Archive for October, 2023

IFComp 2023: Lake Adventure

Here’s some pretty strong nostalgia-bait. It’s presented (at first) as an AGT game written by a 13-year-old in 1993, basically a “My House” game with embellishments, supplemented by running commentary from the same fictional author in 2020 as he shows it off to someone else. Laughing at his younger self’s naive design decisions, explaining the context in his life, helping us through the worse puzzles. It turns out to not quite be the game he remembered making: he altered portions of the game throughout his teen years and forgot about it. But it all adds up to a character portrait of a fictional author over the course of years via multi-layered narrative. In the end, via in-game time machine, we get to take a look at his childish fantasies about his future, and contrast them with what really happened.

I call it nostalgia-bait not just because the whole premise is one of looking back at our past and saying “Remember those goofy amateurish adventure games we used to play and write when we were kids and our standards were lower?”, but because the layered narrative feels like the kind of formal experiment that we used to see a lot more of when modern IF was in its infancy. That is, it isn’t just the goofy AGT that hearkens back to games of yore, but the framing device as well. But I may be reaching here. To a lot of people, all parser-based IF looks nostalgia-driven. Still, the backstory we learn involves a sister who died in childhood, which, in the context of decades-old IF, immediately makes me think of Adam Cadre. I briefly entertained the notion while playing that this was in fact written by Cadre under a pseudonym, which would have some precedent, but I find it unlikely. It wouldn’t surprise me if it was meant to deliberately evoke him, though.

IFComp 2023: Dr Ludwig and the Devil

The premise: You’re a Frankenstein-like mad scientist who, after repeated failures to create life in a laboratory, summons Satan to ask him for spoilers. This is a game of very clever puzzles, the sort where you really have to think about your situation and what your goals are and how things can be exploited. I did resort to hints a few times, but isn’t that kind of in keeping with the premise? Other times, an in-game to-do list was enough to get me thinking along the right lines.

It is of course a comedy, and it’s surprisingly good-natured: just because the player character is a mad scientist doesn’t make him mean. There’s a major mid-game puzzle sequence where the game is pretty clearly leading you towards tricking Hans, an illiterate NPC from the torches-and-pitchforks brigade, into signing the infernal contract in your place, but when it comes down to it, the mad scientist is unwilling to do it until he’s figured out a way to shield the Hans from the consequences, no matter how antagonistic their relationship. (You can also ask Hans on a date if you feel like it. Some people form angry mobs just because they want you to notice them.)

The other main thing I notice about it is a pattern of sudden last-minute complications. You’re all ready to get the contract signed, but then it turns out you need special infernal ink, which you have to concoct from hard-to-find ingredients. You think you know how to banish the devil from your laboratory afterward, but it turns out that you don’t know how to pronounce the magic words correctly, forcing you to come up with a fresh trick. The game could have been a lot shorter, really. Just let the straightforward approach work sometimes. This suggests an approach to designing adventure games: start with something simple, then insert arbitrary complications until you have a game of the desired length. But also, it’s a design pattern that suggests a characterization, a hard-luck PC who’s laboring to meet the unjust demands and moving goalposts of a power that just wants to see him suffer. Game designer as devil.

IFComp 2023: Antony & Cleopatra: Case IV: The Murder of Marlon Brando

Once again, we have a game for two players, but very different from the last such recorded here. It’s networked this time, with one player hosting the game. More significantly, the two players aren’t playing their parts of the game independently, but experiencing it in tandem, going to the same places and reading the same text. The two players control two different characters, which results in some variation in the dialogue options they’re given, but the differences don’t seem very substantial. Major decisions are not acted on until both players agree on them.

In format, it’s basically a variation on the Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective gamebooks. You have a murder to solve, and you have a number of people and places relevant to the case, and investigating them turns up additional leads that may or may not go anywhere useful. On top of that, you have a deadline, and can’t afford to waste too much time on red herrings. When time is up, you answer some questions about whodunit and why and so forth. In short, it’s close enough to the SHCD formula to share most of its problems. The gameplay is basically guesswork, the intended deductions obscure, and the player’s ability to look for corroborating evidence about theories is severely limited. It does take some advantage of the true interactivity that SHCD lacks, varying the available dialogue options on the basis of what you’ve discovered, but I felt like it didn’t do this nearly enough. Sometimes I’d discover the same information twice, in different passages. I even encountered some minor sequence-breaking, references to information I hadn’t learned yet. This stuff was more or less inevitable in SHCD‘s static printed text, but here?

