Friday, 29 April 2016

Autumn All Stars 2016 review: Harmonic Time-Bind Ritual Symphony by Ben Kidwell and Maevele Straw

The PC in Harmonic Time-Bind Ritual Symphony is a self-described middle-aged hippie in Wisconsin. He's a mystic, musician and computer programmer about to release the incredible ANTS software that will allow the alteration and merging of different strands of reality, to what I would euphemistically describe as great positive effect. The author says that the resulting trippiness is an attempt to convey the experience of a summer manic episode in which he believed himself to be a character in an interactive fiction game.

I think Harmonic itself is an amazing game. The crucial thing is that its manic astral mysticism and free-associating subject matter are the province of its prose, world and characters, but not of the underlying structure. The game design is well-considered and has many addictive mechanics recognisable from both old and recent gaming. Harmonic's core gameplay carrots reminded me of a bizarrely disparate group of life simulation games, from Animal Crossing on the Nintendo GameCube to Shenmue on the Sega Dreamcast.

In Harmonic, your PC's base is his house, and the game tracks time through each day and night. You can wander out and around the town, meeting and making friends, warping their realities and yours for the better, setting up projects for later and dealing with social engagements. Some characters will email you. Some events will occur spontaneously (eg a birthday party to attend) and others are unlocked, after a fashion, once you've brought the correct circumstances into alignment. Events are also gated by time, travel restrictions (you can summon your pushbike to your side at will by typing LUNAR, but you have to get your cycling skill up to be able to ride to further parts of town) and major social and puzzle progress through the game.

Why are you doing all these things? Primarily because you're living in the now and having a great time. You're also gradually advancing the cause of new positivity that you began by unleashing your reality-altering software. You can enjoy the experience of this world in its own right, but there's also a simultaneously generous and rigorous score system with a maximum score of 999 which tracks how much of the game content you've experienced. You can get points for doing all kinds of things both grand and elementary, from playing the piano or finding a new place in the city to major stuff like binding whole reality concepts together with your BIND power. There are also optional ending points at which the game tells you how awesome you've been for achieving a certain degree of completion, and then says something like, 'You can keep on playing, or just type WIN now if you'd like.' I was too engrossed in Harmonic to stop playing by the time I reached the first of these points, and carried on until I had more than 700 out of 999.

This IF take on life simulation is catchy in its own right, but it is the freewheeling prose and dialogue, bursting with musings on the mystical, the philosophical and mental health, that makes Harmonic a game that could exist in no other form than interactive fiction. In the same way that the sturdiness of the game's structure does not mirror the unfiltered flood of information you might associate with the recreational drug-taking writ large in the game's events, the writing itself is basically precise even as the ideas contained within it fly around and attach to each other easily. And crazily. Lots of them are cute moon pie, fireworks, astral explosions and love irradiation, but lots of them are interesting or novel in a more cerebral way. The two types are often wrapped around each other, and as long as the game was, I never got tired of reading new conversations, or of clocking the next philosophy of some coffee shop owner or Loonie co-op member.

An early coffee shop encounter with one of the female baristas the PC admires sees her politely listening to his musical-moon-unity theories even as she needs to shut him down just so that she can get her work done. The PC is a bit disappointed but soon puts things into perspective. I thought this was a good observation about kindness, practicality and acknowledging realities generated in others' minds. Later in the game, after the influence of ANTS has advanced considerably, what's in the PC's head becomes the freewheeling fabric and nature of the city itself, and the restrictions of the practical are lifted. There is lots of drug-taking (frequent enough that, paradoxically, I barely noticed) some care-free sex, parties, journeys on the wheel of time, teleportation, time travel, astral crystals, a pizza shop and an arcade with a Tempest machine. This is a game where the response to the WAIT command is, 'You feel yourself traveling through spacetime at the speed of light.'

Harmonic offers all kinds of helps for negotiating its large inventory of content. Actually, so many are offered at the start of the game that I was a bit overwhelmed. You can THINK about things to do, get general HINTS, get people or object-specific HINTs, EXPLORE at random, and you can also customise the progress of time and scheduled events, a concept you are unlikely to appreciate until you've been playing for awhile. There are also multiple meta commands which give you background information from the author, and in the reality-exploding style of the game, it's made clear that it's fine to read these before or alongside the game itself. Reality will eventually have exploded to the extent that I don't know if anyone could solve the last puzzles without hints, but this outcome seems to suit the nature of the whole piece, which is about drawing all realities into one plane. Life, the game, the author, the hints and all information in general. (Also, an anticipatory review the author wrote of the game as if someone else!) The game's cover painting conveys this collapse of dimensions nicely.

There's also a soundtrack of mp3s to be played at particular piano moments in the game, but I found this to be the only element that didn't really work. The first issue is that the songs are dispensed by copy-paste links within the game. Stopping typing, going outside the game, downloading the files one at a time and listening to one before continuing, if you intend to experience it at the directed moment, is too cumbersome to the overall flow, and something most players would consider technically cumbersome per se. The other issue is that the simple, average-fi room recordings of these piano songs are in no way able live up to the bath of figurative crystal light that the game's prose frequently emits.

