Friday, October 03, 2008

[IF Competition] Afflicted

Let us talk about the games in the 2008 Interactive Fiction Competition. Instead of proclaiming judgement over the games and giving them a mark for all to see, I am planning to write reactions in the form of constructive criticism and advice to the authors. Hopefully, that will be more useful. (Specific bugs will be emailed directly to the author.)

All these posts will contain spoilers - consider yourself warned.

(Emily Short gave me the idea of changing the settings of my blog so that it will only send a couple of sentences, rather than the whole spoilery post, to sites like Planet IF. So if you are wondering why it's changed: that's why.)

Without further ado, here are my comments on Afflicted by Doug Egan.


What is good?
  • Afflicted is an example of a kind of game that is slowly becoming the "standard", replacing the old puzzler. It is not quite puzzleless, not in the sense that Photopia and The Baron are puzzleless (i.e., written with the explicit goal of never having the player get stuck), but it doesn't really contain any puzzles either (it is also not written with the explicit goal of putting challenges in the way of the player). In addition, it is strong on story, and leads to several different endings based on what the player character does during the game, endings which cannot necessarily be ranked as better or worse. I like this overall concept.
  • What I found particularly effective was the juxtaposition of two kinds of horror: a pedestrian horror at the uncleanliness of the restaurant, and a more dramatic horror at severed limbs, vampires and gore. The underlying psychology is quite alike, and I thought the game was strengthened by its inclusion of lots of pedestrian horror.
  • The routine of checking out everything and noting all the filthy things was a nice way of getting me to explore the entire place with a sense of purpose. It solved the familiar problem of making it plausible that the PC would explore the haunted mansion.
  • There were a lot of endings, and they clearly followed from what you did in the final turns. It was interesting to explore the space of possibilities.
What could be better?
  • The presentation of information on the screen could be done a bit better. There are some locations, especially the first location in the restaurant, where you get a lot of information in seperate sentences with blank lines between them. This is ugly, and also unnecessary; most of the information could be put in the room description proper.
  • The story doesn't make a lot of sense. Why would a vampire grow weak when he has diabetes? Why doesn't Nikolai kill his opponent with the letter opener or some other weapon? (He is surely in the position to do so at will.) Why doesn't Nikolai stop me from entering? Why does he hide the body parts near the dance floor, instead of burning them and then draining the ashes through the plughole? What kind of health inspector am I, that I go on with my researches after I find a severed hand, and even after I lose my own hand?
  • The story could have used more depth. Perhaps Angela should have featured more prominently, to give the game more human interest? Or maybe we could have had some meditations on living a life of predation? Anything that would have raised this tale from mere horror to something with a meaning would have been welcome. After all, vampires offer many possibilities. Jeff Koke once wrote (in the introduction to the GURPS version of Vampire: The Masquerade):
    Vampires feed our morbid curiosity and trick us into thinking we are observing something alien, when we are truly watching ourselves. Vampires mirror the state of humanity. They are at once beautiful and hideous, vibrant and unliving, powerful and dependent. They are cursed to stare their own evil in the face every single day, despising their thirst for blood, begging for the freedom of death, until the sheer weight of their immortality forces them to rise above their darkness and reach a state of humanity that is more than we can possibly hope to achieve.
    That's just one interpretation of the theme, of course, but it serves to illustrate that there are many opportunities here for meaningful storytelling.

Post-competition release?

Certainly; the game is good enough that it deserves a new release with some of the bugs and cosmetic errors ironed out. However, I think that my main points of criticism cannot be addressed in this way: changing the story to make it both believable and compelling would mean rewriting most of the game. These points are perhaps better kept in mind for the author's next game.

4 comments:

  1. Instead of proclaiming judgement over the games and giving them a mark for all to see, I am planning to write reactions in the form of constructive criticism and advice to the authors.

    For myself, I hadn't given second thought to the format of Game Score followed by what worked or did not work for me. Not being an IF-author myself it seems like it would be presumptuous for me to tell other people how they could have specifically improved their work; this is obviously not an issue for you as a fairly prominent author within the community.

    Do you think the Score / critical blurb is perhaps too blunt or not useful given the relative size of the community? I am wary of being offensive in my own reviews, but I do want to leave the authors and potential players with an impression of how I reacted to the work. Do you think giving the numerical score is detrimental in such a context?

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  2. Hi Aric,

    Do you really think giving advice is more presumptuous than rating a game? :) Advice is something that the author can weigh and decide not to accept; a rating is a final judgement of the worth of his efforts.

    I don't think the critical blurb is too blunt, but I do think it is more useful for players than for authors. Prospective players want to know: is this game worth my time? But authors want to know: how can I improve this game, and my future games? And answering these questions may be a bit different.

    Psychologically, if the last line of a review of my game is "Score: 4.", I might well be less inclined to ever try my hand at IF again than if the last line had been: "If the author learns to do X and Y, his next game could be very good.".

    Obviously, there is also a lot of overlap between a review and a piece of advice: most of the things I've been writing here would also have appeared in a review. But I try to end with practical advice about what the author could do. Whether that is useful or not is something I hope to hear from the authors themselves. I think it's at least worth a shot.

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  3. Victor,

    Well, when you put it that way, eek. I don't think giving advice is more presumptive, but giving advice when I, myself, have not even attempted to put together a game... well, it seems somehow too brash, yet I did not pause before relating honestly what I gave the game as a final rating. I thought of it as just giving context to the other games I rated. Since, however, I read your intention not to rate the games I had significant doubts about assigning a numerical score.

    I have some confusion about what to include and what not to include, I can assume that the authors will be looking for reviews to see how people enjoyed their work, but I was mostly writing for the benefit of players. Perhaps I just got carried away with the concept of "judging".

    I dunno, unfocused rambling here, I think I may be excluding numerical scores from future competition reviews. I do want all new authors to keep writing more IF, I can't get enough of the stuff and would hate for the pool of available works to diminish.

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  4. Hi Aric,

    I wouldn't worry too much about it, if I were you. After all, people who enter a competition know that their games will be rated. (And whether or not you put the rating in your review, the final ratings will be revealed on the IF Comp site.)

    I just wanted to try out another format that might be more useful to the authors. Writing reviews that are useful to players is also a good thing to do, and for such a review, including a numerical score makes sense.

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