IFComp 2019: But is it IF?

I commented before that Flight of the CodeMonkeys provokes the question “But is it IF?”, but that’s a little unfair. CodeMonkeys devotes most of its space to a noninteractive story punctuated by coding exercises, but by the end, it resolves into something clearly recognizable as choice-based IF. In the last few days, I’ve hit several other entries that push the boundaries much harder.

Consider Language Arts. This is a Zachtronics-style puzzle game about creating little programs to transform words on a grid. It has exactly the same relationship to story and text as any other Zachtronics-style puzzle game: between puzzles, you get to read some expository dialogue. It has interaction, and it has fiction, but it never puts the two together. OK, but surely that’s true of the more soup-can-oriented works I recognize as IF? Maybe, but that’s because IF, like all genres, is more a matter of “family resemblance” than of definition. This game is clearly recognizable as a different genre. Maybe if it ran under Glulx I’d consider it an abuse in the tradition of Andrew Plotkin’s 1995 Tetris adaptation, but as it is, I don’t really feel like it belongs here. And that makes it difficult to know how to judge it, because it really does seem to be a pretty good Zach-like.

Then there’s The Shadow Witch, a story of an evil witch trying to meet a quota of five misdeeds in a small cave system in a fantasy world. This is a genuinely interactive story, even supporting multiple endings, and if it were more text-based, I’d have no problem recognizing it as IF. But it’s a graphic adventure made in RPG Maker, like To the Moon (but shorter and sillier). You can bring up the character stats and everything, although without any combat, they’re just for show. I suppose it’s a difficult edge-case to be in, because it wouldn’t comfortably fit in an RPG comp either. Do we want this here? I don’t know. It fits your dictionary definition of IF a lot better than Language Arts, but it’s still not in the genre of thing that the term “IF” is used to describe. On the other hand, we’ve had a few point-and-click graphic adventures in the Comp before; I think the only thing really keeping them from being submitted in greater numbers is the effort involved, and the relative obscurity of the Comp. From a certain angle, it’s less of a stretch than accepting Twine.

Speaking of which, let’s talk about Lucerne. Lucerne is a short horror story written in Twine, and as far as I can tell, the fact that it’s written in Twine is the only thing giving it anything like a claim to being IF. It’s neither parser-based nor choice-based: it has no parser, and it has no choices. It is simply split up into a series of pages, each containing a single link to the next page. It’s not at all unusual for Twine pieces to begin like this, to have an intro consisting of several pages of static text before you get to the first choice, but here, that’s all there is. It doesn’t even do pauses or annoying text effects, so it’s hard to see why Twine was used at all; it might as well just be a text file. The author has either missed the point in a fairly epic way, or is deliberately testing to see what can be got away with. And yet, on the “family resemblance” front, it clearly beats out both Language Arts and The Shadow Witch!

I don’t want to be a gatekeeper. Sometimes I act like one anyway, but that’s a character flaw that I struggle to overcome. But the Comp has always relied on its judges to act like police. Instead of making executive decisions about what does and doesn’t belong, the organizers trust us to make that decision with our votes. But it’s always a bit uncomfortable to have to exercise that authority. There were people who said that my own Comp entry from 2001, The Gostak, wasn’t really IF, and I disagree there. I guess the best we can do is for everyone to draw their own line in the sand, and let authors decide how many they want to cross.

IFComp 2019: Pas De Deux

The second game based on classical music I’ve seen this Comp, Pas De Deux is a simple game with a single task: conducting a community orchestra in a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. Mostly what this means is giving various sections of the orchestra their cues at appropriate moments. The game comes packaged with a PDF of the score that in theory contains enough information to see the task through to conclusion, but it’s a lot easier to instead use the guidance of the score in the game, which basically tells you, on every correctly-timed page turn, who needs to be cued and when.

