Archive for 2019

IFComp 2019: The Legendary Hero Has Failed

The Legendary Hero Has Failed is a last-moments-before-the-apocalypse piece, like Anna Anthropy’s Queers In Love at the End of the World and I think one of the Fingertips games in Apollo 18+20. I’m pretty sure it’s also Legend of Zelda fanfic. I’ve only played a couple of the Zelda games, but the end of the world here is a result of the moon crashing into the earth, and furthermore, it’s described as grimacing while it does so, and isn’t that something that happens in one of the Zelda games? Reinterpreting things from popular media and investing them with more meaning is of course a fine thing, but you can easily wind up with something that’s only of interest to people sufficiently familiar with the source material, and I think that might be happening here.

It’s basically about human reactions to impending doom. You’re sitting around a campfire with four friends, watching the world end, and have the option to talk to them, comfort them, rage at the moon, play Fizzball, get high… not a lot of options, really, all told. Maybe these are characters from the original game. Maybe not. All I can say is that I’m not really very attached to them even after talking to them in this game. I think I was inclined to be uncharitable toward them because the game decided to annoy me at the very beginning by delaying the appearance of the link that lets you start the game. There are a couple of other moments like that within the body of the game, and it’s even more irritating there, because the whole thing is on a real-time timer. The moon crashes into the earth after 5 minutes of play no matter what, and the in-game pauses waste precious seconds of that. It’s a pernicious combination.

And yet, inconsistent hobgoblin that I am, I also wound up feeling like the timer was too long! Compare it again to Queers: the timer there is a mere 10 seconds, because it’s trying to make you feel like there’s nowhere near enough time to do everything you want to do. Whereas five minutes is more than enough time to exhaust your options in Legendary Hero if you don’t dawdle. The approach of the grimacing moon becomes less of a constraint on your actions than the mere fact that there isn’t much to do. And I really don’t think that’s what the author was going for.

IFComp 2019: Turandot

Turandot, by Victor Gijsbers, is a romance flavored with peril, only very slightly connected to the opera of the same name: it tosses the exoticizing orientalism out the window and expands the princess Turnadot’s test for her suitors from a mere three riddles to an full-on dungeon with pitfalls, traps, and a ravenous crocodile. The protagonist, Calaf, is a self-centered hedonistic playboy who sneaks into the princess’s garden on a dare, and, on seeing her, is immediately smitten with an irrational operatic love that persists even when he finds out that she’s the sort of sadist who would build such a dungeon in the first place. The bulk of the piece is spent in that dungeon, where Turandot essentially plays GLaDOS, following your progress from various balconies and observation posts and bantering with increasing familiarity as you go. Most of the interactivity here is dialogue; actions like dodging traps and wrestling the crocodile are peppered throughout, there being no particular reason to separate dialogue from action in a choice-based work.

There’s something very comfortable about the texture. By which I mean, the amount information you get before making your choices, and the amount of text between them, seems just right to me. This has definitely not been the case for every Choicescript work I’ve encountered, and when they err, they tend to err on the side of giving you too much to comfortably process at a time. One way Turnadot avoids this is by just throwing in fake, inconsequential choices once in a while to break things up into manageable pieces. In other games, I’ve sometimes found this annoying, smacking of dishonesty. But here, it’s generally clear what’s going to have real effects and what isn’t, and the author frequently uses these points as what Emily Short has called “reflective choices”, where you’re choosing the contents of your character rather than the progress of the plot. Figuring out what it means to be in love with someone who’s trying to kill you.

Because that’s really what this work is about: a character being forced into confrontation with himself. Two characters, really, including the deadly princess. The dungeon is a metaphor for the terrifying work of self-knowledge, and of being known by someone else. That goes for the princess as well — the whole thing is basically a huge, externalized defense mechanism to keep people from getting too close. At the same time, she has the power to make things easier or harder for her prisoners; ultimately, the real reason all her previous suitors failed the challenge is that they annoyed her. She’s almost a vigilante, really, avenging the sins of male privilege, of all the princes and potentates who dared to try to claim her, treating their desire as more important than her will to self-determination. Most of all, her experiences have made her detest powerlessness, and so her tests cull out both those who will try to take away her power, and those who will allow her to take away theirs.

