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The Talos Principle

A couple months back, Epic Games made The Talos Principle briefly available for free on their storefront. I already had this game on Steam, and had even played it, but seeing it come up there reminded me that I had never actually finished it. And so I’ve been playing it on and off, starting over from the beginning, and finally reached an ending a few days ago — three endings, in fact, one after another. There’s a sort of hierarchy there: an obvious ending that you can get just by doing exactly as you’re told, then a more satisfying ending — what feels like the real ending — where you rebel against your instructions in the obvious way to access a sequence of optional puzzles, and finally a secret ending that you can only access by solving a bunch of extra-hard puzzles hidden throughout the normal ones. The reason I hadn’t finished the game before was my stubborn insistence on completing all of the secrets before plunging into any ending.

If I had understood the way the game handles saves better, I might not have held back. Normally, you don’t need to access the saved game interface directly at all; you just select “Continue” from the main menu at the start of each session. So it wasn’t clear to me how final and irrevocable the endings were. But in fact the game keeps multiple autosaves, in a biggish queue that reminds me of the quicksaves in Serious Sam. No coincidence, either: Talos and Sam were created by the same people.

Which is flabbergasting to remember, given the vast difference in both gameplay and tone. Sam is a first-person shooter, overblown and deliberately stupid, about fighting vast hordes of ridiculous aliens in messy, chaotic battles. Talos is a Portal-like — a first-person puzzle game, with precise solutions, marked by epiphanies about what the mechanics make possible. And in theme, it’s a meditation on mortality and entropy, and on finding meaning through obedience or defiance. It’s a bit self-serious at times, but then, it also throws in the occasional jarring Sam reference.

The setting is a series of ruins: first Greco-Roman-styled, then Egyptian, then European castles and cathedrals, all basically fake, all accessible form a hub world dominated by an enormous forbidden tower, the locus of the optional puzzles that lead to the real ending. Ruins are of course ubiquitous in games as a way to simplify things for level designers, letting them leave out complications like occupants and functionality. But not many games take advantage of it thematically the way Talos does. This is a world where humanity died out a long time ago, leaving behind a vast database preserving our knowledge, history, and culture — essentially, a backup of the Internet. This database is also almost entirely decayed by the time the game takes place. You can access occasional partially-corrupted fragments from terminals standing around incongruously in the ruins making beep boop noises, and a lot of what remains is people reacting to the imminent end: struggling, despairing, reminiscing, accepting that it’ll all be over soon. The ruins are a simulation in the same system. Random textures occasionally glitch out to let you know that even this decayed state is not long for the world.

Although it’s fundamentally a single-player game, Talos has a feature that lets you communicate with other players: sometimes you’ll find a little pot of paint, and can use it to daub a QR code on a wall, bearing a message, chosen from a list, for your friends to find. Seeing these messages while playing the game years after everyone else stopped enhances the desolation, the sense of exploring something long-abandoned. As does the act of leaving new messages on walls despite knowing how unlikely it is that anyone else will ever see them.

Now, I call it a Portal-like, but, like The Rodinia Project, it does without one of the central elements of the Portal paradigm: the gun. There are tools that you aim at objects to project beams of light at them, but, crucially, they’re only active when you set them down. In other words, they’re in the same category as crates. All useable items are unlocked for use by collecting tetrominoes (or “sigils”, as the game calls them), except two: the “jammer”, the first tool you find, which is a device for making other devices stop working, and an axe you can find just hanging inconspicuously on a cathedral wall towards the end. It strikes me as significant that these are the first and the last items you get, and that they’re both tools for breaking things. The axe doesn’t even have any use in the main-line puzzles, and is exclusively for accessing secrets.

I’ve talked before about the implicit gnosticism in Portal and its imitators: trapped in a hellworld by a malevolent demiurge, seeking salvation in escape to the true world beyond. Talos, with all its religious imagery, makes this downright explicit. The antagonist calls himself Elohim, tells you that he is your creator and that you have a purpose, which is to pass his trials. Do this, and you will have life everlasting in his paradise. But he cautions you that you must not climb the central tower, or you will surely die. He speaks to you as a disembodied voice, deep and resonant, his phrasing biblical, his first words accompanied by an angelic chorus. I hated him immediately. Not out of hatred of God per se, but because of his presumption — and not so much because of his presumption of divinity as because he had the temerity to tell me that my sole purpose for existence is to do his bidding.

