ECTOCOMP post-mortem: A Friend to Light Your Way

Background: this game was submitted to ECTOCOMP 2016, where it placed 5th in the Le Grand Guignol section (which was for games which took more than 3 hours to produce) (5th, out of 5; it came last). 

This game is playable here


The idea of doing a game set at a Singapore-style funeral has, pardon the pun, haunted me for the longest time. The Chinese-style funerals I’ve been to have been swung between festive and sombre: it is most festive when the catered dinner has arrived and the guests are coming and going, and it is this atmosphere that has left the deepest impression on me. It was almost as if nothing had happened.

This game was originally meant to be a conversation-based game where you could wander around different tables and chat with the various guests at the funeral. Conversation was meant to reveal something unsettling about, say, the deceased or about your parents. As one does. This lent itself well to a world model, but wasn’t terribly easy to implement.

To get something out by the ECTOCOMP deadline, I changed the premise entirely, instead having the PC run around to get things – and what better reason to get things than to complete a ritual? If I ever get round to a post-comp version, I might put more thought into the ritual itself, though. This ritual seems too benign. The stakes are too low to properly consider it horror.

I enjoyed creating the appearance of the voice, messing about with CSS and such. The voice and the ending was inspired by The Uncle who works for Nintendo. Unfortunately, A Friend lacked a lot of Uncle’s tension: the stakes for not completing the ritual in time were pretty much non-existent, for one.

Still, though, it’s my first time creating such a world model in Twine, and I was glad to finally get this off my back.

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!

Introcomp 2016: Bestiefone

By Rob and Mark (Meanwhile Netprov Studio) (Ink/Unity)

Game title screen
Enter a caption

Game’s title screen: winking emoji and game title over a closeup of someone’s hand opening a phone cover

The premise: your phone system’s started talking to you, and the chipper, more youthful Bestiefone is at loggerheads with prim, utilitarian SYSTEM. I am fond of this premise. The tone between the two is nicely contrasted.

Bestiefone is technically polished: it’s written in ink and Unity, and functions as a standalone app. There was some attempt at a skeuomorphic interface, though one is tempted to contrast this with A Normal Lost Phone, which really commits to the impression of a smartphone.  Bestiefone’s focus is not to simulate a phone. Bestiefone’s – and the in-game narrator’s – focus is on communication.

Game text - Don't buy, it User! They pretwnd that SYSTEM is the same as me. But it IS NOT! SYSTEM is just algomathed and datadriven. However whereas, I -- I am artificiamatically intelligenced!
Game screenshot

This game has not reached its most user-friendly state yet, though: there’s no way to fast-forward the text appearing (as with Ren’Py), and I don’t seem to be able to switch over to other windows once I start up the app. I’m not sure if this is a bug or if it’s intentional.

The narrator’s writing style may put some off. It harks back to a time where z’s replaced s’s with abandon. It sometimes feels over the top. The narrator is impulsive, mercurial, but lonely and ultimately well-meaning. For me, though, what made it hard to continue playing was the lack of direction and interaction. It seems ironic that you can’t interact with the one part of the App which wants to talk to you, where instead I was expecting some space for me to explore or interact in a more open-ended way.

Still, Bestiefone strikes me as being terribly good-natured and quite earnest. Given some direction and more for the player to do, I think this could be good.

Introcomp 2016: Astronomical Territories Of The Great British Empire

By G_G (Quest). This is an entry in Introcomp 2016, a competition focusing on game introductions. I participated last year.

Written in Quest, this is set in London, and begins on the banks of the Thames. There are nods at a colonial empire, and something about stars. Or, more precisely, a “clouded planet”.

I’ll just say it up front: the ending is far, far too abrupt. There is no inkling of plot, barely a whisper of setting. And that’s a problem in Introcomp, because to get the reader invested in the story, you’ve got to make them care about the situation or the characters, and there’s too little in this introduction to do either.

As I slowly realised during my own experience in Introcomp 2015, setting alone will not work. Setting is passive; it is characters – people – which bring it to life.

