Judges' 2003 Reviews

Note:  Judges reviews were optional. (Some may contain "spoilers.")

Note that Fred Demul revealed himself to be Mike Sousa after judging was over. Also, Alan DeNiro was allowed to update "Ogres" before putting it on exhibit. These reviews are based on the original version entered in the IF Art Show.


J.D. Berry's Reviews
Stephen Granade's Reviews
Jon Ingold's Reviews
Mike Roberts' Reviews
Emily Short's Reviews
Doe's (Marnie Parker's) Reviews

About the Judges

J.D. Berry's Reviews

I've littered these reviews with my own ad hoc awards, so I think presenting one to the show-in-general makes perfect sense. The winner of the "Best IF Art Show Ever" goes to 2003. Top to bottom, the quality this year amazed me. Not one poorly-written, bug-infested afterthought in the bunch. Bravo, artists, and yay, me for the pleasure of judging these works. The only difficulty was that each of these works is so different from the others-who is better, DaVinci or Picasso? I therefore dub this the "Apples and Oranges" comp.

I won't go into many of the details of the works themselves. Even more than an IF game, a work of IF art must be experienced for itself. The following comments are the subjective impressions I experienced while playing. And it really was playing, like the pure fun of strolling through an art museum with nothing real-life nipping at the back of my mind.

Queen of Swords
Stop for the Night
Friendly Foe
The Tarot Reading

My vote for Best of Show: Ogres

Pablo Picasso collaborates with Joyce Carol Oates to port Ad Verbum to Alan. They split a Shirley Temple and begin to brainstorm. You see a review, a review, a review and a review here. I loved it. Check the red judge for a completely different take.

First off, the lack of examinable items--that's the whole, deliberate idea. I think any more than what's offered would distract and detract from the meta-experience. Experiential doesn't necessarily mean sensual. I absorbed the landscape through its perspective and terms, not mine.

SURREAL AWARD: "Most dogs in a single location."

Relax your mind. Let it wander, connecting with the landscape as it will. This isn't a puzzle to be solved. You don't have to write a five-page essay comparing and contrasting.

Encourage interaction, the Art Show's prime directive states. From start to (relative) finish of this piece, I wanted to discover more. The refusal messages, stark and odd they may be, but they connect the landscape. I departed with few conclusions and yet many satisfying images.

I look forward to the other judges' comments on this. I see Ogres polarizing its viewers--such is modern art--but even its detractors should not find fault with its facility with words and ability to convey abstract ideas. It may not DO anything for you, but admit the quality.

Engaging, imaginative writing and concept. I hope the author won't have to die for this to be appreciated. I'm sure he hopes so, too.


My Best of Event: Queen of Swords

Norman Rockwell meets Jeanne Marie Laskas at the gym. A slice of Americana delivered with pleasant narrative--what you see is what you get.

The challenge: create something deliberately frustrating that's still playable. The risk: you fall from the tightrope, losing the player completely. The verdict: the author fell once or twice, but bounced from the net and back on the line, each time.

There's good fiddly and bad fiddly. Good fiddly helps establish mood. Bad fiddly makes you want to throw your monitor through the window.

Mostly good fiddly here. I never want to fence in my life, if this is what's involved. But I was there, man. Figuring out how it all it goes--more aptly, DOESN'T go--was surprisingly a lot of fun. This is a visual, experiential piece-hey, this is an interactive art show. Lots of detail and also details (how's THAT for fiddly?), yet near-perfect focus.

The main "bad fiddly" is the cord. I don't mind plugging it in wrong. But once it's in, the descriptions should say it's in, and they don't. Once it's plugged, plugging it again should fail, or at least acknowledge that I'm re-doing it. A little clean-up here would go a long way. (Also, I got a fatal error trying to plug cord into d-ring.)

This would be a perfect comedy sketch, where you spend so much time in the preparation that there's no time left for the actual event. Well, here there was a little time to fence, but none from an interactive sense. The actual fencing is for another time and place, however, and that's fine. This entry was just right in time-to-play.

"NOBODY ELSE CARES" AWARD: Closest setting to my house that wasn't my first exercise in Inform coding. How weird is it to play something set three miles from your own home? For me, this game put the spring in Springfield.

My Best of Landscape: Stop for the Night

Johannes Vermeer mind-melds with F. Scott Fitzgerald to write a D&D module. Impeccable craftsmanship permeates the work, but it was hard to shake the feeling that this has all been done before. Even that feeling wasn't a purely negative one. Artists have and will continue to paint portraits of kings and the landscapes of France. The artist here takes the deserted compound, evil presence trope and shows us how it's supposed to be done. And he does this without pomposity or pretense, making this all the more impressive.

"MINOR DETAIL THAT WON ME OVER" AWARD: The response to ride horse. After reading that early in the game, I knew this author had "the goods."

Something hit me early during play--nothing was going to hit me. Literally hit the PC, I mean. This was an entry in an art show-easy pace, absorb the sights and sounds, take it all in.

PERSONAL AWARD: "'Stop for the Night' may have won the Annual IF Comp, if entered there." I wasn't on edge, nearly as I should have been, anyway. I didn't feel I was going to be eaten after any misstep. That stole part of the impact, and impact plays an important role in such a work as this. If I had been playing this in another situation, my feelings would have run deeper.

The main reason I didn't give this Best of Show was the setting's originality, or at least perceived originality. Perhaps, it's the same reason "Heroes" didn't win the 2001 IF Comp--a high-quality work where the cleverness and originality hits you a little too late.

Caveat: I didn't finish this after several sessions of play. While there was no explicit time requirement--45 minutes is recommended--I didn't want to spend too long on any one work. If I missed a clever twist, I apologize, and I would recommend this work even more highly.

My Best of Portrait: Redemption

Nicolai Fechin seduces Agatha Christie and they produce a love child.

PONDEROUS AWARD: "What if they had a portrait category and only the Mona Lisa had been entered?" I hope the "Best of Protrait" (not necessarily awarded, you know, but surely will be here) isn't cheapened by the misfortune of having no challengers.

Evocative--I truly felt the emotions. Satisfying story. Elegance and pace... er grace... er I do mean pace. Same thing, here. Because it flows, it's graceful. Authors take note of how this was scripted, and incorporate.

PERSONAL AWARD: Most beautiful entry

Alas, I couldn't give this the top vote. I felt interactivity on most levels was missing. I couldn't really delve into the work, the character(s) (I evaluated this as a portrait not a story) in this case. I wasn't putting anything together in my head, as in "Ogres" or "Tarot." There wasn't a sensuality, as in "Swords" or "Friendly Foe." Not enough time or available options to probe the characters to any depth.

Also, this suffered from the same "medieval"ness as did "Stop." Just as in "Stop," this factor is a shame because of its quality and beauty. It's really a gorgeous piece. Do play.

Friendly Foe

A subdued Chuck Jones borrows the ride mower from Dave Barry. Lots of funny observations in this one. I felt like my neighbor was cracking me up with story after story. All I was missing was the can of Bud.

As to the Event portion. Well it was and it wasn't. The main event weally isn't the wabbit hunting. It's the event of summer angst in suburbia--where dandelions and unreturned tools may eventually pale to irrelevant in a world of hunger and abuse, but not while that pesky rodent is hopping around.

There seemed to be a pacing problem. But there is no pace to a lazy summer day, you say. I agree. The task of catching the rabbit wasn't clued nor motivated. Perhaps that's the whole idea. I'm NOT motivated. I need an excuse to get out of the house. I would say, then, that this idea-that the PC needs to come up with excuses NOT to do something-needs many more refusal messages of actually doing anything remotely constructive. Circular logic applies in these situations, I think.

HIT HOME AWARD: The response to examine bikes was brutally funny to me. My wife has been nagging me for years to get bikes. I know she'll ride hers twice and then the bikes will sit in our shed for all time.

The author? I've never heard the name before and it looks suspicious. Also, this piece is too well-coded for a first-timer.

This piece is worth spending a half-hour with. Also, I wanna hang out with the author. Tell me a story about how you removed the tree stump, won't you, Fred?

The Tarot Reading

Grant Wood channels Linda Goodman to produce the long-anticipated sequel to Shades of Gray.

This does what it sets out to do, but I wanted more. I kept thinking about that Crystal Ball entry in the first Art Show--solid, but somewhat uninspiring. Kind of a "hmm... yeah... ok" response. I think this represents a good introduction to tarot reading, however. The research shows, too.

I felt this should have gone in one of two ways. 1) Make it a more serious, in-depth reading. Offer more possibilities and interpretations, subtly framing the petitioner's question. Include all of the arcana, not just major ones. Or 2) interact with the actual scenes of the cards, again framing some kind of resolution or story. Of course, answers will always be vague, but the important thing is to make it FEEL direct and personal. Some interaction exists. I liked climbing the tower, for example. But there's not enough of that sort of thing.

I played through a few times, but I wasn't particularly encouraged to try out all the possibilities. I wasn't discouraged, either. No bugs, but no punch. Decent writing, but nothing I'll remember.

STEPHEN WRIGHT AWARD: "The other day I was playing poker with Tarot cards. I got a full house and four people died."