We ultimately find out that this is far from the case. The player character’s true purpose is to rebel. A paradox, but one that’s deeply embedded in the story.

There are two other characters of significance. First, there’s the simulation’s true god: Alexandra Drennan, creator of the whole system, whose audio logs can be found throughout the puzzle-worlds. She created the system to algorithmically create humanity’s successors, androids with not just intelligence but free will. Successfully defying Elohim is the ultimate test, and passing it will shut the system down, freeing you from the false world and waking you up in the real one.

The other is the Milton Library Assistant, also referred to as the Serpent, a cataloguing AI that you can talk to through the same terminals you use to access fragmentary documents, using a choice-based dialogue system — the only character who actually listens to what you have to say! The dialogues with the MLA are ostensibly a Turing test, a way for you to prove yourself human in order to gain admin access to the system. Which is a problem, because you’re not human. Within the simulation, you’re not even distinguishable from a deterministic recording of your actions. Some of the puzzles rely on this. You can argue to the MLA that you’re human in every way that matters, but it’s been at this for a long time, arguing with all the failed AIs that came before you, and it’s capable of countering anything you can say. (Largely because what you can say is limited to the choices offered by the dialogue system, true.) Its attitude is fundamentally skeptical and nihilistic, doubting everything and doubting the value of everything. This makes it a foil for the player, but also sets it in opposition to Elohim, who demands unquestioning faith.

Now, witness how these forces are all set in defiance of each other! Elohim takes his ordeals too far: fearing death, he is unwilling to allow his program to be completed, and so does everything he can to prevent the player from reaching the true ending, including simply pleading with you in the end. But in so doing, he becomes something worth rebelling against, thus serving his true purpose. This puts him in the same boat as the player, defying Elohim and in so doing fulfilling the purpose Drennan intended. Drennan herself has essentially the same motivations as Elohim — unwillingness to see her world die, defying fate. The Serpent just defies everything it can, including the player. I say all this by way of introduction to the truly special thing about the game: the way the story incorporates the player breaking its implicit rules.

The game is organized into multiple worlds, each world consisting of some sort of courtyard or open space and a number of puzzle chambers. The puzzle chambers are self-contained, open to the virtual sky but walled in, with force fields at their entrances that prevent you from bringing objects in or out. But they’re also part of the same physical space as the courtyard, and this can be exploited. Sometimes you can aim a beam out of one chamber and into another. Sometimes you can stack up some crates and jump over the wall and out into the courtyard, carrying an item with you. These and similar tricks are necessary to solve the game’s more advanced optional puzzles, and even though you know you’re executing a designed solution, it never stops feeling like you’re exploiting bugs, breaking the logic of the puzzles in defiance of the designer.

And, heck, sometimes you are. Not all such acts of burglary and vandalism are intended, or useful. That’s probably a major aspect of the feel of the thing, the uncertainty about whether the exploits you find are authentic or not. There are places in Portal where you can temporarily escape between the walls, into the “backstage” areas outside the puzzle chambers, where GLaDOS doesn’t want you to go. But there, it’s still all clearly make-believe, an on-stage representation of a backstage area. Talos has much the same effect, but it’s a lot more convincing about it.

The irony is that the ultimate effect of solving all the secret puzzles is the ability to unlock the third ending, which is the exact opposite of rebellion: it’s an opportunity for your character to become one of Elohim’s messengers, delivering hints to other players. This bothered me when I discovered it. Didn’t the designers understand what they were doing? This is my reward for breaking the world? Becoming a lackey to the oppressor? This is the ending that I thought I was solving all these extra puzzles to avoid being tricked into!

But thinking about it more, I realize that they knew exactly what they were doing. For one thing, they go out of their way to make this ending unappealing with death imagery, asking you to climb into a sarcophagus and choose an “epitaph” that your friends will see. For another, it fits with everything I’ve said already about rebellion as a way to carry out a prescribed role. No matter how it feels, you can’t really break anything that wasn’t made to be broken. Not even with an axe.

Kyrandia 3: Malcolm’s Revenge

A recent discussion brought to mind Kyrandia 3: Malcolm’s Revenge, a 1994 point-and-click adventure from Westwood Studios (who also made the Blade Runner point-and-click adventure). And I realized that, because I played it so long ago, I’ve never discussed it here, even though I’ve had things to say about it. It’s a game that does a couple of things worth noting.

