Eighty!??!

IFComp 2017 is now live! 

Some context: IFComp is one of the biggest interactive fiction competitions of the year, and generally attracts both the most attention and the largest number of participants. This year, we have a whopping seventy-six eighty games!

As ever, I will have a go at playing as many as I can. I will be playing from my personal shuffle*, with priority given to shorter games. The school term has started, so there’s no telling how busy I’ll get – but IFComp always unearths some incredible gems, so I’m looking forward to this!


* If you have an account (which you need to vote anyway), log in, and this should give you your very own personal shuffle.

 

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Sigil Reader (Field) post-mortem

This was my first entry into the IFComp, and I’ll be honest: ideas for improvement proliferated as the comp went on and as I read reviews.

This game started as a purely exploratory game (like Staying Put), and Inform 7 remains one of my favourite tools for creating spaces. To get people to explore these spaces, though, I needed a story. The first thing that occurred to me was something along the lines of ‘something terribly wrong has happened here, you need to figure out what’, which… tends to be my go-to. For some reason.

A lot of what I learned from the reviews (and from my beta-testers) was basic storytelling and writing principles, and a few of these are highlighted below. There is much I have yet to learn.

The good:

  • setting
    • There are what I hoped would be distinctly Singaporean/Southeast Asian flavours to the setting (the calendar, the pickles), with an extra layer of weirdness (the rabbit skull).
    • There were comments that it had a definite sense of place, which was what I was angling for.
    • However, an office space suggests routine and mundanity – not great for a game! Sigil Reader didn’t allow players to do sufficiently un-office-like things (I’m thinking of Michael Gentry’s Little Blue Men and Arcane Intern (Unpaid)) to make the setting an efficient starting point for an urban fantasy story.
  • Juxtaposition of the urban mundane with the ~~magical~~ stuff.

The bad:

  • SPAG and technical errors
    • I should have done much more proofreading. That is all.
    • There were a handful of synonyms that I didn’t anticipate, and added on in an update early in the comp.
  • Links between objects the player needed to interact with and story progress
    • This game makes frequent use of events which were triggered by changes in stats (which themselves change when the player examines or does certain things). When these were announced to the player, they seemed incongruous: the event seemed unlinked to the action that triggered it.
    • I’d say this is due to poor signposting – a failure of communication.
  • Lawnmowering
    • Some players complained about having to go through every room and comb through objects, in a bit to find the one which would unlock the next part of the story. Again, this was a failure of signposting.
  • Ignoring the most novel thing about this game
    • The sigils, that is! Days before the deadline, this was only 10% implemented, and I realised that this would most likely involve designing a few new puzzles, something I struggle with.
  • It was hard to establish emotional stakes
    • The PC is emotionally very attached to Station 31, in no small part because the staff of the Station see each other all the time, but it was hard to communicate this to the player, especially since there were barely any NPCs, so the PC never gets to act out these relationships.
    • We meet the PC as a ghost, so at the start of the game the PC has no influence over the fate of our co-workers or the setting; the PC acts purely for themselves.
  • It was hard to signal progress to the player
    • I used a numeric indication in the status bar, showing three domains in which the player could grow in knowledge (namely: the PC’s relationship with their colleagues, the PC’s knowledge of the past and the PC’s knowledge of sigils.) I found this distracting, though, and didn’t want it to lead to lawnmowering. Not that removing the numerical progress markers changed things…

What I learned:

  • the importance of signposting – it took lots of ironing out from beta testers to figure out ‘blind spots’, or spots where I’d expected the player to read my mind. I fear it may have become too obvious in parts.
  • There is an extraordinary demand for puzzles in parser games. Puzzles are a way to gate story content, but here I did not intend for them to part of the appeal of the game; I wanted the appeal to be the revealing of memories. But then there were reviews from what were obviously experienced parser players who were unsatisfied with the simplicity of the puzzles.

Plans:

  • Sigil Reader (Field) suffered for its under implementation (despite everything!) so… either set parameters clearly, laying out what is unimportant to the player and testing, testing, testing.
  • Link important objects to events so that it’s clear how the player’s actions are affecting the game world and their progress
  • Letting the player >INSCRIBE and >INSPECT
    • I want the player to be able to play around with the sigils; the PC is, after all, the only one in the station who knows how to handle these with dexterity
  • Greater customisation of playthroughs depending on the PC
    • I liked the idea of having multiple, distinct set PCs to add flavour to the experience, but this wasn’t implemented much in the comp game.
  • Creating puzzles and making them flow is still something which unreasonably puzzles (ha) me. I’d like the puzzles to make sense in the context of the story. A bit of reading is in order…

TL;DR: made some silly mistakes, post-comp version will probably take much longer than expected!

Tapes

By Marras (Twine; IFDB; play here)

[This game depicts (pixellated) nudity and sex.]