In fact, now that I think about it, the specific details of the case are a close match to the first case in SHCD, “The Munitions Magnate”, down to things like finding an expensive and exclusive cigarette at the crime scene and getting a list of clients from the manufacturer. I wish I had noticed this while playing the game — I might have been able to solve it then! Perhaps the author intended for the story to be recognized, although it is disguised a bit. This version is set in a variant of the present day, and all the characters’ names are changed, and changed whimsically at that: everyone is either a historical figure or a movie star. As the title indicates, the two player characters are detectives Marc Antony and Cleopatra, and the victim is Marlon Brando, a defense contractor whose employees include James Dean, Audrey Hepburn, and Vitruvius Pollio. It’s all rather silly, but I appreciated the way it helped me remember the characters. I’m bad with names, and tend to have difficulty remembering who all the characters are in mystery games. Giving everyone strong pre-existing associations helps.

The big question to me is: What does this piece gain from requiring two players? Mechanically, it’s effectively a single-player game. At first glance, I had thought that the two player characters could go their separate ways and investigate different scenes independently, but this turned out not to be the case. The one thing I can think of that it gains is that it forces discussion. Two players have to agree on where to go and who to talk to, and ultimately who to accuse, and that makes you put a little more thought into it than you might if you were just clicking your way through the story. On the downside, though, it adds various little anxieties to the experience: Am I reading too slowly and making my partner wait? If I click on a dialogue option, does my partner feel like I’m rushing them? Single-player experiences do not have this factor.

Ultimately, I feel like the author’s main reason for making it two-player wasn’t that they had an idea for a game that could take advantage of being two-player, but simply because they wanted to show off some new two-player IF tech. And as tech demos go, it’s far from the worst I’ve seen in the Comp.

IFComp 2023: Dysfluent

Ah, one of my favorite themes: failures of communication! This piece shows us a mundane day in the life of a person with a severe stuttering problem. I suppose it can be put in the same broad category as Depression Quest, down to the way it plays with links: it doesn’t gray them out the way DQ famously does, but any option that involves talking gets colored green, yellow, or red, depending on how difficult the player character anticipates it will be to get the words out.

It’s a good conceit, providing a general pattern for nicely concrete and informed choices. But I found I grew annoyed with the game very quickly, because of one thing: the use of timed pauses. I’m starting to regard this capability of Twine as a bug, like support for the BLINK tag in old browsers. But I’m not just being grumpy about something I generally dislike here: even if you don’t mind pauses in general, you’ll probably agree that, like any feature, it can be overused. By any standard, this game uses way, way too many pauses. It’s singularly determined to not let you just read the words fluently. But wait, isn’t that in keeping with the game’s themes? It’s all about the sensation of blockage in verbal communication. Maybe the impatience the player experiences with its text output is a deliberate effect.

But that doesn’t make it good. The game encourages replay to make different choices and try for Achievements, which strikes me as a particularly bad place to have pauses, making you wait to see text that you’ve largely already seen. But after my first playthrough, I discovered that you can disable the pauses — not in the game’s “Options” menu, where I’d be more inclined to look for such a feature, but under “Extras”. I strongly recommend turning it off from the get-go for the best experience, even if it isn’t the experience the author intended.

If the author reads this post, they’ll probably be disappointed about how it’s dominated by discussion of the text pauses. This is only fair: I was disappointed about how they dominated the experience of the game.

IFComp 2023: A Thing of Wretchedness

Apparently this shares a world with Ascension of Limbs by the same author (who also, I am surprised to discover, wrote Fat Fair), although the connection is only made clear in the ending. It’s much more of a conventional text adventure than Limbs — it’s practically a “My House” game with all the requisite implementation of mundane furnishings. Except for one thing: the entity sharing the house with you.

The interesting thing about this being is how indefinite it is. If you try to examine it, the player character simply refuses, unable to bear looking at it. Everything we know about it comes indirectly: it’s repeatedly described as wretched; it wanders the house as it pleases, but never goes outside; it dirties everything it touches; it eats from a dog food bowl in the kitchen; it’s strong enough to demolish the aforementioned scenery objects when it’s in the right frame of mind; the PC desperately wants to be rid of it, but doesn’t know how to kill it. Everything else is left to the imagination, and there’s a virtue to the vagueness. When I think about the advantages that text has over graphics in games, usually I think of text’s ability to go beyond the visual, to tell us more than pictures can. But it also has the power to tell us less, when that suits the author’s purposes.

