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 itch.io 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.

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