Archive for 2020

IFComp 2020: Quintessence

It’s been pointed out that one of the advantages that choice-based games have over the parser-driven stuff is the ability to easily vary the scale of the action. Inform defaults to what’s been called the “medium-sized dry goods” model, where the focus is on moment-to-moment physical interactions, because that’s what the system understands. Whereas in a choice-based system like Twine or Ink, you can wind up choosing “Pick up the amulet” one moment and “Spend the next month negotiating a truce” the next.

Here we have that capability taken to an extreme. The scale is an entire universe; time, when it exists, ticks forward in increments billions of years. The player character, to the extent there is one, is a “quanta”, a sort of disembodied mind that can survive the repeated growth and collapse of the universe and occasionally, depending on your choices, can be born into the world, as a cat or a dog. Cats and dogs figure big in the story’s cosmology; the entity responsible for the entire cycle of the universe is called “the Forever Cat”.

It’s all rather abstract, though. Much of the text is cosmic vagueness along the lines of “The spreading distance grows the space within us. Gravity’s range is infinite, but our bonds weaken. Always ahead and behind, time without comfort surrounds us. We race apart.” Followed by a choice where you don’t have much of any basis for choosing one thing over another — except that in a lot of cases choosing wrong ends the current cycle and starts you over from the beginning. So a lot of the reader’s attention is on remembering what choices to avoid. I’m not convinced that that’s the story the author wanted to tell.

IFComp 2020: Sage Sanctum Scramble

This one’s close to a pure puzzle game. The whole idea is that you have to collect “keywords” by passing challenges set by various ludicrous “sages”. There are a great many challenges — I’ve unlocked 58 so far, which is enough to get a winning ending, but not the best one. And there’s a good variety to them. Some sages just want you to guess their word on the basis of riddles or hints or warmer/colder. Some want to play word games with you, and just give you the keyword outright after you solve a series of little puzzles like “I’m going to give you pairs of words and you have to give me words that connect them” or whatever. There’s a series of puzzles where a machine transforms letter sequences according to rules you have to figure out by experiment. There are anagrams and mini-crosswords and at least one cryptogram. It reminds me a little of the small items they’d shove together on a single page in Games Magazine, and a lot of The Fool’s Errand and its sequel.

Notably, it only accepts one-word commands, and most of those single words are interpreted as guesses in your current puzzle. There are just a few commands that do anything else, including LOOK/L to repeat the current puzzle, PUZZLES to get a list of available puzzles and numbers to switch to a different puzzle, BOOK to list the keywords you’ve collected. Because everything is done from the same command line, it’s impossible to use any of these words in a puzzle. There’s one puzzle that’s essentially one-dimensional Lights Out on an alphabet with wraparound, except that the alphabet is missing L, because it has to.

What do you do with the keywords once you have them? You proceed to the endgame, where you use them as spells to fight a monster. If you fail — or if you succeed but want to keep on solving puzzles — the game lets you rewind to before the fight. Words disappear from your list when used, offensively or defensively, and the only way you fail is by running out of them. Most of the monster’s attacks can be countered by words with specific properties, like “alternates vowels and consonants”, but if you don’t have such a word, you can use any word at all as a last-ditch defense. Huh? What does it matter, then? Well, the counters completely nullify the attack, whereas the defenses keep you safe but let it damage the Sanctum, affecting the ending you get.

The narrative aspect is minimal and the descriptive text is short, but at least there are some amusing characters among the Laputan coterie. The most memorable is smug a fellow who insists that you guess his keyword with one completely inadequate hint, but who can be goaded into giving you more information by ignoring the one hint until he’s beside himself with frustration. That one puzzle was particularly difficult because it broke the pattern of the rest of the game: that the puzzles have basically no connection to their presentation.

IFComp 2020: BYOD

A very short piece about hackery in a corporate environment, enabled by a nigh-magical app on your phone that gives you remote access to anything networked, provided you know its address. The app presents any functionality of its targets through the Unix everything-is-a-file paradigm, letting you read and write them through simple commands.

It occurs to me to wonder why we haven’t seen more parser IF about command-line hacking interfaces. It seems a natural fit, and I for one would like to see more of it. Especially since this game barely whets your appetite for snooping around in other people’s computer systems and then it’s over. I could see making much more use of the system presented here — or maybe it’s good that it doesn’t pad it out? One thing makes me think it could support a longer story: it takes place in one room, and there’s a sense that the filesystems are a substitute for conventional exploration.

One thing I almost missed by playing from a standalone interpreter: The website provided for the game is something else. The index.html is a perfect replica of an old MS-DOS directory listing, with the right font and everything. In addition to the game, it gives you a couple of virtual feelies, including a fake hacker newsletter and something very similar to a 90s Amiga demo. All this is kind of anachronistic to the game content, with its 2000s smartphone, but it’s a lovely little Hypnospace-ish nostalgia trip that put a smile on my face and raised my rating by a point or two, even if it’s not a part of the game proper.

