Archive for November, 2020

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. There’s a bit of irony there, if you look at it right: the very discomfort of seeing seeing your culture repackaged to be more palatable to outsiders is itself here repackaged for outsiders.

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 you 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 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 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, in a humorous way. 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.

IFComp 2020: Captivity

So, this is a perfectly decent adventure game for the most part, but I wound up docking it a couple of points at the end for its expectations of the player — and by that, I do not mean that the puzzles are too hard. We’ll get there, but first, a summary:

The story concerns a damsel in distress escaping from the clutches of an evil duke intent on “ravishing” her, who’s trapped her in a tower and bound her with an enchanted necklace, provided by his resident wizard, that will strangle her if she leaves. The first couple of rooms make it seem like it’ll be all about locked door puzzles, but once you’ve gotten into the main part of the duke’s manor, you start meeting characters — most of them terrible people in one way or another, either evil or bad at their jobs or simply annoying, but well-written comic roles. I was particularly taken with the dowager duchess, who insists that her son is a good boy and that kidnapping women is just a phase he’s going through.

The puzzles are generally fair, although some are overly picky about phrasing — I had to get hints to figure out how to use a mirror to read some mirror-writing, even though I knew perfectly well what I needed to do. Occasionally, you’ll run into a puzzle where actions have to be completed within a time limit, or in a particular order, and if you don’t do it right, the game resets the state to before it went wrong, with a statement like:

Oh, dear. You lured the cook into the pantry, but then you failed to take advantage of the fleeting opportunity to do something really important in the kitchen. As a result, you will never be able to escape the duke’s sweaty clutches. You’re doomed. Because your author is amazingly charitable, he’s going to let you try it again. We’ll rewind to the spot just before you told the cook about the rats. Ready? Here we go….

Which is fatuous, particularly in this specific case, where there’s nothing preventing the game from doing the Monkey Island thing and letting you lure the cook into the pantry multiple times. But I didn’t really think about this much until the climactic confrontation with the duke, where I was told:

Oh, dear. It seems you neglected something — something important, and it was way back at the start of your escape attempt […] Nevertheless, the author in his nearly infinite benevolence feels inclined to take pity on you. Waving his magic wand, he generously provides you with the resources you’ll need. Whether you can figure out what to do with them — well, that remains to be seen.

This puzzled me. Even after successfully escaping, I had no idea what “resources” it was talking about. At no point in the rest of the game did I seem to need anything I didn’t already have. Only after some experimentation did I figure it out. To escape the duke, you need to stab him with a pair of scissors you found earlier. At that point, you’ve been forced to drop everything, except the reticule 1Coincidentally or not, many long-time IF fans learned the word “reticule” from Infocom’s Plundered Hearts, which also involves escape from potential ravishment by an aristocrat. you’re wearing, and its contents. The reticule is initially found under the bed in the cell where you start the game, where I suppose the author thought it would be easy to miss. The thing is, though? I hadn’t missed it. I had the reticule. I just hadn’t put the scissors in it, because I had no way to anticipate that I would need them there at that moment. But the message quoted above doesn’t take this possibility into account — it expects you to not have found the reticule yet, so it can chide you for your neglectfulness. The whole situation is engineered to provide the author the satisfaction of looking down at the player, like a bad DM. And it didn’t even work. That cell is fairly bare, and you need to search it pretty thoroughly just to get out, so I suspect a lot of players are going to be in my position.

1 Coincidentally or not, many long-time IF fans learned the word “reticule” from Infocom’s Plundered Hearts, which also involves escape from potential ravishment by an aristocrat.

IFComp 2020: The Impossible Bottle

A six-year-old girl helps her father with little chores around the house: cleaning up her toys, setting the table, that sort of thing. A dollhouse in her room bears a suspicious resemblance to the house itself, so you test it and confirm: the dollhouse is the house, or at least four rooms in it, and changing the contents of those rooms affects the house around you.

It’s a clever basis for a whimsical puzzleworld. I was particularly taken by the way that rooms are identified by their contents: any room you put a bed into becomes a bedroom, for example. (If you remove all the identifying furniture from a room, it’s simply named by the color of the walls.) But you get more than just the ability to hot-swap stuff from room to room: it also lets you scale objects up and down by putting them in the dollhouse and then going to the corresponding room, or vice versa. Scaled objects often turn into new types of object — for example, a handkerchief put into the dollhouse becomes a tablecloth in the room outside. Toys turn into real things, or real things into toys, sometimes in unpredictable ways.

