Tuesday, 6 October 2020

IFComp 2020 review: The Place by Ima

The Place by Ima is a short (5 minutes) Twine story that asks for some typed user input.

Due to the Twine's size, my whole review below must be considered a spoiler.

IFComp 2020 review: For a Place by the Putrid Sea by Arno von Borries

For a Place by the Putrid Sea (PS from now on) is a parser game sequel to Arno von Borries's remarkable and demanding 2015 IFComp debut parser game Gotomomi. No knowledge of the former is necessary to play, but my memories of it did help me tune back in to its gameplay style and aesthetic, which extend into the latter. Gotomomi's PC was a teenaged girl who was sharp with both street smarts and intellect. Her goal was to scrounge up the money to buy a train ticket out of the seedy Gotomomi docklands area of Tokyo. In PS, she returns a few years later, fleeing some unspecified shadiness in Manila and looking for a place to live.


Gotomomi was a large, quite open and difficult game of great mechanical and cultural detail. It offered many monetary paths through its world (e.g. the ability to take on and complete different jobs and to haggle over prices) and a lot of optional experiential content. Some sequences were implemented with microscopic granularity, for instance the (in)famous timing-critical fish-bucket-carrying challenge, which I described as a kind of Tetris and which marked the point at which I stopped playing due to feeling overwhelmed in general. The game was a very impressive construction, but fans and onlookers alike admitted it was not the kind of project to clean up in the context of IFComp.

The arrival of this sequel suggests to me that Borries likes the original game, wants to revisit its world and reinforce it, and maybe address some of the criticisms levelled at the original.

I travelled better and further in PS than I did in Gotomomi, but again, I didn't make it to the end. PS is definitely a more player-focusing game than its predecessor. The geography is tightly gated so it shouldn't take the average player long to acquire a clear goal or two, and the catchment area for exploration and solutions is more localised. The heroine Ayako again finds herself dealing with a range of shady and eccentric residents of Gotomomi – amongst them a very non-community-minded landlord and that guy who runs the fish factory – as she seeks sources of money and behaves quixotically.

Minor spoilers beyond this point.

Monday, 5 October 2020

IFComp 2020 review: SOUND by Cynthia P

SOUND itself is sufficiently small (for me, a few minutes per play) that my whole review amounts to a spoiler. Therefore, don't read on if you don't want to know about this text-on-black Twine before going into it:

Saturday, 3 October 2020

IFComp 2020 review: The Brutal Murder of Jenny Lee by Daniel Gao (The game is by Daniel Gao, not the murder!)

IFComp 2020 is on now, so it's an inspiring time. You can find the 100ish entries plus the instructions and rules for voting on them at the IFComp website. There's also a helpful/informative/motivational video you can watch on YouTube, by Victor Gijsbers, called How to be a judge in the IF Competition. I will be reviewing some games here in my blog as my time, energy and health allow. My reviews will probably be detailed, but without major spoilers (revelations, twists, solutions, ending details). If I want to talk about those things, I'll put it after a jump break. That said, my level of general detail tends above average. If you are ultra spoiler-averse, you shouldn't be reading strange reviews before playing the games they address, especially mine, and it's always your own fault for doing so the moment you experience spoilage. It definitely isn't mine! Disclaim, disclaim!

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I like to kick off my IFComp experience of a year with the playing of a parser-based horror game that I expect will tickle my fancies. In this year's entries list, I definitely could not go past the title The Brutal Murder of Jenny Lee (hereafter referred to as BM) by Daniel Gao. It's not actually a horror game, and I should point out that it correctly bills itself as a mystery. Its blurb also indicates that sci-fi (time travel) is involved. It doesn't dwell on its adult elements, so references to sex and violence are at the level of any restrained modern whodunnit.


BM took me about an hour to complete, and I was impressed by its interwoven layers of mystery, reality and narratorship, even as the gameplay remained straightforward look, read'n'search throughout. The issues of the PC/narrator split and narrator reliability get a triple workout here. The player initially doesn't know who they are, or why they're investigating Jenny's murder back in 2003. A bold-text-voiced narrator issues instructions that initially seem to intrude on the prose in real time, indicating that the player is under surveillance. Yet that narrator also alludes to having their own problems with another entity. I see BM's sci-fi factor landing individually with different players, but I think the whole is grounded by the specificity of Jenny's world. She was a 17-year-old Chinese immigrant to Canada, was academically pressured by her mum, and lived her teen life in rounds of the band room, the library, and the ACE Tutoring Agency. In the best narrative tradition of the murdered, she also kept secrets.

