Archive for November, 2007

Final Fantasy V: Blue Mage

I had a couple of breakthroughs last night. For one thing, I have the airship that I knew I’d find eventually. More importantly, I also now have a character who’s sufficiently advanced in the Trainer job that it completely transforms how I can use the Blue Mage.

The Blue Mage is a class introduced in FF5, an addition to the Black/White/Red Mages from the original. Its role in the game is to provide an additional form of collectible. You may have visited all the dungeons, taken all the treasure, and killed one of every type of monster in the game, but how many ways have you been hurt? Nothing kept track until now. You see, blue magic consists of monsters’ special attacks. In order to learn blue spells, the character doing the Blue Mage job has to observe the attack up close. Really up close.

For most of the game, I’ve been keeping the Blue Masochist’s “Learning” skill on two characters, just to increase the odds that one of them gets the opportunity to study these attacks when they happen. Some of the attacks are only used rarely, and those are the ones you really want — partly just because they’re rare, but also because they tend to be the more powerful ones. There’s a devastating attack called “Aqua Rake” — it does massive water-based damage to all enemies. I’ve only had it used against me once, but because I was Learning at the time, I can do it too now.

The Trainer, now: that has a few different skills. One of the things a Trainer can do is attempt to capture a weakened foe, then later set it loose during battle, damaging anything in its way. It’s strikingly similar to the mechanics of Pokémon — the captured monster even takes the form of a little ball — even though FF5 predates Pokémon by several years. But that’s not the important thing. The real purpose of the Trainer is to control monsters. During combat, a sufficiently advanced Trainer can attempt to take control of one monster at a time, and once you’ve got it, you can use any of its attacks against the other monsters.

Or against your Blue Mage.

Suddenly, the hunt for hurt, dependent on luck up to this point, is streamlined and efficient! I’ve got one character devoted to the process now: he’s staying in the Blue Mage job, which gives him innate ability to both learn and cast blue magic, and has the Trainer’s “Control” command equipped. Once I’m satisfied that he’s inflicted everything on himself that an area has to offer, I have the option of switching him to a different job. Or not: Aqua Rake alone makes it worthwhile to keep him blue most of the time.

I understand FF7 had something similar to the Blue Mage, an “Enemy Attack” materia or somesuch, but I don’t remember using it much, if at all. I’ll have to give it a better try when I replay that game — and I’m realizing I’ll have to do that at some point, to see it afresh in the context of the earlier games.

Final Fantasy V: Common Elements

The Final Fantasy games, somewhat famously, don’t really form a continuity. Each game in the series proper 1That is, each game with a title like “Final Fantasy [number in roman numerals]”. There have been a some sequels to particular games, but I’m not considering them here. is its own world. However, there are some recurring elements, not just of gameplay but of content, that help to give the series an identity. There’s an extensive Wikipedia article on the subject, but honestly it seems a little too extensive to me — yes, most games in the series contain healing potions, but so do most CRPGs.

So, what is there that’s genuinely distinctive about Final Fantasy? First and most obviously, there are some recurring creatures, such as Chocobos, Moogles, and Tonberries. The only one of these I’ve seen so far in FF5 is the Chocobo, a large bird used as a steed, but I understand there are Moogles to come.

Next, there’s the airship obsession. This is enough of a Final Fantasy mainstay that if you’ve ever seen a Final Fantasy parody, it probably had an airship in it. I haven’t found any airships in FF5 yet, but I’m sure they’re coming. At least, I hope so. Without one, the only means I have of travelling over long distances without the hassle of wandering monsters is by riding a dragon. This might not sound worse than an airship, but it can’t fly over mountains, and is thus limited to a certain mountain-beringed portion of the map.

Then there’s Cid, the crusty airship mechanic, or at least usually something close to that. In this game, he’s a scientist who designed the crystal power amplifiers that are blamed with overworking the four Elemental Crystals and making them shatter. (This never really seemed like an adequate explanation to me. I mean, a problem like that can’t be solved by killing things, which means I can’t do anything about it. So I have to find the real reason the crystals are shattering. And then kill it.)