I accept that I may well have missed some way to unlock further story; I will say that my play through ended when I decided whether I wanted to go to Trafalgar Square or the Houses of Parliament. However, some things I’d have liked to see in this game in general are:

Elaboration about the setting, particularly addressing the hook in the title about astronomical territories. This is a great hook. While we’ve seen plenty of games – heck, we’ve seen plenty of fiction – set in London in its various guises, a British empire which controls planets in outer space? Steampunk? Oh, yes, please!

Some explanation of the narrator. In some games, figuring out who the narrator is is part of the game. But here, there was precious little sense of direction or purpose without anything like that.

I’m a sucker for settings like these, don’t get me wrong, and I usually enjoy walking around fictional London as much as I do the real London. But there’s very little to work off here for me to really say I want more.

Even Cowgirls Bleed

By Christine Love. (Twine; IFDB; play here)

Time to completion: 5-10 minutes

It's the usual story. You're a big city girl with a closet full of fancy dresses but not a whole lot of sense, and lately all you've wanted to do is trade in your lonely winters for some real adventure. Well, consarn just wanting, you say!
Screenshot of first screen

You are a city girl, seeking thrills and spills out West. You gather your petticoats, get yourself a gun, and get on the next coach.

Turns out, though, that being out West isn’t quite what you imagined…

This game makes extensive use of mouseover effects (this is replaced by the normal touch on mobile), which makes moving through the story very fast. Your only interaction with NPCs and objects is to shoot them, and (on PC at least) having mouseover replace clicks means that when you, the player, interact with anything by touching it, you destroy or maim it. There’s a moment where this is especially brilliantly handled, where you can only ever destroy, regardless of your best intentions.

The writing is witty and self-aware. The PC swaggers into a bar, only to be snubbed by the bartender for ordering a bourbon on the rocks; the PC’s bravado has her shooting everything in sight, but this gets her told off by the woman she’s fixed her eyes on.

The story’s surreal overtones are buoyed by the PC’s initial idealism – there’s something in shooting everything in sight which doesn’t strike true for me – so your mileage may vary. I’m sure there’s something deeper to it, but, for now, I really just see it as a strange riff on tropes in Westerns.

Eclosion

By Buster Hudson. (Twine; IFDB; download to play)

Time to completion: 10-15 minutes (your mileage may vary)

Three cycles since fecundation. The pharates can taste our thoughts. Their pupal minds yearn for mothers’ milk.

You are sending commands to a parasitic, insectile entity, and there are a number of steps it must complete before it can successfully parasitise the host. Your task, then, is to figure out the correct order for the steps. By turns icky and sinister, Eclosion fits well in the Ectocomp

The puzzle is aided by informative failure messages, but even then, I took many turns to figure out a vaguely correct sequence. There is no question of error.

The writing in this game is deliberately wielded as well: the language is florid, like that favoured by Lovecraft, but terse; a tally of the casualties (or the pharates you fail to guide to eclosion) reminds you of the consequences of your clumsiness. This is body horror the way I like it.

XYZZY nominee: Hana Feels

By Gavin Inglis (Twine; IFDB; play here)

Time to completion: 15-25 minutes

[This game contains discussions of self-harm/self-mutilation. Please exercise discretion.]

Hana has been acting unlike herself lately. Can you find out why?

We, the player, see Hana’s feelings through the eyes of four different people. Each is meant to play a supportive role in her life, but their different personalities means that their support can express itself in very different ways. The catch: the only thing you can control is what other people say to Hana. Some of the NPCs would have been self-centred had we only been able to see from Hana’s point of view, but being able to play through their perspectives – and seeing their doubts and awkwardness – made them much more sympathetic, even when they say things which would be frankly hurtful.

Hana’s journal entries provide immediate feedback about your conversational choices. I found myself wondering how I could optimise outcomes for Hana – or, indeed, if it was even possible. But there’s something to this, isn’t there? No matter our intentions, our words of comfort can so easily be interpreted in the exact opposite of what we mean.

Depending on the branch you end up getting, the overall tone of Hana Feels could be either cautiously optimistic or achingly sad. Despite occasionally getting to experience Hana’s perspective, she remains distant; we can only ever reach her indirectly, through the filter of other people.

Hana has been nominated for Best NPC in the XYZZY awards, a fact which delights me, even if I’m never really sure what makes an NPC ‘good’. The most I can say, though, is that the emotional investment the PCs pay into their interactions with Hana pays off. Each character reacts believably and sensitively to what the other says. A comparable game would be Hannah Powell-Smith’s Thanksgiving or Aquarium, in which conversation is fraught and intricate as a dance.

