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.

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: 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.

Two reviews about exploring mental landscapes

I will be publishing review compilations of two (or three, if they’re really short) reviews at a time. These reviews have previously been published on IFDB, but here I try to group and compare thematically similar games.


All I do is Dream, by Megan Stevens (Twine; IFDB page here; play here)

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Cover image: someone playing the trumpet. We can only see their hands.

This game was written for IFComp 2016, where it placed 54th.

[Time to completion: 5-10 minutes]

This is a game about inertia. Every action you, the player, try to do is met with a refusal to do it: it’s too daunting, it’s too meaningless, it’s too disgusting…

Conceptually, it’s similar to Depression Quest, except that this game frames the PC’s life in relation to Evie, their – I can’t remember if it was explicitly said, but implicitly – the PC’s partner, or at least girlfriend. However, it’s very short, and it doesn’t give a huge amount to judge it by. I can see it being expanded out, though. Even if some readers might tire of inhabiting the body of a PC who’s tired all the time, the game as it stands makes me interested about, for instance, Evie.

I particularly liked this line: “You’re good at pushing things, mostly because you have to push yourself to do anything, whether it’s brushing your hair or getting a drink of water or going swimming with Evie. For that reason you’re good at pushing everything back in the closet.”

What really redeems it and lightens the tone of the game is how it ends on a hopeful note, which counterbalances the mood so far.


And we move from depression and ennui to grieving. They may be similar states of mind, perhaps, but grief, here, is given a very different treatment.

Eurydice (anonymous) (parser; IFDB page here)

This game was submitted to IFComp 2012, where it placed 2nd. It was also nominated for Best Story in the 2012 XYZZY awards.

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Cover image: an autumnal image of a lyre

In this midlength parser game, you, the PC, are mired in grief for the loss of Celine. Everything in the house, the initial setting, reminds the PC of Celine, down to the most trivial detail.

The setting, here, draws from the Greek myth, and is both used to elicit the PC’s memories and to create a sense of claustrophobia. Despite the social nature of funerals, the PC’s grief is so intensely private, that to share it with others would be an invasion, almost. The tone is bleak – actions are sometimes rebuffed with terse messages: “You’ve been better”; “You can’t remember anything important now”.

Unusual turns of phrase – the curve like that of a human spine; the baboonish chatter – make everyday settings seem strange, something highlighted with the reality-bending lyre, one of the most obvious elements borrowed from the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.

The game allows for exploration and is generally forgiving, except for the endgame, in which the player’s sequence of actions is crucial.

 

The Warbler’s Nest

By Jason McIntosh (Parser; IFDB)

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Cover art: a bank of reeds on a sunny day

Time to completion: 15-20 minutes

You are searching amongst the reeds for eggshells. If you believe the tailor, these are what you need to take back what is yours.

The Warbler’s Nest doesn’t immediately give up its story, but rather reveals it both through cutscenes and through environmental detail. This is aided by the mechanic, which is basically a treasure hunt. Given that this game is rather short, though, to reveal more about the story would spoil it. All I will say is that this game taps on faerie folklore and rituals related to them. It follows the interpretation of faerie folk as being intensely selfish yet bound by immoveable, arcane rules, which gives a quietly sinister air to the game as a whole.

Overall: understated horror is one of my favourite genres, and I really like how The Warbler’s Nest handled that. This is a gem of a short story, well worth the 20 or so minutes it takes to play.

Two tiny utopias

The TinyUtopias jam is a very informal game jam, first mooted by Emily Short in a Twitter conversation two weeks ago. Cat Manning writes about it here. It was envisioned as a jam for very short games which encapsulate a utopia – a world which was, if not perfect, then better. The existing games, if listed on IFDB, can be found here, and I will say here that I, too, submitted the morning after to the jam.


The Shape of Our Container is by Rocketnia. (Twine; IFDB; play here)

The Shape of Our Container is a peaceful, conversation-led game about lying in the grass with your loved one. Similar to the other tiny utopias, there is a broad sense of forgiveness and peace. Structure-wise, the game has a broadly branching time-cave structure, allowing large variations between play-throughs. This gives the impression of living many parallel lives, of the impression of time passing.

Container is definitely polished and has fairly high replay value. Short, tender and intimate.


Fridgetopia is by Mathbrush. (Parser; IFDB; play here)

Fridgetopia has been described by the author as “mechanically utopian”, in that it doesn’t necessarily sketch out a utopia per se: there is not much world-building here. But this is not a slight against the game. Rather than describe your interactions with a specific space or time, Fridgetopia instead gives you tools with which you can create your own world, to a certain extent.

Fridgetopia is very short, and perhaps not very polished. It reads as much as a coding exercise (albeit an interesting one) as a game, but it does hide at least one secret, which… let’s just say it deserves the label of ‘fridge horror’. Very clever.