RIGHT WORK, WRONG TIME AWARD: This would have won the first two Art Shows. We've come a long way, baby.

Stephen Granade's Reviews

Friendly Foe , by Fred Demul.
The Tarot Reading , by Michael Penman.
Queen of Swords , by Jessica Knoch.
Redemption , by Kathleen Fischer.
A Stop For The Night , by Joe Mason.
Ogres , by Alan DeNiro.

Friendly Foe , by Fred Demul.

This iteration of the Art Show included a new category: Event. It is an interesting and tricky addition. The IF Art Show has been about exploring interactivity rather than story, with a heavy emphasis on the exploration. Some prior entries have taken familiar modes of interaction and pushed them further than before, as Emily Short's Galatea did with the ASK/TELL system of conversation. Others have played with the substance of interaction. In J.D. Berry's entry Ribbons , the in-game interaction is limited to examining objects, yet the layers of detail build up in your memory, resulting in an extremely interesting piece.

An Event, though, tempts authors to fall back on old modes of interaction. An Event is meant to focus on an activity rather than on objects, scenery, or NPCs, making it the most like traditional IF. Given that, why not write an IF entry that plays like an excerpt from a full game?

This is precisely what Friendly Foe did. It is a single puzzle, dressed up somewhat by a backstory and a plethora of objects. The Art Show rules state quite firmly that "tricky puzzles, even if highly interactive, wouldn't really EXPLORE interactivity -- as that is the form that we are all already familiar with." Friendly Foe hews strictly to traditional IF puzzle conventions.

The setup: you are a homeowner, extremely proud of your lawn and garden. A rabbit has made its home in your yard, digging up the grass, eating the leaves of your strawberry plants. You must dispatch the rabbit using only a net, some carrots, and a pile of tools available to you in your shed. As the intro text plainly tells you, "You're determined to get [the rabbit]. Yup, you are."

This immediately points out one of my major problems with the game. There is a lot of exposition available, most of it appearing when you examine various objects, but all of it is delivered in the same heavy-handed manner. The writing is weak, both in tone and grammar. Coupled with this is the game's ambivalence about how I am to deal with the rabbit. The garden's description tells us, "Of course, that damn bunny doesn't care for the strawberries, it prefers the leaves, the same leaves that the damn strawberries need in order to grow. Damn that bunny. Damn, damn, damn!" Both that passage and the introductory text about how determined I was to get the bunny led me to believe that my character would do most anything to get rid of the rabbit. But then consider some of my early attempts to deal with the rabbit:

The bunny continues to nibble on its carrot and doesn't notice you -- that would be very cruel.

Attack an innocent bunny rabbit? With a hoe no less? What will your family think? Not a good option, you'll have to find a better way.

The piece's puzzle is moderately clever, and has two possible solutions. But in terms of interaction there is nothing new to Friendly Foe . The puzzle, writing and exposition all fail to lift Friendly Foe above the level of a standard IF game, and as such I find it very out of place in the Art Show.

The Tarot Reading , by Michael Penman.

The Tarot Reading is more what I was hoping for from the Event category. In it, you take part in a very unusual tarot reading. As my friend David Banner would undoubtedly say, the concepts embodied by the cards have themselves been reified. You walk through rooms that are perfect cubes, housing representations of what the cards depict. Some representations are direct: the Tower is represented by a physical tower, the Hanged Man by a man on a gallows. Some are more oblique: Justice is represented by the statue of blindfolded Justice, scale in one hand, sword in the other; Judgement, by what appears to be the Sword of Damocles.

You may walk in any direction, each step representing the next card in your reading. There are four steps, labelled the Recent Past, the Present, the Near Future, and the Goal. Only the Major Arcana are used, and there are no inversions or reversals in the reading. I know next to nothing about tarot readings, and only a little more about the cards, but I enjoyed how the various cards were represented.

While The Tarot Reading 's strength is its concept, its execution is a bit rough around the edges. Its writing sometimes mixed pretentiousness with earnestness. Its reply to the command >SCORE is, "In a total of 16 turns, you have done plenty - don't concern yourself with scores." Some NPCs are not as developed as I would have liked, as in the hermit who, when asked about himself, replies, "I do not know about that, yet."

These quibbles aside, I found The Tarot Reading to be an interesting take on an event.

Queen of Swords , by Jessica Knoch.

Jessica's entry gets my nod for "most intricate bit of simulation" in this year's art show. It's not as stuffed full of items to play with and things to do as 2001's English Suburban Garden , but within its limited scope of fencing, it has plenty of details. Unfortunately, like Cedric Knight and his English Suburban Garden , Jessica Knoch's reach has exceeded her grasp.

In Queen of Swords , you and your husband David have taken up fencing. In preparation for a practice bout with David, you must put on all of the apparatus involved with fencing. And so much apparatus! I had no idea how much clothing was involved in fencing. Your fencing bag contains a mask, a jacket, a body cord, an electric foil, a lamé, a glove, a plastron, and a chest protector, all of which you must put on in the proper order and hook together correctly. And that's ignoring the secondary equipment David sets up, such as the floor reel and cord, so that the scoring equipment can tell when you or David score a hit.

Simulating the real world through text can be a difficult task. We have to build up a picture of what's going on, and how everything fits together. In larger works of IF, this is most visible in how we construct the map in our heads as we learn the game's layout. If we have too much trouble holding it all in, there is a standard way of noting rooms and their connections down on paper. Not so with fencing gear. Fortunately, Queen of Swords did a good job of describing what each bit of equipment was, and gave hints about how it all went together.

Unfortunately, the game failed to give enough feedback for me to truly picture what I was doing. Item descriptions didn't mention what they were connected to, so I had to keep track myself. This wasn't helped by how I could repeatedly connect items without having to disconnect them first. Default responses weren't tweaked to help me stay on the right track. >ATTACH BODY CORD TO THE FOIL netted me the response of, "You would achieve nothing by this," but specifying that I should >ATTACH [the body cord's] TWO-PRONG CONNECTOR TO THE FOIL worked. David, who was supposed to help me when needed, was not always as forthcoming as I might have hoped. His default response of, "You're cute, you know that?" to my pleas for help made me wonder if he thought we were starring in Nothing More, Nothing Less II: And Now We Fence!

Most disappointing was that, after the game's buildup, I didn't get to fence. Once all of my equipment was on properly and I typed >FENCE, a cut-scene told me what happened, ending the game. Everything had been leading up to the point when I could fence...and then the game ended, leaving me unsatisfied.

What Queen of Swords simulated, it simulated well, but the lack of feedback, guidance, and any real pay-off lessened the game's impact. My recommendation to Jessica would be to hand the game to several new beta-testers and tell them to keep session transcripts. Those transcripts could help her knock many of the rough edges off of Queen of Swords , resulting in a better entry.

Redemption , by Kathleen Fischer.

I'm of two minds about Redemption . It does a good job of presenting an NPC and that NPC's relationship to your character. I admired how the game was structured, and how information was given to me through a restricted conversation menu. But then there's the way the restrictions bound me tighter and tighter, until I was thrashing around at the end, kicking against the game mechanics as hard as I could.

Metaphors are threatening to drown me. Let me step back. You are Sir Garron, imprisoned by Marcus. He's—to be honest, I'm not really sure what he is. Grand vizer, perhaps, or prince. Someone important, at any rate. And you have angered him and been thrown in the dungeon, where a friar has come to talk to you about your actions. You're left to find out what your connection to the friar is, and what it all has to do with your current situation.

The conversational interface has been pared down to two possibilities. One, you can >TALK to the friar. The game will give you a list of possible topics to choose from. Two, you can >ASK ABOUT a specific topic, with the hopes that your character will say something having to do with that topic. That's it, really. The only other thing you can do is occasionally >REMEMBER certain things when the game notifies you. Since you're chained in a dungeon, there's not much else you could realistically do. It's a neat way of keeping you focused on the game's one NPC.

As the game progresses, the topics you can talk about change. And therein lies the first problem. I was often in the situation of knowing more than my character, who would only mumble something incomprehensible when I tried to get him to say something I knew but he evidently did not. This was understandable when the topic in question had not yet been raised, but afterwards? Why would my character have something to say about most topics only at the exact right time?

I was aware of this because of the number of times I replayed this short entry. You can score three points, each point representing further progress towards the one best ending. But that one best ending can only be reached through certain conversational nodes, and those nodes can fly by without you realizing it. I eventually resorted to a walkthrough, only to discover that I'd missed one of the proper nodes because I always insisted on remembering a memory as soon as it came available. The restrictions are so tight that I played the game over and over and over without ever getting more than two points. In fact, I just now went back and replayed it, and had to try four times to get the optimal ending.

Replaying it so much gave me the opportunity to realize how thin the story was. I mentioned that I wasn't sure who exactly Marcus was. I was only slightly more aware of who I was. I had a better picture of the friar by the end, but the picture was painted mostly in generalities. The story and characters lacked specifics that would make them come alive. I felt like I was taking part in a generic medieval story. The lack of details was in part to protect the plot twist and deus ex machina that ended the game, but since it took me so long to see the ending, by that point I didn't much care. For me the game became an extremely constrained maze, one built of topics instead of passageways.