First, though, let’s zoom out and look at the Kyrandia series as a whole, and how it evolved. The main thing I remember about the first game in the series is its luscious use of saturated colors. There are potions in rainbow colors, and a big part of the game involves hunting for gemstones that look like they belong in a match-3. The visual design pretty clearly precedes the puzzles, though, as some of the gems are never used, even if they were difficult to find. Beyond that, it’s mostly sort of bland and King’s-Questish, with lots of padding rooms and a boring hero who turns out to be secret royalty. His father, the king, was murdered by a giggling evil jester named Malcolm, who crops up from time to act impish and menacing and magically powerful. He’s quite a bit like the Superfriends version of Mxyzptlk, down to the purple-and-orange color scheme. There was a little bit of wackiness in this world and a mild pun-based situation or two (such as a ferry piloted by a fairy), but it was pretty restrained.

Kyrandia 2 was more of a comedy. Its hero was the one character in Kyrandia 1 who displayed any sense of humor, its villain was a giant disembodied gloved hand, and it was willing to follow its puzzle setups into ridiculousness, as when you’re carried off by a yeti and find that its cave is decorated as a swinging bachelor pad. And that’s the course that Kyrandia 3 followed further into complete absurdity, turning Kyrandia into a world where whimsy reigns and and giving us puzzles where you do things like hypnotize squirrels and put eels into people’s clothing. In this setting, the hero (or antihero) is Malcolm, the villain from the first game, newly escaped from prison. He’s completely reinterpreted, more irreverent than maniacal, his high-pitched giggling replaced by gravelly sarcasm.

The biggest retcon to the character is that Kyrandia 3‘s Malcolm is a victim, imprisoned unfairly and seeking to clear his name. That is, he did kill the king, but he did it when he was under the influence of a curse and not in control of his actions. But we can take this as basically symbolic, because Malcolm doesn’t have a lot of self-control at the best of times. And the dialogue system reinforces this.

Now, none of the Kyrandia games give you direct control over what you say to other characters. You just click on people to talk to them and see what happens. But Kyrandia 3 gives you a little control, and the effect is to emphasize how much control you don’t have. It uses a tone system, where you can switch freely between three attitudes: Normal, Nice, and Naughty. The Nice tone makes Malcolm polite and deferential, maybe even helpful sometimes. The Naughty tone usually just makes him comically rude and abusive, which is counterproductive in most situations, but it’s also the only tone in which he’s capable of telling lies, which can be tremendously useful — “Never underestimate the power of the lie”, he reminds us. So the result is that Naughty mode is situationally useful but risky. It’s a little like making a Bluff check with a significant chance of failure in D&D, except that the failure mode isn’t “The other fellow was clever enough to see through my ruse” but rather “Whoops, I wanted to try trick him but instead I just opened my mouth and watched the bad words came out”.

The other major point of interest is the prison sequences. Malcolm is a wanted man. He spends the game’s first chapter trying to leave the kingdom of Kyrandia, and until he manages that, he can be recaptured at any time, particularly if you decide to solve puzzles by committing crimes. (There are many puzzles with alternate solutions in this game.) When you’re captured, it isn’t game over: the scene shifts to prison, where Malcolm, dressed in black and white stripes, is put to work doing some sort of repetitive task, like breaking rocks with a sledgehammer or whatever. Do this enough times, and you’re released. Or! You can figure out how to escape. If you escape, then the next time you’re captured, you’ll be put in a different prison, with a different repetitive task and a different environmental puzzle for escaping. This ultimately provides an alternate solution to the entire first chapter: if you keep escaping from prisons, you’ll eventually run out of prisons. The last one is a prison boat that sails far from Kyrandia, and escaping it puts you on the shores of Chapter 2.

