Archive for 2009

The King of Shreds and Patches

January, 1603. Queen Bess is on the throne, Shakespeare is on the stage, and the black death casts its shadow over London. And, of course, in his house in R’lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming, as he has for eons. Based (with permission) on a scenario for the Call of Cthulhu tabletop RPG, The King of Shreds and Patches throws all of these things together into a single story. Which is kind of like writing a modern-day Cthulhu story about Barack Obama, Pixar, and swine flu, but that’s period drama for you.

Any substantial work of Lovecraft-based IF invites comparison to Anchorhead, the classic of of the genre, but playing this game really reminds me more of playing Call of Cthulhu. And not for obvious reasons — it doesn’t have what I normally think of as RPG elements, such as upgradable stats or skill checks or randomized combat. Rather, the structure so far is more what I associate with the live CoC sessions I’ve tried: you’re presented with lots of leads to follow up on, but not enough time to follow up on them all before bad things start happening. The game has a day/night cycle, and unless I’m misinterpreting things, it seems to be linked to the number of turns taken, rather than (as in Anchorhead) linking days to progress in the story.

Also reminding me of CoC is the way it throws lots of recognizable Cthulhu Mythos stuff at the player from early on. Anchorhead didn’t use any established Mythos material at all; the fact that the Lovecraft inspiration was clearly recognizable despite this is a sign of how well it achieved its aims. But also, using entirely new stuff preserved a sense of mystery. In TKoSaP, when I find the Yellow Sign depicted in one of the game’s rare uses of graphics, I immediately recognize it as the Yellow Sign. The character I’m playing doesn’t know what “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn” means, but I do, and it’s going to affect how I play that character.

But then, given the decidedly non-Lovecraftian setting, would it be recognizable as a Cthulhu Mythos story without these touches? Even in the game as it is, an episode of supernatural disruption of a performance at the Globe put me more in mind of a certain Doctor Who episode than anything else.


Like pretty much everything else Emily Short has done in the field of IF, Alabaster is an experiment. The idea here was to provide a number of testers/co-authors with the ability to extend the dialogue tree: suggestions made within the game were automatically recorded to a file, which they sent back to Short, who incorporated them in the next version that she sent out to the same authors for further suggestions. The game lists eleven authors (including Short herself), and boasts 18 distinct endings (including some obviously unsatisfactory ones).

The story is a revisionist take on Snow White, with the player in the decidedly weird role of the huntsman, commanded by the Queen to murder the heroine at the story’s beginning. In the original story, this is hardly a major character, or even an interesting one. I suppose that if you were to write a story about him, you could play up the emotional conflict, the fear of defying the Queen vs the obvious perfidy of killing a beautiful child, but that’s not a very interesting choice for IF. If you ask the player to make that kind of choice, they’ll usually just immediately choose good over evil. But Alabaster doesn’t make it that easy. This Snow White is creepy, and knowing, and, despite being your prisoner, gives a strong sense of being more in control of the situation than you are. She’s already made a bargain with you to spare her life and lead her to a haven among the dwarrows, but she does nothing to help you feel good about it. You naturally start to wonder if the Queen might have good reasons to want her dead. And so you talk to her — nearly all of the game is spent talking — and although you might be uncomfortable about trusting what she tells you, she’s pretty much your only source of information. Is she a witch? A vampire? A god, even? Possibilities suggest themselves, and are rejected in turn as too obvious.

I’ve seen (and participated in) IF collaborations before, and usually the seams where the authorial voice changes are pretty obvious, but the tone in Alabaster is surprisingly consistent. Short says she edited things “to improve continuity and conversation flow”, which explains this somewhat, but it’s not like the content was all hers. She also says that she was surprised at some of the turns that the plot took. Which, coupled with the consistency of style, makes me wonder: which turns were unexpected?

I’ve seen only a few of the endings so far, but one of the ones I’ve seen solves a mystery that I hadn’t even considered: what happened to the King? From a certain point of view, this ending might be the best one, because reaching that point explains nearly everything and brings the story to a definite resolution. But it isn’t entirely a happy ending. On the basis of what I’ve seen, I doubt there are any completely happy endings in the game.

Shelter from the Storm: Conclusion

The rest of the game took me less time than I expected. Once you’ve reached a crucial turn, a body turns up, and the game settles down into being a murder mystery for a while. This shift brings the return of the NPCs, who guide you through the rest of the plot. I kind of feel like I took longer to complete the self-directed snooping segment than I was supposed to, probably due to my reluctance to use the hint system (which actually proved very gentle on those occasions when I tried it). After the murder, you get to roam about looking for clues, accompanied by a character who comments on their significance. I had spent so much time poking around earlier that I had already found them all, except for a couple of final open-and-shut-case ones that I simply didn’t have access to before.