And that applies to the members of your family. You can remove the dolls representing your mom and dad from the dollhouse and make the persons vanish from the world, which is a little disquieting — presumably the player character is a doll as well, an idea supported by the fact that she can’t remove her hair ribbon, as if it’s molded into her head, but the room containing the dollhouse isn’t accessible from the dollhouse exterior, so you can’t remove yourself and hold your own doll in your hand while being held in the hand of your giant self. You can, however — and this is a fairly major puzzle spoiler, but it’s one of my favorite moments in the game, so I have to describe it here — escape the house through its “fourth wall”, corresponding to the dollhouse’s open face, and explore the larger version of the house in which your house exists as a dollhouse. This exit isn’t mentioned in the room descriptions. You have to infer that it’s a possibility and try it out.

In fact, trying things out just for the sake of seeing what happens is crucial to the work. My biggest complaint is that this combines badly with another element: the Goals list. It’s way too easy to fall into the trap of focusing on the goals, letting them be your driving motivation, looking specifically for ways to overcome the obvious obstacles to those goals and not finding them because they’re locked behind non-goal-oriented exploration and experimentation.

The grownups in the story are remarkably oblivious to the Twilight-Zone-like bizarreness of the situation, straining to perceive everything you do to the house as normal, getting very confused when they can’t. The ending, without saying it outright, ties it all into the state of our lives in under quarantine: a house without an exterior, self-contained and self-containing, with people trying very hard to live normal lives.

The UI is worth noting: the game appears to be written in Inform, but it’s designed to be playable entirely with a mouse by means of hyperlinks that produce command lines. The command prompt always contains objectless actions, like movement and taking inventory, as hyperlinks. Clicking on objects in the output text produces a noun-only action, which defaults to examining the object, and adds to the command prompt some links for appropriate actions on that object. What about actions that take two objects, like “put blanket on bed”? It’s kind of clever: You produce the action “put blanket on”, which provokes a disambiguation prompt; clicking on the bed then produces the noun-only command “bed” like normal, but due to context, it’s interpreted as a completion of the command. Usually in hybrid interfaces of this sort, I find myself using one mode or the other exclusively after a little while, but this time, I switched back and forth quite a bit. Typing into the command line is still more convenient for referencing objects that aren’t currently mentioned onscreen, and necessary for trying out actions that aren’t provided as links. I assume such actions are never actually necessary to complete the game, but I don’t really know how you’d get through the fourth wall that way.

IFComp 2020: Ulterior Spirits

This game’s blurb describes it as “A Christmas Carol meets Mass Effect“, and, well, fair enough. But as Chirstmas Carol riffs go, it’s a strange one. The only “ghost” our surly space admiral sees is a glimpse of a dead enemy from an old war, and that has a prosaic explanation by the end. Instead, mainly what you get is a series of death threats and menacing video messages. Some of these can’t be shown to other people for one reason or another, suggesting the possibility that they’re imaginary, symptoms of a dementia caused by guilt, but there’s definitely an assassin stalking you as well, breaking into your quarters while you’re at work and the like. Still, all these problems, real and possibly-unreal alike, just kind of melt away at the end when the player character has a change of heart about alien orphans.

Are we to take, then, it that the death threats caused this change of heart, made the admiral more sympathetic? That being stalked and harassed provoked an emotional reaction other than feeling justified in harsh response? That rings false to me. At the very least, I can definitely say that the player character’s reactions are not my reactions, and that consequently, the redemption loses some power as a redemption. It’s not something I did, or a result of decisions I made for the character. It just something that happens to you: the successful result of a psyop by a hostile power, targeting a VIP who’s writing Coalition policy statements.

The presentation is exceedingly slick, a cool blue Enterprise-console-looking UI that sends out ripple-rings when tapped, with a panel for professional-looking illustrations (in shades of blue with yellow highlights), and rollover text defining its sci-fi terms (albeit usually not saying much of importance). I have a few complaints about it, however. First, it doesn’t work in my default browser; I had to switch to Chrome to even see the main menu. Then there’s a lot of small built-in delays as it slides choice buttons out and clears the main text panel with a swipe. Sometimes, in the smaller text chunks, I spent more time waiting for the text to appear than I spent reading it. The impatience this provokes made me inclined to skim through the longer passages, especially when there was just a single button to advance rather than a choice — yes, this piece is in the school of “break up large text dumps with frequent choiceless prompts”, and if you’ve been following this blog, you know how I feel about that.

This inclination to skim may be responsible for my surprise at learning that the player character, the space admiral, is a woman — something that only registered for me when her son, with whom I’d had a lengthy phone conversation in the beginning of the story, addresses her as “Mom” for the first time in the ending. OK, in fairness, it’s established in the very beginning (albeit hardly ever referenced after that) that her name is “Renee”, but I suppose the distinction between the feminine “Renée” and the masculine “René” is lost on an English-speaker like myself. So I don’t think the confusion here is deliberate. And that makes me think I misread some of the social dynamics earlier in the story, including the whole stalking and harassment thing. So I really don’t know what to make of the story now.

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