Archive for the 'Adventure' Category


80 Days: Reading the Book

Like many games based on existing stories, 80 Days assumes that you’re familiar with the original. That is, you never need to know the original story to figure out what to do next (unlike some games), but it keeps on dropping in references with the expectation that you’ll know their significance. A descendant of Inspector Fix, the detective who pursued Fogg around the world in the mistaken belief that he was a bank robber fleeing justice, repeatedly interferes with your journey in a strange and obsessive attempt to clear his family name by wiping that whole affair from public awareness. The Bombay chapter contains a woman named Aouda and an elephant named Kiouni, just like the book, but here it gets a little strange, because Kiouni is supposed to be the very same elephant as accompanied Fogg (and is now a minor tourist attraction for that reason), while Aouda is definitely a different person: the original was a European-educated Parsee noblewoman, while the game’s version is a minor Bollywood actress, providing the basis for the Bombay chapter’s predicted musical number. (Bollywood? Exactly when is this game supposed to take place, anyway? The answer is that it’s firmly indefinite, and full of gratuitous anachronism. People walk about in Victorian fashions but make modern pop-cultural references. The technology isn’t quite right for any era. It’s all something of a cartoon.) The original Aouda wouldn’t be in India anyway, as she fled with Fogg, fearing death at the hands of fanatics. Is it just a coincidence that you meet someone with the same name? Perhaps not: she’s engaged to Kiouni’s current owner, and I speculate that she chose her screen name after hearing him tell the story of Aouda’s rescue (which he seems to do at the drop of a hat).

Now, when I started the game, I myself wasn’t really familiar with the book. I had never read it, nor seen any of its numerous film adaptations, and had no idea who Inspector Fix and Aouda were. But the game’s name-dropping convinced me to read it, if only to appreciate the game better. It turns out to be a reasonably short book, and I’m currently about halfway through it. So the details are quite fresh in my mind as I play through the equivalent sections of the game. They are of course quite different, in both details and tone. The game is considerably wackier, and this comes as no surprise. (For crying out loud, the last chapter I completed, on the train out of Bombay, had a vampire in it.) But Verne is something of a literary caricaturist, and he portrays Fogg’s meticulous habits, unvarying down-to-the-minute daily schedule, and implacable faith in his ability to account for any unforseen obstacles with something that I’d also call cartoonish exaggeration. (In fact, he reminds me a bit of the DCAU version of the Clock King.) The one aspect of Fogg’s character that I find the most interesting, from a narrative point of view, is his utter lack of curiosity about the world he’s racing around. He’s shown as never leaving the boat or train he’s on unless absolutely forced to. He’s not on this mission to sightsee, he’s on it to win a bet. And that’s interesting because it’s at odds with what the reader, or player, wants. We’re here to sightsee. So it’s little wonder that Passepartout, Fogg’s servant, winds up being the viewpoint character for much of the novel. The game gets around the problem by giving us a completely different character, with completely different motivations, ones that force him to engage the environment. For Fogg, Bombay is just a stop between Suez and Calcutta, a place where he gets off a boat and onto a train. For Oliver, it’s a destination, a place with hidden treasure in the form of one of Uncle Mathew’s patent papers.

80 Days: Wasting Time

Now, I called 80 Days “puzzle-light”. And I stand by that: this is not a game about figuring things out or coming to realizations that transform your understanding of your situation, unless it’s a realization about how to reach point B from point A. When there’s an epiphany to be had, some NPC will have it for you. Nonetheless, it is possible to get stuck and have no idea what to do next. I’ve gotten temporarily stuck twice so far. Just not in ways that the designers intended.

My first sticking-point was the one that ended my efforts with the game back in 2006. It turned out to be entirely due to the game being finnicky about mantling (pulling yourself up onto a chest-high block or wall with your arms). You do it by pressing the space bar, which is the jump button, but you have to be just the right distance from the thing you’re mantling onto, and perfectly square with it, or you just jump in place. The game is just as fussy when it comes to climbing ladders, but at least a ladder is obviously climbable, which encourages one to keep trying, whereas it’s not obvious at first that mantling is possible at all. So when I encountered the first place where it was necessary — in a ruined Egyptian tomb, which is kind of appropriate, considering what a Tomb Raider-ish move it is — I gave up trying too soon. This time around, I was more determined to get through the game.

