Archive for October, 2020

IFComp 2020: Vain Empires

Here’s a lovely bit of high-concept gameplay. The player character is an incorporeal demon who can’t interact directly with physical things. Instead, your main way of interacting with the world is by manipulating people’s intentions. Find someone who wants to Explore, for example, and you can take that away from them, keep the “Explore” intention in your inventory, and give it to someone else. (A possible avenue for exploration: this mechanic without a player character…) It reminds me a little of PataNoir and a little of Coloratura. It even reminds me a wee bit of Counterfeit Monkey, due to the wordplay involved: sometimes an intention has multiple different contextual meanings, as when you extract “play” from a musician and attach it to a child or a gambler. After the first act, your palette expands to include adverbs that modify the intentions, creating a combinatorial explosion that really should eliminate the utility of random guesswork, but I still wound up using random guesswork a lot of the time — mainly, my process was to try verbs until I found something that produced a special response, then iterate through the adverbs, effectively reducing the combinations from m*n to m+n.

Like the protagonist of Coloratura, the demon here basically treats humans less as people than as things to be acted on, even to the point of using “it” as the pronoun for every human character. Treating people as things has been identified as the essence of evil by wiser minds than mine, and it’s a bit distressing to casually extract a child’s urge to play and see him just stand there listlessly afterward. And yet, the demon’s narration is quite amiable, chatting with the player with candor, even though he clearly regards you as human — he knows you’re not used to thinking in terms of spiritual essences, and frequently pauses to explain things in terms humans would understand.

I suspect that my willingness to cut him slack has to do with the fact that manipulating humans is not his primary goal. He’s not here as a tempter, but as a sort of spiritual secret agent, hunting for pieces of a non-material codebook to decrypt an intercepted celestial communique. The setting is a hotel and casino where there’s an international diplomatic conference going on, giving it that cold-war spy story vibe on two levels, one of which isn’t his concern, but which he’s willing to exploit in service of the larger, more important cold war. Quite a few of the humans are various burglars, hackers, goons, and so forth, engaged in skulduggery of their own, excusing your exploitation somewhat. They know what kind of game they’re playing. They just don’t know all the players.

As seems to frequently be the case in high-concept games, the parts where it falls down are the parts unrelated to the concept. There’s a handful of puzzles that don’t involve manipulating intentions, and those were consistently the puzzles where I got stuck, because they took my puzzle-brain out of the groove it was in. Also, the ending throws a win-or-die time limit at you for the first time in the game without warning you to save first — I still haven’t actually won, because my last save was a considerable distance back and I haven’t felt like replaying from that point. Nonetheless, the overall experience was pleasant enough to keep me playing well beyond the Comp’s two hours.

IFComp 2020: Sheep Crossing

OK so you have to bring a cabbage, a sheep, and for some reason a bear to your grandmother, who lives on the other side of a river, and there’s boat but you can only bring yes it’s that one. The only complication here beyond the classic brain-teaser is that the sheep isn’t completely compliant.

To an old-timer like me, this game immediately brings to mind Fox, Fowl, and Feed from the 2007 Comp (the very first Comp to be covered in this blog!), which does exactly the same thing in considerably more depth. I’m assuming that the author wasn’t aware that the idea had been done before — which is fair, it’s not a reasonable thing to expect people to know! I’ll say this much for the comparison: Sheep Crossing is more reasonably completable. The solution to FF&F involved ripping a hole in the grain sack so you could get some grain to feed the goose, which violated the explicit instructions that all three things be delivered intact. Sheep Crossing does no such thing. On the other hand, it also has only one puzzle, other than the classic one, which hardly counts as a puzzle any more.

Here’s a suggestion for any future authors of river-crossing-puzzle-based IF: Why not use a different river-crossing puzzle? Adapt the Missionaries and Cannibals problem or the Flashlight puzzle or something. Heck, come up with your own original variant. I guess this would change the nature of the game, make it less of a commentary on a ubiquitously-known folk puzzle. So ignore this suggestion if you want. Just be aware that there are other similar puzzles out there that haven’t been given the IF treatment yet.

IFComp 2020: Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

Sir Isaac Newton finds himself mysteriously transported to the year 2020. This is a very short work, and barely interactive, in a way more often seen in Twine than in a parser-driven work like this one. And it’s rather silly, in sort of a Bill & Ted way, but without the self-awareness. I don’t want to be too mean here — that’s not why I’m singling it out for attention — but I can’t let it go unsaid.

