Archive for October, 2009

Inside Woman: Nanci

The Utopia Arcology is essentially a city in a tower, and like many urban games, Inside Woman has you tour the city and all it has to offer by starting in the slums and working your way up. There’s a point where you have to earn some money to progress, so you wangle a job slinging pizza. This lasts for one shift: once you’ve had the experience of solving pizza-serving puzzles, there’s no reason to revisit it. It’s time to move on up to the museum and the university and suchlike. Paying your dues to increase your status — it’s like a highly abbreviated American dream, except that you’re doing it to destroy the system from within.

Just in case you forget this, your sidekick makes occasional heavy-handed comments reminding you how evil everything around you is. I haven’t mentioned the sidekick yet: it’s the disembodied voice of a teenage boy, code-named NANCI, or Nanci for short. We’re told in the beginning that Nanci is an agent assigned to monitor you via a nanomechanical transceiver you’ve ingested. He can see through your eyes, hear through your ears, think perverted thoughts during your gratuitous shower scene 1I say “gratuitous shower scene” because that phrase has become an idiom, but I suppose it’s not really gratuitous here. It occurs when you go through decontamination on entering the arcology, so it’s not out of place. The clothing you bring with you is removed and a standard-issue Utopia jumpsuit issued standardly in its place, which seems like it’s done at least as much for its psychological impact as for public health issues, and the moment of nudity also seems like an important part of the experience as well — the almighty security guards want you to leave your first encounter with them feeling vulnerable and humiliated. You could even invoke myth here: like Inanna entering the underworld, she gives her garments to the threshold guardian before descending into the perils below. Still, none of this makes it less pervy. — he’s a lot like the player, in fact.

As a wisecracking commentator with no physical presence 2I leave it up to the reader to decide what this phrase modifies., Nanci unavoidably reminds me of Arthur, the AI sidekick in The Journeyman Project 2: Buried in Time. I hated Arthur. Let me tell you about my experience with Arthur, and how it was optimized to maximize hate. In JP2, you don’t start off with sidekick Arthur: you have to solve a sequence of puzzles to obtain him, and once you have him, he’s essential to solving other puzzles. I failed to notice a hotspot in the game’s hub that was supposed to lead to encountering him for the first time. Consequently, I played as much of the game as it’s possible to play without him — maybe 1/3 of the game can be explored this way — then got stuck. (So already my first encounter with him is associated him with a bad experience.) When I finally got him, I was horrified at how he transformed the game. I had been enjoying the quiet, lonely atmosphere. I didn’t want it sprinkled with stupid jokes and insultingly unnecessary hints.

Nanci is better than that, though. He seldom speaks spontaneously — just on important plot developments, which, at the rate I’m going, occupy a small minority of my playtime. Usually he’s silent until you explicitly request information about something, which you do by simply focusing your attention on it with the “focus on” command. It’s like a third alternative to “examine” and “search”! I don’t think I’ve seen anything yet where Nanci yields essential new information, but he does at least provide the guidance of an additional point of view, like examining things with Poet in Suspended.

He doesn’t seem to take much advantage of being on the outside, though — you’d think he could look up information not available to you, contact the relatives of your fellow citizens, things like that. Maybe he’ll get to do that at some point, but so far, he might as well be inside the arcology with me. Which makes me a little suspicious. Maybe we’re headed for a third-act twist here. Maybe the nanomachines I swallowed aren’t a transceiver at all, but an AI. Alternately, maybe he’s just a delusion. The whole mission briefing was told in flashback — it could easily be a false memory. Maybe, just maybe, Alice Ling is nothing more than a dangerous madwoman who hears voices in her head, voices that tell her that Utopia is evil and must be destroyed. But that doesn’t explain where she gets her martial arts skills from.

