Archive for 2020

IFComp 2020: A Murder in Fairyland

This one’s hard to describe succinctly. Set in the same techno-magical world as Open Sorcery, but tangential to it, this piece sends us to a fairyland that’s in some way accessible via the internet — not that it’s a fantasy MMO or anything like that, but that code and magic intertwine. You have a ship that’s powered by emotions and spells that need to be compiled before they’re cast, but which are also linked to memories. There are multiple mini-games in the environment, including a tarot-card-combo-based one reminiscent of the card games in The Fool’s Errand and its sequel. There’s a goblin market to browse, where you use magical essences as currency. There’s heartfelt poetical bits, connected to the player character’s past. There’s enough going on that it took me most of the way to the Comp’s two-hour limit to even reach the murder.

The murder is an unusual one, in that it’s ordinary and expected. Fairy nobles murder each other all the time, apparently, and don’t think much of it. But this time, there are political stakes: Titania herself, the Summer Queen, in seek of amusement, has pledged support for whoever committed the murder if they put in a bid to claim to the Fall Throne. Consequently, everyone’s falling over themselves to prove they did it. So it’s a murder mystery in reverse, interrogating suspects to find alibis for them and the like. None of this is really our protagonist’s concern, as you’re just passing through, but you need a blockade taken down before your ship can continue on, and apparently that can’t happen until the throne is resolved. Which means you don’t strictly have to solve the murder correctly — indeed, some of the suspects offer deals or bribes or threats to pick them regardless of what the evidence says. But that’s hardly satisfying, is it? The best ending results in not just clearing the blockade, but doing some real good for those who helped you along the way. The fairies are a childish supercilious lot, with just a few exceptions, and those few, the serious and sincere, are the real heart of the story.

Or is it the bureaucracy? That’s really where I spent the plurality of my time with this game. There’s a whole puzzle-system of forms with complicated rules that you have to go through again and again, going back to the Hall of Edicts for more illogical logic. (Fortunately, running back and forth is handled in a very elegant way for a choice-based work: via north/south/east/west links at the edges of the screen, greatly reducing the stress of visual feedback in finding them.)

So you get a substantial portrait of fairy society, its wonders and its foibles. The player character, on the other hand, is a little bit of an enigma. She’s the most human-feeling person we meet, which makes her feel out of place among all these archetypes and caricatures. She wears a headscarf for non-religious reasons and uses a wheelchair and uses magic as an accessibility device. She knows how fairyland works, and is cagey about accepting gifts or revealing her true name. She has a past that this story isn’t about. You get to know her just enough to know that there’s a lot you don’t know, including where she’s going and why. I sometimes complain in these reviews about games that feel incomplete, presenting only part of a story. This story feels partial, but it doesn’t feel unfinished. It feels like you’re being told all that the author cares to tell you right now.

IFComp 2020: Limerick Quest

This is a sequel to last year’s Limerick Heist, which I played but did not review. In both games, the central conceit is that the text of the game is in the form of limericks. But where the first game more or less rested on that, giving a choice-based branching story with a lot of dead ends, Quest gives us adventure-style gameplay with freeform exploration and some really clever puzzles. (The UI is still hypertext, but includes some selection boxes to maintain scansion.)

This shift in gameplay reflects a shift in content: where the first game was about a band of criminals robbing a casino, this one has two of them following a lead from the end of that game to a lost Aztec tomb in Siberia. While you do eventually get a backstory that explains this odd juxtaposition, it mainly serves to reduce the expectation of plausibility.

I think the most impressive part is the inventory. No matter what combination of items you have at any given moment, it manages to list them in limerick form, rephrasing things if necessary, inserting descriptive phrases to pad out lines or force a rhyme. Towards the end, you discover a way to replace objects with synonyms, and the inventory system still manages to keep pace with the literally exponentially increased number of possibilities. Inventory puzzles are handled cleverly: you get a limerick with one or more blank spaces, and have to pick items from your knapsack to fill in the blank, with rhyme and meter serving as hints. This leads to wordplay puzzles where the length of the words in letters and syllables are important, acting as proxies for size and weight, but this is clued in ways that completely went over my head at first. I managed to bluff my way through the tutorial puzzles without understanding them, and only figured out what I had missed when the climax forced the issue with a puzzle that put together everything I was supposed to already know.

