Sunday, August 04, 2019

Turandot and narrative failure

I'm working on a game that is based loosely -- very loosely -- on Puccini's opera Turandot. This post is not about that game. It is about the opera itself, which is an absolutely fascinating example of a writer (in this case the librettist Giuseppe Adami) setting himself up for narrative failure. But first, a quote from a recent piece in the Guardian:
I’ve always hated “Irish jokes”. Having an Irish mother, I’ve always been aware how they were used to denigrate Irish people and undermine the cause of Irish nationalism. There’s one joke, though, I’ve always enjoyed. It’s the one where the guy asks the Irishman for directions, to which he replies: “Well, if I were you I wouldn’t be starting from here.”
Why is this relevant? Well, if your aim is to write a story that ends with the boy and the girl getting married and living happily ever after, then the place that you really don't want to be starting out from is the end of Act 1 of Turandot. The background to the plot is this. Turandot is a princess who does not want to marry. Her father doesn't agree, naturally, but has committed himself to the following scheme. Any prince who wants to marry Turandot must solve three riddles. If he fails even one of them, he is executed. If he succeeds, he gets to marry the princess. Since Turandot is exceedingly beautiful, and since the riddles are extremely hard, the walls of the city are adorned with numerous decapitated remains of royal suitors.

The hero of the opera is prince Calaf, exiled from his own country by an evil usurper. In Act 1 he witnesses the execution of the prince of Persia, who has just failed the trial by riddles. Calaf curses the cruel princess, but when she appears on the balcony, he is smitten, falls hopelessly in love with her, and rings the gong that means he too wants to attempt the challenge of the riddles. (There's an important subplot involving Calaf's father and the slave girl Liu, who is in love with Calaf. But we can ignore this for now.) That's the end of Act 1.

Where can you go from here, as a writer? You have to go on to the riddle ceremony, of course. But how should it end? If Calaf fails at one of the riddles, he will be beheaded. That's not the satisfying romantic ending Adami is aiming for. But what if he succeeds? Then Turandot will have to marry him, but against her will. There's no way you can sell that as a happy romantic ending either. In other words: Adami has written himself into a corner and seems to be headed for massive narrative failure.

There is, perhaps, no way to really fix the problem. But Adami does make a valiant effort. He first does all the things he has to: give us the riddle ceremony and have Calaf succeed. He now has to face the problem of a forced marriage head-on and, to his credit, he does precisely that. Turandot is given the space to express the problem in the clearest possible terms:
August father! No!
Don’t cast your daughter
into the stranger’s arms!

The oath is sacred!

No, don’t say it!
Your daughter is sacred!
You can’t give me to him, to him
like a slave, ah no!
to die of shame!
(to the Prince)
Don’t look at me like that!
You, who mock my pride!
I shall not be yours! No, I will not!


You are the reward of his daring!
He offered his life for you!
The oath is sacred!

Would you have me in your arms
by force, reluctant and enraged?
Obviously, that is not what the prince wants. But how can the narrative move forward? Adami does the only thing he sensibly can: he plays for time. Calaf gives the princess another chance: if she manages to find out his name by dawn, he will consent to die. If not, they will marry. Here ends Act 2.

By itself, this solves nothing. We are still left with the unpalatable choice between death and rape. But at least it gives us some room for a plot twist. (And for one of the greatest and most famous opera arias ever written, Nessun dorma.) That plot twist takes the form of the slave girl Liu -- who knows the prince's name -- killing herself when Turandot orders her tortured to find out Calaf's name. As Liu dies, she prophesies:
Yes, Princess, listen to me!
You, who are enclosed in ice,
conquered by such flame,
you will love him, too!
Before the dawn,
I will wearily close my eyes,
so he can win again...
And I’ll never see him more!
How does this help? Logically speaking, it doesn't. But dramatically, it generates a moment of large and complicated emotions. The prince is filled with anger against Turandot, even though he is also, at the same time, still in love with her; the princess is shocked and confused, not only at having lost the opportunity to find out the prince's name, but also at the act of selfless sacrifice she has just witnessed. And this moment of instability creates dramatic room for the move that Adami now makes: Calaf, overcome by emotion, moves in for the kiss, and indeed kisses the protesting Turandot -- who ends up submitting to this treatment with what does, in the end, look like some enthusiasm.

Clearly, this is extremely problematic. It takes very good acting to make the scene so much as watchable -- you'll really have to play down the protests and act up the enthusiasm if you don't want the audience to think about #metoo more than they are thinking about the opera itself -- but it is hardly possible to make it a success. The trope of the woman who says 'no' but really means 'yes' is too problematic. Morally problematic, certainly, but also aesthetically problematic: it's not real, it's not true, it's not believable. If this is where the opera had ended, its failure as a narrative would have been more or less complete.

Luckily, Adami too senses that he has fallen into a narrative abyss. And while he cannot precisely undo the damage, he can at least mitigate it by giving Turandot's agency back to her. Obviously, the prince's justification for kissing Turandot, even though she said 'no', was that he knew for certain that she wanted to be kissed. That's what all #metoo men would say, wouldn't they? "I saw that she wanted it." But Calaf now does something that few other men would be willing to do: he bets his life on the claim that he was right. Even though it is not yet dawn, he tells his name to the princess, essentially allowing her to kill him at her whim.
My mystery?
I no longer have one!
You are mine!
You who tremble if I touch you!
You who pale when I kiss you,
can destroy me if you will.
My name and my life
I give you together.
I am Calaf, son of Timur!

I know your name!

My glory is your embrace!

Listen! The trumpets blare!

My life is your kiss!

Lo, the hour has come!
It’s the hour of the trial!

I do not fear it!

Ah, Calaf! come with me before the people!

