ParserComp 2022: Improv: Origins

Neil deMause is one of the old guard of IF, an entrant in the very first IFComp and author of the acclaimed Lost New York. But it’s a bit of a surprise to see his name crop up here, because his last known IF work was 20 years ago. (Welcome back, Neil!)

Improv: Origins is a prequel to a series of superhero parody games he wrote from 1997 to 2002, featuring the “Frenetic Five”, a team whose questionably-useful powers are all inspired by parser-driven text adventures. The player character, Improv, specializes in using ordinary objects in unusual ways, and he’s supported by a character who can find objects, a character who can guess words for you, and so forth. As such, ParserComp is almost the only venue where they really fit any more, in an IF world that’s increasingly leaving both parsers and puzzles behind. Although the game presents itself at first as an Improv solo adventure, it’s really an origin story for the team, showing how Improv met everyone else.

The whole game takes place in a single room, a sort of comically adventure-gamey bank vault, containing an impossible-to-open safe that you’ve been hired to open. Some of the puzzles are quite difficult even with the hints you can get from the other heroes; I know I’m not the only one to get stuck on the puzzle to find duct tape, which, given the power to locate objects, is really just a puzzle to realize that you should be looking for it. (I have some complaints about that power, by the way. It doesn’t seem to work on rubber bands, and you need a lot of rubber bands.) Still, it’s satisfying to make use of everyone’s powers, even (especially!) the less obviously useful ones.

The prose is generally good — there’s a repeated gag I particularly liked of Lexicon, the word hero, responding directly to narration — but much of the humor is based around casually mentioning absurd superheero names, which I suppose is consistent with the original Frenetic Five games, but it feels to me rather played-out by now, the same old joke about a subject that isn’t what it was 20 years ago — heck, the superhero parody genre has moved on. We’re in the age of One Punch Man now and this game is still imitating The Tick.

1 Comment so far

  1. matt w on 8 Jul 2022

    I tried this for a little while and, while it was obviously spoiled for me, I felt like duct tape was mentioned a lot. I couldn’t figure out what to do with it though!

    I got as far as znxvat n tvnag onyy bs ehoore onaqf naq abg fhpprrqvat va hfvat vg gb trg gur fgvpx bss gur furys.

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