Archive for August, 2022

Litil Divil

This blog has seen a request that I finish up Deus Ex next. I want you to know that I’m not ignoring it, but I have reasons to want to put it off for a little bit. In the meantime, let’s pull out something from the depths of the Stack.

Litil Divil is a 1993 game by Gremlin Graphics, a studio otherwise unfamiliar to me, but which apparently had the resources to advertise this game noticeably in the videogame magazines of the day. It’s a game of cartoony pixel art and cartoony sensibilities. You play as a lesser devil called Mutt, possibly because of his enormous bulldog-like jowls, as he traverses the Labyrinth of Chaos to reach the overworld and retrieve a pizza. Please understand that most of this information, including the protagonist’s name, comes out of the manual rather than the game itself. The game has no intro other than Mutt dancing on the title screen. (Apparently some later ports add an animated FMV intro cutscene, which you can see on the game’s Steam page.)

You could call it a “variety game”. The labyrinth proper is a series of largish grid mazes with occasional underpasses to make it harder to navigate. Some tunnels have doors to unlock or traps to dodge, but the real challenges come in the rooms scattered through the maze. Each room is a mini-game, which could be a puzzle, or a side-view fighting game, or an isometric platformer, or a shell game, or whatever else the designers came up with. All such challenges come without instructions; figuring out what you’re supposed to be doing, and what the controls do in that room, is just part of the challenge. Some challenges require inventory items obtained in other rooms, and this too is something you have to figure out on your own, usually by failing the challenge a few times.

Back in the mid-90s, this game was in rotation as something I’d pull out and try to finish from time to time, and I played it enough for a snippet of the background music — FM-synthesized, almost offensively jolly and lightly discordant — to get stuck in my head occasionally even to this day. (It’s always a little weird to hear music played aloud that you’ve only heard in your head for a long time. It never completely matches what you remember.) If I recall correctly, I got as far as the third maze, which could be the last one for all I know. There, I got severely stuck on a challenge involving a trampoline and could progress no further. I’m given to understand that it’s basically a timing thing, but I couldn’t seem to get the right timing no matter how many times I tried. The game’s low framerate definitely hurts timing-based puzzles.

I’m told that the MS-DOS version of this game is inferior to the Amiga CD32 version, but the MS-DOS version is what I have (and is what’s available through Steam and GOG). The CD32 has one feature that would make a significant difference to gameplay: the ability to rotate the camera 180° in the maze. In the version I’m playing, you can only change the camera facing at bends or intersections in the tunnel, which means that if you want to turn around, you have to go as far as the first such point and do a K-turn. Until then, you’re stuck doing the Crash Bandicoot thing, walking towards the camera with diminished visibility for any traps you’re approaching. This is an annoyance, but possibly a deliberate one, as annoyance is something of a theme. Mutt reacts with exasperation toward the player whenever he falls in a pit, and the manual cover features the tag line “And you thought you had a bad day!”

ParserComp 2022 wrap-up

Okay, ParserComp 2022 has been over for a good few days now. I said at the beginning that the number of games seemed very comfortable for the deadline, but I wound up scrambling at the end nonetheless, due to interference from life for a couple of weeks in the middle. But most of the games were pretty short (and I gave up on a couple of the longer ones before reaching an ending), and I wound up giving a brief writeup to all of them but one, The Euripides Enigma. I could write it up now — there’s no rule saying you can’t play or discuss the games after the Comp’s deadline! — but I just don’t feel like it.

After the first few games, I fretted a bit about whether this entire event was a bit retrograde, more concerned with rehashing the past than with exploring new possibilities. I suppose that’s how a lot of people see IF in general: aren’t we all just still trying to be Infocom? But to me, amateur IF has always been more about taking paleo-IF as a starting point and striking out in new directions. But one of the main new directions people have struck out in over the last decade is the Twine Revolution and the shift to choice-based interfaces, and ParserComp is kind of set up to attract people who’d like to roll that back. Gladly, though, I found a good amount of experimentation here: new engines and interfaces, new forms of interaction. And if not all of it is entirely successful, well, that’s just in the nature of experiment.

Which is part of why I find the scoring system so unsatisfactory. Unlike the IFComp, which simply asks you to rate every game on a 1-10 scale, ParserComp imposes a rubric. Players are asked to rate the games in eight categories: Writing, Story, Characters, Implementation, and Puzzles each get a weight of 17% in the final score, with 5% going to Use of Multimedia, Help and Hints, and Supplemental Materials. Not only does this reflect the values of the comp organizer rather than the players, it’s clearly set up to favor the conventional over the extreme. Works are effectively penalized for doing a puzzle-free narrative, or a pure puzzle game without characters. Heck, one of the entries arguably didn’t feature writing per se. I hope the authors pay less attention to their numeric score and more to the reviews, where more nuanced reactions are possible.

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