The endings, too, leave a lot unsaid and a lot more implied. The creature’s arrival seems to be linked to a cursed artifact locked in the shed, left there by an absent husband who’s mentioned occasionally but never seen. Inevitably, you wonder: Is the wretched creature in fact the husband, transformed? Definite answers are not forthcoming. It would fit thematically with the author’s other works, though. Fat Fair gave us a bestial and dehumanized protagonist. Limbs gave us inhumanity as a goal. Wretchedness doesn’t dehumanize the player character, but presents us with someone else who’s become subhuman and asks us to deal with it somehow.

IFComp 2023: The Gift of What You Notice More

I feel like the word “surreal” gets overapplied in the IF world. I’m as guilty of this as anyone — heck, my very last post used the word when “nonsensical” or “whimsical” would have been more precisely descriptive. So I’m not going to describe The Gift of What You Notice More as surreal, even though the author’s blurb does. Instead let’s call it symbolic. The overstory is about the end of a relationship — the details are left vague, but you’re packing to leave when the curtain rises. But you can’t leave until you’ve done some soul-searching, which takes the form of inventory puzzles in dreamscapes based on important memories accessed through photographs. A party scene turns out to be set on a theater stage, a tiny elephant found in a crevice keeps growing bigger, that sort of thing.

There’s some nice patterning going on. There are three memories you can visit, but your first visit to each leaves a lot of game elements conspicuously unused, leaving me wondering if I had missed something when the narration declared I was finished and kicked me back to reality. It turns out that you visit each of the three memories three times, each time with a different perspective, trying to resolve a different question: first “Where did things go wrong?”, which is at best a starting point but definitely not an adequate resolution, then “What could I have done differently?”, and finally the most practical of questions, “What needs to happen now?” Notably, the difference in what results you can obtain is determined by what inventory items you bring into the memory with you. In the first iteration of the cycle, all you have is a bunch of sticks. The second time, you have stones as well. Sticks and stones! Tools that are proverbially ineffective! No wonder you can’t do anything but dwell on the past until you get something better.

Despite being made of room exploration and inventory puzzles, this is written in Twine. The inventory is constantly present on the screen, and items can be clicked on to reveal situational actions using that item, adding new hyperlinks to the bottom of the node’s text. Most items in most situations are useless, though, and do nothing when clicked. Now, I will admit that there were occasions where I had no idea what to do, and simply went around clicking on every inventory item in every place I could go, hoping something would happen. But when I did have an idea of what to do, it was fairly rewarding to see the new link come up, confirming that I was on the right track.

[Edit, 23 Oct] Come to think of it, sticks and stones aren’t proverbially ineffective, are they? It’s names that will never hurt me. Sticks and stones may break my bones! So possibly I’m reading too much into things there.

IFComp 2023: Bright Brave Knight Knave

Andrew Schultz is a very familiar name to Comp judges — as this game notes at one incongruously introspective moment, he’s actually managed to surpass Paul Panks in sheer quantity of Comp entries over the years. I’ve only covered a few of his games on this blog, but his general MO is games based entirely around some single sort of wordplay (although he’s also branched out into chess problems recently). You’d think he’d have run out of types of wordplay to exploit by now, but he keeps coming up with new ones.

This time around, the idea is pairs of words that begin with the same letter or letters, and which rhyme with other such pairs. That’s not a very clear description, so I refer you to the title for an example. Every room and object has a two-word name, and can be either transformed or otherwise manipulated by entering two words that rhyme with it. For example, the room called “Bass Bath” has no exits until you enter the command “pass path”, causing pathways to appear. This puts serious constraints on the game content, on what rooms and objects and actions are possible, with the predictable result of wacky surrealism, just like in most of Schultz’s games.

I always find games of this sort fairly compelling, as they exercise my word-brain in unaccustomed ways. But this frankly seems like one of the lesser ones. The “pass path” puzzle is one of the most straightforward ones, where there’s an obvious connection between your goals and the commands you have to type. Most of the game isn’t like that. Sure, the game draws connections after the fact, but mostly I just typed in any rhyme I could find just in case it did something. And in fact the game encourages this behavior: if you enter a rhyme that’s wrong but that it recognizes as a good guess, made of valid and meaningful words that just happen to not be among the ones it’s looking for, it slowly adds charges to a cheat device you can use to find effective rhymes instantly. So this is basically a game about wild guessing, with enough formal constraint to make it feasible.

IFComp 2023: Death on the Stormrider

Here we have an adventure-game-cum-murder-mystery, the sort where your attention is less on figuring out whodunnit and more on the physical problem of getting access to places and not getting caught with things you shouldn’t have. The whole thing is set up to constrain you, but not absolutely. You’re not the main suspect, but neither are you above suspicion. It’s set on a sort of fantastical flying steamship, a smallish and isolated environment where it’s hard to avoid the rest of the crew. Your ability to cooperate with the investigation is hampered by a language barrier: the only people on the ship who speak your language are the chief suspect, locked away in a brig you never get to see, and the victim.

