Archive for 2009

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.

Blue Lacuna: Finishing Up

I suppose it’s inevitable that a hive mind would develop Narcissistic Personality Disorder. When the only people you routinely communicate with are other pieces of yourself, you’d forget that the world doesn’t revolve around you and that outsiders aren’t automatically interested in helping you fulfill your epic destiny. So it is in the trees’ homeworld, where the player is asked to help them spread peace, harmony, and a diminished sense of individual identity to the far reaches of the galaxy. It’s a far cry from the oppression wrought by some trees I could name, but humanoids are definitely subordinate here, connected to the trees but not to each other. There’s even some suggestion that co-evolving with the trees has left them genetically predisposed to ceding control. But they’re as happy as house pets, and the trees are certainly satisfied with the situation, so their proposal comes without guile or apology: forest life is the best, as surely you must realize now that you’ve seen it first-hand. It’s like the conviction found in some religious sects that the only reason that the whole world hasn’t converted yet is ignorance, that anyone who reads the scriptures will see how obvious it all is.

Things are very different in the treeless humanoid colony. They’ve made an impressive go at creating an entire society from scratch in a historically recent span of time, and their first city (called First City) seems to consist mostly of libraries and museums and the like (although it’s made clear that their greatest scientific and technological advancements lately have come from eavesdropping on the trees). But the crash that left them stranded has left its scars. Bereft of masters and facing the problem of liberty for the first time, the colonists wasted no time in polarizing into fascists and anarchists, with no middle ground. It’s the fascist side that makes contact with the player, and their leader is quick to offer predictable excuses about how the curfews and censorship and rounding up of dissidents and so forth are just temporary measures, made necessary by the existential threat posed by the other faction. He also claims that their ultimate intentions are peaceful, that once I had helped his people to the stars, they would try to establish a live-and-let-live policy towards the arboreal empire. I have to wonder if he’d say the same thing if I had come off as more anti-tree myself. 1Or, well, I don’t actually have to wonder. I can always go back and make different choices. He’s a politician; he’s used to telling people what they need to hear in order to get what he wants from them.

The author makes a brave try at endowing each side with a sympathetic point of view, but the whole thing left me feeling rather pox-on-both-their-houses, and I chose to deny both the Forest and the City the boon they wanted. I suspect that most other players have done likewise, particularly the Myst fans. If I had to choose one of them over the other, I think I’d side with the City, because they’re the underdogs here, and because the Forest desperately needs some kind of credible competition to break the complacency of its mental echo chamber, and because they’re the side that’s still evolving, and therefore the side that’s more likely to overcome their current problems. But as I acted on that choice, I’d be aware that I’m unleashing a planetful of authoritarian followers on the universe.

So, what is it that both sides were so desperate to get from me? The location of Progue’s planet, the only known place where “somenium carcerate”, or “bluerock”, is found in abundance — apart from the trees’ homeworld, where they’ve nearly exhausted their supply. Bluerock is the key to communicating over interstellar distances. Every particle of it is mysteriously connected, each to all. And in the end, it provides the bridge back to Rume, if you choose to take it. Which is a little disquieting, if you ponder the implications. Scientists in the City did some experiments into the effects of exposure to it, and found it could produce “symptoms of dementia, susceptibility to suggestion, and memory loss” — the very symptoms of Progue’s madness. Progue had been carving large sculptures out of the stuff, bathing regularly in a pool surrounded by it, etc., but it’s powerful in small quantities as well: those scientists had access to only 16 milligrams of it. And it’s implied that Rume has it in her body. It’s the blue pigment in her eyes. Is it affecting her mind? Is it affecting the PC’s?

After the story is over, you get a brief but thorough report on the important choices you made, neatly avoiding the problem I mentioned before of players not understanding the range of narrative variation. Except that it’s questionable how significant some of the choices are. I’ve read some other people’s comment on the game by now, and everyone seems to comment on how the “art or love” thing pretty much drops out after the first chapter and only returns at the very end, where it still doesn’t have any obvious effect. If you choose to paint your way back to Rume’s world once you can, you’re effectively choosing both art and love. Complaints about the pacing are also common: you start with a premise that promises world-hopping, then you stay in one world for seven chapters, only to get a big rush of new stuff at the end. (I suspect that this perceived problem could be partially fixed just by putting fewer chapter transitions into the middle section.) Still, this is clearly game-of-the-year stuff in the IF world, and will probably be the game that I recommend to new players for a while.

One more thing: I’ve already started playing the next game on my list, and I’m finding myself wishing it had some of Blue Lacuna‘s conveniences, such as noun-only commands. This is something that more text games could stand to do. It’s not even a new idea — Infocom was experimenting with it in 1987.

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1. Or, well, I don’t actually have to wonder. I can always go back and make different choices.

Blue Lacuna: The Story So Far

I’m in chapter 7 (out of 10), and I’ve got most of the backstory by now — some of it from conversation, some from visions in dreams, some from physical evidence. The game provides plenty of redundancy in presenting information, so other players will have discovered things by different means — and in different orders. Let there be spoilers.

Basically, it all comes down to sentient alien trees that need my help. Normally, these trees bond psychically with humanoids from their own planet, effectively providing the trees with the advantages of eyes and hands. But these particular ones, the survivors of a spaceship crash, have been stranded without a host. Until Progue showed up, that is.

Progue used to be a “wayfarer” like the protagonist, although the art that moved him was sculpture rather than painting. He came to the island with his two young daughters some years ago, leaving behind the world where his wife died. The daughters, both wayfarers as well, departed the island when Progue became strangely obsessed with building strange technological devices, driven by the whispers of the trees.

