Showing posts from 2020

Video: "9:05" by Adam Cadre

I've been playing around with video editing software, in part because I'm probably going to need it for teaching next semester -- at least if I want to do it well. But I decided to first try my hand at an interactive fiction video, and so here I have for you an analysis of Adam Cadre's 9:05.

Clearly, I need a better camera. Less clearly for you, but clear for me, is that I need more memory and CPU/GPU power. However, otherwise I'm very interested in hearing your thoughts, both in in terms of the technical aspects of the video and of course in terms of the substance of what I'm saying.

[IF Comp 2019] Dull Grey by Provodnik Games

(I'm here analysing a fantastic piece of interactive fiction, and the analysis will contain spoilers. So do yourself a favour and play it first!)

The first thing one notices about Dull Grey is how it looks. Provodnik Games's previous piece, Railways of Love, was presented as a retro pixel-art game, which was nice enough; but for Dull Grey the authors have chosen to use a large-scale visual background. As the story progresses, we move and zoom through the white, grey and black landscape, focusing on one or another location. The art style reminded me slightly of the cover art of Radiohead’s Kid A, the haunting and sometimes obsessive sounds of which would in fact work nicely as a soundtrack to this piece. Speaking about soundtracks, Dull Grey in fact comes with background music. It gets perhaps a bit repetitive on subsequent playthroughs, but it does set the tone nicely.

Like Railways of Love, Dull Grey takes place in the world of the Progress Program, which I described last ye…

[IF Comp 2019] Pirateship, by Robin Johnson

I haven’t played anything by Robin Johnson, I think, but I know his Detectiveland won the competition a few years ago. That’s a pretty high recommendation. Silly pirates is not a theme I’d otherwise be too interested in, but I can have fun with the genre. Indeed, I wasted quite some hours this summer playing through an electronic version of the Fighting Fantasy gamebook Bloodbones. That was dark, and this isn’t going to be dark if the cover and blurb are any indication. Still – I’m up for some good pirate fun.

(As in all my IF Comp reviews, spoilers follow; in this one especially, some puzzle solutions will be given away. If you just want an impression, you can skip to the last paragraph.)

Pirateship is a classic adventure in which you explore a map, collect objects, use those objects to solve puzzles, and finally find a treasure. It doesn’t get much more classic than that, and the puzzles too feel very traditional. Some guy is making breakfast in front of a gate; if you wan…

[IF Comp 2019] Randomized Escape, by Yvan Uhlmann

Randomized Escape is a game in which you have to escape from a randomly generated area of vacant lots, unnamed streets, discarded junk and, worst of all, ghostly apparitions. To do so, you must find several clues and items that are also randomly distributed, and then go through a rusty door. This is a sound set-up. With the right design, one could create a game that offers fresh challenges on every go; or that at least offers some variety while the player attempts to stitch together the solution.

Unfortunately, the actual game is all but unplayable. The first thing that we notice is that the prose is very hard to follow. The chosen style is disoriented horror: the protagonist, losing his or her mind, thinks in extremely disjointed sentences and has highly disconnected experiences. Achieving clarity while using this style is hard even for a talented writer of English. But Yvan Uhlmann is clearly writing in a second language here, and the prose is hard to get through. Here…

[IF Comp 2019] The Mysterious Stories of Caroline by Soham S

This has been a difficult review to write. I wanted to like this piece, but I believe it gravely mishandles its highly sensitive content in at least one of the possible endings.

Before I get to that, I want to say something about the interface first, just to get it out of the way so that we can then focus on the narrative content of the game. The Mysterious Stories of Caroline uses quite a bit of sound, and lots and lots of timed content. Neither made my experience more enjoyable. Whenever a sound clip started, Spotify would fall silent, the sound clip would play, and then Spotify would not restart. I’m willing to listen to your game’s continuous soundtrack, but small sounds that interrupt my own background music… preferably not. The timed events were even more annoying. I like to play a game at my own pace; having to wait after I have finished reading, just because the choice links have not yet appeared, interrupts that experience. This is, of course, especially notable…

[IF Comp 2019] Each-uisge by Jac Colvin

Each-uisge is a supernatural horror story set in Scotland and based on Scottish mythology. You play a child of around ten years old who has to confront an animal that may be just a horse, but is probably either a dangerous kelpie or an even more dangerous each-uisge. In spite of the prominent horror elements you can’t actually die, I believe, and the entire piece feels like it’s aimed at perhaps a younger teen audience. (The blurb tells us that parental guidance is recommended for younger children, though I’m not sure how I’d guide a younger child through a story in which you can callously let loose a monster that will kill your neighbour.)

