IFComp 2017: The Richard Mines

By Evan Wright [Parser; IFDB link here; IFComp link here]

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Cover art: monochrome picture of a mine entrance; in the bottom right corner, “Eintritt Verboten!” in gothic letters

The blurb tells us that this is ostensibly about one or more abandoned German mines in Czechoslovakia, circa 1949. If I had been playing without that knowledge, I would never have known that.

Despite it being about discovery and exploration, the narration is devoid of excitement. The PC betrays no emotion or indeed reaction to anything. Because of that, it was hard for me to find in-game motivation to keep exploring. Most of the context comes from the blurb, in fact.

While this game could do with a little proofreading and beta-testing for functionality expected of most parser games (the game doesn’t end properly, for instance), this game was not submitted without thought: relatively straightforward puzzles whose presentations suggest their solutions, and an object-based hint system. A decent entry, though using the exploration to frame a story would have given it more depth.

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IFComp 2017: Haunted P

By Chad Rocketman. [Parser; IFDB link here; IFComp link here]

First impressions: this game has serious shades of Toiletworld, the infamous troll game from last year’s IFComp. The author’s name is similar; the… tone is likewise jocular; most tellingly, the game is underimplemented, with many of the pitfalls of the modern parser. And, of course, “Chad Rocketman” is not too far from “Chet Rocketfrak”.

While not as thematically… consistent as Toiletworld, Haunted P is not as actively hostile toward the player as Toiletworld was. There is actually some measure of progress. I’m not sure it’s actually possible to get to an ending, but perhaps that’s part of the attraction.

Assuming, again, that the author of Toiletworld was responsible for this work, Haunted P is perhaps not as much of a talking piece as Toiletworld, because it’s almost… too normal.

IFComp 2017: Measureless to Man

By Ivan R. [parser; IFDB link here; IFComp link here]

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Cover art: blurry, blue-tinted photo of underwater plane wreck

“Something is in you, longing to seek them out. And why not?

Either way, you’re doomed.”

Mmm, foreboding.

As you fly from Cairo to Boston, you carry a horrible secret inherited from your grandfather, one which defies the very laws of nature. So far, so Lovecraftian.

This game in general would benefit from a bit more polish, both in the implementation and in the framing of the story. The circumstances in which you unleash the deadly nature of the secret are strangely incongruous; there are spots which could have been smoothed over with close proofreading and more beta-testing – typos, unimplemented nouns mentioned in the scenery and so on. Some objects are introduced but never used.

Measureless To Man introduces what could have been a powerful story-telling/narrative device, but unfortunately could have made more of it. Lovecraft, in what I’ve read of his stories, builds up the tentacled, writhing horror slowly, usually making the implications of his monster or ritual or artefact quite clear. Measureless to Man had little of that – a pity, because that could have made it that bit more unsettling.

 

IFComp 2017: Swigian

By Rainbus North [parser; IFDB link here; IFComp link here]

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Cover art: photo of old leather helmet

Swigian is a text-sparse parser game. You are an outdoorsy person of no distinct description (“You look like me” is… suggestive) and… well, let’s start by building a fire.

The player’s only stated motivation is escaping an unnamed group: “them”. I would usually prefer more explanation, but here, in this style, that is enough. You are running from them. That is all I need to know.

Objects are barely described – “That is what it is” – encouraging the player to take the writer at face value. Object manipulation for puzzles is simplified, though most of the usual parser commands have been preserved.

Solving puzzles opens up new areas of the map. While the in-game map actually covers a large area, you only ever spend a short time in each area; often, there is exactly one thing you need to do there. The writing is evocative, but firmly rooted in reality – no metaphor for this, unlike baby tree, another text-sparse parser game.

Overall, a solid game which I enjoyed playing, set firmly in parser’s traditional penchant for object-oriented puzzles.

IFComp 2017: Off the Rails

By Katie Benson [Twine; IFDB link here; IFComp link here]

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Cover art: mockup of a baking magazine with a hand-drawn birthday cake in the centre

You’re on the train to meet your family for the weekend, and the thought fills you with dread.

The cover suggests a cutesy story aimed at younger readers. The blurb suggests something deeper, with a hint of unhappy family life. The actual game tells of a troubled family, but even that only forms the premise for the bulk of the action, which is set on the train.

Off the Rails treads the familiar ground of vague allusions to emotional baggage (at least in the branches that I played through) and a mundane beginning. Infrequent binary choices are sprinkled in the midst of linear text. The verbosity betrays the broad branching, and conciseness would have helped this game. The “good”, or interesting, option is often obvious, without rewarding the player for being meek, for choosing the safe option.

Off the Rails has some good ideas, but it was not developed as much as it could have been, and could be more compellingly presented.

The Periwink

by Jedediah Berry (Twine; IFDB; play here)

[Time to completion: 15-20 minutes]

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Caption: line drawing of a flower

You are a groundskeeper on the last day on the job. The majordomo demands it be so. But you have one last task…

The Periwink brings the player through surreal, toothy, quietly alive landscapes, somewhat like a pastel-hued Porpentine work. The monuments in The Periwink are not neutral or even benign, but if you treat them right, they will return the favour.

