Sunday, October 17, 2010

[IF Comp] Under, in Erebus

I had a hard time getting into this game, for two reasons. First, it was set in an apparently illogical after- or underworld, and recent experiences made me unenthusiastic about such a setting. But really, are underworlds the new dungeons and mansion, places where you can just put whatever you think of without having to respect any narrative logic? Second, the game gave very little direction, which wasn;t exactly encouraging. I started up and then quickly quitted Under, in Erebus three or four times.

But, when I finally persevered, I found a game that wasn't bad. I'm not sure I would have figured out how to use those booths without using some help, but once I understood how they worked, the game started to be fun. Or rather, the game started to be fun once I had understood how the booths worked and I had found out that my ideas about how to pronounce "ewe" were completely wrong. English pronunciation is evil.

So, I quickly made a couple of useful objects, and solved the puzzles concerning the Cyclops -- the "goals" commands was very helpful here. I quickly got stuck again, since I hadn't figured out that you could shrink by drinking tea (which also makes the train puzzle impossible to figure out). A little more perseverance on my part would have helped, but the central mechanic was so tedious, with all the object-fetching, that I wasn't in a very experimental mood.

I did make the "good place for reading" by experiment, but I'm not sure how you were supposed to figure this out from anything in the game; I did not figure out how to get help, and had to resort to the walkthrough again. I still have no idea why I went to the trouble of reading the genetics book, because it didn't seem to have anything to do with the final solution.

All of which is a way of saying that, yes, this is a neat game; but it should have been easier to use (no fetching objects after you have fetched them once, no carrying limit!), and a little more direction wouldn't have hurt either.

Wordplay games are really hard to do right, I suppose. Ad Verbum also had some parts which were impossible to figure out without reading the author's mind. Still, I think that it might have been possible to devise a scenario where more of the objects you can create with the booths are logically integrated.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

[IF Comp] A Quiet Evening at Home

If you want to impress me, make sure my first exchange with the game is not:
> enter house
That’s not something you can enter.

you’ve got to use the restroom!
My second exchange was me discovering that "about" was not implemented. One then soon finds out that the author didn't bother to describe the directions of exits, and that we are not given any clear goal either.

Right. I'm not going to play this game. That also means I'm not going to rate it. I believe judges should aim to give as objective an assessment of a game's overall quality as possible in their rating, and you simply cannot do that if you don't play the game quite a bit longer than I have played this game.

[IF Comp] Death off the Cuff

Poirot. He may be called differently, but this is in fact Poirot; and I seem to recall that something close to this game's situation was used at one time in a Poirot book or movie... I might be mistaken, though. Perhaps this situation, where you are the detective who doesn't really know anything but just bluffs his way through the case and gets everyone to confess, is just so natural given the genre that one has the feeling that is must always already have been part of it.

Which brings me to my first pronouncement: Death off the Cuff gets very high points for situation. Very well done. Just the kind of situation you would want a good detective game to explore.

But is it a good detective game? Here I am less impressed. One proceeds by examining everything and talking about absolutely everything. Fair enough. But then some descriptions may change, and you need to examine everything again. And again. And again. And once more. And another time. This is boring. It is also really weird when we suddenly "see" things that should have been visible all the time. And don't think that you can spare yourself some time by making smart deduction, because you cannot: the new avenues that can be opened are in no way predictable, and indeed at the end you'll need to start investigating the single person you have the best reason not to suspect. And somehow, at that point you need to notice that he is wearing a uniform that is not the real uniform of Scotland Yard, which neither you nor anyone else noticed before, even though the guy has been standing there for who knows how long? (The player apparently also needs to know what a Scotland Yard uniform looks like. That, or just obsessively talk about everything.)

So, great situation, enjoyable development, but bad gameplay. This game would have been far more enjoyable if it had been a lot easier, with more in-your-face descriptions of changing details. Still -- it's worth playing. Just hit the hints soon and often.

P.S. One reviewer wrote that with some slight changes, Death off the Cuff would be in the same league as Make It Good. I disagree, but that's not because this game is bad. It's just that Make It Good is one of the best IF games I have played.