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1. I say “gratuitous shower scene” because that phrase has become an idiom, but I suppose it’s not really gratuitous here. It occurs when you go through decontamination on entering the arcology, so it’s not out of place. The clothing you bring with you is removed and a standard-issue Utopia jumpsuit issued standardly in its place, which seems like it’s done at least as much for its psychological impact as for public health issues, and the moment of nudity also seems like an important part of the experience as well — the almighty security guards want you to leave your first encounter with them feeling vulnerable and humiliated. You could even invoke myth here: like Inanna entering the underworld, she gives her garments to the threshold guardian before descending into the perils below. Still, none of this makes it less pervy.
2. I leave it up to the reader to decide what this phrase modifies.

Inside Woman: Adventure!

I vaguely remember watching a drama about Hollywood some years ago. At one point someone mentioned something about a “film” to a studio mogul, only to be corrected: “Films are for the French. I make movies.” And that summarized the difference in what the two characters wanted to do with the medium.

Something similar could be said about Andy Phillips. The term “Interactive Fiction”, despite its history, connotes artsy, experimental stuff — it’s just barely removed from “Electronic Literature”. At a time when indie games are entering the mainstream, IF is indier than indie. Phillips doesn’t write IF. He writes adventure games.

At one point I wanted to remove a nail from a wall, previously used to hang a calendar. After unsuccessfully trying to pull and twist it out, I tried breaking it, and was surprised that my character snapped it off with a single swift downward kick. I don’t know why I was surprised. She’s a secret agent of the Chinese military. Of course she has martial arts skills. This is an adventure game.

Interactive Fiction is a collaboration between author and player. An adventure game is more like the player bending to the author’s will. It’s a maze, and you’re the rat. You think you have a reasonable alternate solution that would plausibly work in the real world given the materials at hand? Ha! I scoff at your alternate solutions. You will find the solution that the author wants you to find! Or you will get stuck. That happens to me sometimes. In fact, it happens so much that I’m barely past the point I was at in my last post. I’m still having occasional breakthroughs, and I think they’re all the sweeter for the relief they provide from stuckness. But I’m very much aware that I’m basically playing a guessing game most of the time. The thing that triggers a breakthrough is usually examining a random scenery object, or searching it, or even looking under it. You get used to this, and you make it part of your routine. Fortunately, this gameworld is pretty thoroughly implemented, and examining random scenery objects usually yields more descriptive text.

Inside Woman

And now, the prolific Andy Phillips brings us an epic tale of corporate espionage in the 22nd century. No one’s really sure what goes on inside the Utopia Corporation’s arcology in the flooded ruins of San Francisco, because no one is ever allowed to leave, but things are so desperate elsewhere that a lot of people are willing to take a gamble that it’s better than their lives at home. Alice Ling — not her real name — is hired to infiltrate it by posing as an ordinary refugee in need of work, and my guess is that she’ll probably wind up blowing the place up or sinking it into the sea or something once she’s ferreted out its secrets. You know how reviews of fiction sometimes describe a particular work’s setting as an additional character? I don’t really understand what that means, but but it probably applies here — certainly the Utopia Arcology itself has more personalty than most of the actual people I’ve met there. And it’s not just any character. It’s the antagonist. It’s a 35-story tower of high technology, bright promise, dashed dreams, hidden cameras, and armored security forces.

Phillips has released several games, all of them major, but I have to admit that the only other one I’ve gotten around to playing is his first release, Time: All Things Come to an End. I had very negative comments about it at the time, as did some others, but to his unending credit, Phillips has shown that he can take criticism, and seems genuinely interested in honing his craft. 1I was going to expand on this point, but in the interests of peace, all I’ll say is that I’m really glad I’m not involving myself in the comp this year. Still, I can’t help but think of T:ATCtoE as I play Inside Woman. My chief complaint about the former was its extreme linearity. It was basically formed of a sequence of small areas in which you’d solve a puzzle to proceed to the next small area; there was generally no going back once you had advanced, and that was a big problem, because sometimes puzzles relied on easily-missed items hidden in earlier sections. The early parts of Inside Woman are similarly linear, as you proceed through security and registration and decontamination and so forth. Obviously I don’t know yet whether or not I’ve failed to discover any essential items in now-inaccessible areas, but the game has gone to some length to prevent me from abandoning or destroying essential items once I’ve obtained them, and that inspires a little faith. This linear introductory sequence lasts longer than some entire games, but things do seem to broaden out after a while, as you gain access to more of the arcology’s floors. This is an aspect I quite like: the in-game orientation handbook explicitly lays out for you the different security clearances and what they can access, which gives a structure to the future.