The really notable thing about it is the NPC behavior. There are seven characters you can encounter, each autonomously going about their routine, whether that means patrolling the hallways or rushing off to any part of the ship that needs emergency repairs. And I feel like there’s a bit of a misstep here. The first two NPCs encounters are all about avoidance, the puzzle of one being “don’t get caught where you’re not supposed to be” and the other being “don’t get caught with things you’re not supposed to have”. That’s enough to set expectations, to put the player into a mindset of “NPCs are obstacles”. But then, to progress, you have to shift into a mindset of instead exploiting NPC behavior to overcome obstacles. Mercifully, the story can be brought to a satisfactory conclusion (several different satisfactory conclusions, in fact) without solving all the puzzles or figuring out absolutely everything that’s going on. But you can’t get much of anywhere without this fundamental shift of attitude. I personally needed hints to get that far. I was using the hints a lot by the end.

At least the hints are really good! In fact, the best part of the hints isn’t even in the hints per se (which are external to the game proper, part of its website), but in an in-game tablet, where you can review notes about the ship, the people, and the investigation, and which, most importantly, contains a tasks list. Just being told what the author thinks you should be working on is often a great help. Ideally, it shouldn’t be necessary — the game content itself should be enough to communicate your goals. But when that fails, it’s good to have an explicit quest log to fall back on.

IFComp 2023: One Does Not Simply Fry

It’s early yet, but the most engaging piece I’ve played so far this Comp is One Does Not Simply Fry, a text-heavy Choicescript-based mashup of The Lord of the Rings and competitive cooking shows like Iron Chef. It’s a combination that reminds me of the classic Narnia/Anthony Bourdain crossover fic, although that had a great deal more to say about both of its subjects than this does. No, this piece mashes its subjects together largely for the sake of shallow pun-based humor, although some of those puns wind up being the basis of characterization — a contestant named Sour Ron, for example, is pretty much sour about everything.

The thing that really strikes my interest, though, is the structure, the way it takes advantage of the cooking show format. You know more or less what’s going to happen from the beginning, and that lets you strategize somewhat. I’ve always thought the second Lord of the Rings film had the best battle scene, because it had characters describing in some detail exactly how they expected the battle to go, and then it showed the battle happening exactly as anticipated. Something of the same effect happens here. Depending on your initial choice of character, you might be good at cooking or you might be better at sabotaging the other contestants. Some of the challenges come down to “Which of your character stats do you want to apply to the situation?” — which, given that you know what your character is good and bad at, basically just makes it “Do you want to succeed at this challenge or not?”, although there’s some humor to be had from picking the wrong choices.

And ultimately, it doesn’t matter much whether you win the actual competition or not. The characters here have ulterior motives, concerning “the On(e)ion Ring”, a comestible of great power. Win or lose, someone’s going to wind up crafting it and triggering the real conflict at the game’s finale. A clever trick, this: the bulk of the story directs the player’s attention towards a ludic element that doesn’t make a whit of difference to the ending. And this in a game that explicitly encourages replay! On second play, you know what’s going on, but you’re probably going to try to win the competition anyway.

One small UI matter I think is work commenting on: Although Choicescript normally presents choices as separate buttons at the bottom of the page, this piece always has just one button to advance, with any choices taking the form of radio buttons within the page. I wonder why? Maybe Choicescript makes this approach easier when the story is basically linear, the choices applying inline variation rather than branching?

IFComp 2023

This year on this blog feels like it’s been mostly delays and excuses. Well, here’s today’s: I’ve been sick, and I didn’t want to judge Comp games while my physical misery had the potential to skew my judgment. That said, it’s Comp season and I am ready to start judging!

I wasn’t sure I’d do this. For the last two years, I’ve been putting the main Comp aside while I look at alternatives like Spring Thing and ParserComp. But I feel like there’s just something more… solid about the Comp itself. It’s an entrenched institution, sponsored by the IFTF, with its own purpose-built infrastructure. Little comps these days tend to run as jams, which no doubt makes them easier to set up, but makes me acutely aware that they’re dependent on a third-party platform that doesn’t really care about them. The Comp was around before all the popular commercial websites, and will probably be around after most of them are gone.

There are 75 entries this year. If I count correctly, 29 are labeled by their authors as parser games, 42 as choice-based, and four have been placed in the intriguing “other” category. I do not know how many I’ll be posting about here. Definitely not all of them.