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IFComp 2017: Summary and Mini-Reviews   Leave a comment

Voting has closed although as of this writing results have not been released for the 23rd running of the Interactive Fiction Competition.

I did “full” reviews of 18 games, which I’ve linked to below. I have added 6 more games to the list which I didn’t do a full review of (mainly because I didn’t finish the game or at least didn’t feel like I was “done” yet) and I’ve put mini-reviews of those games below.

Highly Recommended

10pm by by litrouke
Guttersnipe: St. Hesper’s Asylum for the Criminally Mischievous by Bitter Karella
Harmonia by Liza Daly
Unit 322 (Disambiguation) by Jonny Muir
The Wand by Arthur DiBianca

Recommended

AND WHEN I SQUINT IT LOOKS LIKE CHRISTMAS by Norbez
A Beauty Cold and Austere by Mike Spivey
Black Marker by Michael Kielstra
Bookmoss by Devon Guinn
The Cube in the Cavern by Andrew Schultz
Day of the Djinn by paperyowl
Deshaun Steven’s Ship Log by Marie L. Vibbert
Queer In Public: A Brief Essay by Naomi Norbez
Salt by Gareth Damian Martin

Not Recommended

1958: Dancing With Fear by Victor Ojuel
A Castle of Thread by Marshal Tenner Winter
The Fifth Sunday by Tom Broccoli
Haunted P by Chad Rocketman
a partial list of things for which i am grateful by Deon Guinn
The Richard Mines by Evan C. Wright
Run of the place by WD\x{1F479}K
TextCraft: Alpha Island by Fabrizio Polo
Ultimate Escape Room: IF City by Mark Stahl

Mini-Reviews

1958: Dancing With Fear by Victor Ojuel: Possibly the greatest setting / premise of the entire competition (you’re in a Caribbean country during a revolution, the game is framed around it being a 50s era movie) but I got bogged down by the parser and had to use a walk-through for nearly every action. There’s a “THINK” command which is essentially a built-in walk-through but I think the main game could use some more nudges. Probably the one most likely to bump up a level if the technical issues are resolved.

AND WHEN I SQUINT IT LOOKS LIKE CHRISTMAS by Norbez: The closest I played to a straight CYOA-book style experience. Written for children; maybe a little too much on that end for adults to completely enjoy. (“Wizards are real?! I think to myself, trying not to say it out loud. Just like in my fairy-tale books?!”) Still a solid yarn in general, although I want to stop for a brief rant about the font. It uses OpenDyslexic. I know people try to be well-meaning, but the idea that OpenDyslexic helps with dyslexic readers is not backed up by science: see this 2013 study, or this more recent one from 2016. Dyslexia is not in the eyes, but in the brain. The best thing you can do for a dyslexic reader is maximize readability in general; as a bonus, this will make things easier on all your other players too.

Bookmoss by Devon Guinn: A story about entering books through magic moss. I kept worried there would be some horror element but everything stayed pretty light. Good with afternoon tea. Could probably use some more substantial characterization.

Day of the Djinn by paperyowl: Your sister has left you a curse, and your goal is to break it. This is an adventure game in Twine and it suffers the typical-to-Twine issue of reducing what should be gleeful discovery into Just Clicking Stuff. Still, this is very solidly made and has potential to bump up to Highly Recommended once I check more of the endings.

Deshaun Steven’s Ship Log by Marie L. Vibbert: You steer an underachiever on a space ship; the story is told through his diary entries after the action happens. I felt like I was bouncing around at random like one of the crazier choose-your-own-adventure books even though there clearly was some undercurrent of agency, but I was never able to figure things out. It was funny enough that this didn’t really matter to me, though.

Guttersnipe: St. Hesper’s Asylum for the Criminally Mischievous by Bitter Karella: Super sharp characterization, as “Lil’ Ragamuffin, the roughest toughest urchin” tries to escape a brainwashing asylum. I love the companion sewer rat Percy (who went to Oxford, who in addition to being a fun conversationalist can read things for the illiterate main character). Unfortunately I also got very stuck with the puzzles once things opened up, and I’m worried the design might have some flaws later.

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Posted November 16, 2017 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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IFComp 2017: A Castle of Thread   3 comments

By Marshal Tenner Winter. Finished on desktop using Gargoyle.

This parser game is technically standard-issue fantasy, but still has a cool premise: you are one of the few people who speak the obscure language Ixteesh, and due to your talents you have been invited (for mysterious regions) to the distant town of Badushizd.

