IFComp 2016: Theater People   Leave a comment

By Michael Kielstra. Played to completion on desktop.


The stage left wing is your home away from home. It’s full of props that will be required onstage if the show ever starts. South is the left stage corridor, and east is that most glamorous of areas, the stage.

Mandy looks you up and down with the gaze she reserves for insignificant insects and junior tech crew members. “The curtain’s not going up. Find out what’s wrong.”

Theater People is a parser adventure game where, as a junior tech crew member, you are trying to help a play start. It’s fairly short; even with solving the optional puzzle I clocked in at somewhere around 20 minutes.

This could have been much nicer — the premise is solid, anyway — but the characters and puzzles were too barren to go anywhere.

Minor spoiler space ahead …

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The puzzles have

a.) A trivial fetch-quest chain.

b.) A bit where you have to SEARCH an item you can pick up, which is quite non-standard.

c.) A part where SEARCH doesn’t work but LOOK UNDER does.

(Could we just call a moratorium on SEARCH and LOOK UNDER and fold everything under EXAMINE? I could swear that was a trend at one point but I guess it went away.)

d.) One legitimately good (although morally questionable) puzzle that is also optional.

In general the puzzle sequence fails the “if we think of the narrative as a compilation of the player’s actions, is it a narrative anyone would want to hear?” test. This could have been amply made up for by livelier characters but they are essentially plastic robots with one or two responses:

> look lola
You have known Lola for a long time. She still won’t let you have a free drink, no matter how much you compliment her long black hair or her brown eyes.

> ask lola about lola
Lola ignores you pointedly.

> ask lola about me
“Why should you ask me about yourself? You tell me all about yourself without me asking.”

> ask lola about drink
“Your sweet talk won’t get you anything round here! No money, no drinkie.”

There was easily room for snappy dialogue, or witty social commentary, or just some old-fashioned feeling of realism; except for some smart aleck attitude in the player character all opportunities were missed.

Posted October 12, 2016 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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IFComp 2016: Night House   Leave a comment

By Bitter Karella. Completed using desktop on the web application.


nighthouse

Night House is the first “traditional parser adventure” I’ve played of the competition. It uses the Quest interpreter (see above) which means that there is an auto-map and the ability to click on important items and select verbs. A *very important* detail to share: if you play the web version of this without logging in to textadventures.co.uk first, you will not be able to save your game. Either log in first or download the Quest interpreter before playing. I do also recommend leaving on sound.

Night House is an atmospheric horror-fantasy. You play a child who has awoken in his house with the power out and the other family members gone.

You wake up with a start as a deafening thunder clap shakes the house. Your heart is racing but you lie frozen in bed, confused and disoriented. Where are you? What’s going on? All you hear is the steady patter of gushing rain against the roof above and the ragged wind rattling the windowpanes. After a few moments of blinking into the darkness, you start to remember. You’re at home, in your own room, in your own bed. You were having some sort of nightmare, but you can’t quite remember what it was.

This is out of the “slow build” school of horror, and due to what I’m fairly certain is an inability to die, the game is less about the jump-scare and more about the slow realization of what’s really going on.

I did enjoy myself through about 2/3 of this — the puzzles are tractable, and while the parser is fussy…

> in
You try to open the driverside door, but it’s locked. You aren’t getting inside unless you can find the keys.

> unlock door
I can’t see that. (door)

> unlock tercel
You pull out the spare keys and unlock the front drivers’ side door.

… the fact you could click on objects and get verb lists was enough that I got past issues quickly. (Still, would it have hurt to put in just a few noun synonyms?) While Night House uses the typical adventure-house architecture (including useless sinks and the like) there was enough world-building and tension I never was annoyed by it.

Then comes what is more or less the climactic puzzle of the game, which I’ll hide behind spoilers–

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The finale puzzle is to make a decoy out of a set of objects to do away with a monster-thing that’s been prowling the house. There were issues piled upon issues:

1.) It is first not obvious that the monster really needs to be done away it; it doesn’t actually threaten the player past a certain point and the end result is merely to get an item.

2.) There is a hint about what goes into making the decoy but the connection with the monster is extremely vague.

3.) Constructing the decoy requires moving an initial object in a way that must be done BEFORE making the decoy; I assumed (after my initial attempt at making the decoy failed) I was using the wrong item, but it’s just the game is incredibly picky about when things get started.

4.) Once the decoy is started, objects need to be placed in the correct order. There isn’t really a good reason for this.

The resulting combination of all 4 problems plus the parser issues that plagued the rest of the game made what could have been a glorious end puzzle very frustrating. I would normally have recommended this game “straight,” without hints, but I’m going to have to revert to “play, but with walkthrough in hand for the latter parts.”