Even at the story’s most serious moments, when Turandot and Calaf discuss their guiltier secrets, the tone is fairly playful. And this works into the choices as well — there’s some formal experimentation that reminds me of the old Lucasarts games. On several occasions, you’re given a set of choices with the sole sensible choice grayed out, clearly indicating that Calaf knows it’s an option but is determined not to do it. The ending indulges in this so hard, it feels like he’s trolling the player.

IFComp 2019: Sugarlawn

Sugarlawn, by Mike Spivey, is built on essentially the same conceit as Ryan Veeder’s 2013 game Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder: the whole thing is one big optimization puzzle, giving you an environment rich in treasures to collect, and not enough time to collect them all. Some of the treasures are just lying out in the open, others require puzzle-solving. The cash value of each treasure is unknown until your evaluation at the end, so it takes multiple playthroughs to learn which items are worth spending the time to do whatever you need to do to collect them. (This is extremely distinctly characteristic of Verdeterre, and eliminates any possibility that the game wasn’t made in conscious imitation of it.)

That said, Sugarlawn does innovate on the formula. For one thing, it’s a lot bigger. Verdeterre was set on a sinking pirate ship, Sugarlawn in a sprawling southern plantation house turned tourist attraction. This alone has an enormous effect on how one approaches the game; the chief thing that consumes your limited time is simply walking around.

Now, a sinking pirate ship imposes a time limit fairly naturally. To get one in Sugarlawn, the author adds the premise that the whole thing is a game show. This also excuses a variety of other unnatural rules. In addition to simply retrieving treasures for money, you can return them to the locations where they belong: books to the library, for example, or a toy steamboat to a river-themed bedroom. This earns you a bonus which, in many cases, is larger than the value of the treasure itself, but it makes for a lot more running around. You can double this bonus by refusing to use the sack provided for you, which imposes an inventory limit. Such things make the question of optimizing your earnings a lot more complicated.

Another complication: You’re only allowed to carry one key at a time. There’s a box in the foyer where you can exchange a key for another one, but again, this means going back to the foyer, which uses valuable time. Apparently there’s a shortcut: each locked door also has a voice code, a magic word that opens it. I still haven’t figured any of them out. Finding the passwords seems like it would be a major breakthrough in the game, a point where your experience of the thing is utterly transformed and you can really start thinking about optimizing. Before that, maybe you shouldn’t bother.

I did anyway, of course. My first playthrough, which occupied the majority of my time during the judging period, was spent taking the scenario at face value and trying to do as well as I could within the time limit even though I didn’t know anything yet. I was under two time limits, really, the one in the game and the one imposed by the Comp. And I found this quite stressful. Going back to it afterward was much better.

That’s a lot said about the game’s structure and gameplay. The rest of the content — the descriptions and the like — is pleasant and, I suppose, faintly educational. In addition to the historic displays (explicitly somewhat altered for the game show), there’s an announcer who provides additional information whenever you enter a room for the first time, describing its relevance to the history of the house and to the history of Louisiana. Slavery is mentioned, but not really addressed beyond acknowledging that it happened, which, I’m told, is somewhat daring for a historical plantation house. I strongly suspect that all this additional data works into the game’s riddles, the passwords for the doors and certain display cases, but can’t say for sure.

The thing is, even without solving any of the game’s real puzzles, there’s a lot to do here. You can spend a lot of time just running around picking up loose treasures for the pleasure of easy reward. I certainly did.

IFComp 2019: Truck Quest

Truck Quest is a social satire, almost a political cartoon. But it’s served on a substrate of choice-based trucking sim. You know, the same sort of thing as in Euro Truck Simulator 2 and the like, but greatly simplified. You get to choose missions of varying difficulty, the harder ones paying more, then you make some kind of arbitrary choice about your approach (go fast and risk accidents, or go slow and risk being late, sort of thing). Make enough money, and you can pay off your loans and upgrade to a bigger truck that can haul larger loads for more money. Independence. Entrepeneurialism. The American dream.