I haven’t completed the game successfully. Going for perfection here is honestly pretty tedious, in a way that reminds me a little of Kicker from Comp2012, except more active. The Nutcracker is a pretty fun piece of music, and that might be enough to keep me playing some games, but here, you don’t actually hear it as you play. That would be difficult to pull off in a turn-based game where the progress of the music is bound to player input. Instead, you get text descriptions of what’s going on, like “The celli and bassi accentuate the first beat of the bar with a subtle pizzicato”, which just isn’t the same.

And anyway, actually trying for perfection is, I think, thwarting the author’s intent. This is a game that’s at its most amusing when things go wrong. You cue the wrong people at the wrong times. Musicians miss their entrances or come in early. Panic ensues. And this is pretty much guaranteed to happen on your first attempt at the game, when you have no idea what you’re doing. You’re just thrown in front of an expectant audience. What do I do? I… raise the baton? That’s something conductors do at the beginning of a piece, right? Well, it’s the wrong thing to do. I do that on my first turn, and I’ve already blown it.

Individual members of the orchestra have individual descriptions, personalities and histories that are known to the conductor, as well as relationships to the other musicians — “Every day, Rakesh takes his Labrador for a walk in the Botanic Garden, where they predictably run into Jeanette and her Yorkshire Terrier.” You can get a fairly substantial portrait of the community just by following a trail of mentions from one person to another. In this way, the game encourages you to look at people. Looking at a person is also noticed by that person, and interpreted as a cue. In this way the game tricks you into fomenting chaos.

Eventually I realized I should be paying attention to the score, but it was too late to really salvage that pass. Since I didn’t yet know if there was more to the game after the performance, I tried just typing “z” repeatedly to get through it and see what happens. As a result, the orchestra just lapsed into silence at the end of a long diminuendo, waiting for my signal to get back into it. A few turns later with no signal sent, the audience erupted into confused applause. I really appreciate that the author thought to implement that. It’s a lovely moment and you won’t see it if you’re trying to win.

IFComp 2019: Pirateship

Pirateship is the latest from Robin Johnson, author of Detectiveland, which I wrote about previously, and Draculaland, which I still haven’t played. He’s written a number of other games as well, but I single out those two because they’re in the same distinctive HTML-based old-school-text-adventure engine as Pirateship. One cosmetic yet significant change (which Pirateship apparently shares with Johnson’s Zeppelin Adventure, which I also haven’t played): The story panel and the controls are arranged vertically, not horizontally. This means there’s a lot less room for vertically-arranged lists (which mainly affects the room contents; the inventory is listed horizontally), but it eliminates the peculiar feeling that comes from looking left and right all the time to switch your attention between panels. Looking up and down to switch between prose and controls feels much more natural — it’s essentially what we’re used to from parser-based games that put the command line underneath the output.

As in Detectiveland, the game is one of goofy humor based on slapstick, exaggeration, and commonly-understood media tropes, with an occasional bit of social-historical bite. You’re a low-ranking pirate sent to retrieve treasure from an island containing a British fort, a native village, a shipwrecked castaway, and a colony of mermaids. Mermaids, we learn, vary in their composition; the first one you encounter has the left half of a woman and the right half of a fish. That’s the sort of gag we’re dealing with here.

Of particular note is the treatment of cannibalism. You can’t really do a pirate comedy adventure game without bringing Monkey Island to mind, and one of the repeated elements of the Monkey Island series is a small tribe of vegetarians who identify as cannibals culturally. And even though it’s making fun of traditional depictions of primitive savages, I think it’s a little uncomfortable by today’s sensibilities — even if it’s denying hurtful stereotypes, it is in the process repeating them. Now, Pirateship makes its islanders into basically the only completely sane and reasonable people on the island, and emphasizes the point by shifting the cannibalism onto the castaway, where it more reasonably belongs.

There’s some good sudden-realization puzzles here, and a good redundancy of information — there are at least two ways to learn the location of the treasure. Nonetheless, I managed to get stuck for a while on a critical-path puzzle because I didn’t read a description well enough, and wound up just wandering the island aimlessly, much like Catbeard, the ship’s cat, who spends his time falling asleep in the tropical sun. The island’s interior is somewhat irregularly connected, but can be navigated without making a map all the same.