The whodunnit element presents a decent catalogue of speculative possibilities for the game's size. It's fuelled by the details of Jenny's life, one that evokes some typical migrant experiences but also has enough texture to give Jenny individuality. The way the player experiences her world is as retrospective "recordings" of her most-frequented locations, devoid of people but rife with intimate notes, diaries, library cards, signs and messages on computer screens. The rooms are full of stuff, so much so that even when a lot of objects are "real" (implemented) players are still likely to bounce off the ones that aren't. Weird implementation or under-implementation – and almost no synonym support - are typical shortcomings of the Quest engine, and they're present here. Ninety-five percent of the time, you don't need to guess verbs in Quest games, but when you do, you're in trouble; the walkthrough got me through two such bits in BM. Nevertheless, compelling forward progress and little mysteries come thick and fast.

I was also struck by a lot of the physical environmental details in this game. The letters cut out from cardboard spelling "Asian American Heritage Month" in the library, for instance, or the markered masking tape instrument labels in the band room. The accumulation of these sorts of observations conjured the atmospheres of schools and libraries of my past.

In retrospect, BM seems to mix some unusual elements, but then again I've got a feeling this kind of thing is more common than I think. (For instance, in the Young Adult genre. I just had a flash of the novel Slide by Jill Hathaway.) Ultimately, I liked the Jenny's World elements best, and I see how the sci-fi elements facilitate the exploration of her world in a prying, adventure-gamey way that would otherwise be realistically impossible. In fact, it occurs to me I used almost the same mechanism for exploring a character's past in my contribution to the game Cragne Manor. Rough edges and implementation troubles aside, BM is novel and ambitious, often well-observed and delivers an involving story with elements of cultural specificity.

The author's note recommends playing BM offline by downloading the PC-only Quest app. This is how I played, and based on my personal and anecdotal experiences of both the Quest system and textadventures.co.uk website, I'd say: if you can play offline, don't muck around. Play offline. However, if you can only play online, then you can only play online.

Click below to read my spoilering thoughts on the game's ending.

Friday, 4 September 2020

IFComp 2020 Music Prize info

This post offers a few more details about the IFComp 2020 prize I'll be offering than will be able to fit on their screen.

The prize is a music commission. I'll compose and produce something for you, or derive something from unreleased recordings I have if they're the ideal match, for your chosen purpose.

I specialise in instrumental and electronic music, but can do or wrangle many styles and things, so long as you don't want me to supply vocals.

For last year's picker of this prize, I composed a theme song for the new version of his show opening:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qWppNq8N0kg

Here are my Restrictive Clauses!

  • For non-commercial use, the purpose can be almost anything. For commercial use, the piece can contribute to some creative project you've made or are making. I can decline if the purpose is hazardous, inscrutable or commercially murky, etc.
  • Length is a limitation, but up for reasonable negotiation in context. For instance, some electronic or ambient music can be made quite long in the same time it would take to produce a shorter piece in some other kinds or genres. Composing to vision also takes more time.
  • If you pick this prize, you have to call it in within a year.

Links to my music

  • My long-term electronic music project is Aeriae:

https://aeriae.bandcamp.com/

Peril Triage is my most recent EP. DE is a live set recording. Victris is my most recent album.)

https://aeriae.com/

  • Some other pieces I've made in different genres can be found on the following Bandcamp page:

https://wadeclarke.bandcamp.com/

of which, the ones listed below were actually for IF games:

Black Giant (sci-fi theme)

Andromeda 1983 (C64 style in-game)

Kerkerkruip (Diablo-esque)

Leadlight Gamma (horror, eclectic)

Ghosterington Night (cheesy spooky)

Monday, 17 August 2020

IntroComp 2020 review: Foreign Soil by Olaf Nowacki

Foreign Soil, by Olaf Nowacki, is the beginning of a parser-driven sci-fi adventure, one whose demo duration leaves the potential scale of the whole open to speculation.

In the striking opening scene, the PC is born, messily and with plenty of fluid, of a sarcophagus on an alien planet. Her apparent task: to establish a colony from scratch. It seems a bit pessimistic on the part of her parent civilisation to have preserved its colonists in containers that are basically elaborate coffins, but sarcophagi are certainly cooler than glass tubes. Thus the game starts out well.

