MW2. Had it the part in which one of the Marines (semper fi!) shouts "hey, Charlie!" to ambush a Japanese, it could have easily been written in the Forties.

I don't want to be too harsh on this game. I think I liked it, apart from something that I'm briefly going to discuss later. It was fast enough to be funny, and it didn't force me to read too many full bleeds of text. But I'm examining Marine Raider for its setting, and that said I can't tell why it should compete for Best Setting in the 2011 XYZZYs. Of course, this is very much personal: I guess all of the world likes the same good old Marines (semper fi!) ambush on the Japanese thing. It is just not my thing.
Had the story been something more than a "find the right way to get the camp" (especially given that you seem to be getting the camp anyway, no matter what) maybe I would have liked it more. But all of it, all the story, just runs through a series of stereotypes which gets me uncomfortable. The tropical forest: check. The Marines (semper fi!): check. The Japanese who are good but, above all, are many: check. The Lieutenant with an attitude (or lack of): check. The Private with the whiskey and/or the cigs; the hiding scene; all of that "we are stronger and luckier" sense of things when nothing could go wrong: check.
The game feels real. The setting feels real. The whole attack on the island does. So… uhm… where's the fiction? If this was a first part in a much longer game, if the marine ship — e.g. — was attacked by a giant metallic squid, or anything else happened apart from the said attack, I think this could have been much better. It feels like reading the first chapter in a novel: "It was a dark and stormy night, then everything went wrong". Here it was just a dark and stormy night, then the book ends.
The fact that CYOAs usually don't give too much in the Interactive part of Interactive Fiction, just strengthens this feeling.

In conclusion, I suggest two books: Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton and Meg by Steve Allen. The first one I guess you know. Someone replicates the dinosaurs' genome and all hell breaks loose on a forgotten island. The second is about a Carcharodon Megalodon, a 40 feet long white shark from the Mesozoic that survives the ravines of time and starts eating humans today. The first is a novel about science, its use and a lot of dramatic action. The second is just a series of killings and very, very, very foreseeable outcomes in the main character vs. ancient beast gauntlet. Both are very funny, but in the end, Spielberg just decided for the first.

This is the case of Marine Raider.
Have fun, play it, kill the damn Charlies. But I don't think the setting is what makes this game worthwhile.
Unless you are a Marine, of course. (Semper fi!)

Irrelevant rating: Giant Red - Small White - Orange Glowing - Azure - Cyanotic.

* I must not indulge in talk about writing skills, as I am no native speaker and have much to learn and nothing to teach. My first game was so full of mistakes when released I'm ashamed to the point of no return. That said, I found the polish of Marine Raider a little bit too weak. The misspellings are abundant (let's say twice every single page?) and the phrasings come out quite strange from time to time. Maybe it's my partial grasp of English, but I perceived wrong tenses, change of tenses mid-sentence and awkward constructions. This should not be considered at all while evaluating this game for its nomination — especially considering who's telling you this — but should mark a spot anyway. I mean: this is a freeware (but not ad-free: you must pay to avoid the spam) piece of software which can be found in the Apple App Store. I compare this to regular commercial works. I expect more attention to detail inside such a product.

Six; Wade Clarke

I recently realized two things.
First: I find it harder to spell "Clarke", as in Wade Clarke, this game's author, than Apocolocyntosis. I don't know. I think it's the spare "e" at the end. Like a sort of Clarke Kente. Doesn't work for me. Drives me crazy.
Second: I'm not much into games talking about kids or targeted at a very young audience. I mean, I started writing when I was 13 (and I'm not exactly sure how much my writing has improved in the last 25 years) but then already all I was writing about was horror or really tense stories. My two latest works are a wannabe novel about a guy discovering he has been witness to a child rape when he was 11, and a game about an entire galaxy being washed clean.
What do you think a man like me can find in a game like Six?

Well, I found much.

I'm not a Saint Paul being struck on the road to Damascus, so I still find Games for Children… hardly amusing. I find all light hearted, funny or comedic games hardly amusing. My brain is made like that: I joke every second of my life, but when it comes to the real stuff, one must get serious. And Six is a game, so it is serious business. Really. Fact is: writing funny, light hearted or childish is really hard, and stories which rely too much on a point of view of this kind tend to get old really fast.
Wade Clarke does a magnificent job in this game, proving what a good writer he is. Harriet and Demi are really lovable and the world seen through their eyes is impressive.
I guess the way this particular story is told is part of the setting, so it's fair that I stay on the subject for a few more lines. Every single word looks like it has been weighted a lot, planned, delicately woven to extract a sense of belonging from the player. There is not a single time (except from the continuous interruptions from the parser: read below) where you pull your head back thinking "wow, this is strange". Everything flows so perfectly you hardly remember being a grown-up at all, during play.
Of course, it is obvious that such writing can't come from hard planning but must be a talent of the author. I think I envy Wade a lot for such talent (reading my reviews I'm sure you can spot a pattern: envy is what drives me most of the times, it seems).
Then again, although I never felt forced to play Six, at the same time I never felt compelled to finish it.
There is not exactly a story unveiling, here. What I found was an updated version of old games in which you had to collect a lot of treasures and put them on a cupboard one after the other in order to win.
Well, to be honest, Six is far more than that, but here is where my railroaded brain stops working. I fail to cope. I failed to cope with Zork, too, and never finished my all time favorite Leather Goddesses of Phobos, so you can understand how much I'm troubled.
So, in my eyes, this is a draw. Kudos for the impressive immersion one gets; pollice verso for the lack of a story I'd like to read.

Since this a review (sort of) and not a What I Like essay, I have to say Six is a very elegant, original and funny game. It didn't win the latest IF Comp only because Ryan Veeder entered Taco Fiction. And Ryan Veeder really has that kind of humor that gets (almost) everyone involved. You should check his tweets to understand what I mean. That was very fortunate for us, but unfortunate for Wade, whose game only succeeded in being the first of the losers. Six deserved more, in my opinion.

The success of Six is all in its setting. The maze-like garden, the pricky friends, the world seen by a six-year-old in a dramatically realistic way — no exaggeration, I want to repeat this one: everything in the narration is simply perfect — all contribute to the show. That, plus the fact that solving some of the easier puzzles (albeit via a fail and restore sequence) proved astonishingly striking.
I can remember the first time I entered the Molten Core, the first high-end instanced dungeon in the MMORPG World of Warcraft, some years ago. Nothing could prepare me for such a big-scale thing as a 40 man fight. Watershed moments, thats what Stephen King (or his latest main character) would call them. Turning points. Events so big one can't really forget. And Six contains at least one of those*, along with the funny puzzles and the Lazy Jones effect**.

Ok, so, for the final judgement, one last thing.

I told you I don't like games aimed at a very young audience. The main reason to that is the fact that, usually, Games for Children… have to explain a lot. Six is no different: intended (also) for the young player, it must interrupt gameplay every other command to recall, explain, or list something. These interruptions are colored, even.br> This is BAD.
I understand the thought behind it and I still believe Wade Clarke did an awesome job at this, too. To me, though, these interruptions worked like advert during the movie. Annoying, at best. They pulled me out of the environment too many times, spoiling my experience. I forgot I was Harriet and remembered I was a player in a game of hide and seek. Who played it on the iPad.

Anyway: if you are under 13, play Six. If you are over 30, play Six. If you stand in the middle and don't love comedic noir involving damaged robbers with empty guns, play Six. You won't regret it. You will play (and replay) what will surely prove to be, for the originality and the good rendering of the setting, a milestone in modern IF.

Otherwise, just blame Ryan Veeder. He was the one supposed to buy the drinks at Harriet's and Demi's party.

Irrelevant rating: Giant Red - Small White - Orange Glowing - Azure - Cyanotic.

*The girl with the sword. It was my first solved puzzle and… it delivered! When I got that li'l bully in the head it really felt so satisfying. I think I'll savor the moment my entire life.

** Lazy Jones was a C64 game from the early 80s. I understand if you've never heard of it. Its PC had to play a series of sub-arcade-games to gain points and I can't remember what else. This for completeness' sake.

Cryptozookeeper; Robb Sherwin

This year's trend for nominations seems to be You Must Submit A Game With An Untypeable Title.
First Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis (although, as stated, I find it easier to type correctly than "Wade Clarke"), then Cryptozookeeper.
The amusing part is that I had the opportunity to ruin that title at least 172 times in recent tweets. Cryptozoosomething. Cryptozoomixing. Cryptozoodownloadingthosef***ing600Mbforadamntextadventure.
The less amusing part is that I have to go wiki every time I want to know where the "Y" goes.

By the time I review this game, the nominees have turned (well, some of them) to winners. Cryptozooihavealipring is one of those. This is the reason why I get to this game for the first time with a sort of reverence. Will I be able to do an honorable review knowing how the awards went?
Well, re-reading my other reviews, it looks like it may not be a problem. I didn't succeed in being honorable in any, so who cares?

Let's start.

To begin with, I want to thank Robb for giving me the chance to type names like "Cytserz" at least 40 times before I learned how to spell them. Placing the "z" and the "s" is like playing sudoku. Grimloft was easy. Deanna, too. The preacher's name, though, I never had the will to memorize. Lammard? Lemmon? Lobbard? Lampard? Does it even start with an "L"?
Names in IF shouldn't be a problem, but they can really get in the way when you have to talk to them over and over and over. It's not like reading a novel, where Assurbanipal can be named harmlessly a thousand times. You have to type those names. And this comes from the guy who forced his 10 players to type "parallelepipedon" at least 100 times in his game.
So, as a tradition, I'm starting this review by counting what I didn't like.
I didn't like the damn choice of names Mr. Sherwin decided to come up to.

And… that's all.

Because Cryptozootwohundredlocations is really a funny, interesting, fast-paced, complete piece of IF.
Being planned and coded for around five years (or so I read), it really ended up being a nice game. One could have spent that time far worse.
It has graphics, it has music and they all add to the experience. Seeing the faces of the PC/NPCs is something I wasn't used to since mid-Eighties (not counting the marvelous Everybody Dies, by Jim Munroe) and the actors involved are all really amusing. Starting from the PC, whose idiotic face (erm… no offense, actor — I assume you were acting) feels like the right companion and perfectly fits the depicted character. And Grimloft? What do you think of Grimloft? Had he a different face would you NOT want to smash it with a kick?
Yeah, that's what the author himself thinks, too. He #Cryptozootweeted it to me.
If one has to find something at any cost, I should say that the color patterns are a bit off my scale of eye-candy, but somehow they add to the experience, like all the rest.

The first thing that comes to the eye is how perfectly a very special hint system was built in the game. I'm not referring to the menu you get when you type "help", but to the very dialogue mechanics this game features.
You simply TALK TO and then enter a and, somehow, the game is moved forward. You can even type TOPICS and the game lists a number of yet to discuss with that certain someone. Topics are suggested in the dialogue, so going on is just a matter of letting the ball roll.

Puzzles are not that hard (at least not the ones I found: I confess I haven't finished the game, yet) and this adds to the pleasure of entering a world of fantasy and laughs. Although someone complained that the very first puzzle is too difficult (putting the player in the figurative sitting position of Dr. Bruce Banner in Questprobe 1), fact is I didn't have any problems until the path begun forking and I had to write down possible branches before going on. This let me experience a certain amount of thrill* while never exactly having to restore the game or bang my head on the keyboard, thus leaving the setting (which I should talk about, and it's about time!) the primary actor in play.

The story is original and enjoyable: you are a young smuggler who lightheartedly pushes around esoteric things like alien marrow and the like. Backstabbed by his Russian provider, the PC — William "wearing a vest" Vest — soon finds himself in something bigger than life, involving a lot of ominous characters and exhilarating experiences*.

The setting is too crazy to be explained (without ruining one's experience). I'll summarize it this way: You are in New Mexico, everything looks normal but nothing is. Aliens crawl (and govern?) the world, friends who live all around the Earth are abducted and sequentially killed for unknown reasons and you and a bunch of really annoying NPCs are the sole survivors. Survivors who must, unwillingly, try and save the day. There is mystery and a lot of seemingly unconnected events which one by one fall into place, forming something impressively valuable in modern IF. A damn original and beautiful story.