You have won!
It really is the only course of action that can somewhat justify Calaf: he makes his dubious kissing move, but then he is at least willing to die if he has wronged Turandot by doing so. And of course it ends well.
August father...I know the name
of the stranger!
His name is...Love!
(Calaf rushes up the steps. The two lovers are locked in
an embrace.)
It is damage control, to be sure, but it is good damage control. And part of me wonders whether it wasn't precisely the sheer impossibility of getting from the narrative's starting point to its end point that attracted the librettist -- and perhaps also the composer -- to this particular story. There's something enticing about taking a story that cannot possibly work and then pushing it as far in the right direction as it can possibly go. That's certainly part of my own attraction to the story, and hence part of the reason why I opted to base an interactive fiction off of it. Though I should stress that it moves far from the original and most certainly does not involve a forced kissing scene. Whether it too ends up as a narrative failure is something we'll have to see!

Saturday, August 03, 2019

Commenting on this blog

I know of two people who had trouble posting comments to this blog. One of them was me. I'm curious whether this is a general phenomenon -- if some people could try to reply, and if it doesn't work, send me an e-mail about it, I would appreciate it!

Address is victor at lilith dot cc.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Thoughts on criticism

The primary aim of a review is to tell us whether a particular piece of fiction is worthy of our attention. The primary aim of criticism is to teach us to read. There is of course no sharp line between the two genres, and a single article can have both aims. But it is nonetheless a useful distinction to make.

Good criticism teaches us to read. How? By showing us good reading in action. In the ideal case, we and the critic have both read the piece to be discussed; but the critic has seen things we have not seen, has thought about the piece in ways we have not thought, and has related the piece to contexts that may not even have crossed our minds.

The point of this is not that the critic has arrived at the correct interpretation of the work and will explain it to us. If the work is rich in meaning, many interpretations are possible, making it senseless to seek the correct one. If it is not, then the question of interpretation does not carry much weight.

The point is also not that the critic is able to give the correct judgement about the work's value: whether it is good, and how good it is. No critic commands that much authority; and, what is more, such value judgments are ultimately of limited interest.

The point of criticism is that it increases our sophistication and our sensitivity. It shows us how to get much more out of this particular piece than we were able to get out of it by ourselves; and in doing so, it trains us to approach the next piece we read with just a little more understanding, a little more feeling, a little more openness to what is new and what defies easy categorisation.

One is tempted to say: it teaches us to be better people.

We may further distinguish between negative and positive criticism. Positive criticism enriches and strengthens the work it discusses; it make us admire and enjoy that work more than we formerly did. Negative criticism undermines and diminishes the work it discusses; it tears down the pleasing façade and shows us the shallowness and rot underneath.

Negative criticism may seem to serve vital political purposes. Perhaps it does; perhaps we really need to point out, again and again, the shallowness and rot in much popular culture. But I wonder. I wonder if the same purpose cannot be achieved, in a better and higher way, by the positive criticism of work that is good. One learns to hate coarseness not by being berated, but by tasting of tenderness.

An objection. It is important to identify and call out racist dog whistling in the discourse of real-life politicians; so how could it not be important to identify and call out hidden racism in, let us say, Shakespeare's The Tempest? But this is not important at all. If The Tempest has nothing interesting to say about racism, then we are wasting our time reading it with that particular topic in mind. Better approach the play from a direction that will allow it to shatter us with its aesthetic magnificence. And if it does have something interesting to say about racism, then we need to amplify and illuminate this message, thus turning to positive criticism.

I want to write positive criticism. If I write about a piece of interactive fiction, I want you to end up enjoying it more. I want to enrich you by letting the work enrich you more than it initially did. I want you to fall in love with what was new in it, and unexpected, and subtle, and true. I want you to want to go back and reread it immediately.

Rarely, if ever, do I live up to this exalted ideal.

But I'll keep striving.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

[IF Comp 2018] Railways of Love

Another review from last year's IF Comp. Spoilers ahead.

Railways of Love by Provodnik Games

One of the questions that kept nagging me as I played through Railways of Love was whether the game really had a Russian vibe, or whether I was just imagining this, based on the fact that you can choose between Russian and English. Of course, the long train journey might conjure up images of the Trans-Siberian railway, and the failing lights fit well with a perhaps clichéd idea of the state of household technology in the USSR… but there are long railway trips in the rest of the world too, and I’ve seen the lights in Dutch trains fail at times. But then there was the Progress Program, which sounded ever more like a science fiction version of Marxism-Leninism, 5-year plans included. And when I got to an ending in which the protagonists fail to hook up because one of them is praying and the other cannot refrain from making a hard-line atheist comment, I was certain: this is light years away from Hollywood, and very much in the cultural space also inhabited by Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy.

The structure of Railways of Love is quite original. The two protagonists are sitting in the train, some minor events happen, and all you can do is try to make them confess to each other. But the situation isn’t quite right, and nothing happens. The potential love affair dies in the bud. Then, you get to replay the game; but this time, you are in control of which events happen. Brilliant – instead of controlling the protagonists, we control the environment, hoping to get them together. We will fail a few times, revealing more about the people and the culture involved as we do so, but with a little perseverance, we can get them together. At which point we get an ending that is at least as negative as the other ones – finding somebody who loves you turns out not to be, by itself, the recipe for happiness. Light years away from Hollywood, absolutely, and for me this was the point at which I became really impressed by the game. The sad ending rang true. And yet, it was not the end.

In order to reach the real ending, you have to first find all the other endings. I think the developers should put just a little more effort into steering players who get stuck in the right direction. It is very hard to predict which events will lead to which endings, and the possibility space is large enough that one can get lost exploring it. I certainly did, stuck on 6 of 7 endings. In my particular case this was extra unfortunate because there happened to be a bug in the walkthrough, now fixed; but the game is so nice and atmospheric that having to use the walkthrough at all is a bit of a bummer.