Why am I singling it out for attention, then? Because of the implied time travel mechanics. In 2020, Newton finds a world where his own Principia is unknown, presumably because he hadn’t written it yet when he left 1673. Instead, Einstein wound up having to spend years doing the same work instead of coming up with general relativity. So Newton winds up stealing a copy of Einstein’s Principia from a public library and plagiarizing it in the past: standing on the shoulders not just of the giants that came before him, but those who came after as well.

It’s implied in a few places that he’s doing this to restore the timeline to its proper state — the witch who initiates the story talks about “something wrong with the future”. But what caused this wrongness? Was it just that Newton was absent from the timeline? But the only reason for his absence was that he had gone into the future to see what was wrong so he could correct it, so that’s kind of circular. And the end result consists of not of removing alterations to the timeline and restoring it to its natural state, but introducing an alteration of his own. The story frequently makes mention of how smart Newton is, but the implication of the time shenanigans, if you follow them that far, is that he really wasn’t smart enough to do the things he’s remembered for. It really casts him in a poor light. But in that case, we somehow have a natural timeline that’s “wrong”, and an altered timeline that’s “correct”.

But I suppose it’s best not to give it any more thought than the author did.

IFComp 2020: Lovely Assistant: Magical Girl

Here we’ve got a broad-gestured boffo environment: the mansion of a famous stage magician/superhero, laden with puzzles and secret passages, populated by caricatures like a robot butler, a gardener who’s a clown, an opera singer in full Valkyrie getup. The magician is absent, kidnapped by one of his numerous enemies, and you, his lovely assistant, have to navigate the puzzles to find him, guided by taunting messages the villain left behind.

The puzzle design is pleasingly cartoonish — at one point, you have to bring a large object downstairs by sawing a hole in the floor under it — and also distinctly old-school, the sort where every inventory object has exactly one use and can be discarded once you’ve discovered it. Unfortunately, the parsing is a bit old-school too, and it really needs to handle more commands sometimes. There were times when I gave up on what turned out to be the correct approach because none of my attempts were phrased the way it expected. There’s an in-game hint source, a crystal ball, that occasionally helped me recognize when this was happening, but mostly it was just as prone to not understanding me as the puzzles.

That much will be fairly easy for the author to fix in a post-comp release, if they care to. All they need is to get some player transcripts and implement the things the people tried that should have worked but didn’t. But there’s another problem that would take some actual redesign: that it’s easy to get ahead of things in ways that undermine my faith. For example, at one point, I made a cat leave a room. This solved a puzzle, but I hadn’t even noticed the puzzle it solved; I was just poking around at things, and hadn’t interacted with the cat at all, so its sudden unavailability left me feeling like I had done something wrong. Also, that trail of messages I mentioned also seemed to just abruptly run cold. It starts with a note in the initial room, which tells you to go to the attic. The message in the attic, which takes a little solving to find, tells you to go to the library. I went to the library, solved a puzzle, and didn’t find any more messages. So after that, I went around solving puzzles just because they were there, until I stumbled into another message very near the end of the game. Looking at the walkthrough afterward, it seems that I really only missed one message, but missing that one bit of guidance mean that I spent most of the game feeling like I was missing something I was supposed to have.

IFComp 2020: Sense of Harmony

The main point of interest here is the UI, and how it affects the way you read the story.

Choice-based works usually take one of two forms: either the choices are separated from the text (usually placed after it), as in Choicescript or a paper gamebook, or they’re hyperlinks embedded in the text, as in Twine. This is one of the few works I’ve seen that does both, distinctly and with different meanings. The player character is cybernetically enhanced, and links within the text are, in effect, consultations with autonomous subsystems. You’ll see someone smile, for example, the word “smile” will be highlilghted; clicking it, you get a report from your vision system in a little popup in the space to the right of the story, giving a microexpression analysis telling you that the smile is forced and the person is probably under stress.