The atmosphere is usually nondescript but, whether it's the music or the lo-fi pictures, there's always this sense of being in a dream. Like the author was on something while plotting the game. One moment you are outside a hut, in the middle of the Mexican desert; the next you are in front of a fat man with a killer dog and a cauldron of boiled oysters. One moment you are in a house mourning over your cat's loss; the next you are in the past, with your now eyeless and dead classmate. Like in a Southwestern version of Twin Peaks, common sets mix with foreign situations and the story keeps going on and on and on like a roller-coaster wagon. It is all so strange but, in the end… it perfectly fits, like Cinderella shoes. It simply works. Like in a Lost episode, even though nothing makes sense, you soon get accustomed to insane situations and, although you quite never can tell what to expect next, things seem more and more reasonable. Even when ultimately unbelievable.

I rate this game very highly. It is a commercial game, in all that that means. That's why, I think, Ronn Sherwin added a purchasable version, complete with CD, case and a printed cover. This is a game which is really worth buying. It will last more than the average FPS you spend 80 bucks to put into your PS3, and you will remember it for years. It is fun, being all at once a fast paced experience, an atmosphere-filled tale, a comical novel full of nasty dialogue and hilarious events and a place you've never seen before. It is completely original, in the sense of story and of plot. Original as experience, thus completely in my turf as an IF player. This game has a lot of it. Every single room is original, every NPC, every situation. It's not a matter of how odd the story is: it's just that everything's so out of this world. The setting, as a whole, is original. And everything it is made of, including dialogue and the never predictable answers you get for jokes or serious questions. This is what I value, and this is the reason why I think that no award was more deserved than this one.

I didn't finish Cryptozoofiveawardswinner. But this review couldn't wait any more, and I really had to drop the game to write it down. I could have asked for help completing it (a walkthrough, maybe?)… but then I would have spoiled all the fun. I'm sorry, but I want to play this all by myself, even if it takes an year. Vest is just my favorite PC ever (while Grimloft is my least-favorite… and I suppose that's why he** won the award) and I want to stay with his stoooopid face a lot more. Not to mention how much I wanna know how this insane tale ends.

Let's just hope it won't end like Lost. Man, that was disappointing.

Irrelevant rating: Giant Red - Small White - Orange Glowing - Azure - Cyanotic.

*As soon as you get rid of the russian pusher, you find yourself caged with three other people, all former classmates of yours. After fast (and quite fun) acquaintances, you are pushed into an interrogatory room of the likes which people tend to enter alive and exit tortured and dead. Miraculously survived, you succeed in animating a cryptocreature who eats all of the remaining captors. He then escapes, leaving the Looney Tunes Creature Shaped Hole In The Wall which you use to run away with your comrades.
This builds up a lot of tension (and maybe this is where that music comes in play, adding to the atmosphere) while never having the player (at least: me) stuck. It just flows and that's where the game stops being a game and you feel like part of a movie.

** You see? Grimloft is a "he" in my mind. Although, really… he doesn't exist. Right?

Aaron Reed on Best NPCs

Crafting good NPCs is one of the toughest challenges an IF author faces. While writing believable characters in prose is hard enough to begin with, when player agency is added the author's careful control of cause and effect, timing, and plot can all come crashing down, and even well-written characters can be revealed as cardboard cutouts, their vitality sucked away by a peek at the mechanism behind the curtain. What I look for in a good NPC is not just the writing, but how well the characters are integrated into the player's interaction: how much they come alive as the reader plays in their world.

Zombie Exodus; Jim Dattilo

Zombie Exodus is mostly populated with NPCs who have come alive in the undead sense: you'll have to deal with that in much the expected way for the genre to survive. The three major living NPCs are Emma, your sister; Heather, her friend; and Devlin, a stranger picked up along the way. As prose characters, these three are not particularly memorable: Devlin is a creeper who ogles the women if you choose to let him come with your group, while Heather and Emma bicker and seem for the most part pretty interchangeable. While the story tracks a numerical relationship with each of them, after several play-throughs it wasn't clear to me whether these numbers have any effect on the choices offered to you or their outcomes. The other living characters are even less believable, sometimes disappointingly so, as with the two women Candace and Mindy who exist only to be saved by you from zombies, and then (if the reader so chooses) ordered to seduce some horny policemen to facilitate your escape (something which, apparently without irony, "almost makes you uncomfortable.")

Well, then, maybe a story with "zombie" in the title has more attention paid to interaction with the undead? You can often choose your battles, which lets you conserve resources in a way that feels smart, and in combat choose which weapon (and sometimes which non-weapon-based strategy) to fight them off with. For the most part, this doesn't seem to have much effect on the outcome: a louder weapon might draw more zombies, but these tend to be just as easily dispatched as the first. Choices seem to fold back on themselves rather quickly, producing an unsatisfactorily railroaded plot; even the ultimate NPC interaction with a zombie, being bitten and presumably infected by the deadly virus, didn't seem to affect the remainder of my story. For the most part, and unfortunately, the choice of how you interact with NPCs, both living and dead, seems not to matter much at all.

The Play, Deirdra Kiai

In contrast, the other non-parser-based nominee this year, The Play, is made or broken by your interaction with the NPCs. As the struggling director of a struggling play, you'll need to balance the mood of three actors and a stage hand to prevent any of them from blowing their top and quitting before opening night. Each choice you make here, from which wardrobe malfunctions to correct and whose frayed nerves to soothe, alters moods for better or worse; upset someone too much and your production is doomed. What extends this mechanic beyond just a gimmick is the need to understand the characters not just on a system level but a story level as well. By being an astute observer of personality, you can learn to predict how each character will react to a gambit: when you can push someone and when you can't. (And having once directed a play on the edge of ruin myself, I appreciated the satisfying resonance this mechanic has with the actual complexities of managing stressed-out performers.)

The choices you make about the characters have mid- and long-term consequences too, sometimes effectively extending over multiple turns: a little improv works, but would more be too much? If I have a character solve a problem now, will they be unavailable to solve a more serious one later? And a nice anchor to the whole system is that the player character matters, too: his relationship with the NPCs, and your understanding of his own pivotal choice and its continuing consequences, are as important to the story as anything else. The Play is a short work to read, but the twenty or so choices you'll make during one traversal of it really matter to the narrative-- your play, one might say, is the thing.

Six; Wade Clarke

Play is also central to Six, a lovingly crafted tale of hide and seek starring (naturally) six six-year-olds. As the birthday girl charged with finding and catching them all, your primary verbs of interaction are SEARCH, CHASE, and TIP (or tag), with some TALKing thrown in for good measure. While minimally painted, each hider has a distinct personality, usually broadcast through their chosen costume and reflected in their manner of speech. Critically, however, their personalities are also encoded in the way they move through the simulated world and interact with the player: whether they'll let you chase them in a certain direction or instead always race one step ahead of you; whether you can wear them down through persistence or their supply of energy is inexhaustible; and so on. The ability of these independent agents to move through the story world under the own volition, no matter how simple the logic behind that may be, really demonstrates a key difference between interactive stories with a model world and those without. Watching your friends move around the park, responding to the player's actions, reacting to each other and the other NPCs (like the lady and her dog) engenders a feeling of discover and spontaneity in a way that can't be matched by a static decision to look here first or there first.

The dynamism of the NPCs also allows for some neat features, like a randomization of hiding places from one playthrough to the next, and the ability to unlock a second playable character who faces more difficult challenges in outsmarting her playmates. While Six seems designed with its starring audience in mind as a key demographic, it rarely feels dumbed down: readers of all ages can enjoy the gentler puzzles, rewards for exploration and playful behavior, and the genuine thrill that comes from tagging an elusive sprinter-- a thrill that comes from the spark of life the dynamic behavior imparts to six simple but recognizably goofy characters.

Cana According to Micah; Christopher Huang

Cana According to Micah is also about tracking down NPCs at a party, although the context is rather more serious. As the servant whose missing wine ultimately leads a carpenter to perform a biblical miracle, you spend most of your playtime interacting with a large number of NPCs. There are enough characters spread around the world to make it feel like a lived-in place, rare for the often sparse environments in gaming; and characters react to what goes on around them, making comments or moving around as conditions alter. You pump them for information, follow or be followed by them, and, yes, do a fair bit of guessing about what things to ask them about. As time goes by my patience for the long-in-the-tooth ASK/TELL conversation model has grown slimmer, but the quality of the dialogue and general success at bringing a diverse set of characters from an ancient time to life shines through the occasional parser frustration. And the model works here, when it does, better than I can remember it working in recent memory: at its best it prods the player to actually think about the topics each character might know or care about, and which ones are likely to move the story in an interesting direction.

While nearly all the puzzles are solved through conversation, the game also gives you several significant moral choice points centered around NPCs: a betrayal, and a test of character. While each has a fairly obvious "right" choice, the story continues either way, and the consequences affect future events--not so much the history as what your character feels about it, and himself. The first choice, in particular, is interesting in that it offers you an easier puzzle solution in exchange for committing a questionably moral act (betraying an NPC who's done little to endear himself to you). If parables ask us to consider the consequences of moral or immoral acts, an interactive parable should make those consequences real for the player, not just the player character: and while the consequence here is just the need to solve a more difficult puzzle, it's enough to provoke a little thought about what it means to betray a fictional character, and whether one should feel any guilt about such a thing... or let the character one is playing bear all that guilt for you.

Cryptozookeeper, Robb Sherwin

The winner of the 2012 Best NPCs category is Cryptozookeeper. Certainly the meatiest entry in terms of sheer content, NPCs play an important enough role that there's a graphical window devoted at all times to displaying either the protagonist or the most recent person he's talked to. Person, or "thing": like Zombie Exodus, there are two distinct categories of NPCs to discuss here, humans and... everything else. We'll start with the monsters: a disturbing array of alien invaders, bloodthirsty genetic experiments, and, eventually, freakish pets you can cross-breed and enter into cock-fights yourself. These beasties certainly help create and maintain the mood of rapid-fire low-budget horror/comedy the story stews in. (I always somehow imagine that if it could, a Robb Sherwin game would come on a pirated VHS tape, with torn label and bad tracking.) Your interaction with the creatures in the game is pretty minimal, unfortunately; the monsters work as occasional blockers in the plot's carefully gore-splattered railroad, rarely interactable much beyond their prescripted instructions. While the cross-breeding mechanic is an excellent idea, it doesn't pay off with any narrative consequences: more disappointingly, the fighting cryptids do their thing in a simulated combat that the player sits out of, so even on a systems level the player can't interfere too much, other than by leveling up a creature enough to defeat the final baddie.

The humans aren't too much more elaborate in their implementation, either: mechanically, they mostly serve as extremely witty exposition machines. The player's decisions over which order to mow through a conversation tree doesn't have an appreciable effect on the outcome or perception of a scene. They're saved by their dialogue, which at its best reads like Joss Whedon's evil twin nursing a hangover: the postmodern jabs come so fast it doesn't particularly matter if you're missing half the references. Even with minimal implementation, it's fun to have a crew to navigate this raspy universe with: I just wish I could believe they were living in it more often, rather than waiting for William Vest to do the next thing in the script. (Not helping matters here is that the frustrations of a parser seem to crop up more often than the strengths of one; I found myself wishing at times this had been written in something like ChoiceScript.) All told, Cryptozookeeper is a fun game to read: I just wish it was a little more fun to play.

All the games in this category explore in different ways how interactions with characters in a story world can be meaningful elements of a play experience: strategic or emotional, obstructions or assistants. For me, this is the core of what authors in an interactive medium should be aiming for with their characters. While we remember NPCs who are well-written, we also remember those who are well-programmed: who respond in surprising ways when poked, who remember whether we treated or mistreated them, who interact with the fiction around them in ways that make it seem more real. Basically, I think the best NPCs aren't just the ones we read about: they're the ones we played with, too.

