Saturday, October 20, 2012

A dagger for Kerkerkruip

Erik Temple has been drawing -- or I guess I should say collaging -- some amazing art for Kerkerkruip. And he is asking for your participation! You don't need to be able to draw, as long as you can scale and rotate about ten or fifteen letters and other typographical signs so that they together form a dagger, you are good to go. It sounds like something even I could do. Check it out here, and thanks if you decide to contribute!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Project Eternity

Did you know that the long-awaited sequels to Planescape: Torment and Baldur's Gate 2 are in production right now?

OK, they're not. But something very much like it is, namely, Project Eternity, a game that Obsidian Entertainment is funding through Kickstarter right now. Who are on the team? Well, the guys who made the original Planescape: Torment, as well as people responsible for Fallout, Icewind Dale, and a number of other classics of the genre. So when they say that they want to make a spiritual successor to the great 2D PC RPGs of yore, it's more than an empty boast.

This game is going to be 2D. (Yes!) It will be party-based, with you actually controlling the party instead of mainly controlling one member of it. (Eat that, all too many recent games that I will not deign to mention!) There will be copious opportunities to pause. (It's a tactical RPG, my friends, not a shooter!) It will be PC-only. (No compromises with console interfaces and audiences!) There will be Mac and Linux versions. (Linux!)

And it will be made. Already, 3 million dollars of the 1.1 million needed has been funded. But that's no reason not to use these last 50 hours to support this project. More money means a bigger, better game. So, if the first sentence of my post made your heart fill with a sudden joy and hope, click that link, and buy an advanced copy. You know you want to.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

[IF Comp 2012] J'dal

The second game: J'dal by Ryan Kinsman.

A dangerous quest through a fantastic world in search of a piece of treasure: that isn't just the summary of many Dungeons & Dragons scenarios and CRPGs, but also of a substantive amount of interactive fiction. And it is not hard to see why. IF is good at exploring a world and IF is good at puzzles that can introduce challenge into such a scenario. When done well, a quest game can be extremely satisfying.

Of course, an author has to do something to make the game interesting, fresh and memorable. Puzzles of the "you can only pass the door/goblin/chasm once you've found the key/sword/rope" type are as unlikely to impress as a bunch of tunnels or cellars set in some bland fantasyland. That has all been done to death, if it was ever alive to begin with. We want something more unique. Something special.

For J'dal, that special something is the party. You won't be entering the mine alone, but with three other people: your adoptive father, who seems to be just a normal guy; Roderick, the crude fighter; and Stolas, the artificer. It turns out that they all depend on you, because you are the only one with low-light vision (D&D's infravision, anyone?), and you'll have to guide them through the dungeon. At the same time, it's clear that you couldn't succeed without their help either: your father and Roderick are needed for their brawn, while only Stolas can handle the artifact.

I like the way the party is handled. Most of the puzzles revolve about somehow working together, or compensating for their weaknesses. These people are both your greatest asset and your biggest hindrance, which is an interesting social dynamic to explore.

It is unfortunate, then, that the rest of the game is not particularly strong. It is very small; the world is sparse and uninteresting; the puzzles are okay but not memorable; and there are a lot of (mostly cosmetic) failures of implementation. "Serviceable" is the word that comes to mind, and of course, that is not a word of high or even modest praise. It works, but does not impress.

And yet there are the seeds of something better here. I was somewhat impressed by the game's very first sentence:
Everyone’s staring at me, as usual - everyone else here is white.
Is this game going to be about racism?, I thought. That could be very interesting. Unfortunately, it is not, at least not in a meaningful way. Yes, there are some indications that the protagonist is looked down upon and discriminated against because she is black (and because she is female, and young -- yes, the author doesn't want us to not understand that the protagonist is part of a group with little social authority!), but these indications are no more than painted background for a story that does not explore discrimination. So a bit of a wasted opportunity there.

In general, the moments where the nature of the world and the relationships between the characters are developed are good. There are just so few of them.

J'dal inspires confidence in the abilities of the author. So I hope that Ryan Kinsman will just aim higher next time, for one feels that he can achieve greater things than he has achieved here.

Preliminary mark (might change as I play more games): 6/10.

[IF Comp 2012] Eurydice

Here we are, back for some IF Comp reviews. Topping my randomly generated list of games was Eurydice by... well, Anonymous. O, and by the way, all of my reviews will be full of spoilers. You are warned.

