IFComp 2008: Project Delta

Spoilers follow the break.

Set in a secret military compound near Area 51, Project Delta is a gripping, suspenseful story about picking up a pistol, loading it, and firing it at a target on a firing range.

I am of course being facetious. This is not a story. It isn’t even a game. It’s a user interface tutorial. And not a necessary one, either — the UI in question is pretty self-explanatory, being driven by on-screen menus, and the few things that aren’t covered by the menu system (such as bringing up the inventory screen) are adequately covered in the help screen.

It is also a technology demo for a new system called “Node-X”. (And I feel a little foolish now for talking in a recent post about games that feel like demos — the game I was discussing at the time at least had some genuine game content.) Node-X seems to be a “CYOA” 1Choose Your Own Adventure system — that is, one based on navigating between pages of text via context-specific menus — but with, in addition, two inventory slots (one for each hand). CYOA interfaces don’t exactly inspire confidence in a system’s depth of simulation. They’re most often used for things that might as well be handled through static HTML. But it really is just an interface, and doesn’t necessarily imply that the world model is limited. I’ve seen CYOA games that track a lot of internal state, making the effects of user choices, and even what choices are available, depend on earlier choices. Here, the world model contains at least three pieces of information: current node, left hand, and right hand. Is that all the state information that Node-X is capable of handling, or does it provide for hidden variables? I don’t know. This technology demo does not demonstrate that much about the technology. What it does demonstrate is that Node-X isn’t even sophisticated enough to handle the content of its own demo gracefully: apparently each node has to have at least one static menu option or something like that, so when it wants you to just fiddle with the inventory, you get a menu consisting of an empty dummy option that does nothing.

It is also a teaser for an allegedly forthcoming complete game. I’d like to go out on a limb here and make a prediction: the full game will never be released. I say this by weight of precedent. Generally speaking, when someone releases a teaser for a game, that game goes unfinished. Possibly this is just because most IF projects are never finished, but possibly there’s an additional factor, that the authors expect the teaser to whip up enthusiasm, and give up in disappointment when it fails to do so or, even worse, receives negative criticism. And this teaser is certainly criticizable.

Two points of weirdness I’ll note before moving on. First, the room descriptions here mention the compass directions of the exits. This is normal in IF, but only because compass directions are usually important to how the player moves around in the gameworld. Movement by compass directions has a number of advantages over other systems that have been proposed — advantages like short commands, general applicability, appeal to the kinaesthetic sense, familiarity — but the effect it has on room descriptions is unnatural enough that the whole system periodically comes under fire on the newsgroups. So why wreak this textual unnaturalness within a system that doesn’t even get the corresponding advantages? Perhaps the author thinks that a superficial imitation of traditional IF will make it easier for the IF community to accept — which would also explain the unnecessarily IF-like syntax of the menu options (the first node offers choices like “examine self”). All I can say is that if he thinks this, he doesn’t know us very well.

Second, there’s the response to that “examine self” option:

As far as you can see from your perspective you are a young and white female… [physical details omitted] Concerning your character it is unknown at this point who you are or what your function is. The fact that you are a female soldier of some kind in a secret military complex makes even a greater mystery to you.

This cannot possibly be the player character’s point of view — at the very least, in the absence of an explicit in-character amnesia plot, the PC presumably knows who she is. Rather, the “you” being addressed is clearly the player, not the PC. Which makes this whole description seem like something out of Being John Malkovich, a first-person shot of taking remote possession of someone else’s body. Perhaps that’s the author’s concept of what IF is like. And I can see where that idea might come from, because taking control of a character like that is what IF is, but it’s generally not what IF is about, not something acknowledged within the game’s content. It’s a confusion of levels, and the effect is as weird as reading a book that says “Hello! Let me introduce myself: I am a series of words printed on bound paper.”

(Since this is a user interface tutorial, this is followed by an NPC instructing the player in how to pick things up and access the inventory menu and so forth, which I suppose is just as level-confusing as the above. But somehow I didn’t find this so disconcerting. Perhaps I just don’t hold NPCs to the same standards of metafictional consistency as the narrator.)

To summarize, the author has shown signs that he understands neither his audience nor his medium. Even if he finishes his game, I don’t have high hopes for it.

Rating: 1 This work belongs to that small set of Comp entries that are in principle unfixable. It should not have been submitted to the Comp, and the only way to turn it into a game that should have been submitted to the Comp would be to just replace it with a different game.

1 Choose Your Own Adventure

1 Comment so far

  1. The Stack » IFComp 2013 and the Twine Revolution on 21 Oct 2013

    […] a text parser. And for years now, every time “CYOA” interfaces come up, I’ve been pointing out that a simple interface doesn’t have to mean a simple world model. There has even been […]

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