Harmonic is a big, fun game that is generous about ways in which you might experience it. It offers a main story track, lots of optional content, lots of helps to access both of the above, interesting meta content and scores of ideas about existence, both wacky and thoughtful. Also, I didn't know anyone could make a game I'd really like that also had this much recreational drug-taking and Grateful Deadism in it, two things I would normally have to endure through gritted teeth. Philosophically, I understand that one of the (many) reasons I respond so positively to Harmonic is because the game is organised and disciplined art, even though it's about a lot of things and people that aren't necessarily organised or disciplined. I do feel the primary author shared or simulated (or both) a difficult-to-share personal experience successfully, too. This is my pick of the Main Festival Spring Thing games that I have played.

* Tech note – I was at first a little surprised the author managed to keep the whole game in the smaller Z8 Inform format, rather than having to go up Glulx. Then I learned the game was written in Inform 6, which provides more economical/sparse initial programming conditions than does Inform 7.

Thursday, 28 April 2016

Autumn All Stars 2016: Penultimate post

For time reasons, the last game I will be reviewing in Spring Thing is the one I am currently playing: Harmonic Time-Bind Ritual Symphony. I am about halfway through it. After I post that review sometime tomorrow, I will be going to a low to no internet location for a week for a holiday. (Not a holiday from Spring Thing. A holiday in life.)

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Autumn All Stars 2016 review: The Xylophoniad by Robin Johnson

The Xylophoniad is a joking, mashup take on numerous characters and situations from Greek mythology. You play the part of veteran adventuress Xylophone, and find yourself assigned by a bored king to knock over a few light tasks like ending the Trojan War, rescuing prisoners from Hades and killing the Bicyclops.

I imagined the Bicyclops was going to turn out to have two eyes side-by-side, which would have had the effect of making it look like anyone else, which would in turn have resulted in comedic, illogical screaming from onlookers along the lines of: 'Argh! Two eyes! It's hideous!' – but it turns out that the second eye of a Bicyclops is above the first one. And that is pretty gross.

This entertaining parser adventure does remind of the classic Scott Adams games in some of its nature and puzzles, but rarely in degree. The aesthetic of those 16 kilobyte games was determined by the hard technical limit of the 16 kilobytes. There are no real limits here. There are choices, and any mimicry of older games is carried out to an irreverent extent rather than a slavish one. The Xylophoniad (or THE X as I will now abbreviate it) delivers its humour in some particularly goofy and cartoon-like ways, elicits jokes from cute and simple NPCs who appear as caricatures of their legendary selves – or 'non-canonical versions' as the game likes to say – and keeps the player busy with a large ancient world split into separate regions. The region separation feels like both a staple of gaming in general (like levels, a way to divide up content and aesthetics) and a way to make THE X feel more manageable. Because no matter how cute the game may appear to be at the outset, when a king tells you to perform three impossible-sounding tasks before breakfast (it was the 'end the Trojan war' one that especially raised my anxiety levels) – you're likely to feel at least a tad flustered about the day ahead.

Fortunately, and as I should probably have anticipated, the explicit solutions to the major challenges are pretty wack. Don't dwell on how to end the Trojan War all by yourself (... ARGH!!!). Just get out there and be the best traditionally klepto adventuress you can be, exploring, finding ways to pass recalcitrant portals, solving puzzles that crop up using a mixture of logic and illogic, and helping NPCs with their usually not-too-obscure problems. Achilles is histrionic, the medusa is apologetic, Daedalus is MacGyver and Helen of Troy emits unusual noises.

I don't think much knowledge of Greek mythology is required to deal with THE X's puzzles. In cases where a particular piece of knowledge might help with a particular puzzle, the game either tells you about it explicitly or collapses it into a joke that has the side-effect of indicating how the situation would have been in a canonical version of the story. I found myself at an impasse a few times and got past each one using the typical graduated hint system that comes with the game. If I'd had more time to play, I probably would have continued to experiment with the gameworld and overcome one or two of the impasses on my own.


This game runs in Versificator, the author's own parser engine. It seems to handle pretty well, though this game doesn't distress the actual parser part of it much in terms of the player having to type any complicated commands. I only encountered two things that bothered me, one tiny and specific and one a little more general. The former was that I did try looking UNDER or putting things UNDER other things in the game, and it didn't give sensible responses. The more general thing is that pronouns for people don't update to reflect who's in the room. For instance if you X ACHILLES, 'him' keeps referring to Achilles, even if you leave Achilles well behind and go and see Daedalus, and say TALK TO HIM.

I didn't think much (at all?) about parser pronouns until a few years ago when Emily Boegheim on pointed out she generally played parser games using pronouns all the way. This led to a poll, which led to a surprising result showing maybe half the respondents used pronouns a lot or all the time. I then went and reprogrammed my previous game so pronouns worked really well, and I've done them well ever since. Now I too use them when playing, because gosh darn it they're so convenient, especially when characters have names like 'Sisyphus' which must be typed in full. So my feature suggestion for author Robin Johnson and Versificator is that the engine's pronouns update themselves in smarter fashion.