Except it quickly becomes clear that just trucking will make you money at a dismally slow rate, and you’ll make much better progress if you take on shady side missions from a series of caricatures: a hedge fund manager, a paranoid cyber-warrior, a big-government technocratic politician. Unlike the trucking, these missions are non-interactive and never fail. What’s more, they’re exaggeratedly effective: completing them alters the zeitgeist. Do missions for the hedge fund manager, for example, and people in general become more profit-minded and greedy. Do missions for the privacy advocate, and people become less engaged with their community.

Thinking about it afterward, I think the game missed an opportunity by not having the cultural mood affect the details of the trucking missions you’re offered. Or maybe it did, and it just didn’t make it obvious enough for me to notice.

At any rate, the piece makes its points mainly by showing you what doesn’t change. Between missions, you can talk your trucking mentor, Joan, who had to retire for medical reasons. No matter what changes you wreak on the political climate, Joan can tell you why it’s bad for her and her neighbors. Then there’s Smilin’ Dan, who runs the truck dealership. He sets the terms, gouges you at ruinous interest rates, and then, when you’ve finally made your last payment and own your truck free and clear, he secretly sets fire to it. (It’s pointed out on a few occasions that his name isn’t “Honest Dan” or “Empathetic Dan”.) Smilin’ Dan doesn’t care what the reigning ideology is, because none of the options challenge his power to run roughshod over you.

At one point, a waitress at a truck stop proudly announces that she’s decided to become a trucker herself. The sensible option at that point is to warn her not to do it, to get out while she still can.

So is it a South-Park-like nihilism, where every possible option is equally bad and all you can do about it is point out how bad it all is? Almost, perhaps, but the good ending, which involves exposing the grisly secrets behind a large tech company’s self-driving truck technology, has society reforming around new cooperation between all the factions. The real problem, the author seems to be saying, is imbalance.

It’s just about the least convincing part of the game. The entire scenario is basically an argument against capitalism, but since the author doesn’t trust governmental power, they don’t see socialism as a viable alternative. So instead we get a kind of redeemed capitalism, capitalism purged of its flaws. But the capitalism we see for the rest of the game, capitalism with its flaws exaggerated, looks a lot more familiar.

IFComp 2019: Skybreak!

It’s easy to get the impression that all of Interactive Fiction is based on just two models, the explorable environments typically seen in parser-based text adventures and the branching stories typically seen in hypertext. So it’s good to get occasional reminders that there are other alternatives. Skybreak! is built out of randomized storylets, kind of like Fallen London and Reigns — but more like Reigns in the way it denies player control.

The premise is one of space-opera exploration, zipping from star to star, but the destinations are chosen by your ship’s AI, which claims to be in love with you. When you arrive at a location, you get a series of menus that let you choose what to do there. Once you’ve followed a path through the menu tree all the way to a leaf, it’s time to get back on that ship to another randomly-chosen destination. Often the choices are, unfortunately, meaningless: you arrive at a star with multiple planets and choose which one to explore further, on the basis of nothing more than an orbit number. However, on the basis of a jpeg map included with the game, I think it’s likely that the contents of each star system are fixed, not randomized at runtime. That you could theoretically take meticulous notes about every destination and use that information on subsequent playthroughs. It would take some time, though, because you can’t control where you go, and the galaxy is large.

Large, and uncooperative. At one point I seemed to be stuck in a morass of planets where there was basically nothing to do but mining, which I was terrible at. See, in addition to inventory, there are character stats and skills in this game, and a fairly elaborate character creation process; success at your actions is frequently contingent on where you put your skill points. I had optimized as a scholar/storyteller, figuring that finding the lost history of extinct civilizations would be the most interesting path. But I never found much of that during the Comp’s two-hour judging period.

Character creation involves choosing a race from a short list and two “backgrounds” from a longer one. The races notably include elves and goblins, and the backgrounds include sorcerer. Which is at least honest, I suppose. Backgrounds give you both victory conditions (which I never got anywhere near) and special abilities, some of which involve actions that aren’t in the menus. See, even though the game is basically menu-driven, it’s the sort of command-line-based menus where you type in a number at a prompt. Other commands can be typed in too, such as the ones that display your stats or inventory. This system feels a bit old-school, like Hunt the Wumpus, especially if you play it in a browser, where clickable links are more natural. But I kind of dug it. The game is written in Adrift, which is usually used for second-rate parser-based text adventures. I don’t think I’ve seen an Adrift game on this paradigm before.