[IF Comp] Oxygen

Oxygen is a compact puzzle game set in a space station that is, even galactically speaking, in the middle of nowhere. The intro talks about the Galactic Empire, which made me think first of Asimov and then of Star Wars -- so it was a relief to find that this was not a piece of fanfic featuring Hari Seldon or Jabba the Hutt. (That Spaceballs joke about Pizza the Hutt was just too easy, wasn't it?)

Rather, Oxygen puts you into a situation where, as the on-duty technician of the space station, you must regulate the airflow from the leaking central oxygen tank to two smaller oxygen tanks. Doing this isn't terribly difficult, because the console has only four possible states, and you are provided with a useful chart detailing the effects of these states. But things are spiced up by the fact that the two oxygen tanks are attached to different parts of the space station, one of which is taken over by striking miners; and those miners also control part of the air flow regulation system, so you'll need to work with or against them in order to achieve certain results.

Some reviewers have said that the game implements the Prisoner's Dilemma, but this is in fact not the case. The Prisoner's Dilemma is defined by its pay-off matrix where (a) if we both help each other, that's good for us both; (b) if I help you and you rip me off, that's even better for you, and exceedingly bad for me; (c) if you help me and I rip you off, vice versa; and (d) if we both rip each other off, that's bad for us both, but not exceedingly bad. The interesting thing about this situation is that we need to cooperate in order to achieve maximum success; but at the same time, it is always better to rip the other guy off. This leads to some tough paradoxes, which you could fruitfully explore in a game.

Oxygen doesn't explore those issues, because it's pay-off matrix is completely different. In fact, the player can force the other side to adopt the strategy that is optimal for the player's side. So although the interaction with the people at the other console does add something to the game, it is not, in the end, the main puzzle. The main puzzle is finding out what the optimal ending is, narratively speaking, and then achieving that ending. I managed to get to the optimal ending, where the miners and the captain sign a contract and you stay alive and Andre gives you free drinks -- but it wasn't easy. It was fun, though.

Yes, Oxygen is fun. It is wildly implausible: what engineer would think up an oxygen control system where you have to manipulate two consoles hidden in different obscure and almost unreachable parts of the ship, and where it is impossible to save more than 75% of the oxygen, but possible to lose it all? But it's fun. The central puzzle works, and the story surrounding it is good enough to sustain interest for the time it takes to work through the puzzle.

Although no testers are credited, the game is very polished. I do feel, though, that "attack/cut cable with screwdriver" should have been recognised -- I had to resort to the walkthrough to get past that guess-the-verb puzzle. Also, perhaps the chart could fall out of the book a little earlier, because I had at first given up on reading through it all.

But those are small complaints. This game accomplished what it attempted to achieve.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

[IF Comp] Rogue of the Multiverse

Having played eight games, approximately 30 percent of all entries, I am positive about this competition. Five of them were different shades of good, one has the distinct possibility of becoming good in a future release, and the other two, while not good, were far from disastrous. The game I'm going to review now is one of the five good ones.

Rogue of the Multiverse -- it sounds like a randomised fighting game. And in a sense, it is, but the ties with Rogue are very thin indeed. Since the player character doesn't seem to be much of a rogue either (more an unwilling thief), one wonders where the title comes from. Anyway, let's go on to more important things.

This game is fun. From the zany interview to the running banana joke, from the motorbike action sequence to the weird array of useless junk you can buy to liven up your prison cell, everything has been put together to entertain the player. The game is very polished (although I would "enter" and "get in" to work for supporters like chairs and beds), the writing is crisp, the jokes are funny, the action sequences flow very well, and hardly anyone will get stuck.

The middle section of the game is built up around a mini game where you are transported to another planet ("You mean he's going to send us to another planet?"), and have to find valuable objects using your scanner and tag as many of them as possible within the fifty turns allotted to your mission. On the one hand, this is a good design: the player can get the hang of what he's supposed to be doing in the first, easier mission; and can go back, and attempt to earn as much money as he wants, as often as he likes. (Or at least as often as I liked.) But on the other hand, the mini game just isn't very good. Once you understand it, there is no challenge: you just walk around, check the scanner, type the right directions, and tag. (There are some enemies you cannot escape from, but there is always "undo".) On top of that, it's a mini game that works against the textual medium: the needed information could have been represented far more efficiently on a graphical map, and the strengths of text are not used at all. After playing three missions, I was not exactly eager for more.

