Archive for 2016

IFComp 2016

The judging period of the annual Interactive Fiction Competition has just started, and unless you’re an entrant, you are eligible to judge. Even if you don’t want to do that, you are welcome to just play the games. There are 58 this year, and people are already saying it’s an unusually good assortment, with a mix of established authors and newcomers in a wide variety of forms and styles.

It’s been a few years now since I’ve tried to blog the Comp. I feel like I’ve kind of fallen out of the IF world — apart from Hadean Lands, I’ve played precious little lately, and written less. But IF is my home. It’s where I come from. And it’s about time I visited, if only for a little while.

One thing: This time around, I don’t intend to blog about every single entry. Partly because there are 58 games to get through, and partly because I’m reconsidering whether the negative reviews are actually a force for good or not, but mainly because I still don’t feel like I have enough of a handle on most choice-based stuff to discuss it intelligently. But we’ll see how it goes.

Munch’s Oddysee: The End

In the lengthy closing cutscene of the good ending, we finally see what use Abe and Munch got out of their trip to the surface and back: Lulu is now wealthy enough to win the Gabbiar auction. Except this still doesn’t really make sense. Abe has to mind-control Lulu through the entire process — Lulu doesn’t even like Gabbiar, doesn’t want to spend his entire new-found fortune, has no intention of just handing the can over to a couple of known criminals. So if Lulu isn’t a willing collaborator, why does it need to be Lulu? Can’t Abe just wait for the winning bid and then mind-control whoever won? I can imagine possible reasons why this wouldn’t work, but if the creators of this story even considered the possibility, they give no sign of it. No, Lulu is the only possible choice not for practical reasons, but for reasons of dramatic irony: you made his fortune by mind-controlling Glukkons, now you take it away by subjecting him to the same treatment.

I do want to keep going with the next Oddworld game once I’m through with IFComp for the year, but I have to say this one, even in its revamped form, was a step down from the first in most respects. There’s just an awful lot of filler where you repeat things you already know how to do in a series of similar-looking environments. The final level brings out some new wall textures to create a palatial look, and the effect is just to emphasize how much all the previous levels looked the same. There was a point toward the middle of the game where it started introducing ways to upgrade your Mudokon followers, turning them into powerful hand-to-hand or ranged combatants. It seemed like that might build up to something interestingly tactical, but the whole mechanic pretty much gets dropped after a few levels, probably because it made things too easy.

Munch’s Oddysee: Eggs? Eggs. Eggs!

Perhaps I’ve just been inattentive, or failed to read between the lines. It would be easy to do in a game where the story and gameplay are so separate. I can keep the Lulu side of the plot straight because it’s integrated into the levels, but there’s some purely interstitial story as well. Mostly it takes the form of headlines on a newspaper displayed after you complete a mission. The top story is generally the mission’s aftermath — “GLUKKON DONATES PROFITS TO LULU FUND! MAGOG MOTORS OUTA GAS!!!”, for example — but there’s also been an adjacent series in smaller type about the impending auction of the last remaining can of Gabbiar. Gabbiar is the roe of the Gabbit, which is to say, Munch’s species. Munch is generally assumed to be the last of his kind (hence his side of the rescue missions involving Fuzzles instead). So that roe, if still viable, could be the last hope for the continuation of his people.

I hadn’t really paid much attention to this plot thread before, assuming that it would assume prominence when it was ready, but there’s something else that’s got me thinking about it: the emergence of Labor Eggs. I had seen the phrase “Labor Eggs” in the game’s help text before, when it explains that the ending will depend on how many Mudokons, Fuzzles, and Labor Eggs you rescue. But only now, in the last few levels, do I get an explanation of what the phrase “Labor Eggs” means. It just means the eggs of Mudokons, kept by the Glukkons to be hatched into laborers. Which raises questions about where these eggs come from. As I’ve noted before, every Mudokon we’ve seen appears, at least, to be male — although these are aliens, so who knows?

Now, there is at least one specifically female character, also mentioned only in the newspapers: a Glukkon queen, who requires Gabbit lungs for some medical purpose. Which, now that I think about it, shows extreme short-sightedness on the part of the Glukkons. They have a desperate need for Gabbits, but Gabbits have been hunted to near extinction, so what do they do with the last clutch of viable Gabbit eggs? Package them as food. This is really par for the course for Glukkons, though. Their domination of the planet is based on ruthlessness, not good planning.

