IFComp 2015: Recorded

By Nick Junius (parser; IFDB; play here)

 

An escape game – well, in a loose sense of the word – where you have to get out from a series of surreal, weird rooms. The overall feel of the game reminded me of Mateusz Skutnik’s Submachine games, especially the more abstract ones. Unlike Skutnik’s Submachine, though, the rooms in Recorded lacked an overarching theme, or a repeating motif – something stylistic which would have made it clearer that this was the work of one entity/being/person, and ultimately created a stronger storyline.

One problem is that there’s not much in the way of story, or puzzle. What story there is is delivered through cryptic messages, though they often felt more like flavour text – purposeless, and not hinting much at what the story was. I felt like this opportunity to build a distinct NPC had been wasted, and it’s a pity.

As far as I can tell, there was one puzzle, and it was of the ‘pick up this object and put it there’ variety. Not exactly the most inspired of puzzles, unfortunately, and it was not very clear to me how to trigger the appearance of the object that I needed to solve the one puzzle (I used the walkthrough).

Recorded has the beginning of what might have been a very interesting concept in the game, but it might have gone way over my head, or it was never developed.

IFComp 2015: Pilgrimage

by Víctor Ojuel (parser-based, play here)

You are on a pilgrimage. Where to? It is uncertain.

I had mixed feelings about this game. On a micro scale, there is enough to make it infuriating, things which shouldn’t be there. On a macro scale, though, Pilgrimage is about the search for home and making things right again. 

What I liked about this game was that the scale of travel in this game suggests sea voyages every time you go in a compass direction, painting the game’s geography in broad sweeps instead of tiny intricate detail. This was fitting, as the PC travels across the world, so giving a general, though evocative, impression of different countries worked better than focusing on tiny details.

Pilgrimage is structured in small scenes, typically set in a particular country. By solving a puzzle or doing the ‘right’ action, you get to the next scene, and so on and so forth. The challenge, then, is figuring out what the action is; this was not always intuitive.

When travelling, the people you meet for such a short time sometimes seem themselves to be temporary while you are the only permanent thing you know; so it is with Pilgrimage. The NPCs in this game are little more than tools to solve a puzzle- was this a good thing or bad thing? I’m not sure. It made sense that the PC never formed any long-term relations with anyone. 

In the end, I relied on the walkthrough to bring me through the game, and I have to say that not worrying about getting lost or putting the game in an unwinnable state let me focus more on the writing – location descriptions is definitely one of the author’s strengths.

There were small niggles which would have infuriated me if I had not had the walkthrough: it has several implementation slips characteristic to parser IF. There is some confusion between definite and indefinite nouns when taking inventory and when you manipulate objects (“In boat is sailor.”), which made the prose read weirdly. The synonyms the game accepted (for objects) could be more extensive. Messages when I take objects are triggered whenever I take it again, instead of only when I take it the first time – which produces quite amusing messages without context. For a normal release, this would not have left a good impression. As an IFComp entry, even less so – but Pilgrimage is redeemed by its broad arc and quite lovely writing.

IFComp 2015: Taghairm

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By Chandler Groover. (Twine, play here)

Before I say anything else, I would like to give a warning that this game depicts violence (specifically, animal abuse) in a way that you may find disturbing. Please, be warned and really do avoid it if that upsets you in any way.

Taghairm is a dark Twine game with a brutal, sparse way of words (see quote). The writing is purposeful and builds atmosphere well – it implies a lot from very little. It suggests the ghost of a storyline: something (or somebody) has been lost, and this… this that you go to your cousin’s field to do, is the only way.

You can see them moving in the firelight
although they’ve long since stopped crying.

It took months to gather them all.

What moved this game from linguistic beauty to visceral horror, though, was the emotional stake. The game punishes the player at first for wanting to disagree with what the NPC is doing by not allowing the story to progress, and by having an NPC who dismisses your misgivings. 

There is a key decision-making point at a certain repeating routine which essentially allows you to choose what outcome you want. The more brutal path ends up showing the toll of the ritual on the PC and the NPC. It never returns to the context in the beginning, the reason why the PC did this in the first place: perhaps, in the search for something – your heart’s desire – you lose everything else, and you lose everything that made that desire so worthwhile in the first place.

Is a game ‘bad’ because there’s no good ending?