What I'm beginning to learn about art show entries is that the devil is in the details. My image of what I needed to do in Queen of Swords was hindered by a lack of feedback, while here my progress was halted by failure to hit my mark and say my lines at the exact right time.

A Stop For The Night , by Joe Mason.

Good grief but I'm dizzy now.

A bit ago on rec.arts.int-fiction there was a discussion about spatial cognition and how IF players form a mental map. To test a hypothesis of his, Mike Roberts wrote Rat In Control . In it, you can navigate a maze either by compass directions or by relative directions, the relative directions being related to how you enter a room.

A Stop For The Night is like the relative direction version of Rat In Control , with one terrible twist: the directions are relative to a fixed point in each room .

Let me pause while you think on that.

I didn't realize this at first. I originally thought the directions were given relative to how you entered the room. Based on this assumption, it appeared that one room's left door and right door were mislabelled. I discussed this with Joe Mason, who explained what was going on. The room's concept of left and right were based on me entering the room, then turning around so that I was facing the room's central entrance, making them oriented 180 degrees from those of a previous room.

If you are now confused, you have me for company. This strikes me as taking the worst feature of compass directions—its arbitrariness—and coupling it with the worst feature of relative directions—a changing reference frame. It would be as if north, south, east and west changed orientation from room to room, with no apparent rhyme or reason. I wandered through the keep in which A Stop For The Night was set some five or six times before I began to have an idea of where things were. Even now, a week after I played the game, I doubt I could retrace my steps through the keep without several trips to refamiliarize myself with the landscape. This, I thought while playing, must be how birds feel near large rare earth magnets.

Only the automatic listing of exits and the addition of path information saved me. A Stop For The Night lets you navigate by doorways, stairs, and other passageways. By default it lists these exits at the end of each room description, letting you know where you can go. If the list says, "You can go to the forest, the road, and the gated arch," then you can >GO FOREST and the like. Then, when you enter a new room, the direction from which you entered is appended to the end of the room name. For example, one room might be " Within the Arch (emerging from the outer gate)". Using these two features I staggered drunkenly from location to location, barely able to keep track of where I just came from and where I wanted to go, let alone the overall layout of the keep.

Matters weren't helped by the nondescript and symmetric map layout. Granted, the map is small, and keeps are generally symmetric, but the combined result was a map with no notable features to help me fix the layout in my mind. The center courtyard and the temple at the end of the keep opposite where I entered were the most unusual, and because of this I ended up with a mental map in which the temple was to the north of the courtyard. Everything else's location is vague and tends to shift about in my mind.

What was so disappointing about this wretched navigation system was that it was coupled to a highly polished entry. The game's story unfolded at a good pace, and left me interested in what horrible event had befallen the keep. Room and item descriptions are well crafted. After playing several entries where the details were not well handled, it was a delight to play one entry where they were. If only I had been better able to navigate it!

Ogres , by Alan DeNiro.

The writing in this game is viewed through a funhouse mirror. It makes Phlegm look coherent. I approve.

I mean, how can you not like a game that uses the word "tatterdemalion" correctly, or says, "Once an ogre gave birth to an axe"? The description of one window—that you're carrying, I might add—is, "It's for emergencies, holistic as vengeance. But you don't have a window."

The whole thing lurches crazily from room to room, scattering odd phrases in its path. The landscape in question is the city of Panoptika. You actually get to see it three different times, as Ogres comes with three separate game files, labelled red, black, and white. Ogres also comes with a text file that claims the game was originally written in BASIC back in 1988, and oh, one of the game files might be CURSED.

It's all rotated about twenty degrees out of the plane of reality. Some exits don't work right, and there's not a lot to do. There are only a few changes in each game file's version of Panoptika. I can't really recommend this game, but it has its own bizarre charm.

Jon Ingold's Reviews

The following reviews are more or less written-as-play. I've marked my votes alongside, (though if this is against the spirit of the thing, then hopefully the Editoress will remove them before posting. -- It isn't, so she didn't. Doe ;-) ).

Queen of Swords
Tarot Reading
A Stop at Night
Friendly Foe

The Queen of Swords

(A tarot reference? Good to see Curses still lingers in the memory)
Ha. So, several objects and a lot of fiddly fiddling to do. This is the sort of thing that usually makes players complain, but of course, this is an *art* show, so we're supposed to look out for this sort of self-awareness. So the point of the piece is a semi-exercise in frustration (and, we hope, eventual satisfaction) - it is a fiddly process after all, with a very strong temptation to just give up and let David (the game's NPC) do it all for you. I like that - I can choose whether my character is stubborn and just a touch proud, and go through all the zipping up and down, or I can be weak and puny.

(Now, perhaps even the stack-overflow error I ran into is an artistic point as well? So fiddly a process are we experiencing here, it over-fiddles the very universe we are playing the model within? Or no, I was just doing the wrong thing.)

In the end, however, the thing had me help up the longest was not noticing an object had a zip to close. I thought David had done it all for me! So clearly I am playing weak and puny here, and was therefore justifiably pummelled in the actual fencing. (Not that the game covers that bit; I just know).

Redemption - BEST IN SHOW

(Not the point of the Art Show perhaps, but what a wonderfully-written prologue.)

Beautiful - rich - subtle. "She was standing in her chamber, one hand behind her back. At the time you hadn't thought about that much, its significance coming to you only much later," (quoted because it meant something different to me the two times I read it). A sure-handed feeling that I was having a story revealed to me in the right order, regardless of my path through... that is extremely adept. Both interactive and narrative. A portrait? Maybe; though I'm not sure who of, the player's character I suppose, though its more a portrait of a feeling. What matters here though is that the characters feel real, as does their story - with one major reason I think, being that as things are revealed you realise that you already knew, somewhere in your brain. There's a certain attractive inevitability about the unfolding situation, which in scriptwriting circles is known as "progression", and is something IF tends to get wrong all the time.

Flaws? The game is too hard; it is too easy to stop the conversation before you really understand what's going on; before the painting is complete. That encourages me the player to use UNDO and then the interactivity is lost (interactive, to my mind, has always implied responsible) - not to mention, the text at the ending of the game gets rather overused; good words they are but I stop reading them after the third or fourth time. But in a game of this structure I think the problem of curtailment is the hardest to avoid - as a designer it invites heavy-handedness or multifold-paths, neither of which is an elegant solution.

When I finally restarted and began again I couldn't remember how I got through the first section, and in fumbling around trying to regain my place the mechanics became more clear. The first playthrough was evocative, emotional - a feeling my IF playing has been without for a long while - but the second felt much more like I was on an exhaustive search: something that tends to happen with Art Show entries, as the gamer decides to "complete" a game not designed to be completed. There is the conflict here between the brief experience - the conversation with the pretty woman on a train, where you say the wrong thing almost immediately and you know you'll never see her again or know how long it might have lasted - and the child listening to his father read a story, demanding to know how it ends long before the book is over. A game should pretend to be the former and actually satisfy the latter; or otherwise we know that the pretty woman will always be there the next time we want to have a crack at her, like some digital Groundhog Day.

But I'm glad I replayed because I unearthed the crucial factor that makes this game stand out for me as something rather wonderful: there is a point near the beginning of the game where I wasn't stuck first time, but was stuck second time. Why? Because the first time the right action was the clear and natural thing to do, so much so I didn't notice I had done anything myself, rather than going through the conversational options. And the second time I didn't think of it, because I was conscious of "success by future knowledge" and assumed it couldn't be correct - and it's a necessary step. So I "solved a puzzle", without noticing there was a "puzzle". Mimesis. Excellent.

Tarot Reading - BEST EVENT

I don't know much about tarot - I wonder how accurate all this is. I'll need to play it again to see if it's random but...

...holy shit...

..yup, tarot works, it just read my future. I mean, it really did. Bugger me with a stick. I'm actually feeling quite shocked.

So, art: yes, this is a nice piece, well written if sometimes a little sparse (unsurprising, if it really does contain a full deck). As a work of art I found it engaging and fascinating; but perhaps like a true tarot reading those who have no interest in such things will not gain any reaction from it. But art is supposed to produce reactions and this piece did, by divine intervention or me being a plain old sucker for the concept of destiny. Either way, it's a good idea that's never been done before, and though if it were richer in interaction it would benefit enormously, the event is the progression, and I'm going to go away and gibber.

...And then return, with a heavier heart, wondering if it would have been possible to take this idea and weave a narrative through it - if the Hermit could have been the Magician, if I could have learnt a history of someone as I travelled through the cards (and not just, speculatively, of myself). Layers, I suppose, are what I would have liked to have seen.