Tapes is a linear work about, as the author states, sex and disability. At its centre, though, it is a close-up look into a moment of intimacy. Both characters are shown naked in the game art and they hug-wrestle, but this is not sexual intimacy. This is emotional intimacy: about showing vulnerability to a loved one.

The exact disability from which the PC suffers is never really stated, but from context, we gather that the PC experiences painful muscle spasms which are relieved by kinesiology tape. Is the name important, though?

The sole two reviewers on IFDB (as of this writing) express their distaste at the linearity of this game, but it might be worth having a think on Linear IF, or dynamic fiction, is becoming increasingly accepted. Dynamic fiction borrows the structures and conventions (e.g. second person narrative, platforms) of branching IF to enhance storytelling, either through visual text effects, or by inviting the player to participate in revealing the story step by step. Tapes veers toward the latter, with the game art in each passage illustrating the dialogue.

Tapes is a sweet, peaceful vignette of an intimate moment. Play if you like linear, dialogue-driven scenes and 8-bit art.

The Role of Music in Your Life

By Five Dials, in collaboration with Present Plus. (Custom CYOA; IFDB; play here)

The Role of Music in Your Life is, on first glance, an odd thing: a questionnaire? Seriously? Is this really IF?

The Role of Music in Your Life expands out into a dialogue-driven, minimal story about an anxious mother and her kid. The character development is handled deftly, especially when the kid in question speaks up, forming a good foil to his mother’s perspective. Telling this story through just dialogue raised the possibility of an unreliable narrator, which gave a sinister edge to the mother’s lines.

I was disappointed to find that, despite the choices, the story doesn’t actually branch. It would have been satisfying, or at least fun, to see how different answers to the personality quiz-type questions affected how the mother treated the PC. Nonetheless, this minimal piece of CYOA has some very clever writing and a delicious use of unreliable narrator. I enjoyed it.

Now Play This 2016

I went over to Somerset House today to look at the exhibition at Now Play This, an event which, as I understand it, is part of London Games Festival. There were lots of interesting ideas and implementations, big and small.

Some notable things I saw:

I spent more time than intended playing Daniel Linssen’s Wibble Wobble. It’s your usual platformer-type game, but with a constantly shifting ground, so that what is safe sometimes becomes unsafe, that waiting too long in the same place can kill you.

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I hugely enjoyed the Darkroom, which played with light and shadow. Pippin Barr’s Game ideas were there, as was Larklamp. This was a two-player game with lovely world-building (that’s not just a lantern, that’s a glimmerlamp, and it wants to tell you things…). The lantern – whose slides can be changed out – forms the board, and rotating the lantern allows you to project different patterns of shadows. The gamemasters (or facilitators) tied the whole thing together, by giving meaning to the pieces and their patterns.

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Two games played with the idea of different ways of marking your achievements: Action Painting Pro by Ian McLarty and Inks by State of Play. Both had similar ideas: your movements are represented as paint streaks, which you can then view after the game is over. I didn’t get to play with Inks (there was a kid absolutely killing it) but Action Painting Pro was surprisingly addictive.


A special mention for Blackbar by Neven Mrgan & James Moore, a fill-in-the-blanks epistolary game set in a dystopia. As dystopias go, this checks the Stepford Wives-esque enforced cheeriness and the omniscient police tickboxes, but the idea was definitely very interesting. Certain words in the letters you read are censored, and you have to guess what those words are. I guess one way Blackbar could have been better was rewarding player effort. Some of the words that were blacked out were relatively innocuous (so why were they censored again?), and some were terribly hard to guess. Even then, I got into the story quite quickly and would have played more if I hadn’t gotten stuck.

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In the same room as the IF were books on game design and otherwise related to games – Charles Stross’s Halting State was there (!), as was one of Anna Anthropy’s books. They’d set it up with cushions and nice cushy places to curl up and read or play board games.

There was also a very NSFW game, Cobra Club by Robert Yang, in which you’re sending, well, nudes to random internet strangers, with a customisable avatar. It seems to involve guessing what the stranger wants and adjusting the avatar’s body accordingly. People were generally amused.

Her Majesty’s Trolley Problem

By Buster Hudson (Parser; IFDB)

This game was one of the games submitted for the Neinth Annual New Year’s Minicomp.

You are the first mate on HMT The Problem, ferrying your prisoner back to the Queen.

Her Majesty’s Trolley Problem has a richly built setting, reminiscent of China Miéville’s Railsea. Like Railsea, trains replace ships, and the land uncovered by rails holds deadly monsters. This game has the same feel of exploration and the same assortment of fancy lingo, which are here significant plot points.

What struck me was the way HMT Problem used the setting on a train, coupled with timed events, to provide the pacing very naturally. HMT Problem also uses locations as scenes, making the game much more story-based rather than location-based.

The game’s core decision-making points allude to the thought experiment the trolley problem, with complications added in each time the problem re-iterates. The parser format, working as it is in a constrained story universe, works to drive in a sense of ownership for the awful choices the player must make. The game tempers its otherwise grim tone with comedic moments – when you accidentally jettison equipment off the trolley, for instance, though it gets unexpectedly gruesome toward the later half.