At any rate, the deal with the Labor Eggs is that they’re in boxes, which you have to pick up with a crane and drop into a hole. In the level where they first appear, there are 22 such boxes, all in the same area. You can’t access the crane until you’ve got rid of some guards, but once you’ve done that, there is nothing at all interfering with the task. This moment is pretty much pure repetitiveness, lacking challenge or interest. And that’s a distillation of the worst aspect of the game as a whole: its tendency to give the player busywork, to fill out scenes with activities that aren’t challenging or interesting. “Labor Eggs” may be a doubly accurate name.

Munch’s Oddysee: The End of the Massive Side-Quest

Finally I’m through with the Lulu Fund shenanigans, which turned out to take up the bulk of the game. To recap: Abe and Munch’s plan involves making a low-level Glukkon named Lulu stinking rich. They do this by sneaking into various other Glukkons’ offices, possessing them, and making them give their life savings to Lulu, after which they die from the shock of suddenly being broke. It’s a nasty scheme for a grotesque world. Lulu, as far as I can tell, is oblivious to why everyone is suddenly being so generous with him, but honestly he doesn’t get a lot of screen time, so who knows what he’s thinking? All I can say for sure is that he’s pleased with developments.

The last of the Glukkons you rob is dressed differently from the rest, with a glittery purple cowboy hat and aviator-style sunglasses. He doesn’t act any different — like all the Glukkons, he just stands in his little office waiting to be possessed, repeating the same seven self-aggrandizing barks in a gravelly Brooklyn accent (“I’m at the top of the world”, “How did I get so perfect?”, “I’m going to need an ass the size of a truck to fit this wallet”, etc.) But the outfit makes it clear that he’s a special Glukkon, a boss Glukkon, even if there’s really nothing to distinguish him otherwise. (There may be a lesson in that.) Afterwards, Lulu, with uncontainable joy, wears the same outfit on the flying barge that brings him to Vykkers Labs, the floating fortress that’s been your goal.

It looks like my guess was right: the whole point of the Lulu scheme was to let Abe and Munch sneak back to Vykkers Labs aboard that barge. And that’s where the story stops making sense to me. First of all, this isn’t the first time we’ve been to Vykkers Labs. It’s where Munch started the game. Abe had this whole mission to rescue Munch, and although that didn’t quite go as planned, due to Munch escaping without his help, he did have a considerably simpler way of reaching the Labs back then. Secondly, if Vykkers Labs is where they needed to be, why did the original plan involve leaving at all? Now, Abe’s Oddysee had a similar overall arc. There, Abe escaped from the meat plant, had a series of adventures in the world outside, and then in the end returned to where he escaped from to free the remaining captives and destroy the place. But there, there was a clear reason: Abe didn’t have the ability to finish his task until he visited the ancient temples and received powers from his people’s gods. (Powers which he seems to have lost after the conclusion of that game, by the way.) What did Abe and Munch gain by leaving the Labs before their task was complete? They’re no more powerful than they were when they escaped.

Project Lulu makes sense as game design: it provides an excuse for an arbitrary series of levels that don’t advance the story individually. But I don’t know that it makes sense as plot.

Munch’s Odyssey: What I’m Noticing This Time

Coming back to this after yet another lengthy pause, I’m struck afresh by a couple of things I hadn’t been thinking about much before.

First, I was finding some of the platforming unduly difficult. I’d quicksave just before trying a jump, then attempt it multiple times without success, falling short even after attempting a run-up. This turned out to be because I had forgotten how to run. Munch’s Oddysee on PC has a strange system for this. You essentially have three gears: Run, Walk, and Sneak. Tapping upward or downward on the D-pad shifts your speed one gear. All this despite controlling the character with an analog joystick, which has speed control built in! I suppose it’s because this whole gear system was added for the sake of keyboard-and-mouse. It doesn’t seem to have been present in the original Xbox version. In fact, when in Walk mode, I find I can still slow down to the point of entering Sneak mode just by pushing the stick less far. I just can’t run without shifting up.

Honestly, I’m glad to have a discrete Sneak mode. In situations that require sneaking, you really don’t want to stop sneaking just because your hand jostled a little. It’s still weird to use the D-pad to toggle it in this way, but I suppose they were running out of buttons. The face buttons are already overloaded, with the A button assigned to both Jump and Use Object (so you can’t jump when you’re near something usable), and the other three doubled up, doing one thing when tapped and another thing when held down. It’s all pretty complicated, and I frequently make mistakes like telling my followers to attack when I really want them to pull a group of levers.