IFComp 2020: Congee

I may be mellowing. Here we have a Twine piece with minimal interactivity and text delays and pages that give you just two sentences and a link to go forward. It’s a format that usually gets up my nose, but I found I didn’t mind it here. I’m always more forgiving when the writing is good.

It’s a sweet, simple story. You’re ill, and you miss the congee you used to eat back home in Hong Kong under similar circumstances, but you just can’t get it in the UK, a land of Chinese restaurants that cater to the non-Chinese. So your best friend makes some and brings it to you, resolving (for the moment, at least) the meditations on social displacement and being a foreigner and losing connections to your birth culture that the predicament inspired.

That’s it. A bunch of worried feelings followed by a kind gesture. There’s also a phone call with your mom in there, because how could there not be. But mainly, it manages to say a few things about the expat experience, in simple and understated terms that anyone can understand and sympathize with. Perhaps the reassuring ending makes it easier to swallow.

IFComp 2020: The Shadow In The Snow

Here’s a grisly little werewolf story — or at least, since I don’t think there’s any actual reason to believe that its monster can transform into a human, a grisly little supernatural-huge-wolf-monster-that-can-only-be hurt-by-silver story. Forced out of your car in a desolate snowy remoteness, you run through a small map full of choice-based peril, repeating from the start whenever you die until you learn the correct sequence of actions to defeat the beastie. Some of the necessary choices are obvious from the narrative, others can only be learned from gruesome death. It’s not wall-to-wall gore, but gore there is. It’s about at the level of a campfire story.

Two highly noticeable and slightly interlinked bugs, one major and one minor. The major one is that, although it’s clearly meant to be replayed until you get it right, and automatically dumps you back at the beginning after every death, it fails to completely clear its state. So you’re likely to get into a situation where it thinks you’ve already done the event where obtain a shotgun from a dying man in a cabin in the woods (and won’t trigger it again), but it doesn’t think you have the shotgun. Once you’re in that state, all you can do about it is close the browser window and open the game again. The minor one concerns the background music, which is actually pretty good, but which doesn’t start until your second iteration. I can imagine that as deliberate, but the first bug suggests that the author only ever tried playing one iteration, so I don’t know what’s up with that.

The common opinion is that Twine games don’t need debugging the way parser games do, but that doesn’t really apply to the growing contingent of stateful games with free exploration written in Twine. The difference was never really in the system, but in the content.

IFComp 2020: Ferryman’s Gate

A venerable IF premise: The freak inheritance where you have to search a deceased great-uncle’s house solving his puzzles, subtype: the deceased had secret magics at his command. But this this time it’s combined with another genre: Edutainment. Old uncle Ferryman was obsessed with proper comma usage, ascribing even mystical significance to it, and most of his trials quiz you on it in one way or another. At one point, you have to insert a comma-shaped key into one of several keyholes at different points in a sentence in a wall. At another, you navigate a maze of caves, guided by which sentences are correctly punctuated. That sort of thing. It’s one of those subjects that isn’t really amenable to practical demonstration, so all that the adventure game format can really do with it is dress up the quizzes in different ways.

Oh, there’s a treasure-hunt aspect too. You need to find a collection of metal plates hidden throughout the grounds, bearing ominous lines of poetry. But once you have them all, the most important thing about them is which ones have commas in the right places. And I emphasize that it really is just about comma placement, not about punctuation in general. As educational games go, it’s very, very focused.

Also, pretty elementary. The quiz component is pitched at a middle-school level, and the protagonist is appropriately aged — you were brought to the mansion by your family, who are available for conversation but don’t have a whole lot to say. Even so, the game doesn’t talk down to the player. The feel is fairly gothic, really. The mansion’s ultimate secret is a portal to Hades, which your mastery of commas proves you worthy to watch over. Letters from the deceased uncle implore you to find its key and perform a ritual to hide it from the world and keep it safe. The key is found right next to the portal — raising questions about the circumstances in which Mr. Ferryman was forced to leave it there.

IFComp 2020: Stuff of Legend

Here we have the tale of a village idiot attempting a career change: a conversation with an eight-year-old child convinces him that he should become a knight, so he dons improvised armor like Don Quixote and asks everyone around the farm he’s staying at to give him quests. It’s a short game that blends story with puzzle well, and while it gets most of its humor from asking us to laugh at the protagonist’s foolishness, it’s fairly gentle about it, and keeps him sympathetic. He does succeed in his little quests in the end, even if the quests are all about fixing things that were his fault to begin with.

The thing is, he’s a very clever sort of idiot. Almost too clever for me — some of the puzzles want very exact and unlikely solutions that no one but him would think of unaided, but the game persistently nudges you towards them. There are entire puzzles composed entirely of nudges, where you have to pick up on the pattern of how the livestock reacts to your actions. Indeed, in the end, it’s this rapport with animals that inspires his next career move.

So it’s all very broad comedy, including a light sprinkling of bad puns some moments of slapstick, which land pretty well — I’m starting to think the key to physical comedy in text games is to keep it snappy, to not dwell on it, and to keep the focus on narrative, on the causes and consequences of falling out of a tree rather than the mere fact of the fall. Although it’s not exactly a fantasy, there’s one major source of fantastical elements: the farmer is also an inventor, whose inventions venture into mad-science territory — which, again, fits into the broad comedy.

