IFComp 2020: Vain Empires

Here’s a lovely bit of high-concept gameplay. The player character is an incorporeal demon who can’t interact directly with physical things. Instead, your main way of interacting with the world is by manipulating people’s intentions. Find someone who wants to Explore, for example, and you can take that away from them, keep the “Explore” intention in your inventory, and give it to someone else. (A possible avenue for exploration: this mechanic without a player character…) It reminds me a little of PataNoir and a little of Coloratura. It even reminds me a wee bit of Counterfeit Monkey, due to the wordplay involved: sometimes an intention has multiple different contextual meanings, as when you extract “play” from a musician and attach it to a child or a gambler. After the first act, your palette expands to include adverbs that modify the intentions, creating a combinatorial explosion that really should eliminate the utility of random guesswork, but I still wound up using random guesswork a lot of the time — mainly, my process was to try verbs until I found something that produced a special response, then iterate through the adverbs, effectively reducing the combinations from m*n to m+n.

Like the protagonist of Coloratura, the demon here basically treats humans less as people than as things to be acted on, even to the point of using “it” as the pronoun for every human character. Treating people as things has been identified as the essence of evil by wiser minds than mine, and it’s a bit distressing to casually extract a child’s urge to play and see him just stand there listlessly afterward. And yet, the demon’s narration is quite amiable, chatting with the player with candor, even though he clearly regards you as human — he knows you’re not used to thinking in terms of spiritual essences, and frequently pauses to explain things in terms humans would understand.

I suspect that my willingness to cut him slack has to do with the fact that manipulating humans is not his primary goal. He’s not here as a tempter, but as a sort of spiritual secret agent, hunting for pieces of a non-material codebook to decrypt an intercepted celestial communique. The setting is a hotel and casino where there’s an international diplomatic conference going on, giving it that cold-war spy story vibe on two levels, one of which isn’t his concern, but which he’s willing to exploit in service of the larger, more important cold war. Quite a few of the humans are various burglars, hackers, goons, and so forth, engaged in skulduggery of their own, excusing your exploitation somewhat. They know what kind of game they’re playing. They just don’t know all the players.

As seems to frequently be the case in high-concept games, the parts where it falls down are the parts unrelated to the concept. There’s a handful of puzzles that don’t involve manipulating intentions, and those were consistently the puzzles where I got stuck, because they took my puzzle-brain out of the groove it was in. Also, the ending throws a win-or-die time limit at you for the first time in the game without warning you to save first — I still haven’t actually won, because my last save was a considerable distance back and I haven’t felt like replaying from that point. Nonetheless, the overall experience was pleasant enough to keep me playing well beyond the Comp’s two hours.

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