If, like me, you spend a long time not really understanding what you’re doing, the game involves a lot of walking back and forth through the same areas. I wouldn’t call this out in a parser-based game, but the hypertext interface makes it irksome. You can’t just hit “n.n.n.w.” or whatever, you have to find the links on the screen over and over — and, while most rooms have a standardized stanza at the bottom listing all the exits, some embed them in the description text.

I recently praised a game for providing the option to display all a page’s text at once instead of making the player click on links to advance it a bit at a time. Kudos, then to Limerick Quest for doing the same — indeed, now that I look back at Heist, I find it does it as well. There’s one other option in the menu, to disable timed events. I’m pretty sure I selected this, but wound up with what appeared to be timed events in the end anyway, in the action climax where you’re riding a minecart through the caves, leaning this way and that to avoid obstacles, and words that rhyme with the correct choice appear bit by bit in the verse. It’s possible that I’m mistaken, but it’s hard to be sure, as the game doesn’t seem to provide a way to access the options menu from within the game.

Overall, this exceeds expectations: it could have been just a reiteration of a cute gimmick, but instead it experiments with UI and interactivity and pulls off some really impressive tricks.

IFComp 2020: Amazing Quest

I’ve been making a point of not mentioning authors’ names in my Comp writeups this year, so as to keep my attention on the content of the game under consideration rather than its place within an oeuvre. But I’m going to have to make an exception here. I don’t think this game can be properly understood without that context. Indeed, I don’t fully understand it with that context either.

Nick Montfort is a respected name in the IF community, known for both his use of wordplay in IF and his scholarly analysis of the form. He’s also a poet, a procedural generation enthusiast, and one of the few people still writing programs in Commodore 64 BASIC — often minimalist one-line things that are meant to be appreciated as poems, source code and effect together.

Amazing Quest, then, is at an intersection of these interests. It’s a twelve-line C64 BASIC program, played within a provided emulator, that purports to represent an Odysseus-like hero trying to return home after a great victory. On each turn, it gives you a setup like “You alight on a dry outpost” or “You detect a pious port”, the words clearly fitted together on the fly. You then have one of a handful of possible actions suggested — “Sneak up and raid?-Y/n”, or “Send gifts?”, or “Sacrifice to the gods?”, or a few other possibilities. (Reading the source code afterward made me aware of something I hadn’t noticed while playing: all of the possible actions begin with S.) Possible outcomes include winning loot of various kinds, being attacked and losing a ship, or just witnessing a randomly-selected wonder. After enough iterations of this, you finally get home, and the program exits to the C64 BASIC command line, where you can type LIST and view the source code. It’s too long to fit on the screen all at once in that form, though.

When starting to play this, it’s natural to try to strategize, to look for patterns that will let you know when it’s beneficial to raid and where the gods prefer sacrifices and so forth. But it doesn’t take long to get the impression that it’s just completely random and that it doesn’t matter what you choose. Reading the source code bears this out. The outcome of each turn is simply a die roll, unaffected by either the situation or your choice — your input is simply disregarded, making the designation “interactive fiction” questionable. It’s interactive in the same way that a slot machine is interactive, except that a slot machine has meaningful payoffs, and the outcome of a scenario here is purely cosmetic, and forgotten immediately.

But — and here’s where I start wondering about authorial intent — the entire thing is accompanied by a “strategy guide” giving spurious advice like “As you continue to play and imagine your journey in more and more detail, you will have a better basis for your choices” and “GIFTS will be more welcome in some places. You also need to consider if you’ve suffered recent losses, depleting what you have to offer.” Is it all a troll, a joke at the player’s expense? An experiment to see whether state tracking is really necessary? Either way, it fails somewhat by being too obvious. Or maybe you’re expected to suss it out, and the whole thing is a critique of how games exploit pareidolia. For that matter, it could be read as reflecting its source material: the ancient epics that attribute everything to the will of gods now generally regarded as figments. There’s a bit of tragic sympathy to be found in a player character who never notices the meaninglessness that’s obvious to the player.