Monday, 25 April 2016

Autumn All Stars 2016 review: Three-Card Trick by Chandler Groover

In the parser game Three-Card Trick you play Morgan the Magnificent, a magician seeking to assure that he's never again upstaged by Ivan, that other magician whom he considers to be a charlatan hack. This short, linear and impeccably written parser adventure debuted in the first Quadrennial Ryan Veeder Exposition for Good Interactive Fiction (an exposition whose name I hope to not have to type too often in life, and given its quadrenniality, my hope should be realised) and now reappears in Spring Thing 2016. Three-Card Trick manages to develop multiple dimensions of surprise and suspense over its duration, and thus, like a good magic trick, is itself surprising in a delighting way.

The archness, pride and arrogance of both magicians comes through in the narration and the dialogue via all kinds of showmanship, ranging form the boastful to the oily to the spectacular (spectacular within the parameters of a card trick). Each card that is turned over and each bold pronouncement presents another dramatic moment in which the story could easily take a sharp turn, and the author zooms in on a lot of these held-breath moments by having the player hit a key to draw out each word of a sentence. I personally think this device needs to be hitting home above a pretty high threshold to merit its use, and it's handled about equal best I've seen in this game.

The craft of directing player action to a single end in a linear parser game is wrangled breezily. The phrases you need to type are often dispensed verbatim as part of prose descriptions in the preceding paragraphs. Subtlety doesn't really matter because these directions coincide entirely with the strong motivations of the narrator and the scope of the required actions in the game. Nor does the overall linearity mean that Three-Card Trick is underimplemented. Most good idea tangents work, and almost all people and things I tried looking at were described through the consistent prism of Morgan's condemnational eye.

About the only thing that even mildly perturbed me was that the compass the player is handed at game start, which is supposed to make navigation super-easy by allowing one to type IN and OUT to move towards or away from goals, confused me. Not the idea of it, which is great, nor the explanation for it, which is basically 'it's magic', but just that in this scheme that's trying to be so simple, I found it ironically easy to be uncertain about where IN was going to lead next and where OUT was going to lead next. Sometimes I had to reverse when I found myself going the way I hadn't anticipated.

There's some weird humour attached to the title of the game in light of what it reveals to be the significance of the 'three-card' element of the trick. This plays to the idea of misdirection in magic, as if everyone who is amazed by this trick was somehow figuratively looking in the wrong direction, or figuratively dwelling on the wrong thing, in the first place. It's also strange that the people at the exposition can be repeatedly amazed by the same trick when it's being repeated in back-to-back performances, though the game certainly points a finger at their notions of fashionability. I found that these unusual little openings in the gameworld, applicable to but unnoticed by its characters, added a speculative dimension to the experience of a kind that I think is hard to get out of parser games that direct player action as strongly as this one.


I recently showed my three and a half year-old nephew how to do a magic trick using a special trick cup and ball that I got out of a showbag when I was a kid. I was impressed that he had the dexterity to manipulate the ball-hiding fake lid on the cup, but after he did the trick and I acted surprised at the ball's disappearance, he put his finger inside the fake lid and whispered confidentially, 'The ball's in here.'

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Autumn All Stars 2016 sorta review: Fourdiopolis by Andrew Schultz

What is the fourth dimension?

Some people say it's time.

Some say it's Odorama, the scratch and sniff card system that accompanied the John Waters film Polyester.

Some say the fourth dimension is the tesseract, the four-dimensional analog of the cube. As the cube is to the square, the tesseract is to the cube – and obviously that's all the explanation you need from me to perfectly understand the concept in its entirety. Dragon Magazine, a major resource for Advanced Dungeons & Dragoners, went a bit nuts with tesseract articles in the 1980s. You could dump a group of adventurers in a tesseract and then stand back and laugh at the poor bastards as they tried in vain to map the thing, or slew each other while arguing over where the ceiling was.

This all leads me to Andrew Schultz's Spring Thing game Fourdiopolis. It's the logically titled sequel to his 2013 game Threediopolis. Andrew's a friend of mine, so I don't normally review or rate his games in competitions and things, but since Fourdiopolis is in the Spring Thing Back Garden and I spent a few hours playing it this evening, I feel like talking about it. I will be as coy about the puzzle details as everyone has always been about the puzzle details for Threediopolis, for reasons that all of those people who have been being coy already get. Know that Fourdiopolis is, like its predecessor, a wordplay/quasi-maze game.

Before I booted Fourdiopolis up, I was wondering how this game would build on the mechanics of Threediopolis. The new addition is simple at a glance, but it very significantly increases the possibility set for the solutions. This multiplies the difficulties wrapped around the various methods you can lean on to solve the puzzles, and definitely makes for a harder game overall.

If you never played Threediopolis, the initial puzzle is just working out what you're meant to do. If you have played Threediopolis, Fourdiopolis begins with you resurrecting the skills mustered in the first game. Their interplay is trickier this time and you won't get as far taking wild, inspired swings. Not that there was anything wrong with those; there were a strangely high number of ways you could approach each puzzle in Threediopolis, including the wild swinging, and that number has increased in Fourdiopolis. I found I kept getting better at this game in basically a straight line fashion over the couple of hours of play. I continued to notice new interrelations, new clues and patterns, and they all helped me start to attack some challenges proactively rather than start out with guesses and then poke or jimmy the holes. At one point, the gears did change, leading me to think, 'OK, now I'm seeing the extra hardness that Andrew talked about in his unnecessarily-scaring-people-off blurb.'