The second was on the dirigible I took from Cairo to Bombay, which turned out to be a lengthy chapter in its own right, and in some ways more satisfying than the Cairo chapter: the smaller space to explore makes for a tighter design and a better sense of place, and the glimpses of the ground below, hazy with distance, are handled very well. At one point, a rare bird called a “zeron”, exotic but ungainly, gets stuck in the rigging, and Oliver has to climb out onto the superstructure to free it. Now, the main vessel’s gondola has long struts extending from either side, on which mini-blimps are docked like dinghies. One of these mini-blimps was in my way, and I could not for the life of me figure out how to get past it. After spending far too much time stuck there, I finally looked online for hints, only to find that no one else seemed to even regard it as a problem. Even then, I thought there must be some trick I was missing until I found a video playthrough in which the player just crouched and crawled under the thing, just like I had been trying but failing to do. Fortunately, the mere act of alt-tabbing out of the game to google for help seemed to somehow jar something loose, and I was able to continue from that point. (I’ve gone back and retried this, and it doesn’t work consistently. But it works a great deal better than not doing it.)

After getting through a part where you spent a lot of time stuck, the natural next step is to reload the last checkpoint and go through it again, but do it quickly this time. After all, the game has a time limit, and a day/night cycle and on-screen clock to constantly remind you of it. At least, it does if you choose to play it that way; you get a choice of three levels of difficulty at the beginning, and the time limit is waived in the easiest one. The manual suggests playing in this mode “if you want to peacefully explore the world”, which is normally how I like to play adventure games, but it just seems wrong here. This is a game that’s named after its time limit. There’s a whole major mechanic involving an energy meter that you can replenish by resting (which costs time) or eating food (which costs money), and easy mode bypasses that entirely. This is clearly not how this game is supposed to be played.

But then again, look at how I’m playing it instead: reverting to saves in order to do things more optimally, hoarding time the way I’d hoard ammo in a different game. This can’t be the way the game is supposed to be played either. The time limit is there to be raced against, not brute-forced away. One of the more colorful user interface features is a track that lets you compare your progress to Phileas Fogg’s, showing both your progress and his on the current day of the voyage. It’s a little weird if interpreted literally, because Fogg’s progress was different from yours. How do you compare your progress at rescuing the zeron to Fogg’s progress doing nothing of the kind? But the real meaning of the track is clear: Fogg made it in 80 days, so as long as your token isn’t lagging behind his, you’re progressing fast enough. I should probably take that to heart.

80 Days: The Song of Scheherezade

What kind of game is 80 Days? I’ll tell you what kind of game it is. It is the kind of game that contains song-and-dance routines.

Most of the game’s Cairo chapter is spent on a quest chain to locate Uncle Mathew’s lost patent papers. I imagine the other chapters will be similar; the patent-hunt gives the game the excuse it needs to make you stick around in each city for a while rather than immediately dashing off to the next spot on the itinerary in an effort to meet the 80-day deadline. The first patent turns out to be encased, for some reason, in a bauble of smash-proof glass. The only way to break in to retrieve it is through the resonating screeches of a cantankerous local diva, stage-named Scheherezade. Once you have the document, you have no more reason to stick around Cairo, but just before you leave, Scheherezade puts on a production number, singing a summary of what’s happened so far to a pop tune used previously in the background music, with a chorus line of random NPCs doing a campy walk-like-an-Egyptian dance in CGI unison.

At this point, I suspect that each chapter — there seem to be four — will end in a similar musical number. And I’m warming to the notion as I write this, but it was honestly a little painful to sit through the first time. I’m reminded a little of the banal doggerel scattered through The Bard’s Tale (2004) and a little of the bizarre little French music video that turns up without warning at the end of MDK. The former is cheese, the latter is camp, and 80 Days lies somewhere between them.