I wonder why Pacian decided to go for such a bare bones mini game, instead of giving us mission that played to the strengths of the medium? It might be meant as a satirical take on RPG quests undertaken for loot, but I doubt it, because it doesn't really connect with that target.

Anyway, the mini game is short and easy, and by the time you realise that it's not going to get more interesting you don't need to play it any more -- so it doesn't diminish the fun provided by the game. I am emphasising that word again, because it summarises both the strength and the weakness of the piece. Everything is fun, yes, but it is not more than fun. The PC is a nobody; the important NPCs are funny, but not interesting; and the political commentary on inequality, sexism and racism takes the form of good jokes, but exhausts itself in that fun-inducing capacity.

In summary: this is a very entertaining piece by an excellent author; but I would like to see him or her (what does that "C." stand for?) move on to slightly more consequential things.

Friday, October 08, 2010

[IF Comp] Divis Mortis

There are three joys in playing the IF Comp. Joy one: playing a game. Joy two: reading a new review of a game you have already played. Joy three: reading all the reviews already published of the game you have just finished playing. Of course, that first joy depends on the quality of the games, and the other two upon either the wit or the wisdom of the reviewers -- but I'm not complaining.

I'm not going to complain (much) about Divis Mortis either. What was the probability of me playing two zombie games in a row? And yet, they could hardly be more different. Where that other game (name omitted because I wouldn't want to spoil it) steered clear of the dominant zombie genre, Divis Mortis embraces its genre roots. There is some narrative here, including a Plot Twist and a Ridiculously Tacked On Romance, but in the end the game is mostly what you get when you turn Left4Dead into an adventure game. A lonely hospital filled with zombies that must be shot down, with food, drink and medicine that must be found, and with inaccessible areas that must be opened up. I guess I was hoping for a ridiculous scene where you get to mow down hordes of wild zombies with a machine gun and hand grenades, then dispose of the survivors with a barrel of oil and a book of matches -- but hey, I'll be satisfied with what I was offered.

For this kind of game, it is essential that the puzzles are easy enough to ensure steady progress. It is, after all, the interactive fiction equivalent of watching a zombie movie, and this means that at no point must the viewer/player/reader be allowed to sit back and think. If you sit back and think, you will notice the emptiness of the genre. In my experience, Divis Mortis did this well -- the only time I consulted the hints was when "throw ammonia at man" didn't work and I had to type "throw ammonia at opening" instead. One progresses steadily, chuckles a little, smiles at the gruesome descriptions, finishes the game, and that's that. Simple entertainment.

How to score such a game? I'm not too critical here. You wanted me to enjoy myself, I enjoyed myself, you get an okay score.

Divis Mortis does need a more polished post-competition release, though. The prose especially needs some work. Watch this:
An assortment of gifts and necessities, designed to milk more money out of patients and their visiting families. The place is quiet and poorly lit, lending to a dystopian atmosphere. There are rows and rows of low shelves containing gift cards, knick-knacks, flowers and balloons.  There is a section containing flashlights, lamps and batteries especially catches your eye.
The second and fourth sentence are clearly ungrammatical, and I'm not so sure you can milk something out of someone either. (But that might just be me now knowing English idiom well enough.)

Also, there are some weird descriptions and responses that might be a result of too much haste:
> take stapler
I believe that belongs to someone else.
I'm taking absolutely everything I find, but the stapler belongs to someone else?
> talk to man
All you get is curses.  He is quite determined to keep you out.  You could always try asking him about something, but it doesn’t
Something went wrong there as well.

Anyway, I liked Divis Mortis. If you feel like killing some zombies, and Left4Dead is too tense for you (and it is tense, I can't play it for longer than an hour before feeling exhausted), you could do worse than load up this little game.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

[IF Comp] The 12:54 to Asgard

"The 12:54 to Asgard" -- that could have been a Viking-themed version of Harry Potter, but luckily, it is not. The player character is a grumpy studio technician who is called in the middle of the night to fix a leaking roof before all the expensive equipment short-circuits. Sounds like a bad job? It is a bad job.

