IFComp 2015: Recorded

By Nick Junius (parser; IFDB; play here)

 

An escape game – well, in a loose sense of the word – where you have to get out from a series of surreal, weird rooms. The overall feel of the game reminded me of Mateusz Skutnik’s Submachine games, especially the more abstract ones. Unlike Skutnik’s Submachine, though, the rooms in Recorded lacked an overarching theme, or a repeating motif – something stylistic which would have made it clearer that this was the work of one entity/being/person, and ultimately created a stronger storyline.

One problem is that there’s not much in the way of story, or puzzle. What story there is is delivered through cryptic messages, though they often felt more like flavour text – purposeless, and not hinting much at what the story was. I felt like this opportunity to build a distinct NPC had been wasted, and it’s a pity.

As far as I can tell, there was one puzzle, and it was of the ‘pick up this object and put it there’ variety. Not exactly the most inspired of puzzles, unfortunately, and it was not very clear to me how to trigger the appearance of the object that I needed to solve the one puzzle (I used the walkthrough).

Recorded has the beginning of what might have been a very interesting concept in the game, but it might have gone way over my head, or it was never developed.

scarfmemory

By Michael Brough (Twine; IFDB; play here)

Cover art: small photo of a red and blue… scarf? I think? 

scarfmemory is a short game (about 10-15 minutes’ play for one play-through), in memory of a lost scarf – something beautiful, now forever gone. More accurately described as an interactive diary, it reads like a stream of tangentially connected thoughts and experiences, accompanied by occasional photos.

The game works with links which expand out, when you click on them, to a related chunk of text. How to explain? It’s like how Lime Ergot worked – you click on a link, it expands out to relate a related memory or experience. It muses on the fate of the scarf, and the musings of a creator: where are these bits of yourself, whose intimate history only you know? Is anyone using it? If they use it, would they know its story – how it came about? Would it matter?

I felt the reflection made it a little more than just a ‘day in life’ kind of game, simply because it was thoughtful, and it was born of something which other creators of things would probably have thought about.

scarfmemory is as simple as it sounds, and to say there was nothing else remarkable about this game would be to treat this little game unfairly.

The game also references IF conventions (the traditions, not the gatherings of writers and players) and Twine in particular – this is a foray into IF by one who usually makes more graphical games. I’m not sure why I’m compelled to add this, but there you go.

IFComp 2015: Pilgrimage

by Víctor Ojuel (parser-based, play here)

You are on a pilgrimage. Where to? It is uncertain.

I had mixed feelings about this game. On a micro scale, there is enough to make it infuriating, things which shouldn’t be there. On a macro scale, though, Pilgrimage is about the search for home and making things right again. 

What I liked about this game was that the scale of travel in this game suggests sea voyages every time you go in a compass direction, painting the game’s geography in broad sweeps instead of tiny intricate detail. This was fitting, as the PC travels across the world, so giving a general, though evocative, impression of different countries worked better than focusing on tiny details.

Pilgrimage is structured in small scenes, typically set in a particular country. By solving a puzzle or doing the ‘right’ action, you get to the next scene, and so on and so forth. The challenge, then, is figuring out what the action is; this was not always intuitive.

When travelling, the people you meet for such a short time sometimes seem themselves to be temporary while you are the only permanent thing you know; so it is with Pilgrimage. The NPCs in this game are little more than tools to solve a puzzle- was this a good thing or bad thing? I’m not sure. It made sense that the PC never formed any long-term relations with anyone. 

In the end, I relied on the walkthrough to bring me through the game, and I have to say that not worrying about getting lost or putting the game in an unwinnable state let me focus more on the writing – location descriptions is definitely one of the author’s strengths.

There were small niggles which would have infuriated me if I had not had the walkthrough: it has several implementation slips characteristic to parser IF. There is some confusion between definite and indefinite nouns when taking inventory and when you manipulate objects (“In boat is sailor.”), which made the prose read weirdly. The synonyms the game accepted (for objects) could be more extensive. Messages when I take objects are triggered whenever I take it again, instead of only when I take it the first time – which produces quite amusing messages without context. For a normal release, this would not have left a good impression. As an IFComp entry, even less so – but Pilgrimage is redeemed by its broad arc and quite lovely writing.

The Fixer

by Chikodili Emelumadu (play here)

Women come to her when their husbands stray. She accepts not crude cash, but things of beauty. She will fix them- for as long as they live.

Content warning: this game has sexual themes – it’s not erotic, but it’s not wholly implicit either.

