IFComp 2019: The Milgram Parable, The Good People, Each-uisge

Only a year late, that’s not too bad, eh?! I spent a little time catching up on IFComp games today.

The Milgram Parable

By Peter Eastman. (IFDB)

Starting with the story of Stanley Milgram’s psychological experiments, The Milgram Parable reads like an allegory, using the setting of a corporate militia. All the elements are there: unquestioning obedience, limited information and one to one meetings with superiors. I guess the sporadic binary choices come with the narrative territory, too.

So the game forces you to make increasingly abstract choices. Showing compassion at the start of the game yields the admonishment that you are quick to judge using very little information; this is what the game forces you to do. Ironic? Purposeful? Maybe. The scope of the game is so narrow, the stakes and emotional impact so vague, that the decisions start to feel academic.


The Good People

By Pseudavid. (IFDB)

This is a conversation-powered, living poem in which two people uncover a village previously submerged by a dam. As they uncover layers of the physical landscapes, so they also uncover the landscapes of the PC’s childhood and family.

Everything is fragmentary, forgotten, which creates a sort of creeping horror. The unpredictable visual design adds to that.

The game has a striking use of images throughout, and whether by design or browser variability, the text design occasionally looks buggy – text sometimes appears in unexpected places, or laid out in odd ways. Here I chose to see that as part of the effect of the game.

The Good People was intriguing, not least because it scratched my particular itch of exploring abandoned landscapes and memories.


Each-usige

By Jac Colvin. (IFDB)

MacLeod the neighbour has a kelpie – the water horse of yore – the same kind of creature that drowned the PC’s aunt.

The story was compact; the writing descriptive and the storyline fairly straightforward. Each decision has realistic moral stakes, and if we’re talking about moral decisions in IFComp 2019, this was much more convincing than, say, the Milgram Parable. Overall this was a polished piece of work and very competently done.

That itch bundle: Golf Peaks, Winterlore

Golf Peaks

Afterburn Games. itch.io page. Isometric point and click. Time to completion: incomplete.

Screenshot from game showing a path for a golf ball to take and cards depicting movements

A card-based movement game, and you really don’t need to like or even know golf! It scales up in complexity which I found well-balanced. There is rather more of it than I expected, though it definitely hasn’t overstayed its welcome!


Winterlore

Moroi Springs. Point and click.

Ozana goes on a journey of healing and remembrance after her grandmother’s death – though of course she never physically travels anywhere. The story plays out in a single cottage.

Screenshot from game showing cottage with a woodstove, with a simple pastel illustration style

I wanted to like this game. It has all the elements that I usually enjoy: folklore, creepy old women prophets, point and click puzzles. But there were puzzles that didn’t really need to be puzzles, and some frustrating mechanics. I also may have locked myself out of progressing in the game by doing things in the wrong order?!

I appreciate the efforts to make this game player-friendly, though. The game itself links to the official walkthrough; instructions are explicitly displayed. I just wish that the puzzles had used knowledge of folklore more than simpler pattern-matching. I was reminded of Year Walk, though that game is substantially creepier, and the numerous ‘escape the room’ point and click games on which I grew up.

That itch bundle: Sagebrush, Hidden Folks

Sagebrush

Redact Games. First person perspective. Time to completion: 2h 44min

I finished Sagebrush, an atmospheric exploration game where you explore what’s left of a cult compound, and find out what happened to it via journals and voice recordings.

Screenshot from game showing outdoor scene under a starlit night sky

Sagebrush is quite sparse in some sense, not least because it is literally set in an arid landscape. But it oozes atmosphere, from the lo-fi rendering to lighting changes throughout. On a side note, recommend that you fiddle with the accessibility settings if you have difficulty making out details. I had to increase the in-game brightness to maximum…

Good writing, with a twist that seems believable. The end sequence I found protracted, but wrapped most things up.