The first thing I noticed when I started playing this game was the incredible amount of objects scattered around the studio. I felt my enthusiasm for the game diminish very rapidly. Solving puzzles is OK, but I want to be introduced to the game gently. Do not give me twenty objects and four puzzles in the first five minutes, because this discourages me.

Anyway, as I went on playing it slowly dawned on me that I had misunderstood the game. Most of these objects were just there for me to be grumpy about, and all I had to do with them was put them away. I found a roof tile, some nails, a hammer -- this was going to be easy. And the title of the game combined with the ever-present hints about how dangerous the situation was made me believe that it was the purpose of the game that I die attempting this stupid roof fix... which is a great premise. At this point I started really enjoying myself. I laughed (!) when the roof tile fell down into the bucket. Finally, it was with both apprehension and glee that I put a suitcase on the wet slippery plank, got on top of it, bended over backwards to get a good swing, and, YES, fell to my death! Weird pleasures are still pleasures.

Now I was transported to the afterlife. After a short chat with Death and a ride on the boat, I met a little girl. And it was at this point that my experience started to deteriorate rapidly. First, I no longer had any idea what I was supposed to be doing. My first aim was to repair the roof. My second was simply to kill myself. But now? No idea. I was lost in a new world. Perhaps the experience the author was after, but not exactly motivating to me as a player.

Second, the girl seemed very unresponsive. I couldn't talk to her -- at least, every subject I could think of got me a response saying that she found that topic uninteresting. (Death, me, herself, all uninteresting.) If I went anywhere, she would complain that I left her. If I tried to grab her train ticket, because this was seemingly something I needed and, hey, I'm a grouch, the game told me it belonged to her. It seemed that all I could do was wait for her to do something, then follow suit.

We quickly came to four coloured stiles. She asked me to choose one, but in the end, she chose one herself. I went through, and found myself harvesting grain. Disorientation complete. What is happening? We walked somewhere (at least I did, and then the girl suddenly turned up in the descriptions again), found some kind of oven, which was also a dragon -- I picked up a key, which was eaten by an insect the next turn, even though I still had it in my inventory -- then I walked through a stile, the girl had disappeared, and I was back in the room with the four coloured stiles. WTF? I couldn't go through that original stile again, though I could return to that world by throwing the grains I still carried with me in the air. Or indeed by dropping them. If I did so, I immediately got a message about some huge ventilators and I was back at the oven, wondering what on Earth had happened, and also wondering whether this was intentional or just the author forgetting to put in the right if-clauses.

Anyway, I walked into another stile. This time I found myself in some quiz, where I gambled my afterlife away even though I didn't know what I could lose and didn't know what I could win. The quiz masters started asking me questions, beginning with "Do you know what yes/no questions are?" "Yes," I answered, truthfully -- but the game apparently didn't, because it told me that nobody had asked me a question. WTF? Several other attempts at interaction also failed, and I finally decided to step through the exit stile.

Next I came to some kind of snow world. Confusing geography, unimplemented objects:
> x fence
You can’t see any such thing.

> w
You are almost too weak to climb over the fence. Somehow you manage.
but at least there also was a house. Not that they would let me in. So I decided to go to sleep in the snow:

The snow covers your head. You feel sleepy now.

> sleep
You aren’t feeling especially drowsy.

You close your eyes... just for a moment.
which is a really weird exchange. Anyway, I managed to die, and got back to the room with the four stiles. I decided to enter the snow world once again, with the walkthrough ready, because I was losing faith in both the game and my ability to do whatever was necessary to have it move forward. The walkthrough told me to "give blanket to beggar". I have no blanket. There is no beggar. The walkthrough told me to go south and enter the turnstile. I went south. There was no turnstile. In fact, I couldn't find any way to leave this world, and had to reload.

Well, maybe everything would become clear through the final turnstile! Nope -- it just brought be back to the beginning of the game. Okay, no problem, I'll just walk away. Maybe getting back to life was the aim of the game. But trying to leave the studio just gave me:

You’re not leaving until you finish your job.
What do you mean, I'm not leaving until I finish the job? I got myself killed! My brains were bashed out against the studio floor! I just managed to escape from some senseless afterlife where I don't ever, ever want to go again! You can be damn sure I'm going home, and if anyone complains, I'm sure there are union regulations against having to work in unsafe circumstances. I will not finish this job!