But getting to 7 of 7 endings is certainly worth it, for when we accept our fate, rather than try to change it, the game turns into a neat little comment on the human condition. There are all these wild possibilities that we can fall in love with, but pursuing them will ruin the quiet happiness that is ours. Life is choice, and that means it is sadness, for every choice precludes an infinity of other paths we might have taken. But if we learn to accept the sadness, it is also a joy. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina never learns this lesson; but the protagonists of Railways of Love do. For what is, after all, only a little game, I found it surprisingly moving and surprisingly deep.

For me, one of the highlights of the competition; I rated it 9/10. It is also now available on Android (and perhaps iOS?).

Monday, July 08, 2019

[IF Comp 2018] They Will Not Return

Another review from IF Comp 2018; spoilers ahead!

They Will Not Return by John Ayliff

They Will Not Return tells the story of a robot who spends his life cleaning up after his human owners, until one day a deadly virus wipes out all of humanity. The protagonist slowly comes to grip with this fact and ends up having an opportunity to master himself and thus become free.

In terms of craft, this is a very fine work. The writing is good, with the right amount of detail to bring the environment to life, especially the house in which the first half of the game is set. Letting the player see several phases of its slow deterioration is effective. The interactivity is also designed well: while the vast majority of choices doesn’t matter in terms of outcomes, quite a number of them work as opportunities to express the protagonist’s character. (E.g., will you hide the potentially compromising piece of underwear?) Although I did not replay to check, I assume the very last choices in the game do lead to different endings, and I also think I have a good notion of what those endings will be.

Given that all the demands of craft are satisfied, it makes sense to judge the story in terms of, well, the story, and especially the way it develops its themes. The main idea is surely the difficulty and importance of going from a life of servitude to a life of freedom. The protagonist is the ultimate servant, has a hard time coming to grips with the idea that there are no more masters to serve, and then gets to reprogram itself to be its own master. This is fine in itself, but I don’t understand the game’s obvious attempts to link this theme to contemporary capitalism. We have the house hidden behind a security gate; the graffiti against the rich; the revelation that cures were too expensive for most people; and the revelation that the robotics company was already planning how to make more money from the post-disease world. All of this suggests that the tale of the robot is meant as a parable that shines a light on our own society. But modern capitalism precisely does not work by turning workers into the ideal images of servitude. Modern capitalism makes us all into consumers, into people who want to work more because they believe that this will give them the freedom they most crave, the freedom to become happy by buying whatever they choose. Our happily serving robot is much more a pre-modern type, the “loyal servant” of yore. Hence the tale of the robot and the backstory about its capitalist masters fit together only uneasily.

More crucial, however, is the way the plot’s central problem is resolved. The robot was essentially a servant, doing its master’s bidding. Now it has to confront freedom. The central problem, then, is the problem of freedom, freedom after what Nietzsche metaphorically called ‘the death of God’. Nobody tells you what to do. All external guidance has gone. How then to face the infinity of choice? Well, here is the answer that They Will Not Return gives us: by taking on the role of masters ourselves. (The robot literally reprograms itself in such a way that all the code remains intact, but that they themselves now count as a master.) But that makes no sense as a solution to the problem of freedom! “How should I choose if nobody commands me?” “Command yourself!” Yes, but which commands should I give myself? I cannot understand myself as a master of myself, that is, as external to myself. I have to be myself. I have to make the choices. The victorious ending afforded to the robots is too easy, comes too cheap.

I end up, then, being quite critical about the thematic development of the game. But I want to stress that the very fact that They Will Not Return asks for discussion at the level of thematic development shows that it is a good effort. The game is serious; it wants to make us think; and it is well-written. But for me, it needs just a little more to really stand out.

Thursday, July 04, 2019

[IF Comp 2018] Writers are not Strangers

Continuing with my reviews for the Interactive Fiction Competition 2018. I wrote reviews for most games in a topic on the private authors' forum over at the interactive fiction forum. I'm posting the more interesting and more spoilery ones over here, and the less interesting and less spoilery ones directly on the IFDB. So, again: spoilers ahead!

Writers are not Strangers by Lynda Clark
(Placed 27th out of 77; I might have placed it somwhat higher.)

When I started the game, I was confronted with a barely coherent fragment of fiction that I suspect was supposed to be an interpretation of Space Invaders. Then the game asked me to rate that piece. Interesting. I gave it a 3 and continued with the story of Alix and her dying superhero mother. Just when I had almost forgotten about the fragment, Alix came home, started up her computer to see if anyone had rated the piece of fiction she was so proud of… and was heartbroken to see it had been rated with a 3. But, she decided, she could write another piece and see if that was received any better. Very interesting

At that moment, I formed a hypothesis about the work, which is apparently part of a PhD project. The hypothesis was this: the game gives a random story fragment to players at the beginning of the game; it asks them to rate it; it then shows us the writer’s response to the rating, engaging our mechanisms of personal sympathy; it shows us another random fragment and asks us to rate it; and finally, when all the data is in, the researchers will check whether people give higher ratings to the fragments after they’ve become aware of the fact that the writer will respond emotionally to the rating, that is, after they’ve become aware that writers are not strangers.

It was a good hypothesis, but also totally wrong. As the game progresses, the protagonist’s reaction to the grades becomes less and less of a concern (not surprisingly, since her mother is dying and the end of the world is nigh). At the same time, the fictional fragments themselves come to be about the way the protagonist reacted to the grades, which means that the random factor is missing. Furthermore, when I replayed the game I found that the ratings you give to the initial and later stories have a major impact on how the story unfolds, an impact that is in no way due to the impact of the ratings on the protagonist. If you give good ratings, the story will be mostly about the protagonist’s career as a sort of Youtube star; if you give bad ratings, the story will be mostly about the protagonist’s relation with her mother. There might also be a middle path focusing on the protagonist’s aunts and uncles, but I didn’t fully explore this possibility. None of this really makes sense on the aforementioned hypothesis, which certainly doesn’t require the game to have paths that differ so widely – unusually widely for any kind of interactive fiction.