IFComp 2015: In The Friend Zone

by Brendan Vance. (Twine, play here)

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This Twine game plays on the oft-repeated phrase ‘friend zone’, using it as a literal prison for Nice Guys. It brands itself as a horror-parody ‘in the tradition of Franz Kafka’, but I’m not sure Kafka could have topped this level of bizarre imagery.

What is by far the most distinctive thing about this game is its writing and mythos, really. There are apocalyptic scenes galore, and Lovecraft inches his way into each scene. It feels like the game Neka Psaria. It feels like a slimy version of Stross’s Rule 34. It feels like some kind of regional gothic, made interactive. This game reads like Porpentine… kind of, with more effigies and less cyberpunk.

The story appears to be set in an elaborate mythos with Priapus (in its original form, a Greek god of fertility and protector of male genitalia) worshipped as a kind of malevolent deity.

It’s no surprise that there’s sexual imagery throughout, though the imagery seems less erotic than violent. There is also quite a fair bit of violence, though at that point it felt more abstract than visceral. This was partly because the targets of the violence were nameless and, for all purposes, not distinct.

Apart from that, I found it hard to get my bearings. The way to progress through the game isn’t really clear – you start off naming a person you’re looking for, but exactly what has happened to that person is very unclear. It made it frustrating for me, half because I kept ‘walking’ in circles, half because I didn’t know how to advance the story.

Nevertheless, Vance’s writing is sound. It never veers into Lovecraftian purple prose, despite its influence, and putting aside my misgivings, this is an able piece of genre writing.

EDIT: linked to Vance’s (er, I presume) tumblr.

IFComp 2015: The King and the Crown

by Wes Lesley. (parser-based, play here)

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You are a king in this short little game, and your duties include listening to the cries of the people, giving advice and occasionally invading France. But before that, you have to find your crown and scepter.

True to the blurb, this game has self-deprecating, irreverent humour in buckets. For example:

>x cabinet
An intricately decorated wooden cabinet strengthened outside and in with a cage of the strongest steel in the world. This is where you keep the Royal Crown.

And, sometimes, also snacks.

This game brands itself as a one-puzzle, short game, and indeed, strictly speaking, only six actions are needed to complete the game itself. The author has, however, implemented little bonuses for those who poke a little more at the game, so it’s equally fun – if not more – to try and explore and uncover some of the game’s secrets, including the traditional references to other well-known IF games and pop culture

The humour sometimes backfires, though; the custom parser error messages start out cute at first but quickly become annoying. The parser could definitely be more comprehensive, especially for ambiguous references to nouns. Not a bad play- slightly silly and unsubstantial, but that’s completely excusable.

IFComp 2015: Grandma Bethlinda’s Variety Box

by Arthur DiBianca. (Parser-based; play here)

This game is an exploration game, where the terrain you explore is not spatial, but rather comes in the form of a toy. You’re supposed to interact with the toy, and there’s a dedicated command for that, presumably to spare the player the ‘guess the verb’ puzzle. In fact, the verb list in this game is very limited, which I suppose is the point, to get the player focusing on the box. That’s a new thing, and in this game I guess was handy.

For some parts of the game, I felt like I was zooming in to one tiny portion of the box and didn’t have peripheral vision – having to type commands separately sometimes gets tedious. 

But the problem is that the box and its components feels generic. As a player, my motivation for interacting with an object in-game is usually to solve a puzzle to continue the story, and I must be invested in the story. But Grandma has little to entice the player into spending time to poke buttons and turn knobs, and I felt it could have directed the player more. 

Maybe I didn’t play with it enough. Maybe I wasn’t doing it right. I’m playing it with the walkthrough at hand, and I’m having a lot of so that’s what was supposed to happen moments. There’s a lot more interaction in the later parts, though how you unlock it remains opaque to me.

IFComp 2015: Switcheroo

by the Marino Family (Undum; play here)

Switcheroo is part 3 in a series of ‘living books’ meant for children. In this one, you play Derik, who wakes up one morning… as a girl*.

Switcheroo does have the look and feel of a storybook, and it jumps straight into the whole ‘living book’ business, with plenty of alliteration and the narrator getting all chummy with me – one of those things which I tend to label as ‘things which adults think children like’. It strikes one as being very much the work of a well-meaning, though slightly condescending adult. There are some issues with inconsistent use of pronouns and perspectives (switching between second- and third-person narrative doesn’t leave a very good impression).