Polt-
Don’t be a damn fool while you are away from the village. Remember, you are representing House Kober. Also, be sure to stay near Venkath Mock. He is there to protect you on this errand.
As for that, when you reach Badushizd, seek Deviah at the Vulgar Unicorn tavern. She is the go-between and will take you where you need to be.
Be swift in this task and return home safe, son.
-Headman Phandaal Kober

The opening has you on board a vessel bound for your destination when you find a note slipped under your door that says you are in danger.

This is ambitious: there’s all sorts of NPCs to interact with, including major action scenes where they try to kill you. Unfortunately, the technical demands here exceed the author’s capability; each NPC has only two or three things to say, and it’s fairly easy to run into issues that break the solidity of the world. (Get used to seeing “There is no reply.” quite a bit if you’re not using the walkthrough.) The puzzles are difficult enough that it’s unlikely a player will simply zero in on the right solutions, but there is very little helpful feedback when taking the wrong approach to things.

Even when you have the right solution the parser can be a struggle. Here’s two examples:

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted November 6, 2017 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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IFComp 2017: Salt, a partial list of things for which i am grateful, Run of the place   1 comment

Salt by Gareth Damian Martin. Finished on desktop.

a partial list of things for which i am grateful by Deon Guinn. Finished on desktop.

Run of the place by WD\x{1F479}K. Not finished.

A triple review! These happen to share a minimalist vibe, although they don’t share the same levels of quality.

Salt places you in the water, swimming to the sea, in a lightly-defined fantasy universe (lightly defined enough everything might be going on in the player character’s head).

Text is displayed in short spurts of 12 words or so at most. You start “above the water”, where there is no interativity other than to wait as messages slowly go by.

The beach is a strip of heat.

You stand knee deep in the water, facing out to sea.

Familiar voices shimmer behind your head.

You take a breath, and then begin.

The main interactivity after is to “swim”, which involves hitting the space bar. The space bar needs to be timed, however; there’s a meter that moves inward, and to get maximum swim distance you should hit the button the moment the meter goes away. Wait too long and the swimming ends.

Turquoise…

…impossibly tuquoise…

…and warm, like no sea you’ve known.

Every once in a while you can make a choice by picking “up” or “down” but for the most part these are for flavor. The fact you can end swimming at any moment does lend itself to more agency than it initially appears. (I have a suspicion there are at least three endings and possibly more.)

The atmosphere (and music) are solid enough this is definitely worth the 15 minutes or so it takes to play through once, but of course I have a few quibbles:

a.) Even 15 minutes is possibly too long, given the interface; I went from interested to immersed to irritated from having to press the space bar every second in order to keep reading the underwater text. I could easily see a player having trouble altogether and quitting early. Perhaps an “accessibility mode” would help (one where you can just switch swimming on or off at will)?

b.) There’s a high pitched whine when going from underwater to above-water. For people with sensitive ears it is painful. The game recommends headphones; I recommend not using headphones.

c.) There’s not enough clues to really get a handle on who the PC is, who the other figures are, where this sea is located, and what’s really happening to the PC. This is clearly Intentional, but that’s also literally the entirety of the Plot, so I found it too vague to be fully pleasing.

d.) The above-water message speed was slow enough that I found myself doing chores while the game was playing, which is a definite sign the message speed could be bumped up a little.

a partial list of things for which i am grateful is a quite literal title. This isn’t some story where a list is included, or an ironic work where no such list exists. This is just a list of things.

You navigate from one thing to another by clicking one of the letters of the previous thing. The links are essentially at random so there is no agency. This isn’t even like one of the McSweeny’s lists where there’s humor or a story arc involved; this is just stuff the author likes, given in random order. Entered into an interactive fiction contest.

>> deep breaths << I guess I can, er, write about how it holds up as a list?

I've done this before with non-fiction entered into the contest, and what was essentially static fiction, but I have no idea what sort of aesthetic values to even use here. I guess, as an activity, it’s nice to reflect on good things. I get the “private game” vibe and I gather there might be lots of meaning here for the author and people who know the author. This doesn’t do anything for me, though.

In Run of the place, you pick one of 6 vague options (shown above) and then are treated to a random cavalcade of text by holding down the space bar.

That’s it. You hold the space bar, text keeps going. You let go, text stops.

I never ran into any “racist language” but I easily believe there might be some. The text appears to be scraped from somewhere and mixed up in a random generative sense. I’m curious what the source was; it reads like Twitter filtered through a madman-crazy writing style like The Time Cube.

I guess if you’re into that sort of thing, you can put on some space music, set the window to full screen, put a rock on your space bar, and zone out for a while. However, I don’t think free-form political ramblings are the healthiest thing to do this to.