But any judgment I make now is highly tentative. Judging by my score, I’ve only played a bit more than 10% of the game so far. And, having said that, it strikes me that of all the IF I’ve played this month, this is the first to provide a numerical score.

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1. I was going to expand on this point, but in the interests of peace, all I’ll say is that I’m really glad I’m not involving myself in the comp this year.

Game Developers Conference 2009

Game Developers Conference 2009 is the title of an amusing trifle by Jim Munroe, who penned last year’s Everybody Dies. Obviously it’s inspired by his experiences at said con, and it got a certain amount of attention in the indie gaming blogs at the time, largely, I think, because the kind of people who write those blogs are also the kind of people who attend GDC, and it’s flattering to them to see themselves in miniature here.

It has a board-game-like sense of abstraction and proceduralism. The goal is to put together a small game-development team before the convention ends. You attract people to your project (or, if you’re unlucky, repel them from it) by talking to them about common interests: things like “2D physics” and “pixel art” and “micropayments” that you can learn about by attending talks or just talking to other characters about them. But these are just tokens stored in a per-character interest inventory, devoid of content beyond the buzzword. Which may well be the point.

To win the game, your team has to have people filling four roles: a designer, a coder, an artist, and a promoter. The role of every character, including the player, is randomly assigned per session. In the course of several playthroughs, I found that most of the time one or another of these roles was mysteriously rare, or completely absent. Intuitively, it seems like Munroe must be stacking the deck here, but I think the math involved is just a little unintuitive. There are eleven characters (again including the player), and four roles. If my calculations are correct — and they may well not be — there is an 83% chance that all roles are available, but only a 33% chance that all roles are filled by more than one character. So about two thirds of the time, the game will turn into a hunt for the indispensable unique guy, and more a quarter of the time that it does, he won’t even exist. One time, however, I managed to render one of the roles unnecessary by picking up some extra skills at a lecture. So I suppose the author was aware of the problem.

Make It Good: Inversion

Ending discussed in some detail below. Let the dance of the spoilers begin!

I recall seeing a joke somewhere that Infocom had planned to follow up their mystery titles Witness and Suspect with the natural completions, Murderer and Victim. I have some ideas for how to do a mystery game where you’re the murder victim — chiefly revolving around struggling, in your final moments, to leave clues in such a way that the murderer won’t be able to dispose of them before the detective arrives — but Murderer has been rendered redundant.

So, we’re playing the part of a bad guy. I’m up for that. I’ve done it plenty of times before. It does change things, though. In a typical mystery, your goal is to reveal the truth, and here, that’s the last thing you want. It’s pretty much the opposite of a mystery: you spend your time concealing evidence, fabricating new evidence, creating plausible lies without being caught doing it. In the Infocom mysteries, sending Duffy to take items to the lab was always purely a way to obtain information, and the span he spent away was a liability, eating into your time limit. Here, I frequently sent Joe off on frivolous analysis errands just to get him out of my hair for a while so I could do my dirty work, or to keep him from talking to the suspects. Ultimately, it’s easy enough to destroy all trace of your involvement in the crime, but that’s not enough. For the sake of your career, you have to send someone else to prison.

In fact, you can plant enough evidence to make a good case against two different innocents 1At least in the sense that they’re innocent of murder. Everyone’s guilty of something., the housemaid Emilia and her boyfriend Anthony. Good enough to make an arrest, that is, but the charge won’t stick without a confession. And that’s the tricky part — extracting a confession from someone who knows it’s a lie, and knows that all they have to do to make your case fall apart is not confess. What would make a person do that?