It’s interesting how it deals with player knowledge vs character knowledge. The player knows things that are beyond an idiot’s grasp, and the game eagerly points this out to emphasize his idiocy. But it keeps it at a very superficial level. When it comes to puzzle content, he knows no less than you. If anything, making him an idiot mainly serves to excuse the way the player’s confused fumblings.

IFComp 2020: Red Radish Robotics

This is a game built around two central ideas, one affecting things mainly at the story level, the other at the level of gameplay. The first idea is that you are a robot in denial. The player character doesn’t even know it’s a robot at first, but learns, and comes to accept it. But it never really comes to accept or even to fully comprehend its situation: somehow awakened in the aftermath of a disaster, it searches for humans to rescue, ignoring the evidence around it that everyone has been gone for a long time. Towards the end, it finds the corpse of one of its human friends, but doesn’t understand, because it doesn’t have a concept of death. It takes everything in with the simplicity of a child and the faith of a fool, searching for its creator not to seek his help, but to help him if he needs it.

The second idea is that you are a robot without fingers. Your fingers were removed as a safety precaution when robots started rebelling violently against their masters, and each and every digit is hidden in a different place. The story does an impressive job of coming up with needs for different degrees of partial refingering, too. To pick up a key, for example, all you need is a thumb and index finger on the same hand. Picking up a pool cue requires more; actually using it to shoot pool requires at least one finger on the other hand as well. So, it’s a treasure hunt. You run back and forth over the same two corridors, finding fingers that let you do something that gives you access to a new room or unlock a container or whatever, and eventually you have a pair of complete hands, which you need to exit the building and finish the game.

My biggest complaint is its draconian gating. Fingers aren’t your only limitations: there are quite a few things you’re simply not allowed to do until you have a reason, and sometimes the reason is just that your robotic brain arbitrarily decided it’s okay now. Fortunately, the hypertext UI makes it fairly easy to just arbitrarily cycle through every possibility until you find the one you missed.

Also, I found myself wishing for a way to just look at my hands. To get a progress report, essentially. Your finger collection is the single most important aspect of the game state, and it’s the only one you don’t have direct access to.

IFComp 2020: You Will Thank Me as Fast as You Thank a Werewolf

Here’s another strong contender for the Banana. This is essentially an interactive prose-poem, and on top of that, it’s nonsense. Oh, there’s a core of sense to the nonsense, I think. There’s a story of love and loss in there, studded with some repeatedly-revisited images: tornadoes, bugs, cancer. But the surface of it is high-intensity attention-grabbing nonsense, breezy and playful as a jig, with the energy of a youth writing a flashy first novel: “There were billboards for breaking into cars and throwing them crashing into mountains. There were vultures that drove all around the yard, searching for thunderclap. The sky was fake snow and birds were mere baubles. And there you were. Your dust and my air.”

Each page of this contains one or two footnotes, which relate to the words that spawn them, and one or two links to proceed to a new page, which doesn’t. It’s not clear to me if the work even really contains choices. It certainly doesn’t contain meaningful choices. But it’s makes up for it with verve. In a way, I think that the lack of agency helps it: it frees the reader from the obligation to make sense of it all, which frees the author from the obligation to produce something that can be made sense of. It does so much that I usually complain about, but it does it so well.

IFComp 2020: Doppeljobs

You are a doppelganger, a shape-shifter from Reverse World who can take on the appearance of humans by biting them. Fascinated by the human concept of entrepeneurship, you move to the big city to start a business renting out your services as a double for consenting humans, taking their place in situations they’d rather not deal with personally. The story gives you a sequence of four choice-based cases to work (the fourth apparently being optional), and awards you cash on the basis of your performance — clients will withhold full payment if your impersonation causes them inconvenience or embarrassment. You spend this money on little improvements, or you hoard it to pay off your small business loan. That is the game’s structure.

The content has a lot to do with guesswork in unfamiliar situations. Doppelganging someone doesn’t give you their knowledge or memories, and, although questioning the client before the mission eases this somewhat, it’s never enough to cover everything you need to know. And on top of that, our protagonist is new to the human world, and has a nonhuman perspective, which is played for laughs — for example, if you have advertising leaflets printed up: “At night, you sneak into people’s homes and leave the leaflets on their tables. It’s the only way to make sure they get them.”

So it’s basically a fish-out-of-water story, except creepy, and and the creepiness is played for laughs. OK, but how do you make that work interactively? Surely the player knows what’s up even when the doppelganger doesn’t? This game’s solution: Make the human world a little off-kilter too. Your first client is a sandplumber, a person who maintains the pipes that deliver sand from the city’s central sand mine to all over the city. The fourth puts you in a clandestine meeting at the snake races. Snakes are a recurring motif, in fact; an optional subplot sees the player character becoming obsessed with the snake god said to be sleeping underneath the city. The point is, this is a quirky world. I suspect the quirks would feel a little precious if presented on their own, but the context grounds them by keeping your attention on moment-to-moment minutiae most of the time.

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