So what is the point? (Apart from telling a compelling, layered story, something at which Lynda Clark certainly succeeds.) Well, one of the perks of being a university researcher is that I have access to this brief paper. I quote some relevant parts:

The second part of this quote explains the wide nature of the game, in which you can indeed experience one and the same event in very different locations with very different company. It is an interesting way of setting up an interactive fiction, and one that I enjoyed exploring. But I’m less certain what to make of the ambitions described in the quote’s first part. Does the game really force me to confront my impact on all areas of Alix’s life? Here, the structural features of the game actually seem to work against the author’s intention. First, a single reading doesn’t give the player a very good sense of the impact they had. I was surprised at how different my second reading was; but of course, that means that it was only on this second reading that I understood the impact of my choices. Yet at that point I have also made the opposite choices and am no longer very invested in any of them as ‘mine’. Second, I wasn’t really tempted to interpret what happened to Alix as a result of my choices anyway, since the link between the choice and the events seems to be non-causal. Different ratings for the first piece of fiction will generate different story events before Alix ever learns of the rating. So it’s not my rating that changed her life; it is the game author’s underlying system that pulls at her strings, something which I might want to explore, but for which I feel no responsibility.

The game does gain something from being part of a competition where one is judging: judging a game about the impact of judgments on authors certainly makes one self-conscious. And yet – that Space Invaders piece? It deserved that 3 I gave it. Writers are not Strangers, on the other hand, was well-written and made me think, so it deserves much more.

Tuesday, July 02, 2019

[IF Comp 2018] The broken bottle

After a bit of a hiatus, I'm back posting some of my IF Comp 2018 reviews. They're all quite spoilery, so beware!

The Broken Bottle by Josh Irvin

In Disney’s The Little Mermaid, the mermaid and the prince she so desperately loves end up marrying. In the original Andersen fairy tale, the prince marries a princess and the mermaid’s heart breaks. Disney changed the story in order to make it more… well, the gamut of possible answers ranges from “appropriate for children” through “commercially successful” to “American”, but one thing we can no doubt agree on is that it changes the nature of the entire story in a fundamental way. But what about an interactive version of the story where you could get either ending depending on the choices you make earlier? Would it work? What kind of story would it be?

In essence, these are the questions asked by The Broken Bottle, although the game features an original story instead of rehashing an existing one. But it is a fairy story, seemingly targeted at an age category of approximately 8-12 years old, where you can end up with either a stereotypical Disney ending or a very dark ending indeed, depending on the choices you make. At first, I got the Disney ending, complete with the sickly sweet moral that “there’s nothing more important than friendship” and a final sentence that reads: “No, they would never be alone again, and that was worth all of the treasure in the world.” It was almost more then I could handle. But I’m glad I replayed to check out the other possibilities and found that you can also end up betraying your sibling and even turning him towards evil. This juxtaposition of Disney and despair is what made the game interesting to me.

Of course, it is a fair question whether Disney and despair can be more than juxtaposed; whether they can also be integrated. Now The Broken Bottle certainly attempts to integrate them; I can even imagine that the dichotomy I’ve been spelling out was never on the author’s mind. But the integration doesn’t fully succeed. In reading the story, one is always aware of an uneasy tension between easy moralism and dark realism; between a world in which being nice and loyal always leads to a happy ending and a world in which scarcity of resources and human egotism make the tragic inescapable. Insofar as the game tries to bring these worlds together, it doesn’t succeed. But it is an instructive failure.

I wasn’t blown away by the other aspects of the game. I found the interface rather annoying, not least because it forced me to have very little text on a page even though I was playing the game at a very high resolution. Another weakness of the interface was the absence of Save/restore. On the positive side, the book format does allow the author to put in some stylish images. While the character portraits are merely okay, the pictures of the outside and inside of the tree house are really good and help bring the world to life.

Interactivity is very low: there is a lot of text between the choices, far more than I am comfortable with when reading an interactive work, and most of the choices turn out to be meaningless. (Do you want to buy A or B? Never mind, whatever you choose you’ll get both of them. How do you want to leave the tree house? Don’t bother, the results are identical.) While meaningless choices are a common trick of the trade, one should be wary of them if one’s game has almost no choice points to begin with. Fortunately, this situation improved as the game moved on, where choices become both more numerous and more meaningful.

The truly crucial choice is the one between saving your brother or going along with the evil guy’s offer. I was rather confused by the way this was presented, in several ways. First, I was confused by the situation itself. Given that the evil guy has me in his power, why would he offer me a deal? And why is the content of the deal that he’ll keep my brother, given that just a few pages eariler he has told me that what he really wants is me? I was also confused by the phrasing of the choice. Part of the evil guy’s offer is that he’ll spare my brother, so it seems that saving your brother and accepting the offer are not mutually exclusive; but it turns out that they are. Finally, I was confused that depending on earlier choices, the saving your brother option was interpreted very differently by the game. In the worst circumstances, it is interpreted as not trying to save your brother, but instead taking up the evil guy’s offer. Huh? I think this is a part of the game that might be fruitfully clarified.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

My interactive fiction archive 2004-2019

I’m putting a massive 372 MB zip-file online which contains more or less all of my Interactive Fiction related creations of the period 2004-2019. All my completed games, with source code and assorted extra files; all of my abandoned, incomplete games; reviews and essays; backups of my blog, my IFDB reviews and my forum posts. I will also upload this to the IF Archive, since the archive’s administrators have told me that they do accept such collections.

What is the purpose of this archive? Partly it is to safeguard a very small but I hope not entirely insubstantial part of IF history, so that future ‘digital antiquarians’ can look for whatever they might then be looking for – even if sites like the IFDB or Blogger go offline. Partly it is for those of you who are curious to delve into some of the dusty corners of my IF directories and see, say, the somewhat impressive number of ATTACK-based I games I started and then quickly abandoned before I hit on the idea of make the roguelike that would be Kerkerkruip.

