Archive for November, 2009

The King of Shreds and Patches

January, 1603. Queen Bess is on the throne, Shakespeare is on the stage, and the black death casts its shadow over London. And, of course, in his house in R’lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming, as he has for eons. Based (with permission) on a scenario for the Call of Cthulhu tabletop RPG, The King of Shreds and Patches throws all of these things together into a single story. Which is kind of like writing a modern-day Cthulhu story about Barack Obama, Pixar, and swine flu, but that’s period drama for you.

Any substantial work of Lovecraft-based IF invites comparison to Anchorhead, the classic of of the genre, but playing this game really reminds me more of playing Call of Cthulhu. And not for obvious reasons — it doesn’t have what I normally think of as RPG elements, such as upgradable stats or skill checks or randomized combat. Rather, the structure so far is more what I associate with the live CoC sessions I’ve tried: you’re presented with lots of leads to follow up on, but not enough time to follow up on them all before bad things start happening. The game has a day/night cycle, and unless I’m misinterpreting things, it seems to be linked to the number of turns taken, rather than (as in Anchorhead) linking days to progress in the story.

Also reminding me of CoC is the way it throws lots of recognizable Cthulhu Mythos stuff at the player from early on. Anchorhead didn’t use any established Mythos material at all; the fact that the Lovecraft inspiration was clearly recognizable despite this is a sign of how well it achieved its aims. But also, using entirely new stuff preserved a sense of mystery. In TKoSaP, when I find the Yellow Sign depicted in one of the game’s rare uses of graphics, I immediately recognize it as the Yellow Sign. The character I’m playing doesn’t know what “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn” means, but I do, and it’s going to affect how I play that character.

But then, given the decidedly non-Lovecraftian setting, would it be recognizable as a Cthulhu Mythos story without these touches? Even in the game as it is, an episode of supernatural disruption of a performance at the Globe put me more in mind of a certain Doctor Who episode than anything else.


Like pretty much everything else Emily Short has done in the field of IF, Alabaster is an experiment. The idea here was to provide a number of testers/co-authors with the ability to extend the dialogue tree: suggestions made within the game were automatically recorded to a file, which they sent back to Short, who incorporated them in the next version that she sent out to the same authors for further suggestions. The game lists eleven authors (including Short herself), and boasts 18 distinct endings (including some obviously unsatisfactory ones).

The story is a revisionist take on Snow White, with the player in the decidedly weird role of the huntsman, commanded by the Queen to murder the heroine at the story’s beginning. In the original story, this is hardly a major character, or even an interesting one. I suppose that if you were to write a story about him, you could play up the emotional conflict, the fear of defying the Queen vs the obvious perfidy of killing a beautiful child, but that’s not a very interesting choice for IF. If you ask the player to make that kind of choice, they’ll usually just immediately choose good over evil. But Alabaster doesn’t make it that easy. This Snow White is creepy, and knowing, and, despite being your prisoner, gives a strong sense of being more in control of the situation than you are. She’s already made a bargain with you to spare her life and lead her to a haven among the dwarrows, but she does nothing to help you feel good about it. You naturally start to wonder if the Queen might have good reasons to want her dead. And so you talk to her — nearly all of the game is spent talking — and although you might be uncomfortable about trusting what she tells you, she’s pretty much your only source of information. Is she a witch? A vampire? A god, even? Possibilities suggest themselves, and are rejected in turn as too obvious.

I’ve seen (and participated in) IF collaborations before, and usually the seams where the authorial voice changes are pretty obvious, but the tone in Alabaster is surprisingly consistent. Short says she edited things “to improve continuity and conversation flow”, which explains this somewhat, but it’s not like the content was all hers. She also says that she was surprised at some of the turns that the plot took. Which, coupled with the consistency of style, makes me wonder: which turns were unexpected?

I’ve seen only a few of the endings so far, but one of the ones I’ve seen solves a mystery that I hadn’t even considered: what happened to the King? From a certain point of view, this ending might be the best one, because reaching that point explains nearly everything and brings the story to a definite resolution. But it isn’t entirely a happy ending. On the basis of what I’ve seen, I doubt there are any completely happy endings in the game.

Shelter from the Storm: Conclusion

The rest of the game took me less time than I expected. Once you’ve reached a crucial turn, a body turns up, and the game settles down into being a murder mystery for a while. This shift brings the return of the NPCs, who guide you through the rest of the plot. I kind of feel like I took longer to complete the self-directed snooping segment than I was supposed to, probably due to my reluctance to use the hint system (which actually proved very gentle on those occasions when I tried it). After the murder, you get to roam about looking for clues, accompanied by a character who comments on their significance. I had spent so much time poking around earlier that I had already found them all, except for a couple of final open-and-shut-case ones that I simply didn’t have access to before.