80 Days

80 Days (Frogwares, 2005) is of course based on the novel Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne. As with the Verne adaptations Return to Mysterious Island and The Mystery of the Nautilus, it’s a sequel rather than a retelling, with a new protagonist, which gives the designers the freedom to make whatever additions they like. In the case of 80 Days, that mostly means silliness. The player character, Oliver Lavisheart, isn’t just retracing Phileas Fogg’s famous voyage, he’s hunting for documents lost by his uncle, an eccentric inventor, which provides the designers an excuse to fill the game with wacky steampunk contraptions. For example, you can go about your daily business riding in a monowheel if you like, although I can’t honestly recommend it.

In form, the game is more or less a puzzle-light adventure game in a GTA-ish free-roaming third-person 3D engine, complete with quest arrows on the minimap. What I’ve seen of the gameplay isn’t very open-world, though. Rather, it’s a linear series of missions that remind me a lot of the non-combat quests in World of Warcraft. “Find four men wearing kilts”, you’re told, or “Sneak to your hotel, avoiding customs officials”. In other words, it’s the kind of stuff that gets put into games to keep the shooting or platforming or whatever from becoming too monotonous and one-dimensional, except that here, it’s all there is.

And that’s probably a big part of why the overall feel of the game is so clunky. The translation job also contributes to this, especially when it’s trying to be funny. (Yes, of course the game was originally in French. Who else but the French makes games of Verne?) And this clunkiness is ultimately why I stopped playing back in 2006 without having even got through Cairo, the first chapter. I’ve gotten a little bit past that point already, and will go into more detail in my next post.

For now, I have just a couple of quick installation notes. I was alarmed to find on first launching the game that the opening logo movies got stuck on single frames of animation, and no amount of tweaking of settings seemed to fix this. This is not the sort of problem I expect from a game released in the mid-2000’s! Fortunately, it turns out to only affect the opening logos; all cutscenes within the game are handled in-engine, not as FMV. Other than that, I had some slight problems with lines of dialog getting truncated (at the beginning, oddly enough), but the standard solution of turning off hardware acceleration in dxdiag fixed that.

Apollo 18+20

Twenty years ago this year, a band called They Might Be Giants released one of their better-regarded albums, Apollo 18. In celebration of this anniversary, Kevin Jackson-Mead organized a “tribute album” of short text adventures, one for each song, by various authors, including myself: I did “My Evil Twin”. The full package was released two weeks ago, and got mentioned on various major websites like rockpapershotgun and metafilter. This is about as good as publicity for IF gets these days, but, as one of the participants, I found the coverage unsatisfying, lacking commentary and analysis. Now that I’ve played all the games, mostly to successful conclusions, it’s time to redress that.

Now, if you’re familiar with the album, you might be wondering about Fingertips. Fingertips is the musical equivalent of WarioWare: a sequence of songs about ten seconds long each, with clashing styles and humorously enigmatic lyrics. Rather than simply presenting this as a medley that you listen to as a unit, the CD had each of the songs on a separate track, and encouraged the listener to play the entire album on shuffle — and I can report from personal experience that it’s even more effective to shuffle them into a larger and more varied music collection, so that, say, a Philip Glass composition or one of Satie’s piano pieces might be followed by John Flansburgh belting out “What’s That Blue Thing Doing Here?” and then falling silent.

Yes, each Fingertips song gets its own game. But to imitate the form of the songs, there was a rule that they had to end after only one move. This is a formal restriction that actually has some precedent in IF. Sam Barlow’s Aisle (1999) was the trailblazer, demonstrating the narrative possibilities of a single move, and Rematch, written by Andrew Pontious the following year, surprised everyone by showing that the same structure could make for an elaborate and deeply-implemented puzzle game. But that’s about as far as the experimentation went; in the decade-plus since Rematch, the only other one-move games I’ve seen have been a few joke items, mostly parodies of Aisle. That means that the 21 Fingertips games now form the majority of this sub-genre.