The other completely unrelated thing that’s catching my eye this time around is how butch it all is. Which is a little surprising considering how it’s all framed as weirdos vs bullies, with the weirdos as the good guys. Well, Abe may be an ectomorph who sings his enemies to death rather than throw a punch, but he’s still visibly muscular, in a lean and wiry way. Moreover, the biggest of the bullies — the new extra-large Sligs with the beefy arms and the handheld miniguns and the four-legged robot undercarriage — are primarily there to be possessed and controlled by Abe. Seriously, this was the central aspect of the first two levels I played after coming back. While controlling a large Slig, your main concern is mowing down the lesser Sligs, directly confronting violence not with stealth or cleverness, but with greater and more powerful violence. The game wants you to have it both ways: You’re simultaneously the bullied and the bully, the weirdo with unsettling mind powers and the hulking revenge fantasy.

Munch’s Oddysee: Revamp

Let’s rewind a little. I’ve been meaning to finish Munch’s Oddysee for months now, and last month added an extra motivation: an unexpected update to the game, apparently the first in six years. In fact, not just an update. The press release calls it a “new port”. I’m guessing that there’s a new Oddworld game coming soon, and that both this update and the inclusion of New & Tasty in the Humble Montly are meant to get people talking about Oddworld again in preparation for it. (It’s obviously working in my case.)

Unlike New & Tasty, it doesn’t seem fundamentally changed from the previous version. It’s basically the same game, with the same rules and the same levels. The character models are more detailed and the framerate is higher, or so it claims. Having not played in a few months, I can’t tell the difference. But the feel of the controls is definitely improved, particularly in the menus, where moving the selection with a joystick was hit-or-miss before. And the sounds are much better, both in playback quality and in design. I complained before about cartoony boings, and those are basically gone. Munch’s footsteps no longer offend the ear. Abe falling down a cliff no longer sounds like Popeye in a fistfight. There’s still a certain amount of slide whistle on large jumps, but it’s a very reasonable amount. The sound design was my one biggest annoyance with the game, and I really wasn’t expecting it to just spontaneously get better. Maybe I’ll be better motivated to finish the game now.

The one thing that worried me about such an extensive rewrite was: Would it recognize my saves? Or would I have to start over from scratch? It turns out that my saves were accessible, but the save UI is weird enough that I didn’t realize this at first and wound up replaying the first few levels anyway. Also, it must be converting the old saves to a new format rather than just using them directly, because they all have the same timestamp, around the time I launched the game. As a result, the save menu can’t arrange them chronologically like it usually does, and instead sorts them in reverse alphabetical order by the name of the level. I had been saving at the beginning of every level, and had no idea of the name of the last level I had played. Fortunately, there was one converted save named “Quicksave” — which is distinct from the actual quicksave slot used by the new code.

The Fool and His Money: Ending

Toward the end of any puzzle collection of this sort comes a point where the multitudinous bounty ends, and all you’re left with is a small number of puzzles you’re stuck on. The Fool and His Money makes an admirable go of extending puzzles through unlocking new layers, so that you can have the pleasure of solving a puzzle and still have just as many puzzles left as you started with, if not more. But even so, after I finally started slotting things into place for the climactic metapuzzle, I spent the bulk of today stuck on just two puzzles, both anagrams.

The big problem with that climactic metapuzzle is that it requires not common words, but surnames. It all ties into the game’s big theme of names and people who have lost them. The prince took away people’s names to make them more controllable; by restoring people’s names, the Fool is restoring their identities and even, in the case of the people that the Prince turned into abstract shapes, bringing them back to life. Meanwhile, the Prince’s seven minions know exactly who they are: the Fool confronts each of them by stating their name, and each replies with a brief description of its meaning and derivation, indicating that it is a being with self-knowledge and therefore power. Of course, the figures of the Tarot, such as the Hermit and the Magician, don’t have names, being archetypes rather then individuals. This may be why the Prince’s magics were able to corrupt and reverse them (such as turning the High Priestess from “the one who knows” to “the one who acts”, setting the events of The Fool’s Errand into motion — a detail I suspect was put in because Cliff Johnson knows more about the meanings of Tarot cards now than he did in 1987). There’s even some suggestion that the Prince himself is in some way a corrupted version of the Fool — they tend to mirror each other’s postures a lot, and there are at least two places in the endgame where the Prince outright replaces the Fool in a picture. But this game is too enigmatic to go for an straight-out Fight Club ending, and besides, by the end of the story, the Fool has been given a name, which should render him immune. (It’s Thomas.)