Or maybe I’m reading too much into it, victim of pareidolia around the game if not within it. But I do think that, as a poet, Montfort is capable of creating a piece like this with multiple meanings in mind. If nothing else, it’s a strong contender for the Banana.

IFComp 2020: Move on

The interesting experiments aren’t always the successful ones. This piece is, in my opinion, not a successful experiment, but it’s an interesting one to look at and describe why.

The story is nothing more than a chase sequence: you on a white motorcycle, trying to deliver a briefcase to the docks while the police try to stop you. An emphasis on speed and quick reactions in the text. My first few attempts were baffling, in that they all failed without, as far as I could tell, my ever having been offered any opportunity to affect the outcome at all. There was just a sequence of passages, each ending in a single text button, the final one saying “It could have been different…”

On maybe my fifth try, I looked at the game’s itch page1This game is hosted on, and the comp’s download for it is simply an HTML page with a link to the itch page. There’s no obvious reason for this. As far as I can tell, it’s just HTML5 without any functionality that wouldn’t work locally and offline. So, as usual, I’m complaining. again, and saw the advice “Keep your eyes on the road”, which was enough of a hint to make me realize that the little picture of a motorcycle at the top of the screen was important. At each step of the story, it moves forward for a little while, and the outcome depends on whether you let it come to a stop or pressed the button to advance to the next story fragment first. (It’s possible that there’s more granularity to it than stop or go, but if so, it was too subtle for me to notice.) I had failed to notice this partly because my eyes were generally at the bottom of the screen, where the text comes in. I speculate that putting the motorcycle below the text instead of above it could aid comprehension.

So, now I know there’s time limits on advancing through the story. The result is that I’m no longer really reading the story; I’m skimming it for just enough information to decide whether I need to keep up my speed or come to a sudden stop. I honestly couldn’t tell you what happens towards the end, because it never really passed through my head, apart from a handful of words. This strikes me as not ideal for IF.

Okay then, says my cantankerous brain, what about Wheels of Aurelia? That also forced you to split your attention between reading text and driving, and you thought it worked really well. What’s the difference here?

The difference, I think, is that in this game, the text is about the driving. In Wheels, you’re splitting your attention diegetically: the player character is both driving a car and participating in a conversation, so if you sometimes neglect the conversation to pay attention to the driving, it’s appropriate. It just means she’s doing the same. Here, however, both the text and the little motorcycle on the screen represent the same thing. So you’re trying to read about what the motorcycle is doing, but you can’t, because you keep on being distracted by what the motorcycle is doing. This is as unnatural as it is frustrating.

1 This game is hosted on, and the comp’s download for it is simply an HTML page with a link to the itch page. There’s no obvious reason for this. As far as I can tell, it’s just HTML5 without any functionality that wouldn’t work locally and offline. So, as usual, I’m complaining.

IFComp 2020: Tavern Crawler

Here’s another one in the better-than-it-seems-at-first camp. The genre is blatantly D&D-based fantasy, with half-orcs and thieves guilds and everything. There’s no dungeon per se, the story being mainly set in urban environments, apart from a brief foray to find a dragon and, in so doing, set up the rest of the plot.

But it’s not so much combat-based or even puzzle-based as decision-based. Oh, there’s the option to grind monsters for cash if you really want to, but if you play the game like me, trying to do as much as possible in each location before moving to the next, then you’ll be very advanced in the story before you discover this.

And while some of the decisions are purely practical ones, a lot of them are decisions about your character, about what kind of person you want to be. And it’s peculiar, because I mean that in two senses: the same decisions that reflect your personality and moral qualities also affect your character stats, which is to say, your skills in fighting, magic, and thievery. I started off the game thinking I’d be a thief, because that seemed like the skill set that would be most useful in the setting, but wound up having more points in mage, because I kept making decisions that were kind and thoughtful instead of selfish and greedy. It’s like the character creation system from Ultima IV, but spread out over the entire game.