Mind you, some of them really strain the one-move descriptor. There are a couple that let you examine objects freely, only counting it as a move when you take an action that affects things. A lot of them rely on iteration — for example, the adaptation of the initial “Fingertips” (a song that consists of the word “Fingertips” repeated four times over a banjo accompaniement) uses a time-loop premise to excuse the fact that the player has to spend several turns examining objects, taking inventory, and so forth in order to figure out the one command that averts the destruction of the space station you’re on. Although each move is followed by a paragraph describing the station blowing up, it feels more like a single multi-turn playthrough. Mind you, Aisle and Rematch were also heavily based on iteration, but it somehow seems less right to expect the player to keep on entering commands for ten minutes when you’re adapting a ten-second song. And while some of the Fingertips games really are over after a single command, some of them took me longer to bring to a satisfactory conclusion than some of the non-Fingertips games in the collection.

Mind you, the one Fingertip that kept me occupied the longest, Who’s Knocking On the Wall, not only didn’t rely on iteration, it actively discouraged iteration: the whole thing is an elaborate randomly-generated logic puzzle, which gets re-randomized on each attempt, making all your reasoning worthless the moment you make a wrong guess. This is one of the more technically impressive works in the collection, despite its constraints and despite the narrow range of input it accepts.

As for the rest of the songs on the album, the game authors took a variety of approaches. Some attempted to base their story on the song, others took greater liberties, and one or two just launch into a puzzle environment with a vague connection to the song’s title. That last category definitely contains Turn Around, but I say “one or two” because Space Suit is a special case: based on an instrumental, it has no lyrics to adapt. But at least it presents a strange enough environment that you can easily imagine the song playing in the background, which is actually a fairly rare thing in these games — I know I personally didn’t make much effort to make my game fit the tune as well as the words. The Guitar (The Lion Sleeps Tonight) is of particular note in that it not only tells a story that unites the song’s nonsensical lyrics, it also imitates the song’s structure: just as the song alternates between two sections with different styles and different vocalists, the game shunts you back and forth between two player characters in different, but linked, situations. I Palindrome I, by noted palindromist Nick Montfort, links to its song solely through its form, ignoring its vague suggestion of a story about filial antagonism and menacing intergenerational patterns in favor of just palindroming it up.

The thing is, the vagueness of TMBG’s lyrics makes it difficult to say for sure in some cases what’s a result of disregarding the song and what’s a sincere difference of interpretation. Discussions with friends back in the day revealed disagreement about whether “Spider” was about a guy named Spider or a literal spider. The game takes the latter view, but also makes spiders the villains rather than the hero, which is something that hadn’t even occurred to me: the line “Spider!” followed by “He is our hero” seemed pretty clear, but the whole song is a collage of samples, so I can see how someone else would consider the two lines completely disconnected. Narrow Your Eyes strikes me as pretty far from the spirit of the song, which is about a disintegrating relationship, much like such other TMBG songs as “They’ll Need a Crane” and “I’ve Got a Match”. The game instead has the PC racing to a wedding rehearsal, the only obstacle being a supervillain who gets in his way. The thing is, despite this drastic shift of tone, the game does take care to imitate superficial details from the lyrics (where it provides details to imitate), which raises the possibility that the author simply didn’t see the song the same way I did (although lines like “Our love’s never coming back” make me doubt that). It’s certainly in the spirit of other TMBG songs.

In one case, I have to admit that my own view of the song is probably the weird and atypical one: I’ve never really seen the experience described in “The Statue Got Me High” as a bad one. Sure, it talks about being killed and set on fire, but it also talks about being dissatisfied with human company afterward, which makes the whole dying-and-burning thing seem metaphorical. And this is the sort of metaphor used in describing mystical or religious experiences. This is the same album that contains “See the Constellation”, which describes looking at the stars and having a vision of being the stars looking at yourself on the ground below (an idea disappointingly ignored by its more prosaic game adaptation); a song about experiencing a personal transformation on looking at a work of art would not be out of place here. Mind you, the final stanza about the fire engine and the charred and smoking chair kind of goes against this interpretation. At any rate, the game adaptation takes the death and the burning literally. But I can’t complain about the result, which is to my mind the most brilliant use of the medium in the entire collection. Essentially, the game gives you a situation with no apparent connection to the title, with a clear goal, a puzzle and clues to focus your mind on. And then, just when you have enough information to start making progress, the statue renders it all irrelevant. This is very much in the spirit of the song even in my weird interpretation: whatever it is you think is really going on in those lyrics, the narrator’s encounter with the statue changes everything for him.

