Monday, 5 October 2015

IFComp 2015 review: War of the Willows by Adam Bredenberg

War of the Willows is a combat game, requiring a Python interpreter to run, in which you must put down a giant, killer willow tree that's menacing your kingdom. Put it down mano a mano.

I doubt that anyone would have guessed this about the game based on the blurb –

"Did you see the clean air of the hilltops? Wind waves tumbled down through the trees, tore the drift of lavender smoke... Did you see then, in the cinder that glowed in the pewter cup, did you see how Death would wrap its roots around our throats?"

– except perhaps for the presence of that subtle pun about the roots wrapping around our throats. It's like that moment in the original Resident Evil when Chris Redfield, having polished off a building-sized carnivorous plant, says, "I think we got to the ROOT of the problem." (His emphasis, not mine.)

War of the Willows wraps a randomised combat game of obscure mechanics – one that at heart is not entirely unlike the kind of thing that appeared in David Ahl's 1978 book BASIC Computer Games – with a poetic and sometimes heavy-leaning text delivery. When a game starts by quoting a chunk of Edicts from the Bible, that's heavy. The original prose that follows flows in a similar, stansa'd vein. Poetry + combat = a highly novel entity, and once you get stuck in, you'll probably be hooked on trying to win at least once. But the game throws up tons of very obvious design issues. Primary amongst them: requiring the player to deal with way too much repetition of prose and key-mashing.

I discuss the game in more detail below the cut, but first I'll comment on Python installation after the asterisk.

* I chose Willows next in my playing because it looked like it required the most 'extreme' format (Python) relative to the other games. Well, Alan's never been a picnic either, admittedly. I relate to this situation, having asked players to tackle Leadlight on an Apple II emulator in 2010, but I did throw a lot more helpful setup material at players than this author has.

I'm playing comp games on OS X, so I'll share some setup info here for people who are also on OS X and want help running Willows. For PC and other formats, someone else will have to talk about that.

Apparently Macs with OS X 10.8 or later came with Python 2.7 preinstalled (the version Willows was written in) HOWEVER this statement may not apply if you reached 10.8 or later by upgrading from earlier OSes, as I did.

If you've got an app in your applications folder called 'IDLE', you've already got an installation of Python on your Mac. If not, you can go to this Mac Python page and get Python 2.7. It's only 22 MB. Just download the version applicable for your Mac and doubleclick to install it.

With Python on your Mac:

  • Right-click the War of the Willows game file you've downloaded (PLAY.py) and choose to open it with the app called IDLE
  • Two windows will appear, a shell and PLAY.py
  • Click on the PLAY.py window to make it active, then choose Run Module from the Run menu at the top of the screen (shortcut F5)
  • To restart the game, make PLAY.py the active window and choose Run Module again

I feel I am a poor reader of poetry-poetry, but I enjoyed picking my way through the figurative language of War of the Willows to learn about the woes of my kingdom, its apparent comeuppance at the hands of nature and such. At least I enjoyed doing it the first time. After I had tried to kill the tree about ten times, died as many times and mashed RETURN to make it through all of the same prose ten times, as well as answering the questions I had to answer on each playthrough to get to the battle, my right hand was ready to fall off and I was displeased at this design weakness of severe, unrewarding repetition. This was even after I'd pasted a series of keypresses and answers I wished to repeat into a textfile so I could copy-paste them into the Python window.

Also –  when you type in a god's name, you have to capitalise the first letter or it's not understood! And double also – I often experienced buggy code dumps in the middle of the prose. Maybe they're related to my version of Python. They didn't wreck anything, but seeing blocks of code from the game appear during the game was, obviously, hardly an endearing quality.

The upshot is that when you get to the combat, you'll become interested in the combat, and all the unvarying material preceding it then just becomes a delay at getting back into the combat on replays. This applies to player death, too, which also requires a fair bit of RETURN-whacking to end proceedings.

The combat itself is significantly frustrating, but still compelling. The mechanics are hidden, but the prose does give feedback on your actions. Seeing new phrases appear suggests that your last action might have brought them about. There are logical ideas about useful ways to string together the available actions like strike / evade / advance, etc. that are likely to occur to any player, but as I say, it took me about ten plays to score a victory over the willow. It's hard to know what effect your pre-battle choices of god and desire have on the proceedings; I was having so much trouble killing the tree once, I never swerved from the walkthrough's advice (the walkthrough is purely advice) that you always choose certain combinations. I went with Vordak and Power.

I think the author has hit on a strangely original idea with this game, but it's a pretty user-unfriendly incarnation of that idea for now.

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