Love, of course. That and a sense of guilt. Through careful presentation of the right evidence items, and only the right ones, I found I could make Emilia believe that Anthony was the real culprit — and by answering her questions very carefully, I could convince her that she bore responsibility for driving him to it. Once this was accomplished, all I needed to do is arrest Anthony, and Emilia demanded that she be taken instead. It took quite a lot of finagling to get the manipulation of Emilia just right. If she had the least bit of hope left at the end, she would cling to it all the tighter, and all would be lost. This was by far the most troubling part of the game. It’s one thing to say “I’m going to be evil and frame someone for my crimes”, and quite another to methodically break down another person until she’s willing to throw her life away, watching her get more desperate with each lie you tell her. I can imagine a more sensitive person than myself, or a less completist one, giving up in disgust at this point.

Reading a walkthrough afterward, I find that there were major tasks that others assumed to be necessary but which I had skipped: some of Anthony’s clothes lie discarded in Emilia’s bedroom, and I never thought of stashing items in the pockets so that Emilia would find them and think they were Anthony’s. Apparently doing this somehow makes it possible to arrest Emilia directly, too, without tricking her into confessing by arresting Anthony. This would make certain other parts of the game simpler: my solution required court-admissible evidence against both Anthony (to justify his attempted arrest) and Emilia (to make her confession believable), and that made things pretty tight. At any rate, it’s good to know that the game supports multiple solutions. I just hope that other people realize this.

After the collar, there follows an epilogue which provides another twist revelation. Yes, your role in the case isn’t what you thought it was at the beginning, but it also isn’t what you thought it was after you realized that it wasn’t what you thought it was. I’m not sure what to think of this, or what the point of it is. It certainly doesn’t exonerate the PC — you still knowingly sent a woman to prison for a murder she didn’t commit, among other things. I think I’ll take it as commentary on the genre. Mystery games are all about figuring things out from the evidence available, but according to this game, you can’t be sure your assumptions are right even after you’ve rejected your initial assumptions.

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1. At least in the sense that they’re innocent of murder. Everyone’s guilty of something.

Make It Good: Oh My God

It turns out that this game isn’t what it seems at first glance, and more sophisticated than I gave it credit for. It’s impossible to discuss this without spoilers, so spoilers we shall have.

It’s interesting how the big twist works here: there isn’t any particular moment of revelation. Just a whole lot of little hints that you’ll probably ignore or rationalize away at first, because they don’t fit your expectations. For example, the murder weapon. The first time I found it, I sent it back to the lab for fingerprinting, only to be told that I must have handled it without gloves on, because the only clear prints are my own. So I started over, this time taking care to don gloves before handling anything. The lab results were the same. Well, okay, finding useful prints on the weapon would have made the game too easy, but as far as I could tell, there’s no way my own prints could have wound up on there. Clearly someone was tampering with the results — who and why, I could only guess. But if someone on the force didn’t want this case to be solved, it explained why they had assigned an incompetent sot like the player character to investigate it. And that hypothesis seemed good enough, and dramatic enough, that I didn’t even consider the more straightforward but less welcome explanation.

(It’s worth noting in passing an alternate explanation that I considered but rejected: that perhaps the seemingly-inappropriate report was simply a bug in the game. Certainly there are plenty of games where that would have been my first assumption. This is a good example of the benefits of keeping the player’s trust. It lets you get away with suspicious behavior.)

There are several clues of that sort, things that don’t line up until you shift your perspective. Probably the biggest one is the note from the victim to his blackmailer, found in the glove compartment of the detective’s car and described as having shown up in your office yesterday. There’s a nice bit of gating around that: the catch on the compartment is stuck, and the only way to release it is to prod it with a suitable implement from inside the house. 1Amusingly, the murder weapon can be used for this purpose. But once you enter the house, you’re swept into the investigation and can’t leave until you’ve examined the body, so you don’t get to see the note until you’ve already started to form ideas about the case. I imagine that for a lot of players the note is the breakthrough moment. Me, I found it too early; I wasn’t receptive to its implications yet. It was puzzling, and I felt like I was missing information that I should have, but I assumed it meant that the detective had already been investigating the blackmail case before the murder occurred or something like that.