I suppose one of the biggest challenges for the authors was coming up with goals and motivations. Even when TMBG’s songs aren’t outright nonsensical, they’re usually more descriptive than narrative. “Dinner Bell” and “Mammal” consist largely of lists of things, and so both were adapted into treasure-hunts; the strange part is that in both cases the authors motivate it by adding on a premise involving oppression by animals, something that wasn’t a factor in the songs at all. “She’s Actual Size” is basically just words of idiosyncratic praise for an unnamed woman, and I’m still not entirely sure what’s supposed to be going on in the game.

I speak of the vagueness, the nonsense, and the lack of obvious goals in the lyrics as challenges for the authors, and this may have given you the impression that some other album, from a different band, would have made a better basis for such a project. But from a player’s point of view, these attributes are strengths. They make for a greater variability than adaptations from a more narrative source would, and that leaves the player guessing wondering what on earth the game version of, for example, “Which Describes How You’re Feeling All The Time” will be like. (It turns out to be a fast-paced word game.) It also has me inevitably thinking about how I would have adapted the same songs. I think the only game that’s more or less the same as my imagined version is Fingertips: I Don’t Understand You, because the joke there is kind of inevitable in an IF context. I already had specific plans for If I Wasn’t Shy and Fingertips: I Walk Along Darkened Corridors from before they were claimed by other participants, but it was only after playing Fingertips: What’s That Blue Thing Doing Here? and seeing how far it was from my expectations that I realized I had expectations for it, and consequently clarified those expectations in my mind to something like a design. I almost feel like I want the whole project to be run again so I can get some of my ideas into more concrete form.

Ah, but that would take away from the time to work on genuinely new projects. Better to tackle a different album. Anyone up for Flood?

Demoniak: Giving Up at Getting Started

Today, another random pick from my catalog of titles I own on CD-ROM.

Demoniak is one of the few commercially-published text adventures I own but haven’t completed. Created by comics writer Alan Grant in 1991, it’s a sci-fi/superhero story mostly remembered for the novelty that it let the player switch control at any time to any character — even antagonists. I obtained it some years after its original release, when Memorex of all companies re-released it in a 2-pack CD-ROM bundle with Darkseed, a graphic adventure based on the paintings of H. R. Giger.

This was clearly a hasty bit of shovelware, because it failed to account for Demoniak’s copy protection. It uses a key word system: at some randomized point within the first dozen or so turns, it prompts the player to type in the Xth word from line Y of page Z of the manual, and refuses to proceed until you get it right. Memorex provided the entire contents of the manual as a text file, but since it’s not paginated, this is of limited use. (Plus, the game occasionally asks for a word from something other than the manual, such as the box or the diskettes.) I suspect that few people noticed this problem. The people responsible for the package presumably tried at most a command or two to make sure that it was working, and probably most of the customers quit the moment they realized that it was a text adventure, something that the packaging tried to obscure.

I already knew all this when I pulled it from my box of games abandoned for technical reasons, but I was hoping that the internet would help me. I mean, it’s 2012. Someone, somewhere, had to have either cracked this game or posted a list of the key words somewhere. Alas, the internet failed me. Even when I found Demoniak on abandonware sites, it was uncracked, and accompanied by less documentation than Memorex provided.

There was a time when my usual response to key word copy protection would be to hack it out. Generally speaking, it’s the easiest kind of copy protection to hack: somewhere in the code, there’s got to be a point where it compares your input to a target string and conditionally branches to success or failure, so once you’ve identified that point (by tracing through the execution with an assembly-language debugger), all you have to do is replace the conditional branch with an unconditional one (or a no-op, as appropriate). But a game whose chief mode of interaction is text is likely to process its key word input by the same means as all other input in the game, and messing with the parser seems risky, even if the game isn’t programmed in its own proprietary byte code format like the Infocom games were.

Today, I’ve gone as far as to install a debugger anyway, just so I can look at memory where the game has unpacked its strings and try to find something promising. But I’ve had no luck yet. If anyone reading this has access to a Demoniak manual, or any other means of bypassing the copy protection, help would be appreciated. I promise my copy is legitimate.