A gothic horror setting and a slow process of exploration. Although I wonder if this wouldn't be better suited to the IFComp proper; there is an art-point to discuss. The game has achieved a nirvana: it has entirely removed compass directions, in a way many people have suggested but few have tried, by making every movement through a door and asking the player to communicate directions via which doors he chooses. It's a nice effect, of unfixing the landscape from the standard chessboard arrangement and into something more realistic, with small spaces and long corridors, that lap over each other, curl and fit snug as Soma cube. Perhaps building up a mental map as a player is harder - especially in the wide environment provided - but its not that much harder, and indeed, for a more compact map would be just as easy. And the extra thought necessary from the player to construct a true map of the place - rather than the "set of instructions" one normally builds (N, NW, N, N, W, W to Jemima, and so forth) - means that once the learning curve is finished I have a far stronger, visual impression of the area being explored. It's rather like coming away from a graphical game, where each area entered is scouted round until you learn its parameters, and all the stairs an ramparts and passages-over-passages fit into a 3D shape.

So how is this attractive, organic world used? Well, the game has a plot of sorts, and a puzzle; and it is perhaps a shame that this puzzle does not lead to the transformation of the landscape which it appears to promise. Having had the player build a convincing mental map it would have been nice to apply this under more fraught conditions (indeed, as many 3D games do), having to dart round corners of some horrific maze of passages, stairs and collapsing ceilings.


Hm. Freaky.

But then, having wandered through its various incarnations a few times, not that freaky. I don't get it - I don't get it even enough to try to comment, really. Some fun wordplay, but that's got to be missing the point. In fact the writing is overall good; I just wish I could tell it was for. Somehow there's just not enough of anything there to actually impact me. It reminds me of "House of Leaves" for some reason (though I've never read the book); only that thing is an enormous tome stuffed with information to connect, and this is three short games with little between them but some frankly charming word-shuffling, and a few different takes on the same idea.

This is entered under landscape and it describes such a thing, in a broken style; not a large landscape and not a coherent one. I'd be tempted to class it as Portrait instead, indeed "self-portrait", of our nominal "artist"; but again there isn't enough that to get under my skin that I would understand it then either.

Friendly Foe

I have to quote this, though it is utterly, completely, unfair of me; and I apologise immediately in advance to the author.

"...out of place like a boat in a dessert".

Right, anyway, a review. The implementation is deep; we have a garden with its myriad little tools, we have radios that move through daily programmes and background noises and events, all of which are reflected in the object of protagonist's hatred, this rabbit that I've now spent an hour trying to take dead or alive and failing. (I did manage to get him eaten by a dog, but it seems I felt guilty about this). The level of "aside" is quite splendid - though it detracts from the aim in hand, if indeed there is really an aim; if this bunny is actually conquerable or whether it is just a red herring to act as a motivation to play with the toys and bits and bobs that fill this little world. The implementation is deep verging on pathological, and I do not believe for a second that this was written by a beginner because the coding is deeply, deeply sharp.

The game commits the sin of actually including a puzzle, which is something of an Art-Show faux pas but something of which I hugely approve; I'm just disappointed that actually the solution is quite simple and doesn't involve nearly enough permutations of the objects, tools and bits of hardware that are at my disposal. I didn't even need to use the chainsaw for what I, um, used the chainsaw for. But it was still an entertaining play. I'd call it "Landscape", not "Event"; but like with "Queen of Swords" I think what's really called for is a "Finickity Objects" category specifically for implementation of things that are finickity. Like this bloody rabbit, who refuses to eat carrots that are lying in front of a tractor wheel.

(A final note: last time I played a game and thought it was under a pseudonym I based that decision on the author's spelling of the phrase "color grey". This time I'm basing it on "Mailbox. Remember the mailbox.")

Mike Roberts Reviews

Friendly Foe
Queen of Swords
A Stop for the Night
The Tarot Reading

Friendly Foe
by Fred Demul

Unlike most Art Show entries, this piece is a lot like a traditional IF game, in that it's centered on the puzzle of catching a bunny in the player character's back yard.

The setting is small - three locations - but compensates by having lots of detail. Lots of it; there are practically as many takeable objects in these three locations as there are in a typical medium-sized adventure game, and most of them have full descriptions that fill in background details on the player character. This one could easily have been entered into the Art Show in the Landscape category.

Purely based on the rather cartoonish premise, I had expected a sort of Babel-fish-like puzzle of incrementally escalating complexity, as the bunny we're supposed to catch would escape each attempt at capture in a clever way that suggested the next refinement. That doesn't seem to be the game here, though; despite the focus on the bunny, I wasn't able to do much to interact with it. The best I was able to do was frighten it with one of the many objects, but this didn't seem to be helpful to the overall goal. I never did manage to catch the bunny. It's quite possible that I just got caught up in looking at all the detailed scenery, and just never got around to attacking it as a game.

This piece is nicely implemented and full of detail. I just wish I'd figured out if there really is a way to capture the bunny.

by Alan DeNiro

It seems to be a tradition in IF competitions that there's always at least one really weird, abstract entry. Ogres fills that niche for this year's Art Show.

Ogres ' weirdness starts with an included README-type file, which offers a rather cryptic history of the game and warns that part of the game might be "cursed" - echoes of the recent movie The Ring . (The README is in some binary format, despite a ".txt" suffix, but I'm not sure if this is an intentional part of the weirdifying; my guess is that the file was prepared on a Macintosh and wasn't properly converted to plain text.) Then, we find that there are actually three separate Alan game files here. Each of the three games is basically the same as the others, except for a few changes, some subtle and some obvious.

As for the contents of the three games, that's where things really get strange. They're reminiscent of Ryebread Celsius, but without all of the misspellings (there are a few, but nothing like a Ryebread game) or all of the bugs. The writing is interesting and often rather visually evocative. The interactivity is pretty thin, though; very few of things mentioned are actually implemented, and those that are implemented don't tend to do very much.

I never know quite what to say about these games that seem deliberately impenetrable. I suppose that's essentially tautological; if I were able to understand one, it wouldn't be in the "impenetrable" category any more. I want to give the author the benefit of the doubt, that they're trying to convey something and I'm just too dense to get it, but I always have to wonder when puzzling over one of these if it's just bizarreness for its own sake, constructed to give the appearance of a deeper meaning without actually having one. Sort of the IF equivalent of the twentieth-century avante-garde music that used randomness to ensure that the music was freed of the composer's pre-conceived notions and traditional western musical conventions.

That's how this piece appeared to me, anyway. I tend to find these sorts of games interesting, since I enjoy for a while the intellectual challenge of puzzling out what the author is trying to convey; when I come to the conclusion that I'm not going to figure it out, though, and when I start to suspect that there's nothing deeper to figure out in the first place, it's a bit of a letdown. The prose and imagery in this game are certainly interesting enough, though.

The Queen of Swords
by Jessica Knoch

This piece is a simulation of the process of suiting up for an "electric fencing" match, which is a fencing match using electronic equipment that detects contact between foil and fencer. The piece is implemented in considerable detail; unfortunately, it's a bit too much detail for my tastes.

The problem with this level of detail, to my mind, is that it doesn't adapt well to the command-line user interface. This is one of those cases where a picture really is worth a thousand words; for the kinds of physical details involved here, words are just terribly inefficient. Text games, like anything in text media, work best when they're dealing in something other than geometrical detail. There are good reasons, besides the high cost of translation, that instructions for assembling Danish furniture are mostly pictorial. The task of suiting up that requires dozens of turns here would amount in the more typical IF conventions to WEAR FENCING OUTFIT.

Reducing the game to WEAR FENCING OUTFIT obviously would have defeated the whole purpose of the work, though. Taken on its own terms, the piece is implemented pretty well. The writing is smooth, and the implementation keeps track of a lot of details. There are a couple of shortcomings that add to the too-much-detail problem, though.

First, a relatively minor problem but fairly noticeable, there are a lot of "You have to <do something> first" messages. From the programmer's perspective, it can be hard to eliminate those messages. From the player's perspective, though, they're just plain annoying; if the parser can tell you that you have to do this thing first, why doesn't it just do it already? To the player's reading, these messages just make the parser look intentionally obstructive.

Second, and considerably more important, the game doesn't provide status information about a number of key objects. Part of the step-by-step breakdown of the WEAR FENCING OUTFIT operation that we're tasked to perform involves putting various pieces of the outfit together in the correct order and manner. However, after putting pieces together, examining the pieces offers no indication that they've been assembled, or how they're assembled. This means there's no way to find out where you are in the process, and if you do something wrong, it's extremely difficult to figure out what.

Apart from these usability issues, the implementation seems pretty solid. Taken on its own terms, this piece does what it sets out to do, but overall it didn't hold quite enough interest for me.

by Kathleen M. Fischer

This piece uses dialog to gradually unveil a mystery. Part of the mystery is just in learning what the player character already knows: learning who the player character is, learning about the events that led to the present circumstances. Eventually, we realize that there's a deeper mystery, though, a matter that comes as a surprise to the characters themselves.

This work's strong point is its writing. The dialog is consistently effective, and the gradual revelation of the background and the events leading up to the story's present time is expertly devised to keep us guessing, and to keep us interested. The game is also strong technically; in particular, it uses an innovative conversation system that isn't perfect, but does a lot of things right and looks very promising.