At any rate, making names rather than words is thematic, but it’s also troublesome. I’d been very pleased with the game’s choice of words in its word puzzles: even when a puzzle required very long words, it consistently chose common ones. I came to trust that the solution would always be a word I know, and that goes a long way toward keeping me going when I’m stuck. But with names, all bets are off. Just looking at the names in the main puzzle list, I see ones that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before in my life, like Voorst and Thwaite. Now, the puzzles that produce the names for the final puzzle are varied, and some of them just give you entire names without any trouble, but some of them require unscrambling of some sort, either as an anagram or by arranging some words you got from other puzzles in a grille in the correct order. And in both variants, I sometimes resorted to exhaustive permutation, with some help from reasoning backward from the anticipated solution to the metapuzzle. In the end, it turned out there was exactly one name that was completely unfamiliar to me.

I find it admirable that this wasn’t the last puzzle. The final puzzle involved going back to the main list, where a link labeled “Finale” had been available from the very beginning, leading to page that basically just reminded you that your task was not yet complete. The metapuzzle unlocks it the rest of the way, adding some more text and a puzzle, and, in accordance with good game design principles, it’s a pretty easy puzzle. It’s a type the player is familiar with by that point, pressing buttons in sequence to build up a sentence, but with a new twist, that the buttons can be pressed multiple times with different effects. But it’s pretty obvious from context what the sentence is going to be, and getting the sequence falls to exactly the same techniques as the earlier puzzles. If I recall correctly, the original Fool’s Errand had a similar post-metapuzzle moment, but had the Fool solve the simple final puzzle in a cutscene instead of letting the player do it. It’s more satisfying to do it yourself.

All in all, I’m pleased with this game, but also glad to be finished with it.

The Fool and His Money: Anagrams

By far the most frequent thing I have to do in solving The Fool and His Money is unscramble words.

Sometimes there are tricks to make it more tricky, like when there’s extra letters for some reason. There’s a whole set of puzzles where you unscramble seven-letter words that cross each other in various ways. In most of them, you unscramble entire words in a fixed order, so that completing one word gives you a fixed letter for the next, which helps you. But in a few of them, the subset of letters you’re given to unscramble also includes one letter in a crossing word, which means you have to figure out which letter isn’t really part of the word you’re unscrambling. In some others from the same set, the crossings are treated as gaps in your letter set, so that you have to guess which letter in the crossing word you need.

But most of the anagrams are simply anagrams. And it’s a peculiar thing. I thought I was pretty good at anagrams, on the basis of my facility with them in cryptic crosswords, where I can usually just look at the letters and have an anagram pop out at me. But apparently it helps a lot to have the rest of the clue giving you the approximate meaning of the word you’re looking for. The anagrams in TFahM generally come with no useful context at all. I actually have to push the letters around some before I notice a sequence that sparks the crucial realization. I wind up trying to use as many letters as I can in common patterns, like “the H probably comes after the C or the T” or “The letters N, O, T, and I could make a TION at the end”, but the result is most often something that looks wordish without quite being a word, like CUDMORE or FARMSHINE. I find these amusing at the time.

The weirdest part is that I can wrestle with an anagram to no avail, then come back to it the next day and see the answer immediately. Recognizing this, I’ve been building it into my plans. If I can’t see an anagram with a very small amount of effort, I switch to a different one. There are still enough left that I can get several per session this way.

The Fool and His Money: The Moon’s Map

Having described the first two phases, I suppose I should go into some detail about the endgame, which I still haven’t finished. (It’s not that this is part is taking me longer than the rest, it’s just that I didn’t start posting until I was almost done with the earlier parts.)

tfahm-mapThe Moon’s Map is composed of tiles that show segments of a curving road, with silhouettes of people standing by it, as well as occasional letters and numbers. Each puzzle you solve in the main part of the game causes a new tile to appear. If you like, you can start arranging the tiles before you have them all. Obviously the correct solution makes the road segments into a single continuous path, but the tiles themselves do not contain enough information to deduce the correct arrangement. For that, you need to go back into the main puzzles and interpret the cryptic hints you didn’t know what to make of when you first saw them. Some of the puzzles have sentences as their solutions that turn out to be hints for the Map.