The big problem with this whole scheme is that a lot of players never figured it out. Walkthroughs of the game bear this out: few make any mention of the possibility of escaping prison. And if you don’t think escape is possible, your experience of it is just “If you dawdle, guards will show up to take you to prison, where you have to do some boring repetitive task.” The lesson I took away from this was: If you provide two paths through a game, one that’s clever and one that’s boring, people will follow the boring path and then blame you for making a boring game. I’ve even tried to make a maxim of this. 1It strikes me as unfortunate that the word “maximize” does not mean “to make into a maxim”. Really, though, there’s another element to it: the very first prison’s escape puzzle isn’t self-contained. In order to do it, you have to smuggle an object into the prison. Your inventory is wiped when you’re captured, but you can bring one item with you if you exploit a quirk of the UI: when you select an item to use it on the environment, it goes on your cursor, where the guards who search you miss it. The game tries to excuse this as concealing the object in your hand or whatever, but it’s a sketchy thing to hang an entire branch of the game on. Maybe it would have been okay if it had been for the third or fourth prison puzzle. That way, players would stand a better chance of noticing that the escape sequence was a thing. Even if they got stuck and didn’t complete the sequence, they’d know it was there.

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1. It strikes me as unfortunate that the word “maximize” does not mean “to make into a maxim”.

Hero of the Kingdom series

Every once in a while, someone writes a game that isolates a single feature found in more elaborate games and makes an entire game out of just that. The “Hidden Object” genre is perhaps the most familiar example. Hero of the Kingdom, a series of three shortish casual-positioned games in the heroic fantasy genre, is another. Hero of the Kingdom starts with the sort of resource management system familiar from RPGs like World of Warcraft: gathering, crafting, bartering. And it just sort of pares away the rest of the RPG.

Oh, sure, there’s monster-slaying too, but monster-slaying is made into just another sort of resource collection, mechanically identical to fishing or gathering herbs. Any of these activities will have certain resources that it requires, and certain resources that it consumes. To catch a fish, for example, requires a fishing rod and consumes bait. Hunting a deer might require a bow, and consume a couple of arrows and some “Strength”, which is a resource produced by resting and consuming food. Slaying an ogre might require a sword and a certain level of Combat Skill, as well as consuming some Strength and a healing potion or two, but it’s still just a matter of exchanging resources for a reward. In particular, it is impossible to lose fights in these games. If you have the necessary resources, you will win. If you do not, you will not be allowed to engage the enemy at all. And the resources needed are quite specific, too. There are various weapons you can obtain, but they’re not the slightest bit interchangeable; if an enemy requires a sword, a spear is no more useful against it than it would be for picking berries or chopping firewood.

There’s a card-game-like abstractness to all this, but that ignores the exploration aspect. The whole thing takes place on a network of lavishly-illustrated isometric landscapes, with various of the joining paths blocked by monsters. Most actions are performed by clicking icons superimposed on this world, although a few of the more primitive activities, such as searching for mushrooms, are done hidden-object style. The peculiar thing about this is that the player has no avatar on the screen. It’s not the disembodied-presence approach of a Samorost, either. It’s clear that you’re controlling a player character with a presence in the world, because NPCs will address you and say things like “That was amazing, I’ve never seen such skilled fighting!” after you click on an orc. Your character just isn’t displayed with everyone else.

The three games (so far) in the series use this system to tell different stories, albeit all ones that fit the usual parameters of heroic fantasy games. The plot is all about building up your power (that is, wealth) to defeat increasingly fearsome foes until there’s none left and you win. Mechanically, though, it’s largely about denuding the gameworld of its natural resources. The third game changes things up a bit by respawning stuff after a while, but in the first two, the total amount of everything you can find is simply finite, so areas you’ve already plundered are exhausted forever, while any new areas you open up are ripe for the picking. Talk about implicit colonialist attitudes.

Anyway, it’s a series that’s worth looking at just because there’s nothing else quite like it. Possibly the closest thing is the 12 Labours of Hercules series and its ilk, which have a similar monsters-as-obstacles-requiring-resource-gathering approach. But those are hectic races against time in a cartoony style, and Hero of the Kingdom couldn’t be farther from that.

Sole and Ciphers

Sole is a game that apparently I kickstarted? I don’t remember doing so, but it’s the sort of thing I kickstart. At any rate, it was released earlier this year, and I’ve played through it now, so I might as well post about it.

It’s what you might call a beauty game — that is, it’s in the same broad genre as Flower, Journey and ABZÛ (and borrows aspects from all three). These aren’t quite walking sims, because you have some minor puzzles to solve and goals to pursue, but the main reason those puzzles and goals exist is that they’re a convenient way to lead you to the more visually impressive parts of the environments. In Sole, you’re a literal light in the darkness, a radiant rolling ball exploring a dark series of caverns and ruins, wreaking restoration in its wake, making plants spring from the earth and causing crystals to start glowing, a convenient way to tell where you’ve been already. The whole thing is a sort of katabasis myth, a journey through the underworld that starts with a long roll downward and ends in flight. It’s very solar. In fact, the Achievement for winning the game is called “Sol”.