These are surface matters, though. Less often remarked on but just as prevalent are common plot features, notable for being the only thing that identified the Final Fantasy movie, The Spirits Within, as Final Fantasy. Like the prison scene. Often there’s a point toward the end of Act 1 where the player characters are incarcerated, receive some small help in escaping, and then fight the rest of the way out. I’ve been through this scene in FF5 already. It’s kind of amusing how it comes about. See, there are these monsters attacking the crystals — the fact that the crystals are under attack by monsters is another reason why the “amplifier” explanation doesn’t make sense — and the monsters apparently emerged from huge meteors. Entering a hollow meteor yourself, you find a tunnel that leads to the site of another meteor. On the other side, you’re seen emerging from the meteor, which means you must be a monster. Luckily, the guards don’t have the same zero-tolerance policy towards monsters as you do.

Then there’s the dual antagonist scheme, consisting of a human-scale enemy, such as a conquering empire, who you focus on in the early parts of the game, and beyond that, the real menace, a cosmic horror that threatens the whole world. This creates an opportunity for a reveal scene where the plot suddenly broadens beyond the initial conflict. I don’t think it’s going to happen quite like this in FF5, because I’m fairly advanced in the game now and I don’t have a human enemy yet. All I’ve been doing it racing around after crystals to save them before they explode. (And I’m always too late. Good thing, too, because it’s the shards of the shattered crystals that give me new Jobs.)

1 That is, each game with a title like “Final Fantasy [number in roman numerals]”. There have been a some sequels to particular games, but I’m not considering them here.

Final Fantasy V: Jobs

Although I’ve been trying to play the Final Fantasy series in order, I skipped FF3. It’s never been released on any platform I own — heck, until recently, it hadn’t even been released in English. 1There was an American release of a game called Final Fantasy III, but it was actually what we today call Final Fantasy VI. Some of the games were originally released only in Japan, but after FF7 they decided to sync up the numbers and do official English-language remakes of the skipped episodes. I tried playing a fan-made translation of FF3 on a NES emulator years ago, but found it unwieldy and confusing, and gave it up, hoping that the future would bring a better way to play it. In particular, it had this “Job” concept that was inadequately explained. Perhaps it was covered better in the docs, which I didn’t have.

FF4 didn’t have anything like the Job system — instead, it accomplished the same purpose, providing variability in gameplay, by swapping different player characters in and out a lot. But FF5 brought Jobs back.

This time I have documentation and an in-game tutorial to help me, but it was still confusing at first, because the whole idea is so contrary to both RPG convention and common sense. In essense: you can change a character’s class at any time (except during combat). I’m not talking about D&D-style multiclassing, I mean you can just turn your level 10 Thief into a level 10 White Mage, cast healing spells on your party, then turn him back to a Thief. It’s a little misleading to even talk about a “level 10 Thief” at all: it’s just a level 10 character who’s currently doing the Thief job.

“Surely there must be some kind of penalty for switching jobs willy-nilly!” one cries. No, there is not. Why should there be? Does D&D reward spellcasters for memorizing the same set of spells every day, or fighters for remaining loyal to a single suit of armor? Jobs in this game are like garments that you slip on to suit your current activities. Indeed, each job comes with its own outfit — or rather, four outfits, one for each player character. They get sillier as the game goes on. One job involves dressing up in an animal costume with big ears.