As you see, I got just a little irritated. How did a game that was so much fun suddenly turn into a frustration-fest? What is the aim of this game? Put me into incomprehensible situations and watch what happens? Why, oh why, didn't the author include a hint system that could have given confused player some much needed guidance?

And why does a game with five beta-testers have so many bugs -- and I'm not talking about obscure bugs, but about in-your-face bugs. "Wait, where’s the damn roof tile? WTF?" still getting displayed after I have found it. Getting a description of how I fall down the stairs in my haste every single time I go down the stairs. The unimplemented fence. The unimplemented tree. (If you turn some important object into a tree, what about letting me look at that tree?) The quiz master who asks me questions I cannot answer. The girl who disappears without a trace. The key that gets eaten after I have taken it. The chaff that gets blown away by fans even where there are no fans. (And by the way, "push sponge" should be a synonym for "wring sponge". Always assume that players will try the standard IF commands first.)

It makes me mad. I first had a lot of fun, and then, well, then I had a lot of non-fun. I guess that I'll rate the game somewhere between those two experiences.

This is one game where I really want to read a "My design decisions"-post after the competition, because I still have no idea what Mr. Wheeler was trying to achieve.

[IF Comp] Gris et Jaune

After looking at the title of the game and the "handbill" that it comes with, I had a pretty good idea of what Gris et Jaune was going to be about: a fair, probably in London, lots of variety artists with weird names, perhaps a Blavatsky-like medium, and of course the approaching horrors of the Second World War.

But when I started playing the game, these expectations were quickly changed. Was I a pig, being fattened for the slaughter? No, wait, this was an interactive fiction adaptation of The Island of Dr. Moreau! But -- perhaps, after all, it was a zombie slasher?

As you can see, it took me quite a while to understand that this was a game set in New Orleans and concerned with Voodoo. If you know a little about Voodoo, I'm sure the names of the handbill would have tipped you off immediately, but I didn't, so they did not me. (I wonder whether that sentence is grammatically incorrect or only pragmatically awkward.) From that point on, I spent a lot of time reading Wikipedia pages on the entities and concepts encountered, which perhaps didn't help immersion, but was nonetheless enjoyable.

Zombies in Voodoo are evidently a lot more interesting than other zombies: they're not mindless creatures searching for brains, but tragic figures conjured forth by people meddling with powers they should have left alone. One of Gris et Jaune's main strengths is how it first turns the doctor from the embodiment of evil (I was quite prepared to kill him) into a tragic figure one sympathises with; and how it then turns Mother John from a saviour into the embodiment of evil (whom I was quite prepared to kill) and then once more into a tragic figure. That final transformation was less successful than the others, but still, this is quite impressive characterisation.

The game is set up well: you start with a very limited set of options, and this slowly starts to widen as the game progresses, as you start to understand what is going on, and as you character gains more, well, character. Perhaps the set of options becomes a bit too much at the end: I played the final sections using the hints and the walkthrough, partly because the game was very long, but also partly because there was a lot to do and little clear direction. I very much doubt, for instance, that I would have been able to get Agau to do my bidding without the walkthrough; and merging with the doctor was not exactly an obvious course of action either. There may have been in-game hints for this that I missed, though.

The puzzles were almost uniformly excellent, in the sense that most of them were not at all arbitrary, but simply the important actions in the narrative. Gris et Jaune is an example of how to blend puzzle and narrative, the kind of example you wish to brandish when people quote that old claim of Graham Nelson's about IF being a narrative at war with a crossword. There's no war. The narrative is the crossword. Gris et Jaune is perhaps a bit too difficult, puzzle-wise, but the integration of the puzzles is impeccable.