The whole thing is just impressively baroque. There’s stats and skills you’ll never use, things you’ll never find. There’s a whole section in the inventory for exotic beetles. It may be best appreciated as an art object rather than played as a game.

IFComp 2019

So we’re two weeks into this year’s IFComp’s month-and-a-half judging period, and I haven’t posted anything yet. I intend to remedy that, but I’m definitely not going to be reviewing every single game. It’s almost cliché by now, but: This year’s Comp is the biggest ever. There are 82 entries. Last year, I mentioned how Cragne Manor had more authors than the Comp ever had. If I’m not mistaken, that’s no longer the case.

I was actually considering skipping the Comp this year, as I’ve done sometimes in the past. I haven’t posted Comp reviews since 2016, and anyway, who am I to be judging people’s creations, really? But then I looked at the list of titles and got excited. Such variety, such creativity! Browsing the Comp games list gives me much the same feeling as walking into an art supplies store: so much potential! And yet, in both cases, so much eventual disappointment as well.

But why dwell on that? My intention is to do what I did in 2016: post about one game per day for the rest of the judging period, picking just the ones about which I have something to say. I already have a few selected.

Slay the Spire

It’s been a good few weeks since I’ve done any regular posting, and before IFComp season begins, I’d like to say at least a little something about what I’ve been playing during those weeks. The chief thing, definitely the one I’ve put the most hours into, is Slay the Spire. That’s because it’s a very compelling game: it’s a hybrid of roguelike and deck-building game, which is an unexpectedly synergetic combination. The roguelike part gives it a rhythm of periodically failing and restarting, which wipes your deck and makes you start afresh, the better to make you experiment with different deck-building strategies.

Most of the game is spent fighting. Card represent various combat moves, offensive and defensive, and are mostly acquired by winning fights, although there’s some opportunity to buy them from in-game shops as well. There are three player character classes (and a fourth coming), each with its own card set specializing in different force multipliers. The three classes more or less correspond to the classical Fighter, Thief, and Wizard, although the Wizard is a little bit of a stretch — it’s based on summoning an array of “orbs”, each of which automatically performs a simple action each turn, like attacking or defending, or can be spent to perform the same action harder. Call it a summoner, then.

In fiction, though, that summoner is a rogue security android. And that’s a good example of the kind of world-building this game does: offhand and ambient, made of suggestive details rather than lore dumps. The player has no idea that this is a setting with security androids until you see it in the character select screen. The title screen has an image of an impossibly tall and slender spire with an organic-seeming irregularity, but that’s all it tells you about the setting. There’s a bird cult of some sort inhabiting the spire, which seems appropriate for a structure reaching into the sky. Every human in the game wears a mask, usually made from an animal skull. Why? Probably, at root, it’s so the developers don’t have to make facial animations, but it comes off as suggestive and enigmatic all the same. The one exception to this is the special events found in some rooms in place of a combat encounter or a shop. These are storylets that usually culminate in a choice, which may be constrained by your available resources. Steal a treasure at the cost of putting a Curse card into your deck? Give up a relic you found earlier in order to upgrade all your basic attacks into vampire-style life-draining bites? The choices tend to be dark ones, and the text that precedes and explains them is similarly dark. This is the closest the game comes to providing an explicit story.

But the bigger story is the implicit one, of a hierarchy of successes and failures. It’s broadly implied that this isn’t a story of a succession of random heroes attempting to ascend the spire, but that in some sense it’s all the same person, repeatedly dying and being resurrected at the bottom by some kind of three-eyed whale god. Sometimes you’re resurrected as a rogue security android, is all. And when I call it a “hierarchy”, what I mean is this: Within a game, there are three chapters, each ending in a fight against a boss. Beating the third boss with each of the three character classes for the first time results in a little cutscene of a gem lighting up in a sort of three-part key. Once you’ve beaten the game with all three classes, the pieces of that key become available to pick up within the spire. Going for them makes the game a little harder, but if you manage to get them all in a single run and then beat the third boss — which is something I’ve managed only once so far — you get to advance to a short but tough fourth chapter, with an even tougher boss. And each level of this hierarchy feels like victory, at least until you actually attain it and discover that it’s just a piece of a larger whole. It isn’t just the low-level gameplay that makes this game as compelling as it is. It’s also this structure, that makes victory seem close at hand such a large portion of the time.