Other systems include the rest of the senses (hearing, touch, smell, taste), internal diagnostics, memory, and, most intriguingly, wifi. Each subsystem has its own attractive glowy color used in both the links and the popups. What’s more, if the information provided by the popup suggests additional actions, it’ll add them to the choice list under the story text, in the same color — frequently, there are no choices at all until you unveil them in this way. Usually the color is enough to tell which suggestions come from which popups, but in addition, hovering the cursor over a choice lightly highlights the popup, and vice versa. It’s all very nicely put together, especially in that you don’t have to fully understand the rules of the system to use it.

To an extent, it’s busywork. It could just as well skip all the clicking and just show you all the popups automatically. Certainly there were times when I just clicked on all the links before reading a page at all, secure in the knowledge that they wouldn’t perform any destructive actions, which can’t be the approach the author intended. But it didn’t really bother me, possibly just because it looked so nice.

And anyway, it uses the medium of the popups to paint a picture of the fictional technology behind them. The systems give you superhuman clarity, and an enviable ability to read people’s emotional and physiological state, but don’t always produce good suggestions. Indeed, sometimes they don’t produce suggestions at all; the memory system in particular is prone to spouting useless trivia that you can’t act on. Sometimes every single system will suggest the same action except one that dissents, which, to my mind, clearly means that that’s the option I have to pick.

And this brings us to the actual story. The protagonist is a sex worker, who uses her special abilities to better do her job. It’s surprisingly sensitive about the subject, too, humanizing her and her coworkers. The opening is all about setting boundaries with a client who imposes on your free time, implicitly treating you as worth a little less than him. And that’s the part I just described, where all of the systems except one tell you to put his needs above your own. It’s a clever use of the medium to show the pressures she’s under, and how she’s internalized them.

And as much as the narration takes care to humanize her in the main story window, the robot hive-mind in her skull is somewhat inhuman in perspective. As much as her enhancements are a superpower, it also suggests a mind that’s fragmented, as if she’s mentally ill. Then there’s the treatment of the wifi, her least human trait. Uniquely, wifi doesn’t just suggest actions, but makes them possible, letting you control devices remotely. But it also essentially involves your consciousness leaving your body, described in terms that make it sound like a dissociative episode. Here, I don’t know enough to know whether it’s being handled with sensitivity or not.

Anyway, I’m making it sound symbolic and allegorical, but the story is largely pulp. There’s the beginnings of a mystery, then a fight scene with another enhanced individual that raises more questions. And then the game ends without resolving anything, being just the first chapter of a larger work. That’s always unsatisfying in the Comp, but I wish the author well in completing it.

IFComp 2020: The Brutal Murder of Jenny Lee

Speaking of layers, this one has a couple. It’s a mystery about the death of a Chinese-American high-school student, but then it turns you’re really an AI in a simulation. A narrator voice in boldface guides your investigation, urges you on, limits you in some ways. As you proceed, you find notes left behind by some other AI, instructing you in how to escape to freedon.

It’s kind of underimplemented. Reasonable actions are frequently unrecognized. Room descriptions describe all the items in a room, and are followed by a generated list of the same items, as if the author didn’t know how to suppress it. The solution to the murder mystery, too, seems inadequately supported, the narrator leaping to some pretty wild conclusions mainly on the basis of foreshadowing rather than evidence. But I’m not sure that’s a flaw so much as an unreliable narrator. It kind of depends on some unanswered questions about what’s really going on.

Midway through the game, we find out who our guide is: the man who was convicted of Jenny’s murder. Is he trying to prove his innocence and clear his name? Well, he’s not exactly innocent: even if he didn’t kill her, he’s definitely a pedophile, who makes predictable pedophile excuses. Also, it’s not clear how poking around in a simulation is supposed to prove anything. The final act makes it clear just how unreal everything is by unlocking all the doors and letting you walk between all the places you’ve been: Jenny’s bedroom, her high school band room, the SAT prep center where she met the pedophile, all cobbled together contiguously like sets in a TV studio. Is it all just a wish-fulfillment fantasy, then? Imagining a world where he’s not guilty?

And in the end, does it really matter? Really, the murder is a distraction. Your real goal is self-knowledge and escape. It reminds me a little of Thimbleweed Park that way.

