ParserComp 2022: The Impossible Stairs

At last, the randomizer pulls up the one that I had been particularly looking forward to. For one thing, it’s by Brian “Mathbrush” Rushton, who’s made quite a name for himself in the community over the last several years, and is responsible for the 2020 train heist game that I liked so much. For another, like that game, this is an authorized sequel, and the game it’s a sequel to is The Impossible Bottle.

I’ll say this right off: It is a lesser work than the one it’s based on. It satisfies, but it does not dazzle the way Bottle did. To a large extent, that’s because Bottle‘s spatial weirdness has been replaced with time travel, and that’s much more familiar ground in adventure games. The cleverest time-travel puzzles in this game are echoes of Timequest and other decades-old works.

Nonetheless, it makes good use of the premise, not for its own sake, but to show a portrait of a family and how it changes over the course of decades. The changes are largely negative ones: people age and die or move away, the house itself becomes damaged, and ultimately the place is entirely abandoned as you approach your own end. Your temporal peculiarities let you fix some things, and see change that would normally require multiple lifetimes, which brings a sense of hope to it all, but there’s still a lot that’s beyond your power to affect. You can always revisit the past, though. Nothing is ever truly lost from your perspective. The feel is comforting, cozy, in contrast to Bottle‘s sometimes disturbing bizarreness. The family here may not comprehend what you’re doing, but at least they’re never dehumanized.

A brief mention of supply chain issues reminds me of how Bottle linked everything thematically to COVID lockdowns, and I can kind of see something similar going on here, comment on how the last couple of years have distorted our perspective of time. It’s a bit of a stretch, though.

It uses the same hybrid interface as Bottle, in which hyperlinks just generate text that gets fed into the parser. The problems with such a system are noticeable in one room: the text contains a link on the word “house”, which produces a disambiguation prompt — “Did you want to examine the house or the smashed treehouse?” — even though the link you clicked on isn’t ambiguous at all.

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.