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.

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.

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