Archive for October, 2020

IFComp 2020: Ghostfinder: Shift

The title is a little misleading: you’re not hunting ghosts, but a serial killer. The “Ghosthunter” is because you’re a member of a sort of occult police force — the killings aren’t occult in nature, but a significant amount of the information you have to go on comes from a “shifter”. That’s a person who occasionally has seizures that cause her to temporarily experience another person’s senses, seeing through their eyes and hearing through their ears, without being able to control their actions, as if reading a long text passage between choices in a choice-based IF like this one.

The shifter in question has kept meticulous records of when she’s shifted and what she’s seen, which proves very handy when it suddenly turns out that she’s been shifting into the killer. The middle chapter of the story, where the bulk of the interactivity lies, is a whodunit, where you try to spot commonalities from the shift diary and various police records, newspaper accounts, and conversations with witnesses. There’s even a Her Story-style keyword prompt, to make sure that you’re actually paying attention rather than just clicking through all the links.

The keyword prompt demands that you type in lower case, which is a bit of a UI fail — why not just convert it to lower case in script? The rest of the investigation UI, on the other hand, really pleases me. You have a notebook that fills in with important names and details automatically, which is crucial, because the story has an unwieldy number of characters otherwise — fully 24, including all the victims. The shift diary menu, which starts off displaying just the date of each entry, automatically appends a one-line summary to any you’ve already read, both marking your progress and providing easier access to information. This is the sort of system I’d want for any mystery that revolves mainly around reading and rereading documents, like if you made an interactive version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy or something. (It also has the consequence that you can re-play the bits where you interview persons of interest directly, with exactly the same text and the same choices each time through. This is anti-mimetic, but it’s probably a good thing all the same.)

In fact, the automatic collection and summarizing of information is so good, it may be harmful. This is a game with a lot of text to read, much of it about rape and murder and other cruelty. I found that after I had read through lengthy accounts of a couple of the killings, I didn’t really want to read any more. So, I just click through the rest and let the magic notebook pull out the pertinent details! Which presumably contributed to the feeling that I didn’t fully understand the reasoning I was supposed to be following and that I was just taking a guess at the end. But then, I feel like this feeling is also a result of the detective work here mainly being an accumulation of hunches and coincidences, rather than deductive certainty. Obra Dinn it ain’t.

Anyway, the investigative core of the story is sandwiched between chapters of serial-killer-hunting thriller action, and about all I have to say about those parts is that they’re longer than I would have liked. I’m mainly filing this one under “Well-crafted, but not to my taste”.

IFComp 2020: Fight Forever

It seems like one of the trends in this year’s Comp is a rising presence of highly procedural and rule-based works, where the player’s attention is more on systems than on prose. Fight Forever takes this to an extreme. At root, it’s a menu-based sports management sim, where you make choices about a fighter’s training regimen, then set them loose in the ring. It’s at a level of abstraction that reminds me of old BASIC games like Hammurabi, but much more elaborate.

Important to note: the fighting itself is not interactive. That’s not where the focus is. You don’t even get a procedurally-generated play-by-play, just a brief statement of the outcome and how it affected your stats. If the output text is to be believed, there are quite a few stats it tracks — not just the obvious things like power, speed, and stamina, but things like mindset and “rockstar juice”. Even individual body parts like knees and elbows have numbers associated with them. (“Heart” is a frequently-mentioned stat, but I’m pretty sure it means it in the metaphorical rather than anatomical sense.) There doesn’t seem to be a way to access the full stat list, though — all the main menu shows you is two numbers, “Mind level” and “Body level”, which I’m assuming are derived from the more specific stats, along with some unrelated stuff like your win/loss record, age, and cash reserves.