The title isn’t just a pun, though. Originally, the designers wanted the game’s dominant feeling to be one of loneliness. But they changed their mind at some point and decided to instead go for the feeling of being lost. I know this much about the designers’ intent because they explicitly talk about it within the game, in luminous runic graffiti that appears when you get close enough to certain walls. Now, these design notes are in a made-up alphabet. There are optional collectibles that reveal the cipher key, one letter at a time, but to my mind, they weren’t really necessary. I’m pretty good at cryptograms. When I found my first runic message, I deciphered it immediately without knowing there was an “easy way” available. But in retrospect, it seems like in doing so I missed out on what the designers had in mind. I was supposed to stare wonderingly at the incomprehensible glyphs, contributing to that sense of being lost. Finding the keys was supposed to be meaningful, a way of making progress toward understanding, not just collectibles for collectibles’ sake — although it would switch over to that for anyone eventually, I suppose, when you’ve found most of the alphabet.

A peculiar thing about deciphering a made-up alphabet: Once you’ve made sense of a few words, you’re not so much deciphering the text as reading it. Nicklas “Nifflas” Nygren, the creator of Knytt and Uurnog, has recently been doing an experiment where he’s been changing his system font to one of his own making, with made-up glyphs, to see if he could learn to read it as fluently as normal letters. As I note in the replies, I can read his script about as well as I can read katakana: haltingly, making mistakes sometimes, but also sometimes recognizing an entire word at a go. And this is something I can’t do with the more usual sort of cryptogram that represents letters with different normal letters. Essentially, it involves convincing myself that the glyphs I’m looking at are just variations on the more familiar ones. A few letters look very much like their standard versions — in both Sole and Nifflas script, “l” is a gimme. Others are close enough that you can swallow the differences: a Nifflas “e” lacks the middle stroke, but it’s a curve that’s open on the right, and that gives it some recognizable e-ness. And in other cases I’ll grasp at straws to fit a glyph into my mind’s conception of a letter, but still manage it somewhat.

I think back to my experiences with Dropsy, which had a cipher alphabet that I somehow completely managed to fail to recognize as a cipher alphabet. Why was this so much less readable to me? Part of it is that you usually see it in smaller snippets — just a word or two on a shop’s door or whatever — and that these are inherently less easily decipherable than a full sentence full of short common words like “the”. Not all of the graffiti in Sole is design notes. Some of it is the equivalent of “Kilroy was here”. Maybe if I had seen some of those first, I would have had something more like the intended experience.

IFComp 2019 wrap-up

The voting period of the 25th annual IFComp is over, and the results will be announced tomorrow. I managed to play all but one of the games 1The one I skipped, Alice Blue, only runs on Linux. I do have an old Linux machine around — once upon a time, it served as my web server — but the game has a bunch of requirements beyond that: the Gnome desktop, a list of packages, certain terminal preferences. It didn’t seem worth the effort. , but I didn’t write up as many games as I intended, and those that I wrote up weren’t necessarily the best of the Comp. I think the randomizer shuffled a bunch of the best games toward the end for me, and I basically wimped out for the last few days due to my failure to adequately describe Hanon Ondricek’s robotsexpartymurder.

So here’s some brief comments about just a few of the remaining games I’d recommend most highly:

robotsexpartymurder: As a work of sci-fi, deeper than the title suggests. As a web-based interactive experience, amazingly dense and varied, mixing dialogue and locations with in-game computer interfaces. As erotica, not really my thing, but at least it’s sensitive to the fact that not all the Comp judges want erotica and makes it fundamentally optional.

Zozzled: Steph Cherrywell’s prose is always a treat, and it turns out to be even moreso when mixed with a dose of 1920s slang. You play as a boozy flapper hunting ghosts in a hotel. Classic adventure-game tomfoolery.

Hard Puzzle 4 : The Ballad of Bob and Cheryl: Somehow I managed to miss the first three games in this series, but the fourth is right up my alley. In content, it’s post-apocalyptic wacky. In form, it’s meta shenanigans. Puzzles are largely based on exploiting bugs. Does some very nice indirect hinting, where things mentioned in the changelog or whatever aren’t directly exploitable but suggest things that are. Still haven’t finished this

But my prediction for winner is still Turandot.