Still, the evidence kept mounting until I had to develop some suspicion of the truth. Strangely, the thing that finally changed suspicion to certainty for me wasn’t directly related to the case at all. Like the Infocom mysteries, this game supports an “ACCUSE” command for confronting suspects. With all I had seen, I experimentally applied it to myself. The response:

You’re guilty of enough – spending a whole month’s advance on tequila, beating to death that Indian kid in the cell in January, being a crummy cop and not solving a single case for a good long while. You don’t need accusations, you’ve got a string of them. You need to sort it out.

Oh my. The detective isn’t a good person at all. He’s not just struggling with alcoholism that adversely affects his work performance, as I had believed. He’s a very bad person, capable of committing manslaughter and then brushing it off like it’s a minor character flaw. And with that thought, I was through with finding excuses for him, and willing to accept more evidence of wrongdoing on his part at face value.

In my last post, I said that everyone seemed to be harboring dark secrets. I thought it was a pretty big deal that this might include the policeman sidekick, but now it turns out to include the protagonist and the author as well. This isn’t the first game I’ve played where the player character withheld important information from the player — I can think of a few examples offhand, but obviously I can’t list them here without spoiling them. However, I’m hard-pressed to think of a game that pulls this kind of unreliable-narrator stuff and still leaves so much game after the big revelation. I mean, in a sense, figuring out the twist is just the beginning here, because it means you’re suddenly playing a different game, with different goals — one less like Witness and more like Varicella. I’ll get into that more in my next post.

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1. Amusingly, the murder weapon can be used for this purpose.

Make It Good

Make It Good is a hard-boiled-ish murder mystery, modeled after the old Infocom mystery titles (particularly Witness), but more elaborate, with deep scenery and tangled characters. An accountant is viciously stabbed in his suburban home. He has no obvious enemies, but everyone around him seems to have something to hide.

If the traditional adventure game is a treasure hunt, the traditional mystery game is not far removed. There’s loads of nice juicy evidence items to be found here, mainly stashed in locked containers and other places where people didn’t expect me to find them. Little did they suspect that I’d have so much help from the game system! It really gives you a great deal of guidance towards the important parts of the scenes, moreso even than the typical adventure game. Infocom games, and consequently much modern IF, have a concept of “brief” and “verbose” modes, where “verbose” mode automatically displays the full room description every time you enter a room, and “brief” mode only does so on first entry. Make It Good does something similar to “brief” mode, but instead of just displaying the room name on re-entry, it gives a highly abbreviated description of its major contents:

Master Bedroom
Bed, mirrored dresser, window. Door. Yucca. Blood, lots of it.

It’s like the item list in a Scott Adams game, but a little more mannered. And it fulfills the same function as it does in the Scott Adams games: it lets you know at a glance what to interact with. In the Infocom games, a lot of players switch “verbose” immediately so as to keep information as visible as possible. Make it Good doesn’t actually provide that option, but even if it did, I wouldn’t want to miss the brief descriptions’ more focused information.

But as much as the game guides the player towards finding evidence, the significance of the evidence is up to the player to discover. The maid’s boyfriend, I learn, is taking prescription painkillers due to a recent injury — but when analyzed, they turn out to be mere sugar pills. Whuh? As is often the case, the beginning of the game is a bit overwhelming, with information flooding in faster than it can be easily processed, and I’ll probably need multiple playthroughs to figure out how to best manage my limited time and solve the case.

Limited time? Yes. This is another thing inherited from Infocom mysteries. (Infocom even named their first mystery game after its time limit.) I suppose it’s the simplest way to provide for a schedule of character actions, and provides a motivation to try to limit your actions to things that are useful for cracking the case, but I’ve never liked the pressure it puts on the player, even when the limit is large. Make It Good at least provides a dramatically interesting reason why you have to finish the investigation in a hurry: the detective is basically a failure, a washed-up alcoholic who’s dangerously close to being kicked off the force. Your superiors are impatient with you, and this case is your last chance to “make it good”. Although the hard-drinking detective is a genre stereotype, it’s a real departure from the Infocom model. In those games, the detective was The Detective, a kind of definitive impersonal force of detection. There was always an assistant as well, named Sergeant Duffy but otherwise as traitless as the Detective, existing only to take things back to the lab on your orders. (And the lab would take precious time to complete its analyses.) Here, there’s a policeman named Joe who fills that function, but he yells at you, makes sarcastic comments, blames you for contaminating evidence, and shows genuine surprise when you actually manage to make useful discoveries. I have to wonder if there’s a reason that a detective held in such low esteem was assigned to this particular case. Perhaps someone on the force doesn’t want it solved. Maybe my earlier assertion that everyone in the game has something to hide applies even to Joe.