Sam Kabo Ashwell on Best NPCs

Cana According to Micah, Christopher Huang

Cana's kind of a paradox. It's set at the very beginning of the ministry of Jesus, before the guy had any followers at all, long before there was anything that could be called a Christian community. Yet the feeling that it sets out to evoke is very much about a community bound together by shared faith. And thus, in some way, it's vaguely of the view that Christianity wasn't a radical overhaul of Judaism so much as it was the growth and continuation of a particular branch of it. Jesus, in this picture, isn't the creator of this community so much as he is the guy who rose to lead it.

It's an idealised community, but not a flawless or a simple one. Its members orbit in their own little circles: the intellectual thought-leaders at the centre, the malcontents at the edges (who prove valuable once appropriately engaged), the largely-inert hosts, the rude mechanicals (who understand little but are essential to keep the thing going), the annoying newbie (who must be tolerated and protected). This is noteworthy because IF worlds are so often lonely ones: the PC is literally alone, or an outsider in an unfamiliar world, or alienated from a familiar one. Admittedly, the PC is still partially outsiderish here; and the NPCs almost all fall into the general category of 'likeable but difficult', so there's an ongoing tension. The moral consequences of the game are cast strongly in terms of social approval: but the community is always going to be there for you, you'll still be part of it however badly you screw up. Cana presents community as a sort of external conscience; spiritual and social failings are essentially the same thing. The community is the Kingdom.

Where individuals are interesting, they're interesting mostly because of how they fit in with, and express attitudes about, their roles in the Christian tradition. Mary of Bethany is interesting because she's framed not as the demon-possessed prostitute or hair-fetishism object so beloved of medieval artists, but as a driven intellectual, a prototype for female clergy. As a standalone character she's well- sketched, but a sketch nonetheless. Similarly, Jesus is interesting as much for what he isn't, for what the player anticipates of him. Much of this is phrased as jokes and inversions; John the Baptist's honey-and-locusts diet is at first interpreted as an indulgent Roman delicacy rather than an ultra-Jewish ascetic diet. The Ancient Mariner is presented as ridiculous, but more important is his weight of associations.

So, certainly you can read the characters as being specific arguments for a liberal reading of Christianity; that's the face-value moral of the game's conclusion. But it's also pretty easy to read it as a meditation on community in general. (It's tempting to read it as an impression of the IF community, but if Chris had done that I'd have expected him to leave more specific clues.)

Mechanically, they're standard designs of no particular complexity: a modest table of conversation responses, some following code. The main unusual thing is that, despite the limitations of bog-standard IF NPC modelling, we have here a game that's almost entirely focused on dealing with them, albeit often by way of medium-sized dry goods. The idea, I think, is that the fanfic quality of the characters —you come to the work pre-equipped with a pretty good idea of who these people are, what they're concerned about, the way the story goes— is meant to bootstrap an otherwise-awkward setup. You're assumed to already know what sort of things John the Baptist might reply to. It only succeeds partially at this, I think, even to an audience familiar with the material; at times Cana leaves you facing a blank wall of impassive NPCs, struggling to find the key that unlocks them.

The Play, Deirdra Kiai

The premise of The Play is very much like a small stage drama: introduce a handful of characters and give them a reason to fight like cats. The game's focus, both mechanical and narrative, is all about the NPCs; this is a game about managing an unruly crowd of characters, trying to herd their divergent personalities and motives towards some kind of favourable outcome.

So this is a story about mediating (or avoiding) conflict rather than leading from the front, but it's not about being totally even-handed. Rather, it's about mediating conflict in situations where there are people in the wrong &mdash some more clearly so than others — but are nonetheless needed by the group. (I found myself thinking here about the Mbuti as depicted in Turnbull's The Forest People: the group is so small that it cannot afford to expel or severely punish offenders, and social order is maintained mostly through ridicule.) There's a lot of conflict, and all your choices directly pertain to those conflicts; it's tight work.

Individually, the characters are mostly stereotypes, portrayed with verve but not really any deeper than their basic narrative role. When we discover details about the characters, they come off as improv lines rather than the revelation of someone who already exists. This, to some extent, part of the work's design; it's a melodrama and a morality play, and those require characters that are easily-identified. It's also short, with little time for development; this means that the characters have to be established from the first words they say, which is ably handled. The characters are to some extent accretive: we discover, for instance, that the lunkish Karl is capable of behaving enough to attract Erica, and that Erica isn't so militant as to invariably reject him for earlier lunkery. The plotting has come in for a fair amount of criticism because it often fails to deliver its most important detail, the sexual-harrassment thread. These are both standard CYOA problems as much as issues with this particular work; CYOA is more about the flow of narrative than a solid world, and its greater emphasis on opportunity-cost and branching can make key elements easier to miss.

Centrally, The Play is a deserving finalist because it has the right attitude to some very basic principles of writing: stories are about people, and they're built around conflicts. All too often, IF writers avoid dealing with this, because it's bloody hard to do. At the next requirement — that the conflicts should not be obviously resolved — its success is mixed; it looks more difficult than it really is.

Cryptozookeeper, Robb Sherwin

A lot of Robb Sherwin's games have, at the heart of their character dynamics, an RPG party thing: the central characters stick together despite conflicts of personality and best interest, often for no very clear reason. There are people who really dislike this even in RPGs, but on the whole I think it can be taken as a genre convention, one that Robb has already lampshaded pretty hard in Necrotic Drift. And so it is here: the protagonist Vest isn't entirely convincing as a guy who could unite and lead a fractious bunch of misfits, but that's fine.

There's been a gender gap between Robb's characters throughout his major games; in general, the guys tend to be entertainingly-quirky yet hopeless losers, and the girls are basically level-headed, capable people whose major flaw is that they're attracted to hopeless losers. Robb has said that Jane and Deanna are "my attempts to write female characters whose roles are completely different from almost every other girl in my stuff". This was, I think, a fairly mixed success; Jane is still, basically, a mostly-sensible, mature person whose major defining flaw is that she dates losers, even if she functions as one of the gang rather than a Quest-Object Girlfriend.

As in an episodic TV show or an RPG campaign, the length and variability of CZK allows characters a lot more space to develop, to get focus moments that deal centrally with their special concerns… which then leave even more loose threads floating around to be picked up later. I'm still not entirely sure which Deanna is the original. Metagame stuff kicks in heavily enough that it's often difficult to make character development fit any kind of coherent explanation; Grimloft's resurrection by authorial fiat gives the impression that the core NPCs are just recurring figures in a fever-dream, working under an ungraspable logic.

Ukilicoz, the antagonist, is not a particularly strong character in his own right: he's mostly absent and not immensely distinctive in person. His role is more as an unseen opponent and mirror to Vest. A particularly wanky thought that I've been mulling over for a while: the primary way that both Vest and Ukilicoz work is by creating monsters. And the big literary precedent for this is Zeus versus Gaia; for both of them, their primary power (at least insofar as 'shaping how the story goes') is fecundity: they both produce powerful offspring to go off and kill stuff. And then, of course, there are the cryptids themselves. You're set up to be invested in them — they are, after all, Cool Things, the essential theme of the game, the rewards for your hard work solving puzzles. The monster-creation text is written as a reward. And on the other hand the game's pretty clear that the fate of transgenic monsters is distressing, confused and violent, that you're really not doing these creatures a favour by bringing them into the world, that your children are going to end up as your cannon-fodder. At one level this is just dark humour about how Pokemon is kind of fucked up; but on another it's about a guilty pleasure, of circumstances compelling you to do something you really want to do anyway (but normally really shouldn't). Vest is, obviously, out to save the world; but he knows it's kind of worrying that he's enjoying it so much.

Zombie Exodus; Jim Dattilo

As far as characters go, ZE is interested in two things that should be in alignment: the supportive relationship between the PC, Emma and Heather, and the traumatic inhumanity of the situation.

The most commonly-mentioned stat in Zombie Exodus is 'humanity'. Humanity doesn't necessarily mean being humane, or Doing the Right Thing; rather, your humanity goes down as you become more inured to human suffering. Sometimes, in fact, doing the humane thing will lower your humanity — as when you euthanise a zombie- infected man by his own request. It's a central device for framing what's at stake. ZE repeatedly puts you in situations where you have the option to kill someone — never anyone you know — to save them from becoming a zombie, or to abandon them in order to better protect you and yours. This has been an increasingly prominent theme in zombie stories; The Walking Dead lingers to an basically pornographic degree over the point- blank shot to the head of a former loved one. ZE is not quite as brutal, but its main problem is that it never really shows the upshot, as far as I can work out: an inhumane PC doesn't start treating his relatives differently, and NPCs don't react differently to an inhumane PC. The result is that it feels more like a focus on trauma for its own sake, rather than to explore what its effects are.

It's also interested in the PC's role as saviour and protector, mostly of women; the central relationships of the story are those between the protagonist, their sister Emma and her friend Heather. This is intended to be warm and light-hearted, perhaps as a contrast and a respite from the horrors of the rest of the game; but it comes off as disconnected. Heather and Emma squabble, sulk, and argue about clothes and luggage, which has the effect of making the collapse of human civilisation seem about as serious as summer camp; they do not feel like adults dealing with a grave situation. And the inhumanity dynamic scarcely seems to touch on the PC's relationship with them. Okay, writing dialogue is hard, and there are a lot of conflicting demands on these particular characters. But as a story so concerned with high-stakes character conflicts, it needs to do better.

Part of the issue here, I think, is that ZE isn't very clear about its tone; it's not sure whether it wants to be a light-hearted spring-break apocalypse or a darker, more traumatic piece. (On the one hand, the zombies are a cartoonish yellow-green; on the other, there's the abandoned child and all the suicide and euthanasia.) This isn't to say that the two can't co-exist in the same work, but there's too much of a disconnect.

Six; Wade Clarke

The characters of Six are mostly interesting because of how they reflect the worldview of a quite small child. Six's is a simple world, but it's pretty clear that this isn't because the author thinks that the world is or should be simple: it's because the protagonists can only interpret it in simple ways.

The ability of children to think about other minds isn't fully formed. Until they're four or so, they're little solipsists, unable to quite grasp the idea that other people have minds like their own. Some parts of that ability don't fully coalesce until adulthood. And in Six there's this immediate feeling that your ability to deal with the world is naturally limited.

Design-wise, this is very fortuitous, because social interaction in IF typically feels rather limited, haphazard, an operation with terms beyond your control, a task for which you lack tools ready-to-hand. There's always the sense that you're limited -- which is why so many PCs are mute or socially awkward or outsiders. But in Six, your limited apprehension of other characters doesn't imply coldness or distance, your limited control over conversation with them doesn't feel like a privation. It's worth contrasting this to Stephen Granade's Child's Play, which is all about privation, about the huge, frustrating gap between adult comprehension and capabilities and those of an infant. In Six that gap exists, but it isn't cause for concern. It's not something you've lost or failed to develop, it's not something that you logically should have, it doesn't frustrate your goals. The PC's solipsism isn't hard-shelled or misanthropic: the player can see that all the other kids are off in their own worlds too, and that they're willing to accomodate each others' worlds.

There's only one point at which it's foregrounded, where you feel as if you're swimming through mud, trying to deal with stuff that you don't have the tools for: in dealing with Rose. The player senses that Rose has issues, as do Demi and Harriet, but none of us can really work out what they involve.

Most of the NPCs, though, are rendered in a very minimal way: usually a single line of text, a costume, and enough personality to make them into a puzzle. They're not deep, because six-year-olds don't care about deep. Nor, in the context of the game, do you share very deep bonds with them, or engage with them in a sustained manner; you're too young for sustained conversation. There's no sense that Demi and Harriet would mourn their friends if they moved to the other end of the country tomorrow. Their relationship with their parents is similar: fragmentary, self-centred but warm.