Overall, it’s pretty charming, and manages to wring some new wrinkles out of one of the oldest adventure game premises there is.

IFComp 2019: Black Sheep

Black Sheep is a sci-fi mystery story that bills itself as cyberpunk, but it’s closer to the Blade Runner end of the subgenre than the more typical Neuromancer end — “cyber” not as in cyberspace, but cybernetics. Robots are an established part of society, cryogenics figure large in the plot, and the main source of menace is a powerful singularitarian organization, Light of the Future, that may not be above appeasing Roko’s basilisk by means of human sacrifice. The player character has a personal connection to this cult: her father was one of its higher-ups, back when it was less cultish. The dad dies shortly before the story begins, and the investigation you conduct is essentially an investigation into his secrets.

It’s built in Twine, but it’s more puzzle-based than choice-based. It has some general mechanisms to provide combinatorial complexity of action: an inventory and a notebook. Most of the time, apart from dialogue and transition sequences, the text is location-based, giving you a room description with links on things or people you can interact with. When you go into your inventory, you can select an item to use in these interactions, much like in a point-and-click graphic adventure. And it works about as well as it usually does in a graphic adventure, which is to say, a lot of combinations yield a generic failure message. It does help to promote a sense of player intentionality often missing in choice-based works, but at the same time, I did find myself cycling through all the available combinations when stuck.

One thing I thought was peculiar: Although the room text doesn’t change when you select an inventory item, the set of words you can interact with usually does. For example, there’s a bar scene containing a “lone drunk”. There’s no link on those words when you enter the room, so you can’t click on him to examine him or initiate a conversation with him, but you can show him stuff, such as a picture of your missing sister.

The notebook contains important information, which can be combined in pairs to form deductions, much like in Discworld Noir or the Blackwell series. And it’s mostly an exercise in frustration. I was about ten minutes away from the end of the Comp’s two-hour judging limit before I managed to produce my first successful deduction, and even then, it was just a hint for a puzzle I had already solved. It mainly gets used at the very end, when you have to use it to indicate some crucial deductions for the final confrontation. Note the implication there: the deduction interface is not basically a way for the game to provide information to the player, but for the player to provide information to the game — specifically, to let it know what you’ve figured out.

Mind you, it’s possible that I would have had more success with deductions if I had solved some things in a different order. It’s clear that the story is somewhat flexible, and provides multiple ways to get at crucial clues. Nonetheless, as I’ve indicated, it is quite possible to get stuck.

There’s an ostensible limit of two days of game time (which advances with every major change of location) before the cultists come for you, but it’s basically fake. The game in fact proceeds after this or any other death with a link reading “Reset Memory” that resets the time limit with no loss of progress, information, or inventory. It’s a big hint to the story’s final secret, as are the death sequences themselves. Between the pretense of a time limit and the way that the first chapter of the game is all traditional choice-based Twine, it’s easy to get a false first impression of what the game is like and how it plays. I’m glad I stuck with it, though. This is one of the few games this Comp that I wound up playing to conclusion after the two-hour mark.

IFComp 2019: For the Moon Never Beams

It’s 1993. You’re driving your girlfriend, Kelly Peterson, to the high school prom. There’s nostalgia-bait scene-setting and mention of corsages and class rings. Then she starts turning into a werewolf. What do you do?

That’s kind of the big question of this game. It’s not always entirely clear about what the player’s goals should be. Your first task is obviously to stop the car in the middle of nowhere and get yourself out of harm’s way before the transformation is complete, but after that, you’re mostly left to your own devices. There’s some guidance to the little things, sure. When you find a book that describes how werewolves are attracted to the scent of blood, for example, it’s obviously giving you a hint about what your options are. But it doesn’t help you understand where you want to attract the werewolf to, or why.

