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.

Robin Hood: The Knight

I seem to have hit the point where this game suddenly becomes hard. I’m off in the depths of the forest trying to rescue Little John from basically an entire army, because that’s what it took to subdue him. For most of the map, my usual MO stands up: Render enemies unconscious, ideally by having Robin sneak up on them one by one, but with a Strong Merry as a back-up in case I wind up pulling aggro. Tie them up before they come to. When possible, help this process along with trickery like luring enemies into an ambush. (Honestly, the efficacy of ambushes is one of the things that really makes this game feel Robin-Hood-like.)

The big problem, then, is that this mission is the first to feature a mounted knight, and I don’t know what to do about it. He’s unprecedentedly fast-moving and hard-hitting, and I haven’t found a way to take him down permanently — using the Strong Merry’s biggest attacks, I’ve managed to stun him to the point where he’s no longer considered a valid target for attacks, but he recovers alarmingly quickly, and apparently can’t be tied up while he’s on that horse. (Would I have to tie up the horse too?) Up to this point, to minimize deaths, I haven’t been shooting people with arrows. For this guy, I finally break out the bow. He shrugs it off.

Clearly, then, the best way to deal with him is to avoid him altogether. The problem is that he’s positioned to notice when you go after Little John. Even if you avoid his line of sight, and do stealth take-downs of all the other guards in the vicinity, the act of freeing John from his bonds ineluctibly causes another soldier to appear and raise the alarm. Maybe the key is to just book it at that point, but even that seems tricky. I can’t outrun that horse.

One thing I’ve been shamefully contemplating is making a sacrifice. Get the Strong Merry into a fight with the knight elsewhere to distract him. But is that something Robin Hood would do?

Robin Hood: Unique Abilities

Maid Marian has joined my party, at least for one mission. Her special unique ability is Spy, which clears the fog of war in a large radius around her. It’s not the best of powers, because fog of war really isn’t that big a deal in this game; people you haven’t seen are displayed, just rendered in a sort of mottled foggy grey devoid of details so you can’t tell if they’re friendly or not. (And you can probably take a pretty good guess about that anyway from their behavior; anyone flanking a doorway or marching in formation is probably a guard.)

At any rate, the choice of power is clearly meant to reflect her role in the story: she’s Robin’s “man on the inside”, maintaining a presence at court to supply the outlaws with information. (Which means it’ll be less narratively justified if she takes up residence in Sherwood, but these gameplay things are only loosely connected to their narrative justifications anyway.) All of the named characters seem to have such an ability like that, one loosely tied to their character. Robin’s unique ability is throwing coin purses, which isn’t quite giving to the poor (especially if he takes them back once you’re unconscious), but is at least adjacent to it. Will Scarlet, the youngest of the band, has a slingshot that can stun foes briefly. The manual tells me that Friar Tuck has a “put down beer” command, possibly to distract foes or make them less observant. Little John has the ability to give other characters a boost up walls — due to the reuse of maps in missions, I’ve seen walls with the cursor rollover for this action even though I still can’t perform it.

It seems strange that Robin’s special unique ability isn’t related to his famous skill with a bow. There’s a biggish problem with the source material in this game: it encourages you to avoid lethal damage, but that’s the only sort of damage a bow can do, so I’m avoiding doing one of the things that the title character is most famous for. It tries to make up for it a little in the non-plot-related ambush missions, where you attack various carriages and caravans carrying gold through the forest. These missions give you traps and snares triggered by shooting at targets, another fairly thin gesture towards the established character.

Robin Hood: Merries

Two more critical path missions down, plus a couple of optional caravan ambushes to get extra cash. I don’t really have a use for all this cash yet, but the story has got to get around to asking me to ransom King Richard at some point. There’s nothing really unexpected about the story. It’s taking care to give all the Robin Hood fans out there what they want, introducing the old familiar characters one by one: Will Scarlet, Maid Marian, Friar Tuck. No Little John yet, although I’m sure he’s coming. Will Scarlet is the only one who’s actually joined my outlaw band back at the base in Sherwood Forest, though. The rest of my recruits are generic Merry Men.

The generics all have individual names, and can be trained up in combat individually, and the game tracks their individual health and inventory from one mission to the next. In terms of abilities, though, they come in just three types, which the manual calls Strong Merry, Aggressive Merry, and Mustachioed Merry. I’ve been finding the Strong Merry to be by far the most useful in combat: under player control, he can do big sweeping moves that knock out multiple people at a time (including any friendlies standing too close). But you can’t neglect the skills that the other Merry types bring to missions, like healing and lockpicking. Robin Hood stories and Robin Hood games sometimes make the mistake of making Robin simply the best at everything anyone does, making you wonder why he’s keeping everyone else around at all, but I think the RTS influence in this game’s ludic makeup helps it to avoid that, making the focus on the coordinated actions of a team.