The game does need a bit more polish: we have descriptions that are shows double, people that are named in parser messages before we discover their names in the game, some few spelling errors. But these are all minor complaints. I found two bugs: I found a note in the furnace of the burnt-down house, but the game refused to understand the word "note"; and one of the climactic moments of the game turned into this:
> attack her

[** Programming error: tried to read from –>64 in the array “match_list”, which has
entries 0 up to 63 **]

[** Programming error: tried to read from –>64 in the array “match_scores”, which
has entries 0 up to 63 **]
You can’t see “her” (Anna’s mother) at the moment.
but this didn't seem to adversely affect the gameplay. It's hard to remove all bugs from a game this size.

Size. Gris et Jaune is far too big for the IF Competition. Even with copious use of the hints and even the walkthrough at the end, I spent far more than two hours with the game. (And I'm not even sure I have found everything, because even after talking down John and convincing her to stop the experiments, the game told me I felt like I lost. Is there a winning ending?) Games are of course allowed to have any size, but we must judge after only two hours of playing them. At that point I gave the game an 8. Having completed it, I think that it is perhaps worth a little more, though it's hard to say given that I didn't really try to solve the final puzzles myself.

All in all, this is a very solid effort. The best game I've played so far.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

[IF Comp] East Grove Hills

A socially awkward male teenager in the company of a somewhat less socially awkward girl he probably secretly likes? Right, let's choose MC Frontalot's Goth Girls as background music... and let's then become aware of the obvious truth that you cannot listen to rap music and play interactive fiction at the same time. "I avail myself of the local cafe, light a clove up, / thumb through Camus (in French, which I can’t read, but so what)." Okay, song over, I put on some instrumental music (Vivaldi), and finish this spoiler space paragraph. How informative!

Ahem. East Grove Hills is a game about a socially awkward male teenager who experience a school shooting -- which reminds me of another rap song, even though I am not into rap all that much... "When a dude's gettin bullied and shoots up his school / And they blame it on Marilyn". (You know that rapper. He's a tiny bit more famous than Frontalot.)

Uh, anyway. A socially awkward male teenager who experiences a school shooting in which he loses his sister. Afterwards, he bonds with another girl, a friend of his sister's. This is a momentous event in his life, since he has never bonded with anyone outside his family.

But it's not a momentous game. This is one of those pieces where the player doesn't really get to do anything, and one is left wondering why it was created as interactive fiction at all. One's helplessness during an episode of violence could have been communicated very well using our medium, but that doesn't seem to be the focus of the game. The extremely limited and awkward set of conversations options you are often stuck with is effective in giving us a sense of social awkwardness, but it is not, in my opinion, enough to justify the choice of medium. (See, when you write IF, you are asking me to do more than read the text; I want to be rewarded for that extra effort. A piece must show me that it is better as IF than it would have been as static text.)

The premise is good, but the writing isn't quite up to the job. Telling me that I am socially awkward already seems to be breaking the "show, don't tell" rule; but telling it a hundred times is simply a bad idea. Socially awkward people don't go around thinking about nothing but how socially awkward they are. (And if they do, they probably think about specific past or future situations, not about the abstract concept of being socially awkward.) The plot needs work as well: we've got a mildly effective build-up, but the final scene doesn't even come close to being a narrative climax. At first I couldn't believe that the game was really over, but yes, it was.

East Grove Hills is harmless: there is nothing that it does terribly wrong, and it's too short to get on your nerves. But there's nothing it does really right either, and that makes it quite forgettable.

Monday, October 04, 2010

[IF Comp] Sons of the Cherry

Sons of the Cherry is a multiple-choice game. (Let's all agree that that is a better name than "Choose Your Own Adventure", shall we? It's more descriptive, and less tied to a specific series of game books from already half-forgotten history.) It is set during the U.S. war of independence, and casts the player as a young occultist who quickly gets into trouble with the Christian authorities for being a witch. Perhaps I am mistaken, but this seems to me to conflate two parts of history that are separated by almost a century: the witch hunts in the second half of the seventeenth century, and the war of independence in the second half of the eighteenth century.

Whatever the historical accuracy of the narrative, Alex Livingston quickly moves us forward from scene to scene, with every few paragraphs being followed by a multiple-choice question that allows you to choose what you want to do next. Points for good narrative flow.