So if there’s a complex simulation going on, it’s pretty much hidden from the player, both in cause (all you see is the two stats) and in effect (all you see is win/loss, not the reasons why). Maybe some specific sorts of training will help you more than others, but it’s blind guesswork. This makes for a pretty boring game. It’s effectively just grinding, and you’re expected to iterate on it a lot to get anywhere. I personally gave up well short of the Comp’s two-hour deadline, shortly after winning a silver medal in the Olympics and going pro (at which point you suddenly start losing a lot again).

The thing is, there’s clearly a lot of the game that I never accessed, mainly stuff under the “Life” menu, where you can travel, try other sports, have a social life, and buy status symbols like fancy cars. I could easily believe that there’s some actual story hiding in that tree. But nearly all of this stuff is grayed out at the start, locked from use, and I never unlocked any options beyond those I had at the beginning. There’s also the option to retire and raise children, who I assume can become fighters in turn, creating a dynasty of champions, like an Ascension system in a roguelike or idle game. And that makes me think: This might be better experienced as something like an idler game, where you make progress in bits over a long period, rather than cramming as much of it as you can into two hours. That would lessen the tedium. It wouldn’t solve the blind guesswork problem, though.

IFComp 2020: The Land Down Under

Here we have a lightly-interactive and highly imaginative children’s fantasy, apparently the latest in a whole series about foster children in a magical house, narrated by a magical book (which occasionally interjects its own grumpy opinions). The plot is essentially by-the-numbers portal fantasy: a couple of children wander into a fantastic realm hidden in the basement, the protagonist goes in after to rescue them, and in the process they trigger a revolution before they get out. But even recognizing the formula, it’s a pretty delightful read.

The otherworld here is inhabited by sentient paper cutouts of people, gliding around on tracks with a clockwork perfection that one of the children finds alluring. Humans entering this realm are transformed into paper as well, and deprived of most freedom of movement. It’s a little tempting to read a commentary on choice-based IF into this, but it’s not well-supported. On the other hand, it does play some with the idea that they’re characters in a book, which is missing some pages and has to furnish a flashback towards the end to fill in missing memories. In this way, the humans have always lacked freedom, and have always been made of paper. It’s notable, however, that there’s a great deal of story to get immersed in between the few fourth-wall-breaking moments when the book reminds you that it’s a book.

At one point, I went off the rails — literally, but the book reacted as if I had done so figuratively as well. Obviously it’s impossible to actually do anything the author hasn’t planned for, but it’s possible to do a little sequence-breaking in ways that could get you stuck. The game’s solution: Jetpacks, which let you jump back to an earlier choice. You start off with two, and there’s a possibility of obtaining more, but I only found the one place where I needed them at all, despite picking increasingly bold choices as the story went on.

Boldness is a stat tracked in the UI, and apparently affects how the ending proceeds. It’s a little strange, too, because it packs different kinds of boldness together. In the earlier parts of the story, back in the magic house, I was choosing the less “bold” conversation options because they seemed polite and considerate. But once it was about rebelling against tyranny rather than avoiding hurting someone’s feelings, bold was on.

I’ve been griping lately about Twine stories with excessive quantities of forward links to click through. This one is less egregious about it than some, giving a solid amount of text at a time and making substantial choices visually distinct. But it also manages to make the whole thing less irritating in a way I wasn’t expecting: by keeping the entire story text on the page. It seems I’m the sort of reader who keeps glancing back at previous passages to assist comprehension, and part of my problem with the hyperlink-at-the-end-of-a-short-passage style is the constant worry that clicking one will clear the page. Something to think on.

IFComp 2020: Deus Ex Ceviche

The premise here is a confusion, a jumble of ideas. It’s about corporations that are somehow religion that’s somehow technology that’s somehow fish, each thing bleeding into the others. But it grounds this flight of fancy in a heavily rule-based and stat-based system. Your temple has three parts: front end, back end, and hardware. In each round, you place a floppy disk in each part, and it affects your stats, granting you Power or Piety, Bots or Bolts or Bytes. Or, if you do things wrong, Brine, which seems to be basically entropy: the sea reclaiming what you own. The thing is, most actions require the assistance of robot clergy. You gain two such assistants, but have to perform three actions per round, so the the third is usually done wrong. The slow brining of the temple is inevitable, and must be fought and/or outpaced.