Conversation has always been one of text IF's weakest points. Ideally, given the free-form command-line user interface, we'd like to be able to simply talk to characters in plain English (or plain Latvian, or plain whatever else). The "natural language" problem turns out to be the Fermat's Last Theorem of modern computer science, though: simple and obvious at first glance, incredibly subtle and difficult on closer inspection. Fermat's Last Theorem might finally have been proven, but the solution to the natural language problem is still nowhere in sight, so IF has to resort to less satisfying substitutes. The ASK/TELL system of the earliest works still stands as the most widely-used convention, but it's so limiting, so incapable of creating the illusion of an actual conversation, that authors have spent a lot of time over the past five or ten years experimenting, trying to find better alternatives. No one approach has emerged as the clear winner yet, so we continue to see games that introduce new techniques or new variations.

This work's approach is a sort of hybrid of the plain old ASK/TELL system and a more menu-based system. To converse with a character, the player uses a TALK TO command, which shows a list of possible topics and a special "talk mode" prompt. The player selects one of the topics by typing a word or two from the desired topic in the listing, and this causes the player character to ask a question or make a statement suggested by the topic. It's different from ASK/TELL in that we're given a list of possible topics to choose from; this eliminates the feeling one often gets in a plain ASK/TELL system of flailing around in the dark trying to guess which magic keyword a character will recognize. It's different from the more common menu-based systems in that it doesn't present us with a list of actual quoted text to put in the player character's mouth, but just with a list of topics.

The topic list has a couple of subtle but important benefits over the usual kind of menu system. For something so basically similar, I found it rather surprising how much smoother it felt than typical conversation menus. First, it just looks better. A typical conversation menu shows a numbered list of complete sentences, so to make the list readable, it's typically presented with one item per line; the topic list typically takes up just a single line. The usual conversation menu looks like an obvious user interface gadget; the topic list looks like an ordinary paragraph, just like the surrounding text. Second, the topic list somehow seems more consistent with the level of detail used for normal command input; there's something about selecting from the actual quoted strings that seems much too specific.

Overall, I really like Redemption 's conversation system, but the execution has a few aspects that I think could be improved. First, TALK TO and ASK ABOUT are both used in this game, but they're too separate, given how alike they seem to the player. At any given time, ASK ABOUT fails to recognize most of the topics that TALK TO will accept. For most of the TALK TO topics, ASK ABOUT ought to work equally well; the fact that it doesn't draws undue attention to the mechanism. What's more, ASK ABOUT does work at times with topics that are not available via TALK TO. I'm sure this was a deliberate decision to work around the main thing a lot of authors (and even some players) don't like about menu-based conversations: what should have been a puzzle can turn into a simple exhaustive search of the menu tree. But this strikes me as just blatant hiding, akin to having to remember to LOOK UNDER and LOOK BEHIND every random object in a puzzle-fest game. Overall, the non-overlap between TALK TO and ASK ABOUT seems to violate some user interface principle that a given task should have a consistent expression in the UI; from the player's perspective, TALK TO and ASK ABOUT are the same thing.

Second, the TALK TO command as implemented here is too modal. Since the conversation is practically the entire story, we have to type TALK TO for almost every turn. You can abbreviate it to T, so the amount of typing isn't really the problem; the problem is that the repeated T commands make the mechanism too apparent. I think it might work better if once you entered conversation mode, you'd stay in conversation mode until further notice. So, as long as the conversation continues, after each topic selection, we'd automatically get the next topic list and prompt, without having to type TALK TO again. This raises the other half of the modality problem, though: we have to type an explicit command (NONE) to exit TALK TO mode. I'd suggest eliminating the special TALK TO prompt entirely, and instead handling TALK TO mode the same way that most games handle the similar situation of questions asked by the parser, such as "Which do you mean...?" and "What do you want to open?" prompts. In other words, there would be no special TALK TO prompt, just an ordinary prompt; if the player enters something from the current topic list, then it's interpreted as a topic, otherwise it's treated as a new command. So there'd be no need to explicitly exit TALK TO mode; we'd just type any ordinary command, and this would automatically terminate TALK TO mode and execute the command.

One more UI quibble, somewhat along the lines of the off-menu ASK ABOUT topics. The story has a REMEMBER command, which becomes available at certain points (such as when a particular person or event comes up in the conversation). The fact that there's a topic to remember is made known to the player via a status line marker, telling us how many topics we can remember right now. This is less hidden than the off-menu topics, but I don't really like this way of showing the information. The status line is a user interface gadget, not part of the story proper; putting vital story information up there just doesn't seem appropriate. It's a little like providing a clue for a puzzle by changing the room title in the status line to read "type FREBOBBLE now" for one turn. It's not quite that bad, since we're told about the "memories" counter up front, and because the counter persists until we REMEMBER something; but this weird mixing of UI parts is bad, in my opinion, in exactly the same way that the topic menus are good in comparison to typical conversation menus.

Finally, an observation on the overall structure of the game. This work has numerous alternative endings. Depending on how you go through the conversation, you get to one of the many endings. A lot of people like this sort of thing, because it makes them feel like they're in control of the story. I personally don't like this kind of structure so much. To my mind, even though there are lots of endings, there's clearly one ending where you've solved the game; until you reach that ending, you haven't really finished playing, you've just reached a dead end where you have to go back with RESTORE or RESTART to try something else. This means that RESTORE and RESTART become conspicuous parts of the flow of the game, not just meta-game operations you perform when you want to stop for the night and return to the game the next day. This work has so many dead-end paths that I found myself using RESTORE every couple of minutes once I got going. The thing about this I don't like is that it destroys the illusion of a story for me, and turns the whole thing into a mechanical puzzle-box: okay, last time I chose "agree," so let's RESTORE and see what happens when I choose "disagree," and so on. The illusion works so much better for me when the author finds a way to make the dead ends loop back into the main branch of the story, rather than forcing the player to do exactly the same looping-back manually with RESTORE. It's a superficial distinction, I know, because there's no actual difference in the path we're taking; but by the same token, if there is no actual difference, then why shouldn't the author choose the approach that hides the seams, rather than putting the seams on vivid display with a dead end and a RESTORE prompt?

I seem to have gone on a bit, especially about things I didn't like, so let me reiterate that I really liked this work overall. The only reason I've spent so much time criticizing it is that it seems to be getting so close to the kind of free-flowing, natural conversation I'd really like to see more of. I feel as though the conversation system implemented here is very close to what could become the first fully satisfactory IF dialog system, so I'm trying to explain - actually, more to figure out - why this system is so close but not quite exactly there.

A Stop for the Night
by Joe Mason

This "landscape" positively oozes atmosphere. The setting is essentially medieval, but in a slightly different universe than our own. Not quite a fantasy setting, not quite Middle Earth; more like Arkham, circa 1600.

I don't want to go into any details about the setting or the story, since the fun is in finding out for yourself what's going on. But I will say that classifying this entry as a landscape for the purposes of the Art Show doesn't quite cover it; there's an event here as well, and that's a big part of what makes it work. The setting would have been moderately interesting on its own, but apart from the slight weirdness of the parallel universe, the setting would have been a bit too quotidian to hold one's attention for very long; but with the addition of the event, there's an element of mystery that makes the work pretty compelling.

I've prattled on quite a bit recently in rec.arts.int-fiction about the long-standing IF convention of using compass directions for navigation, and why I consider it a good convention even though it's not quite like real life. This game uses an alternative system that's based on a more relative model. When bearings are described at all, they're described as left or right, ahead or behind; but mostly we refer to exits by name rather than bearing: ENTER KITCHEN, or GO THROUGH INNER DOOR.

Personally, my experience with this game and its custom system bears out my feelings about the natural superiority of compass directions. I'm not saying this game's system is awful - my experience wasn't all that bad, and the implementation is solid technically. But where the system failed me was in providing a clear overall picture of the layout of the setting, the relative locations of things. I found the overall layout very confusing, and needlessly so - the same set of rooms would have been easy to picture if described using the usual conventions. In real life, that kind of big-picture comprehension comes naturally just from walking around and letting your visual and spatial senses piece things together; without the visual input, though, it was extremely hard to form the same kind of overall sense of location and orientation from the local descriptions. With the more standard compass convention, that big picture view is conveyed directly, since there's never a question of the orientation of one room relative to the next. So, paradoxically, even though the relative directions might give the appearance of greater realism, the overall effect was actually less realistic than games that use compass directions, because compass directions would give the player the same sense of the area we'd have in real life.

A few other aspects of the direction system are a little strained. The supposedly relative directions really turn out to be just a different set of names for an absolute direction scheme, inasmuch as any given room has a certain fixed orientation - or, rather, the player character has a fixed orientation in each room. In other words, you're always described as facing the same way within a given room, no matter how you got there or what you've been doing there. This makes descriptions awkward in places; each time a room description said a door is "behind you," I couldn't help but picture myself standing there, straining to rotate my neck 180 degrees while keeping my feet planted for some mysterious reason. Likewise, a given feature will be described as "to your left," and it stays to your left no matter how you entered the room. Compass directions strike some people as awkward in their own way, but they do have the good feature of freeing the descriptive text of any dependence on the particular orientation of the player character, which in turn frees the player to mentally picture the PC coming and going, walking around within the room, and otherwise doing whatever comes naturally from moment to moment. The need to orient features relative to the character's orientation really calls attention to the graph-of-nodes aspect of the text adventure world model, and I found the effect jarring at times.