The great thing about playing Three or Fourdiopolis is that the experience is very much its own thing. What I find most interesting is how the games give you basically no advice on how to go about things. Eventually you find one way to do something, then another, then others that relate to both, then more. It's like building a neural network whose structure becomes more apparent the longer you stare it. In the case of Fourdiopolis, non-savants might have to sink some serious time into it to progress with the further-in stuff. But there's not really anything else like either game, and they're very addictive once you get stuck in. They're also the kind of game where you can easily break off and come back later, or on another day, and you may find when you do so that having let things percolate in your mind in the interim can suddenly lead to a blast of progress.

If this all sounds interesting and you haven't played either game, you might want to start with the first one. Note that it's not essential to do so. But playing Lode Runner before trying Championship Lode Runner wasn't essential, either. It just made for an easier life overall. That's a non-enforceable analogy about the relationship between the games. I've already got a lot of satisfaction out of my progress in Fourdiopolis so far.

Friday, 22 April 2016

Dumb stories from the past episode 387: Failing to review Gotomomi

Gotomomi by Arno von Borries was the first game I tried during IFComp 2015 and the first I didn't write about because, due to the silly capriciousness of life, my post would have been more than 50% stupid stuff not to do with the game itself. It wouldn't have been a review of quality, only a bedraggling post by someone who gave up on the game anyway once they did get it going.

It's not that you can't give up on a game and say why, but when you factor in the extra-game elements in this case, plus that it was to have been my first review of the comp, I felt it was just going to be an unwarranted disservice or aggravation to the game's author and a crummy start for me. Because of time pressure during IFComp – too many games, barely enough time to write about them in detail unless the planets align during a particular year – I know that I'd always rather just move on to the next game if something weird happens. On the plus side, all entrants are equally subject to this kind of prejudice of haste amongst judges, reviewers, players.

It now occurs to me that I probably shouldn't have talked up this anecdote. Anyway, I'd just had a birthday and been given a major gift: an iPad Mini 3. My mum and dad gave me that, and my sister gave me a physical keyboard to go with it. I thought something like, 'Wow, watch me play IF out in the world using these bad boys!' and promptly took them to the local shopping centre. This place is a hub for some quite hoity-toity fashion shopping in Sydney, so you shouldn't in any way underestimate the glamourousness of the people who swan about in it, or of its architecture, while you're in the process of imagining what it might be like. I wasn't there due to my glamour, though. I was there because it's local to me and an attractive and airy place, and because I sometimes have a coffee there.

So I sat down at a table with a coffee amidst all the glass and marble and light and broke out the iPad Mini 3 avec keyboard. I forget exactly why I picked Gotomomi to kick proceedings off, but I do broadly remember that I picked it believing it would suit my circumstances. After I started the game using IFComp's online player, I was horrified to discover that the player didn't play nice with my physical keyboard. The iPad kept toggling the virtual keyboard and 'continue' prompts. In other words, after typing a command on the real keys, I always had to tap a particular small spot on the screen to prep the iPad to return focus to the physical keyboard. I persevered with this scheme for a little while because this was pretty much the iPad's maiden voyage, and I was deliberately trying to have A Nice Time. But I was being dumb – you can't play a game this way. So, having mucked about, rather in vain, with the open-ended game that is Gotomomi, and having tried not to associate it with my being stymied right on commencement of IFComp, I finished my coffee and went home with a small thundercloud over my head.

Some games later I revisited Gotomomi on my desktop computer. I wasn't enjoying its vague open-ness, though I thought I was onto something when I got involved in a task as specific as gutting fish. This fish-gutting scene in Gotomomi is the Tetris of fish-gutting scenes. I know that Tetris has already been implemented in the parser at some point by one or more smartarses, but having played Dead Man's Hill, I can say in retrospect that I found the mountain of tiny granules of typed actions required to progress through Gotomomi's fish-gutting scene – under time pressure – to be agonising and infuriating, rather than a witful simulation of weapon-handling, which it was never meant to be. And I wasn't even sure whether I was progressing or not. Alarm bells were ringing on my sanity, plus I probably did remember my sour afternoon at the shopping centre after all. So I just downed tools and said, 'That'll do, Gotomomi. That'll do.'

And that's my dumb story from a year ago.

Autumn All Stars 2016 review: Dead Man's Hill by Arno von Borries

Dead Man's Hill is a detailed, parser-driven World War I trench combat simulation in which you play a German soldier at the Battle of Verdun in 1916. It's the work of Arno von Borries, who created the Japan-set work-rambling-life sim Gotomomi for IFComp 2015. There are a few technical ambition and technical verbosity similarities between the games, but while I got off on the wrong foot with Gotomomi through no fault of anyone in particular – an anecdote that didn't qualify as a worthy review of the game at the time and which I thus didn't share with anyone, but which I may recount in another post now that a year has passed – I got off very much on the correct feet with Dead Man's Hill.