To a great extent, this is all in service of mechanical ends: the game doesn't want you to waste much time on chatting with people, it wants you to go off and solve puzzles. Considering this, the conversation system is really pretty sophisticated; it's context-sensitive, it's realistic, it's effective in its functional purpose, it doesn't make anybody feel artificial or unpleasant. None of the NPCs are particularly striking creations in their own right; like Cana, their total effect is greater than the sum of their parts.

Lucian Smith on Best Individual Puzzle

There's no point in reviewing individual puzzles without spoiling them to death, so that's what I do below. If you're interested in experiencing the puzzles for yourself first, do that! Indigo, in particular, is a very short game where the puzzle is the entire game, so you don't have to wade through the rest of the game to get to it. The same cannot be said of 'the Hat Mystery', which takes four games to discover and puzzle out.

[Note: Lucian has thus far been unable to complete the Hat Mystery, and feels unable to report on it until he has done so. Whether this speaks well of the puzzle is left as an exercise for the reader. An update is promised.]

Assembling the name of the final location, The Race; Andy Why

The puzzle: Assemble the letters AIEOLLSSLD into a location, chosen from a list of 24 shorter words.

At first glance, this puzzle seems entirely divorced from the game it comes from: it's a straightforward anagram with some nuances. It's at least slightly better than that, however: it is an anagram of a location, and the game takes place in Peru, so it's a good bet that the final answer (and probably the individual words) are in Spanish. And as it happens, if you visit the right location before being given the puzzle, sharp-eyed players could actually notice the location being used (though I saw this only on my second playthrough, and the first playthrough necessarily solved the puzzle).

I happen to enjoy puzzles of this nature in general (I'm a longtime subscriber to GAMES magazine) and this was a good example of that sort of puzzle where you could work out parts of it by logic and piecing together possibilities. I'm not sure if there were other ways to solve it, so I'll walk you through how I did so:

First, I happened to have a companion in the game who gave me a hint: the 5- and 6-letter words were not possible answers. The companion told me why, and it was logical; it would have perhaps been nice to discover this on my own, but it did at least seem decipherable. This shortened the list of words to choose from to 21.

Next, I noticed that there were quite a lot of words in the remaining list of 21 with a 'D' in them. As there was only one 'D' in my initial letters, this meant that at most one of them could be in my final solution. With 13 'D' words, this left 8 words in the list, exactly 2 of which had to be in the final solution.

I next noticed that with three L's in my list, and no word on the list with more than one 'L' in it, this meant that all three of my words had to have L's in them. This eliminated 4 of my D words, and 1 of my non-D words, leaving only 7.

Since the 'D' thing had worked so well in paring down the solution space, I then looked for more letters that would narrow my search, and I found that in my list of 7 non-D words, 4 of them had O's (another unique letter from my list) meaning that I now had a list of only 3 words, and at least one of them had to appear at least once in the final solution.

This was finally small enough a list to brute-force the remainder. My favorite word on the list of three was ISLA (hey, it's Spanish and it's a location!) and once used, the remaining letters (EOLSLD) could be rearranged into two other words on the list: LOS and DEL. The second was LES; the remaining letters there (AIOLLSD) could be rearranged into DIAL and SOL. Finally, the third was SEAL, and IOLLSD could be rearranged into LID and SOL.

With several valid options, but one favorite, I went back to the game and entered 'isla', 'del' and 'los'. It told me 'sorry, none of those words are in the final solution!' So I tried 'les', 'dial', and 'sol'. Same response. 'seal', 'lid' and 'sol'? Same response. Did I make an error of logic?

I found a friend who had already solved the puzzle and asked if one of the words in the final solution was 'isla', 'les', or 'seal'. 'Yes!' he told me. 'The game lied to me!' I cried.

But it turned out that the puzzle was so tricky that I had spent the last several minutes working all this out on paper, and by the time I finally was ready, I just typed my answers into the box without re- reading the text. That was my mistake: the game would only accept *capital* letters in the words! An unfortunate drawback of the game system itself, I assume, but quite annoying nonetheless. I would have appreciated a response to my first query along the lines of 'Hey, none of those words are on the list at all!' and maybe even a 'Are you sure you used capital letters?'—even the first might have set me on the right track.

At this point, however, I had already gone off-book (as it were) and my friend had told me that 'isla del los' was 'very close' and from there I could deduce the correct solution: ISLA DEL SOL. Correct! And a pretty satisfying ending. I actually replayed the game later to figure out what would have happened if I had entered my first guess as all-caps: ISLA DEL LOS told me 'two of the words are correct and in the correct order!' so that would have been more than enough for me to deduce the solution (and solving the puzzle in two guesses was still 'the best' in the internal-game narrative: the closest competing team solves it in three.)

Overall, I would rank this puzzle as a nice word puzzle, and even begrudgingly accept that an IF-like context for it (Peru, the ability to see the answer in context, and the multiple-guess format) made it an even better puzzle than it would have been as a standalone puzzle. The remainder of its context, however (you're in a reality show with puzzles!) was not as… integrated, I guess, as I like my IF puzzles to be. Even if you have a believable context for your towers of Hanoi puzzle, it's still a towers of Hanoi puzzle. Here, though not at all cliché, and in fact an enjoyable puzzle to solve, its blatant 'I am a PUZZLE!'-ness left it a little lacking in what I like my XYZZY 'Best Puzzle' winners to be. But it totally deserves a spot in the nominations (IMO) despite the voting/nomination wonkiness that happened this year.

Escaping the Tower, Indigo; Emily Short

Here, the entire game is the puzzle, so again, I recommend playing game first before reading on. Be sure to type 'ABOUT' if you're stuck.

For this game, I actually have a transcript which you can read. Yay!

The puzzle here is two-fold. First, you have to discover that a system is present that you can manipulate. Second, you have to manipulate it to serve your ends. The first part is where the joy of solving the puzzle lies, and the second contains the satisfaction.

It didn't take long to get hints from the environment that I was going to have to manipulate time in some way during the game. Basically every description of every item involved either talking about how old it was, or about how long it would take before something interesting would happen to it. You can see in my transcript the moment I notice this:

>light candle with fire

So little remains of the wick that it could not be lit. If you were to take back the hour it has already burned, however, it might be serviceable again.

>[wow, I bet I have to manipulate time]

There's actually a clue right there about how to do so, but I missed it. I stumble around a bit more, and finally complain:
>drink potion

The thought of tasting it in its current form makes you gag. It's astonishing how much age can convert the texture and scent of such a brew.

>age potion

The story doesn't understand that command.

>[how do I manipulate time?]

Happily, I'm about to figure it out:
>l Kitchen

A fire burns in the fireplace and a few basic kitchen things are still lying around. The plank staircase spirals up to the room above, while a much older, darker, stone staircase descends to the storeroom below.

You see a cauldron (which contains an unfinished potion) here.

There's a strong smell of rotten eggs.


This game was created for Speed-IF Indigo, which challenged authors to create a piece somehow loosely related to the idea of indigo while using a programming language they haven't published in before.

I only had a couple of afternoons to give this project, and there's lots I would like to have done better. As with all speed-IF, this is an unfinished design with minimal implementation.

Still, it was a fun time, and I owe a lot to Eric Eve's manuals and tour guide for making it possible to implement even as much as I was able to here, given that I was coming to the language as an almost complete novice.

It is possible to make the game unfinishable, but typically only by destroying an object. It should be immediately obvious when an object is destroyed.

Hints are available, though like everything else, they may be flawed.

Finally: if in doubt about removing one object from another, try TAKE. Other variations ('get foo from bar', 'remove foo from bar', etc.) are not necessarily as well accounted-for as they should be.

Ah, the good ol' 'ABOUT' text. A marvelous place to put a hint for this game, and I head right upstairs to try it out:
>take decade from painting

You can't have that; it's part of the wall images.

OK, so this proves that I didn't read the ABOUT text all that closely after all, but I'm on the right track:
>take decade

You stroke your fingers lightly over the wall, seeking purchase. Pinch. Pull.

The decade pulls away, the mural rapidly cycling backward, showing again the layers in which it was painted: the sky overlies a forest, the forest is painted over a garden, the garden you drew when you first moved here in childish strokes of charcoal on the wall.

Then it's all gone. The wall is whitewashed and pristine, and the decade hangs in your hands.


The story doesn't know how to use the character '[' in a command.

>take hour

It takes several attempts, but in the end you manage to take the hour between your fingernails and tease it away from the candle with no tearing or disruption.

What remains behind is a whole candle, unburnt.

>[ha ha ha]

The story doesn't know how to use the character '[' in a command.

The 'ha ha ha' was simple delight. I had figured it out! I was successfully manipulating the game world! From there, it was a relatively short cascade of taking time away from one thing and putting it back into other things, which felt long enough for me to display mastery of the technique, but short enough to not get tedious. This is the 'satisfaction' part of puzzle solving that is sometimes neglected in puzzles (it's often hard to draw out the solution once the player has figured something out without being annoying) but done well here. An altogether fantastic experience, all around.
Putting out the fire, How Suzy Got Her Powers; David Whyld

I have to say that I'm flummoxed. I played this game expecting to find a complicated puzzle about putting out a fire, and instead found a very simple puzzle in a very small game. Did I miss something?

The puzzle I found is that if you examine a fire extinguisher, you find that it is a very odd extinguisher indeed, and that if you THROW it at a fire, it will put it out. I did so, and indeed, the fire went out. That… was it, really. Not an unreasonable puzzle for the middle of a short game, but I have to imagine that there were more complicated and interesting puzzles out there this year.

It may be that there were multiple options for putting out the fire, and I found the simple one. It is possible to spray the extinguisher at the fire, which dampens the blaze but not enough to let you by, and after that, you can't THROW it any more. So perhaps there was an alternate solution that was more fun? I couldn't find it, if so. And in fact, the fact that there is an obvious clue towards a simple solution and nothing that I could find for a more complicated solution doesn't bode well for the puzzle, either. On my playthrough, I sprayed the fire, found it didn't work, then read the extinguisher and found the clue for the THROW method. All I could figure was that I had made the game unwinnable, so I restarted and did that. The surroundings of a puzzle can be as important as the puzzle itself, and they were not particularly compelling in this entry.

[Transcript parts one and two.]

Marius Müller on Best Individual PC

Alistair Lidell, Sentencing Mr. Liddell; I-K Huuhtanen
Liddell is the kind of protagonist who, in many regards, plays to the strength of the medium. From the outset, it's not quite clear whether he's supposed to be likable or not. He gives employment to family members, but neglects his wife and child. And even the latter is not quite a black and white matter. Once the game veers into symbolist / surrealist territory, further issues of his life are explored, mostly connected to interesting choices on the player's side. The piglet moment, while something I personally only really grasped in retrospect, is one of the strongest emotional moments I've had in my recent playing of IF. There's a choice there, and both options made me squirm, yet (and this is the important aspect) both made sense given what I learnt of the protagonist's character and history.

That said, the game deals with abusive parents and family, but at many points, you are reduced to solving (albeit basic) puzzles. This felt very clunky in context, and broke mimesis of the character. It's hard to imagine someone in static fiction, in the same situation, smashing skylights with stones.

The symbolism also is a mixed bag; while it can be a powerful tool, it can also fall oh so flat if it fails to connect for the player. So while the teacup fight and my bystander role, and the egg, might have held some deeper insight into the whole family dynamic, it was just confusing to me. What'll stay with me is the sense of a flawed protagonist, stuck in a dreamlike world and facing life issues, done compellingly if a little too sketchy.

Mangiasaur, Mangiasaur; DCBSupafly
A mangiasaur has no pockets. It has only a stomach.
This, like Conan kills everything, takes singular determination and then has great fun with it. As a dinosaur intent on staying alive and growing, your quest is to explore your environment and eat anything that is or seems edible. You'll grow some bonus appendages and get skills from what you eat, and that helps you eat even more things. It's all played for laughs, and the game is short enough for that to work. There's some sketchy implementation, and I was never quite sure what level of intelligence I was to assume for my dino, but the game sure is fun while it lasts and I always like it when the protagonist is fine with violence being the answer.