The Measurement Problem and other related problems

Memory is a funny thing. It’s happened more than once that I see a title of a game I’ve played a bit, and think “Ah yes, I remember that one!” — only to find out that it’s a completely different game than the one I’m remembering. So it was with The Measurement Problem. I was trying to free up some space on my hard drive, and noticed that this was the second-largest game in my steamapps folder, at over 13 gigabytes. “Ah, I remember that one! It’s that 2D platformer themed around charts and graphs. I remember playing the first couple of levels. Weird that a game like that is so big. I should finish it, then delete it.” But in fact it’s a minor Portal-like, which I had also played the first couple of levels of at one point. I have no idea what the 2D platformer I was thinking of is called, but now I want to find out so I can finish it too.

I think I gave up on the actual Measurement Problem before because it was sluggish on my machine at the time, which is a little strange considering how simple and abstract its level geometry and presentation is. This is a game mainly composed of stark blacks and whites, with just a little shine to them to keep it all from being too abstract and occasional colored lighting. The main conceit is that you can toggle between two versions of the world, one decorated predominantly in white and the other in black, with approximately but not exactly the same layout and contents. Not the freshest idea in videogames, perhaps, but I don’t recall seeing it used in the first-person solver genre before, and it gets some mileage out of combining it with jump pads to make puzzles where you have to toggle the world while airborne. For that matter, those jump pads also enable a neat trick involving checkpoints that you can teleport back to at will. This seems at first like just a “get me out of trouble” option, but then you get puzzles exploiting the fact that teleporting like this doesn’t change your momentum, including the momentum you get from jump pads elsewhere in the level.

It’s a decent little game, but I can’t recommend that anyone else play it. For one thing, you’d find it difficult to find a copy. It’s been delisted from Steam, and the developers apparently banned. This happened just a couple of months back. I was surprised to find that The Measurement Problem wasn’t even listed in my Steam library — I wound up running the exe directly from the install directory, rather than through the Steam interface. Well, it turns out that it actually is still in my library, but as “App 534960”. Valve had had to change its name to this generic description because someone had hacked into the developers’ account and renamed it to “PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds” (with a cyrillic “a”, according to someone on reddit). Even with its genericized name, Steam still uses the PUBG logo for it. So I’m guessing there were a few people other than myself who ran the game and didn’t get what they expected.

Apparently this was part of a scam; the hackers also added Steam inventory to the game, presumably so they could sell counterfeit items to PUBG players. And it all makes me rather sad. This is a very stupid reason for a perfectly good game to disappear. But then, aren’t they all?

And on top of that, the version of the game that I played is apparently one uploaded after the developers got hacked. The original is nowhere near 13 gigabytes, as one might have guessed from its content. It seems to have been padded to match the size of the real PUBG, although I’m not sure how that fits into the scams exactly. Still, I’ve very likely installed some kind of malware by playing it. We’ll see.

Bloodnet: People and Humans

The interaction in Bloodnet is unintuitive. Even the mere acts of walking around, picking up objects, and talking to people don’t conform to the usual expectations of point-and-click adventures. To move, you press the left mouse button and hold it. Stark will move towards the cursor as long as the left mouse button is held down. Because of this, doing anything else, such as picking up objects or talking to people, uses the right mouse button. And anything more complicated, such as modifying your hardware or venturing into cyberspace, has a system of rules and meanings to learn on top of its own unintuitive UI.

So I think I’ll be learning the systems here one at a time. In the starting phases, I can get away with just wandering Manhattan and talking to people. Recruiting a posse. Unwelcome combat encounters, it turns out, can largely be avoided just by not wandering around completely at random. Sticking to the places mentioned in Stark’s uncomfortably verbose contacts list, and places that people you meet in those places tell you about.

