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.

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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.

 

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.

Spring Thing 2017: Niney

I’ve missed the entire Spring Thing season for examinations, so I now belatedly arrive at some reviews.


Niney by Daniel Spitz (Parser; IFDB; play here)

Niney’s main mechanic is simple: you are a passenger on this mysterious train, destination unknown, and you must assume different roles for the sake of your fellow passengers. You are all things and none of them.

I found Niney’s language intriguing; the identities that the PC assumes are frequently phrased in terms of postures – “the one who gazes ahead”, say – or attitudes – “the one who is weak”. Assuming these postures doesn’t just change how NPCs respond to the PC, but even the PC’s internal state.

The characters in this game are loosely sketched, like a quick and dirty pencil drawing, as is the PC. The PC is truly a blank slate, ignored by NPCs unless they are somehow relevant, having barely any persistent character traits. This works if you view the game as an allegory, which ties in with the dream sequences.

I felt that parser worked well here, allowing the author to hide how the player’s abilities change with scenes.

However, what is demanded of you is not always clear; I found myself force-fitting identities more than once. The language also tends toward the flowery, especially in its descriptions of emotions. Greater succinctness and more distinctive imagery could make Niney really stand out.

If you enjoyed the metaphor-wrangling here, you might like Simon Christiansen’s Patanoir (IFDB; Steam), which likewise takes metaphors literally, but with a stronger framing story.

Now Play This 2017

Now Play This is an exhibition of unusual, experimental games, some of which were specially commissioned. This year’s spread of games were much less focused on text, unlike last year, but there were nonetheless intriguing little gems. The following pictures highlight some of the things that caught my eye. Last year’s post can be found here.


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Impossible games, games still half-formed, were exhibited in the Library. It was a delight to see Nate Crowley’s (@frogcroakley) game ideas – one thousand of them he’s written, and some of them were printed on slips of paper, arranged first in a grid, until they piled up in a corner. There are so many. Some bonus news: Nate’s working with Rebellion Publishing to produce an art-heavy book featuring the game ideas, and part of the proceeds will go to Zoological Society of London, to support frog conservation!

The Library also featured Becca Rose’s Bear Abouts, one in the unusual controllers category. It’s a story of a bear going on a journey, played on a tablet, where placing different physical props on the tablet screen produced different results. The game is still in development, but the possibilities are intriguing. Could you send out props as ‘feelies’? Or send people the conductive paper and magnets for them to make their own?


The Window Room played with mirrors and was overall a quieter space in the hubbub of Somerset House.

A GAME FOR ONE PLAYER: DECIDE ON A YES/NO QUESTION TO ASK THE WORLD; THEN STATE IT OUT LOUD. WITH CLOSED EYES, KNOCK YOUR FIST ON THE PLINTH THREE TIMES, THEN CIRCLE YOUR HAND OVER THE PLINTH THREE TIMES. POINT. OPEN YOUR EYES. DON'T MOVE. WHEREVER YOUR POINTING FINGER IS REFLECTED, THAT'S THE ANSWER TO YOUR QUESTION.
Game instructions written on a mirrored plinth, with the aim of finding an answer to a yes/no question

Game instructions were printed on mirrored plinths. Some were basically divination rituals; others were cooperative games.

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Top view of above plinth: a plastic tile reads “please rephrase the question”

Some of the answers the plinth provided were less than helpful… In divination, after all, the burden of interpretation falls on the participant, and interpreting the results you get is part of the gameplay.


Dead Pixels, by Tatiana Vilela dos Santos and Olivier Drouet, is a multiplayer game in which players moves their avatar around to ‘claim’ territories on the screen. The catch: contested territories become dead pixels, which belong to no one. This unexpectedly got me thinking about how conflict scars places and things and people, and how it’s so often not so much about the territory gained itself, than about power.

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Dead Pixels in action

10000 Years, by Heather Robertson, explored a topic which fascinated me when I first read about it – the design for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, a design meant to keep people away for ten thousand years – for the radioactivity in this place will make it deadly long after the last person forgets about it. The blurb for 10000 Years puts it well: “We can never truly escape the consequences of our actions.” The protagonist in this game is from the future, then, and only incompletely understands the significance of the symbols. The symbol for radioactivity, for example, is a sigil resembling an angel. Is it redemption, then, of a sort, for beauty to reveal itself, even in such cruel environments?

Danger seems to emanate from below, and out of the Keep in the form of stone spikes-- The shapes suggest danger to the body... wounding forms-- They seem not _
Picture of game screen, because I couldn’t take a screenshot. It looks more… post-apocalyptic this way

The graphics, here, are really ASCII characters. Interaction reminded me somewhat of Kitty Horrorshow’s games – wander through a barren land, discover notes left for you.


