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.