Each character also gets to use one feature they’ve earned from a different job. This is where it gets complicated. See, there are two parallel kinds of XP. You’ve got your conventional experience level system, which governs the character’s base stats (which are modified by the current job), and you’ve also got “ability points”, which are job-specific. Suppose, for example, you want a character who can both use a sword and cast healing spells. One way to go about this is to give someone the job of White Mage and go kill stuff for a while. A White Mage with enough Ability Points gets the privilege of keeping the ability to cast first-level White spells when switched to a different job. Get some more Ability Points and you can keep the ability to cast second-level White spells, and so on. Likewise, you can do it the other way around: if you gain enough Ability Points as a Knight, you can switch to White Mage and keep the ability to use a sword. (There are other jobs that use swords, but only the Knight lets you keep it.) Each playable character can only have one skill of this sort active at a time, but like the jobs themselves, you can switch the active skill at will.

The whole scheme seems tailor-made for people who like experimenting with different character classes. There are only four playable characters, but there are 22 jobs, including exotic things like Geomancer and Chemist. Naturally I want to try them all. The game doesn’t make all of the jobs available at the beginning, but releases them in batches after certain major plot events, with the more experimental ones appearing later.

Later installments in the series kept the idea of on-the-fly character customization, but the two that I’ve played used different mechanisms for it. In FF7, it was part of the Materia system, which broke things down into more elementary units — instead of a Thief job with such features as enhanced speed and the ability to steal, “Speed Plus” and “Steal” are separate materia that can be used together or independently. In FF8, there’s a system of “Guardian Forces” that enhance their bearers in various ways, including providing the ability to enhance certain stats by attaching spells to them. The FF7 system is a lot simpler than the Job system, the FF8 system a lot more complicated. But all three of them have one thing in common: “action points”, the parallel XP. When I played FF7, it seemed odd that materia — magic stones slotted into weapons or armor — gained experience levels along with their users. But now I see where that comes from.

1 There was an American release of a game called Final Fantasy III, but it was actually what we today call Final Fantasy VI. Some of the games were originally released only in Japan, but after FF7 they decided to sync up the numbers and do official English-language remakes of the skipped episodes.

Final Fantasy V

Like many people, I came to the Final Fantasy series late. I was in fact completely unaware of its existence until FF7, which got a bigger marketing push than usual and was available for PC. I played that when it was new, and the PC version of FF8 well after it became old, and somewhere in between I started playing through the Playstation remakes of the earlier games. I’m up to episode 5 by now.

I’m doing this mainly because I’m a completist (obviously), but also because it’s fascinating to me to see how the franchise evolved. Final Fantasy I was basically just another Ultima-style 1 “Ultima” means “final” in Latin. Coincidence? Probably. tile-based fantasy RPG in a quasi-medieval setting, with monsters lifted straight from D&D, turn-based combat, ciphers for heroes, and a shadow of a plot organized around defeating four elemental “fiends”. How did it get from there to what I know from the later episodes — the playful mishmash of genres, the bizarre monstrosities, the lengthy examination of player character backstories?

Piece by piece, that’s how. By FF5, we have distinctive characters and most of the basics of FF7/8 gameplay (including the “ATB” combat system), but the milieu is still standard high fantasy, and the plot is still based around the four elements. The monsters are starting to get weird, though. The real acid trips tend to come at higher levels, but I’ve already encoutnered skullclouds and cats that fly by means of batwings strapped to their forelegs.

1 “Ultima” means “final” in Latin. Coincidence? Probably.

Myst V: Endings

Esher is a fairly interesting character. He’s so desperate for the player’s approval! As the game progresses, it becomes clear that he’s basically a nazi, but he doesn’t see anything wrong with that, and he quite honestly doesn’t see any reason why you should see anything wrong with it. He really wants you to see his point of view, and is willing to help you out, explain things, justify himself — everything except stop being a nazi. Now, the stereotypical game bad guy is an apparently superior foe who does everything in his power to stop you, justifying everything you do in response. Esher isn’t like that: even though he’s a bad guy, he’s never an antagonist. This puts you in the somewhat uncomfortable position of passing judgment on someone who’s done you no wrong. It’s reminiscent of the encounter with Gehn in Riven, or even the encounter with Raymond Burr in Rear Window.