Interactive Fiction has a tendency for remoteness and impersonality. Not only are interactive NPCs hard to program, which has led to many uninhabited worlds, or worlds inhabited only by cyphers; but a focus on puzzles has also tended to put mechanical means-ends relations at the centre of attention, while the human meaning of things recedes to the background.

Remoteness can, of course, be avoided -- we've become pretty good at that. Or it can be turned into an aesthetic strength, as in much of the work of Andrew Plotkin (Hoist Sail for the Heliopause and Home is a good example). But you must do either the one or the other.

This brings us to the surprisingly popular genre of "serious mythological afterlife IF". Here the protagonist dies, or one of the protagonist's loved ones dies, and the protagonist enters a mythological afterlife to do something -- for instance, judge her own life, escape from death, rescue her loved one. Now it seems to me that this genre is especially vulnerable to the problem of remoteness. For, on the one hand, you must avoid it: we are talking about the death of a specific person, the single most concrete and personal event that one could possibly think of, a source of the strongest and wildest emotions. But on the other hand, how can you possibly avoid remoteness if you put your protagonist in a world that is not the world he or she inhabited in real life, and which is instead populated by mythological types like Charon and Satan?

I'm not saying there are no solutions. You can drop the conventions of the psychological novel and turn the remoteness of your figures into a poetic and didactic strength (Dante; Striggio & Monteverdi). You can turn the mythological figures into concrete, down-to-earth persons (to a certain extent the strategy of Mentula Macanus). And there are probably other solutions. But you need to think about it and do some work, because in itself, combining concrete human sorrow with mythology leads to some problems that are especially acute for IF.

Eurydice does not solve these problems. Here we have what should by all means be an emotionally charged story about loss and grief; and then we spend most of our time not exploring the feelings or memories of the protagonist, but re-enacting the story of Orpheus, talking to Charon and Persephone, and so on. This device -- we re-enact one fictional story within another -- generates much distance and estrangement... but why? What is the artistic purpose of the device? How is the story of the protagonist and his dead friend (lover?) improved by the mythological recasting.

It seems that, on the contrary, it is weakened by it. The strongest parts of the game are those that are least mythological and most real: for instance, talking to the people in the living room. We have a set of distinct characters that feel real, we have a protagonist who is unable to relate to any of them -- the ingredients for a game full of raw emotional power are present! This response, for instance, is very promising:
You know that Jess is grieving much as you are grieving but she has tangled it up in a need to support others, and - you think - to be seen to be supporting others.  She wants people to at look her and say to themselves “she’s so brave” and then she can believe it for herself.  But you don’t want to be supported, you don’t want to be the mechanism by which others distract themselves.  Grief is not ennobling in you.  It seems to make you hard, ungracious, cold and churlish.
And then, just after the characters are established, we leave them and start on our mythological journey. Disappointing.

What doesn't help is that the game has no idea what tone it wants to strive for. There are moment of pathos, even over-the-top pathos:
You step into the wardrobe and sit down in the space, pressing your senses against the emptiness as if longing alone is enough to create something from nothing.
There are moments of humour, such as when you grab the cuddly Cthulhu doll. There are moments of pure horror, like when you see the skeletons in the hospital ward. There are moments of self-deprecating, sarcastic humour. There are moments of hard, wise social realism. But that doesn't all go together, and seems to be slapped together without a good idea of what the game wants to achieve. Does it want to be emotional? In that case, the sarcasm has to go. Does it want to be humorous? Then the pathos has to go. And so on. We need some consistency.

The deeper problem is perhaps all too apparent from the blurb of the game:
There's no way to put this without sounding like an arse, but Eurydice is a short game about grief. Yay.
If it is a short game about grief, then let it be known that you made a short game about grief. Don't hide behind that self-deprecating irony that, indeed, makes you sound like an arse. But it makes you sound like an arse because it makes you sound like someone who doesn't have the guts to be true to his/her own self and his/her own creations.

So... did I hate Eurydice? Not at all. It is a solidly programmed and solidly written game (the only bug I found was that the lyre stopped responding at the end of the game), and it has the seeds of something really good buried in it. Those people in the living room? I loved that scene. This new author seems to have all the talents needed to write good interactive fiction, and I am eager for his/her future works.

But those works need to have something that is missing from Eurydice: a clear artistic vision, and the courage to pursue it to the end.

Preliminary mark (might change as I play more games): 7/10.