The game's HELP frames proceedings grimly and efficiently with a potted history of the horrors of Verdun and explicit how-to-play info. A how-to-play can overwhelm in some games, but here it accurately telegraphed that Dead's scale was going to be detailed and micro-leaning. It made me feel strangely confident about my pending experience, even as I was anxious due to the framing text's foregrounding of grueling trench violence.

When the game opens, you and a couple of German soldiers under your command find yourselves forced into a French-held trench beyond no-man's-land. The trench maze environment is arranged differently in each game. Searching for a way out leads you into one violent encounter after another with the French soldiers. The game mechanics focus on the minutiae of manipulating weapons and giving orders. The game tracks both of each soldier's hands, what object is in each hand or being clasped by both, and makes you manually wield, unequip, load, reload, share and discard a range of weapons ranging from bayonets and pistols to flareguns and grenades. The result is a technical orchestration of death as you and your enemies stab, shoot, flamethrow and grenade each other into oblivion in detailed steps and with detailed results. Health is tracked, injuries are tracked and listed verbosely, and death-dealing technology is all over the place. You can save but there's no UNDOing. The situation in the trenches is also dynamic. New soldiers can join you, enemies can be surprised, or ambush you, or rush to avoid a thrown grenade. The dying mutter about their loved ones, or being thirsty, or just non-sequiturs.

I found this all extremely impressive and engrossing as I probed at the spectacle of pointless death and wondered if it might be possible to survive, but I also had to acknowledge numerous apparent bugs and oversights. Importantly, I believe the game is more than over the line of what I perceive to be its intended effect; that effect is not diminished by the bugs enough to pull it backwards over the line, but it is diminished.

There are passage-of-time issues: for instance, enemies react quicker to a grenade thrown by yourself than they do to a grenade you order another soldier to throw. There are major redundancies in a lot of the damage reports, with duplicate or irrelevant injuries being listed along with relevant ones. The game asks many effect-muting disambiguation questions (Throw the primed grenade or the harmless grenade? Stab the dead Frenchman or the alert and healthy Frenchman?). There's the pronoun issue of 'myself' appearing instead of 'me' when you're attacked.

Admittedly some of the redundancies could be interpreted as a hyperbolic demonstration of the degree of violence that's being visited on soldiers' bodies, but they still read as bugs. In all other areas, verbosity and a kind of pedantry are part of the emphasis on the mechanics of the weapons:


No abbreviations for any of the basic commands are made available, which I found to be a (probably unintentionally) effective inconvenience in terms of generating gruel for the player. The matter-of-fact reporting can also be chilling:

Ebert fired his flame thrower at the Frenchman.
The Frenchman burned to death, flailing his arms, shrieking in pain and panic.
The Frenchman was killed instantly.

The only complaint I have about the game thematically is a very minor one, specifically relating to one moment in the introductory text. Its final line lays blame for this kind of warfare on mindless patriotism. It's not that I necessarily disagree, only that the entity of patriotism is not manifest in the mechanics or prose content of the game proper. The game reads as being about the futility of all these battlefront deaths and the anal mechanics of the weapons that enable them. It doesn't read as being about the dangers of patriotism. Setting that aside, I found Dead Man's Hill to be a thoroughly absorbing experience whose design and programming I admire, even though there's still need for a lot of technical revision. The game satisfies both as a war simulation with measurable mechanics and tactical elements, and as a conceptual piece with overarching ideas about its content.

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Autumn All Stars 2016 review: Nocked! True Tales of Robin Hood by Andrew G. Schneider

Introductions to games and incomplete games traditionally fare poorly in IFComp. They do so for logical reasons that have been discussed before at various times by various people. (eg In this review of Sigmund's Quest for IFComp 2014, one of the times I mentioned it.) But that's IFComp, whereas this is Spring Thing, which has a non-competitive Back Garden section. So I was relieved to be able to fire up Nocked! True Tales of Robin Hood – which its author describes as 'just a taste of ‘Nocked! True Tales of Robin Hood,’ to be released on iOS in the Summer 2016.' – without having to worry about making some kind of 'How would this game fare in a brutal fistfight with competing game X?' assessment of it. In this season (AUTUMN) of reduced pressure, young men possessed of certain fancies can often be heard saying things like, 'Get thee to the Back Garden.'

Nocked is an adventuresome, statted CYOA in which you play the legendary figure Robin of Locksley – who may be a woman. BLAM!* (More on that underneath the review.) The game has been made with a Twine-descended engine called Disbound.

Nocked! drops you in it immediately by having the Sheriff of Nottingham and henchmen descend upon the Locksley residence. You can click listed links to choose your next action or dialogue choice. Your major stats (Gold, Renown, Merry Men, Bounty) are always on display, and the import of each is described early in the piece. Stat-interacting choices or blockades are highlighted in colour. I don't think I've previously seen a Twine game that handled stats gracefully in a way that also appeared to be very built-in, so this Disbound engine is looking pretty good. The stats can also be slid out of sight, a feature obviously intended for iPhone displays.