Probably the most relevant part of the release are the source codes to my completed games. Some of these were already available, but many were not. So whether it is The Baron or Terminal Interface that you are interested in, the source is here! (I’ll also be uploading these separately and linking to them from the IFDB at some later point.) What’s more, I am relaxing my source code licensing. In the past, I licensed my source code under the GPL; from today, I’m giving you the choice between GPL and Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial, the latter of which might be more useful to some of you. (Since it does not require you to publish your own derivative source code under the same license.)

The archive’s main directory contains a file that serves as a table of contents, so please view that for further details. Have fun! (And perhaps consider doing the same thing, if you’re an author.)

Friday, November 23, 2018

[IFComp 2018] Bi Lines by Naomi Z

Bi Lines ended up taking 34th place out of 77 games. It average grade was a 5.81, but with an enormous standard deviation. I rated it much higher than the average and think it is a game absolutely worth playing.

The following review is very spoilery.

The author explicitly tells us that Bi Lines has to be understood in the context of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings and the discussions about sexual assault that were sparked by this all-too-political and yet all-too-personal spectacle. What is it, then, that the game is trying to add to these already copious discussions? The answer is formulated by the editor character, Jacobson. After reading the story that the male protagonist has written about his own experience of sexual assault by a ghost, and after the player character has claimed that it was just a fiction, Jacobson says that it's a great story -- it really "captures the female perspective." That, I think, is the challenge that Bi Lines sets itself. To take a male character and nevertheless capture the female perspective; which is, necessarily and in the same movement, revealed to be 'female' only in a superficial way. The game wants us to understand what it is like to be a victim of sexual assault, even if -- indeed especially if -- our own identity makes it hard to come to this understanding.

Two facts stand out about the protagonist. First, he is bisexual. Being open about this has led to conflict with his mother; and whether you are open about it at the start of the game also makes the difference between being able to have a relationship or not. (Samantha, the romantic interest, is portrayed with little sympathy and we wonder why the protagonist would even want to hook up with her. Since this relationship isn't really what the game is about, this is only a minor point of criticism.) So although he may be living in a man's world, our protagonist still doesn't really fit in. He feels that he can't show himself, that he has to keep a part of himself hidden. This is one of the things that make him unable to open up about the sexual assault by the ghost, because, at least in his own mind, his feelings during the assault cannot be separated from his sexual orientation.

The second fact that stands out is that the protagonist can talk to ghosts. In fact, they need him to take care of them, and he has been taught by his mother to spend all his energy and time helping the ghosts. While ghosts may seem a fanciful element to bring into a game about what is very much a real-life issue, I think it is actually the author's master stroke. Although he is male, the protagonist's special relationship with the ghosts has forced him into a typically female role: that of the caregiver and supporter who lives her life in the service of others and asks nothing in return. And of course, he gets nothing in return -- the ghosts have nothing to give him, and his work necessarily takes place hidden from other humans, in much the way that the housewife's work never comes into the public view and is at its best when it is invisible. What's more, when the abusive ghost assaults the protagonist and then disappears, he is obviously beyond revenge. Like a woman abused by a powerful man, the protagonist can have no real hope for justice.

These aspect of the ghosts are surely drawn quite directly from the Kavanaugh hearings. Many commentators have commented on the different receptions given to Anita Hill in 1991 and Christine Blasey Ford in 2018, explaining it not only in terms of changing times and racism, but also in terms of the demeanour of the two women. Where Hill was combative and angry, Ford was quiet and eager to help anyone questioning her. She gave, the commentators tell us, a better performance of the traditional idea of womanhood -- and that is what made her sympathetic and believable to viewers. But believable or not, the powers that be don't seem to be swayed, and mister Kavanaugh turned out to be just as untouchable to her powers of retribution as any ghost would be.

I found the game to be very effective. You are first drawn into the story and the character; then the assault happens, and is over almost before you know it; but then come the emotions, the guilt trips, the insensitive reactions, the decisions to keep quiet, the judging of the victim. None of it is too heavy-handed and all of it adds up to a chilling experience. Chilling, but not negative, since the very fact that I can occupy the "female perspective" is a good thing and a beacon of hope.

Perhaps the game could have been slightly stronger if its theme had been streamlined a little more. It is, after all, about sexual assault, and the theme of bisexuality feels a bit tagged on. I wonder if the game was originally supposed to explore bisexuality, and only turned into a game about sexual assault during those days of furious coding? Something like that might well have happened, given that the deadline for intents to enter was weeks before the allegations against Kavanaugh even surfaced. But streamlined or not, I consider this a strong and very interesting game.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

[IFComp 2018] Let's Explore Geography! Canadian Commodities Trader Simulation Exercise

I'll be posting reviews for IFComp games, focusing mostly on games where I think my reviews can still add something to the critical consensus. A good example of that is Carter Sande's Let's Explore Geography! Canadian Commodities Trader Simulation Exercise, which I suspect to be the most misunderstood game of the competition.

(It probably isn't, because the most misunderstood game is presumably one that I haven't understood either.)

So Geography -- I mean, let's settle on a short name here -- presents itself as an educational tool for learning about Canadian geography by playing a trading simulation. Some reviewers took this entirely at face value and worried whether the game would work in an educational setting. Others did wonder whether Geography was serious or a joke, but nevertheless ended up concluding that it was serious. So let's be entirely clear: this game is a joke; it is satire. Satire wrapped in a perhaps unforgivably clunky user interface, but quite amusing nevertheless.

The protagonist of our game is a commodities trader. That is, he spends his days behind a desk, trading commodities. But the great outdoors beckons and so he decides to take a 30-day vacation, rent a big truck, and try to make it as a real commodities trader, travelling through all of Canada's magnificent and unexplored wilderness... as long as there's a highway through it, of course.