Overall, what we have here is a well-done shortish period piece. It’s also quite technically sophisticated, with such features as a pathing “GO TO” command, automatic spelling correction, and a conversation system that combines the best features of menu-based and freeform conversation without ever taking away the player’s ability to enter ordinary commands. Actually, these are all features that I’ve been seeing in other games this year and not commenting on. It seems like the state of the art is advancing incrementally, and that features that Infocom could only dream of are becoming standard — especially when you consider that this game was written in TADS, and most of the other games I’ve been playing were written in Inform. So no actual code libraries were shared between this game and the others. Ideas that seem good get imitated.

Shelter from the Storm

And now a wartime tale from Eric Eve, author of last year’s Nightfall. The year is 1940. A British lieutenant, on his way to report for duty, gets stuck in a thunderstorm in the countryside. Finding a house nearby, he persuades the maid to let him in; there follows a section where he meets the family, follows people around and engages in lots of the sort of menu-based conversation where there are more options than you can choose in the number of turns allotted. This goes on for a while, then stops abruptly, the soldier left alone while some mysterious noises upstairs draw his attention.

It’s strange, but at this point, despite having played the game for a while, I still had no clear idea of what sort of game it is. I’d have said it was basically a character-based drama, until I was abandoned to the world of objects and forced to take Action. Strange noises in a large house could mean anything from H. P. Lovecraft to C. S. Lewis. After a while, I started to suspect that things were a bit more prosaic than either of those extremes, and that I was simply dealing with a Nazi spy ring. My first clue was that the housemaid, supposedly a Jewish refugee, is contentedly listening to Wagner on the radio as she irons. And, once I had gotten my head sufficiently out of character-based-drama mode to start searching closets at random, I started finding more clues suggestive of this conclusion. I still don’t know who else in the house is involved, though, or even if the people I’ve met are who they claim to be. The noises I heard could be the house’s rightful inhabitants, tied up in the closet.

I should mention one of the game’s larger peculiarities: that it lets the player choose the person and tense of the entire game. I’ve chosen to play it in first person past tense, like it’s an episode from the soldier’s memoirs. I know I’ve seen at least one other incomplete fragment game that allowed the player to choose the tense, but the effort to produce this degree of variation over a full game seems strangely decadent. Still, it makes it a valuable resource for anyone investigating the effect of tense and person on the feel of a game.

Sam Fortune: Private Investigator

Here’s a game that could easily have been a comp entry. It’s about the right length (it took me a bit less than three hours and a couple of peeks at the in-game hints to finish it), and it’s about the expected quality, a solid midrange effort. That is, it has no obvious major bugs, but it also isn’t terribly inspiring. I’ve said before that a lot of detective-themed adventure games don’t actually ask the player to solve a mystery, but instead are simply, well, detective-themed adventure games. This game is in that category.

I may be a bit biased against it right now, because I’ve so recently played Make it Good, and Sam Fortune really suffers from the comparison. In MiG, the bottle of whiskey in your car is meaningful: it’s a part of the central character, a sign of what brought him to his sorry state, a temptation to give up, a cause for reprimand when it’s seen in your possession. Sam Fortune also has a bottle of whiskey, sitting on his desk, but it’s only there because a bottle of whiskey is a standard hard-boiled detective prop. It doesn’t have anything to do with the case, or Sam, or anything else. And that’s kind of how the whole game feels. It’s trying very hard to be hard-boiled by going through the motions and talking in detective lingo and so forth, but there’s nothing underneath it.

If it has a saving grace, it’s that it makes a point of that shallowness. The whole thing is presented as a old radio drama, complete with an act break and cigarette commercials. When you find some cigarettes in the game, they’re the sponsor’s brand, and described in the same glowing terms as in the commercial, just to draw you out of the fiction for a moment. Dying or otherwise failing in the game is immediately followed by the listener’s mother turning the radio off and telling him to go to bed.

Inside Woman: Moving Along

Well, the month of October is over, but the judging period for the Comp lasts another two weeks. I think I’ll keep playing IF for the duration, but I’ll take this as a signal to give Inside Woman a rest for a while. There are still five games I haven’t tried on that list from IFWiki, and I’d like to give most of them at least a cursory write-up before getting back to mainstream stuff.

I do want to get back to Inside Woman at some point, though. I’m currently about 1/4 of the way through by points, and quite stuck. But I’ve been stuck in this game quite a few times before, and so far, I’m still overall enjoying the experience. Somehow, this game is less stressful than the other IF I’ve played this season. Where Make It Good and Cacophony and Blue Lacuna were largely about puzzling out the hidden meaning of the gameworld, Inside Woman is all on the surface. Utopia is Bad Guys, and acts like it.

If there’s one thing this game does well, it’s self-contained sub-scenes that operate on their own rules, like the pizza place I mentioned earlier, or the simple cyberspace-hacking scenes (of which I’ve seen two so far), or even, in the very beginning, passing through the first security checkpoint by answering questions about your cover identity. That last bit struck me as not really fitting in the story — here I was trying to quickly find information in my personal documents that surely the player character would have memorized, so it was a puzzle aimed at the player, not at the character. It was still a pretty satisfying easyish puzzle: it put a little smile on my face every time they asked something I already knew.

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.

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