Hana Feels ultimately deals with some weighty stuff – Hana, after all, has to deal with a lot and she doesn’t always do this in a healthy way – but there are areas of levity, and perhaps even hope.

13 Minutes of Light

By Jod (Ren’Py; IFDB)

viewgame.jpg
Splash screen: the title of the game on a maroon background

Time to completion: 20-30 minutes

You play Jack, whose girlfriend Elizabeth has left for Mars for a position teaching anthropology. Constrained by cost, the only means of communication you have with her are the letters, and each takes three months to arrive. Three months is a long time…

The gameplay reminded me of First Draft of the Revolution, with the epistolary format and the way branching is achieved. 13 Minutes of Light introduces a wider story arc of political unrest and social inequality to contextualise the relationship, contrasting the content of the letters with snippets from a mockup of Reddit’s /r/mars.

I particularly liked Elizabeth’s development from anthropology graduate to (Spoiler – click to show). This game also plays on the uncertainty and tension that comes with such a restricted form of communication as letters: how do you know what the other party really means?

There are some bits which could have been improved to make 13 Minutes of Light more enjoyable, one of which was a feedback system I didn’t understand. The game tells you which parts of the letter go off well, which don’t and which are mysteriously relevant to the story. This felt out of place with the theme, given that we are told (repeatedly) how long letters take to be delivered – and whose point of view are these from, anyway?

13 Minutes of Light could maybe stand to be aesthetically more pleasing, but it still represents a solid example of epistolary branching IF.

The Domovoi

By Kevin Snow (Twine; IFDB)

viewgame.png
Cover art: view from the inside of a dark hut

Your friend is a storyteller, and she’s polishing her latest work about a domovoi, or protective house spirit, lingering in a guttered hut. You are her audience.

The Domovoi is a game about storytelling. Like Whom the Telling Changed, you get to influence events in the story, but where the PC works against an antagonist in Whom the Telling Changed, here the story is a collaborative work. Your friend may express doubt or satisfaction at your choice, and the PC’s perspective outside of the story in the making allows for in-universe commentary. The unnamed NPC in Domovoi has her own views, after all, and if you suggest something with which she disagrees, she will probably slant the story to include that, but make her feelings known.

This game is also a pleasure to play, not least because it is styled attractively. Like Beneath Floes, it features illustrations that set the mood and whose colour schemes demarcate changes in perspective.

Perhaps true to oral tradition, the story you help to tell can vary between play-throughs, depending on the choices you make. The game didn’t dwell on the meta aspect much, though, focusing instead on the meat of the story.

In summary: The Domovoi is an introspective work which taps into Slavic folklore, with a lively NPC and a story within a story. Recommended, if nothing else than for its luscious illustrations and sound effects.

Spring Thing 2016: Evita Sempai

By Florencia Rumpel Rodriguez (Twine; IFDB; play here)

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Cover art: sepia-tinted close-up of a smiling woman with coiffed hair, head on her hand

Evita Sempai centres around one woman’s adoration/love for Eva Perón, who was the first lady of Argentina from 1946 to 1952. It is told in a series of episodes from the narrator’s perspective, centred around encounters with Perón.

This game has social relationships at its core, but where other games allow us to manipulate our position in those relationships, the narrator of Evita Sempai already has a predefined position in her social circle. Dropping the player in all these relationships in medias res felt a little disorienting at first, but it also helped to flesh out a fully-formed protagonist who was not only in love with Eva Perón, but also a sister, daughter and breadwinner.

I went into this game without any knowledge of who Eva Perón was, but it’s not strictly necessary. Context will certainly explain the later events in this game, and perhaps explain other NPCs’ reactions to the titular first lady.

I found the narrator’s relationships with NPCs difficult to follow initially, but this is really a minor quibble. Evita Sempai is neatly styled, with changing backgrounds highlighting the transitions between sections.

I am a sucker for local detail and this game does a nicely subtle job of it, even though (to my memory) city and place names are almost never mentioned. Evita Sempai explores a real-life setting not often found in IF, which is definitely something I’d like to see more of.