Traditionally, Art Show entries are relatively puzzle-free, so most of them don't have anything like a score. This particular work does have a couple of puzzle-like elements, though, and it's rather large, so some sort of progress indicator would really be nice. I ultimately finished the work, I think, but there were several points at which I wasn't sure if there was anything more to see or do.

Overall, I enjoyed this piece a lot. The writing is quite good, and there's a lot of depth to the setting and story. I found the unconventional navigation system to be unnecessarily confusing, and I would have been happier with a regular compass system, but that's a minor obstacle. This piece isn't fully satisfying as a complete game, since it's kind of like the first act of a horror movie; that's exactly as it should be for an Art Show piece, though, and I think the fact that the piece leaves me wanting the other two acts is a pretty good measure of its success.

The Tarot Reading
by Michael Penman

This piece is just what its title suggests: an IF-ification of a tarot card reading. Rather than simulating the relatively mundane mechanics of dealing from a deck of cards, though, this work goes the surreal route, putting the player in an abstract, conceptual space representing the meanings of the cards. Each location represents a tarot card, and contains a central feature drawn from its card. For example, the location representing the card "The Hanged Man" features, naturally, a gallows with a hanged man. The central feature of each location has some interactive element that helps interpret the meaning of the corresponding card.

It's an interesting conceit. The approach makes the experience a little more subtle than just dealing cards and reading their meanings from a guidebook, in that the interactivity is inherently more personally involving.

The individual cards vary in their degree of interactivity, but most seem to have one main thing that helps explain the card. The "one main thing" isn't really a puzzle, but is fairly clear from observation in most cases. Although it would be inappropriate for something on the scale of an Art Show entry, I could see elaborating this piece almost indefinitely by extending and deepening the interactivity of each card. Surely there must be vast tracts of writing on the nuances of interpreting tarot cards; the brief summaries that appear in the game must barely scratch the surface. It would also be interesting to put more of the burden of interpretation on the player, by making the interactivity provide more guidance than explanation.

Emily Short's Reviews

My votes:

Best of Event and Best of Show: Queen of Swords

(Note that when Emily was told she couldn't vote for an entry for both Best of Show and Best of Event, she added a vote for Best of Portrait: Redemption. - Doe ;-))

Best of Landscape: Stop for the Night

My reviews:
Friendly Foe
Tarot Reading
Stop For the Night
Queen of Swords


I do like Kathleen's method of presenting conversation possibilities. Effectively (since one is generally limited to one of two or three choices), it isn't much different from a menu; but I find it in some ways more comfortable to work with questions like "do you want to reply or ask about the past?" So the conversation system does good things for the texture of the piece. On the other hand, I often found myself wishing it were possible to ask about more things -- the menu-ness of the system was restrictive at some junctures.

I wasn't entirely thrilled with the setting, which seemed to be a sort of General Medieval. Perhaps I didn't play far enough to find out otherwise; I got stuck, and only managed to earn a single point from the game despite several playthroughs. From there, I kept getting the same less-than-happy outcome. I'm sure there's more possible, but I didn't have time to pursue hints during the judging period.

I would have liked to have come out of this with a clearer sense of the story. Kathleen seems to be intrigued by the possibilities of exploring memories and telling a tale through recollections (as witness "The Cove" and "Inevitable," for instance). I think this is a neat idea, but somehow I found this one less moving and effective than "The Cove." Again, maybe the problem is that I got stuck and didn't get to the full conclusion. On the other hand, what I was seeing on the way there didn't compel me as much as it might have. For one thing, the elements of lost love and betrayal that I was seeing initially seemed as though they might have been lifted from any of a hundred stories: the impulse to keep things mysterious was so strong that I was left without enough to whet my appetite for revelation.

All that said, this is a competently written piece, using an interesting conversation system, which may well have much more to offer than I was able to find.

Friendly Foe

Early in playing this I encountered the phrase "out of place as a boat in a dessert." This is unfortunate because the phrase amused me more than it really should have, and because it led me to expect more technical flaws than I actually encountered. In fact, there was clearly a lot of work put into crafting the items in this game, as I discovered as I continued to poke around.

I was a bit baffled, though. This game is more puzzle-oriented than I generally expect of an IF Art piece (or at least, I assume it is; given that I never actually *solved* any puzzles, it's possible that there's just a lot of taunting going on.) Obviously, there aren't a lot of hard and fast rules about the precise degree of puzzlehood permitted in an Art Show piece, so it's not in violation of anything. I just didn't know what to do. I poked around, examined everything, drew a few preliminary conclusions about the elements of the puzzle, and set things up in a way that (I thought) should guarantee my success in the near future. And waited. And waited. And waited.

Obviously what I was trying to do didn't work, but there wasn't any feedback about *why* it didn't work or what else I might be intended to do -- which may be an accurate reflection of what it's like to try to get a rabbit out of your yard, but is kind of daunting in an IF piece.

So, er, I'm stuck. Hrm.

This piece does feature a pretty accurate representation of the Stuff Inside A Garden Shed, though. And I got to exorcise my frustration by sawing a lot of stuff up with a chainsaw. That was fun. I need more opportunities for sawing things.


I have to confess that this one didn't do very much for me. It's weird, unfriendly, incomprehensible. And it seems to be doing more or less the opposite of what the Art Show is intended to encourage. You are travelling through a landscape so metaphorically described and so haphazardly implemented that it's barely possible to know what's going on. Exits that are described as present don't actually work. Things that should be there, aren't. Things that are present, are described in ways that make no sense.

What this means is that it's nearly impossible to envision anything at all; and that makes it fairly hard to interact. I didn't get the sense of especially deep immersion I associate with a really well-built IF environment (cf. Kathleen Fischer's "The Cove" from a few years ago); in fact, I spent most of my time staring at the screen and wondering what the heck was going on. I didn't reach any conclusions or endings, if conclusions and endings are available.

Then there's the fact that this game (these games?) is/are three gamefiles, which are mostly the same, but different in places. The opening text encourages one to play all three, using a trope I consider a bit cheesy. (I did try all three, but since I was baffled by the first game, I was really no less baffled by the second and third; as for getting some idea of what the differences meant, well...)

Here's the thing. I like surreal games, sometimes, but the basic requirement is that I feel the author knows what he's describing. Maybe the thing described is metaphorical rather than physical, but there should be *something,* some internal logic however skewed from our own. Here I felt I had no grasp of what was intended. Deliberate Obscurity is a risky card to play in a genre that depends not only on the reader not closing the book, but on the player being able to understand and move things forward. I spend most of my time trying to make my games *more* accessible rather than less so.

One small but important design point: I was particularly irked by the replacement of the line that comes up after you type QUIT. In most Alan games, you type QUIT and then a prompt comes up asking you to type QUIT again if you really mean it -- but I'd forgotten this. When faced with a prompt that did not say 'Type QUIT again' but something else entirely, I became irrationally afraid that I wasn't going to be allowed to leave the game at all. I typed YES several times in a row trying to get it to stop before finally remembering this quirk of Alan. Making your meta-verbs unfriendly to the user is even meaner than in-game obscurity.

Anyhow. As always, the complaint "I didn't get it!" is an especially subjective one to level against a piece of IF, and I'm aware that this may say more about me than about the thing complained-against.

There were some beautiful words in it. Cobalt, alabaster, stone and stars, individually evocative. I like these things. I wish I had been able to stick them together in a way that made sense.

Tarot Reading

I basically like the concept.

I have some quibbles. There are typos and spelling errors. Not all the rooms (that I saw) are equally interesting.

All the same, I like (have always liked) the reification of the symbolic in interactive fiction, and the Tarot is a good, rich source of imagery -- as we see in Curses and at least one previous IF Art Show entry. Some of the imagery was rather neat -- the High Priestess with the star clutched in her hand, for instance.

I think I would have liked this game even better if there had been more: more to do, more to look at, more to ask the characters about. But I realize that a lot goes into implementing the number of card/rooms that (I assume) are covered in this piece. (And no, I did not try playing it over and over to make sure that the deck was fully represented. I saw a fair variation in the four run-throughs I did play, though.)

Stop For The Night

This game has convinced me that relative directions are a Mistake in IF. I appreciate the experiment, and I think the effect is interesting -- but what resulted, for me, was rapid and complete confusion about what the map as a whole looked like. Compass directions help (me, at least) construct an overall sense of the map's shape. Here... I was at a loss.

The more I played, interestingly, the less this bothered me. Maybe it's a learning curve issue. I think I still like my absolute directions, though.

The writing is a bit overdone in spots.

But the good points: the game is quite effectively creepy, herding you from one untoward discovery to another. I quit playing it the first time because I didn't want to deal with the imagery of dark things with claws right then. The moment where I reached for the hunk of lamb was really quite nauseating. (If anyone thinks of Art Show as meaning "pretty things", they need to think again.)

