Saturday, 15 October 2016

IFComp 2016 review: The Little Lifeform That Could... by Fade Manley

I thought I recognised the 'blob of goop evolves to starflight via all the stages inbetween' premise of Little Lifeform from somewhere. I've not played Spore but I've read about it, and that's the game. But I don't think Little is 'just' doing Spore via prose and the Choice Of Games engine. It has a particular aesthetic slant that is somewhat cute, somewhat dapper (hat-orientated) and generally encouraging. Simultaneously, it seeks to avoid throwing any eggs into particular baskets of peril. It presents a version of the universe that equalises all paths. Frankly this is not something I am used to, and in some bizarre way, I found it a little sinister. The most violent way through life turns out to be as good as the most arty, which is as good as the most capitalistic or the most dapper. That said, I don't think my subtextual reaction is worthy of any great dark spin. The goal of the game is obviously to let you play any way you want, give you a corresponding experience via its cute aesthetic, and allow your way to work. Then, if you like, you can try another way and see what humourous take the game offers on contrasting modes of behaviour.

Your stats in categories like Charm, Defensiveness and Patience are tracked, checkable at any time, and don't seem to lie, though I found the game's ultimate prose assessment of some of my performances a little off (one said I'd leaned on trade when all I remember doing was being the greatest artist and aesthete in the whole universe.) The game is otherwise pretty perfect at what it does, and it's charmingly written. I just missed having some emphases somewhere, because that's how I've always liked my games.

The Little Lifeform that could is certainly not the amoral spectacle of violent death in an uncaring universe that it could have been.

Or is it?..

No, it isn't.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

IFComp 2016 review: Aether Apeiron: The Zephyra Chronicles. Book I: The Departure --- Part I: Prelude to Our Final Days on Kyzikos by Hippodamus & Company

(I wrote this on an iPad over a few days while on holiday on an island where I occasionally had 1G/GPRS, and no signal the rest of the time. It made me glad that good old text-based IF requires very little bandwidth to function.)

Aether Apeiron: The Zephyra Chronicles. Book I: The Departure --- Part I: Prelude to Our Final Days on Kyzikos is an extraordinarily long title for a game, or for anything else. Its multiple clauses of descending magnitude promise tons of episodes, galactic-scaled adventuring, locally-scaled adventuring, sci-fi societal sculpting, a cast of thousands (or at least dozens) and the highly agreeable portentousness of prolonged high fantasy. This is a set of promises no single IFComp entry can keep within the context of its IFComp; the two hour rule makes that physically impossible. Folks can, have and will continue to use IFComp to introduce punters to their big multi-part IFs, and I expect a cross-section of judges will continue to be bemused by these introductions – some of which end in really weird places – as they try to interpret them as standalone experiences for scoring purposes, and regardless of whether or not the judges want to play more of them.

Aether is one of those introductory games that ends in a really weird place. And it starts in a confusing one. The end is not inherently weird, but it's weird in light of the experience it just spent all its time imparting. That experience is a link-based sci-fi / fantasy adventure with a scaffolding of Greek idylls, philosophers and mythology. The first screen, a page of prose from a log, indicates rhetorically that the narrator is or was something like a familiar of the eponymous Zephyra, then confuses by setting the scene with a series of nested geographical relationships (paraphrasing: the moon with the woods orbiting the planet surrounded by the clouds in the Propontis system) and raising the spectre of a great many groups of people and other entities with unusual names involved in Zephyra's story. Plus there's a quote from Plutarch. It's a tad overwhelming.

Zephyra turns out to be a space pilot in the now...

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

IFComp 2016 review: All I Do Is Dream by Megan Stevens

Short, existential Twine game in which you specify the manners in which you will veg out in the house during your girlfriend's next night shift at the pickle factory. This is an experience hailing from the drab end of the slice of life cake. You can think about the bedclothes, fiddle a bit with the bedclothes, clean objects in several boring stages. Your character is clearly depressed, as the prose is insistent about the pointlessness of any activity. A few prose studs of specificity about the characters' shared life don't make up for the more macroscopic lack of specificity that prevents any insight into their plight over the short duration.

Perhaps this is the Twine equivalent of the parser world's 'My Crappy Apartment Game'. The apartment is still there, but the focus shifts to the immediate crappy existential rather than the immediate crappy physical. 'All I Do's...' observations of fiddly-stuck depression make for better writing than that of most My Crappy Apartment games, but its small catalogue of anxious domestic activity didn't interest me because I knew almost nothing about the characters, before or after.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

IFComp 2016 review: Letters by Madison Evans

In Letters, you're a teenaged girl reading, tracing and clicking your way through a pile of letters from your ostensibly cool school friend Cadence after certain events have occurred.

Both main characters have solid writing chops and some wisdom beyond their years, and they communicate everything to each other by handwritten letters in the year 2008, give or take a few years. I felt this setup was a bit of a contrivance, the kind of thing that is outrageously possible in real life yet which takes a certain amount of feinting or explaining when delivered as fiction to get people to buy it. I decided to accept the premise and move on once I acknowledged I was enjoying Letters's sparky, emotional teen writing, and that I was also being prompted to think about how I was interacting with this IF. It worked for me both as emotional writing and as something with a bit of a puzzly feel, an experience I've rarely had with similarly presented IFs in the past.