And here’s the thing: Everything you do yields a short paragraph of output text, describing how NaNette the NanoNun delivered a digital sermon to the robots of Crab Corp or whatever. And to some extent, early on, paying attention to these texts helps you get a handle on what’s going on. But I found that once I was hip to the rules, I tended to just glance at the text and pay more attention to the mechanical effects expressed through the numbers. That is, once my behavior became goal-driven, the text became mere flavor text, attached to the real events of the game but not really relevant to it. And that’s kind of a shame, because the text really is quite clever, mining as many strange juxtapositions and ambiguous phrasings out of the compound premise as it can. I suspect that this divorce between the writing and the player’s attention, together with the GUI presentation, will provoke a “But is it IF?” reaction in some, although to me, it seems no more dubious than a lot of this year’s other entries.

IFComp 2020: The Eidolon’s Escape

An evil spirit sits trapped in a crystal in a wizard’s tower, waiting to possess the first person who gets too close. You play the spirit, striving for escape.

Your first victims are a pair of young lovers, the wizard’s apprentice and a girl from the kitchens, sneaking into the lab to find a place to make out, a practice which disgusts and bewilders our nonhuman protagonist. Ah, but which of the pair do you possess? In fact it doesn’t matter much, because you’ll be back to possess the other one before the story’s over — although it does affect the immediate aftermath of the switch, whether you’re the boy trying to persuade the girl not to freak out, or the girl trying to do the same to the boy.

I’ve complained recently about Twine pieces that put a forward link after every sentence or two to disguise the fact that there are only like three actual choices in the whole story. This piece is a good example of the alternative. It’s willing to put up a full page of text at a time when it has that much to say before the next choice, and the choices are numerous. Mind you, many of them are purely tonal, without lasting effects, just choosing how to approach a conversation — but those are the most delicious ones! Mainly you get to choose whether try to play it smooth and manipulative, or brash and domineering. I was particularly pleased by a bit where, in control of the girl, you choose whether to address the boy as “Kitten”, “Puddin'”, or “Meatbag”. You might think the latter attitude would be ineffective, but in most cases, it confuses people into submission.

There are some choices that lead to immediate and well-deserved re-imprisonment. They’re mainly things that you know perfectly well are going to be risky, like going into the wizard’s bedroom to try to smother him with his pillow before he wakes up, but I still found it irksome, because there’s no way to save and no going backward. Going backward is in fact something Twine supports — the Harlowe format puts an Undo link on every page by default. But we don’t have that here, and the result is that I wound up playing through the early parts of the game multiple times. But at least I got to see multiple dialogue options that way.

Speaking of smothering the wizard, it seems like violence is the one thing that the story always punishes. The Eidolon is contemptuous of humans, but it can only escape the tower if it learns to temper its malevolence and let them live anyway.

IFComp 2020: Quest for the Sword of Justice

There’s always one, isn’t there? The lazy self-criticizing joke game. This one is your basic “You get arrested and put on trial for acting on the game’s affordances” gag, which may have been fresh and new when Chrono Trigger did it 25 years ago, although even if not, Chrono Trigger at least made it a fairly small part of a much larger work, and here it’s pretty much the entire story.

The Chrono Trigger comparison is especially apt because this game was created in RPG Maker, and as a result, is unusually slick for a joke games. Just using RPG Maker gives it a professional-quality UI pretty much automatically, and voluminous libraries of highly detailed sprites and tiles. So there’s a lot of highly visible effort on display — just not the effort of the game’s author. I suppose that’s always true at root: when you write a joke game in Inform, you get to take advantage of other people’s effort crafting the Inform language, the parser and library, the VM it runs on, the font and the OS and so forth. Maybe it’s just context that makes RPG Maker stand out. Still, the context is part of my experience, and stand out it does, due to the contrast between the craft poured into the system and the story it’s put in service of, and that’s why I’m singling it out for attention.