The game is built around the fact that the protagonist has two utterly incompatible wishes. On the one hand, he wishes to make it as a truck driver buying and selling goods at a profit. On the other hand, he wishes to experience the big wide world. But being a truck driver is boring and repetitive, and making money as an independent trader requires research and good planning; while experiencing the big wide world requires, well, the exact opposite of that. So what he ends up doing is a boring, repetitive job made bearable only by his visiting of tourist traps, utterly pre-fabricated experiences that never fail to delight him. Here is a completely representative example:
Ottawa is the capital of Canada, so you figure you've gotta go see Parliament Hill. The Peace Tower stands in the middle of everything, decorated with unique architectural details. You sign up for a free tour, and as the tour begins, you ride an elevator that goes all the way up the tower. Your breath is taken away by the view of the bustling city of Ottawa. You stay up there for a while, enjoying it.

You're glad you took the opportunity to see the capital from a different point of view.
I found the descriptions of the tourist destinations quite hilarious, especially as they never fail to show how everything becomes a shallow cliché to the shallow and clichéd mind. (Unique architectural details! Bustling city! Different point of view!) The tourist traps are also real. One visits the "first bilingual geocaching tour in Atlantic Canada" to get a cool wooden nickel. Surely, this doesn't exist? It does, and it is billed in precisely these words on the Fredericton Tourism website. That's funny, and the fact that our protagonist deeply enjoys all these inane 'experiences' is also funny. At the same time, he is completely blind to any beauty that hasn't been packaged up for him:
You look to your left and catch a great view of Lake Superior. You'd look at it longer, but you need to keep your eyes on the road.
Lake Superior is twice as big as the Netherlands, but our protagonist misses it because he has to keep driving. A bit heavy-handed as a joke, sure, but it had me chuckling.

The game, then, is about consumerist neo-capitalism. We work and work in our boring repetitive jobs, and tell ourselves that our lives are made worthwhile by all the utterly non-authentic experiences we get through consumption. The protagonist is a truly dire example of this. Meanwhile, he willingly goes through a near endless grind of highways, hotels, gas stations, and locations that are identical except for the local tourist trap.

The game is fascinating up to a point, and has a surprising number of different endings. On the other hand, the meaningless grind was, well, a meaningless grind and the awful user interface is, well, awful. The author has done a lot of things well, but has also fallen into the trap of trying to satirise boring stuff by implementing boring mechanics. So I have no problem with people giving the game a low score (I gave it a relatively low score myself); but I do want to point out that there is a lot of good stuff going on behind the bad stuff. There's no way Geography deserved to end up 74th out of 77 game, below two games that are simply broken and cannot be finished.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

The interactive fiction competition is over!

The IF Competition has happened. The winner is Alias 'The Magpie' by J. J. Guest, which I unfortunately have not yet had a chance to play. My game, Terminal Interface for Models RCM301-303 placed at a respectable 16th out of 77. (Relatively speaking, that is exactly as high as Kerkerkruip placed in 2011, when it ended up being 8th out of 38.)

If you haven't checked out the competition games yet, I highly recommend that you do so. For those who are new to interactive fiction, choice-based games are probably easier to start with than parser-based games. (In choice-based games, you generally just click on links. In parser-based games, you have to type commands like "go north" and "put laptop in incinerator".) This year's numbers 2, 3, 4 and 5 are all choice-based, so pick what you like!

I wrote many reviews during the competition, but posted them in secret author's forum. You can expect to see revised versions being slowly released on this blog.

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

The IF Comp is happening (and I'm in it)

The 2018 interactive fiction competition is happening! I participated only once as an author -- back in 2011 with Kerkerkruip -- but this year I decided to do so again. My game is called Terminal Interface for Models RCM301-303, and you can find it in the company of no fewer than 76 other new IF games of all sorts. Play and judge, my friends. Play and judge.

(Since I'm an author, I'll be doing my own reviews in the 'secret' author's forum.)

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Review of "Plowing right through"

From a formal perspective, the parser based interactive fiction game Plowing right through reminded me of nothing so much as of Adam Cadre's Varicella. In that game, the player character is about to carry out a brilliant if nefarious plot that he has thought through perfectly, but the details of which are completely unknown to the player. Inevitably, the player will fail many times before finally coming to understand what the character he is playing has been wanting to do all the time.

In Plowing right through, we find ourselves in the cabin of a time machine, which has apparently already transported us back into the past. The only indication of the player character's identity is a little note in our possession that says: "Good luck Mitch!" Otherwise, we carry nothing but two extremely well-made latex masks depicting an adolescent man and a woman in her early thirties. You are otherwise given no information about the masks, and when you leave the time machine, you find yourself at a wild teenage party in a very posh home. What to do?

As often in this kind of game, the best information comes from dying. If you simply press the return button in the time machine, you travel back to 2018 and then learn that a man named Mark Judge has just been forced by the FBI to release a home video of a sexual assault, a video that dashes all your hopes of dashing all liberal hopes for a generation. Ignominious failure!

I will not spoil the main puzzle too much, but of course one must first wear the female mask (which, on second consideration, looks a lot like a young Hilary Clinton) and then the second mask over it (which one by now understands to be a precise likeness of an even younger mister Kavanaugh). If you pull off the Kavanaugh mask at the exact right moment during the ensuing scene, the home video shown in 2018 will reveal to all voters that the seeming Kavanaugh assault was actually performed by nobody else than Hilary Clinton, who already in the late 70's desired vengeance for her future loss to mister Trump. In the victorious ending she is, of course, locked up by the president, who is so overjoyed that he even lets Rod Rosenstein keep his job.