Unfortunately, this interactivity is a fa├žade almost all of the time: one's choices have almost no bearing on how the narrative progresses. If you can choose to help someone or not help someone, choosing the second will still having you helping the person in question. If you decide to run away before you are discovered, rather than wait for whoever is coming, you will be discovered nonetheless, without the writer even going through the trouble of writing an escape scene. If you decide to fight rather than run, the guy who's with you will grab you and force you to run anyway. And so on.

There does seem to be one choice in the game which affects the further narrative, to the point that an entire sequence gets cut out and the game ends rather differently if you make the "wrong" choice. Whether this is enough to justify choosing the medium of interactive fiction is of course debatable.

Anyway, back to the story. I was sort of enjoying myself, slowly getting into the story, and then we seemed to have finished the introduction and to have come to the point where stuff was going to happen. Great, I thought to myself, I get to kill George Washington! Let chaos ensue and let history be rewritten! We will scorch the arcane symbols of paganism into the very earth of this land, kick out the English with an army of naiads and dryads, and forever close our shores to monotheism! This is a story. I put on some Inkubus Sukkubus to get into the right mood, and clicked the violent option.

And then... Washington lived? I went my own way? The game ended? But -- surely that was only an introduction? Where is the rest of my story?

Ultimately, then, a rather unsatisfying game.

[IF Comp] The 12:54 to Asgard - help needed

Okay, this is not a review, it is a call for help. It does contain some spoilers, so only read it if you have played this game.

Which means that I do have to put some spoiler space here, I guess. Which means that I do have to put some spoiler space here, I guess. Which means that I do have to put some spoiler space here, I guess. Which means that I do have to put some spoiler space here, I guess.

I haven't timed it very exactly, but I suspect that I am already nearing the two-hour time limit for this game. I played through the first part at my leisure. I understood it. I enjoyed it, especially once I figured out that I could just fool around, try some things, and then have it all escalate.

But after that -- WTF? I have absolutely no idea what I am supposed to be doing. I get into a couple of weird worlds where I cannot really do anything. I escaped from the world with the grain, but I seem to have lost Polly on the way. The quizmaster gave me a list of objects to look for, but I don't seem to have that list anywhere physically, so I have no idea what it was he wanted. Also, he started to ask me yes-or-no questions, but when I tried to answer them, the game told me that nobody had asked me a question? I went to the snow world, died, went to the snow world again, and -- what are you supposed to do there? I looked at the walkthrough, which said:

give blanket to beggar
give coins to beggar
enter turnstile

But there's no beggar anywhere, and going east and south from the farm doesn't bring me to a turnstile. I couldn't find any way to escape from the snow world again, so I restored a save.

The final turnstile brings me back to the beginning of the game. That doesn't seem to help either.

Summarising: I am utterly confused, have no idea what I ought to be doing, and am running out of time to play this game, given the 2-hour time limit. The walkthrough makes no sense to me (and I don't want to just type it in from the beginning), and there are no hints. Can anyone point me in the right direction? I'm sure I'm missing something obvious.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

[IF Comp] Flight of the Hummingbird

Flight of the Hummingbird is a super heroes game. Now you should know that I hate superheroes. Not that I've ever read any super hero comics (these seem to be a predominantly American phenomenon), but I have seen some super hero movies. I tried two of those recent Spiderman movies, but stopped both long before the end. A couple of years ago, friends made me watch all of X-men 2, which gets a respectable 7.8 at the IMDB. I found it incomprehensible and utterly boring.*

Does that mean I hate Flight of the Hummingbird? No. Sure, it has a really bad story, as predictable as possible with characters made out of the thinnest cardboard the author could buy. But while this would be fatal to a movie (although as far as I could tell X-men 2 didn't even have a plot), it isn't much of a problem when you are playing a short and polished puzzle game. That is what this game is, and it doesn't pretend to be anything else. The story and the characters are so obviously only there to provide a backdrop for the puzzles that it would be infelicitous to complain about them.

How are the puzzles? The key word here is "friendly". It's unlikely that you will get stuck, since the game always makes quite clear what obstacles you need to overcome and often points you into the general direction of the solution as well. Every object that looks significant for solving a puzzle will be significant for solving a puzzle, often quite quickly after you have encountered it, and the world is quite sparse. The only puzzle that is perhaps a little less friendly is the navigation puzzle, but even that worked better than I expected -- it was far less confusing than the navigation sequences in Seastalker, for instance.