Mental contact with the trees ultimately drove Progue mad. The trees claim that this is was the result of misunderstanding — Progue wasn’t familiar with the concept of trees that put thoughts in your head, and the trees weren’t used to humanoids who aren’t familiar with that concept, so neither side was really prepared. Progue assumed for a long time that the thoughts in his head were his own, and felt terrified and violated when he realized they weren’t. One of the main ways the backstory has been revealed is through the memories revealed by the trees in my dreams, memories which I see from the point of view of Progue and his children, complete with their thoughts. Progue calls this the ultimate violation of privacy, and he has a point. The trees have had years to figure out where they went wrong, and have taken care to be more delicate this time. After all, even if they’re sugar-coating things and what they actually want is a mind-controlled slave, it’s counterproductive if the slave figures out what’s going on and starts resisting and subsequently goes on a felling spree, like Progue did.

And in fact the “mind-controlled slave” theory isn’t without support. The phone-home device that the trees used Progue to build has been hacked by another group: another colony from the same planet, but one where the humanoids survived and the trees died. They say they’re doing fine on their own, which throws the trees’ “peaceful symbiosis” claims into question, and their messages to me essentially boil down to “Don’t trust them, they’re just using you”.

Which is fair enough, but given that I’m to withhold trust, why should I trust either side? It’s very much a Sirrus and Achenar situation, or, since only one side is issuing dire warnings, perhaps more like Yeesha/Esher. (The humanoids aren’t quite as snide as Esher was, but they are snide enough for it to be a little off-putting.) Anyway, I feel like I’ll be called upon to pick sides soon. Maybe a third option will present itself. Maybe one side or the other will be turned into an unambiguous bad guy via revelation of atrocities, as seems to happen a lot in fiction involving moral decisions in an atmosphere of deceit. But probably not: a couple of chapters ago, Progue gave me this big speil about relativism, and it seems like that has to have been leading somewhere.

In the latest chapter, I found a shark stranded on land, and had the opportunity to help it get back into the water, if I so chose. Not a major plot point, just an incidental event of the sort that’s been enriching the experience throughout. In our world, there’s no way the shark would be alive at the point when I found it, hours after the event that stranded it. Since we’re in an alien biosphere here, I can accept it, but it’s still enough of a strain to make it clear that it wasn’t included solely for its literal meaning.

Blue Lacuna: Variables

When people hear the term “interactive fiction”, often the first thing they imagine is branching plots. And that’s seldom the case. Even when a work of IF provides multiple endings, it’s usually a matter of only one split made at the very end. This is because branching structures yield exponential complexity, and it’s largely work wasted: a player is probably going to see only one story out of the many available, and may not even be aware that the alternatives exist, if the differences are governed by hidden variables.

Blue Lacuna is at least partly governed by semi-hidden variables. By “semi-hidden”, I mean that when I type “score”, part of the output is like:

You’ve met Progue, who likes you (+6), feels dominant towards you (-1), and feels paternal towards you (+3).

.. but the “score” command is completely undocumented, even in the verbs list in the help menu. The only reason I tried it is that it’s one of those standard IF verbs handed down to us from the golden age. I’ve said before that this game is clearly built with newcomers in mind, but this extra information is effectively available only to experienced IF players. And it does affect how I play. At one point, after conversing with Progue, I discovered that I had inadvertently increased his romantic interest variable (which isn’t in the above listing — it seems to have dropped out of the list of relevant stats completely at some point). This was an unwelcome development, not only because my character (this time around) is male and heterosexual, but because it seemed like it could only cause problems later if he saw himself as a rival to Rume. So I immediately restored to my last save. Without such a concrete sign, I would have kept playing.

Blue Lacuna: Conversation

Chapter 3 of Blue Lacuna ends in a conversation with a castaway named Progue, the game’s other major character. Much of the game is occupied with learning Progue’s backstory, which Progue himself doesn’t know at the beginning. He’s quite mad, you see. He doesn’t even remember his own name for a good long time. But talking with the player apparently acts as a kind of psychotherapy, and by chapter 3’s end he’s recovered his wits enough to talk sensibly about a lot of the things you’ve discovered on the island.

The conversation system is sort of a hybrid of menu-based conversation and Infocom-style ASK/TELL: you’re limited to specifying a keyword to talk about, but the keywords you can use at any given moment are presented in a list at the bottom of the screen. If you don’t like any of the current options, you can type “subject” to bring up a broader list. There’s an occasional problem with interpreting keywords the wrong way, if they’re present as both a conversation option and a thing in the current room, but for the most part conversation is straightforward: at any given moment you’re either answering a question, in which case your choices are constrained to the possible answers, or you’re asking questions yourself, in which case you exhaustively go through your list of options, just like in most other menu-based adventure game dialogue systems.

In the particular conversation just after Progue goes sane, there was a keyword “sketchbook”. I didn’t remember seeing any sketchbook, but I asked him about it anyway. I did remember some sketches in one location, so I figured that maybe they had been in a book and I had just forgotten. It’s easy to forget details in the rush of initial exploration. Well, it turns out that I actually hadn’t found the sketchbook yet. I’ve found it now: it was in a place where I could have easily gotten to it very early on if I hadn’t been so dense. Presumably all of the beta testers found it well before this point, and thus didn’t notice that it could be discussed out-of-order.

I’m not describing this just to complain about the bug. It’s actually pretty impressive how bugless the game had been up to that point, especially with all it does with variable descriptions: all sorts of things change with the time of day, the state of player knowledge, even with the tides, and it all just works flawlessly. Rather, I bring it up because of what it illustrates about the conversation system. The fact that you’re typing in keywords makes it feel a lot like ASK/TELL, but in a traditional ASK/TELL system, this bug would have been invisible to me. The “sketchbook” topic could have been available, but I wouldn’t have known about it.

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