What I like most about the piece is that it takes this rather unknown bit of mythology – no vampire or werewolf or other overused creature – and keeps us in suspense about what kind of story is going to unfold around it. For a while, I thought it was going to descend into full-scale horror, with me being devoured by the demonic horse …

[IF Comp 2019] Chuk and the Arena, by Agnieszka Trzaska

This game is pretty clearly by the same author as Lux: we are navigating a map in a link-based system, collecting items, combining them in our inventory or using them on other items in the world, and solving puzzles. Typical parser activities, transposed to a link-based environment. But Chuk and the Arena works better than Lux, in part because its map is less complicated, and in part because there is so much more conversation. Links make a lot of sense for conversation; and so the entire interface feels far more natural to me than it did in last year’s game, where I kept feeling that it all would have worked better as a parser game.

The story is also much better than I had expected. You’re the wimpy little guy who has to use guile and careful planning to defeat several of the galaxy’s most famed warriors; which is fun, but then on top of that there is an overarching plot of betrayal and sacrifice to spice things up. Arena combat is, in fact, the least of it: you must win al…

[IF Comp 2019] Out, by Viktor Sobol

There’s by a now a subgenre of games that are built around a single verb, with the most famous example probably being Chandler Groover’s Eat Me, in which all you basically ever do is... eat. Out belongs squarely to this group of games. You can finish it by typing nothing but “out” all the time, the standard parser command for leaving the room, container or vehicle you are currently in.

Major spoilers follow. If you don't want to be spoiled, go and play the game: it is extremely short and certainly worth playing.

So there you are, and you type "out". The first time, this means getting out of your room. The second time -- and of course the player is suspecting something like this -- it means owning up to your homosexuality in front of your mother. Subverting all our expectations, this scene is handled as lightly as possible. No big deal is made of it. But a great weight has been lifted from the protagonist’s soul – and the rest of the game can be read as a metaphori…

[IF Comp 2019] Planet C, by Mark Carew

Planet C is a colony simulation game in which you have to generate enough food and power for a colony of 2000 people while keeping pollution in check. That last element doesn’t make too much fictional sense – how could such a small colony generate climate change, even if they were using the worst sources of power in the world? – but we can easily suspend our disbelief. The story is told in terms of alternating letters between the protagonist and his wife, who is back on Earth working for the ministry that coordinates the colonisation process. And so we have not just the fate of the colony to contend with; we are also watching the story of the protagonist’s family unfold.

The game is far less fiddly than I had anticipated. In fact, most of the detailed decisions – say, about how much power plants you should make – are made for you based on a small number of high-level decisions. I like fiddly simulation games, so I was slightly disappointed; but I understand the reasons f…

[IF Comp 2019] Skies Above, by Arthur DiBianca

Arthur DiBianca has been building up a sizeable oeuvre of well-regarded puzzle parser games. I played only one them, The Temple of Shorgil (2018), but have been given to understand that it was quite typical of Arthur DiBianca’s games. It was a limited-parser puzzle game based around a central puzzle mechanic that is developed in all kinds of interesting ways. Bonus points for very solid implementation, secrets to discover, and functional prose. So when I started Skies Above, I was expecting something in the same mould.

In a sense, these expectations were met; and yet, Skies Above is very different from The Temple of Shorgil. DiBianca has clearly drawn inspiration from Superluminal Vagrant Twin, giving us a world of free movement between lightly implemented locations, limited tasks that can be performed at each of them, and a grind towards a large amount of currency. There are differences with SVT too, the two most important of which are that Skies Above is based around minig…

[IF Comp 2019] Arram's Tomb, by James Beck

When you see this game -- the title, the cover art, the introduction -- you have a pretty good idea what you're getting into. Very traditional dungeon crawling, but as a choice-based experience. To be frank, everything about Arram's Tomb also suggests that it will deliver a rather unsatisfactory experience: it is all so clichéd that the characters are even called by their classes. And the image quality and font choice don’t do much to bolster one's confidence.