It would've worked a bit better if the implementation and descriptions had been a little less sketchy (a few time I was afraid I had broken the game due to bugs). As it stands, Mangiasaur is a refreshing, new kind of IF protagonist, who really plays to the strength of the medium, who hasn't quite got the world to back him up. It aims to be a fun little romp, and at that it succeeds.

Mentula Macanus, Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis; Adam Thornton

After first finishing Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis I found myself flabbergasted by the idea of writing this up for Best PC.
This Stiffy, while a clearly defined character in the work (we see his family estate and met his father) lacks the substance to be a compelling protagonist. He's closer to the AFGNCAAP of old; like the protagonist of the frequently alluded-to "Curses", his background is merely a plot device to get you, the player, to solve some puzzles.

Only when I considered the whole metatextual aspects of the game -and it is, at heart, scarely anything but - came I to realize where I was wrong. I had come looking for a strong Protagonist, when, was this has, is a great Player Character.

He is the descendant of the now infamous Stiffy of the dropable genitals , runs into grues (best light source ever) and visits the Unreal City from Eliot AND Graham, though, naturally, with some kinky additions.

The way it handles the sex is interesting. It reverses the usual AIF order of events of solving a puzzle with a more or less rewarding sex scene as a result. Here, the usual brief, absurd and scatological sex with almost everyone and even a few things (I never thought I'd say this, but try sleeping with everything for fun) usually comes before a puzzle. Mentula genuinely aims to please. It's all, of course, extraordinarily silly but never is there ever a feeling of ill will or mean- spiritedness by him towards his partners.

Mentula seems to be unfazed by even the most absurd, intrusive or abusive of events, retains good humour and is mostly interested in the well-being of others, which, granted, often includes, erm, physical pleasures. I think that is, what mainly makes him and the game so charming and a deserving candidate for best PC.

At the heart of all this craziness, the wide-ranging references to IF, mythology, theology, pop culture and god knows what else, stand this guy, who is not a well-defined character in the modern sense, but a throwback to something old-fashioned in literature and IF: the hero of the story.

Morgoth, Lord of Darkness; A Comedy of Error Messages; Adam Le Doux

Morgoth is an instantly likable protagonist. It is a computer who fashions itself after the archetypal British butler, only willing to help his somewhat hapless master, Watts (of choosable gender).

From the opening paragraph, the PC is characterized as humble and helpful, and all continues to be so throughout his interactions with other computers and programs in the anthropomorphic, somewhat cutsey, internet (under a somewhat distracting and unnecessary time limit).

There are a few different endings, based on puzzle-solving, not moral choices and in the better ones, you are even more helpful, in not only cancelling the potentially disastrous date, but also setting up your master with a new partner. A few things don't ring quite true — you steal someone's promotions without any hint of doubts on the PCs part, and of course two people in cubicles next to each other being a perfect match is a cliche (but arguably a nice one). Looking back on it, the game feels like a cheeky comment on our interaction with computers: incredible machines of incredible powers, which don't quite make all of us better at real life; yet they patiently help us.
"The Ghost in the Machine" is often seen as maleovolent, dark, dangerous - Comedy makes the point of it being more akin to the helpful, somewhat condescending, yet amicable djinn of fairy-tales. Most casual users don't really understand what's happening in there, yet we use them daily. Maybe it is telling that anthropomorphizing what is, after all, just a machine feels so natural these days. I'm glancing over at my computer and ponder what to name him. Her. It.

Nicholas St. John; Love Hate and the Mysterious Ocean Tower; C.E.J. Pacian

For the most part, mysterious Ocean Tower — one of the most impressive Speed-IFs I've seen — is intruiging for the things which are only hinted at. This is as true for the game world as it is for the two protagonists and their relationship. They have been romantically involved, and the whole thing smells a bit of manga — bumbling assistant, swashbuckling heroes, weird aliens, faux-Victorian decor. But the relationsship really gains some emotional impact in the last few choices, where our bumbling protagonists show a surprising depth and personality, belying the somewhat comic setup. This is a great, great little game which defines its characters with a few quick brushstrokes, yet manages to evoke something, even though it confronts you with some meaningful choices after about 5 minutes of play.

Joey Jones on Best Implementation

Six; Wade Clarke

It's difficult to see how Six could have been better implemented. The first thing you see upon starting Six is a full-sized charming colour cover and opening theme music. It immediately signifies that this is a game with high production values. Through the initial configuration tests it becomes obvious that Clarke has a strong vision for how he wants the game to look and sound, and he's taken all reasonable steps towards achieving this vision. Furthermore, in saving the settings locally, the player isn't forced to redo the tests upon each play through.

On the starting menu when you press a number, the option is carried out straight away without having to press enter, and when you click the number to start the game, the name of the protagonist is shown in the input. While these are very small features on their own, the game is full of these little aesthetic touches that add up to a richer game experience.

A really effective touch is to colour blue and double-bracket all the out of world messages. This helps maintain the strong narrative voice, as well as clearly signifying when certain actions aren't relevant to the game. So instead of saying things like 'You smell nothing unexpected', which leaves open the possibility of there sometimes being something unexpected, it says "<< You don't need to use the verb SMELL in this game. >>". In doing so, he makes it clear what actions are relevant to successfully playing the game, something which many interactive fictions fail to do. This clear distinction of meta-game information is used to great effect in the duelling section, where the rules of a unique sub-game are clearly explained within the game through judicious use of blue text.

Six is intended to be suitable for players of all ages, as well as newcomers to interactive fiction. You don't have to take my word for it: it says this in the first line of the manual. Where possible it is best to judge art by the experience its maker had intended it to afford. It would be inappropriate to complain about the lack of realism in Un Chien Andalou, because that's not what the directors were aiming for. Just as the design choices of Buñuel and Dalí's film should be judged by the capacity to which they afford the viewer a surreal experience, the implementation of Six should be judged (though definitely not solely) by the degree to which it facilitates the stated aim of being suitable for all players and skill levels. In this capacity, the implementation is excellent. The well-presented manual, in-game help menus and generous in-play hints allow for a smooth experience for all levels of skill, without detracting from the richly interactive game environment. All the expected actions have a wide range of synonyms, and the more specialist commands are clearly explained. There's even a visual representation of a compass in the status bar for those who find it difficult to remember which way around east and west go.

The implementation of Six qua interactive fiction is also excellent. The most striking thing about the game beyond its use of colour and illustrations is the sound, and it is likely that this helped tip Six into first place. While other games have used thematic scores and sound effects, Six takes the implementation of sound further by integrating it into the puzzles. When little Harriet or Demi is listening out for the tell-tale giggles of their friends in hiding, the player too must listen and in the striking maze puzzle when playing as Demi, the player must physically listen out for which direction a sound is coming from. This use of aural-directional information is rarely used in graphics-based games, let alone text-based games.

As far as implementing interesting and varied responses, Six is also very rewarding. Your parents and the other children often give different replies when talked to, and the successful use of randomised elements means that each game plays out differently (though there are naturally only so many strategies for finding and tipping everyone). Of course the masterstroke of implementation in Six is the fact it is essentially two games overlaid with two very different sisters to eventually play as and all the important game interactions give a completely different response depending on whether it's Demi or Harriet you're playing as. So from the player's perspective, they see one rich characterisation through the varied game responses (and really I feel that even on my fourth play-through I haven't seen or tried everything), and then when replaying the game they get to experience a totally different characterisation. This is facilitated not only through the general responses to actions like 'sing' or 'talk to Mum', but through the implementation of new areas and puzzles and new ways of finding and tipping the others.

There may be issues with Six: I'm genuinely uncertain (and unfazed) as to whether six-year old Australian children talk and play in the ways portrayed in the game. While it might not be everyone's cup of tea, whatever failings Six might have as a game (and I'd be hard pressed to name anything major) it's difficult to see any failure either in the implementation of its game vision, or in its presentation as a game worthy of playing and indeed replaying.

Taco Fiction; Ryan Veeder

Taco Fiction is a game about crime. There are many aspects to crime and the primary theme of the game is precariousness. You, as the nameless protagonist, are in a precarious financial state which leads you to criminal acts, and the world you occupy in Taco Fiction is itself precarious with few things exactly as they seem. With this in mind, we might expect the game's implementation to facilitate this sense of precariousness, and so it does.

The smoothness of play is generally commendable, and times when the parser doesn't understand your intention or is misleading stand out. Particularly, it could be smoother in places where something new but undescribed is announced. So when bumping into 'something large and doughy-soft', or when you see 'something shiny in the back' or even 'something red spraypainted', the parser doesn't conditionally understand 'something' or 'thing' as referring to the noun that the game just referred to as 'something', and in the third case the correct noun 'graffito' wasn't recognised. This though hardly counts as criticism in the full sense of the word, and while the game's general implementation is superlative with a lot of things to fruitfully interact with, I'll be focusing in this review on the implementation of character interaction.

The interaction with other characters in Taco Fiction is sometimes a little rough or misleading (and though it's also true, I don't mean that in the thematic sense). Take paying for things like a taco or an ice cream: this uses the verb 'to pay', which is fine and dandy. However, the prompt when you try to give the cashier in Paco's money, is the standard '[Use TALK TO to interact with characters.]', which in the case of paying is palpably false, as there is no 'pay for taco' option on the talk menu. The odd thing is, there's not this problem when paying Zuleika: she accepts a payment when you 'give her money' (though there's still no 'pay for ice cream' menu option). I can only assume that the response for trying to be charitable to Zuleika was written first, and then a condition added for the occasions when you're trying to pay her. Perhaps it's more misleading because buying is instigated from within a conversation menu. The decision to have buying in-menu is fine and makes the most sense, and the verb 'to buy' prompts towards talking to the various cashiers. Given that the point of the game is to make money, paying probably wasn't handled in this way because the decision to pay is a momentous choice, and one that signifies a commitment to a course of action despite the fact that it may not be in one's best interests. Both times I played through I felt moved to buy icecream from Zuleika to help her out (I'm not usually that fussed about icecream, even fictional icecream). While this fellow-feeling undoubtedly arises through the great writing, the cost of attending to it is accentuated by having to actively fork out the cash, rather than having paying completely folded into a single in-menu choice.

The conversation system in Taco Fiction is mostly successfully handled, and the decision to use a numbered menu-based interface was certainly the best as it takes the frustrating guesswork out of interacting with others, as well as allowing the player to experience most of the carefully crafted dialogue. Having the option to go back when more information is found somewhat ameliorates the 'lawnmower' problem usually levelled against such systems. The exact menu system the game uses is an unusual mix of design choices, most prominently: there are persistent options that lead to psuedo-sub-menus, and there are sometimes non-conversation options in the conversation menu.

I'll tackle the sub-menus first: in an important sense there aren't any. The game derives its menu-based conversation from Michael Martin's great Quip-Based Conversation extension. This has limitations which make it difficult, though by no means impossible, to have proper sub-menus. By this I mean the situation that is typical in computer roleplaying games, in which the selection of a conversation menu option leads to a new menu. This approach is often accompanied by the choice to return to previous menus, and to be able exhaust different sub-menu choices permanently such that returning to previous visited menus doesn't replay all the previous choices. Given the limitations of the extension and the difficulty of properly implementing such a system, it's understandable that Vedeer decided to stick with pseudo-sub-menus. Instead of opening up into a separate menu, there are permanent sub-menu choices (like, 'You wanna hear something weird?') which expand all the options into the 'root' menu. This can mean that in some conversations, if you talk widely before you talk deeply, you can end up with 15+ options for conversation. And that's maybe a bit too much.