Cacophony: Uhhhh

As my regular readers may remember, I had a lot of complaints about games in the previous two Comps, games with egregious bugs, inadequate feedback, and unreasonably narrow expectations of what the player would do. The main reason I decided to skip the Comp this year was to avoid that stuff. So Cacophony makes me sad. I really can’t recommend that anyone else try to play this game until the bugs are fixed, and probably not even then.

Severely stuck, I turned to outside help — specifically, Club Floyd. This is a group of people who who play IF online as a team, using a special IF-interpreter-gateway MUD bot so that they can all enter commands in a single game session. They’ve been doing this on a mostly-weekly basis for more than two years now. I’ve participated in Club Floyd a few times, but only a few, as I generally prefer to figure things out for myself. Anyway, Club Floyd records their sessions, and a couple of months back, they played Cacophony. I used their transcript for hints, and I find the experience far superior to using a straight walkthrough, as it provided the solutions in the context of the thought process that led to them — which was, admittedly, mostly random flailing in this case. But also, unlike the walkthrough, Club Floyd pointed out the bugs, and how they affected things for both them and me. Spoilery details follow.

There’s a whole sequence spent sneaking around in an office building. I had managed to get inside the building once, but on subsequent attempts, was told that I needed some way to avoid detection before I could enter. It turns out that I was supposed to have an invisibility device before I could enter; on the one occasion that I had gotten through anyway, I had phrased my command in a way that accidentally bypassed the check for that. This explained a whole bunch of mysterious behavior inside the building — for example, whenever I tried to take something out of my bag, I was warned that people would see it disappear. Actually, that’s another bug: the warning makes sense if you’re invisible and trying to pick something up off the ground, but the game failed to recognize that I was trying to get something I was already indirectly holding. Without knowing I was supposed to be invisible, the warning was incomprehensible. But the thing is, there’s so much about this game that deliberately defies common sense that it’s hard to tell the parts where you don’t understand the logic from the parts where the logic is just plain broken.

Another example: There’s a locked chest, with a square depression its only feature. When you finally acquire a small cubical object, you’re likely to try to use it to unlock the chest, and you’re likely to fail. Club Floyd identified the reason why: the action only works in the room where you find the chest. Presumably you weren’t supposed to be able to pick up the chest. Without outside help, the player who has brought the chest to another room is likely to conclude that the cube isn’t the right object to unlock it after all, and wait in vain to find another square item.

I mentioned in my last post that a trophy case appeared spontaneously in one location, and I had no idea why. I think I understand how that works now — it’s related to another item, a nightcap, which is applied in a way that you’re likely to do only if you’re not actually trying to use it to solve puzzles. Ah, but how do you get the nightcap? I don’t know, and apparently neither does anybody else. It spontaneously appears in your inventory if you do the right thing, but it’s unclear what that is, even after you’ve done it. The author’s walkthrough implies that it’s caused by dialing a certain number on a telephone, but while this is probably a necessary condition, it is not a sufficient one. Given the other problems, I suspect that it’s supposed to be sufficient, but a bug prevents it from working some of the time. But it’s hard to be sure without knowing the intended logic. Graham Nelson’s 1993 “Player’s Bill of Rights“, somewhat disowned since then by its author, includes the right “To be able to understand a problem once it is solved”. I’ve never craved this right more than I do now.