I have some major reservations about the game and especially about the fact that it treats a traumatic scenario full of real human pain as nothing but a setting for puzzle solving and cynical means-ends reasoning. But of course, this weakness is its strength, for the game is nothing if not true to its subject matter. Those of us who, in the backs of our minds, were trying very hard (and failing) to suppress the thought "I hope he did something really bad to her, because that might derail his nomination" are shown to be, in essence, identical to the Mitch character from the game. In this way, Plowing right through captures the central fact about contemporary U.S. politics: it makes you feel dirty.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Introcomp 2015: Beyond Division, Deprivation, Walker's Rift

Beyond Division, by Joseph Geipel

A parser-based game about interspecies telepathic communication, Beyond Division immediately creates a positive impression by its implementation. For instance, commands like "follow hare" are understood. During the entire game, the implementation just feels solid.

The writing attempts to rise above the level of the mundane, but sometimes comes off as forced or awkward. A sentence like "Tall trees with tops full of the remnants of unobtainable varmints are scattered all around." does not give us a clear impression of what is going on. "As you wait in the midst of the blizzard, your sense beyond the blizzard improves somewhat." is abracadabra to me. And I'm not sure the verb 'to emanate' is well chosen in "Pure power is emanating all around the cavern from a glowing circle on the west cave wall." But this is nothing that a good round of editing couldn't fix. The general tone is fine and the prose suffices to keep the reader interested.

Other reviewers have pointed to the weird frame story -- apparently about some guy trying to teach you Latin while commenting on his mother's taste in music and his artistic progress -- as something which doesn't show its value yet. I agree. It is highly unclear what the author is envisioning here, and he should make sure that he actually has a coherent vision.

Perhaps more problematically is the lack of direction. While it may not be absolutely necessary, establishing some kind of goal for the player is often important to get parser fiction going. But Beyond Division never really manages to do that. The wolf in the first sequence is merely doing 'stuff' until an 'event' can happen to it; while the various protagonists in later sequences may have an abstract goal to defeat the Tide, but no very clear short-term or medium-term plans about how to do that. The entire sequence could be made more compelling by fixing this.

That said, Beyond Division seems like the beginning of a good game, and I'm interested in seeing the full version. Of all the Introcomp 2015 entries, this is the one I liked most.

Deprivation, by Michael Coorlim

Deprivation: A Story of Obsession and Transferance starts off with a spelling error in the subtitle. Not a good sign. It turns out that most of the prose is better edited, although the writing could be tightened and made more detailed and interesting. For instance, describing a graveyard like this: "At night, it looks far more dark and foreboding, lit only by sporadically spaced lights that illuminate only the paths immediately around them, leaving the gravestones as dark shapes lurking in darkness." betrays a certain imaginative laziness. The sequence "lit / lights / illuminate" isn't very engaging; but the double use of "only" and the triple use of "dark" is even worse.

The game itself gives the player a clear goal -- fall asleep -- but absolutely no clue about how to achieve that goal. You are in your apartment, and apparently, the author just wants you to do stuff. The effect of doing stuff is that the protagonist starts agonising about how his girlfriend left him, sometimes in grotesque ways -- as when he gets under the shower fully clothed and, for some reason that was completely opaque to me, smears his own face with a piece of cake that he has earlier decided he doesn't deserve to eat.

So it seems that the author's aim with the piece is to indulge in flowery descriptions of self-indulgent grief. The soundtrack should be an emo teen band. Given that this was entirely unappealing to me, I quit after the shower incident.

If the author's aim is something else, my advise is to change the game to make it clear to the player that this is the case.

Walker's Rift, by Hope Chow

I have no idea what this game is trying to accomplish, and once again I quit early. So apparently the protagonist is a magical monster hunter of some kind, but it remains entirely unclear what kind of monsters or what kind of hunting we're thinking of. Instead, we are treated to the protagonist's boring office life, and then to an investigation where every lead you follow leads to nothing.

To anybody who wanted to run a mystery/investigation type roleplaying game, I would give the following advice: make sure that any lead followed by the players leads either to a new lead, to some information that allows them to draw conclusions or at least formulate hypotheses, or to a scene that is somehow so engaging that the lack of leads and information isn't a problem. That advice probably also holds for IF. But what Walker's Rift does is that it forces you to follow lead after lead -- sending you to the library, to four different people who have come down sick, and so on -- without ever giving you anything in return. "Yeah," they'll say to you, "I have strange dreams." "About what?" "I don't want to talk about it." And that's it. I quit in boredom.

There's probably an interesting story and game waiting to happen here, but the author should tighten up the plot. Drop us into the action! Make sure that our actions lead to progress! Check out any of the official Choice of Games games to see how this is done: they start delivering immediately, and that's why we keep clicking and reading. Walker's Rift can use something of that.

Final scores

Based on the question: how much do I want to play the completed game?

  • Beyond Division: 7
  • Deprivation: 4
  • Lair of the Gorgonanth: 5
  • Meld: 6
  • Voltage Cafe: 3
  • Walker's Rift: 6

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Introcomp 2015: Lair of the Gorgonath, Meld, Voltage Cafe

Introcomp is a yearly competition for introductions to interactive fiction games. The idea is that authors write up the first small part of their game, show it off, and get some early feedback.
Everyone else in the entire world may vote on as many or as few entries as they like, on the usual 1-10 scale (10 being the best). However, they are asked to judge games with one thought in mind, and one alone: "How much do I want to play more of this entry?"
With that question in mind, let's move to the first three games I played. Some spoilers will, of course, follow.

Lair of the Gorgornath, Part 1: "Bring me the Beard of Nimrod Supertramp", by Andrew Watt

Two things immediately strike the player: the awful title, which promises a combination of overused fantasy tropes and unfunny humour, and the interesting use of colour in the game to distinguish between moments of reality and dream. So we're off to a mixed start.