There are two problems here which if solved could have minimised this issue. Namely, that the permanent options which lead to the sub-menus persist even after you've selected them; and the sub-options all reappear when you re-select the permanent option leading to them. These two facts mean that within the same conversation-menu you can ask and re-ask the same thing with the same response over and over. This means by flicking back and forth between two different numbers you can have infinite free samples of ice cream. Perhaps it should be the player's responsibility to the value of immersion not to indulge in that sort of thing, and I am sympathetic to the fact that the conversation extension doesn't make solving this kind of difficulty very easy. Still, this particular kind of clunkiness detracts from what is altogether a very smooth and richly implemented game.

Having non-conversation options within the conversation menu, in particular pointing a gun at them, is an interesting design choice. Despite the inconsistency of having the choice to point a gun at someone in a talk menu, for the game it was the right choice. When I first played, despite having a gun on my person I wouldn't have thought of pointing it at passers-by, and the option to do so is a key way the desperation and precariousness of the protagonist's situation is brought out in the game's implementation. In that first conversation with the passing drunk, the tone is set by the startling choice to rob him with just a pick of a number. While having numbered conversation choices in a parser-based game is sometime criticised for needlessly using a completely different subsystem, whether advertent or not, the choice here is a masterstoke: the ease of robbing someone and the difficulty of paying for something for the character is brought out by the physical ease the player has in robbing, and the additional steps they have to go through to pay. In this way and others, the way that the player interacts with the game-environment gels with the sense of precariousness and uncertainty that the deliciously absurd writing delivers.

Zombie Exodus; Jim Dattilo

Zombie Exodus is an online gamebook made using ChoiceScript. The official ChoiceScript game-making recommendation is to aggressively merge different forking paths, and Zombie Exodus is the epitome of this design philosophy. It's structured as a series of bundles of possible scenes, nodes if you will. Each time you reach a node, you'll be able to choose a branch off this node (sometimes more than one), and after resolving that branch you're ushered onto the next node, with the sequence of nodes being wholly linear. The way it's been set up is that the options available to you, and their chance of success, vary depending on your skill set and what items you possess. All in all, it's quite a logical set up for a very 'rpg' style gamebook. Repeat play-throughs offer interesting and different ways of solving previous problems. I was able to complete the game on my first two play-throughs as a hard-as-nails soldier, and a smooth-talking scientists, taking different completely different routes to the exact same places.

The game is peppered with action sequences. The implementation of the pacing of these sequences varies considerably. Sometimes the sequences are broken up into moderately micro-managed blow-by-blow accounts, and other times you'll get up to around seven descriptive paragraphs outlining the outcome of the fight. I'm not sure whether this way of implementing fights should be seen terribly inconsistent or refreshing. A good design choice was to make many of the fights optional: if you acted smart early on, you could avoid most direct conflicts, or alternatively maximise the number of fights you get into if that's how you want to play it. One weakness of the combat is that often it involves non-choices like 'pistol' or 'rifle' when they both kill the zombie. If there was ammo tracking, or even explicit tactical reasons for choosing one gun over another, then it would make sense. Perhaps the reward here is in the different descriptions offered. If you try hard not to pick up any weapons, you end up with a rifle and 'shoot with rifle' becomes your only option in a few later rail-roaded combats.

Zombie Exodus, like most ChoiceScript games, rests on a series of stats and an inventory. The stats are broad-based attributes and I'm pretty sure that they all get checked at some point or other. For a game nominally in the survival horror genre, it's very forgiving. You can always, without fail, use some attribute or inventory item or special power to get you through. You can even get pretty far in the game by just picking the stupidest of options (like insisting on fighting everything with your bare fists). It's difficult to know whether this was the intended kind of experience. Pretty soon into the game you'll pick up almost everything that you need to get by, so the choice at the beginning over what inventory items to take is a bit empty. I had a couple of successful play-throughs taking the most useless items: the flashlight (you can easily get night vision goggles before you meet any form of darkness), and my favourite book. I imagined it was a hardback edition of Pride & Prejudice, but the option to bludgeon a zombie with it never came up.

The game also tracks 'humanity' and your relationships with the party members you pick up in the late game. Unfortunately, neither of these appear to have any effect. I tried a couple of times to be as deliberately villainous as possible and I wasn't able to decrease my humanity to zero. Likewise, I was as obnoxious to Heather as I possibly could be and it didn't make a blind bit of difference. There were even a number of points (most especially, the whole scene involving the old man) where my actions should definitely have lowered my humanity. So what then is the point in modelling such stats? There's a couple of possible answers. Maybe modelling them tells the player something about their character which add to the playing experience. Being a callous puppy eater and having Heather despise you may have no in-game effect, but it forms part of the story of your character. More likely, there are intended effects but because the game isn't actually finished, there isn't enough time to develop these effects.

This brings me to the biggest weakness of implementation: the game isn't finished. The game cuts out at a reasonable point, but it's made very clear that the full game is meant to be much longer- it's currently in 'open beta-testing'. In a way it's a shame that the incomplete game was put forward for the XYZZY awards, as it's not fully implemented yet and it's likely that the eventual stronger and more realised version won't be eligible for entry.

Joey Jones on Best Use of Innovation

Kerkerkruip; Victor Gijsbers

I could gush about Kerkerkruip until the cows come home, but I was already too indulgent with Six, so I'll try to keep it austere and analytical. Kerkerkruip is innovative because it is the first successfully implemented roguelike text adventure. 'Roguelike' here is a huge misnomer. The roguelike genre is a genre of games like the original Rogue game, which involved adventuring to the bottom of a procedurally generated dungeon and back again, rendered in glorious ASCII graphics. Kerkerkruip shares some features with most roguelikes: namely, there's a dungeon, procedurally generated content, a series of enemies, focus on combat, permadeath (you can't reload a game after you've died), and the expectation that you'll die many times before progressing. On the face of it, adhering to so many staples of a well-worn sub-genre isn't particularly innovative. However, Kerkerkruip takes a fresh approach on these staples, and also marks their first application in a non-graphical game (thinking about it, in a certain sense all roguelikes are 'text adventures' given that they're adventure games rendered with text-based graphics, but that's not what we mean by the term 'text adventure').

Kerkerkruip is based in a dungeon. In this, it follows a long tradition of games set in dungeons. Where it differs from other text adventures (I'm really not going to call this an 'interactive fiction' because doing so would do violence to the weak literary connotations of the term 'fiction') is that the order of the rooms are randomly generated, though as far as I could tell every given play-through involves the generation of all the rooms. Where it differs from traditional roguelikes is that each of the locations (while having randomised elements) is hand-crafted rather than just being a generic series of mostly empty rooms and corridors. These rooms often have elements which impact your tactics while fighting in the rooms, and this only one of many kinds of tactical element in the game.

Unlike most other text adventures, the placement of the content of Kerkerkruip is entirely randomly generated, and there is a rich enough variety of items such that each play-though will give a different experience. Unlike a typical roguelike, the inventory items are almost all unique one of a kind artefacts, with only a few generic items like grenades (which I've never been able to constructively use).

Following the same pattern as the rooms and items, the other characters, almost all hostile, are the same from game to game and differ only in which room they are placed in. It might have been more interesting if the game had followed a more roguelike approach and randomly generated monsters based on templates with interchangeable attributes or some such. As it is the other characters are mostly interesting and unique creations, though there are some clear pastiches, and one or two outright borrowings. There is absolutely no consistency in the nature of the characters, or indeed in the lore of the game as a whole.

There have been many other combat-oriented text adventures, and many of them are pretty unimaginative. The combat in Kerkerkruip uses a unique and multilayered system based on Gijsbers earlier attack extension which plays around with the turn order. The challenge of any attack-based game is to give the player something interesting to do other than just clicking attack. Many games fail entirely in this aim but Kerkerkruip neatly succeeds by building in a fundamental and omnipresent gamble: do you attack now while you have initiative or do you concentrate to improve your chances of a successful attack at the risk of being attacked yourself and losing concentration? In a way, it mirrors the fundamental choice in all great strategy games from chess to X-COM: Enemy Unknown: do you sacrifice momentum for greater defence or do you attack and keep momentum? While the broad strategic choice is anything but innovative, applying it in this way to text adventure combat is a highly original endeavour. It must though be added that this isn't the first time Gijsbers has used his combat system in a game: it was also present in his non-roguelike `Mid the sagebrush and the cactus. What makes the combat really unique is that to complete the game there's a broader puzzle revolving around the order in which it is best to kill enemies. This additional cerebral element elevates the game beyond the level of a mere tactical hack & slash.

Of course, basing a game around combat isn't very new or exciting. In the world of computer games you can hardly move for opportunities to solve problems with violence. Victor, if you fancy working with me to adapt Kerkerkruip into a diplomatic-roguelike set in a series of procedurally generated tea rooms in which you must influence random political luminaries, then send me an email.

Kerkerkruip differs dramatically in sensibility from almost all other modern interactive fictions in that there is no undo command, saved games are destroyed upon death and the game is set up to make it incredibly easy to die. For a modern text game, you could argue these anachronisms are innovative, but that'd be a stretch. A deep commitment to fairness to the player is embedded in the game, which is very unusual for a roguelike. There are no completely random deaths: the enemies behave in patterns which can be learned, all fights can be avoided at first, the numbers and chances of success are shown clearly at each step and the environmental instakills are always avoidable for anyone half paying attention.

If judged as an interactive fiction in the normal sense of the term, Kerkerkruip is a manifest failure; while it is possible for there to be interesting emergent stories out of procedurally generated games (I could regale you with many a tale of hubris, heroism, and misfortune from Dwarf Fortress), the only two possible stories in Kerkerkruip are the common 'You enter a dungeon and soon die a grisly death' and the rare 'With a lot of luck and cunning you defeat the evil macguffin'. However, judged as a game Kerkerkruip is highly innovative and has the capacity to afford a player great joy, so long as they're not too easily frustrated.

maybe make some change; Aaron A. Reed

maybe make some change is of course a very innovative game, spend a minute with it and that's clear. More importantly, it's mostly a successfully innovative game. One aim of the game is to tell a story with six competing voices, making a wider point about how we view sport killings and more broadly how we see the war in Afghanistan. The characterisation of the voices is made stronger (and often more painful) by forcing the player to use the participant's terminology. Forcing the player to call a man a 'fuckhead', even if they just want to 'hug the fuckhead' makes them horribly complicit in the world view on offer. Where the game is less successful, is where the innovative structure of looping perspectives on the same moment creates a ludic-narrative dissonance. The goal as a game is uncertain. The about text says there's a concluding section, which implies that the game can be ended. I must've looped around the game a dozen times without it coming to a conclusion. That'd be okay if I thought the game was a continuously looping experience. But because I was primed with the expectation of an ending, my searching for an ending got in the way of properly appreciating the message of the game. That said, before I gave up in frustration (and it's very possible that I had missed something important and obvious along the way), I was very impressed by the incredible use of sampled sounds and random background images. maybe make some change really points the way towards telling stories and approaching real life issues in radical and effective new ways.

Zombie Exodus; Jim Dattilo

The structure of Zombie Exodus has aggressive-merging, linear sequence of nodes, a bunch of stats and inventory items which are checked when trying different options, a morality bar and relationship bars. In this, it is almost identical structurally to many other ChoiceScript games, even rather different ones, thematically, like Choice of the Vampire. It handles the aggressive-merging and nodal structure excellently, the skill challenges fairly well, the inventory items less so and the morality and relationship bar were mostly there to look pretty. The small amount of diplomatic challenges later on in the game were quite refreshing (although not wholly unique in the ChoiceScript canon), but it didn't really matter how they were resolved.

Genre-wise, zombies are old hat. The lore of the game is also a bit shaky: first it seems like a disease afflicted on the living, turning into mindless killers; then it appears like it can reanimate the already-dead; and then it appears like mystical actions like praying have some influence over them. At the end of the day, like other zombie games from Resident Evil to Plants vs. Zombies, the 'zombie' set-up is the easiest legitimate way to strip humans of their personhood to the point where one can kill them with moral impunity. While the original zombie films were radical in intent and execution, the genre across all mediums has been almost completely co-opted and is now mostly a vehicle for allowing the participant to vicariously engage in and approve of violent acts. It's like the traditional action genre with all the moral qualms stripped out.

