In December 2008, I was invited to grade and review the games participating in the Concours d'aventures textuelles a.k.a. French Minicomp 2008. Hopefully I wasn't too unfair. I wrote in English for two reasons: my French is rusted shut, and I expected French coverage to be good anyway.
Le Loup, la Chèvre et la Salade
This game's title translates to "The Wolf, the Goat, and the Salad" and consists of a well-known logic problem implemented as interactive fiction. Needless to say, it is very small. There is no prose to speak of, and the game only allows the strictly necessary actions. On the plus side, all objects are described, hints are given, and I couldn't take the scenery. On the minus side, there was a guess-the-verb issue (my fault, maybe — it's French after all), and the intermediary location in the middle of the river is pointless.
Since "Le loup..." is more a Z-Machine abuse than interactive fiction, giving it a grade is difficult. Say, 6 (passable) across the board, simply because I expected more.
While the English interactive fiction community regards long, ellaborate works as an ideal, French authors seem to prefer small but well-made games (Ekphrasis being the exception that strengthens the rule). Brume is an escape-the-locked-room puzzle, very simple, but almost flawless. Except for a couple of unimplemented objects and an overwrought blurb, I have no complaint.
The game is made to convey a particular mood, and it does so with a carefully designed environment and short, well-written descriptions. The timed mood messages and occasional sudden deaths (they're undoable...) help, too. The puzzles are very basic, which is just the way I like them, but since the game is so small, more red herrings would not have been out of place. The author has clearly mastered the basics of text adventure authoring. I recommend just a little more ambition next time.
As for grades, I'll give it an 8 (solid) for artistic impression and a 7 (competent) for writing and programming, respectively. Brume is nicely done, but hardly remarkable by my standards. The final grade is 7.5.
Lettres Volées ("Stolen Letters") is the kind of game you can't write much about without giving spoilers. Let's just say it's a game in which you're not moving in space but in time. That's very rare in IF, despite the fact that time tracking is well-supported by Inform, at the very least.
Essentially, we're talking about a one-room game where descriptions change constantly. As time passes, you remember more relevant information about the surrounding objects, and you're offered more things to do with them. As a nice touch, the location itself is only described indirectly, through said objects. Artistically speaking, this works very well. Lettres volées does a great job of setting a mood and making an indirectly-discovered world come to life.
On the minus side, what I'm supposed to do in the game is despicable. I had to turn to the solution to even realize what was expected of me, and I still don't understand why I should be interested in doing it. And what's with all the waiting? I know there's a reason for it, but the third or fourth time it's no longer funny. Either I'm not on the author's wavelength, or else Lettres... needs a lot more clues. And I mean in-game, not in the hint system!
I could not reach the end in time for the voting deadline, (or afterwards, for that matter) but I hope to return to it someday, if only to see what other surprises the game has in store. It's a 9 (excellent) for artistic impression, an 8 (solid) for programming and another 8 for writing, for an 8.5 total.
Not all text adventures have to be fiction, and Survivre is very honest about its true nature: an interactive survival guide. Or rather, the beginnings of one. There is only minimal text; the large size of the story file is due to a couple of photographs serving as a front cover of sorts. I think several informative pictures shown during the game would have been a better use of those bits. More detailed text is in order, too: much of what was in the help should have been in the actual game. Oh, and please do something about those default library messages, they are quite noticeable. E.g. why can't I go in certain directions? There has to be a reason.
To end in a positive note, it's good to see an IF authoring system used in such a novel way. I happen to be interested in the subject matter, and I'd gladly try a more detailed version.
My grades? Argh... As I said, Survivre is not literature. Tough, tough. Perhaps a 7 (competent) for artistic impression, and a 6 (passable) for both programming and writing, giving a 6.5 total.
Le donjon aux 1001 dangers et mystères
This game was completed in a hurry and entered very late in the competition. As a result, most voters (myself included) didn't even realize it was in, so Le donjon... ended up last. I'm reviewing it now — three months later — for the sake of completeness, and also because I still feel guilty.
Unlike the others, this game is a multiple choice adventure. That wouldn't be a problem, but it uses a platform intended for visual novels, which pretty much requires graphics. Here, the absence is jarring. Using the Inform MCA library (yes there is such a thing), or even plain HTML would have yelded a more polished result and would have been more portable and accessible to boot.
The gameworld is a surreal mix of elements from famous tales. Descriptions are minimal and vague. Each node seems to have only one "correct" choice, with the others leading to sudden death or else to the initial location (which is the same thing minus a couple of clicks). There are not clues as to which choices are correct, but the game isn't very long, so it can be solved by trial and error. Needless to say, that's not very satisfactory, but there you have it.
Grading the game, so long after the competition, would seem odd. Actually, I'm surprised I wrote so much about it. Perhaps because I'd like to see more interactive fiction in non-traditional formats.
All four Inform games provide basic help and hints and/or an inline walkthrough. None of them has even an attempt at NPCs, but they all have something novel in their use of the medium. Le donjon..., unfortunately, is in a category of its own, mostly in bad ways.
I'm sorry if my grades seem too small. Lettres Volées is a good game. The others are good beginnings. I don't know if they are debuts (I'm not familiar with the French IF scene), but that's how they feel. Besides, I had to differentiate them somehow. I hope the authors will develop them further.
For a second opinion, you may want to read Jacqueline A. Lott's reviews as well.