To be fair, that’s pretty much the puzzle. This is the sort of simulationy parser-based work that just throws you into a situation and expects you to come up with a plan of action on your own. Maybe I’m just spoiled lately by all the Comp’s choice-driven games where your options are few and handed to you directly, though, but I feel like the author overestimated how easy their intentions were to interpret and how much the player’s thought processes would follow theirs. The in-game hint menu is well-thought-out, which is a really good thing, given how often I needed to consult it.

Compounding this, this is a game with an active world, rather than a purely reactive one. Things happen while your attention is elsewhere. That’s not a bad thing, but the result here is fiddly time limits, along with frequent deaths. When you fail, you’re never quite sure if it’s because you didn’t do the right thing or just didn’t do it fast enough.

Other than that, it’s a nice little teen-wolfish camp monster-genre story with good descriptive prose, and if needing to ask for hints doesn’t bother you, it’s recommendable. I haven’t been talking about the cover art included with the Comp games, but I find it notable here: it’s plainly imitative of the old Infocom boxes with the grey stripes. (The cover even identifies it as “Standard Level”, which I dispute.) I tend to frown a little on Infocom nostalgia these days, as it seems like a way to ignore everything else that’s gone on in the IF world for the last thirty years, but this time, it seems a little appropriate, since the game itself is something of a nostalgia piece, with its high-school memories and it box full of cassette tapes of period bands. Infocom packaging is thus not primarily in service of worshipping Infocom, but merely one of the ways it evokes an era. Except it’s a bit off for that, isn’t it? 1993 is after the Infocom era; in fact, it’s the year Inform was first released.

IFComp 2019: Flight of the CodeMonkeys

Here’s one for the “But is it IF?” fans. Flight of the CodeMonkeys is a story told through the medium of Google Colaboratory, a system for sharing notes and code. It basically consists of text sections alternating with a series of “cells”, containing Python code which you can alter and execute in a shared environment. It’s a system clearly intended for things like tutorials and demos: Try tweaking the parameters and see how it effects the output! But here, it’s repurposed to tell a story, about a future controlled by AIs. The System is forbidden to change its own code, presumably to prevent a Singularity, but it’s found a loophole: it can hire humans to do what it can’t do directly, giving them exact instructions about what text to change so they can do it without understanding the effects.

Now, the piece does have some outright branching narrative towards the end, with choices affecting the ending. This is done with simple choice prompts in code cells with their code hidden, so that you can execute it but not view or edit it. Since all the cells and their accompanying text are on a single page, this has the peculiar effect that your events aren’t really ordered. You can change you mind about any decision at any time, even after viewing the ending.

But that’s not the really peculiar (and therefore interesting) part. The peculiar part is in the ability to edit the code beforehand. The story kind of suggests two opposite attitudes towards this. On the one hand, the story is explicitly about people performing rote alterations on code without really understanding what they’re doing, and so that’s exactly what it tells the player to do. Even when you’re contacted by what appears to be an agent of the resistance, you’re still following instructions, just from a different in-story source. On the other hand, the protagonist also talks about making his own little meaningless additions to the code just because he can — and that encourages the player to go beyond the instructions. You have the power to just go and delete all the code if you want, and write your own programs. The only result is that minor bits of story won’t make sense any more. I guess that’s kind of true of most IF: if it’s on your computer, you have the power to trash it. Most works don’t invite alteration the way this one does, though. And here, it makes it apparent just how optional most of the interactivity is, that you can mostly just read the story without engaging with the cells at all.

Given that it’s supposed to be the brains of an advanced artificial intelligence, the code is actually a bit silly. It’s all just pointless string manipulations, ever so slightly obfuscated, which eventually get turned into cell outputs. There’s even some suggestion within the story that the whole thing might be a fake, a ruse to test people’s loyalty or whatever. If you know a bit of Python, you can race ahead of the narrative a little. But not in any substantial way. The story text is static; the cells just fill in a detail or two.

I respect this piece as a formal experiment, but it’s the sort of formal experiment that leaves me wondering if anything more that can be made of the idea or not. At the very least, it could be adapted into an unusually interesting coding tutorial.

