Archive for November, 2023

IFComp 2023 Wrap-up

My experience of this year’s comp ended as it began: with multiple days skipped due to physical discomfort. (Remember to floss, kids.) It was actually kind of a relief at the end to relinquish its hold on me, to stop pretending I had an obligation. But the result is that I only wound up playing about 70% of the games during the judging period (and writing up a mere 20%). Usually I’m much closer to either 100% or 0%, depending. Ah well, it’s not like the games are gone. I can still play the ones that I was looking forward to but which the randomizer put at the end. Maybe I’ll even describe some of them here.

As to trends, the phenomenon of games with a hypertext interface but a traditional adventure-game world model, which was surprising to me when it started happening about seven years ago, is by now so common that I mostly didn’t even bother commenting on it in my descriptions of games. Maybe someday I’ll look back at these posts and not be able to remember which games used parsers and which didn’t.

Also, although I didn’t cover it much here, there was a small but notable number of seemingly nostalgia-driven works. In addition to the faux-AGT Lake Adventure, there was Hawkstone, which presents itself as a Scott-Adams-era game for the TRS-80 game (but actually provides a Windows executable), and Artful Deceit, a Deadline imitation that really does provide a Commodore 64 disk image. I didn’t finish either of these; I found that whatever virtue the authors found in their original-instruments authenticity didn’t make up for their I-thought-we-had-moved-past-this irritations in both design and tech.

(And concerning that C64 disk image, a word of advice to future entrants: Try to provide an option for play that doesn’t irritate the player by making them download and install an emulator. I might not have complained about this ten years ago, but standards have changed. Most entries these days can be simply played in-browser, even the parser games, and Nick Montfort managed to meet that expectation when he entered a C64 game into the Comp three years ago.)

Do I have predictions for the winner? Not strong ones. Dr. Ludwig seems like a crowd-pleaser, I guess. The banana? I didn’t really see anything I’d think of as divisive, unless maybe Artful Deceit had something good going on that I didn’t play far enough to see.

IFComp 2023: Citizen Makane

This one’s something of an insider’s game. Before I even attempt to begin to describe it, I need to cover the history of The Incredible Erotic Adventures of Stiffy Makane and its significance to the IF community over the last quarter century.

The original Stiffy Makane, written in AGT in 1997, was never a sincere attempt at making an erotic game. It was deliberately stupid and low-effort, the entire plot being “walk into a house and have sex with a woman there”, minimally implemented and yet still buggy — possibly its most famous feature is that it represents the player character’s penis as an inventory object, with the result that you can drop it on the floor. It’s also infamous for its horrifying ending: to complete the game, you have to shoot the woman, an act motivated by nothing more than the fact that you have a gun in your inventory and there’s no one else to shoot with it. When IF review sites (such as my own Baf’s Guide) started appearing on the early web, this was one of the games to consistently earn the lowest possible rating. And so it became somewhat legendary.

The IF community being what it is, this inspired not just mockery and derision, but in-jokery in the form of referential games. It was only about a year old when it received the MST3K treatment (the addition of a humorous and sarcastic commentary track), and Stiffy Makane: The Undiscovered Country (2001) began a tradition of putting the character in other settings, such as outer space and ancient Rome. Stiffy became something like a public-domain Leisure Suit Larry, but with less personality. The games themselves acquired more satirical bite: turning the mockery of one game into a mockery of “adult IF” in general, filling it with metacommentary on the idea of a game about sexual conquest and not shying away from the more uncomfortable implications. All while maintaining a sense of humor about it. These are not erotic games — frequently, their sex scenes are deliberately off-putting. But they’re just about the raunchiest games I’ve ever played.

That is the tradition that this game draws from. But it also manages to wring a surprising amount of value from the original game. It starts with a brief but embellished recap of the the Incredible Erotic Adventure, presented as a recurring nightmare: “Maybe this is your purgatory. Maybe you deserve this.” Dropping your penis is a critical-path action this time, described as “like unplugging a USB cable”. The ending, though? Stiffy can’t remember how the story ends.