Most dialogue is lengthy and noninteractive. You right-click on someone and you get several paragraphs of text, laden with made-up hacker jargon, maybe punctuated by a yes-no question, usually about whether you accept the person’s asking price to join your party. One peculiar thing: The game will give you either printed text or voice acting, but not both. And it’s governed by whether or not you have sound enabled. “Sound”, mind you, is separate from music. Heck, it’s willing to use two different devices for them, so you can play sound through your Soundblaster Pro and music through your Roland LAPC-1. That’s this game’s vintage. And, as such, unwritten standards about how to present dialogue in an adventure game were not completely settled yet. Voice acting seems to be something of an afterthought here; if you use it, it goes into the same dialogue UI presentation, desaturating the scene and placing character portraits at opposite corners, but the bulk of the screen, where it would otherwise be putting the text, simply goes unused. It feels a bit like listening to a radio drama. One with hammy acting.

I’ll say this for it: at least the character dialogue is more true to cyberpunk literature than in most so-called cyberpunk games. The minor NPCs are ethnically and racially diverse, and largely downtrodden and traumatized. Some rely on cybernetics because they’re disabled. They form street gangs with names like “Flux Riders” and “Electric Anarchy”, living in squats where they can tap into cyberspace illegally, fighting the Man, or rather, the TransTechnicals megacorp, which basically rules Manhattan and is secretly run by vampires.

Stark himself fits into the category of “relies on cybernetics because of disability”. Even before he got vampirized, he was a victim of “Hopkins-Brie Ontology Syndrome”, a neurological condition that sometimes strikes deckers, making their perceptions of cyberspace and meatspace blur together. The implant helps with that, stabilizing his mind. It’s just a lucky coincidence that the stabilization helps him resist vampiric mind control. There may be a Christian allegory in there. His strength results from his imperfections.

But regardless of the religious implications, I think this aspect is worth paying attention to in light of more recent cyberpunk discourse. There’s been some complaint lately about cyberpunk-themed games presenting Cybernetic Augmentation as reducing your Humanity, asking “Are you truly human when you’re part machine?” and so forth, a question that’s frankly insulting to anyone with a medical implant or prosthesis. Indeed, such devices can be powerful tools in restoring a person’s sense of their own humanity, by enabling them to participate in society in ways that might otherwise be lost to them. Bloodnet has a “Humanity” stat, but it’s not about Stark becoming less human as he becomes more cyborg. It’s about him becoming less human as he becomes more vampire. Cybernetics is how he resists that.


Bloodnet, from 1993, is one of the games that’s spent the most time on my Stack. Before there even was a Stack, really, there was always just a game or two that I hadn’t finished yet, and then Bloodnet, that one game that I had bought a few years back and never got very far in but intended to get back to at some point.

It’s one of the few point-and-click adventure games from Microprose, which also produced Dragonsphere and Return of the Phantom, both of which I rather liked, and Rex Nebular and the Cosmic Gender Bender, which I haven’t played and am not at all sure I want to. These games all share a certain graphical similarity, a sort of soft-focus VGA collage, that made me think that Bloodnet would play like the others, but it doesn’t. It’s a mashup in both form and content, a hybrid of point-and-click adventure and RPG telling a cyberpunk vampire story. It’s kind of like if Shadowrun had chosen to imitate White Wolf instead of TSR.

At the start of the story, a freelance decker with the unlikely name Ransom Stark is (sigh) betrayed by a client, but rather than just trying to kill him like in a normal cyberpunk game, the client turns out to be a vampire, and tries to turn Stark into his vampire thrall. But his attempt at domination is thwarted by Stark’s neural implant, leaving Stark in control of himself but vulnerable to a bloodlust that will erode his humanity over time if he can’t do something about it. All this is told in an opening slideshow/dialogue sequence that I remember finding cringingly, embarrassingly bad once, but which now strikes me as utterly hilarious. You could put this stuff on Hypnospace. It would fit right in.

The main reason I never got far is that the game throws you into the deep end. It has a very weird UI, a whole cyber-upgrade system to learn, and a baffling cyberspace where you have no idea how to interact with anything. That’s just in the first room. If you try to leave the first room, you’ll probably run into a combat encounter that you’re not at all prepared to deal with, as character or as player. I’ll probably describe all these systems in future posts, once I’ve come to understand them. Reading the manual will be very necessary.

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