IFComp 2011: Hat Mystery

OK, something very cool happened last night that people watching the IF Comp from the outside should be told about. An enigmatic post appeared on the forum at int.fiction.org:

No one has yet put together the full truth. Will the man with the hat ever be redeemed?

(signed) Lyman Clive Charles, Pam Comfite, Cameron Fox, and Edmund Wells.

The four signers are the authors of Cold Iron, Playing Games, Last Day of Summer, and Doctor M, respectively. Since Edmund Wells was known to be a pseudonym, it seemed likely that the other three were as well.

This sparked excited discussion on IFmud, the MUD were various IF authors and enthusiasts gather. No one seems to have suspected a connection between them beforehand, but once you isolate them like this, some patterns jump out. Yes, all four involve a mysterious stranger in a vaguely-described hat — although in Doctor M, the one where he plays the largest role, he isn’t wearing the hat when you meet him; he’s lost it and you have to find it for him. Which links to another commonality: in all four games, you trade a found item to the stranger for something else. Furthermore, the items are repeated from game to game: you trade a pocket watch for a gemstone in Games, a gemstone for a knife in Iron, a knife for a hat in Summer, and a hat for a watch chain in Doctor M. Clearly something was up. Other confirming details became apparent. For example, both Iron and Summer prominently feature a storybook written by a reverend, and a set of four paintings in Doctor M clearly depict scenes from each of the four games, once you’re sensitized to the connection.

A few hours later, a collaborative effort had put together the clues found in all four games and finally redeemed the man in the hat. I won’t go into detail here — Andrew “Zarf” Plotkin has posted a near-complete transcript of the proceedings if you’re interested — but it turns out that some of the games involved contain hints for actions you can perform in other games, some involving details that served no obvious purpose within their own context.

Once the riddle was solved, the authors unmasked themselves. Lyman Clive Charles tuned out to be Zarf himself, who had been discreetly observing the unraveling without comment. This surprised me, because Cold Iron had seemed rather cursory and incomplete, but I suppose that’s because so much of its content was bound up in the hat mystery. Also surprising is that Doctor M is the first released work by its author, Mike Hilborn. I’m looking forward to seeing what he does next.

Apparently the authors were hoping that someone would discover the secret during the Comp, and worried that the clues were too obvious, that people would pick up on the secret too quickly. It’s always hard to judge how difficult a puzzle is without testing it on people, which is difficult for secret puzzles like this one. I recall that Kit Williams, creator of the treasure-hunt book Masquerade, expected it would take a week or two for someone to solve its puzzle and find the jewel, but in the end, even the person who claimed the prize turned out to have cheated.

For my part, I recall noticing two indescribable hats in two of the games I played in close proximity, but thought of it as just a funny coincidence, not worth mentioning in my reviews. The thing is, there were a lot of funny coincidences in this Comp. I myself joked in a previous post about collusion between the authors of all the detective games. I mentioned the odd coincidence of two games about little girls playing hide-and-seek, but I didn’t even realize at the time that both were by Australians. Even the games in the hat mystery have strong connections to ones not involved. Cold Iron and Last Day of Summer both involve a rustic’s relation to a reverend, but so does Beet the Devil, which, like Playing Games, uses a tunnel hidden by a bush to divide the prologue from the midgame. (If I had noticed this during the Comp, I probably would have wasted some time searching Beet the Devil for that storybook.) Furthermore, 38 games is a lot, so without that nudge advising us to look at that group of four together, we didn’t really have a foothold. The nudge, however, is all it took.

Trauma

I am a bundle junkie. That much is clear by now. My Stack has been growing by leaps and bounds lately, and it’s all due to the proliferation of bundles. In the final days of the Comp, two prominent time-limited pay-what-you-want indie bundles approached their deadlines, one Humble, the other Royale. And I had no points left to obtain them under the terms of the Oath. Despite not having particulately cared about the games involved before they were bundled, my reaction was to step up on the Comp-playing to get that out of the way so I could focus on finishing something for the sake of affording the new stuff.