Unfortunately, the bad endings undercut this by having him turn against you once you’re no longer useful to him. Suddenly he’s more like Sirrus and Achenar than like Gehn. Let me go into more detail. Spoilers ho.

By the end, I pretty much knew what the big deal is with the Tablet. It has to do with the Bahro’s immense magical powers. The Bahro can control the weather. They can even control time. And the Tablet? It controls the Bahro. It’s the means by which they were enslaved. Clearly no one can be entrusted with this power. The Tablet should be thrown into the fires of Mount Doom, if you can find them.

myst5-yeeshaBut the game didn’t seem to give me that choice. When I got the Tablet, I found myself back in D’ni with Yeesha, who held out her hands as if to receive the Tablet, just as Esher said she would. But in the beginning, Yeesha herself insisted that I should not give her the Tablet once I got it, and she wasn’t actually saying any different now. She wasn’t saying anything at all. Up to that point, I had been contemplating giving it to her despite her warning if it came down to a choice between her and Esher. But this? This was eerie. I wasn’t even sure it was really Yeesha. So I decided not to give it to her.

That left only one obvious option: taking it to Myst Island, where Esher said he’d meet me. This also seemed like the obvious thing to do because otherwise you don’t get to take a last look at Myst Island. Myst V starts in the room where the original Myst ended, so it seemed reasonable that it would end where Myst began. I had no idea what I’d do with the Tablet once I got there, but hoped some option would present itself. It didn’t. I ultimately put the Tablet in the holder waiting for it, just for lack of anything else to do with it, and Esher immediately appeared and started on his plans to re-enslave the Bahro and conquer the cosmos. The ingrate then marooned me there. I’m glad I went, though, because it gave me the opportunity to see Myst Island in its decrepit, overgrown state. There’s some excellent thunder and lightning effects there.

myst5-tianaOne thing was of particular note on Myst Island: Ti’ana’s grave. “What?” you might say. “I don’t remember a grave in Myst.” That’s because Myst didn’t let you look at it. In Myst V, you can’t look at it if you’re using the “Classic” control mode, which seems to replicate the nodes from the original. You have to go into free-movement mode to see it. I tried to give the Tablet to Ti’ana, but no, she’s dead.

I also tried leaving the Tablet alone and going to my rendezvous with Esher empty-handed. This presumably stopped him from re-establishing the D’ni reich, but it also left me stranded in the ruins of Myst with no way out.

I did eventually discover the correct ending, and unfortunately the final crucial realization was one about the user interface, not about the situation. The resolution is satisfying, but I’d have enjoyed it more if the characters didn’t talk so much. It’s not like they have much to say. Silence and loneliness were originally a large part of the mood of Myst, and the developers seem to have forgotten that.

Myst V: Defending 3D

I’m well into the fourth subworld now. (The “ages” all have names, but I don’t know them. Esher only mentions them once.) This bit must be more graphically complex than the ones preceding it, because the framerate is getting choppy again. It’s nowhere near as bad as it was when I was using faulty hardware, but it’s bothersome enough that I’ve searched online for help again. In the process, I found reviews like this one and these. I had been avoiding reviews up to now, for fear of spoilers, but now that I’m almost done, there seemed less harm in reading them.

Having done so, I feel like I’m losing some cred by not hating Myst V. Sure, I’ve complained about the drawing interface, but that’s a fairly superficial matter. And yeah, it’s not Riven, but neither were Mysts 3 and 4.

Rasmussen, in contrast, objects at length and in detail to the fact that it’s done in a 3D engine at all. I have to disagree. The ability to move freely is a very big deal. It ends the frustration of limited views: countless times in Myst and Myst-likes, I’ve wanted to get a closer view of something, or look at it from a different angle, but been denied. More importantly, the traditional Myst-like interface makes navigation depend on noticing hotspots. Every time you enter a new area in such a game, you pretty much have to wave your mouse around to find all the places you’re allowed to step. Missing even one can effectively lock you out of crucial areas of the game (as happened to me in a couple of spots in Myst IV). This is not realistic and it is not good gameplay. There’s still a certain amount of hotspot-hunting in a 3D game — there are still things you have to click on to operate, after all. But the buttons on a machine tend to be more obvious than the exitable portions of a grassy wilderness.