The plot of Zombie Exodus differs marginally from other zombie story-lines. It doesn't feature trying to escape from a large infested building, but it does involve travelling across the land seeking out a love one. The initial MacGuffin of trying to find a phone is particularly weak because there seems no good reason why you would have lost yours. I understand from the later game and the title that the eventual plot will centre around a flight from the city. There are many possible zombie story-lines, and while not ground-breaking, this one is reasonable enough and probably hasn't been done to death.

Zombie Exodus can't lay claim to being the first combination of its particular form and content, as it isn't even the first incomplete ChoiceScript zombie game to be released. Choice of Zombies came before, had much stronger writing, characterisation and humour, and you could take people along with you instead of having to callously leave them behind, and you didn't even have to kill anyone.

Iain Merrick on Best Technological Development

ADRIFT WebRunner

With Campbell Wild's new app WebRunner, ADRIFT joins the growing trend for making IF games playable on the web. Like Parchment, it's a generic interpreter, not tied to any specific game; you can specify the URL of any ADRIFT game file as a query parameter. Unlike Parchment, there's only one copy of the app available, at http://play.adrift.org.uk/. This means you can't easily host an ADRIFT game on your own website, though it might be possible to do so with an iframe.

If you don't specify a file, WebRunner's splash screen offers a few sample games: "Back to life... unfortunately", "Cursed" and "Jacaranda Jim". Unfortunately most of these result in a generic error message ("Server Error in '/' Application"). Of the three games, I was only able to start Jacaranda Jim, and then only in an incognito window in Chrome. Neither a normal Chrome window nor Firefox worked at all. I suspect this bug could be cookie-related, because if you open another tab while playing a game, it opens at the same point in the game—some additional state is being tracked. (That's potentially a nice feature! You could close the window, then return to the game later on. As I was using an incognito window I wasn't able to test this, though.)

Browser compatibility is the Achilles heel of any web-based game. It may be easier to *start* playing a web game than a more traditional offline game, but unless the interpreter is rock-solid on all the major browsers (at the very least IE, Firefox, Chrome, Safari) a large fraction of potential players won't get a good experience. WebRunner is going to have to improve in this area.

Once you get started with a game, the interpreter is fast and responsive. The HTML/CSS formatting is serviceable but a little ugly. It uses somewhat eccentric colours (red and green on black) which can't be modified, and a proportional font which sadly breaks the ASCII art in Jacaranda Jim. There's also a blue border around the input box that looks a bit out of place. All of this should be repairable with CSS, so it would be great if WebRunner's CSS were customisable. (If you're really finicky, the way the prompt icon shifts a few pixels after you enter a command will drive you crazy. Even that could be fixed with sufficient effort, but pixel-accurate CSS is notoriously difficult!)

The right-hand side of the page contains an autogenerated map, in a tab that can be hidden when you're not using it. This is a distinctivefeature of the offline ADRIFT runner, and it works really well here too, although I'd like to see a clearer visual distinction between north/south and up/down—maybe up/down could be aligned diagonally instead of vertically.

Unfortunately I wasn't able to get far in Jacaranda Jim, as I hit what I assume is an interpreter bug every time I tried to take an object:

The torch is not on or inside another object!
Overall, WebRunner doesn't seem ready for prime time, but it's a decent start. The basic command-line interaction works and it's fast. With interpreter bugs and server stability addressed, it'll be usable, and with some CSS love it'll look good.


Hugor is a new interpreter for Hugo games by Nikos Chantziaras, wrapping the existing Hugo engine in a shiny new shell. Nikos created it specifically to bring OS X and Linux up to parity with the Windows when it comes to Hugo games, so as a Mac user myself, I was very interested in trying it out. I tested Hugo 0.8.1 on a MacBook running OS X 10.7.3.

I grabbed the recent batch of games from HugoComp as well as the oldest Hugo entry in the main IFComp, Kent Tessman's 1997 piece "Down". All played correctly with no noticeable problems.

As a Mac user, and therefore a massively picky UI pedant, I found the interface a bit off-putting. Resizing the window doesn't reflow the text (in fact the text doesn't even repaint correctly—definitely a bug). The default colours are pretty old-school: grey-on-blue body text, with a white-on-black status bar. You can change the fonts and colours, but changes don't take effect until you quit and restart. Unlike most Mac interpreters, the main window has no scrollback by default. If you want to go back and re-read text that has scrolled away, you need to open a separate scrollback window. Integration with the Finder is weak: you can't double-click a .hex file to open it, or drag it to the application icon. Only one game can be played at a time. The margins at the edges of the window are very tight and aren't configurable.

Having said that, the basical functionality is sound. Scrolling is smooth (and *is* configurable), and the Inform-esque help menus that many Hugo games have work well (including cursor key support! none of this "N" and "P" nonsense). If you like the retro feel, this app is totally usable for any Hugo game you care to throw at it.

But the most important question is: can it play the (XYZZY award-winning!) Cryptozookeeper? Robb Sherwin's multimedia extravangzas have always been a bit hit and miss on the Mac, so I had high hopes. And, much to my relief after the 600MB download, Hugor delivered beautifully. Text-only games may not feel quite right, but Cryptozookeeper looks exactly the way it's supposed to. Formatting, graphics, music all work perfectly. Well, okay, nothing's perfect—a full-screen mode would be even better. But definitely a huge step up for multimedia Hugo games outside Windows.

Summary: for text-only games, this will give you (I assume) an authentic Hugo experience, which to me doesn't feel very Mac-like. If you prefer a more modern feel for text games, you're currently better served with a multi-format interpreter like Spatterlight. For games with graphics and sound, however, I can't recommend it strongly enough. This is a terrific contribution by Nikos, and I hope he continues to develop it.

TADS 3.1

Don't be misled by the minor-version increment; version 3.1 of Mike Roberts' TADS is a substantial upgrade from 3.0, with a number of major new features (see http://tads.org/ov_tads31.htm for the highlights). Rather than an in-depth review, I'm going to try to put these new features in context and explain how they can contribute to advancing the state of the art.

For most people, web play is the biggest draw. The Parchment interpreter for Z-code and pure Javascript frameworks like Undum have proven extremely popular, and also valuable for attracting new players to the community. Despite noble attempts like Dan Shiovitz's applet Jetty, TADS has lagged behind for online playability, and suffered as a result. Does 3.1 bring it up to par?

Yes and no, for interesting reasons. Rather than a purely client-side approach (where everything is written in Javascript and runs on your computer), TADS 3.1 uses a client/server approach: the game runs on a server and the browser is only used for display. This has both advantages and disadvantages. It's more efficient overall and should work better on slow clients (like mobile phones); but there will be some time wasted each turn due to the round-trip travel between client and server. For players, a TADS web game will always need a network connection, whereas a Parchment game can in principle run offline. And for authors, a TADS web game will always need a server. Setting up a server and keeping it up requires effort; using a server maintained by a third party requires trust.

IFDB (hosted by tads.org!) has a TADS server running which can be used to play any .t3 file that's available online. Click the "play online" button on Return to Ditch Day to try it out. In my testing, I found that the IFBD server was a little unreliable; I often get an error message reading "Sorry, but we're having trouble finding an available server to run this game." However, if you're able to get it started, the play experience is terrific. It looks and feels just like a desktop HTML-TADS interpreter. There's a lag of maybe half a second on every turn, but never more than that, because the server is doing all the heavy lifting. Just like a desktop interpreter, there's a "Customize Display" dialog that lets you tweak the fonts and colours just the way you like them.

What does this mean for game authors? If you're happy to rely on the IFDB server, I'd say TADS 3.1 is not quite as convenient as Parchment, but it's close. If your game were to become massively popular, the IFDB server might have trouble handling the load, whereas a pure Javascript interpreter scales better because most of the work is done by your players' browsers.

More tech-savvy authors might like to manage their own game server. The TADS 3 System Manual has detailed instructions for doing this; it's a little involved, but doesn't require any rocket science if you know your way around the UNIX command line. You can even register your server as a backup for IFDB, helping to share the load and support more concurrent players.

Got even bigger technical ambitions than that? TADS might be able to keep up. A large part of the web play framework is implemented *in TADS itself* with new networking APIs in version 3.1, which means you can customise the entire experience for your game. The default configuration mimics offline play: one game, one player. But in principle multi-player games are possible, or games split across multiple communicating servers. There isn't any proof-of-concept for this; Mike has done the groundwork, but somebody still needs to write the first killer demo.

The other new features in 3.1 fit well with the networking possibilities, as they tend to expand the range and flexibility of the language. They don't necessarily make more things easy for game authors, but they make more things *possible* for library authors. For example, the language now has reflection (the ability to sniff out information about unknown values) and dynamic compilation (the ability to create new code at runtime), both of which are extremely useful for creating library modules that can adapt to fit the game's code. And there's operator overloading, which allows a library to add new features that feel as if they're built into the language.

And that's TADS 3.1 as I see it: a small but important step for players, and a big leap *in potential* for authors and library designers who want to explore new possibilities, particularly in online play. Mike Roberts has laid some impressive new foundations, and we can choose to build on them or not as we see fit. I hope a least a few authors will take up the challenge!


Vorple is a JavaScript user interface library for IF, developed by Juhana Leinonen. He demonstrated a very early version at the IF Demo Fair in early 2011, to much acclaim. After a year of development, there's a well-documented interface to the hypertext system Undum, and some promising demos of upcoming Inform 7 integration. I tested some Vorple demos for both Undum and Inform.

The target market is IF authors who want to fully embrace the web as a delivery vehicle. Normally the web is a second-class citizen; you might generate a Parchment wrapper for your Inform game, but in its default configuration that just replicates the traditional offline play experience. Vorple's goal is to provide a toolbox of user interface elements that can't easily be replicated on other platforms. Some Vorple features, such as inline graphics and music, are available in systems like HTML-TADS and Hugo, but support for those features tends to be hit-or-miss depending on your operating system. Vorple just needs a modern web browser, which is available on every major OS.

So, what's in the toolbox? I mentioned graphics and sound. In addition, there are pop-up windows, tooltips, floating notifications, menus, buttons, cookie management, and inline movies. More generally, there are Javascript functions to help you manipulate the game text. There's a clever example in the original demo from the fair, of a thermometer that can report either metric or imperial units. When you change the units, text that has already been printed changes appropriately. It's a small hack, but it would be completely impossible in a non-Javascript IF system without rewriting the interpreter (for each platform!), so it gives you an idea of the new possibilities a web-only game could explore.

The Undum demo is fairly restrained, and adds multimedia elements and tooltips to a simple choose-your-own-adventure shell. It works well on both a desktop computer and a touchscreen phone (I used Chrome on both). The library seems solid, and is extremely well-documented, with both a "getting started" guide and a detailed API reference. You'll need to come to grips with Javascript, but you shouldn't need any expert skills, any more so than for a basic Undum game. This is something you can use right now, so if you're interested in this form of IF, it's definitely worth checking out.

The Inform demo, even though it uses most of the same elements, feels a bit more disjointed. It starts with a familiar Parchment command line, but some words are printed as hyperlinks, for optional keyword-style play. Some meta-commands display a pop-up window rather than printing a reply in the main stream of text. Other commands display hovering notifications, or add tooltips to draw your attention to particular words. There's tremendous potential here, but I think the community hasn't yet quite figured out how to unify all these elements into a cohesive experience. Vorple at least provides plenty of scope for experimentation.

Should you use Vorple? I'd say there are two good reasons why you might want to.

First, quality. The "web platform" (HTML5, CSS, Javascript) is extremely powerful but extremely messy. Getting clever text formatting, sound, animation and so on to work correctly on many different browsers is hard; if each game author had to do this for themselves, we'd never get anywhere. Juhana has done the heavy lifting here so you don't have to. If people find bugs, you should be able to inherit the fixes with no additional work. And in my testing, the quality of implementation seems very good indeed. Sound on the web is particularly awkward, but I didn't encounter any problems with it at all. I did notice some glitches with pop-up windows: for example, pop-ups can't be dismissed with the escape key after you move them with the mouse, and the command line still accepts the return key (but not other keys) while the pop-up is open. There's also a slightly distracting "bounce" when you type a meta-command that is immediately removed from the normal output stream. But these are minor flaws, and I'm sure they'll all be ironed out in time.