Time to crate: about two seconds if you choose this dream first.Trauma seemed ideal for this purpose: it’s by all accounts short, and it is itself something I obtained in a recent bundle. Also, it seems a lot like a Comp game, in both length and content. The premise is that it’s the dreams of a woman recovering from a road accident, although that framing isn’t terribly relevant to the content of the dreams, except to the extent that it gives them an extra poignance, and makes it clear that this person really does have genuine problems just now. Without that, the frustrated and defeated tone of the voice-overs might come off as whiny. 1The voice-overs are handled extremely well, by the way: they’re provoked by your looking at things, but they don’t interrupt your ability to look at other things at all. They just queue up if necessary. One of the dreams is about following a well-marked road that ultimately turns out to just go in circles, a clear metaphor for her concerns about her life’s direction. Another involves going off the beaten path looking for a road less traveled, but it turns out to be just as circular as the first, just more difficult to follow. For the PC, merely living is extremely difficult right now, and she’s wondering if it’s worth the effort.

It’s very slickly produced, especially in the cutscenes of the protagonist talking with her doctor that you get after completing each dream, featuring close shots of the her fingers and eyes in such sharp focus that it looks like they were shot through a microscope. Mainly, though, I see it as an experiment in form. It’s more or less a Mystlike, only simpler — which is saying something, because Myst itself was a drastic simplification of the adventure game. And, like the first wave of Mystlikes, exploration is a matter of clicking around between still images — there’s some spot animation, but not a lot. Hovering the cursor over a movement hotspot superimposes a fuzzy version of its destination over the scene, like an out-of-focus photograph, and like a photograph, it’s presented as a 2D image, rotated in 3D space to match the angle you’d be observing it from. It even acknowledges the photographic nature of the graphics by playing the click of a camera whenever you move from one to another.

The photography theme continues into the game content: in each of the game’s four dreams, there are nine polaroids scattered around, tacked to trees and the like. Some of them are pictures of moments from the protagonist’s life, sush as her first day at law school. Some show mouse gestures you’ll need to perform special actions — each dream has exactly one, but you can find alternate endings by using the gestures from each dream at appropriate spots in the others. And some give hints about how to do this by showing those spots, tying together scenarios that are otherwise self-contained, apart from thematic unity. Finding all nine photos in each dream is an optional extra challenge. Finding all the alternate endings gives you a proximity-to-photograph sense that helps with this, a very gamic element in what’s otherwise mostly an interactive art piece.

The angles between vantage points are freeform enough that I sometimes had difficulty navigating, particularly in the fourth dream, where much of the area you can explore lacks persistent landmarks. This is a very prevalent problem in Mystlikes, and even the extra feedback you get from the appearance of the rollover smudges doesn’t solve it. That’s pretty much the only difficulty in the game, though. I managed to even find all of the optional extras in a single session.

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1. The voice-overs are handled extremely well, by the way: they’re provoked by your looking at things, but they don’t interrupt your ability to look at other things at all. They just queue up if necessary.

IFComp 2011 Conclusions

As mentioned previously, the Comp results are up already. (I managed to play through the last of the games a couple of days ago, but I’ve been slow to write up my thoughts for this blog.) First place went to Taco Fiction, which isn’t a big surprise; I myself gave it the highest score this year. Six was second, and The Play was third, an amazingly high showing for web-based CYOA. Doctor M took the Banana, and richly deserves it.

The obvious big pattern this year was of course the private eye, but that accounts for only four of the 38 entries: PataNoir, Schlig, Camelot, and Falcon. It strikes me that we had something of a stealth theme in religion. Aside from the two blatantly biblical games, we had four games (Beet, Calm, Summer, Iron) that had clergy of some sort as prominent background characters, seen or unseen. Benevolent background characters, at that. That’s a break from tradition. Back when IF was all about exploring dungeons, if you found a chapel or a shrine, it was a safe bet that it was used for the unholy rites of unspeakable and demonic gods, and probably human sacrifice as well. The only game in that tradition this year is Kerkerkruip.

Anyway, that’s it for this year. Next post, we get back to the Stack. I’ve already got some play to report on, days late.

IFComp 2011: Escape from Santaland

Well, the Comp is over, and the results have just been posted over at ifcomp.org. But I still have one more review to belatedly write. And even though the Comp rules no longer require me to put my spoilers after a break, I might as well maintain consistency here.

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