There is a timer that goes for 2 hours exactly. I have no idea if something special happens at the end. I’m not curious enough to know.

Part of the now-gone Time Cube website. Via Know Your Meme.

Posted November 3, 2017 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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IFComp 2017: The Wand   3 comments

By Arthur DiBianca. Played to completion on desktop.

Arthur DiBianca has, for multiple years running, entered IFComp with puzzle games that use a reduced parser. That is, a parser that only understands a small subset of possible verbs; for example, in 2014’s Excelsior, it was direction commands, examining, and the USE verb.

The Wand starts off with a similar set, but very quickly changes things up to disable USE entirely. (Even though this happens early on, I don’t want to spoil what happens – let’s just say I went from apathetic to very interested in a short time.) All interaction is done via a wand, that can be set to different spells using a three-color system.

You can SET a sequence of three colors on the wand like this: SET RED GREEN BLUE.

To save typing, you can abbreviate using one letter for each color like this: SET RGB. To make it even shorter, you can just type the three letters: RGB.

There are ten colors. In reverse alphabetical order they are yellow (Y), white (W), red (R), purple (P), orange (O), green (G), gray (A), brown (N), blue (B), and black (K). (Note that gray, brown, and black do not go by their first letter.)

As one might expect with a wand, this is generic fantasy: you’re supposed to make your way through obstacles in a castle and gather enough new spells (things like “levitate” and “fire”) to escape. In a way, the presence of spells makes this the most expansive verb list Arthur DiBianca has ever used, since each spell is a verb of sorts. The lack of ability to TAKE things means even the simplest of activities gets turned into a spell-related puzzle.

This might be his peak in this style; every puzzle was reasonable to solve. The prose was nothing remarkable but it was clear and clean, and even with some complicated mechanics I found the entire game polished and bug-free.

I still say “peak” insofar as while I don’t think this sort of game can get much better, I felt like something was lacking. This is, after all, retro: come solve puzzles with essentially no plot or characters of interest whatsoever. There’s not even enough substance to call it setting-as-backstory. It’s possible there’s some essential mystery I missed (one about why this scenario is happening in the first place is vaguely hinted at) but even an after-story would be missing the point: I found myself craving something more during the game to grab onto.

Posted October 30, 2017 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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IFComp 2017: 10pm   1 comment

By litrouke. Played on desktop to completion.

10pm involves a short conversation between you, a 12 year old boy named Bird, and their “parental figure” named Ty.

Bird ostensibly does not speak. You communicate using icons.

The icons are metaphors for Bird “signing”. This slight remove from normal conversation is the most compelling part of this work. I felt the tingle of being inside someone else’s head. Multiple signs have particular meaning, so not only do you need to consider a response, but how to say it. While the prose of Ty’s responses isn’t impressive in any way, it does read like natural dialogue. (All apostrophes are omitted but that’s clearly a style choice; I admit one I never got used to.)

One extra element makes 10pm worth replay: the background and world setting are slowly hinted at as being abnormal. I’m going to avoid spoilers here, but deciphering how Bird got where he is and what he has to go through took me a couple tries (not onerous; it’s a short work, about 10 minutes).

Posted October 24, 2017 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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IFComp 2017: The Cube in the Cavern   7 comments

By Andrew Schultz. Finished on desktop using Gargoyle.

Andrew Schultz, as has been his tradition going since 2012, has entered a pure-puzzle parser game in the competition. To be clear, even though there is a bit of a setting, and even an established main character …

Why, you eschewed a lucrative career as a psychic for, just, well…knowledge. And when your dowsing instruments detected something odd in a cavern, you were curious indeed! A cube lay beyond a river, and you’re lucky you had your assistant to pull you back, because somehow, you felt pulled towards the center! Your assistant tied you down so you could explore briefly, and YOU WERE ABLE TO WALK UPSIDE-DOWN.

… it’s safe to say these details are essentially irrelevant. Unlike Andrew’s other entries going back to 2012, this isn’t a word-puzzle game. It isn’t even a math-puzzle game, really — more of a visual-spacial one. If you think that’s an odd choice for pure text, you’d be right.

You’re standing on a cube, where you can travel to any of the six sides, and gravity pulls you towards the center. Additionally, each side of the cube consists of a 3 by 3 region, with a beacon and 4 transponders on each side.

This boils down to basically two puzzles. I’m going to first discuss them in a non-spoiler sense, then switch to rot13 mode for some more specifics.

Generally, the main issue for me was: a.) visualizing the thing and b.) navigating the thing. I never could get the hang of cube navigation (see the “cube compass” above) and even near the end I just guessed the correct command and used UNDO if I guessed wrong.