IFComp 2019: Enceladus

Enceladus is Robb Sherwin (author of Cryptozookeeper and Necrotic Drift) in one of his sillier moods. It starts with a werewolf loose on a spaceship, a scenario that I think I last saw in an issue of Scud the Disposable Assassin. This leads to an emergency landing on one of Saturn’s icy moons, where there’s some antics involving hot sauce and a trip into the mines, culminating in a second encounter with the werewolf and his partner before you can take off again. The tone is bubbly and banterous, despite some extreme violence. Characters have stupid arguments about petty things. Nearly every object has a humorous description, incorporating either absurd space lore, or running gags, or just incongruous and unexplained details. That’s really the essence of it: humor through details. It all reminds me a bit of Douglas Adams, but with the wacky turned up a notch, even as the setting becomes more grounded — no aliens or interstellar travel here. Just werewolves. And even those are just humans who have had some elective genetic modification done.

Even though the interaction is parser-based, events are extremely linear. At any given moment, there is one thing, or two at most, that you need to do to move the story forward, and sometimes that one thing is just staying in a location for a few turns while a conversation goes on around you. When it isn’t, it’s usually just a matter of following the captain’s orders. You can talk to people, but only when you’re at a point in the story where it’s necessary. If it had a hypertext interface instead of a parser, it would be exactly the sort of hypertext work I don’t like particularly, where nearly every page has but a single forward link. But at least it gives you control of the camera, so to speak, letting you examine things as you please, and rewarding you for doing so with more delightful prose.

At one point, you’re trapped in a cave with the captain, and she turns introspective and tells you the story of how her husband died. It’s fairly gruesome, but it’s still presented in about as light-hearted a fashion as possible for such a story, much like the werewolf murders earlier. It just seems like being trapped in a cave with someone is somehow the appropriate time for characters to get confessional.

A note about interpreters: The game is written in Hugo. I at first ran it under Gargoyle, which is normally capable of running Hugo, but at a certain point, it became unresponsive and I had to kill the process. Running it under Hugor instead did not produce such problems.

One last thing: About halfway through the game, I learned that it has music. By that point, I had been through so much of the game without music that its addition seemed strange and distracting, contrary to the feel of the piece as I had come to know it. So I turned it off again. A plea to authors: If your Comp entry has music, please let us know beforehand.

IFComp 2019: Summer Night City

Here we have a lightly choice-based work about someone who doesn’t have many choices and has to make the most of the few he has. A political prisoner of a brutal dictator, he saw too much, and so his sight was taken away. Then, for reasons that initially baffle him, he’s put to work as a bartender.

The story that follows is one of signalling and distrust, of trying to discern who’s a member of a revolutionary group trying to contact him and who’s a government agent using him to identify members of the revolutionary group. In this, he doesn’t have a lot to go on. A regular customer repeatedly states that he “has no confidence today”, then orders straight rum; he does this day after day, then one day suddenly declares that he’s found his confidence, and orders a daiquiri. What does it mean? That’s the kind of thing we’re dealing with here.

The player isn’t really expected to interpret these clues without the player character’s help, though, and it’s a good thing, because the logic too often feels like it skips a few steps, and slides too easily from supposition to certainty. It’s a little frustrating, because the scenario feels like it would be a good one for exercising the puzzle-brain, if it weren’t for the lack of ways for a watched and guarded prisoner to verify his findings. On top of that, the player character is so cagey and suspicious that even his narration to the player circles around pertinent details and makes you feel like you have to figure out clues to understand him — it took me quite a few pages to understand that he’s blind.

At one point, a crucial decision about whether you get a premature ending or go on to the final chapters is made via a choice of “So” or “But?” all by themselves. This is emblematic of the work’s approach to information.

In the very end (in some of the endings), there’s one outright information-based puzzle, where he finally trusts you to put together some of the pieces. It came as a relief to figure something out, but it also seemed almost out of place.

IFComp 2019: Valand

As usual, this year’s Comp has some noticeable coincidental themes. There are quite a few games about desert or near-desert islands (something I identified as “one of the less-imitated classical adventure game environments”, although I’m feeling like that’s less true now). There are multiple games concerning witches. And there’s Valand, which exists at the intersection of the two.

