IFComp 2016: Tentaculon

Spoilers follow the break.

At story’s start, you’re a squid, hunting crustaceans and avoiding predators in a choice-based interface. The pacing is swift, with just a couple of sentences per choice, although it sometimes inserts brief pauses between displaying one sentence and the next, forcing the player to wait in the middle of reading — a technique I didn’t care for back when people were doing it in Adrift games, and it’s no better here. (Occasionally sentences pop up on a delay even when there’s already a hyperlink available. So you get into the habit of waiting a few seconds after every page display just in case there’s more, which probably isn’t what the author intended.)

Then that scenario stops with a system error. You’re not a squid, you’re a scientist in a lab with a device that lets you experience a squid’s dreams. There follows some diagnostic tinkering, and some wandering about as you try to find a replacement for the component that went bust. The pages are longer in this section, and the choices more numerous.

Poking around in the lab next door is tense. You’re not really supposed to be there, and although there’s no one around, there’s enough indefinite noises and traces of recent habitation to make it feel like someone’s going to be back any minute. It’s not clear what they’re doing there, but it apparently has something to do with mantis shrimp, creatures famous for cracking the glass in their tanks with sonic blasts from their claws. These are crustaceans that can fight back against squids that mess with them.

Of course, you’re not a squid. Or are you? There are moments that suggest an unreality to life in the lab: some blurred text here, a mention of Philip K. Dick there. The security guard who gives you access to Lab 513 mentions leaving dream research because of a sense that some presence followed him out of the dream. In the end, I flee to the safety of my lab, only to hear a repeated banging at the door, as of a huge mantis shrimp trying to break through. The game ends shortly after that, one way or another, without definite explanations no matter what I do, and I’m left unsure of whether I’ve actually completed the story or not. It’s possible that different actions earlier would lead to a clearer or more satisfying resolution. But it seems like the author is aiming at the sensation of a bad dream, and that would only be weakened by clarity and resolution.

Two more complaints I have. First, there’s a moment early on that pretends to be time-sensitive: the link for grabbing your prey as a squid stretches left and right like a golf-swing meter. Prodding at it reveals that the results have nothing to do with the stretching; your first click always fails and your second always succeeds. So not only is it cheesy, it’s lying to the player.

Secondly, when you return to rooms, there’s state that doesn’t stick. For example, there’s a book in your lab that you can pick up and return to its owner. After doing so, you can return to the lab and the book is still there. The game is definitely tracking the state of the book, because you can’t return it unless you’ve picked it up, so this seems like a bug. On the other hand, maybe it’s a glitch in reality, another hint at the dream-state you’re still in.

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