IFComp 2019: Skybreak!

It’s easy to get the impression that all of Interactive Fiction is based on just two models, the explorable environments typically seen in parser-based text adventures and the branching stories typically seen in hypertext. So it’s good to get occasional reminders that there are other alternatives. Skybreak! is built out of randomized storylets, kind of like Fallen London and Reigns — but more like Reigns in the way it denies player control.

The premise is one of space-opera exploration, zipping from star to star, but the destinations are chosen by your ship’s AI, which claims to be in love with you. When you arrive at a location, you get a series of menus that let you choose what to do there. Once you’ve followed a path through the menu tree all the way to a leaf, it’s time to get back on that ship to another randomly-chosen destination. Often the choices are, unfortunately, meaningless: you arrive at a star with multiple planets and choose which one to explore further, on the basis of nothing more than an orbit number. However, on the basis of a jpeg map included with the game, I think it’s likely that the contents of each star system are fixed, not randomized at runtime. That you could theoretically take meticulous notes about every destination and use that information on subsequent playthroughs. It would take some time, though, because you can’t control where you go, and the galaxy is large.

Large, and uncooperative. At one point I seemed to be stuck in a morass of planets where there was basically nothing to do but mining, which I was terrible at. See, in addition to inventory, there are character stats and skills in this game, and a fairly elaborate character creation process; success at your actions is frequently contingent on where you put your skill points. I had optimized as a scholar/storyteller, figuring that finding the lost history of extinct civilizations would be the most interesting path. But I never found much of that during the Comp’s two-hour judging period.

Character creation involves choosing a race from a short list and two “backgrounds” from a longer one. The races notably include elves and goblins, and the backgrounds include sorcerer. Which is at least honest, I suppose. Backgrounds give you both victory conditions (which I never got anywhere near) and special abilities, some of which involve actions that aren’t in the menus. See, even though the game is basically menu-driven, it’s the sort of command-line-based menus where you type in a number at a prompt. Other commands can be typed in too, such as the ones that display your stats or inventory. This system feels a bit old-school, like Hunt the Wumpus, especially if you play it in a browser, where clickable links are more natural. But I kind of dug it. The game is written in Adrift, which is usually used for second-rate parser-based text adventures. I don’t think I’ve seen an Adrift game on this paradigm before.

The whole thing is just impressively baroque. There’s stats and skills you’ll never use, things you’ll never find. There’s a whole section in the inventory for exotic beetles. It may be best appreciated as an art object rather than played as a game.

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