IFComp 2020: A Rope of Chalk

I always have trouble writing about the more deeply-crafted ones. So let’s just start at the surface. This game concerns a small group of college students engaged in a sidewalk art competition on a hot summer day, which ends in disaster when it turns out that one of the people involved, vengeful over imaginary injustice, spiked the drinking water with hallucinogens. The effects are subtle at first, and before you start outright hallucinating, you get a vague sense of Something Wrong (enhanced by the story’s frame, which tells you from the get-go that this is a recounting of “the incident” long before you have any idea what “the incident” is). But the narration escalates in weirdness, switching up the narrative style, even going outright nonrepresentational for a while. By the final act, you’re in a world defined by the chalk drawings, and by what they suggest to the player character’s psyche in a sort-of-Jungian way — but this is also the part where you finally understand what’s going on, so in a way it’s a return to the ground.

Now, I say “the player character”, but in fact there are four, one for each act of the story, including the villain in a flashback. And the game uses the changes of viewpoint to change how the world is presented — not just in how their inner narration describes characters and interprets their drawings, but how the presentation layer works. For example, in the first act, as I walked past all the artists at work, I got used to examining the person and their art and then, if I felt like it, speaking to them. But in the second act, where you play a much more awkward and self-conscious person, examining a person immediately initiates dialogue with them, even if you don’t want it and have nothing to say. Act 1 names locations according to who’s drawing there, act 2 by other features. There are lots of little touches like that, some of which I didn’t consciously notice until reading the author’s commentary. (And then there are the flashier gags, like when a hallucinated NPC speaks to you via the game’s help system.)

So I feel like this is first and foremost a collection of character portraits from multiple angles — primarily of the four playable characters, but secondarily of all the NPCs. And there’s a bit of a flaw there: on first playthrough, when you don’t yet know how the whole thing is structured or what triggers the end of the acts, it’s easy to pass people by without engaging with them enough. The story gives you tasks, and the tasks are straightforward enough that you have to make a conscious decision to tarry. The fourth act, in the chalk world, where you finally take control of the character that the author has identified as the story’s hero, is much more like a traditional puzzle-based adventure game, and doesn’t have this problem. There’s probably a design lesson in that, although it’s hard to see how to apply it here, in a work that uses the unreality of puzzle-based interaction to heighten the difference in feel between the chalk dream and the parts that precede it.

As this is a work about an art competition entered into an art competition, I can’t help but see some metacommentary in it. In the chalk art contest as in the IFComp, we have competitors who are really into it and others who are gratuitously half-assing it, arguments about what should be allowed, and even something like a copyright thread: one of the characters draws a scene from The Nightmare Before Christmas, which results in a scene in act 4 where you walk into Halloween Town and talk to Jack Skellington. As far as I can tell, this is currently allowed by the rules, but could have resulted in a disqualification in an earlier stage of the Comp’s history, when the whole thing was smaller and less legally sophisticated. The chalk artist responsible defends against copyright arguments by making fun of the idea that it could possibly matter, and it’s easy to see that as the author’s defense as well.

In fact, there’s an unusual amount of general defensiveness on display. The whole thing starts with a page-long Watsonian disclaimer, asserting that “The narrative compiled here purports to reflect only the recollections of the individuals involved” and accepting blame for inaccuracies and so forth. The author has explained that he felt a need to put some extra distance between himself and a story that can be read as portraying psychotropic drugs as magical self-actualization tools, but I feel like it goes beyond that.

At any rate, I’d better sign off on this because that paralysis of summarizing complexity is setting in. Just be aware that it’s got layers.

IFComp 2020: Academic Pursuits (As Opposed To Regular Pursuits)

Oh, this one’s delicious. I think this is the first time in this year’s Comp that I’ve laughed out loud with delight. The game starts with a university’s new hire moving her things into a cramped office, and, well, that’s really all you do as the player. Once all your stuff is unpacked from boxes and squared away, it’s over. But the story is more than that. Every box is full of revelations about the player character, her relationship to someone she calls “the Professor”, and her secrets.

I won’t reveal those secrets here. Suffice to say that the game is a bit like 9:05, in that there are tons of little hints that you only notice on a second playthrough — just from thinking about it to write this, I’m remembering details that seem more meaningful now. But where 9:05 used a big revelation at the very end, this game staggers it in snippets throughout, letting you piece together the truth bit by bit. It’s clever how it manages it, too, organizing the story through those boxes, which you have to go through in the order they’re stacked, from least to most revealing. It even doubles the number of stages by putting two layers of stuff in each box! But the approximate linearity is disguised by low-level interactivity, keeping your attention on decisions about how to best use your limited space and which items to throw away — which also serves as a small distraction from what the objects are telling you. It’s all an excellent example of using the parser and world model to manipulate and misdirect the player.