The Fixer is linear, but I really enjoyed playing through it – it reminded me of Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor, in its portrayal of everyday mysticism. The beginning scene is reminiscent of noir mysteries – clients come to visit the jaded detective with an intractable problem and offer payment – and indeed the rough outline of the story follows that of a detective story, with the ‘detective’ main character formulating a plan, meeting the perpetrator, and finally fulfilling the contract made with the client. How she does it, though, is vastly, vastly different.

Emelumadu paints a city where spirits and humans mingle; where believing in mysticism is common sense and practicality. She merges the absurd with the filthy; the beautiful with the pragmatic. This quote for example:

A toothpick bobs about in his mouth. His lips are as thick and dark as a roll of roasted tripe.

Emelumadu’s writing is rich with local flavour, from the descriptions of food to the terms of address for different characters to each other, and beautifully detailed, even when she goes into sordid detail of a certain character. Her writing moves from being initially subtle – hinting at the narrator’s identity – to exulting in the narrator’s strange abilities.

The Fixer also uses graphics throughout the story, though I didn’t listen to the audio, and the story art is gorgeous and unobtrusive. A delight to read.

Elsewhere

By Stacey Mason (Twine; IFDB; play here)

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(Screenshot of game – white text on brown background: “Rations for your building reset at midnight. It’s 11:56. You’re itchy, dirty. Your clothes smell. If you want water tonight, you’d better be ready.”)

A little break from IFComp games – I found this game thanks to Games We Care About (@games_we_care).

This game was written for the Twiny Jam, meaning this game was written within 300 words. In South America, the Water Wars are raging, but, for you, you’re more concerned about your own building’s water ration. It starts at midnight, and if you start early enough, maybe you’ll have enough for a shower, to flush the toilet and wash your clothes today.

The thing I found interesting was how it used the cyclinglink macro – Mason used it to implement steps of a routine, such as preparing for a shower. This, combined with timed text, created a sense of urgency appropriate to the situation. The game is limited in scope, but there are hints to a mildly dystopic future – hints of a wider world, and that made it feel less like a short game per se, but rather a limited window into the author’s world.

The procrastinator speaks

A personal reflection after attending the Ada Lovelace Evening Exchange event, in which Emily Short (!!) was the speaker. (Of course I was much too socially awkward to talk to anyone)

This is the blog of a doyenne of procrastination. I procrastinate so much. I start loads of projects and never finish them. I have uncounted numbers of IF works-in-progress waiting to be finished. Yet, tonight a group of friends produced a rather rough-hewn but nevertheless complete work of IF in record time! How is this?

(Apologies if this is all familiar stuff to you.)

1. Start by thinking about the ending.
Usually, I start with a high-level idea – a monster-hunting story with red tape – which is, after all, how story prompts are structured. That peters out very quickly, because there’s no central spine. These ideas never have specific endings in mind, so it becomes ridiculously hard to continue after the initial burst of inspiration.

In this event, though, I think we were supposed to start writing to practice how we could implement different story structures, so we started with the end in mind – no words, no fancy ideas, just plot. I found this really helpful in distilling the skeleton of the game, and in the end it was surprisingly easy to write!

2. Don’t get attached to ideas.
This slows me down so much. At the start of a new project, I can become absolutely consumed with the possibilities – which are endless- for the game. I think of branches and all that. But as the story goes on, there are paragraphs which I like – and which aren’t necessary to the plot – or there’s a moment which I can’t bear to throw out – retaining sentiment for useless parts ultimately bogs the game down. Now, I try to maintain a ‘cutting floor’, where aesthetically pleasing but pointless bits go, and hopefully this will keep me focused on a good structure.

3. Test only after implementing another section of the story/another idea
Testing too often slowed me down a lot. While this is very helpful for catching out basic problems (especially if you’re new to the language), this made me focus a lot more on how it looked and the flavour text rather than the game in the big picture. For my future writing, I’ll try to only test once I’ve completed a chapter/part of a major chapter, to make myself continue writing the actual content instead of fiddling with little bits.

IFComp 2015: Taghairm

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By Chandler Groover. (Twine, play here)

Before I say anything else, I would like to give a warning that this game depicts violence (specifically, animal abuse) in a way that you may find disturbing. Please, be warned and really do avoid it if that upsets you in any way.

Taghairm is a dark Twine game with a brutal, sparse way of words (see quote). The writing is purposeful and builds atmosphere well – it implies a lot from very little. It suggests the ghost of a storyline: something (or somebody) has been lost, and this… this that you go to your cousin’s field to do, is the only way.