Once you have the map put together, now, that’s when the fun really begins. The silhouettes, now each standing next to a letter of the alphabet, apparently represent the people named in the list on the Seventh House page; selecting a tile makes a link directly to their corresponding puzzle page, where the story fragment contains clues to the letters that you need to add to the name to form an anagram of a word. Find that word, and you unlock a further puzzle on that page involving the mysterious letters or whatever other changes were made to the picture after you solved the first puzzle. This seems to result in what I can only think must be a clue to a grand puzzle that unites the whole map.

There’s basically no instructions for any of this. The “Help” button will give you a gentle nudge about the general sort of thing you’re supposed to be trying to do, but it’s vague. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. This section of the game, more than any other, is about discovery as much as it is about solving. I love this stuff in all its layered complexity. The Fool’s Errand may well have invented the metapuzzle, but The Fool and His Money gets a lot more out of it.

It even gets some story out of it. There are a number of silhouettes that don’t have letters. Click on one, and you just get the text “I am but a spirit”. I didn’t even look at them closely enough to notice this until writing up this post, but: They seem to be the people that the Prince destroyed by abstraction over the course of the story. There are seventeen of them — didn’t someone tell me to “Seek the Seventeen” or something? There were seventeen puzzles unlocked initially — did the number reduce as I solved puzzles that caused the Prince to kill people? Do they correspond to major arcana in the Tarot or something? I have questions.

The Fool and His Money: The Seventh House

Today, let’s look a little at what lies between the mainline puzzles and the endgame that I’m still working on: the Seventh House. When I first started seeing this phrase used in the story text, I didn’t recognize it, but it turns out it was in front of me all along, in the title bar of the puzzle menu. The building depicted there, with its seven stained glass windows, presumably is the house itself, which the player sneaks into through the windows to access the puzzles there. Despite being non-obvious, these puzzles are just as essential to unlocking the Moon’s Map as the ones in the main sequence.

The Seventh House repeats itself sevenfold in both story and plot. There seven windows lead to four layers of pages, each available only after the previous layer is complete. Each layer contains seven iterations of a new type of word-building puzzle, and seven repetitions of similar events. In the first layer, the Fool eavesdrops on the Prince meeting with someone helping him, under duress, to spread his bewitchments through the lands. In the second, the Fool is ejected from the house and meets seven strangers, each of whom entrusts him with a key in exchange for Wordage before being captured by the Prince’s guards. In the third, the Fool once again eavesdrops on the Prince as he searches his seven captives for their keys, then destroys them. And in the fourth, even more disconnected from the narrative than the first three layers, the Fool confronts the seven mysterious and powerful beings through which the Prince worked his magic, and defeats them. Between these layers, the game indulges in fourth-wall-breaking trickery. There’s a puzzle hidden in the Seventh House page, another in the credits (or rather, the “compendium of true believers”, a list of the people who pre-ordered early on and never canceled), even one that pretends to exit to the main menu and erase your save.

Now, I find the third layer particularly troubling. The way the prince destroys people is, essentially, by abstracting them — turning a person’s silhouette into a mere wobbly shape with roughly the same contour as the original person, which then flattens to the ground. This seems worse than an ordinary death to me. It isn’t the only place in the game we see these shapes, either. A couple of other people turned into shapes and flattened at other points in the story. Also, I mentioned a puzzle where you press buttons to cycle sets of objects through different states: those objects were people that cycled through degrees of abstractions, and the goal was to make them all into people at once. (Interestingly, the buttons in that puzzle were letters of a word, and in the similar later puzzles where you press buttons to cycle letters in a word, the buttons are people.) But in the third tier of the Seventh House, the repetition makes the dehumanization and destruction of these people predictable: as you solve the puzzle that completes the story on that page, you know that it’s going to result in the annihilation of someone you’re trying to help. It feels a lot like solving the puzzle is what kills them.

And that’s not an unreasonable thing to feel. Understand that although the player is clearly meant to identify with the Fool in this story, it’s more like the sort of identification you get in a novel than a full-on Player Character relationship. You don’t control the Fool’s actions and aren’t affected by his setbacks, and indeed you basically operate on his story from outside, moving back and forth through it at will, skipping over bits and missing out on information that the Fool acts on. The one place where your interaction with the story intersects with the Fool’s actions is in the solving of the puzzles. In the main line, each puzzle you solve corresponds to the Fool breaking an enchantment and/or committing Wordage: the words you build or unscramble or decipher are the ones that the Fool is unlocking from the air. But here in the third layer of the Seventh House, the Fool does nothing but watch while the Prince does something very evil. So it’s as if the puzzle-solving in these scenes represents the Prince’s magic, not the Fool’s.

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