IFComp 2010: Leadlight

Wade Clarke is apparently something of a fan of the Apple II, as a little googling confirms. And Wade Clarke’s Leadlight is an Apple II game.

Spoilers follow the break.

Now, the last time I had to use an emulator for an 8-bit system to play IF, it was because it was a game by Paul Allen Panks, who seemed incapable of understanding (or perhaps just unwilling to understand) that there was any reason not to do it that way. (Here we are in the second Comp after his death, but he still haunts it.) Clarke seems smarter than that — smart enough, at least, to give us a lot of help in the process of getting the game running. So let me try to articulate my objections to how the Apple II is used here. Let’s take as read the standard gripes about homebrew IF systems: the impoverished world model and parser, the absence of all the UI conveniences we’ve gotten used to. You can’t examine things with “x” here, for example, nor is there a command history. Or perhaps there’s some particular Apple II idiom for calling up the previous command line that I’m not aware of, like the F3 key in MS-DOS? If so, the fact that today’s players are unlikely to know it is still a weakness of the platform. Asking the player to play it through an Apple II emulator means further impositions, like a fixed-size display that can’t display a lot of text at once, and no mouse support (and, relatedly, no scrollback, although a mouse isn’t even strictly necessary for that).

And for what? I can only imagine it’s because the author places value on the Apple II in and of itself. When a person chooses to make a game in Inform or Adrift, it’s because they want to create the best IF they can, and feel like they’re choosing the tool that maximizes their potential. Even people who create their own new IF systems probably start from the point of view that they can get it just right that way. But if you’re writing a game for the Apple II today, it’s because you’ve chosen the Apple II as one of your constraints. And, well, all power to you if that’s what you find satisfying, but recognize that if you enter that game into an IF competition, it’s going to be judged as IF, not as an Apple II game. Note that it is possible in theory to write an Apple II game in Inform — after all, Zork ran on the Apple II — and in the process get a lot of Inform’s advantages, like the full-sentence parser and the full panoply of popular abbreviations. But if you did, I’d still be griping about your decision to make an Apple II disk image out of it instead of just giving us the platform-independent .z3 file to play however we want.

But let’s be fair: constraint can be a source of artistic inspiration. Consider Oulipo, or the innovations Hitchcock came up with to work around the studio censors. Today’s game developers have reopened the files on chiptunes and low-res sprite graphics, not out of necessity like their forebears, but out of a sense that there’s still some unrealized potential in abandoned forms — potential that can be illuminated by a more modern perspective. And that’s more or less what’s attempted here. The author describes the game as a survival horror, a genre that didn’t exist in the Apple II’s heyday.

Which brings us to the game content. The premise is a sort of cross between 28 Days Later and Suspiria. The player character, a dance student at a boarding school for girls, wakes up one day to find the bulk of her classmates transformed by an old curse into bloodthirsty killers that she has to slay in self-defense. Most of the monsters are identifiable as specific people who the PC knows, so you’re not clubbing anonymous zombies to death with a croquet mallet, you’re doing it to Tiffany who lives down from the hall from you and is in the drama club or some similar two sentences of color text. It’s more schlocky than scary, but I suppose that means he’s succeeded in his goal of capturing the essence of the survival horror genre.

And what does it give the player to do in this context? A mix of mostly-simple Scott-Adams-y puzzles and lots of boring randomized combat. I’m talking about the sort of boring randomized combat where you just type “attack [target]” repeatedly and get reports on who hit whom and how many hit points you have left. The game does at least let you repeat the “attack” command by hitting the “enter” key (or “return”, as the Apple II calls it) on a blank command line, which would have been nice if I found out about it earlier. (It’s mentioned in the PDF manual, but this is a game that you basically don’t need the manual for otherwise.) Still, unless I really missed something, this is combat as pure filler, without any possibility of tactical thought. The only fight that presents any variation is one near the end, when the boss is vulnerable to only one weapon. Why people keep putting this sort of thing in IF, I really don’t understand.

Rating: 3

5 Comments so far

  1. Merus on 13 Oct 2010

    As a refresher, could you explain what about a puzzle makes it “Scott Adams-y”?

  2. Jason Dyer on 13 Oct 2010

    I’m not sure about the use here either. I wouldn’t call Scott Adams puzzles simplistic. (Some of the games, like Savage Island, were way past anything sane.) Is there some particular attribute you’re meaning?

  3. Carl Muckenhoupt on 16 Oct 2010

    It’s really just an impression I got from playing this game, but if you want me to analyze that impression, I think I mostly mean thinly-disguised-lock-and-key puzzles, the sort where an obstacle is overcome by finding the appropriate tool somewhere and and using it on the obstacle. (And then, most likely, discarding the tool, because in this sort of game things seldom have more than one use.)

    I’m probably being unfair to Scott Adams here. His puzzles were often more sophisticated than that. It’s a style that I associate with what I think of as the “Scott Adams era” of IF, but mostly due to games by other authors. On the other hand, it’s not like you can’t find lots of examples in Adams’ works.

  4. anonymous on 19 Oct 2010

    There is a little mistake in this review. It says “(Here we are in the second Comp after his death, but he still haunts it.)” This is incorrect. Actually it is the THIRD Comp after his death. Because the last time Paul Allen Panks appeared in the IFComp before his death was in 2007.

  5. Carl Muckenhoupt on 20 Oct 2010

    Um, he died in July of 2009.

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