Add to this a sprinkling of light comedic touches, and you've gotten yourself an enjoyable and easy puzzle romp. Flight of the Hummingbird is not great, and is not even aiming for greatness, but it achieves its humble aims very well.

* However, Kenneth Branagh is apparently directing a super heroes movie called Thor. I love Branagh. His Hamlet is among my favourite movies -- I can watch its entire 4+ hours without a moment of boredom. So that's one super heroes movie I might try.

[IF Comp] The Blind House

It's that time of the year again: the interactive fiction competition has arrived. Two announcements. First, all my reviews contain as many spoilers as I want to use. Second, no first paragraph contains any spoilers -- it can therefore serve as "spoiler space" for the blog aggregates and so on.

The Blind House by Maude Overton is named after a song by Porcupine Tree, the author tells us. Since I had just gotten some Porcupine Tree albums to check out from a friend, I put The Incident (which contains the song in question) on repeat while I played this game. Not exactly the soundtrack I would have chosen for it, I think -- it's all relatively sane -- but good music nevertheless. It sounds a bit like Dream Theater meets Opeth, if somewhat softer. (If this comparison makes the Porcupine Tree fans angry, feel free to complain.)

The game itself, then, is mad, and not mad in a funny "mad hatter" way, but mad in an unpleasant, disturbing way. It's not quite Jack Nicholson with an axe, but that is the general direction you need to be thinking of. Knives. Diaries written in blood. Disturbing paintings. Murder. But, and this is the masterstroke of the game, these darkest layers of madness meld seamlessly into other forms of madness and psychological trouble: repressed memories, hallucinations, depression, paranoia, up to and including common stuff like excessively low self-esteem and an abusive relationship characterised by excessive claiming. Never in the game does it become clear to the player what is real and what is false in this web. Does the player character invent the fact that she has murdered a woman in order to project the guilt she feels for her abusive relationship to the Melissa? Does she invent this relationship in order to escape from the guilt of the murder? Did she really kill a woman because she couldn't stand sharing Melissa? I still don't know.

This does lead to an interesting experience, because each new hint the game drops will change your idea of what is going on; and you will in fact have multiple ideas at the same time. At one point fairly late in the game, I was both quite sure that I was about to enact the famous scene from Psycho on Melissa, and that I was about to quietly snoop into her bedroom in order to find the information I needed to save her -- two completely opposite ideas. This does keep the player on edge.

On the other hand, the game's finale was a bit of a let-down. If I interpret it as literally true, and not just one more figment of the imagination, then most of the scenes earlier in the game must have either not happened at all, or happened in a completely different way, order and time-frame. In a sense, that is fine; but it does make me feel cheated as a player. I have been accumulating evidence and formulating theories; I have solved puzzles in order to find out what was going on. If it turns out that that evidence was so unreliable and fragmentary that I could not possibly have hit on the truth (or at least could not have seen it as particularly likely), then, well, why have I been doing it? It's like reading one of those detective stories where you are fed red herrings for 200 pages, and then the detective solves the case by using a clue that wasn't given to the reader.

On the other hand, if the final scene is just some further unreliable narration, then the ending of the piece is arbitrary and unsatisfactory.

Since I have seen from other reviews that people got different endings, let me state that I read the diary while Melissa was in the shower; then met her in the corridor as she was running towards her bedroom; where I found her in tears, talked to her, and then re-established en strengthened my abusive dominant-submissive relationship with her. I have absolutely no idea how you could get another ending.

I would not call The Blind House a total success, then: it should either have rearranged its fragments of madness so that they would have clicked together better at the end; or it should have set itself up less like a detective game. Things do not have to click -- but I should be able to recognise this as an integral part of the work of art. Just think of how creepy this game could have been if it had started degenerating even further into madness once Melissa came back! Or how emotionally powerful it could have been if enacting the abusive relationship rather than solving puzzles had been the central aspect of playing.

That said, this is still a very fine game that I can wholeheartedly recommend.