Posted October 11, 2016 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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IFComp 2016: The Queen’s Menagerie, Mirror and Queen   Leave a comment

By Chandler Groover. Both played on desktop to completion.


I’ve never written a dual-review for IFComp before, but this works as a pair. I believe they’re supposed to be the same Queen? First–

Edward Gorey once wrote a work of interactive fiction. The Queen’s Menagerie feels like what he’d write with modern tools.

You are (or are at least controlling) a zookeeper in charge of feeding a host of monstrous creatures. The story is a jaunt from one cage to another, where you click and drag the entree of choice to each of the creatures.

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This prose is very good. There’s a nice balance between the minimal and the textured. I felt like there were no spare words.

Lanterns glow green with foxfire. Shadows glide behind bars. Creatures pacing. Let’s leave the lesser ones and concentrate on the prizes. No breath to spare. See to these locks.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t that sold on it as an experience. The only choices were to decide which food goes to which creature; I’m fairly sure it’s meant as a visceral gesture, like last year’s Taghairm. While I wasn’t a fan of Taghairm, at least I was moved in some sense. Here I was just bemused.


Mirror and Queen involves the titluar Queen with her magic mirror. It is interacted with via single words:

Cut a sparrow’s throat. Blood on the glass. O Queen, you consult your reflection again. Study the doubled details. Beyond the cauldron’s smoke, breathing blue fumes. Beyond the books that line the walls both within and without your mirrored room. Look closely and you’ll see what you’ve summoned. Look closely and you’ll see your image shift, bubbles behind the glass where the glassmaker’s art permitted this one crack to yawn as though it were a mouth. Words, words are what you want, and when you speak you will have words. What would you speak about tonight, O Queen?

Speak about: menagerie
Sparrow, magpie, bluejay, finch. Any bird will serve. Any bird has. You hold them in your hand. Sometimes they sing as though springtime were here. Music throbs in their throats and, when those throats are cut, their crimson voices drip onto the glass. They are better when they are killed young, before they ever learn what aging means. Mention another subject to discuss.

Speak about: death
Death comes to call, bidden or not. Throw wide your doors. Open your halls. Welcome it as you would welcome an ambassador. Install it somewhere private and provide it with what luxuries it would request. Freedom to walk the corridors. Souls at its disposal. What cannot be resisted should never inspire fear. Propose your next concern.

I confess to a soft spot for this format, given I used it in Renga in Four Parts. While the intent there was for every word to matter, Mirror and Queen has a dictionary that must be recognized for responses.

Speak about: torch
Your mirror knows what you would think, O Queen. Your concerns scatter but they must return to your reflection’s cracked center. Its crevice cuts your mind, permits your understanding to bleed out across the glass where you might study it with heightened clarity. Submit. These words would be your words could you but tame your tongue.

It recognizes a fairly wide range, but I did reach “you can’t do that” responses like the one above often enough the game played less like a conversation and more like arguing with a stubborn AI. In the context of this story, though, it was all part of the mimesis.


Even putting aside the interaction difference, I found Mirror and Queen more satisfying than The Queen’s Menagerie. I suppose it had more of a “point” to it? Not necessarily a “message” per se, but lurching more to art causing self-reflection. Throughout the interaction of Mirror and Queen there was the reflection of a deeply felt character, one with a clear and relatable source of anguish. The Queen’s Menagerie did not feel like it had characters at all, but more of a Mood, dressed up in gothic colors without a clear direction.

Posted October 11, 2016 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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IFComp 2016: Stone Harbor   Leave a comment

By Liza Daly. Played to completion on iPhone Safari.


A lot of web-based interactive fiction only play on mobile with, ah, difficulty, but this one I’d recommend mobile over desktop. This is nearly an “enhanced ebook” with very long periods of minimal interaction, and reads very well on a phone.

You play/read as Frank Petrio, a boardwalk psychic who inherited the gig from his mother. His routine is for ENTERTAINMENT PURPOSES ONLY, at least until a detective investigating the suicide of rich business mogul Alan Healey arrives and Frank discovers he has real powers.

So unfolds what the author calls a short story but I think in word count might strictly speaking be a novella. It hits many of the plot points of the typical crime story but the psychic element ratchets the experience on a different vector.

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There are some fantastic bits of character here, especially in the main character and the Healey clan. The excerpt above will likely remain one of my favorites of the competition.

On the downside, there were a couple bits where the plot flagged. I’d trim down a scene or two, plus I found a late fight scene confusing to the point I’m still not sure the full sequence of events.