I spent about twenty minutes with Letters and felt that I had satisfactorily experienced most of its content by that point, though probably not all of it. It's not easy to track which links you've previously clicked, unless perhaps you lawnmower them, or have a better memory than I do. It was a testament to the game's effectiveness that I had no interest in mowing the lawn. I was clicking particular links I wanted to click for reasons I possessed or imagined in relation to the story. Contrivances accepted, I liked Letters a lot.

More detail, with spoilers, beyond.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

IFComp 2016 review: Snake's Game by Nahian Nasir

Snake's Game is an exotic, pretty inscrutable prose'n'clickable choices piece in which a man walks into an eatery when some manifestation of existential evil – Snake, aka The Vermin – visits his brain and starts having a natter with him about a not-forecasting-the-future game they could play. If they do, the resulting conversations lead to the 'several psychedelic experiences… with demons, monsters, and some more!' promised by the blurb.

The inklewriter engine presents Snake's prose handsomely, and aesthetically it's very good prose, sometimes ripe, only wavering in a bit of proofreading and a rare mistake of the kind that makes me think English is not the author's first language. For other reasons, it is not easy or transparent writing. Not just because of its poetic leanings, but because I don't claim to really know what it was going on about half the time.

The game actively requests replays, encouraging you to build up a bigger picture of something, plus it thanks you every time you reach an ending. (I was thanked five times. That's a fair bit of thanking.) I almost quit after my first play because that first path I happened down was short and, in retrospect, still one of the least scrutable I ever read within the game, and not even in an abstract way. It was just like reading the middle few pages of a wacky book. So I was unlucky in that sense. I tried again, grew more interested, tried again, tried again. Ultimately I played one more time than I thought I would (and for about twenty minutes overall) feeling that I was building up some enjoyment, but there still seemed to be a cap on things making much sense, which is why I didn't continue on to try all the endings.

If you like, or think you might like, any of these things – existential psychedelia, flying into the sky suddenly with a cat, vivid visions of gore, celestial types chatting like they're in the pub, religious-leaning imagery – you might like Snake's Game.

If you love, or think you might love, the aforementioned things, you may truly love Snake's Game. I can as easily imagine people hating it pretty quickly. I admired it but in the end I like written fiction to make more coherent sense. I can say that Snake's Game shifted my perception of it significantly on each iteration, and that's something of a feat in a pretty abstract work.

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IFComp 2016 review: Night House by bitterkarella

Night House is a mystery-horror parser adventure of some spookiness. It mobilises a combination of vintage object-based puzzling (use A on B, B on C, C on D and later G, E on F) and the methods of backstory revelation that have become popular in both horror films and gaming over the last couple of decades. The protagonist is an eight year-old child who wakes to a mysteriously empty version of their home and unseen menaces.

The game runs – somewhat stickily – in the Quest engine. I loved the automap, but I didn’t love the way lots of useless items were highlighted with hyperlinks, often drawing attention away from important items buried in the inventorial sea. And it's a big sea in Night House. If you love amassing a huge inventory of doodads and using them to hurdle hurdles in all kinds of laterally conceived practical ways, Night House will whet that appetite. If you don’t have enough horror tastebuds on your tongue, you probably won't find Night House sufficiently distinguished from things you’ve experienced before. Overall it's a dense puzzler with a pretty good, mildly choppy story that I basically followed but didn't completely follow; I will express some of my ignorances in the spoilered part of this review.

The game also has a lot of implementation fiddles and some bugs. Many of the former seem to be a product of the Quest parser's design, though paradoxically, a subset of those are then resolved by Quest's hybrid interface.

The game took me about 90 minutes to complete. I made increasing use of the walkthrough as I progressed. Mac users can't play Quest games offline so I had to play at textadventures.co.uk. This resulted in an average pause time of 1 second between turns, significantly increasing the stickiness of the experience. If you can play offline, I'd do so. There's lots of backtracking and experimentation required in this game which you could knock down instantly offline.

Two pro tips:

1. In Quest, when in doubt about verbs, use the phrase USE (A) WITH (B)

2. In Quest, if still in doubt, right-click any lit objects to see if the action you've been agonisingly trying to phrase correctly happens to be a contextual choice that then shows up.

Spoilered extended musings beyond.

Monday, 3 October 2016

IFComp 2016 reviews: The Mouse by Norbez

In which a uni student in small town America negotiates domestic abuse and violence from her roommate.

The Mouse feels like a comic book with the multimedia additions that computers bring: audio and music, dynamics of delay, a few choices. You click through its pages in a forwards direction, usually by the tail of the last sentence on each page. I think it's assured in its comic bookish sensibility, for instance with a fan of images of the heroine's domestic preparations going from left to right down the screen, or with its generally well-judged interplay of text and images. However, I was frustrated by the story framing and scale in general, and by the constant hesitance of the main character in dialogue and narration. Spoilers below.