As groundskeeper, the viewpoint character knows much more about the perils of each monument than the majordomo, which forms a foil to his casual arrogance. But the groundskeeper also knows a lot more than the player – hence, while the player may have control over the PC’s actions, the first-time player cannot guess at the motive or implications of those actions.

The horror here is understated; the writing, a pleasure to read. For someone who loves rambling around alien landscapes, this was a delectable treat. A similar, albeit shorter, game would be vale of singing metals.

Oxygen

by Benjamin Sokal (parser; IFDB)

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Cover art: “Oxygen”, with the ‘O’ encapsulating the rest of the word; the O is coloured half red and half blue

The premise of Oxygen is simple – no tricks, few puzzles, mostly choices. You, a lowly technician, have the unenviable task of deciding who on board the Aegis mining station will get oxygen from the slowly leaking tanks.

This is a resource management game in which you decide how oxygen supplies on a spaceship are to be diverted. You have three moves each time to decide. Tension comes from the fact that the ship is, literally, divided: striking miners on one side, and “the establishment” – the captain and the rest of the crew – on the other.

The initial section was very fiddly for me, because I have lots of trouble visualising mechanical solutions, so I followed the walkthrough for that. The bulk of the story is mechanically much simpler, though.

Oxygen’s story is largely linear, with just a few major branches; so far, none of the endings I’ve found are exactly happy. Your position as a tech notwithstanding, you ultimately must choose where you stand – with the miners or with the leadership – and either results in the destruction of the other (or both). It was heartening to see the PC change from lazy and over-ambitious to actually taking a stand.

Oxygen reminded me of Stephen Granade’s Fragile Shells: both are set on a spaceship, with mechanical puzzles. Fragile Shells, however, focuses on solving mechanical puzzles, while highlighting the relationships between NPCs and the PC.

Three-Card Trick

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

Cover art: the backs of three playing cards; the game title is in cursive above the cards

Groover’s works are dark and delicious, and this one especially so. You are Morgan the Magnificent, the esteemed magician. Last year, your two-card tricks granted you the favour and popularity from the most influential, wealthiest patrons.

Now, however, a rival has emerged: ostentatious, flashy Ivan, and his three-card trick. Now is your chance to regain your rightful title.

Despite a carnival-like setting – one often associated with summer and fun and play – there is an unsettling undertone (why would you need guards around a group of magicians?) which hints at higher stakes than are initially stated.

Highly polished both in style and substance, Three-Card Trick once again features several parser tricks which enhance its delivery. Text is doled out to control pacing; directions are highly simplified, similar to What Fuwa Bansaku Found.

It’s a delicate balancing act Three-Card Trick does. It remains one step ahead of the reader, through to the end; yet, the required actions are hinted with sufficient contextual clues – one is unlikely to get stuck for too long – to give the sense of player agency.

Spring Thing 2017: brevity quest

By Chris Longhurst. (Twine; IFDB; play here)

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Cover art: two white stick figures on a black background, one with a pole, one with a sword

A RPG in the barest sense of the word. You choose a class. You encounter characters and go places, each narrated within the space of one line. The brevity of each passage belies a very broadly branching decision tree. In fact, given how widely stories could diverge, I found the narration of your choices in the end to be a nice touch. brevity quest makes liberal use of familiar tropes and creatures, making the reader’s imagination take up most of the storytelling slack.

Several games share the text-sparse, location-based mould. A few which come to mind: The Tiniest Room, vale of singing metals or even burning temples.

What makes these worth having a look at are how they simplify foreign terrains, diplomatic moves and combat into the sparse language they use. I found pleasant small surprises, at times, when the game (brevity quest, but the others as well) showed me that it wasn’t just branching blindly – it remembered the decisions that I made. Of course, this is technically very easy to do, but satisfying nonetheless.

Worth playing if you want a time cave RPG with sparse prose.

Four Sittings in a Sinking House

By Bruno Dias, entered in ECTOCOMP 2016. (Ink; IFDB; play here)

[Time to completion: 15-20 minutes; this game doesn’t work in Google Chrome]

Right. Yeah. The whole island was sinking, really. I say island because that’s the official term, but if we’re being honest it was more like a pretentious sandbar.

On a house on this sinking island, you perform sittings to uncover memories and, by so doing, figure out what went on in the house. Four candles flicker in the background of your choices, each one going out as you perform a sitting.

In this self-described “barroom back fable”, the narrator is cynical, jaded. I got the sense that they, like the titular house, has put their glory days behind them, though having never played into cheap dreams peddled by cons,

You can perform tasks in roughly any order, but you have to uncover all available bits of memory to really figure out what’s at the heart of this house. Not to give away the plot, but what’s happening in the sinking house reflects the island itself: a place that free market forces took over, yet was chewed up and discarded when it lost its value.

Bruno’s writing belies a keen eye for detail. The house’s fallen state shows through its faded, garish fittings; the hypocrisy of the promises that were sold along with the house, in its sterility. Four Sittings is a satisfying, polished tale of urban magic, with the same sort of seriousness as, say, American Gods.