I wasn’t sold on the interactivity. When it happened, much of it was to to pick an item that were then replaced by more descriptive detail. This is intended to simulate Frank’s powers of observation trained by years of being a fake psychic. In theory this sounds like an excellent blending of character and text but in practice I found it a headache to read and I had to reread from scratch every time some words changed.

Also, the interaction isn’t consistent. Sometimes you can (are in fact required to) click on every choice to move on, and sometimes there are choices such that after only one is picked the story moves on. I got frustrated not knowing what kind of interaction was happening next. I couldn’t get into the rhythm of it, especially given large chunks of text that were essentially “click random word to continue.”

Still, these glitches were somewhat minor and personal, and they don’t get enough in the way to block out readers: this is a solid yarn.

Posted October 3, 2016 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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IFComp 2016: Moonland   Leave a comment

By BillyJaden. Played to completion using iPhone Safari.


Moonland is a science fiction Twine game very much in the mold of Porpentine. I’d say a large part of the appeal is working out what’s going on, so I’m just going to say you are in love.

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The structure is designed to return to the scene above multiple times, each time with another method of branching. I’ve seen this concept a few times but I’d say this is the best I’ve seen it work; while there isn’t anything I’d call a deliberate choice in the hub scene, the point is to add to the mystery and the obtuseness of the interaction makes total sense with the plot.

Unfortunately, when I said “in the mold of Porpentine” I also mean it tries a little too hard to be an imitation. Here’s an early bit:

Wasps crawl out of her mouth, exploding in your face, dripping mud, wet neon-black tears fill your stomach.

The propensity for squishy imagery is there, and the occasional vivid adjective, but the effect struck me more as comical than harrowing. Somehow the wasps “crawl” and then “explode” and “drip mud” and that all translates into “neon-black tears”. The sequence just isn’t coherent enough to be vivid.

You lost track of your steps. The darkness around you fills your body with butterflies, scribbling letters on your callow skin.

This bit doesn’t scan nearly as bad, but it does sound — scribbling letters on your callow skin — like it’s trying too hard. It’s the prose equivalent of horror vacui — every space needs to be filled with some sort of liquid or mucus or color.

This is made worse for three reasons:

a.) There are portions with dark green text that are very hard to read.

moon2

b.) There are often long … delays … in displaying … words. They did not add to the experience and I found myself distracting myself with other chores while waiting for text to show up.

c.) The end gets very repetitive. There is only so many ways to say that {plot spoiler here} is happening and there were at least 20 screens which had near-equivalent content. While there was a choice at the end I was very interested in, this factor and the other two I just mentioned meant I had no desire to replay to see any more ends.

Posted October 3, 2016 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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IFComp 2016: Prologue   Leave a comment

The Interactive Fiction Competition, or IFComp, is about to start. Unlike previous years, this blog now has a following outside the interactive fiction regulars, hence —

Q: What is IFComp?

IFComp has beeen running since 1995 and was intended to promote short (under 2 hour) interactive fiction. At the time this was synonymous with “text adventures,” although now pretty much anything that qualifies as interactive textual narrative is welcome. (Fret not, adventure gaming fans — a large chunk of entries still fall within the genre.) The first year ran with 12 entries, and this year will be along the lines of 50+. Some games run short and some run long, but I’d say the overall average is an hour per game. That’s over 50 hours worth of content.

The only requirement for entry is that the game be previously unreleased. The public then is welcome to cast votes in the form of ratings from 1 to 10. The judging period lasts from October 1st to November 15th, at which point winners are announced and prizes are allocated. Lots more details are on the website here.

Q: Are you reviewing all of them?

Last year I swore I wasn’t going to, and somehow it happened anyway. This year’s expected to set another record for most entries. I don’t know if a full review set can even be done. (Note to other reviewers: please don’t take this as a dare. Keep your health!)

Q: What’s your judging criteria?

A: I can’t use a rubric without feeling icky; somehow everything feels less pleasant to me if I try to slot it into little categories. I just pick on the most memorable parts, either good or bad, and let the words flow.

I appreciate good characters, good story, good prose, and good gameplay about equally well. Different works set up different expectations. I have greatly enjoyed some IFComp works with very little gameplay and others with almost pure gameplay. As long as the package as a whole makes sense I have a great deal of latitude in what I like.

Q: I’m an author! Can I comment on your reviews?

A: The rules of IFComp now allow public comment, although I will go on record as stating that author comments on public reviews are generally a bad idea. (Sam Kabo Ashwell’s essay here gets into detail.) I’m not turning on moderation just yet, but I reserve the right to filter comments until the competition is over.