There’s one other CRPG that it reminds me of even more strongly, though, and that’s the PC adaptation of Temple of Elemental Evil. Largely this is because of the way it uses those character stats: with very few exceptions, they’re applied not as modifiers to a random roll, but as prerequisites for an option, which is displayed with a special icon and the required stat threshold. If you don’t meet the requirement, the option is displayed but crossed out, Depression Quest-style. But also, it resembles ToEE in the style of its side quests. This is a game where you can, for example, wind up deciding whether an innkeeper’s wife should stay in a stable but loveless marriage or leave for an uncertain future, and be rewarded with cash either way. (Since there’s no XP, the game uses money as its generic reward.)

The story seems to be set on an unvarying backbone, with player decisions affecting the details. Do someone a favor, and you might find them returning it in a later scene. Why wouldn’t you just do everyone favors? Because many of them are contradictory, forcing you to choose one person over another. The game’s favorite trick, which even forms the basis of the main plot, is that it’ll let you do a quest, and then, just when you’re ready to turn it in and claim your reward, it gives you more information that casts doubt on whether you should.

In short, this game is basically just the story part of a decent story-oriented fantasy RPG. It’s easy to imagine giving it a graphical front end to make it look more like other games of its type, but why would you do that? It’s fine as it is.

IFComp 2020: Alone

I’m not a fan of zombie apocalypse fiction — I wasn’t even fond of it when I was working on it for a living! But this game is on the periphery of the genre, de-emphasizing the zombie in favor of the apocalypse. You encounter just one infected person, at the very end, and the encounter is fairly brief. If you’ve done everything right, they’re even curable. But that one moment of danger is enough to pay off the tension in the rest of the story.

The story: You’re a survivor driving alone through the uninhabited waste, when your car runs out of gas. You find an abandoned gas station, but the pump is locked, and in the course of searching for a key, you find a secret laboratory, also abandoned, that was researching the disease. I very much like the way that it drives the story with implied motivations that make sense in context: you’re not just exploring for exploration’s sake, you’re specifically looking for that key, or, if you remember seeing a corpse nearby that might possibly have a key on it, you’re looking for protective equipment that will allow you to search it without fear of infection.

In the year 2020, that last detail seems a little ripped-from-the-headlines. Avoiding contamination is paramount — even when handled safely, that corpse can contaminate your inventory in a way that reminded me a lot of Michael Fessler’s room in Cragne Manor. This fear of contact is why you’re alone, and why the only other living soul you encounter is a threat. And in the end, how do you handle that threat? You have the option of handling it entirely from a distance: the controls in the lab’s observation room let you simply blast its entire room with fire, minimizing risk. But doing this in the obvious way also destroys the machine capable of synthesizing the cure. This is the kind of ironic ending that’s completely appropriate to the genre, but it’s not your only option. It’s just that the other option involves putting yourself at risk.

Anyway, it’s a neat little game that I enjoyed more than I thought I would. One aspect I appreciated that doesn’t have a lot to do with the story’s themes: quite a few of the puzzles focus on the spatial relations between multiple rooms, making you think about more than just where you are at a given moment.

IFComp 2020: Deelzebub

Playing this game made me uncomfortable, mostly in small ways. The map is just a little bit confusing, in a way that sent me stumbling into the same wrong rooms repeatedly. Progress in the story is often dependent on focusing on things that didn’t stand out as important, either scenery objects or nouns mentioned offhand in conversation. And it’s written in the third person. The protagonist is a dim but amiable man named Reginald, and there are enough encounters with enough different NPCs that when the output mentioned Reginald by name, I often thought for just a moment that it was talking about someone else, and consequently tried talking to Reginald or whatever. This wasn’t a sticking point, but it did remind me repeatedly that my thoughts weren’t where the author wanted them.