I understand that a lot of Myst fans were apprehensive about the shift to 3D. It makes sense to be apprehensive when you think about other series that also decided to shift to 3D for their final episodes, such as Ultima and King’s Quest. But those games are mainly the result of the developers devoting so much effort to figuring out the new technology that they couldn’t devote adequate attention to the content. Thanks to RealMyst and Uru, Cyan already had their first experimental fumblings behind them.

Myst V: UI

myst5-slateMyst V does a couple of novel things with the user interface. For one thing, it gives you a choice of what UI you want to use. First-person adventure games have basically gone through three stages. First there’s the static view: the camera is fixed in place, and you click hotspots to move and turn. Then there’s panning views: you click hotspots to move, so there’s a finite set of nodes you can move between, but turning is continuous, controlled by the mouse in some way. Finally, there’s full continuous 3D movement, like in a first-person shooter — something not done often in adventures, but it has been done. Myst V supports all three modes.

One might reasonably ask why. “Classic” mode was, after all, originally a product of technological limitations. Myst is made of a bunch of still images stitched together. Myst V is not. So why pretend that it is? I suppose that some people just prefer to play that way. I generally prefer “Advanced” mode — full 3D movement — because the ability to look at things from arbitrary angles aids comprehension. (One of my biggest problems in Myst IV was finding movement hotspots in outdoor areas.) But in fact I have occasionally switched to “Classic” mode when in difficulty, because the hotspots can act as a sort of guide. If there’s someting important, there’s probably a spot you can click that makes you look straight at it.

It’s worth noting that, even in free-movement mode, you use the old-style interface to climb ladders. I don’t just mean that you click on the ladder to climb it, I mean that you click on the ladder twice: once to look at the ladder and automatically shift into “Classic” mode, and once to climb it. It seems unlikely that it would have been designed this way if the designers had been thinking primarily in terms of free movement.

The other major UI experiment is the drawing interface. Each of the four main sub-worlds features a slate that you use to give instructions to the Bahro. You do this by drawing shapes with the mouse. It’s a reminiscent of the “gestural” interfaces used in Black & White and early versions of Darwinia before the designers realized how difficult and annoying it was. It’s a bit different here, though, because you don’t have to (and in most cases can’t) draw the shapes in a single continuous stroke, which lessens the annoyance factor somewhat. But it’s tricky to draw with a mouse — especially if, like me, you normally use a trackball for games 1A Logitech Cordless Optical Trackman, for what it’s worth — not to be confused with the Logitech Cordless Trackman Wheel or other similarly-named products. It’s the best pointing device I’ve ever used, especially for first-person games like this one. My only complaint is that there’s nothing holding the ball in except gravity, so whenever you drop the device, the ball comes out and rolls under the couch.. And unlike in other programs you might use to draw pictures with a mouse, there’s no eraser tool and no “undo”. If you make a mistake, you have to wipe the whole slate and start over. I’ve tried hooking up a Wacom tablet 2 “Do you begin to understand the power of the Tablet? Surely it begins to pull you. Its strength grips you. Look around. Without the power of the Tablet, this would be left solely to your dreams.” — Esher, Wacom spokesman. for these bits, but it interacts strangely with the game, sending the cursor zooming into corners suddenly. This doesn’t happen with that tablet under other applications. But at least the game doesn’t ask you to draw shapes more than once. Once you’ve got a drawing that the Bahro understand, it’s automatically saved where you can retrieve it with a click.