You can see them moving in the firelight
although they’ve long since stopped crying.

It took months to gather them all.

What moved this game from linguistic beauty to visceral horror, though, was the emotional stake. The game punishes the player at first for wanting to disagree with what the NPC is doing by not allowing the story to progress, and by having an NPC who dismisses your misgivings. 

There is a key decision-making point at a certain repeating routine which essentially allows you to choose what outcome you want. The more brutal path ends up showing the toll of the ritual on the PC and the NPC. It never returns to the context in the beginning, the reason why the PC did this in the first place: perhaps, in the search for something – your heart’s desire – you lose everything else, and you lose everything that made that desire so worthwhile in the first place.

Is a game ‘bad’ because there’s no good ending?

IFComp 2015: In The Friend Zone

by Brendan Vance. (Twine, play here)

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This Twine game plays on the oft-repeated phrase ‘friend zone’, using it as a literal prison for Nice Guys. It brands itself as a horror-parody ‘in the tradition of Franz Kafka’, but I’m not sure Kafka could have topped this level of bizarre imagery.

What is by far the most distinctive thing about this game is its writing and mythos, really. There are apocalyptic scenes galore, and Lovecraft inches his way into each scene. It feels like the game Neka Psaria. It feels like a slimy version of Stross’s Rule 34. It feels like some kind of regional gothic, made interactive. This game reads like Porpentine… kind of, with more effigies and less cyberpunk.

The story appears to be set in an elaborate mythos with Priapus (in its original form, a Greek god of fertility and protector of male genitalia) worshipped as a kind of malevolent deity.

It’s no surprise that there’s sexual imagery throughout, though the imagery seems less erotic than violent. There is also quite a fair bit of violence, though at that point it felt more abstract than visceral. This was partly because the targets of the violence were nameless and, for all purposes, not distinct.

Apart from that, I found it hard to get my bearings. The way to progress through the game isn’t really clear – you start off naming a person you’re looking for, but exactly what has happened to that person is very unclear. It made it frustrating for me, half because I kept ‘walking’ in circles, half because I didn’t know how to advance the story.

Nevertheless, Vance’s writing is sound. It never veers into Lovecraftian purple prose, despite its influence, and putting aside my misgivings, this is an able piece of genre writing.

EDIT: linked to Vance’s (er, I presume) tumblr.

IFComp 2015: The King and the Crown

by Wes Lesley. (parser-based, play here)

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You are a king in this short little game, and your duties include listening to the cries of the people, giving advice and occasionally invading France. But before that, you have to find your crown and scepter.

True to the blurb, this game has self-deprecating, irreverent humour in buckets. For example:

>x cabinet
An intricately decorated wooden cabinet strengthened outside and in with a cage of the strongest steel in the world. This is where you keep the Royal Crown.

And, sometimes, also snacks.

This game brands itself as a one-puzzle, short game, and indeed, strictly speaking, only six actions are needed to complete the game itself. The author has, however, implemented little bonuses for those who poke a little more at the game, so it’s equally fun – if not more – to try and explore and uncover some of the game’s secrets, including the traditional references to other well-known IF games and pop culture

The humour sometimes backfires, though; the custom parser error messages start out cute at first but quickly become annoying. The parser could definitely be more comprehensive, especially for ambiguous references to nouns. Not a bad play- slightly silly and unsubstantial, but that’s completely excusable.

IFComp 2015: Grandma Bethlinda’s Variety Box

by Arthur DiBianca. (Parser-based; play here)

This game is an exploration game, where the terrain you explore is not spatial, but rather comes in the form of a toy. You’re supposed to interact with the toy, and there’s a dedicated command for that, presumably to spare the player the ‘guess the verb’ puzzle. In fact, the verb list in this game is very limited, which I suppose is the point, to get the player focusing on the box. That’s a new thing, and in this game I guess was handy.

For some parts of the game, I felt like I was zooming in to one tiny portion of the box and didn’t have peripheral vision – having to type commands separately sometimes gets tedious. 

But the problem is that the box and its components feels generic. As a player, my motivation for interacting with an object in-game is usually to solve a puzzle to continue the story, and I must be invested in the story. But Grandma has little to entice the player into spending time to poke buttons and turn knobs, and I felt it could have directed the player more. 

Maybe I didn’t play with it enough. Maybe I wasn’t doing it right. I’m playing it with the walkthrough at hand, and I’m having a lot of so that’s what was supposed to happen moments. There’s a lot more interaction in the later parts, though how you unlock it remains opaque to me.