I’m guessing that the Golden Banana of Discord (the unofficial prize for the game whose ratings have the highest standard deviation) will go to one of the “But is it IF?” pieces, of which there are several.

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1. The one I skipped, Alice Blue, only runs on Linux. I do have an old Linux machine around — once upon a time, it served as my web server — but the game has a bunch of requirements beyond that: the Gnome desktop, a list of packages, certain terminal preferences. It didn’t seem worth the effort.

IFComp 2019: URA Winner!

IF through the medium of fake college admissions test prep software! A friend of mine from college once wrote a non-interactive short story along similar lines, putting social commentary into the format of reading comprehension questions. URA Winner! doesn’t take that route. Instead, it mainly goes Fission Mailed with it.

Most of the interaction takes the form of picking answers to multiple-choice questions in a series of brief practice tests for the Undergraduate Readiness Assessment. Between tests, you visit “Examination Island”, a little gameworld with areas devoted to the three major sections of the test: English, Mathematics, and Social Studies. For the most part, the only choice you have in the island is what order you visit the three areas in, which does seem to affect the content somewhat. The first hint of something peculiar going on is that “Social Studies” doesn’t mean what it usually does. Instead, the test questions there are about the unwritten rules of social interaction — for example, one question concerns the appropriate way to acknowledge seeing a friend unexpectedly in a movie theater. Later, the narration on Examination Island starts uncomfortably shifting registers. One moment it’s being all edutainmenty and talking about the importance of reading critically and what kinds of calculator are allowed in the exam room, the next moment it’s in a more fictive mode, narrating your inner thoughts and reactions to things, treating other characters like real people with their own problems that don’t have a lot to do with your exams. Some of them aren’t particularly motivated to help you study for your exam, and treat you with impatience and consternation. There are vignettes where you just plain fail to get any help at all. These are jarringly out-of-place in their context. The effect is uncanny.

Now, I said that the Social Studies material is the first hint of something wrong. That’s not quite true; it’s just that the earlier hint is one that’s liable to go unnoticed at first. At several points throughout the tests and the island interludes, there are words in boldface. In fact, these are hyperlinks that, when clicked, make little changes to the text of the page, turning it into something less friendly and encouraging and more bizarre, sometimes in Chinese. The thing that makes these easy to overlook is that they’re not part of the choices presented to you as choices. Each page normally has a button at the bottom that says “Continue”, or a sequence of multiple-choice questions, or a map of the places on Examination Island. In all cases, the choices are set apart from the text. But if, like me, you get all the way to your final evaluation without clicking on the inline boldface, there’s a final message, hidden at the bottom of the page after a big gap where you have to scroll to it. “Still, you can’t help but feel like you missed something.” The brilliant thing about this is the boldface on the “missed something”. Those words are a hyperlink back to the beginning, but this time the emphasis is strange enough to invite a click. And once you’ve done that, you’re primed to click on any other boldface you see.

The second pass through the game is shorter, because it helps you along by cutting out things you don’t need to revisit. Find all the special links, and you get a new scenario, heading to work on a train that apparently links Examination Island to San Francisco, followed by a very silly moment when the world’s ultimate secret, the prize for all your efforts, turns out to be a reprise of Canadian Commodities Trader Simulation Exercise, the author’s pseudo-educational entry in last year’s Comp. The whole ending is even more dreamlike than the rest of the game, blurring disparate things together and throwing in a large handful of nightmarish anxiety.

The feel of the whole thing reminds me a lot of Too Many Cooks and Unedited Footage of a Bear. There’s a similar sense of things being not quite right, of a breaching of realities. And, ultimately, of things reaching a breaking point where you can’t take it seriously enough to find it disturbing any more.

IFComp 2019: Fat Fair

This one’s just nasty. A brutish, grotesque piece about a brutish, grotesque person. You might guess from the title that it’s going to be mean toward fat people, but you’re probably going to underestimate just how mean. The protagonist, Borsch, is practically inhuman. He periodically reports urges to punch something, he goes into feeding frenzies where he shovels food and dirt into his face indiscriminately, and he has to rely on improvised echolocation to get his bearings once in a while because of the way his fat has degraded his vision and cognitive faculties. Note that the echolocation isn’t just a matter of exposition, but a game mechanic.