Recognizing shapes is one of those things that’s traditionally difficult for computers to do, so it’s unsurprising that the game can get it wrong. It’s generally good at rejecting things that aren’t quite right — frustratingly so at times, given the difficulty of drawing. But there was one occasion when I drew a shape completely wrong, and the game decided it was a close-enough match to a different shape, one that looked even less like what I had drawn to a human eye. There may be something going on where the game remembers the last shape you had the opportunity to see and is more lenient about matching it. Usually there’s a single order in which you can discover them, but this level was an exception. Later in the same level, I actually managed to skip a puzzle when the Bahro carried the slate to its final destination without being instructed to do so, perhaps as a result of another mistaken match. Whether these two mistakes are connected, I don’t know. I played through the level a second time, because I don’t like skipping puzzles accidentally, and didn’t hit any false positives that time.

1 A Logitech Cordless Optical Trackman, for what it’s worth — not to be confused with the Logitech Cordless Trackman Wheel or other similarly-named products. It’s the best pointing device I’ve ever used, especially for first-person games like this one. My only complaint is that there’s nothing holding the ball in except gravity, so whenever you drop the device, the ball comes out and rolls under the couch.
2 “Do you begin to understand the power of the Tablet? Surely it begins to pull you. Its strength grips you. Look around. Without the power of the Tablet, this would be left solely to your dreams.” — Esher, Wacom spokesman.

Myst V: Observatory

myst5-planetI had a marathon session this weekend, which is really the best way to play this sort of game. A significant fraction of that time was spent seriously stuck for the first time toward the end of the second major subworld. (You can complete them in any order, but there’s a specific order in which they become available.) This is a segment built around a fanciful astronomical observatory, designed in traditional D’ni fashion: isolated, empty, and built to an impractically large scale. You get that sort of thing when architects can just write buildings into existence without worrying about materials or labor. The D’ni were like game designers in that regard.

The puzzles in the observatory age are, appropriately, themed around spotting things at a distance, mainly through telescopes. Given all the time I spent looking around, it’s a good thing the game is as pretty as it is. It’s the first game in the Myst series proper to be completely rendered in 3D, at least if you don’t count RealMyst and Uru. (Although this game is more of a sequel to Uru than to Myst IV, so maybe it should count.) And it really gives the 3D engine a workout. One of the things that always bugged me about the original Myst was the ocean around the island: you could hear the waves lapping at the shore, but it was a still image. Myst V has surf. It has individual strands of waving grass. It has an eclipse at one point, which really took me by surprise. And that’s not even getting into the rendered human figures, with their gestures and their loose, flowing clothing. No doubt it’ll all look laughable in a few years, but for now, I’m suitably impressed. I guess this means I’m playing it at the right time.

Ultimately, though, I became unstuck not by gazing at the scenery, but by thinking about what had to happen next. The puzzles had given me access to a certain hard-to-reach place, but with no obvious reward. I had to think about why I was there. This sort of thing can be great, but I honestly don’t think the effect was deliberate on the part of the author in this case. It was just a matter of confusion caused by my having solved a puzzle earlier wthout, it turned out, quite understanding what I had done.

Myst V: Yeesha vs. Esher

myst5-esherSo, with my faulty video card replaced, I’ve finally got Myst V: End of Ages running at a reasonable framerate. I’ve explored enough of the hub to gain access to all four of the other “ages”, of which I’ve delved into two and completed one.

The story is basically about a struggle between Yeesha and Esher, with the player caught in the middle: for some unexplained reason, I’m the only one who can draw this legendary Tablet from its housing like Excalibur from the stone, and they both have ideas about what I should do with its great but unspecified power once I do so. As a Myst veteran, I know full well that when two people both want me on their side, I shouldn’t trust either of them. But it isn’t as symmetric as Sirrus and Achenar here. For one thing, Esher is actually trying to help me. He knows his way around the quest, having been on it himself at one point, and he comes by to talk more or less every time I’ve made a bit of progress. Yeesha only appeared at the beginning: her point of view is mainy represented through scattered journal entries (a device that’s surely passé by now). And in contrast to Yeesha’s vague and self-absorbed poeticalisms, Esher says practical things like “You will not be able to continue downward without providing fresh air to the tunnels.” Yeesha, at the end of her introductory spiel, actually had the gall to say “What you still don’t understand you have failed to hear or don’t need to know.” She’s actually blaming me for her inability to communicate clearly!