Now, in what light should one read that line about Nocked being 'True Tales of Robin Hood?' Well, if you always thought the Robin Hood story sorely lacked a magic-using Maid Marian, a unicorn and a talking wolf who says stuff like, "Don’t worry, Robin. You’re also a special, special snowflake." – then indeed, Nocked! has finally excavated the truth for you. In other words, this is a tongue in cheek truth for a game mythos that has a hint of Nintendo's potpourri approach to fantasy about it. But I've been prejudicial in isolating the 'snowflake' line; the game action is essentially serious adventure stuff. Gathering supplies, outwitting pursuers, dealing with other characters, solving puzzles and exploring the terrain under time pressure. The major Robin Hood characters all take part. I particularly enjoyed the tension of the race against the dwindling daylight which acted as the timer on the puzzle of passing Little John.

In presentation, I found the choices to be in danger of being visually inseparable on screen. They're all link-coloured, and they aren't spaced apart from each other or dot-pointed. The narrower the screen, the more pronounced this effect. It also enhanced the mild trouble I was having parsing the value of the dialogue options in relation to each other. I think sharper writing would allow the choices to flow with a greater sense of motivation from the preceding text, and to more clearly differentiate the dialogue ideas from each other. The game worked for me better when I was choosing physical actions than when I had to decide which of several multi-line dialogue texts to say.

Another issue is that choices whose obvious intention is to allow the player to exit the current stage of the game read a bit gauchely when they find themselves unable to deliver, due to the player having failed to encounter or exhaust some vital content in the current scene. There are a lot of choices worded like: 'I had no more to say so decided to listen to Marian instead' – which don't necessarily move the game forward as you'd hope, but force you to click more choices in the current loop. I understand this is a design complexity for big branching CYOAs like this, but I've seen the outs (or the logic for them) handled more gracefully than they are in Nocked!

The game offers selectable difficulty levels which should speak to your stat management, though the difficulty level naming is a little curious. Easy is called 'Story-Mode' but normal is called 'Normal'. I think Story-Mode definitely needs renaming to avoid confusion. I played the demo through a couple of times on Normal mode, in completely different ways, and was impressed by the major variance in content and characters – and character groupings – encountered on each pass.

Nocked! grew on me the further I got into it. Personally I wasn't crazy about the introduction of talking animals, magic and the like, but I've observed that instant or unquestioning acceptability of that aesthetic in fantasy gaming (well, I didn't know it was going to be fantasy. This is Robin Hood, for cryeye!) comes about a generation of gamers after me. By some standards, I am an oldening man sitting on a throne of dust. As I was saying, the game grew on me in general, particularly when I was trying to solve particular puzzles. Dealing with the dialogue options always felt gauzy to me, so between that and the general aesthetic, this isn't a game I myself will hit up for the full version. But I think it's doing most of its stuff well, and the folks who are in the target audience should enjoy it. The mechanics present as focused and transparent, and traditional adventure content is well, if typically, handled.

* The way the other sex possibility came up quite charmed me, but I should point out that I rank myself as way behind the curve in the world of big, statted CYOAs. I know that the Choice Of Games style has become a major force, but I've barely played any of those games myself, and all I'm saying is that maybe the way the choice of character sex is handled in Nocked is typical of lots of these games by now. In any case, I found it to be an amusing dialogue moment.

Monday, 18 April 2016

Autumn All Stars 2016 review: Evita Sempai by Florencia Rumpel Rodriguez aka Rumpelcita

Evita Sempai is a short, link-based story about a young woman in 1950s Argentina. She narrates in the first person on her family troubles and her admiration for Eva Peron. Her feelings about Peron are intensified through a personal encounter. I don't know what 'Sempai' means or in what language, but 'semp' words are usually about 'always' and/or loyalty, which fits.

The narration is direct but without much elaboration. In most cases, links telescope out to slightly longer lines of prose, showing runs of actions or little vicissitudes. In places where there's opportunity for emotionality, I felt I was expected to supply it, rather than that the prose would, but the story's shortness and modesty of exposition meant I didn't invest much.

I would have liked to re-read a couple of details in retrospect, but without a back button or transcript available, I could only do that by playing again from the start. For the same reasons I did not want to replay Ms. Lojka, I did not want to replay Evita Sempai. Pauses in Evita are fairly constant and enforced. For instance, four lines can fade in to form a paragraph over twenty seconds. I don't want printed prose narratives to do this kind of thing. I want to be allowed to read and digest prose at whatever is my desired or current reading speed, then have my brain sort the appropriate mental pace afterwards based on the prose content.

Interestingly (but probably not coincidentally, in terms of ways Twine projects are developing) Evita Sempai has almost the same link structure as Ms Lojka: Linear with clickable details on the way, followed by one big choice at the end. The two games also have similar blurbs:

Evita Sempai: "I made a game about family, duty, idealization and heartbreak."

Ms Lojka: "A short game about ignorance, defiance, and freedom—or: self-knowledge, acquiescence, and fate."

What happened with Evita Sempai was that I spent as much time reading bios of Evita and Argentina, to try to fill in gaps I felt might exist in my understanding of the story, as I did reading the story. This didn't help, since detailed history isn't particularly graftable onto or around a game as sparse as this one. I perceive a story that sort of interested me, but I felt I was outside the context and just wanted more detail from the prose itself.