The Letter Room featured Aïda Gómez’s Joy is Here, which turned the entire room into a wordsearch. What struck me was how, faced with such an open invitation, some people created their own rules.

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Walls turned into a blackboard, with letters written at regular intervals; people have chalked circles around letters to form words

I love Burly Men at Sea so much. Pastel illustrations; a charming, fairy tale-like story (and, for me, easy to use controls…), creatures from folklore… displayed alongside the game were physical representations of a possible path through the story.

Page of a book in the sun - there is a pastel-hued illustration of three men with round beards, all soft edges and round shapes. There is story text above the illustration, too small to read.
Page from one of three books displayed

Another charming, peaceful one was Sandcastles by Patrick Smith, a touchscreen game in which pulling upwards creates a pleasingly geometric sandcastle. It’s hard to get it ‘wrong’, and whatever you do, it’s washed away in the tide seconds later, so it’s forever a clean slate. This is one I could envision as an idle game. This was also pretty hard to film… but here is a GIF for your viewing pleasure.

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General impressions

Now Play This felt more crowded this year. More people? Smaller space? I don’t know. While I’m happy the games appear to be reaching a larger audience – an audience which might not otherwise know about these games – the crowd made it hard to really get into any of the games, not with five other people standing around watching you play. On the other hand, though, watching is perhaps also a form of participation,

I appreciated spaces and rooms which invited players to another world. Last year, it was Larklamp that so captured my imagination. This year, there was the Haunted Room, in which you play with hand mirrors to capture spirits. There was some technical wizardry involving a projector and mirrors, but unfortunately the room filled up so quickly that I couldn’t squeeze in to find out what was going on.

There were lots of children, especially at the Library, playing with the unusual controllers.

Above all, though, the games featured in Now Play This overwhelmingly have a sense of playfulness, of whimsy, of exploration. While people clamour for bigger worlds and more complex stories and better simulations – while people constantly seek more, more, more in their games, I welcomed the invitation to come in, stay a while, and explore small, self-contained worlds.

Liminal spaces

Liminal spaces are spaces characterised by transition and impermanence: bus stations, waiting rooms, airports. The first few days of the year often feels the same way to me. All I seem to see is retrospectives and forecasts: forever looking back and looking forward, because the year hasn’t quite got its footing. It seems appropriate, then, to highlight one such game which occupies a similar space.


Bus Station, Unbound, by Jenn Ashworth and Richard Hirst (IFDB; inklewriter; play here)

[Time to completion: 45 minutes. Some branches may describe violence]

You’re going home for Christmas, for the first time in years, if only to make up for all the damaged relationships you’ve had over the years. But the snow is coming down hard, and your next coach is likely to be delayed.

The authors describe this substantial, large work as primarily an interactive novel, but it works as a vaguely open-world exploration as well. There are lots of optional ‘side quests’ and characters with whom you can interact; exploration opens up different endings and storylines.

But this is built on an emotional heart, reflected in the parallels between the PC and the building. The location’s brokenness reflects the PC’s own. The shoddiness of the building itself, the glitchy machinery, the inertia of the buses, even the irritable, argumentative NPCs: aspects of these are reflected, in some way or other, in the PC’s own relationships with their family and in their own life decisions. Perhaps even the liminal nature of the bus station – a space characterised by transition and impermanence – reflects how the PC stands on the cusp of something new.

The theme of symbolically rich buildings, buildings as containers for ideas, is not a new one. This idea, for instance, is taken more literally in Bruno Dias’s Four Sittings in a Sinking House (IFDB page). In both, the titular building reflects brokenness elsewhere: it is the PC themselves in Bus Station, Unbound, while it is the owners’ material worship in Four Sittings.

Something else I enjoyed in reading this were the contrasts and almost-contradictions in the bus station’s ‘characterisation’. It is described in ways that sit uneasily with each other. It is at once a “monstrous waste of money”, but also a structure of “pale concrete petals”, “heartlike” in its action. The storylines invite comparison between Preston Bus Station’s mundanity and terror, human warmth and mechanical coldness. You might run across bus station staff, whose roles are entirely expected, almost boring; or you might stumble into an abyss which would not be out of place in Failbetter Games’s Fallen London.

Bus Station Unbound is pretty word-heavy, and it deserves the title of ‘interactive novel’, but there is a lot in here to explore.


Another game worth mentioning, even if I have not yet collected my thoughts regarding it, is Bruno Dias’s Not All Things Make it Across, a collection of short vignettes drawing from his previous works, including the aforementioned Four Sittings in a Sinking House.