However, I am perfectly happy to discuss anything via my email address; you can find it at my About page.

Last year's winner: Brain Guzzlers from Beyond! by Steph Cherrywell. Very much worth a play.

Last year’s winner: Brain Guzzlers from Beyond! by Steph Cherrywell. Very much worth a play.

Posted September 29, 2016 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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IFComp 2015: The Problems Compound   Leave a comment

By Andrew Schultz. Played to completion on desktop with Gargoyle.


Confession: I originally put off reviewing this game because I wanted to give it a longer-than-2-hour treatment (judging time during IF Comp is normally limited at 2 hours). I then found out from the author that there was going to be a second release. When the second release came out, I heard about some bugs (with the alternate endings, apparently) and waited a bit longer for version 3, which still isn’t out. However, with IFComp 2016 fast approaching I decided to check the GitHub for the game which has something called “release 3.” I went with that.

The main character, Alec Smart, has just finished rereading The Phantom Tollbooth when he finds a mysterious ticket inside leading to somewhere called “The Problems Compound”. Thus kicks off a surreal series of vignettes with a main objective to find the “Baiter Master”.

Second confession: I also put reviewing this game off because it is slippery. My brain just can’t seem to catch a hold of the prose, descriptions, or most of the characters.

Tension Surface
While there’s nothing here other than an arch dancing sideways to the north, you’re still worried the land is going to spill out over itself, or something. You can go east or west to relieve the, uh, tension. Any other way, it’s crazy, but you feel like you might fall off.

Some mush burbles in front of the arch, conjuring up condescending facial expressions.

Well. You start to feel good about figuring the way out of Round Lounge, then you realize that, logically, there was only one. You remember the times you heard you had no common sense, and you realize…you didn’t really show THEM, whoever THEY are. “Not enough common sense.”

What does a dancing arch look like? How does the land spill out over itself? What do you visualize when you see “mush” with “condescending facial expressions”? What does that third paragraph even mean?

I’ve played other Schultz games without this kind of stress and what feels like roughly equivalent prose. I think what pushed me over the edge here was the wordplay is more of a world feature than a gameplay mechanic; specifically, there are many “transposed word” phrases like “Meal Square” and “Vision Tunnel” that serve as places, people, and things rather than puzzle elements. Strip away all the verbal dressings and there are some very ordinary applications of objects to other objects to solve puzzles, and the language felt more like a burden than a legitimate obstacle.

Speaking of the puzzles: an early part I enjoyed involved collecting 4 “boo tickety” pieces for deviant behavior. There was room for creativity (spoiler example in rot13: Lbh pna trg n obb gvpxrgl sbe gelvat gb qebc lbhe obb gvpxrgvrf) and the overall design advanced the feeling of the world being a coherent whole. Unfortunately, most of the puzzles after veered between too easy and absurdly hard. This may have resulted from the lack of a central consistent puzzle idea. Many involved simply giving the right item to the right person. On the other hand, I wonder if anyone defeated the “thoughts idol” without resorting to the hints.

There was a character that I liked; it is the main character, Alec Smart, who might be the strongest I’ve seen in an Andrew Schultz game.

You’re reminded of the day you didn’t get a permission slip signed to go to the roller coaster park at science class’s year end. You wondered if you really deserved it, since you didn’t do as well as you felt you could’ve.

Small bits of attitude here and there permeate the game. Alec is nervous and smart and socially awkward in ways that feel natural and real.

[1] Boy howdy! This sure is an interesting place!
[2] For such an interesting guy, you sure have nothing better to do than stand here and block people going north.
[3] Can you let me north? Please?
[4] Um, later.

> 2
You’d like to say that, and someone with more courage can, but you can’t right now.

This is made doubly stark by the presence of a “cheater section” of foods Alec can eat that will change his personality. For example, “greater cheese” makes him bolder…

You manage to appreciate the cheese and feel superior to those who don’t. You have a new outlook on life! No longer will you feel bowled over!

…and you can just stroll to the “ending” from here, but this isn’t the most positive outcome. Despite small tweaks in personality making things easier, it’s clear Alec should be able to succeed just as he is. I think this game’s problems with rampant surrealism might have been mitigated by just letting Alec have a stronger voice, grounding events in ways that reflects the real world.

Third confession: I am fairly certain I am not doing this game justice. There are, according to the documentation, a lot of alternate solutions and branches. There is a command (“BROOK BABBLING” or “BB”) which will let you shorten conversations to just essential facts. As weird as it comes out, there was clearly a lot of thought to the character design. Possibly I am the wrong person to pry open all of this game’s secrets.

Posted September 28, 2016 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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