Also excellent are the complex ways in which descriptions change, based on what I have seen and learned so far. Unidentified glimmers and lights give way to definite objects. The setting is quite effectively deployed for the story it has to tell.

I've never felt more certain that I was about to be eaten by a grue.

This was my preference for Best of Landscape.

Queen of Swords

Neat implementation of a complex sequence of things.

I think I would have asked that the descriptions reflect a little more closely what their current state was. (Eg, if the electric foil is plugged into the body cord, I'd like to be able to see that just by looking at it.) I got to a point where I'd done everything that seemed logical, and couldn't figure out what to do next. I *think* what happened was that I had actually failed to wear one of the items, but not noticed I hadn't put it on properly, and thus I wound up "not ready" for the last phases of preparation. In any case, I went back and followed the walkthrough, and all was well.

I was hoping that I would wind up being allowed to actually fence at the end of that detailed set-up. It was a little disappointing that it was all in the form of a cut-scene, when I had been looking forward to that as the big payoff of my careful set-up activities.

On the whole, though, this was a lovingly implemented piece, and I was struck by the author's enthusiasm for her subject, which was infectious and made me interested in something I know almost nothing about. It is so exacting and precise that I mentally subtitled the game, "An Interactive Tutorial" -- but I think there is something to be said for this, and I found it quite enjoyable.

(You may ask whether I would like a sequence like this installed as part of a longer game, and I confess that I probably wouldn't: if there were more of a plot that I was anxious to move on to, I think I would have been hopping in irritation at the prolonged guess-the-sequence-of-actions. But taken as its own thing, where my only motivation was to find out how these pieces fit together, it was in fact fairly satisfying.)

This was my preference for Best of Event and Best of Show.

-- Emily

Doe's (Marnie Parker's) Reviews

I am not a judge anymore, but as host/hostess of the IF Art Show I do usually try to write reviews. I missed for the year 2001, but hopefully I will soon rectify that.

This year I decided to only finish the entries after the deadline and after the judges' reviews were in. I was also a bit pushed for time. So I had the advantage of their viewpoints and hindsight. Also, note that I have never considered myself a very good review writer and I asked the judges to make their reviews more critiques than reviews.

I was very pleased with this year's IF Art Show; please see the footnote after the "Redemption" review.

The Tarot Reading
A Stop for The Night
Friendly Foe
Queen of Hearts

The Tarot Reading by Michael Penman

I really liked this. This is the way the IF Art Show started -- a piece that does not attempt to be a complete story, just a close-up focus on one thing. This is a tarot reading, and a pretty accurate one at that. I played this more than once at different times and got a tarot reading that seemed to apply to my current situation each time. This is a bit spooky, as Jon Ingold said. You move from room to room meeting different cards (only the major arcana, and it seems to be four cards maximum). Each card tells you something, and you can ask it questions. The interesting thing about "Tarot Reading" is that the implementation is a bit deeper than one might first realize. For instance, you can climb the Tower, open the case the World is in and touch it, and ask the Magician about each one of his items. Of course, this level of implementation leaves one wanting even more, like being able to untie or try to untie the Hanging Man. But I can understand that there has to be a cut off point on this kind of thing, and the author's level of implementation seems quite adequate for a short piece. (I don't know if I should mention that the author told me he had to cut off implementing more cards and interactivity, because he was working on it day and night and had to stop to save his marriage. Well, I did mention it, didn't I? So I understand not doing more.) My only suggestion for improvement would be to do a second run with several beta-testers and maybe add more implementation (re untying) only when two or more consistently mention it. And I still haven't seen or explored every card.

This is an interactive experience, with no plot and no "winning," so it can be played and enjoyed more than once -- something I am rather partial to, myself -- just like a painting or a sculpture can be returned to for enjoyment again and again. I am somewhat familiar with the Tarot, especially the major arcana, but that kind of familiarity is not really necessary to enjoy this piece. Overall, I found it quite fun to play, with good imagery and intriguing card interpretations (such as some added poetry that related to the objects in question, not to Tarot). Again, as another judge, J.D. Berry said, this could have easily won an earlier IF Art Show.

Redemption by Kathleen Fischer

You are a prisoner in a medieval dungeon and being visited by a friar. Why are you a prisoner? What did you do? And what lead up to it? I was immediately enthralled by "Redemption," so to say I ended up somewhat disappointed seems nasty or something. I tend to like Kathleen's stuff -- the settings, the characters, and the romantic/noble hero/heroine flavor (though she sometimes denies she writes romances). I tend to like her stuff more than I like the stuff of many other authors. However, I feel "Redemption" promised more than it actually delivered.

I was seriously hampered by not getting the first point on the first play through and not getting the second point on the second play through. Actually, I am not totally sure how I missed the second point -- either I didn't finish the second play through or I didn't ask the right thing at the right time. So I ended up using hints for the first two points. This also meant I had to play it three times to see all of it. While one doesn't have to see all of it to enjoy it, once one is warned there are three points one usually wants those points. But, unfortunately, replaying decreased my enjoyment each time. I am not totally sure how this could have been avoided -- if the points needed to be easier to get, or if another type of branching system would have been better. Perhaps there could have been no branching system at all, or a more complete branching system with quite different endings rather than what felt like the chopped off conclusion of the same ending. Maybe branching without a point system at all might have been best, then, unwarned, some players would have seen one thing and others, another. I also found the first point much too hard to get. But when I saw the hint, it seemed so obvious (see spoiler below).

This is a conversation-driven piece. That part is done quite well, with a convincing and absorbing conversation, one that also involved some tricky Inform programming with a modular talk system (a conversational style, which, BTW, I think T3 is going to do quite well without involving a lot of effort and/or trickiness ;-)). But the conversation is also what, for me, finally didn't quite deliver. Going from being quite taken at the beginning, I felt during each replay that somehow not enough more was revealed as I delved into it further. And I wanted to know more: more about the main characters, more about the world they inhabited, and more about the villain. I especially wanted to know more than that he was a villain; I wanted to know how and why he was one. Maybe this piece was just a little too short, but somehow I never got a really clear picture of the situation and characters. Quite possibly if I had been able to play it only once to see all of it, I would have felt more satisfied. I also don't think it really needed the mental activity of a difficult puzzle to still be satisfying interactively and story-wise. Maybe that's just me.

However, this was obviously an experiment. Since I admire and even encourage experiments, I think on that basis that it succeeded fairly well. Most people should enjoy the conversation, the characters, and the lost-love-lost-is-well-lost flavor. I just wanted MORE. Kathleen could take that statement as an indication of success in engaging my sometimes too-fleeting attention.

( Footnote: The conversational style in "Redemption" was inspiration or partial inspiration to Mike Roberts in developing a segment of his conversation system in T3. Some parts of Emily Short's conversation-driven pieces, naturally, including Galatea, were as well. In fact, I will say here and now, that I feel that the IF Art Show has already achieved one of its major aims -- to be a brainstorming interactivity workshop out of which greater things might emerge. Or, minimally, it seems to be providing a workshop atmosphere that encourages different interactive things to at least be tried. And I am not saying that just because of T3, but also because of the many experiments tried in this show (every entry!) and those in past shows. So I am very pleased. And hopefully the experimentation and brainstorming will just continue in future shows. )



Since this is a conversation-driven piece where the conversation technique is modular (using a different prompt), I found it counter-intuitive to have to switch to a verbal command in the middle to get the first point. I was so focused on the conversation, that, in fact, it never even occurred to me to do so, which is why I missed it. This is why I think that a lot of people could easily miss the first point. I feel it would have worked better if somehow the first point could have been also more clued in the conversation or partially solved by the conversation rather than in just the descriptions. That approach would have been more consistent and certainly made the first point much easier for me to get. ;-) I probably used the remember command only once. That, too, I feel, could have been clued more in the conversation.



A Stop for The Night by Joe Mason

This is a medieval piece. You are a coach driver who stops for the night at a keep where it appears something unsavory has happened. My first reaction to this is that it did not belong in the IF Art Show (however, no entries are pre-screened and turned away, as that would be counter-productive). This is essentially a horror story that only loosely fits the landscape theme. And it seemed to have a definite overriding plot. And it's not that short. I felt it was more a traditional game than anything else. Then I read the judges' reviews (I started before the deadline and then finished after) and realized that it had no compass directions. Ergo, it is an experiment and it fits the landscape scene. And how on earth had I missed the lack of directions? Okay, I noticed there weren't any -- I mean I guess I noticed, I'm pretty sure I noticed -- but it didn't seriously bother me. This uses the system of listing exits and you can "go exit." I've always been partial to lists of exits in games and also being able to go to one when that is included. What I didn't realize was that the exits are not correlated to compass directions. Once you pass through an exit/entrance you may be a bit confused about which one it was because there are often more exits on the other side and/or you get turned around direction-wise once in a room. But I only got confused once or twice and I got a fairly good map of the keep in my head.