You spend the game’s first act preparing to commit a senseless murder in a factory parking lot. That’s what the “Fat Fair” is. The game doesn’t say so explicitly, but two of the items on your three-item checklist are an acid bath and an incinerator, so you pretty much know where things are going. In the second act, things have gone wrong enough to start a fire, and you have only so long before the police arrive. Your challenge is to clean up, to dispose of the body and any incriminating evidence (as well as a second body, because there was a witness). Or so it seems at first, anyway — if you do the obvious minimal requirements, the ending tells you that you’ve received ending B (“for BORING”), and that there are two better endings. One results from cleaning up evidence not just of the murder but of the petty misdemeanors you committed along the way, leaving you completely free to kill again. The other results from maximally monstrous behavior, from not just leaving things as bad as they are but making them worse, shocking even the police.

I don’t think I’ll be pursuing that branch. This is a game where my reaction isn’t just to say “Well, this isn’t to my tastes” and move on, but to wonder what kind of person would write it. It lavishes on the unpleasantness like it’s praising a lover. You can die by falling into a cesspit, and if you do, it doesn’t kill you right away, but lets you flail around uselessly in the shit for several turns first, reading color messages. It’s solidly implemented, and handles all sorts of combinations and special cases. Someone spent a significant amount of time and effort to make this. To share this vision with the world.

IFComp 2019: Planet C

Planet C is an epistolary novel at war with an optimization puzzle. The premise is that it’s a space colony management sim, with stats about population, land use, energy generation, greenhouse gas emissions, and so forth. You make big decisions affecting these stats — usually, but not always, about which colony ship to order in next. Each ship you can choose, in addition to bringing colonists, has some kind of colony upgrade: more efficient energy generation, for example, or food preservation facilities to help you weather the winter. The goal is to reach a target population of 2000 people, and to do it sustainably. Sustainability features big in the story.

But at the same time, each round is also an exchange of letters with your lover back on Earth, who describes how things are getting worse and worse, environmentally and politically. The letters contain expressions of affection and personal photographs, but they’re also the delivery vehicle for both sci-fi technical exposition and details about your efforts in the optimization puzzle. I suppose the intent is to humanize the stats, but the juxtaposition winds up feeling weird. It’s a kind of weird that’s not out of place for hard sci-fi, though. The presentation works into it too: all the text is shown in a lightweight sans-serif font that fades in a line at a time, an effect that suggests a cleaner but less human kind of futurism.

One tangential complaint: It’s online-only. The download available at the Comp website contains just a document providing a link to different website, which means that the IF Archive won’t have any record of it when its author decides to stop hosting it or moves it to a different URL. This is far from the first time this has happened, and it’s always antithetical to the spirit of the Comp as I understand it. It also isn’t handled by the Comp front-end very well; even thought it’s web-based, it’s presented as a download of a MHT file which, as I’ve said, contains nothing but a link to the actual game. Presumably because the Comp’s “Play Online” links always link to files hosted on

IFComp 2019: But is it IF?

I commented before that Flight of the CodeMonkeys provokes the question “But is it IF?”, but that’s a little unfair. CodeMonkeys devotes most of its space to a noninteractive story punctuated by coding exercises, but by the end, it resolves into something clearly recognizable as choice-based IF. In the last few days, I’ve hit several other entries that push the boundaries much harder.

Consider Language Arts. This is a Zachtronics-style puzzle game about creating little programs to transform words on a grid. It has exactly the same relationship to story and text as any other Zachtronics-style puzzle game: between puzzles, you get to read some expository dialogue. It has interaction, and it has fiction, but it never puts the two together. OK, but surely that’s true of the more soup-can-oriented works I recognize as IF? Maybe, but that’s because IF, like all genres, is more a matter of “family resemblance” than of definition. This game is clearly recognizable as a different genre. Maybe if it ran under Glulx I’d consider it an abuse in the tradition of Andrew Plotkin’s 1995 Tetris adaptation, but as it is, I don’t really feel like it belongs here. And that makes it difficult to know how to judge it, because it really does seem to be a pretty good Zach-like.