So, yeah, I’d be a lot more sympathetic towards Esher than towards Yeesha if it weren’t for the fact that he’s a jerk. He’s constantly badmouthing Yeesha in a sleazy effort to get me on his side. A lot of what he says is stuff I’ve said myself — complaints about her vagueness and self-importance — but it’s sleazy anyway. Plus he also seems to hate her for her ancestry more than for any other reason, being the great-granddaughter of the woman who destroyed D’ni. Also, he’s contemptuous of the Bahro, the beings I know from Uru as “the Least”. In Uru, there’s a whole plot about how the D’ni enslaved the Least for their inherent ability to “link”, to make the connection to other worlds, and there’s an epiphany moment when it’s made clear that the Least and the apelike creatures that lurk in dark places and make disquieting noises are, in fact, the same thing. Yeesha supports Bahro rights, but Esher thinks they’re primitive, unclean things and that the D’ni had the right idea. In fact, Esher seems to be generally gung-ho about restoring D’ni civilization without learning any lessons from what happened to it.

All of the above is heavy with referenes to Myst continuity, including things from the novels. I assume there’s disagreement on this, but I regard this as a weakness. The more we learn about D’ni history, the easier it is to mentally classify it as just another fantasy world instead of something strange and unique. This series may be ending at just the right time.

IFComp 2007: Overview and promise

So, the comp is well and truly over for the year. The results are up. Lost Pig took first place, followed by An Act of Murder and Lord Bellwater’s Secret, an unusually strong showing for mysteries this year. Last place was taken by Paul Allen Panks, surprising no one, with his sole surviving game: of the three he entered, two were disqualified for violating comp rules. And somewhere in the middle, Deadline Enchanter took the Golden Banana of Discord, the unofficial award for the game whose votes had the largest standard deviation. I take a personal interest in the Banana, because my own 2001 entry, The Gostak, holds the record for highest standard deviation ever. I rated Deadline Enchanter low myself, but it certainly deserves the banana, being hard to understand and breaking convention as it does. I would have been disappointed if the award had gone to its runner-up, Gathered in Darkness, which is relatively normal and seems to have gotten as high a standard deviation as it did simply by only being playable under Windows and thus getting fewer votes than most games.

On the whole, this year’s comp seems substandard to me. Perhaps I’m growing curmudgeonly and difficult to satisfy, but I gave out no tens and an awful lot of threes. I think I lowered my standards as I went along — a few of the earlier games on my list, including Lost Pig, definitely got rated lower than I would have rated them later. This is why it’s important to play the comp games in a random order: to even out effects like that.

If this year’s comp has an overall theme, it’s inadequate testing. Several games were so buggy that I cannot believe that they had been tested at all, and one was acknowledged by the author to be outright impossible to win. This is a shame, and I have to accept part of the blame for it. One of the differences between amateur and professional game development is that professional outfits can be reasonably expected to hire testers. Amateur games have to rely on volunteers, and the sad fact is that finding volunteers with enough IF experience to give your game a meaningful workout is hard, especially as the comp deadline draws near. In the past, there have been some online resources to help authors find testers, but I don’t know if they’re still being maintained.

Writing criticism is always a little arrogant. Creating is hard, finding fault is easy. So it’s particularly shameful that we who criticize fail to do what we can to find fault before release, when it’ll be helpful. So, rather than just gripe, I intend to do something about it. I intend to test some games, and do it thoroughly as I am able. At minimum, I want to be a tester for at least ten of next year’s comp entries, and also as many works not entered in the comp as I can manage. Next summer, I will actively pursue entrants and badger them to give me beta copies of their games. This is my promise, and I make it here in front of everybody so I won’t have any excuse for forgetting it.

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