Second, more speculatively: what is the canonical web interface for IF going to look like? I think this question is still up in the air. Many authors are keen on keyword input—see for example Jon Ingold's The Colder Light or Juhana's own Starborn—but to my mind these experiments haven't yet pinned down the magic formula. If you have ideas of your own that you want to try out, Vorple probably won't help you immediately out of the box; but you can and should check out the source code and adapt it to your own needs. Use Vorple's toolbox where you can and focus your energies on the new stuff you want to do.

Overall, it's clear that Vorple is going to play a key part in web-based IF, particularly IF created with Inform. Parchment helped our Z-code games migrate to the web, and Vorple will help create the next generation: born on the web, speaking the language with no accent, and doing all sorts of crazy stuff that makes the last generation shake their heads in confusion.

J. Robinson Wheeler on Best Supplemental Materials

It has been 30 years since the heyday of Infocom's supplements and a decade since feelies.org tried to reinvent the idea of bundling extra creativity with games, extra materials designed to be browsed first, to welcome the player into the world of each game. Feelies and other supplements are technically not interactive, although it's possible (in the case of booklets and other documents) to make them real enough to hold in your hands and stain with a coffee mug. The agreement on game metadata, the push to educate authors that IF games may now be bundled with cover art, and the success of the Inform 7 publishing platform (which promotes these same niceties by design) has led to the state of things today, wherein more games than not come with at least one nice picture to look at, and quite a number of them include at least some other kind of supplemental document.

PDF has been the document format of choice at least since 2001, which is when I first bundled a PDF with some instructions and a map with a game release. Here we are all these years later, and at last we have a category at the XYZZY Awards for honoring bundled supplements (vitamin Grue, vitamin Plover, vitamin Frotz), and it still mainly comes down to PDFs.

The three finalists in this category all included a PDF supplement to the game; the two that were in competition at last year's IF-Comp also included a cover image JPEG in two sizes. The third, an entry from Spring Thing 2011, only came with the PDF, though it was a PDF full of illustrations, the heaviest in terms of graphic design and layout.

Almanac, The Lost Islands of Alabaz; Michael Gentry

The Traveler's Almanac of the Alabaz Archipelago by Michael Gentry is a worthy nominee, a classic example of including a booklet that has fallen out of the fictional game world and into the player's hands to pore over. It purports to lay out history, geography, flora and fauna, a few myths, and some cutesy trivia, all manner of which may (or may not) help the player out during the game.

It reminds one of the Infocom supplement to one of the later Zork games, the one that listed dynasties of Flathead rulers. Full of creative writing by someone who knows how to slap sentences together, it is at first pass a strong contender just by dint of obviously being part of the author's total imaginings, and that it has been put together with the same care.

If I were to squeeze down on it really hard and focus a laser of pedantic scrutiny over it, all sorts of relatively minor nit-picks start to add up to a rather large pile of doubts about how solid a document it is. The only reason I am subjecting it to this level of scrutiny is because I was asked to.

For example, I have to take back my comment about how good it looked at first pass. In truth, my very first encounter with it made me frown, because it is one of those PDFs where every page is a graphic image, and when one zooms into the page, the text breaks up into horrible jags and crappy looking pixels. It is hard to tell what application the author used to lay out and typeset the almanac, but it apparently wasn't something that could output a PDF that preserved the fonts as editable text. Not that one needs to do this, but the resolution of the pages is fixed, and fixed at a fairly blocky pixel count. Printing out the PDF and reading it indoors on paper, it looks okay, but a little soft. Trying to read it on screen, it looked blurry, enough to be off-putting. Usually when I select "View Actual Size" in a PDF reader the document gets really huge in my window, but when I did that here, it shrank.

The almanac is written in a certain style that tries to emulate the idea of a tourist-bureau printed book, but I started finding its narrative tone reminiscent of elementary school textbooks, or, more specifically, the kinds of descriptive passages one gets when taking foreign language classes and those types of textbooks. Using flat descriptive sentences limited to the vocabulary currently being taught, we are taken on a brief tour of Seville or Marseille or Cologne, told what they like to eat and what the coastline is like, and so forth. Every now and then, there's a sidebar with more info. I could easily imagine this whole document as a textbook translated from the original Alabazian, or Alabanese, or whatever it would be.

I jotted notes throughout the manuscript as to where I would trim, cut, or move things around for clarity. It gets more focus the more it goes, with things being shakier in the beginning, as if the author had to grope around a bit to find the right voice. Each page has a clip-art type illustration, and most pages are their own chapter, but inconsistently are sometimes given title text and sometimes not.

The most fatal design decision is a little graphic bar (a grayscale spectrum of squares that fade from white to black) used to mark section and subsection breaks. Sometimes when this appears it is white to black and sometimes black to white (reading left to right), it is nearly always squeezed too close to the first line of text after it, and it is inconsistently sometimes centered, sometimes off-centered, sometimes left-justified. Worst of all, it is sort of a brutish heavy thing, something taken from printing registration templates and slapped in as if it looked cool, when in fact it sticks out and looks fairly ugly. It doesn't fit the style of the almanac or its other images or its typography, and I can only reason that fatigue at the late hour of prepping the book led to this coarse "Oh, it's good enough" decision.

Finally, the writing is good, and amusing, but reads a lot like a first draft. You get multiple uses of certain phrasings, like a lot of "Although", in fact, too much "Although." A second pass on the writing would probably have combed out a few of these. The rest of the nit-picks are standard proofreading and grammar problems, some of which come down to whether you believe the editor's taste or the writer's prerogative should determine "lain" vs "laid" or "might" instead of "may." Some mistakes seem like intentional jokes, maybe: "Salt melts ice by raising lowering the freezing temperature of water!" exclaims one sidebar bullet. For all I know, on the Alabaz archipelago salt does both of these things.

So, if I hadn't been tasked to scrutinize this, I would have said it was perfectly good and fine. Having scrutinized it, I would have liked an edited rewrite and a little rework of the graphic design. I also would have sacrificed larger file size for higher resolution, and in the best world would have tried for a PDF that embedded its fonts rather than having every page be a separate graphic. In truth, we could all do with more feelies of this caliber.

The upshot is this: if all games had a feelie document at least this good, life would be rich and merry for IF game players and reviewers everywhere. And then we should raise the bar and require one more professional level up when they get at least this good.

PDFs and screencast tutorials, Kerkerkruip; Victor Gijsbers

Kerkerkruip Beginner's Guide by Victor Gijsbers is a crisp looking little three-page brief. It wastes no time being cute or clever, but it does deliver the facts in a solid professional tone, leading what the document presumes to be an experienced IF audience through the major new play differences. There was one proofreading oddity: "Did you check your inventory? Using ment can give you the edge you need." Perhaps it is referring to Mentos, and the game involves getting a bunch of guys to move some woman's car. Either that or the words "inventory manage" got cut out of my copy.

I am of course unable to be nearly as picky with this supplement as I was with Alabaz because it doesn't nearly shoot for the same mark. It's like comparing apples and iPads. One is a nice piece of fruit, and as long as there's no worm in it, you're good to go. The other is this complicated thing that's creative and all but it's kind of annoying that the cover only magnetically sticks to one side of it and you can't watch Flash videos and all these other things you want to gripe about.

Speaking of videos, this PDF is not the main attraction of Kerkerkruip's supplements, its series of five semi-included videos is. However, technology has not been my friend in the adventure of watching these videos. I will make another pass tonight, because I can't fairly review this game's supplements without seeing the videos. I can report on the fiddly problem of watching them, though, because some of it is the author's fault.

Instead of including videos, which due to the file size of video is always unwieldy for bundling into a game download, the author included a text file in which he explained the problems he had being able to watch his own videos (ok, he's honest about it, at least), suggested the best route someone could take to attempt to watch them, and then listed web links to the videos.

Okay, first of all, he has chosen the video format that only sounds good to people who use Linux all the time, Ogg Vorbis. Yeah, there's nothing wrong with Ogg Vorbis, technically, in that realm where superior free technology is way more awesome than proprietary crap bloated standards. But then there's the practical world where you have videos you want all of your audience to be able to watch, and then Ogg Vorbis clearly sucks rocks. If even you can't get your own videos to work in your own test lab, then you might be sawing off your own legs in order to make a noble stand for something not really that worth fighting for.

Secondly, if you're including links, then give us a document format that supports clickable links, not a raw text file. Yes, it is just annoying enough to someone like me to have to copy and paste out of a text file five hyperlinks, one at a time. The best format might have been an HTML file, so that I could right-click and Save Link As on all of them, and have a better chance of opening the Ogg Video files using some app I have, than taking my luck watching them in the browser.

On my first attempt, I got a spinny-wheel "Loading" icon over a frozen image, but heard voice-over narration playing the whole time. I can report that the voice (of the author himself) sounded as confident and professional and patient as you would want for an instructional video like this. No mumbling or stumbling or "Um"s or any of that. I've previously seen (and reviewed) Victor Gijsbers giving a new-technology presentation at the IF Demo Fair, and he was just as on top of his material and the clarity of presenting it then as he seems now.

I'll make another attempt to watch the videos when I get home in a minute. [Note: attempt failed.]

Also, the supplemental videos do provide us all, at least those of us who are not even slightly Dutch, the important information of how to pronounce the game's title.

Manual and feelies, Six; Wade Clarke

Six: An instruction manual for those new to Interactive Fiction, by Wade Clarke is a straightforward but rather excellent 22-page booklet, which does just as it describes: it takes someone new to IF and instructs them in a patient, friendly way how to play it. It also introduces the main character and premise of this particular game, and the commands unique to playing it. Finally, it reminds those of us who forgot such linguistic lore what "hundreds and thousands" means in Australian culinary terms.

There are some minor typos, but overall it's a nice clean document. It did print in landscape rather than portrait orientation, which was fine, but different. Graphics are spare, usually one decorative element sitting in a lot of whitespace at the bottom of a page, but the booklet does have a coherent look and feel that complements the tone of the writing and, one suspects, the style and play of the game itself.

One rather howling error occurs early on, and it's fairly serious. The author first explains the recommended interpreter for playing the game, then provides a numbered list of interpreters that are definitely not recommended and that players should not use. The names of these are given in bold italics at the head of each list entry, and at a glance through this page, we will most likely miss the name of the most-recommended terp and our focus will snap directly on the ones we shouldn't even bother looking at. Yes, people skim read, you have to be aware of this. And when they do, they follow cues to what seems like the important info. Hopefully you don't deceive them with erroneous cues like this.

The rest of the manual leaves little avenue for criticism. The other included supplement is a JPEG image of a scan of a hand-drawn map. The game takes place at a children's birthday party in a park, and involves chasing and following various characters over a small map. The best thing about the map is that it is one of those drawings that purports to be drawn by a child, and it looks authentically like it was (at least in part, in the crayon-and-marker decorative elements) drawn by children. Adults can never fake it quite right, especially adults who have received a lot of training to learn to not draw like children draw. It always seems easy: just get an actual kid to draw the thing you want drawn, and then it looks like a kid did it. Hooray.

If I'd voted in this category, I probably would have voted for the Alabaz Almanac, just on principle that the whole thing is creative, despite all my criticisms. The Six manual is definitely a cracking good introductory booklet, laying out the basics of IF as cleanly as I've seen it presented. Sometimes when we as a community try to explain how it works we get too knotted up in how fiddly and complicated it is, and get something weird and designed-by-engineers looking like that Google remote control that everyone laughed out of existence. Boiling all of that information down and presenting it in a graphically clean style, with no information overload, is a very worthy accomplishment.