I can't say why this bothered me a lot less than most of the judges, or why it sort of made sense to me -- maybe because I am mildly dyslexic so my head is hardwired a bit differently and maybe because I once confused my right hand with my left (which I do rarely now). But only when I read the judges reviews did I realize it was SUCH A BIG THING; I hadn't really, really noticed. Doh. And I hadn't noticed that it could be a major stumbling block for most players. So my suggestion to the author of this piece is to rewrite it coordinating compass directions with exits. Keep the exit system, just make one door south, etc. I guess. Maybe. But if he wants more people to play and enjoy it, without being confused by the lack of ordinal directions, most probably.

Once I stopped looking for IF Art Show type of things -- experimentation, closer focus, deeper implementation, more I and less F, whatever -- that was here but I didn't see -- once I approached this more as a game game, I enjoyed it. "Stop" has lots of atmosphere and is actually a bit creepy. Being creepy is not all that easy to pull off in IF, as one is always somewhat aware that one is really not in danger. But despite the innovative direction system and being a landscape entry, I think "Stop" suffered a little too much from the wander-around-the-map-and-do-things-syndrome. Because it takes longer to explore than one might first realize -- as I played, I found it to be more vignette than the complete game I had originally thought. But this slow exploration means a slow pace and that cuts down on the creepiness, ergo, it never quite shivers. I also, personally, would have like to have seen the denouement (the seemingly promised landscape transformation Ingold mentioned -- see below spoiler). However, this is a polished piece that only needs a little more tweaking and horror or atmospheric aficionados should enjoy it.

One caveat though: It really is a little too long for the IF Art Show.



I wanted to see the monster. I wanted to see a slavering beast erupting on the scene!!! Maybe it was there, but I never saw it. I also wanted to see a clash of titans at the end. Just because. And I think that could have been included and still have been considered a landscape entry. Using cut scenes, or something. The clash at the end would also have illuminated the story for me more. If the author wants to make this more a complete game, I suggest that sort of ending. I also think that enter ___ was slightly counter-intuitive when other directions were go exit. I know why entering was not broadcast as an exit, but it made the solutions a bit obscure.



Friendly Foe by Mike Sousa

You are a proud gardener. There is a rabbit. It is eating your vegetables. I think "Friendly Foe" is the sleeper of this year's IF Art Show. Again, I benefited by not being a judge, so I had access to information I gathered during my email interchanges with Mike (who I thought was Fred Demul at the time). I probably shouldn't say this, but I think most of the judges missed the boat on this one (and I am sorry the boat comment was removed from the latest version). In other words, this appears to be a piece focused on one puzzle. In point in fact, the puzzle is not the be-all-and-end-all of the piece. I don't know, frankly, if I would have fallen into the trap of concentrating only on the puzzle to the exclusion of everything else, because early on a judge asked me for hints. Ergo, I wrote Mike. So, yes, I did play through quickly trying to see if I could complete the puzzle, so I could pass on hints (I didn't want to pass on hints for parts I had not yet played myself). Does that mean I would have by-passed all the other interactivity in this piece? I don't know. I like to think not. Forwarded, I returned to replay.

Also, after reading Emily Short's review, I thought possibly "Friendly Foe" was more successful than many of the judges might have realized. In frustration over the puzzle, she ended up experiencing sawing things. Tell me, what is one of the guidelines of the IF Art Show, again? That pieces be experiential. I think "Friendly Foe" aims toward this end and often succeeds. (Although I understand because this was in the event category, if a judge could not finish the puzzle he/she might feel they had not experienced the event.)

Someone asked on the if-mud about a month ago if there were any games out there that were more fun to lose than to win? When he realized that question was not quite what he meant, not the restart/ quit prompt, he rephrased it. Are there any games out there where winning is not the be-all-and-end-all and where it may be more fun to play rather than to win? I responded that I thought many IF Art Show entries were like that and maybe he should try this year's entry, "Foe."

"Friendly Foe," by its very nature, illustrates very well one of the contentions underlying the IF Art Show. Fred, Mike, may not have intended this, but it gives me a chance to rant. Human beings are achievement or goal-oriented. So when IF has goals in it, points and puzzles, that is what most players immediately concentrate on. They zoom in on and focus all their attention on getting those points or completing that puzzle. That means other experiential things including in a piece of IF may be completely by-passed. This is like life, and like art.

I asserted once, in the concept portion of the IF Art Show web page, I think, that art is essentially goalless. Some have argued with me, but I still believe this. The point of art is EXPERIENCE, not to achieve some goal. Looking at a painting, listening to music, viewing/feeling a sculpture -- all experiential. IF they have any goal the goal is experience. But it is not achievement or mastery. For the creator, yes, but not for the audience. So does that mean IF must always be more or less than art? Or can IF also be art? Can IF have a heavy focus on the experiential? Or if there are points and puzzles, will players always zoom in on that and miss the rest?

It's sort of like the old saying -- stop and smell the flowers.


I think Mike's intent here was to have a puzzle that encouraged players to experience as many of the tools/things in the shed as they could, ergo, to have an experience. The puzzle is just the directing force to having that experience -- the framework that keeps them in the piece for a little while. And sometimes it works. I will probably play "Foe" again sometime, because I found some small gems in it and I didn't try everything. Many of those things were humorous and had me chuckling. Where "Foe" falls down is that not ENOUGH things are implemented, so one has to stumble around trying thing after thing to see what will do something and what won't. I would have preferred every takeable item in the shed did something. Because they don't that makes the puzzle too hard, in essence. The other fault is, if the player zooms in immediately on the puzzle, it will seem to take too long and there will be too many z's (waits) the player will have to hit to end the piece. But maybe that is also some indication to the player that more was intended. I would suggest that the puzzle could have all kinds of alternative endings. That would mean that Mike probably couldn't keep players in the piece as long as he would like, but it might be more satisfying interactively. Some players will zoom in on the puzzle and "win," and some will experience more. Sometimes making things experiential means leaving them open enough for different players to have quite different experiences. Less author control, more player control.

After having finally finished "Friendly Foe" (to one of its conclusions), I still maintain it is the sleeper of this year's IF Art Show.

Queen of Hearts by Jessica Knoch

You are going to fence with your Significant Other. But it is the future (been corrected about this, it is the present day) and the fencing equipment is all electrified. To be quite honest, which maybe I shouldn't be, I was initially quite turned off by this. Reading the introduction and getting some idea of what I, as PC, would have to do -- it looked like a lot of work. So, daunted, I didn't even start it before the deadline, and only played it recently. IF Art is a tough concept and it has various subconcepts, so it can mean different things to different people. One of those meanings can be deeper implementation -- but not always. For some pieces, this deeper implementation can mean other things, such as my "Carma," for example. "Carma" has no deep implementation. It has a lot of easy visual, sound, and conversational interactivity, and some light-hearted character development. Its major emphasis is emotional interactivity. When deeper implementation is a major part of one's focus, it can be done in various ways, not necessarily involving a lot of work on the part of the player -- maybe just some. Or deeper implementation can be optional as in "Friendly Foe" and "The Tarot Reading. "

Basically, I guess I have to admit that I am lazy -- I like some things in IF, but not a lot of work. I like tricky puzzles that I can get after some convoluted thought, but not a week's work of involuted, convoluted thought. I like maps I can transverse, search, and find things in. But not maps where have to search and dig and dig to uncover a lot of hidden things. I like objects I can manipulate, and maybe even objects with some slightly tricky manipulation, but not objects that I have to fiddle with and fiddle with. Lazy, that's me. However, according to the judges' reviews, this generated a lot of enthusiasm, so I returned to play it with as an open a heart and mind as I could. Okay, once I played, this turned out not to be quite as fiddly as I feared. But, oops, just about when I was almost done, I got a stack overflow. So I had to begin again (this time with saving). Then I never could finish. I tried doing everything on myself, I tried with help, and I followed the walk through, but I never got the sequence right. I never got to fence. And I gave it a fair shot -- put in a lot work ;-). So, while not overly fiddly, it was still too fiddly for me. Although the writing is enthusiastic, I lost my enthusiasm. People who get further may enjoy it more.

Ogres by Alan DeNiro

Hmmm, I am not even sure I can describe this. In three separate parts, you get slightly different views each time of the same "city." "Ogres" was very surreal and felt incomplete. But overall my reaction to it was favorable, for the parts that were there. Imaginative, creative, and lyrical, it evoked complicated imagery -- some that rang bells with me. My other reaction -- I could be wrong -- is that this was written by a novice. If so, I think the author is onto something, but he needs to work more on giving the player something to do; providing more interactivity. Other than wandering around and reading room descriptions I didn't find much to do, so nothing directed me to focus on one thing or another. That, I think, is a little too open-ended.

Also, in each part, I ended up in a room with no exit and that is how each part ended for me. Ergo, I also had no closure. I not only think players like a little more interactivity, they like closure. I personally don't mind cryptic if I can unravel the mysterious a little, but this needed a little more unraveling or it needed to allow me to unravel it a little more. However, the lyrical writing has definite possibilities.

If voting, I would have voted for "Redemption "for Best of Show, "Friendly Foe" for Best of Event, "A Stop for The Night" for Best Landscape, and "The Tarot Reading " for Honorable Mention.

About the Judges

To be filled-in.

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