This is soon revealed to be because he’s been stuck in cryogenic storage for three centuries, and has lost most of his memories. The unfamiliar society he wakes into is, perhaps predictably, one consisting entirely of hot women — men having been exterminated in a war. The faction that revived Stiffy is eager to regain the benefits of natural reproduction and the male perspective, but we’re told that there are those who fear sliding back into the darkness of the male-dominated world. Stiffy is something of a test, then, an ambassador for his sex. And the player who knows his past has a bad feeling about that.

To advance the plot, you have to complete three raunchy subquests for the mayor, as well as level up your sexual prowess for the purposes of scientific research. That last part takes the form of a sort of RPG minigame with CCG elements. As sex minigames go, it’s actually not bad — it’s just complicated enough to support a little strategizing, and it rewards the player with extra XP for bringing your partner to climax multiple times before you’re done. But it’s still made somewhat horrible by context. You see, there aren’t many featured NPCs that you can have sex with, so the main way you level up is through random encounters. You’ll walking down the street and a woman, with a description generated by a randomized template that quickly fades into meaninglessness, says something equivalent to “Hi! Want to have sex?”, and after you’re done you never see her again. It’s so pointedly similar to grinding by killing monsters in a more typical RPG that it becomes another reminder of the close association between sex and murder in Stiffy’s origin.

Spoilers for the ending: Ultimately, the game doesn’t carry this into as dark a place as it could. Instead, it defuses things with the revelation that the player character isn’t actually Stiffy per se — he’s just someone who played the original game repeatedly, with the effect that he kind of automatically stepped into that role when he couldn’t remember who he was. Which is also pretty dark, really, but at least it means that you’re not bound by Stiffy’s guilty past. I felt the ending took advantage of this in a quite clever way: by means of a power-mad/sex-crazed rogue AI invading your mind, it justifies putting the final confrontation into the unreal and underimplemented setting of the original Stiffy game. There are (as far as I could tell) three endings, each linked to one of the three fundamental actions that defined the experience of that game. You can have sex with the AI, giving her what she wants. You can shoot her, defeating her at terrible moral cost. Or you can drop your penis on the floor, refusing to play the game on her terms. It’s the last that produces the best possible ending.

IFComp 2023: All Hands

This year, there’s been an unusually large number of games written in Texture — or maybe the system has been gaining in popularity over the last couple of years and I just haven’t noticed because I’ve been sitting out the Comp. Regardless, when I say “unusually large number”, I do still mean a number that can be described as “several”. I’m mainly just surprised to see any at all.

To review: In Texture games, interaction takes the form of dragging actions (listed at the bottom of the screen, separate from the output text) onto things within the output text, a UI specifically designed to be mobile-friendly. The default way to conceive this is that the actions are verbs and the things you drag them onto are the objects you’re applying the verbs to, but since the system doesn’t really have a world model with a concept of objects, this conception is a matter of habit rather than constraint.

I don’t know what it is about this UI, but it seems to either encourage hauntingly poetical writing or attract authors already inclined to it. Maybe it’s the way it enforces the use of… let’s not call them objects but foci, things that take the place of objects in a more simulationy game, but makes them as temporary and situational as hyperlinks in Twine. But then you have a piece like this, where a whole bunch of foci are repeated throughout the bulk of the game, a list of rooms that you can visit and which therefore have to be mentioned in the text of every node that gives you the option of leaving. It still winds up pretty poetic. The player character is called by the lure of the sea, and finds a mysterious ship that seems to also be a circus somehow, and it’s clear that the whole thing is unwholesome, a devilish trap for the foolish, but you still can’t keep exploring it. It put me in mind of Toby Fox and Itoki Hana’s Greatest Living Show, except more nautical.

One other thing of note about it: Remember how I said that Texture allows the action list to vary from node to node? This piece doesn’t do that. Apart from a couple of heightened sequences where your options are limited, the action list is always the same — Reflect, Approach, and Take, where “Reflect” essentially means “Examine” — even if one or two of those actions aren’t actually applicable to anything in the current node. It gives the whole thing a feel kind of like an old point-and-click graphic adventure, and the reliable semantics greatly facilitates systematic exploration. I’m not saying that all Texture games can benefit from kind of consistency, but it’s a technique worth bearing in mind.