The game is a choice-based low-interactivity piece about a alow-level spy who is posing as a bounty hunt organiser so he can get a bunch of infighting no-goods to kill a incompetent-but-somehow-effective wizard for him and rescue a princess while they're at it so that he can be rewarded with a fantastic island. There's also something about a slave revolt and an ogre slaver and a beard and a soul in a wart and a whole bunch of other stuff. Which illustrates the game's main weakness: the author wants to cram in so many ideas that the reader has no time to get used to anything or to build up a coherent picture of the world or the situation.

Perhaps the most important thing in alternate world building is pacing. You need to feed your reader facts, but you need to feed them facts at the right speed. And therefore you need to know which facts are important and which can wait. Is this game mostly about the relation between the spy master and the spy? Then that is what we need to focus on, and we can forget about most of the rest. Is it about the particularities of Nimrod? If so, tell us more about Nimrod and less about slave revolts and spy society. Is this game about the relationships between the different bounty hunters? If so, make that the focus.

With focus and pacing, something coherent could emerge from what now looks like a chaotic mess.

Another problem of the game, in the current context, is that it does not feel like an introduction at all. It is short, yes, but it is also self-contained. A situation is introduced and resolved. The end. This might work as a prologue to a larger work, but I cannot see from what we have here what that larger work is going to be.

Meld, by David Whyld

David Whyld is a very experienced writer of IF, so it is not surprise that the game is technically competent. The setting could be a bit more exciting, though: right now most locations are defined by a single traits ("it stinks", "there's a grumpy guy") that don't really enhance our understanding of where we are. It also doesn't seem to make much sense. How can there be a tavern with dozens of patrons behind a locked gate that never opens while you're waiting outside? Why, if someone is blocking an alley, can't I just take another street to get to wherever I want to go?

The game is based around a melding/unmelding puzzle mechanic, which might be used to good effect in future puzzle design. However, from what I see here the mechanic is just too random. I have no idea which items can be melded or unmelded, so I'm reduced to trying every combination I can think of. Once I found myself just typing 21 different meld commands to see what was working, and not getting any aha-feeling from observing failure and success, I decided to quit.

Could be a nice game if David manages to make melding a bit more predictable.

Voltage Cafe, by anjchang

The writing is very sloppy, full of misspelled words and missing line breaks, and in general it just lacks any kind of polish. The implementation too is, especially for such a bare game, beneath par: eating something, which is one of the few actions you can take, doesn't give any reply, and commands like "ask her for coffee" don't seem to be implemented. (You have to "order coffee" instead.)

There's a general lack of direction here. It seems that you just have to order coffee and other stuff, drink and eat it, and type "write" an awful number of times. The basic message appears to be that if you drink enough, great thesis ideas will keep coming, and somehow, they'll all gel together into coherent chapters. After you've typed "write" often enough, you win.

As a game, this is hardly a success; as a depiction of writing a thesis, even less so; and I have no idea what the rest of the game could possibly be about, so I don't think it works very well as an introduction either. In this case, my advise to the author is to drop this idea and start with something else.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

IF top 50 results

Thanks to the 38 people who voted, we have a new "Interactive Fiction top 50". The results can be found here.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Victor's Variomatic #1: "Till Death Makes a Monkfish Out of Me"

Want to play some interactive fiction semi-together? Check out the topic I just opened on the interactive fiction forum, where I invite everybody to join in playing Mike Sousa's and Jon Ingold's 2002 TADS2 game Till Death Makes a Monkfish Out of Me. I hope to see you there!

IF Top 50: Last reminder!

Today is the last day you can vote in the IF top 50, so please go to the forum topic or send me an e-mail if you haven't done so yet.

(Realistically I'm not going to finalise my spreadsheet before Monday 20:00 GMT, so if you wake up on Monday with the horrible realisation that you've forgotten something important -- well, consider that your grace period!)

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Reminder: IF Top 50 Voting

You still have one week, until the 15th of March, to send in your votes for the Interactive Fiction Top 50. You can either post in that forum thread or send me an e-mail. Lists can contain up to 20 titles, but less is also acceptable!

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Interactive Fiction Top 50

In 2011, I organised a vote for the Interactive Fiction Top 50. You can find the thread here and the results here and here. Now three and a half year have come and gone, and it is time for a new vote. So please participate!

The aim is not to decide what the best IF ever is by majority vote -- that would be foolish. Rather, the aims of the top 50 are:

  • To create a good opportunity for people to think about the best games they have played, and discuss their ideas on this topic with others.
  • To allow people to be inspired by what they see on other people's lists.
  • To create a useful list of great games at which you can point newcomers to the IF scene.
  • To create a way to track how the taste of the community evolves.

To make this work, I need your help. Please send me a list of between 1 and 20 interactive fiction games that you consider to be the best IF games ever made (or at least the best that you have played). The list can be posted in this topic, or mailed to, where you replace "myfirstname" with my first name. Which is Victor. You can also email me if you want me to post your list on the forum (in case you don't have/want an account). Here are the rules:

  • You can list between 1 and 20 games.
  • The order in which you list the games is not important. The total number of points a work receives is the total number of votes it gets.
  • You can list each work only once.
  • You can list multiple works by one author.
  • You can list your own works.
  • It's up to you to decide whether a work counts as interactive fiction. As a rough rule of thumb, anything that is or should be listed on the IFDB is suitable. (Response to question: commercial games, including the Infocom titles, are fine.)
  • We are asking you to identify the best interactive fiction, not the most influential, most important, most innovative or most accessible interactive fiction. (But of course, if you believe that influence, importance, innovation or accessibility are important parts of being good, that is fine.)
  • The deadline for entering your list is 15 March 2015.
  • The organiser is allowed to participate. (It's good to be making the rules.)

You don't need to do anything except send in a list. However, the whole thing will be a lot more fun if you also post the rationale behind your choices in some public place.

I hope to see many of you participate!