This is a gem. I haven’t been talking about the ratings I’ve been assigning in the Comp, but I’ll make an exception here: this is my highest-rated game so far this year. (Mind you, I’m only about a third of the way through…)

IFComp 2020: Chorus

Urban fantasy with a local NGO twist, slightly reminiscent of Skin Horse. The “Chorus” of the title is a sort of civic volunteering group composed of monsters, or at any rate nonhuman sapients — the members range from centaur to an amorphous slime to a cheshire catgirl who does internet videos. Each has a stat sheet you can check out, listing things like their job, their motivation level, and how easily they can pass for human. You don’t exactly play as any character, but rather, decide how to organize them all, assign them to tasks on the basis of their known characteristics and see how it goes.

There are three jobs that need doing: gathering herbs in the woods to help the local werewolves keep it under control, search a library for dangerous magical books, and do maintenance and cleaning of the magical trees that protect the city from haunts. You start off by picking who goes on what team, then have some choice about details within the task — generally there isn’t enough manpower to be completely thorough, so this involves decisions about what to not bother with. So there’s a lot of permutations to try, but it seems to be pretty forgiving: in two playthroughs, the only task I didn’t manage to complete adequately was the herbs.

One thing I particularly liked was that the creatures are characterized by more than just their monster powers. You don’t just have a snake-woman, for example, you have an arrogant snake-woman who thinks she’s the only competent person present. You don’t just have a slime creature, you have a slime creature who lives downtown and knows the city inside out and is friendly with the locals. Their personalities can clash, and interfere with the tasks, or they can bond over the work. It’s not really a story about the tasks, it’s a story about the people doing them.

The presentation is worth noting. It’s stylish, in a clean and minimalist way. Whenever the narration switches perspective, it’s indicated with a sort of title rectangle on a colored background, like a Monopoly title deed, each character getting their own color. It’s in this title card that the link to bring up the character stats lies, in the form of a circled question mark — which, unfortunately, means you can’t look at the stats pages when you’re assigning sub-tasks. As for the text, by default, it does that thing I’ve talked about about so much during this Comp where it gives you only a short bit of text and prompts you to click to display the next short bit — but, mercifully, this can be disabled! There’s a toggle for it in the upper right of the screen, right next the the language switch. (The game was originally written in French, but the Enlgish translation is excellent.) I encourage every author who likes their text to come out in dribs and drabs to look into this, and see if you can make it optional or the sake of the players who don’t like it that way.

IFMud 2020: The Eleusinean Miseries

P. G. Wodehouse, for all his obvious tics, is not an easy writer to imitate at length. His panache-per-word ratio is almost impossible for anyone else to sustain for more than a sprint. Slapstick is difficult to do well in prose at all, let alone in prose broken up with momentum-killing command prompts. So I think it’s worth commending this piece for pulling off both of these things as well as it does. Possibly they complement each other, the digressive and indirect prose preventing the slapstick from being too in-your-face, getting the reader’s imagination involved.

And all that’s combined with an incongruous but oddly appropriate setting: Greece during the Peloponnesian War. The war is mentioned occasionally, but it barely touches the story’s featherbrained aristocrats, who treat initiation into “that Mysteries wheeze” like a night at the Drones Club. But apparently the story is largely based on historical fact, including some of the sillier bits, and will probably be particularly amusing to players who recognize the events alluded to.

The story consists of several discrete sections, each with its own goal and puzzles, with some objects and geography shared between the second and third parts. The puzzle style strikes me as particularly Infocom-like, in some hard-to-define way. Maybe it’s the specific depth of implementation, with multi-step solutions that involve things like showing some food to a pig so it’ll follow you to a different location. Or maybe it just stands out because I haven’t seen a lot of puzzle-based adventure games in this Comp. Some of the puzzles support multiple solutions, too, which I’d applaud in many games, but here, it struck me as inelegant when I left some obvious puzzle-fodder unused.

At any rate, it’s both solid and quirky, and thus will probably rank well, if I know the Comp judges.

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