Visualizing was also fairly critical, and it wasn’t until I drew a fully-labeled 3D cube on paper that I understood what was going on. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but prepared if you play this to spend the first half of your game just making a thorough map. (The materials come with one, but I found looking at it confusing and even if you use it you’ll need to add labels to many of the rooms.)

Some more spoiler-laden observations in ROT13:

Gur svefg chmmyr unf lbh zngpuvat genafcbaqre pbybef gb fvqrf. Guvf nfcrpg jnf snveyl fgenvtugsbjneq rkprcg gung fbzr bs gur genafcbaqref qba’g jbex. V arire jnf noyr gb svther bhg n cnggrea gb guvf, ohg V jnf noyr gb trg nyy gur pbybef naljnl. Guvf jnf qvfnccbvagvat va gung V gubhtug gur aba-jbexvat genafcbaqref jnf gur vagrerfgvat cneg gb gur chmmyr.

Gur frpbaq chmmyr unf lbh gvr n ebcr naq yvax vg guebhtu ghaaryf va gur pragre. Guvf cneg sryg cerggl hazbgvingrq, nygubhtu vg jnfa’g hafbyinoyr, naq V sbhaq univat gb qrny jvgu gur culfvpf bs gur ebcr vagrerfgvat. Ubjrire, gur tnzr-raqvat qvq srry zber yvxr zntvp guna gur erfhyg bs zl uneq jbex.

Posted October 23, 2017 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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IFComp 2017: TextCraft: Alpha Island   1 comment

By Fabrizio Polo. Played on desktop. Not finished.

There ought to be a compact word for “I did something that checks off the things I’m really interested in theoretically, but turns out to have major issues which I found intractable in practice so now I am sad”.

TextCraft: Alpha Island is a parser game written in Java. The main character is fulfilling a bet that they can survive alone on an island for 7 days. The game is simulationist (tracking hunger, thirst, and sleep), in real time, and includes a crafting system.

I did not have a good time. This excerpt of me trying to set my shorts on fire gives a fair mental impression:

The issues:

1. The parser is highly restricted. I know “limited vocabulary” parsers are all the rage but that only works if your set of verbs is small and sensible. This game isn’t that: it has a medium-sized list of verbs, but no synonyms. The result (for instance) is I made a lean-to shelter, but then spent 10 minutes trying to enter it. I had to look up spoilers (it’s GO IN SHELTER).

2. Related to issue #1, I found a water bottle I wanted to fill with the falling rain from the first day. I never did figure out the syntax to do this. I consequently died several days later. Note this isn’t an instant-loss either — it’s a protracted death by dehydration, where you start to get exhausted and need to sleep every few turns.

I don’t know if saying I’m energized three times in a row is a bug, or intentionally indicating I got some sort of super-sleep. Four moves after this I had to sleep again.

3. There’s no regular save, only auto-save after the conclusion after every day. Died late in the first day? Start over. Stuck in a “dead man walking scenario” like in point #2? Start the game over.

4. The example things that you can craft are a sandwich, shelter, and hat. This does not give an intuitive direction as to what’s on the available list — it’s pretty limited and you can go through many, many unrecognized words before finding one the game likes. Even given that, you’ll probably miss something essential, like I did with “trap” …

>craft trap

If you want to craft a conical basket fish trap you will need something you can weave.

… and no, the first thing that occurs to me with the word “trap” is not “conical basket fish trap”, which I never even knew was a thing. Also the game doesn’t give any indication there is any animal life on the island; in fact, the only way to see a fish I could find was to catch one.

That’s not even getting into the fact the craft system syntax is highly finicky when it doesn’t need to be. You have to put items in the exact order the game wants. If you get a single preposition off the game won’t accept it. This is the sort of behavior I’d expect from an early 80s parser, not a modern one.

5. There’s a plot which includes the main character remembering things about his/her friends as time passes. They are giant walls of text, but time passes while you’re trying to read them; the best option is to PAUSE after every long chunk of text. I didn’t get that far in the plot (kept dying) but what I did see was so tangential and irrelevant to the idea of island survival I found it a distraction.

I think it’s possible to make a good game with this system, but this one isn’t it. In order to fix it: First, the parser needs to be a full parser. Highly limited works as a parser, but this isn’t that, nor would this game in particular work with that. Second, although it’s possible the plot came together somewhere, it needs to be something more relevant to the actions of the character. I really don’t care about some friend’s computer company when I’m dying of thirst. Third, there needs to be a lot more “teaching the system” going on with what works in crafting. It shouldn’t be necessary to check the game’s wiki to find out what’s possible to make.

Posted October 20, 2017 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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