* This is not a progressive game. The author(s) invoke every possible cheap stereotype about small girls. Pink? Yeah! Of course a girl can’t possibly ever like sports, they must like ponies and boy bands! It’s the law! What was the point of that? It just gets… well, I hesitate to say better, but you choose an outfit, like the dozens of ‘girls’ computer games’ in which you play dress-up. Worse still, the game tracks how ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ you’re behaving by comparing you to fictional characters. Seriously.

The discussion continues below with spoilers.

spoilers ahead:

… Oh wait. There’s racial stereotypes too! What kind of children are expected to read this?! What’s this card game doing in the middle of nowhere?

It’s a pity about all these details, because it detracts from what it could have shown about foster care. IF, by making the player assume the role of a character, can be a powerful tool to foster empathy and/or understanding, and this is something which, I think, Switcheroo didn’t quite capitalise on. While I don’t know how accurate the depiction in Switcheroo is, there are some details – the Almosts, for example- which, if accurate, could have been revealing. 

The game is also technically sound, with mini-games embedded in the game proper. There’s a card game, for instance, with its own mechanic. There are woodcut-like illustrations. There are, however, variables which don’t seem to get used (Poem Powers? The heck are those?) – a vestige from earlier drafts? A miscommunication? Who knows?

Also, I still don’t get the point of comparing the PC to a character. The narrative character, Derik/Denise, already seems to have a fairly lengthy backstory and inner landscape, so what does the player have to do with this?

IFComp 2015: Seeking Ataraxia

By Glass Rat Media (play here)

Google tells me that ‘ataraxia’ is a ‘lucid state of profound tranquility’. The blurb tells me this is about anxiety and overcoming it. 

You are basically an anxious PC, living with a laidback housemate; many of the situations are mundane ones, yet the way in which the author plays up commonplace things and creates disaster scenarios makes them feel (rightly? I am in no position to say) like a minefield. The pacing of the game (i.e. you can only perform a certain number of actions within a ‘day’) also emphasises that the PC has limited energy for things.

This game uses graphics and other effects rather well. While the images for each screen were just that bit too big, the PC’s intrusive thoughts, shown by pop-up windows, were well-portrayed.

Some last words about the ending, which are spoilers, so under the cut we go!

you ok with this?

really?

okay, let’s have it

I felt the ending was a letdown. It wasn’t fulfilling. I didn’t feel like I’d conquered something, or come out of a challenge having learnt something. It would have been more fulfilling if the final action taken by the PC was something which directly addressed one of the earlier anxieties or worries. Something which required the PC to test how far they were willing to trust their therapist’s advice and step out.

This is a game with a good heart, though it could have gone much further.

IFComp 2015: Forever Meow

by Moe Zilla (play here

At first glance, this entry uses a Twine-style format, but with support for other keys (press any key to advance and all that) – something like how Ren’Py does it. This takes out some of the physical hassle 

One niggling problem is that there’s no aim. If this was an open-world exploration game from the point of view of a cat, cool, but there must be some kind of aim for exploration. In Soft Food and Snack Time, it was food. In New Cat, it was a name. But here? What’s my goal of exploring? We’re cats, remember, we’re not supposed to get up unless there’s a reason for it. Also, if it was just aimlessly wandering around, then what is there to satisfy my interest? The environment in which this cat PC inhabits seems singularly dull.

This game also suffers from what seems to be a common problem with animal-PC works: describing the unfamiliar. Our cat doesn’t have names for devices, so why does it have names for units of measurement?

I will admit that I really didn’t have the patience to play through, so I’m leaving it for now.

IFComp 2015: Arcane Intern (Unpaid)

by Astrid Dalmady. (Twine; play here)

The title hints at something mixing alchemy and words like ‘eldritch’ and ‘esoteric’ with mundane stuff (ahem introcomp ahem), and having played Dalmady’s previous work, I admit I come to this game with expectations.

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The game hits the ground steeped in the context: symbols from what I think is the Key of Solomon, and the language used in modern-day internships.

You’re aspiring to get into book publishing, and of course if you want to go down that path then internships are the way to go. It’s just that this Precantatio Publishing seems a little different…

Dalmady’s writing is able and smooth. She uses visuals in this Twine game minimally, though attractively.

The game is divided into sections using a to-do list as a kind of progress marker – which is kind of ingenious, really. Despite the title, there’s plenty of variety in the intern-like activities and plenty of things to inspect and explore. The story branches at some of the choices – something which isn’t immediately obvious – but once you figure out how to get to the branches, the new story paths are quite satisfying.

Well-written and visually attractive, Arcane Intern (Unpaid) lives up to its title.