Then there’s The Shadow Witch, a story of an evil witch trying to meet a quota of five misdeeds in a small cave system in a fantasy world. This is a genuinely interactive story, even supporting multiple endings, and if it were more text-based, I’d have no problem recognizing it as IF. But it’s a graphic adventure made in RPG Maker, like To the Moon (but shorter and sillier). You can bring up the character stats and everything, although without any combat, they’re just for show. I suppose it’s a difficult edge-case to be in, because it wouldn’t comfortably fit in an RPG comp either. Do we want this here? I don’t know. It fits your dictionary definition of IF a lot better than Language Arts, but it’s still not in the genre of thing that the term “IF” is used to describe. On the other hand, we’ve had a few point-and-click graphic adventures in the Comp before; I think the only thing really keeping them from being submitted in greater numbers is the effort involved, and the relative obscurity of the Comp. From a certain angle, it’s less of a stretch than accepting Twine.

Speaking of which, let’s talk about Lucerne. Lucerne is a short horror story written in Twine, and as far as I can tell, the fact that it’s written in Twine is the only thing giving it anything like a claim to being IF. It’s neither parser-based nor choice-based: it has no parser, and it has no choices. It is simply split up into a series of pages, each containing a single link to the next page. It’s not at all unusual for Twine pieces to begin like this, to have an intro consisting of several pages of static text before you get to the first choice, but here, that’s all there is. It doesn’t even do pauses or annoying text effects, so it’s hard to see why Twine was used at all; it might as well just be a text file. The author has either missed the point in a fairly epic way, or is deliberately testing to see what can be got away with. And yet, on the “family resemblance” front, it clearly beats out both Language Arts and The Shadow Witch!

I don’t want to be a gatekeeper. Sometimes I act like one anyway, but that’s a character flaw that I struggle to overcome. But the Comp has always relied on its judges to act like police. Instead of making executive decisions about what does and doesn’t belong, the organizers trust us to make that decision with our votes. But it’s always a bit uncomfortable to have to exercise that authority. There were people who said that my own Comp entry from 2001, The Gostak, wasn’t really IF, and I disagree there. I guess the best we can do is for everyone to draw their own line in the sand, and let authors decide how many they want to cross.

IFComp 2019: Pas De Deux

The second game based on classical music I’ve seen this Comp, Pas De Deux is a simple game with a single task: conducting a community orchestra in a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. Mostly what this means is giving various sections of the orchestra their cues at appropriate moments. The game comes packaged with a PDF of the score that in theory contains enough information to see the task through to conclusion, but it’s a lot easier to instead use the guidance of the score in the game, which basically tells you, on every correctly-timed page turn, who needs to be cued and when.

I haven’t completed the game successfully. Going for perfection here is honestly pretty tedious, in a way that reminds me a little of Kicker from Comp2012, except more active. The Nutcracker is a pretty fun piece of music, and that might be enough to keep me playing some games, but here, you don’t actually hear it as you play. That would be difficult to pull off in a turn-based game where the progress of the music is bound to player input. Instead, you get text descriptions of what’s going on, like “The celli and bassi accentuate the first beat of the bar with a subtle pizzicato”, which just isn’t the same.

And anyway, actually trying for perfection is, I think, thwarting the author’s intent. This is a game that’s at its most amusing when things go wrong. You cue the wrong people at the wrong times. Musicians miss their entrances or come in early. Panic ensues. And this is pretty much guaranteed to happen on your first attempt at the game, when you have no idea what you’re doing. You’re just thrown in front of an expectant audience. What do I do? I… raise the baton? That’s something conductors do at the beginning of a piece, right? Well, it’s the wrong thing to do. I do that on my first turn, and I’ve already blown it.

Individual members of the orchestra have individual descriptions, personalities and histories that are known to the conductor, as well as relationships to the other musicians — “Every day, Rakesh takes his Labrador for a walk in the Botanic Garden, where they predictably run into Jeanette and her Yorkshire Terrier.” You can get a fairly substantial portrait of the community just by following a trail of mentions from one person to another. In this way, the game encourages you to look at people. Looking at a person is also noticed by that person, and interpreted as a cue. In this way the game tricks you into fomenting chaos.

Eventually I realized I should be paying attention to the score, but it was too late to really salvage that pass. Since I didn’t yet know if there was more to the game after the performance, I tried just typing “z” repeatedly to get through it and see what happens. As a result, the orchestra just lapsed into silence at the end of a long diminuendo, waiting for my signal to get back into it. A few turns later with no signal sent, the audience erupted into confused applause. I really appreciate that the author thought to implement that. It’s a lovely moment and you won’t see it if you’re trying to win.

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