One specific and important detail obviously was intended by the author, because it's a keyword for the game on the Spring Thing site that I only spied after playing, but again, with the game's overall vagueness, that keyword hadn't necessarily been part of my interpretation. Considering this incident (of mine), and the big theme blurbs for Lojka and for this game, and the Famous Baby blurb, and my memory of reading plaques in art museums and sometimes puzzling over their relationship to a work, I'm starting to think the blurbs for these short Twine games are pretty loaded. That is, they can figure much more heavily in the overall interpretation of the work than they necessarily would for longer pieces or different kinds of piece. And I'm not sure how hard authors are thinking about this yet. IFDB is full of Twine games with short content-listing blurbs that don't need or bother to hide anything, but here in Spring Thing where authors are trying to frame story-stories more coyly, it looks to be a harder task.

Saturday, 16 April 2016

Autumn All Stars 2016 review: Famous Baby by N.C. Kerklaan

Famous Baby is a microgame about a famous baby. You play the famous baby.

The punchline made me laugh, if eventually only on the inside, every time I read it. Which was five to six times.

The whole thing was over five to six times in two to three minutes, or even less time than that (no smutty jokes, please.)

The review of Famous Baby will probably seem bigger and longer than Famous Baby, both to me and to readers.

This reminded me of those times I've gone into the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in Sydney, looked at something briefly, then read a plaque about it. In this case, the plaque is the blurb on the Spring Thing website. Given how microscopic Famous Baby is, you shouldn't read the plaque first.

Famous Baby randomly generates most of its content at points you'll identify after the first pass. A few non-sequiturs inevitably materialise that will strike you as inspired, but once you realise you're walloping away at a random content generator, you'll decide whether you want to persist. The design is the situation, the random mechanic and the content inventory. The scope is tiny. Personally I am skeptical of small scope random text generation as a standalone entity, but Famous Baby made me laugh and offers more than some not dissimilar things that I have seen in the MCA.

Autumn All Stars 2016 review: Superhero Stress by Michael Yadvish

Well, they didn't skimp on the stress.

Superhero Stress is a fairly light, traditional CYOA of mutually exclusive options that are dramatic, like (paraphrasing): "Will you save person A at the possible expense of person B, or person B at the possible expense of person A?" You can play through most of its situations in about five minutes. It's got goofy, typo-y writing and the traditional sexism of old comic books: Ladies are for rescuing, or for picking up while you're rescuing 'em. It's also got a touch of offhand gore that I found very mildly disturbing amidst the silliness, but only very mildly.

Superhero Stress does have a message that it delivers a few times; that a superhero can't be everywhere at once. The film Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, had roughly the same thing to say about the Man of Steel, but Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice took more than 150 minutes to say it, whereas Superhero Stress did it in about 5 minutes. I also found Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice to be a portentous, depressing and unlikeable experience that made me ask myself why I was even sitting there watching it. Therefore, by some measures, I would recommend Superhero Stress over Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Friday, 15 April 2016

Autumn All Stars 2016 review: Ms. Lojka by Jordan Magnuson

I just finished a music and video project and have turned my gaze back to IF to find Spring Thing.

They say that in Australia, I could call it 'Fall Fooferal'. If 'they' are trying to do me a kindness in saying this, they are off base. No Australian would say 'Fall'. I doubt they'd ever say 'Fooferal', either. Therefore I'm calling it Autumn All Stars, prejudice of positivity be damned.

Ms. Lojka by Jordan Magnuson (you can click this link to play it online)

Ms. Lojka is a weird lady who lives in a weird tower in New York and does weird things: so says the weird narrator, via my paraphrasing, in the tale also called Ms. Lojka. The game says on the box that it is not for children. It took me about twenty minutes to play.

My response to this game was all over the place, though I must frame this statement in a positive arch where I would say that if you like morbid intrigue, I recommend Ms. Lojka. It also has great audiovisual and aesthetic strength of the kind that makes me say it is the most expensive-looking (in a Hollywood sense) Twine I have encountered. I will still elaborate in this review on link offerings whose rhyme and reason I could not discern, features I wish creators would not enforce when using the Twine engine, and, at considerable length after some dots, what I made of the game's final message.

Ms. Lojka's introductory image, a scary pastel of a dour woman looking right at you, establishes a mood of anticipatory fearfulness that prevails for the duration. The next image fades in, an impressionist-style pastel of a New York street. An improbable ziggurat stands in the background. The prose of the narrator's thoughts begins to appear, typed onto the screen in real time to the accompaniment of chattering typewriter audio.

Here's something really creepy about the typing, at least on a Mac – if you hide the browser window which is running the game, or move it to another space, the narrator stops typing right where he is. The sounds stop. The letters stop appearing. As soon as you unhide or bring the window back, he continues typing from the very next letter. Awesome!