Overall, what we have here is a well-done shortish period piece. It’s also quite technically sophisticated, with such features as a pathing “GO TO” command, automatic spelling correction, and a conversation system that combines the best features of menu-based and freeform conversation without ever taking away the player’s ability to enter ordinary commands. Actually, these are all features that I’ve been seeing in other games this year and not commenting on. It seems like the state of the art is advancing incrementally, and that features that Infocom could only dream of are becoming standard — especially when you consider that this game was written in TADS, and most of the other games I’ve been playing were written in Inform. So no actual code libraries were shared between this game and the others. Ideas that seem good get imitated.

Shelter from the Storm

And now a wartime tale from Eric Eve, author of last year’s Nightfall. The year is 1940. A British lieutenant, on his way to report for duty, gets stuck in a thunderstorm in the countryside. Finding a house nearby, he persuades the maid to let him in; there follows a section where he meets the family, follows people around and engages in lots of the sort of menu-based conversation where there are more options than you can choose in the number of turns allotted. This goes on for a while, then stops abruptly, the soldier left alone while some mysterious noises upstairs draw his attention.

It’s strange, but at this point, despite having played the game for a while, I still had no clear idea of what sort of game it is. I’d have said it was basically a character-based drama, until I was abandoned to the world of objects and forced to take Action. Strange noises in a large house could mean anything from H. P. Lovecraft to C. S. Lewis. After a while, I started to suspect that things were a bit more prosaic than either of those extremes, and that I was simply dealing with a Nazi spy ring. My first clue was that the housemaid, supposedly a Jewish refugee, is contentedly listening to Wagner on the radio as she irons. And, once I had gotten my head sufficiently out of character-based-drama mode to start searching closets at random, I started finding more clues suggestive of this conclusion. I still don’t know who else in the house is involved, though, or even if the people I’ve met are who they claim to be. The noises I heard could be the house’s rightful inhabitants, tied up in the closet.

I should mention one of the game’s larger peculiarities: that it lets the player choose the person and tense of the entire game. I’ve chosen to play it in first person past tense, like it’s an episode from the soldier’s memoirs. I know I’ve seen at least one other incomplete fragment game that allowed the player to choose the tense, but the effort to produce this degree of variation over a full game seems strangely decadent. Still, it makes it a valuable resource for anyone investigating the effect of tense and person on the feel of a game.

Sam Fortune: Private Investigator

Here’s a game that could easily have been a comp entry. It’s about the right length (it took me a bit less than three hours and a couple of peeks at the in-game hints to finish it), and it’s about the expected quality, a solid midrange effort. That is, it has no obvious major bugs, but it also isn’t terribly inspiring. I’ve said before that a lot of detective-themed adventure games don’t actually ask the player to solve a mystery, but instead are simply, well, detective-themed adventure games. This game is in that category.

I may be a bit biased against it right now, because I’ve so recently played Make it Good, and Sam Fortune really suffers from the comparison. In MiG, the bottle of whiskey in your car is meaningful: it’s a part of the central character, a sign of what brought him to his sorry state, a temptation to give up, a cause for reprimand when it’s seen in your possession. Sam Fortune also has a bottle of whiskey, sitting on his desk, but it’s only there because a bottle of whiskey is a standard hard-boiled detective prop. It doesn’t have anything to do with the case, or Sam, or anything else. And that’s kind of how the whole game feels. It’s trying very hard to be hard-boiled by going through the motions and talking in detective lingo and so forth, but there’s nothing underneath it.

If it has a saving grace, it’s that it makes a point of that shallowness. The whole thing is presented as a old radio drama, complete with an act break and cigarette commercials. When you find some cigarettes in the game, they’re the sponsor’s brand, and described in the same glowing terms as in the commercial, just to draw you out of the fiction for a moment. Dying or otherwise failing in the game is immediately followed by the listener’s mother turning the radio off and telling him to go to bed.

Inside Woman: Moving Along

Well, the month of October is over, but the judging period for the Comp lasts another two weeks. I think I’ll keep playing IF for the duration, but I’ll take this as a signal to give Inside Woman a rest for a while. There are still five games I haven’t tried on that list from IFWiki, and I’d like to give most of them at least a cursory write-up before getting back to mainstream stuff.

I do want to get back to Inside Woman at some point, though. I’m currently about 1/4 of the way through by points, and quite stuck. But I’ve been stuck in this game quite a few times before, and so far, I’m still overall enjoying the experience. Somehow, this game is less stressful than the other IF I’ve played this season. Where Make It Good and Cacophony and Blue Lacuna were largely about puzzling out the hidden meaning of the gameworld, Inside Woman is all on the surface. Utopia is Bad Guys, and acts like it.

If there’s one thing this game does well, it’s self-contained sub-scenes that operate on their own rules, like the pizza place I mentioned earlier, or the simple cyberspace-hacking scenes (of which I’ve seen two so far), or even, in the very beginning, passing through the first security checkpoint by answering questions about your cover identity. That last bit struck me as not really fitting in the story — here I was trying to quickly find information in my personal documents that surely the player character would have memorized, so it was a puzzle aimed at the player, not at the character. It was still a pretty satisfying easyish puzzle: it put a little smile on my face every time they asked something I already knew.

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