IFComp 2020: Turbo Chest Hair Massacre

Date-preparation in wacky mode. The bulk of the game is spent trying to get rid of a single hair growing between the breasts of Theophila, the player character. Her razor is missing, so she resorts to various other household items. All fail, and, in the process, inflict minor bruises and lacerations that you’d think would be more unsightly than the hair. Still, she’s undeterred until she runs out of options.

I frankly find this whole process distasteful. Somehow, the petty injuries seen here bother me more than exaggerated slapstick would. And once you’ve made one attempt, you pretty much know how the rest are going to play out, but have to keep inflicting more harm on Theo anyway. I seriously hesitated to continue once an electric fan got involved, and wished I could just talk her out of it.

The game’s saving grace is Marigold, Theo’s gynoid housemate and secondary player character. A robot of mystery, Marigold spends her time at a listening console, monitoring for extradimensional intruders — in fact, the entire house is called “listening station” in the room descriptions. To be clear: the intruders are definitely real, even if humans can’t perceive them, and may well be responsible for the disappearance of Theo’s razors. There’s a suggestion of a larger and more fantastical story that even Marigold herself is only partially aware of. You can switch control to Marigold at will, and, as in Suspended, her narrative voice and perspective are entirely different from Theo’s — among other things, she prepends every comment with a header like “Subjective knowledge (external):” or “Inferential knowledge:”, to emphasize her roboticness even when she’s offering opinions or expressing emotion.

And she’s in love with Theo. No, that’s not quite right. She has the hots for Theo. No, still not quite right. She yearns for Theo. It’s a desire clearly unreciprocated, and it comes off as ridiculous when you’re playing from Theo’s perspective, putting up with Marigold’s clumsy come-ons. But it all seems different when you’re Marigold. She never talks about Theo at length, even when asked about her directly, but keeps reminding us of her hopeless obsession in little ways, in offhand comments that show how she can’t stop thinking about her. There’s frustration, too, at how Theo tries to show respect for her by treating her like a human, which, to Marigold, is denying her nature and thus not truly respecting her at all. It’s a complicated and heartbreaking relationship and it all culminates in a long story-ending cutscene that can be described as erotic mechanical maintenance — maintenance made necessary by harm she suffers in her brave and selfless efforts to defend the listening station from extradimensional intruders, throwing Theo’s cosmetic struggles into a dim light by comparison.

In short, Marigold is a precious little rabbit who I want to protect and nurture, and it’s worth putting up with Theo’s self-harm to get to meet her.

IFComp 2020: What the Bus?

Subtitled “A Transit Nightmare”, and I can’t think of a better description. It starts off sedately, with the sort of snafu that we’ve all experienced. A bus is delayed, and you have decide what to do about it — wait twenty minutes, take a different bus that comes sooner but takes you to a different place where you’ll have to transfer to a train, walk to a different station that has different options, that sort of thing. Every choice leads to more problems: schedule changes, missed stops, buses that zoom past without stopping. Before long, things start getting weird. You wind up on a bus or rail line you’ve never heard of before, with stops you’re sure don’t exist, or glimpses of bizarre prodigies out the window, or passengers that aren’t human. You wind up irrevocably lost — in an alternate universe, or in Hades, or just circling the tracks endlessly, unable to get off. There are ten endings. Is there an ending where you actually reach your intended destination? I don’t know. There doesn’t need to be.

This is one of those ideas that seems so elemental, I’m a little surprised that I haven’t seen it done before. In fact, maybe I have — just as a single element of a game, rather than the entirety. The ride into the fantastic seems like it would make a good first chapter, a way to get into the otherworld where the bulk of a game takes place. But this work gives it focus, explores that liminal experience of getting lost in a sort of vehicular labyrinth, without subordinating it to something else. Making it about the journey, not the destination.