Hidden Folks

Adriaan de Jongh. Isometric point and click. Time to completion: 3h

Game header image, showing a hand-drawn streetside scene

Hidden Folks was on my wishlist for the longest time, and I’d forgotten about it until the bundle! This is Where’s Waldo, but on an epic scale. There is some truly gorgeous artwork, and adjusting from the initial impression of “wow, there’s far too much!” to scanning the image, to admiring details, is incredibly satisfying.

Characters are sketched out in a line or two, with some effort towards wider representation… at least with non-English names. The sound effects are entirely human-generated, which means the soundtrack release is called Mouth Sounds! It is delightful!

That itch.io bundle

The itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality raised an astounding eight MILLION dollars for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and Community Bail Fund. It is a feat, and a bundle, that invites hyperbole, and for good reason. As of its close last Tuesday, over 800 thousand people contributed – meaning people contributed on average $10, for almost $9000 worth of games and art and literature. This means 814,738 people who now have indie, often leftist games: certainly an incredible prospect!

The question now, of course, is how to go through all these games?!

Much like IFComp, it can often seem like being a kid in a candy shop, overwhelmed by the sheer variety available. I’m working through it, bit by bit. Over the next few weeks, I’ll try to regularly post initial impressions of the games I have tried! They’re probably going to be narrative more than action, and only the ones which can run on a Mac.

Honeysuckle

By Cat Manning. (Texture; IFDB)

[Mentions abusive relationships.]

Being the wife of an august wizard brings its own dangers. Something is off in the house, and in your husband’s absence, you must investigate.

The PC is wife to the wizard who is now her husband. They were, if not colleagues, then teacher and student, yet he dismisses her own “unruly” research, allowing her to continue only because “it seems to please her”. This echoes sexist assumptions of skill common to numerous other fields – from game development to medicine – which often casts women as the amateurs, forever the apprentice to their male counterparts. And, most notably, she plays into this as well, describing herself as an amateur.

The use of the verb ‘consider’ turns an invasion of privacy into something more like observing, but it quickly becomes clear that the PC’s husband is not who he says he is, that the PC is not safe, that prying is the only way to survival. Unusually for Texture games, Honeysuckle is strongly location-based.

What I most enjoyed – if one may call it ‘enjoyed’ – was the subversion of the traditional player as the chosen one, the powerful one, the one with the gifts. In Honeysuckle, the PC is, initially, utterly disempowered. She is the apprentice, the junior one, the amateur. She is the humble one – the humbled one – who does not speak up because she knows few will listen.

Honeysuckle stands up as a modern retelling of Blackbeard: a predatory husband; the PC just one in a line of victims. The difference, of course, being the outcome. In the same way, this game has similar themes to Sara Dee’s Tough Beans. Both have female PCs who are babied by their male partners, and both find their salvation in his destruction. But where Tough Beans is unambiguous in its outcome, Honeysuckle is a little more ominous: each of its ending branches is wracked with uncertainty.

Honeysuckle is a game about alchemy and escaping domestic peril, and it is straightforward in that front. Several aspects of the story, however, are far from fantasy for a significant part of the population. Although its ending is ambiguous, Honeysuckle envisions the possibility – with both means and opportunity intact – of escape.

Eat Me

By Chandler Groover. (parser; IFDB; play here)

[Time to completion: 30-40 mins]

Chandler Groover’s work often mixes the decadent with the grotesque, the macabre with the picturesque. Think rotting roses; mouldering filigree.

Here, bound in a prison made of food, your only way out is by eating.

Who knew that eating could be so visceral? This is not just simple eating, it is consumption for consumption’s sake, for pleasure, for satiation. This is not going to be a game for everyone: the descriptions are so detailed as to be cloying, and there is heavy use of cutscenes to denote scene transitions.

This game is generous in allowing the player to backtrack and figure out what to do. As the name suggests, the range of actions available for the player are limited to eating, with the occasional exception clearly signalled – similar, then, to Arthur DiBianca’s games, such as Grandma Bethlinda’s Variety Box and Inside the Facility.