When I realized that this game, already by design a very difficult exercise in deciphering the author’s intentions, had bugs that made it even more inscrutable, I almost gave it up. I’ve said it before: a game in the surreal mode has to tread very carefully in order to retain the player’s trust. I ultimately turned to the author’s walkthrough when the Club Floyd transcript gave out. It turns out that I could have reached an ending before I had even looked at Club Floyd if I hadn’t misspelled a nonsense word that the game throws at you at one point. I might possibly have noticed this if I had thought that I had any reason to believe that I actually understood the author’s intentions. As it was, it just seemed like one more failed attempt among many.

Cacophony

Here’s one that I hadn’t heard of before it showed up on that list on IFWiki. It’s one of those surreal and dreamlike works that have long been a staple of IF — in fact, shortly after the start, “Mr Green” (a silent man clad all in green, with a green hat and a green mask) shows up and hands you a note that says “You’re dreaming, fool.” Waking up is as simple as typing “wake up”, but the world you wake up to is scarcely less dreamlike: inanimate objects make disturbing comments, certain actions and exits are forbidden on the basis of irrational senses of foreboding.

This is more like traditional puzzle-based IF than the last two games blogged here, and as a consequence, it’s possible to get seriously stuck. Some of the puzzles are based on dream-logic, after all. When a suitcase in the dream-world has the description “This is what you use to carry tools and important objects from one place to another”, and another object with the same description shows up in the waking world, it’s not hard to guess that you’ve found a way to transport items between realms. And while I do adore games that challenge you to figure out how the gameworld works, sometimes it’s just incomprehensible here. At some point a trophy case with an important item appeared in one location, and I have no idea how I triggered it. I find myself repeatedly starting the game over, not because I’ve gotten it into an unwinnable state or anything like that, but because I want to review text that appears only once, in the hopes of gleaning new clues from it. But what do you do when you don’t know how to reproduce the state that produced that text?

The Bryant Collection

Gregory Weir is a name that comes up fairly frequently on the sorts of game blogs I read. His best-known work is probably still The Majesty of Colors, but he’s done quite a lot of other small, experimental games, mainly in Flash. (I particularly like Exploit, which seems like it could form the basis for a really good hacking mini-game in a larger work.) In fact, he’s apparently set himself a challenge of releasing one game per month throughout 2009. The Bryant Collection is one of them.

What we have here is several vignettes and a frame-tale. The frame tells about how Weir bought the papers of one Laura Bryant at a yard sale. Some of the papers described what Bryant called “story-worlds”, which she apparently used in a one-on-one pastime with aspects of both adventure games and pencil-and-paper RPGs, but predating both of them. Weir admits to having altered the content of the story-worlds somewhat in order to adapt it as IF, and leaves it unclear by just how much. Still, it’s fascinating to see how close to the familiar forms this independent invention came.

It’s also a pack of lies. The coincidence of this proto-IF falling directly into the hands of a game programmer stretches credibility somewhat, and a sample of Bryant’s writing included in the game bears an incredible resemblance to Inform 7 source code. There’s also the simple fact that the game was released on April Fool’s Day, something I failed to notice even when I saw the date in the in-game author’s notes. Weir took some flack for this, much like the author of Infil-Traitor did for his Scott-Adams-era pastiche. These things are really best presented without pretense. You don’t get willing suspension of disbelief by tricking people, and the idea of Laura Bryant is actually pretty charming if you’re not distracted by the hoax of Laura Bryant.

Apart from the frame, the game content consists of five unrelated vignettes, pretty varied in their content: an immense disaster, some musings on the Garden of Eden story, two slices of life, and a gratuitous puzzle scenario. More significant (to my mind, anyway) is that each story-world is a study in a different form of interactivity or pseudo-interactivity. One is a glorified cutscene punctuated by command prompts that can’t affect what’s going on, one consists mostly of examining character-revealing scenery. There’s a study in ask/tell conversation and another in conversing entirely by answering yes/no questions. And the gratuitous puzzle scenario is, of course, all about manipulating stuff. Some reviewers seems to have been puzzled by the lack of a unifying theme here, but it seems to me that it’s basically a sampler, an exploration of different techniques to see what the medium can do. Which is also a pretty good description of Weir’s work as a whole.

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