The setting isn’t positively identified, but of all the municipal transit systems I’ve experienced, it mainly reminds me of Boston.

IFComp 2020: Ascension of Limbs

I guess the obvious comparison here is Cultist Simulator, in both content and form. In form, because it’s simulationy and abstract in presentation, in a card-game-like way, and emphasizes accumulating resources, or working to avoid losing them. In content, because it’s a story of pursuing arcane secrets, and even descending into madness and murder — or at least, it can be. You can also just try to make your newly-acquired antiques shop into a financial success and get a win condition that way.

The game presents you with a list of verbs and nouns that are currently available to you, with the nouns split further into categories, like people currently in your shop and artifacts currently on display. Some of the nouns are abstractions like “mind” or “infamy”, basically representing stats, but examinable. A command consists of selecting a verb and a noun from this list — although that’s a bit of a lie, because you do occasionally need supply a direct object, but you do this on the next command line. This is the same solution that many of the two-word-parser games of the 1970s and 80s came up with, but those games were struggling with their limitations, and this one embraces them as an aesthetic. The verb list is small. One of the game’s basic tricks is effects that temporarily disable specific verbs, forcing you to either forgo certain actions until the effect times out or, if possible, use a different verb to accomplish the same thing: WRECK a piece of unwanted junk instead of DISCARDing it, for example. Another is that some verbs change in meaning with the category of thing they’re applied to, sometimes in ways you have to discover on your own.

Even though the input is severely restricted, the output is fluid prose, sometimes dreamlike in the nonsensical exaggeration of magical effects. Nonetheless, I think of this game mainly as a sterling example of narrative through game mechanics. My one suggestion to improve it is to make the word lists clickable.

IFComp 2020: A Catalan Summer

Here we have the story of a wealthy European family in 1920, when the Great War is a recent memory and Catalonian independence is a hot issue. It’s told in brief vignettes, like a storylet system except not randomized, and the viewpoint shifts from vignette to vignette, giving us control of different family members. The interesting thing about this is that, depending on the player’s choices, they can wind up keeping secrets from each other. The mother has an affair with a boy from the village; the father sleeps with the daughter’s fiancé; the daughter befriends a dangerous ghost; the son throws in with anarchists striking against the father’s factory. That last one even leads to the different player characters working at cross-purposes. You can hire a detective as the father and then get beat up by that detective as the son.

This inconsistency of character goals leaves open the question of what the player’s goals are. In my first playthrough, I basically went with every opportunity to amp up the drama, with the result that the family fell apart and lost everything. There’s a climactic scene, the only one where you can switch characters on purpose, where everyone’s naughty secrets can come to light if you want. But if you want to preserve the family and its fortune, that’s not hard either. All you have to do is make everyone act dutifully. That’s the story’s central conflict, I suppose: whether people should sacrifice their interests to the interests of the family. But it’s notable that doing so just results in less story. It’s like choosing the Genocide route in Undertale that way, and as such, is clearly the wrong path to take.

The interactivity is peculiar. You have two and only two sorts of actions: moving from room to room, and engaging other characters in choice-based conversations, both of which are accomplished via hyperlinks. The act of room-to-room navigation makes it feel a little like an adventure game, but there’s no inventory or puzzles. The old mansion, with its ballroom and its artificial cave and its historical origins, reminded me a bit of the board game Clue, and, as in Clue, it all seemed a bit pointless at first. In the opening scenes, you’re basically just instructed where to go to advance the story, and moving about manually seemed like mere busywork. Eventually, though, it starts using the rooms to represent choices. You see the father sneaking off to the chapel; do you spy on him, or do you just go back to your bedroom and forget about it? The real function of the opening tour was to familiarize the player with the house and grounds, so you could navigate the later sections more easily. It would be easy to hide secrets this way, putting special encounters in places the player is unlikely to visit at a given moment. But if this game does that, I haven’t seen any sign of it. It’s fairly minimalist, content-wise.

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