The third-person narration is linked to a conceit that you’re “a voice in Reginald’s head”, telling him what to do, an idea that is never really addressed after the very beginning. The game starts out by just throwing away your first several commands, as Reginald reacts to suddenly having a voice in his head, which sets us wrong-footed from the get-go. When the story started talking about summoning demons, the connection seemed obvious: I’m a demon possessing Reginald, right? But no, the story never draws that connection. I’m not sure it even occurred to the author. I mean, it seemed pretty obvious to me, but we’ve already established that their headspace is unlike mine.

The summoning of a bona fide demon seems like it would be momentous, something that would rock Reginald’s world, but once that episode is over, it’s over. He goes back to just running errands for his cult leader afterward as if nothing happened.

Yes, Reginald is a member of a cult. That’s clear from the very beginning. The entire setting of the game is a cult compound, but it’s presented from Reginald’s point of view, without conspicuous irony, and he’s so reluctant to recognize it as a cult that I started to wonder if the author knew, and ask if my sympathies were supposed to lie with the cult. Part of the problem here is that this is a story of betrayal, where the player has to make multiple difficult choices about what side to take, who to trust and whose trust he should abuse. It’s presented as a light-hearted comedy.

IFComp 2020: The Magpie Takes the Train

This is an authorized sequel to Alias: The Magpie, a heist game from 2018 that I haven’t played (except for the very beginning, for comparison purposes, in preparation for this blog post). I thought perhaps I had played it, but I was confusing it with various other humorous heist-based adventure games. The character known as The Magpie distinguishes himself as a gentleman thief and master of disguise in an Agatha-Christie-ish setting — the first Magpie game even has its own ridiculous-named Poirot imitation. So setting the sequel on a train makes a certain amount of sense.

The train gives the author an excuse to constrain the action: this is essentially a one-room puzzle game. The goal is to brazenly pluck a jewel from the lapel of a sharp old lady, without attracting her attention, or that of her attendant, or her parrot, or the other master thief sharing a car with her. This mainly means a lot of environmental manipulation, most of which I discovered by exploratory prodding rather than goal-oriented behavior.

You have the aid of a suitcaseful of disguises, enabling you to pass yourself off as anything from an aristocrat to a maintenance worker to a parrot groomer — the Magpie is easily capable of changing costume in the time it takes the train to go through a tunnel. I frankly don’t think the game took good advantage of this. The main way it affects you is that some actions are only available to certain personae, which means you have to wait for the train to go through a tunnel and change before you can do them. This is amusingly novel at first, but the dependencies feel more constraining than enabling, and it’s basically a puzzle solution that has to be executed multiple times without variation after you’ve figured it out. I could imagine a game that makes more of the mechanic — say, where you have to execute multiple outfit-dependent actions in a row without an opportunity to change, and there’s some intersection between what the outfits enable, to force you to think about what combinations of abilities you need. Maybe the original Magpie game does this.

Or maybe someone else will make a Magpie game that does it. Heck, maybe I’ll give it a try — the fact that this is an authorized sequel by a different author than the original sets an interesting precedent. The idea of different authors doing their own takes on the same characters or settings is ubiquitous in commercial games, but hasn’t been indulged much in the amateur IF world, outside of the occasional collaborative work.

One last thing worth noting: the treatment of dialogue. The first Magpie game had a system where it suggested topics for you to ask people about. This game puts a rigid formality around that. You have an inventory of things you can say, and to simplify matters, each thing can be said to exactly one person. Once you’ve said a thing, it’s used up and cannot be said again, unless circumstances renew it — the most common case being introducing yourself to people again after putting on a new disguise. So, you don’t have a lot of freedom in conversaion, but on the other hand, you also don’t waste time guessing who can be usefully asked about what topics. It’s a bit like picking choices from a menu-based interface that way, except regularized. You can take a look at your topic list at any time, and see which ones are currently available. I wouldn’t recommend such a system for every game, but it works pretty well here, where the emphasis is on physical puzzles, but talking to people is sometimes a component of those puzzles.

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.

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