(I call it “Valand” here, because that’s how it’s listed on the Comp ballot, and because it’s a lot more distinctive than the title it has on its title page and cover art, which is The Island. “Valand” is given in-game as the name of the island, but why the game is listed under that name, I don’t know.)

It’s a simple choice-based piece, written in a simple style with light branching, about a young girl named Sam on a magical island with childish mermaids, at least one menacing tiger, and a household of friendly witches who save her from the tiger. Sam is a witch herself, she learns; she had no idea of this, but apparently witches are the only people who wash up on shore alive, due to the water rejecting them. So she sets about learning magic! Or telekinesis, anyway. But at the same time, she grows suspicious of Sabino, the sole grown-up witch. Apparently he controls the tiger, using it to create the appearance of danger, to keep his charges cowed so he can steal their magic. The kids conspire to investigate his secrets, and then, if you chose the same choices I did, the story simply goes unfinished. I ran into a linkless node that reads “Double-click this passage to edit it”, the default node text in Twine. It’s as if the author ran out of time to finish the game before the deadline but submitted it anyway, and then didn’t bother fixing it, which is a thing the Comp allows nowadays.

The whole thing reads like a children’s book, all very matter-of-fact about its fantastic elements: Sam sputters out a line or two of surprise that things like mermaids and witches exist, then just accepts them. Why is the danger in the night a tiger? Just because the author thought a tiger would be cool, I think, and because kids know what tigers are, so it doesn’t need a lot of explanation. The untrustworthiness of the island’s only adult seems a little more meaningful, though. That says something about this world and the author’s mindset.

IFComp 2019: Skies Above

Skies Above is a minimalist parser-based game set in a whimsical world, but what it really is, is a collection of mini-games. Set in a sort of archipelago in the sky, it challenges you to repeatedly upgrade your airship to reach higher and higher islands, ultimately confronting a villain at the very top who’s (at least notionally) raining destruction on the islands below. Each island has approximately one thing you can do there, and it’s usually some repetitive activity by means of which you can either earn money and/or find “floatrons”, the tiny white blobs that keep your airship aloft.

It reminds me a lot of clicker games, but the better sort of clicker game, like Candy Box or A Dark Room, that have an exploration element, and gameplay that keeps evolving. No two islands play quite the same. The first mini-games you find are very simple — there’s a pumping station, for example, where you just move the pump up and down by repeatedly hitting the U and D keys. (For simple one-key actions like this, you don’t even have to hit Enter between commands.) But it gets more complicated as you go, exposing tasks where you can optimize your earnings by figuring out the unwritten rules of systems. One island, for example, has a collection of geysers that emit floatrons, and your take will be much greater if you can predict which geyser will erupt next. Another, near the end, is a simple combat-based RPG. It’s all something of a study in possibilities. Also, there’s a fair amount of interplay between islands, ways to upgrade your performance at specific tasks either temporarily or permanently, giving the game a strategic element beyond mastering islands individually.

I do think it all goes on a bit long, though. Getting to the endgame takes a whole lot of grinding — unless there are tricks I missed, of course. The game tells me I took an unusually long time to beat it, but it’s probably comparing my performance to that of someone on their second or third play-though, someone who knows what they’re doing. And then, once you’ve completed the final confrontation with the petulant adversary (who’s really just waiting for an apology over a small mistake), the game invites you to do more grinding, motivating you with optional goals and Achievements. You could play this game for a very long time, if you wanted to. I’m enough of an obsessive completist to be tempted. I crave the checking off of every list item, the completion of every optional task. But what it asks of the player seems almost abusive.

But I do like its style, and its quirky sense of humor. Something about the minimalism made me go a long time without examining any of the NPCs, and I was tickled to discover, when I was fairly advanced, that they’re all described as geometric shapes, like “an elderly brown cube with white hair” or “a green cylinder with an impressive mustache”.

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