IFComp 2023: Bali B&B

Every once in a while I see some mention of someone’s plan to quit the 9-to-5 grind and open a little B&B, and I always find it flabbergasting. Your idea of a relaxing retirement is a customer service job? This piece goes a long way toward explaining that mindset to me. It’s essentially a B&B fantasy, from the exotic locale to the incredible financial success of the place before you even get there to the fact that you’re only committed to being responsible for the place for one week.

The author accurately describes it as “cosy” — there’s a sort of action-packed finale involving a minor flood, but even there, it didn’t feel stressful. The game offers you lots of decisions, but I never really felt like it was possible to make unrecoverably wrong ones. (Possibly you could with some effort.) Rather, you typically get a problem and a choice of different ways to solve it, all of which work. When the story relies on something going wrong, it’s never the player’s fault — even when, in one case, it’s the fault of the player character.

Mainly the decisions seem to affect your relationship levels with the various other characters, which are viewable from the stats menu — the game seems to track a lot more stats than it ever uses for conditionals. This includes your rapport with not just the various guests but the cook, the PC’s grandparents who own the place, and a wild monkey that’s taken up residence on the grounds. Occasionally it was clear that I had to choose one character over another, as when a teenage girl has a disagreement with her parents, but the consequences always seemed fairly minor.

So, that’s the fantasy: Making friends, most of them temporary, and impressing them with your competence. Also, adopting a litter of kittens along the way. It’s simply all very pleasant, with just enough easily-manageable chaos to keep it from getting boring.

IFComp 2023: Assembly

Here’s a clever premise, not just at the level of plot but of gameplay: what if magical rituals took the form of Ikea instruction booklets?

Somewhat surprisingly, it doesn’t take this in the direction of instructions being arcane or difficult to follow. Each step in an assembly ritual can pretty much be copy and pasted from the game’s output into its input, and the steps for disassembly (also frequently necessary) are simply the opposite of the forward instructions. (It reminds me a little of the spells in King’s Quest 3 that way, except without the dire consequences for typos.) But the instructions don’t just produce supernatural effects (in fact they usually don’t have any supernatural effects at all, only a few special items do that), they produce furniture, which can have situational uses. This is a game about an ordinary person battling cultists, but it’s mostly about building furniture and breaking it down repeatedly, and it gets a surprising amount of mileage out of just that.

And it’s admirably short. This is a parsimonious game, that explores a single idea thoroughly and without waste, getting a few very nice puzzles in along the way, and then knows when it’s done. In the context of the Comp, that is a very good thing.

IFComp 2023: Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head

This one’s a little complicated to explain. The idea is that you’re a professional puppeteer raiding a former workplace, the workshop and studio of Malcolm Newsome, a Jim Henson-like visionary who recently died, with the goal of sneaking out as many puppets as you can to preserve them before the whole site gets demolished by its new corporate owners. But the only good way to carry the puppets around is by wearing them on your hands, at which point they start talking to you.

So basically it’s a treasure hunt where the treasures are characters, who comment on their surroundings and banter with any puppet on your other hand (albeit only when they first see each other; the game wants to encourage you to keep at least one hand free most of the time). Not all the puppets do this, mind you. There are supernumerary puppets that are basically mute and inert. But the major characters, the ones with Kermit-level importance, not only have voices, they have special abilities that help you overcome obstacles and avoid hazards. In a slightly Five Nights at Freddy’s-like touch, those hazards take the form of freakish automated puppets repurposed as security bots by the parent company.

There’s a lot of world-building, and the world it builds is largely a realistic one, except in that the puppets seem to have independent minds. They definitely display knowledge and abilities that the player character doesn’t possess, something that the player character only remarks on as strange once the night is over. By the end, this knowledge included the real facts about Newsome’s death (the official story being marked as suspicious from the get-go). I won’t go into details about that, except to note that it doesn’t go in the direction that it seems like it’s going to. The whole thing is really kind of a character portrait of Newsome, observed largely indirectly, through the characters he created. My one complaint is that the truly interactive portion is sandwiched between a longish static intro sequence and an even longer epilogue, because there’s more to Newsome’s story than could be easily fit into the middle.