Eat Me resembles Groover’s Bring Me A Head, both in setting and in grotesquerie: both set in crumbling castles, each compartment holding just one singular occupant, doomed, it seems, to pursue their one occupation for the rest of time. Eat Me is not for the faint-hearted, definitely, but well worth playing, perhaps alongside other games with a similar setting.

For a lighter version of an eating-oriented game, try Jenni Polodna’s Dinner Bell; for more of the same, Bring Me a Head and Open That Vein by the same author.

nosleep: I found the Holy Grail at a charity shop today

This story can be read here

This is an attempt at writing something a little more light-hearted. I love reading irreverent horror stories, with the pinnacle probably being this masterpiece. My writing always comes out more serious than I intend it to be, though.

I had this idea after scrolling through my Reddit feed, with the vague idea of using a post title from another subreddit in a nosleep story. I couldn’t do this explicitly, because there’s an explicit rule against that. A title like this, however… seems to have passed muster.

nosleep: Control Standing By

This story can be read here

This story combines one of my passions, volunteering as an event first aider, with my enjoyment of short horror stories. Also, in a wider sense, this plays to my fondness for epistolary stories. There is a lot I could say about this volunteering work I do, and I’ve already written about some of it in another blog. Suffice to say that this involves attending football matches, races, concerts and other events to provide first aid for the crowd and whoever needs it.

Nevertheless, one of the things we learn which go beyond the medical is radio communications. There are certain ways of speaking to make radio communications – which can happen in difficult environments – more succinct and clearer.

Here, I have used the conventions used by my organisation. It won’t be the same for every organisation, but it’s what I’m most familiar with.

In writing this, I was partiuclarly mindful of using too technical terms, as that could have detracted from the “horror” aspect of the story.  Hence, the explanatory notes. It’s hard to tell if those were effective, though, and I intend to write at least one more radio transcript-style story.

nosleep: Sweet Tooth

This story can be read here

My first nosleep story! I’m quite proud of this because at the time of writing, I hadn’t written static fiction for a long time. I used to read /r/nosleep in secondary school in an attempt to satiate my desire for campfire-style horror stories, with my first exposure of high-quality writing on this subreddit through the Penpal series.

This particular story was inspired by the amazing chiffon cake works of Suzanne Ng, who creates amazing custom chiffon cakes which are, I’m sure, free of body parts.

Map

By Ade McT. (parser; IFDB)

[Time to completion: >1 hour]

[Content warnings for mentions of abortion, implied child death]

In Map, you play a fed-up housewife in a subtly mutating house. Space, here, is used to reveal memories. As the reader learns more about the PC, the more the house expands to accommodate that, and each new room offers a chance at atonement. Just as space moves non-linearly, time creeps strangely. If you know Pratchett’s metaphor of the Trousers of Time, or think of decision-making as creating forks in a timeline – it’s very much like that. Just as the PC can enter new rooms in the house,

The themes in this game reminded me of Sara Dee’s Tough Beans, or, a more recent example, Cat Manning’s Honeysuckle. All of these feature female protagonists who have been dutiful and responsible doing what was expected of them until they were all but forgotten, until some catalytic event drives them to change.

In Map, the protagonist is much less involved, on the micro level. The rooms you discover let the player relive key decision-making moments in the PC’s life, but once you enter a moment, you can simply wait for it to get to the only choice you have: a binary yes/no choice. Without this, though, the game might have swollen to an unmanageable size, so the limited agency is more strategy than anything else, and on a conceptual level, this does work – how many times have you wondered what would have happened if you’d made a different decision?

The scope of this game is narrow and deep, delving into the emotions underpinning life-changing moments and distilling these moments into a fork in a very personal timeline. Some bits went way over my head (the rubber plant, for instance), but overall it was an ambitious, thoughtful piece.