The narrator turns out to be a glib and somewhat sardonic observer of New York. He speculates on the existence of one Ms. Lojka who dwells in the tower, what she does up there (violence) and what she might represent. Clickable phrases in the narration lead to prose elaborations of the kind you might expect. You can guide the narrator's thoughts around a little bit, but over the course of the game, no prevailing design scheme of much force emerges. Sometimes you get one thought or one slice of history instead of another. Sometimes the choices just aren't very different or comparable. They don't start to construct a frame of reference in relation to each other that would cause you to invest in them with intentionality, or even with much useful speculation.

In short, for ninety percent of the story, I didn't really know why I was clicking one link or another except to make the prose advance in general. I did have a fearful sense of, 'What might happen next?' but that came from (1) the strength of the game's outward aesthetic (2) the game's initial cues that I should be fearful (3) the morbid-leaning speculations of the narrator. It didn't come from anything I clicked, or any anticipation of outcomes or changes based on words I clicked.

Some of the links are emotion or concept words which, when clicked, send you to a black screen which types the narrator's less-filtered inner thoughts, making for a sort of pathological critic channel. The thoughts are brief and often self-correcting (the latter a neat effect) but they are so abstract in relation to the regular narration that they didn't make me feel things. I couldn't hang them on details at the time, though I was tempted to do so in retrospect of the game's ending.

The inner thoughts become more mottled and unsettled as the game progresses, but their practical effect on me was to swell my annoyance that I couldn't really tell when the thought links were ready to click. You have to wait for the thoughts to settle, then you wait a bit more, then you realise, 'OK, the words have stopped moving. I can click now.'

This bumpy business took me in and out of the headspace. My belief is still that the performative/interface/temporal effects that Twine authors can brandish are mostly being used to querulous effect. They are definitely of querulous effect when the issue of replayability is a factor. This game does eventually ask you if you want to play it again in a different way, thus implying there would be a significant variance of content if you were to do so. Knowing that I could not hasten through any of the real-time typewriter text or the thought-shifting black screens was the most immediate reason that I didn't.

I frankly discuss the game outcome that I obtained below the dots-meets-cut.


Friday, 1 April 2016

Choice of choices

Since I'm programming a choice-creating / CYOA extension for Inform 7, I have not been able to help but notice the large number of other choicey tools that are either out there already, or that people are making or releasing right now. For authors, this means they have a growing choice of choices. For me, I know it motivates me to some kind of competitive freshness in my own extension.

This particular post isn't an exhaustive list of choice engines. I'm not doing any research here or being super-helpful. I'm just typing in what I'm aware of to show which ones are on my mind:

– inklewriter from inkle
Ink from inkle
Raconteur, a spinoff of Undum which creator Bruno Dias describes as 'Undum with batteries included'
Salet, a spinoff of Raconteur which is a spinoff of Undum, of which creator Oreolek says: 'It’s actually Undum refactored and rewritten in CoffeeScript with some bits of Raconteur sprinkled in.'

(Homer Simpson: "I just hope we put in enough steampunk, whatever that is.")

To demonstrate the value of competitive motivation, I'll tell you the story of Oreolek's promotional post about Salet. There was one line which said just you wait until I finish the inventory management (those words were italicised in the post).

My first reaction was, 'Oh geez, I haven't programmed my own deeper inventory management system yet.' And my second was, 'Oh yeah? Well how about YOU wait until I finish MY inventory management system?!'

I don't know if the second reaction was a question, or a challenge yelled at people not even listening to me or in the room at the time or who should even have to tolerate such nonsense, so to cover both contingencies I have put both a ? and ! at the end of it.

I then ran off and created an inventory management demo and game for my extension. To make it interesting for myself, I included a glass basket, a transparent container. Then I had an infinite recursion problem –

'The apple (in the glass basket (containing an apple (in the glass basket (containing an apple)...'

– and then I got rid of the infinite recursion problem.

I'm continuing to develop examples and mini-games for my extension. This is turning out to be quite fun, and makes me wonder why I don't place the idea of deeper implementation on a bonfire and just make more games like these ones. I suppose it's because of the split between the things I enjoy playing versus what I would like to make myself. I have enjoyed a huge range of IF, but if I mobilise to make one, I feel like I want to go to a lot of trouble in certain directions. The extension examples are excused for their simplicity, in my own mind, by being examples.

Here is some source from a simple moment in one of the games:

A node rule (this is the bridge-crossing rule):
if cyoa-node stage is prose:
print "The bridge creaks as you place your foot on it. The whole length of it wavers, all the way out over the abyss.[paragraph break]Do you feel brave enough to continue?[paragraph break]";
if cyoa-node stage is choices:
link 1 to "No";
link 1 to "Maybe";
link 2 to "Yes";
if cyoa-node stage is react:
if cyoa-choice is 1:
say "Then you'd best not until you feel bolder. The faint of heart are likely to fall.";
switch to the parser;
if cyoa-choice is 2:
say "You place your other foot on the bridge. The structure is so long and mist-clouded that you can't see the far end. There'll be no escape if it collapses. All you can do is proceed carefully. ";
create a continue moment;
say ".[line break].[line break].[line break]";
switch to the parser in room Over the bridge;

Like at least two similar examples people have pasted from similar choice tools lately, it's pretty clear what this one does and easy to follow even if you don't consider yourself a programmer. It comes from an example demonstrating how to stud a parser game with CYOA moments and conversation.