HMT Problem is a wonderfully well-built game, with gorgeous, evocative writing and a solid story.

 

Photograph: A Portrait of Reflection

By Steve Evans (Parser; IFDB)

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(Cover art: a square framed photo of an ankh)

Photograph is a melancholic, sometimes dark, walk down memory lane. It is a highly story-driven game; playing it fleshes out the PC as a person with lots of past regrets

The memories that the PC recounts to us, the reader, are all about his past relationships, yet the PC is crushingly alone, both physically and emotionally. The PC’s memories are frequently tinged with regret, yet the narrator’s resigned tone kept the game from sinking into navel-gazing angst. I was also very pleased at the way in which the PC’s memories took on weight in the ‘real’ world.

Photograph is a more open-ended work of IF, in that you can explore the PC’s memories in any order and revisit them at any time, though certain events must be triggered to progress in the story.

Well-characterised, contemplative and well-implemented, it’s no surprise Photograph did as well as it did in the IFComp and XYZZY awards.

Out West

By veoviscool12. (Twine; IFDB; play here)

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(Cover art: 8-bit rendering of a sunset)

You’re a hardened bounty hunter, the toughest this side of town, and you’re riding in the sunset when you see a figure. And that rarely means good news.

The writing in Out West is elegant and spare, which suited the setting. I thought there was a little too much reflection- thoughts which could be

This game was oddly coy with the action. Every time action is promised, there are numerous little pacing devices to distance the player from the shoot-enemy-and-move-on action that one might expect from a Western. No, instead of letting you blast enemies, it takes a more reflective pace, reminding you of Ma’s sayings. The contemplative air felt at odds with the sense of urgency that the game was trying to create, though it worked in the later half.

Out West features lovely pixel art and adds to the tone of the story. The game is well-thought out and I enjoyed the writing. It certainly gives a nice dark slant to the classic Western setting, but there were things that irked me, which I can’t discuss without spoilers. Continue reading “Out West”

Starry Seeksorrow

By Caleb Wilson (as Ayla Rose) (Parser; IFDB)

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(Cover art: pale green, cabbage-like representation of the damage caused by a weevil)

Klara has fallen asleep in her parents’ charmed garden – no, not asleep – but catatonic. This is surely the work of an enemy sorcerer! As one of the dolls enchanted to guard and protect Klara, it is your duty to find you what’s wrong and reverse it.

Starry Seeksorrow is delightfully charming in its writing – the flora featured are given descriptive, sometimes whimsical names linked to their function (reminding me of Caelyn Sandel’s Seeds and Solutions). Yet, there’s a sinister overtone: a good number of the plants you encounter are harmful. I would have loved to explore the flowers’ abilities further, and explored the different ways they could be used, but that is likely beyond the remit of this game.

The puzzles in Starry Seeksorrow are well-hinted, with the systems behind the puzzles behaving consistently. But the memories that the PC carries add a much greater emotional depth to the story, fleshing the story out to something that could be placed in a wider fictional world, as well as shaping the setting as a result of its creators’ personalities and pasts, instead of being merely ‘magical cute garden’.

Starry Seeksorrow doesn’t play with the parser as much as in Wilson’s other works (I’m thinking of The Northnorth Passage (IFDB) and Lime Ergot (IFDB), specifically), but it’s nonetheless a great piece of writing.

Howwl

By Tipue. (Choice-based web interface;  IFDB; play here)

[Warning: this game contains sometimes unexpected descriptions of death and gore.]

You wake up in a North London flat, unable to remember how you got there. Tottenham is devoid of people. It’s time to go.

The game is initially a lot about exploration. There isn’t much of a clear goal, but as you explore, it’s clear that something very bad has happened. The game never makes it clear what you’re aiming for – perhaps a vague attempt at safety – even to the end.

Howwl is written with a vaguely Twine or Undum-like format, where you click links to progress.The links suggest what would be common actions in a typical parser game – taking inventory, inspecting objects and so on. The layout is attractive and neat, in which links add to a growing transcript which can be scrolled back. Header images mark changes in location. You can create an account to save your place in the story, but given that the scope of the game, as it stands (I played Beta 0.81), isn’t too long, you might not need this.

Howwl aims for the gritty urban apocalyptic atmosphere in its abandoned buildings and filthy interiors, and does it quite well. You never get to see the source of ominous (and sometimes uncomfortably human) noises. You stumble over unexpectedly gruesome sights. The writing style is detached – is it resignation on the PC’s part? Hopelessness?

I found the PC to be way too generic to give the reader a stake in how the story progressed- not that you get to make many significant choices, anyway; the author’s method of removing options if they’re not necessary makes it impossible, for example, to escape a certain place or to explore more buildings than the author intended you to.

Some mildly spoilery stuff below the cut.

Continue reading “Howwl”