Map

By Ade McT. (parser; IFDB)

[Time to completion: >1 hour]

[Content warnings for mentions of abortion, implied child death]

In Map, you play a fed-up housewife in a subtly mutating house. Space, here, is used to reveal memories. As the reader learns more about the PC, the more the house expands to accommodate that, and each new room offers a chance at atonement. Just as space moves non-linearly, time creeps strangely. If you know Pratchett’s metaphor of the Trousers of Time, or think of decision-making as creating forks in a timeline – it’s very much like that. Just as the PC can enter new rooms in the house,

The themes in this game reminded me of Sara Dee’s Tough Beans, or, a more recent example, Cat Manning’s Honeysuckle. All of these feature female protagonists who have been dutiful and responsible doing what was expected of them until they were all but forgotten, until some catalytic event drives them to change.

In Map, the protagonist is much less involved, on the micro level. The rooms you discover let the player relive key decision-making moments in the PC’s life, but once you enter a moment, you can simply wait for it to get to the only choice you have: a binary yes/no choice. Without this, though, the game might have swollen to an unmanageable size, so the limited agency is more strategy than anything else, and on a conceptual level, this does work – how many times have you wondered what would have happened if you’d made a different decision?

The scope of this game is narrow and deep, delving into the emotions underpinning life-changing moments and distilling these moments into a fork in a very personal timeline. Some bits went way over my head (the rubber plant, for instance), but overall it was an ambitious, thoughtful piece.

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The World Turned Upside Down

By Bruno Dias. (Parser; IFDB; play here)

[Time to completion: 10-15 mins]

A New Year’s Eve offering from Bruno Dias, set in the same world as Cape and Mere Anarchy.

When I played this for the first time, I had barely played the games referenced here, so why did it appeal so much to me? It’s something about being a refuge from chaos, a safe place where those who put things right can rest – for now. The characters are weary, but at peace.

Its size and scope are kept deliberately small: the verb set is pared down to three verbs; the setting, to one room. But that one room suggests an entire world – one the player gets to know through its people rather than its locations. For a New Year’s Eve story, The World Turned Upside Down doesn’t point so much to hope for the year ahead, as it does to the fixing of past wrongs.

Disclaimer: I identify, to a frightening extent, with one of the characters.

Wedding Day

By E. Joyce. (Parser; IFDB)

An Ectocomp game with the name of what is usually a joyous occasion gets the ominous mood started early. In this short game, you are preparing for your wedding day, and everything about the preamble suggests reluctance, hesitance; it is immediately clear that this is no consensual union. The wedding is a matter of practicality, as many are, and this affair was the best you were going to get.

The author’s light touch with world-building is not unlike watching a theatre backdrop: sketched out with just enough details for the reader’s imagination to fill in the gaps. Of course, this treads the line between minimalism and under-implementation, and one might argue for the description of this or that.

Like The Unstoppable Vengeance of Doctor Bonesaw (to compare ECTOCOMP to ECTOCOMP), Wedding Day seems at first to have a single path laid out, waiting for you to walk it. But the parser effectively masks the second ending hinted at in the ABOUT text, which gave it satisfying depth for a game with a carefully limited scope.

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.

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.