But I ended up being pleasantly surprised. Yes, it embraces the clichés of the genre. But it doesn’t embrace all of them; in particular, it subverts the idea of being an adventuring party. The constant bickering – reminding me of my first D&D group, from before we had realised how to set up a good RPG session – is what makes it fun, and then the end at which everything suddenly disintegrates is the cherry on top. Also, while some complained about dying frequently, I only realised that you could die by readi…

[IF Comp 2019] "The Surprise", by Candy Meldromon

(Note: Candy Meldromon is a psuedonym. I know who the author is, but I can't remember whether they made a public announcement of this, so I'll just leave the pseudonym in place.)

Ahw, congratulations! I’ve been there, which perhaps makes it more easy to relate to the situation. Well, not literally there, given that I’m biologically male, but as there as a biological male could possibly be.

Does The Surprise also work as a piece of fiction? Clearly, it’s very short. And the interaction is a bit fiddly, given that you have to find out which actions are possible in which sublocations. In fact, this is what most reviewers have complained about. However, this is definitely intentional? The way the interaction is set up makes you feel slightly disoriented, nervous, doing small things wrong all the time. It makes you ripe for the waiting-effect when you finally do the tests, which I found creates real tension. The phone call to your significant other is also well written; true t…

[IF Comp 2019] Flight of the Code Monkeys, by Mark C. Marino

As a formal experiment, I like Flight of the Code Monkeys. The idea of using a code notebook that you read through, compile and edit at the same time is interesting, and it works fairly well. Even those with little knowledge of programming will be able to get through all of it, and will perhaps be tempted to experiment with some of the simpler pieces of code along the way.

As a piece of fiction, I’m less convinced. For the most part, the fictional world consists of all too standard science fiction tropes: a world ruled by an AI, people used merely for mindless drudgery, a Resistance that attempts to break the power of the computer, virtual reality as the only form of fun… we’ve heard that all before. The characters are also not distinct enough to breathe life into the story: the protagonist is just an office worker, the personality of his love interest seems to consists of little more than exasperation at the protagonist's thickness, and the Resistance is, well, the …

Mathbrush, "77 Verbs"

I don't know about spring itself, but I can tell you that Spring Thing has started. Where the Interactive Fiction Competition runs in October and November, the Spring Thing runs six months later, in April. I have a special feeling for the Spring Thing, since my first two pieces of interactive fiction were published in it: The Baron in 2006 and Fate in 2007. Both actually won the competition, but to put things in perspective, there were just four entrants a year back then.

This is symptomatic of a somewhat larger problem. Unlike the IF Comp, Spring Things has no rule limiting how long a piece can be, making it in theory the ideal venue for longer works. But the IF Comp has always been the more popular of the two competitions, not just in terms of the number of games that were entered, but also in terms of the amount of attention paid to those games -- the amount of reviews, feedback, and so on. And this means that authors of longer games have often opted to enter their pieces into …

Sam Kabo Ashwell, "Scents and Semiosis"

There are, among interactive fiction authors, many aficionados of procedurally generated text. And indeed many of the most famous -- I mention Nick Montfort, Emily Short and Aaron Reed. Personally, however, I've never really seen the point of procedural text generation. What's the advantage? What does it give you? As far as I can see, three things:
Surprise: the algorithm for procedural text generation is complex enough that not even the author can oversee all the possibilities. Hence, the text that gets generated can surprise even the author.Quantity: the amount of possible texts generated by even a simple algorithm quickly rises above what a reader could ever read.Uniqueness: the text read by me is read by me alone; other readers will read different texts. But none of these seems very advantageous from the perspective of the reader. Text generated by an algorithm can surprise me, certainly, but text written by a human author can also surprise me. When I'm looking for mat…

Three uses of enemy difficulty

In this post, I will be talking about the design of games that feature (a) increasing character power, (b) variation in enemy difficulty and (c) a choice about which enemy to confront when. This design is common in computer roleplaying games: as you adventure, your character become better at whatever it is you need to do to overcome the enemies (often fighting); there are weaker and stronger enemies; and you get to choose, at least to some extent, when to confront which enemy. My question is: what's the point of this type of design? Or what different points can it have?

One might in fact legitimately wonder whether there's any point to it at all. In many pen & paper RPGs, the expected play experience is one where the player characters become stronger, and the enemies become stronger as well, in such a way that the challenge level always remains the same. What's the point of becoming 'stronger' if your relative power level doesn't change? Is it just the ulti…