What do all the extra duplicate Merries do while you’re on a mission? Whatever jobs you’ve assigned them to back at Sherwood HQ. They can produce supplies to take on missions, such as arrows and healing herbs and throwable coin purses (with extra-weak seams to make them burst on impact and scatter their contents over a wide area), or they can train in hand-to-hand combat or archery, or they can just rest and heal. This is all done with the same UI as missions: home base is a kind of Sherwood Treehouse Playset that characters walk around in, with stations you can leave them at to tell them what to do. The annoying thing about this is that with dozens of controllable characters, you can’t select who to control in the more convenient ways, like the 1-5 keys. To select someone, you have to click on them, which can be difficult if they’re walking around. If you try to click on someone and miss, the game interprets it as telling the currently-selected character to walk to the spot you clicked on. I really wish sometimes that I could pause the game and still give orders, Baldur’s-Gate-style — not just here, but in combat too. But I suppose that’s the downside of the RTS influence.

Robin Hood: Learning How to Deal With Other People

I haven’t quite gotten through the second mission yet. This is a save-a-prisoner-from-the-gallows mission, one of the classical Robin Hood scenarios, and it’s quite daunting from the start, especially if you’re trying to cooperate with the game’s discouragement of killing. The place is crawling with soldiers, and worse, they’re clustered in small groups and watching each other’s backs. With only one playable character, you only have two nonlethal ways to dispose of enemies. First, you can sucker-punch them before they draw their weapons, which only really works on isolated individuals, and only on the weaker sorts at that. Secondly, you can throw a purse of gold into their midst, causing them to fight each other over it. Ideally, the brawl leaves only one guard standing, thus turning them into an isolated individual who you can sucker-punch. But again, the tougher guards are immune to this trick, and you can only do it so many times — you can retrieve the gold from the unconscious guards, but oddly enough, throwable purses are a limited resource.

The whole deal, then, is that you can’t do much of anything on this map with just one playable character — because this is the level that teaches you how to use multiple characters. With the man you’re rescuing, and three other condemned prisoners who just happen to be there too, you have a party of five, which seems to be the maximum the game accommodates, judging by the UI. Different characters have different abilities: this guy can pick locks, that one knows how to use healing herbs, and so forth. The two most relevant skills for the above discussion are the ability to tie up unconscious foes so they don’t pose a threat when they wake up, and for big strong guys, the ability to pick up the unconscious, dead, or bound so you can hide them where they’re less conspicuous. In short, your standard stealth-game stuff, but it takes multiple people to do. Most of the time, I’m using just those three characters: the big guy, the bondage guy, and Robin, who knows how to sucker-punch.

Not that sucker-punching is always necessary! The big guy carries a bludgeon that lets him deal nonlethal damage in combat mode. Still, the most effective way I’ve found to conduct combat is: One of my merry men engages the enemy in combat, and while he’s thus distracted, Robin comes in from the side and sucker-punches him. I’ve basically got it all down to a science now, and have been indulging in the same sort of foolishness as I did in Deus Ex: maximizing my freedom by clearing the map of all threats and stuffing them into the same few picturesque half-timbered buildings, where they are no doubt stacked like logs. This is why it’s taking me so long to finish the level.

Robin Hood: The Legend of Sherwood

A random conversation got me thinking about this game, so I pulled it out and played it a bit. When I first tried it in the early 2000s, it struck me as fairly original in concept: it looked and controlled like a RTS of the time, but it had stealth mechanics and puzzles. I’ve since learned that the Commandos series did it first, but I haven’t played those.

At any rate, this is a game that supports both stealth and combat approaches, and allegedly rewards choosing stealth: Robin’s ability to function as a folk hero and attract followers depends on people’s opinion of him, which is affected by how many murders he’s responsible for. I haven’t gotten far enough into the game for that to be a factor, though. All I’ve gotten through so far is the first mission, in which Robin Hood isn’t even really Robin Hood yet. Back when the game was newer, I didn’t even get that far; I got stuck in perfection paralysis, repeatedly realizing that there were better ways to do stuff as I learned the game’s vocabulary and restarting the entire level.

When run as-is under Windows 10, the game is unplayably sluggish. To get around this, I installed a patch that turned out to just be a little wrapper for running it under DxWnd. I’ll have to remember to try DxWnd for other games that display similar symptoms. It does create two new problems, though. First of all, the cursor leaves trails behind it in the game’s menus, including in-game message boxes. Secondly, it breaks the game at higher resolutions. By default, the game runs at 640×480, but the options menu lets you dial that up to 800×600 or 1024×768, and it’s a shame that I can’t take advantage of that. I’m basically stuck with 640×480, which looks brutally coarse to me, although I can already feel myself adapting to it.

[Addendum 22 Sep] It seems like the failure of the other graphics modes must be linked to the introductory FMV cutscene. This plays automatically when you start the game, and it always plays in 640×480. So if you have the game set to play at any other resolution, it has to change graphics modes on the fly. DxWnd doesn’t appear to handle that well. A lot of older games for Windows do this sort of thing, switching resolutions for FMV, and it’s never really worked very well. On every single PC I’ve ever owned, switching graphics modes takes a few seconds, with the typical result that you wind up missing the start of the video.

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