After solving a few uncomplicated waking-up-groggy puzzles, the player gets to have a look outside the ship. For me, donning a suit and going through an airlock always takes me back to Scott Adams's Strange Odyssey – you've probably got your own first airlock. The scale of the landing crater is conveyed by splitting it up into numerous empty locations, simply connected. And the bounds of the crater are really the bounds of this introduction, as far as I can tell. Someone else already reported not being able to progress beyond the pulling of a lever found on the outside of the spaceship, however we could all be wrong! If there is more to this demo, please let me know, anyone. This invitation is extended to the author as well, though obviously the author should contact me privately and make sure they avoid breaking any Introcomp rules.

In reviewing my transcript of the game, I realised that the strength of the birth scene is essentially the strength of the whole demo. Beyond that point, the descriptions, design and implementation quickly slide towards the minimal. In terms of my expectations for an extended version of this game, I'd be wanting everything to be as interesting as that first scene. In terms of imagery, the author has already shown that they've got that up their sleeve.

The trick would seem to be that the goal of establishing a colony is a pretty radical one with many dimensions. Would the player have to resurrect other colonists? Find and develop food and shelter? Change the atmosphere? Explore the planet? I can imagine an old school Scott Adams (again) implementation of these ideas that would barely convey them in satisfactory fashion to contemporary players, and the result would be a simple and non-modern game. That's definitely not where I would encourage the author to go. Yet the alternative is looking like a (scarily?) large and complex game to develop. One that might be too big to take on, considering some of the introductory level work that needs to be done on this demo. The main issues with what exists are a lack of support for obvious synonyms, and the game not catering to most common alternative methods of conveying similar ideas to what the game wants. The descriptions of locations quickly become bare, meaning there isn't much to interact with.

A rhetorical aside: How much stuff should we implement in a game? The general trend over time (like, decades) has been towards more. This is both a function of acquiring the technological ability to do it, and because implemented people and scenery and objects open up the interactivity of the parser game. But as parser games have gotten bigger, the work of implementing everything has increased exponentially, even though the games are still generally the work of one person. So we have seen creative offshoots which involve restricting the parser's vocabulary, or deliberately choosing not to implement as much in this traditional sense ("light implementation") and to focus on other aspects or mechanics of the game.

Returning to Foreign Soil, it's definitely in the sci-fi world genre of parser game that draws power from medium to heavy implementation. If it were to follow up on the quality of the first scene, I would like to see the rest of it, but I fear I might be waiting years for the result if the game continues on its current trajectory of asking the player to establish a colony. Of course there are a thousand excuses that could be made to turn the story in other directions that might be less difficult to implement and complete. Or even a strange version of the initial one. My advice to the author would probably be to not overreach with the scope of this project. That first scene can certainly be worked into something manageable.

Saturday, 8 August 2020

IntroComp 2020 review: Pre-Marie by Dee Cooke

Something intriguing about IntroComp is that you have no idea what any particular entry will be about, or like, until you download and try it. There are no cover graphics or blurbs to lure you in, or to cue you, or to falsely cue you – just the titles of the entries.

These thoughts revisited me when I tried Pre-Marie, an entry from Dee Cooke. This is a parser-driven game made using the Adventuron system. While I feel I've encountered numerous blog posts about Adventuron development over time, I don't think I've ever played an Adventuron game before. The system's page on itch.io shows many games sporting a ZX Spectrum graphic aesthetic, surely indicating a UK-based heritage. In Australia where I am, we didn't have the Spectrum when I was growing up, but we did have the Commodore 64, so in buying UK-published gaming magazines for Commodore 64 reviews, I also read all the reviews for the Spectrum games and saw their screenshots.

screenshot from pre-marie showing a rainy street
The rain beats down on Janette's Crossley flat in Pre-Marie

Marie (the 'pre' referring to the fact this is a taster offered for IntroComp) is set in contemporary London. The PC is a woman about to sneak out to investigate some unspecified mystery that she doesn't want her currently sleeping husband to know she's going to investigate. It's a compelling set-up delivered in a generally old school manner. This means: the parser is simple and doesn't understand a lot or too well. The graphics are pixellated pastels that vaguely remind me of some of the first graphic adventure games from the 1980s, and especially the propensity of those games to present different streets in a town in ways that made them seem disorientingly samey. The font is channelling both ZX Spectrum adventuring and Sierra's various 'quest' games. Finally, the game has a mildly punitive design outlook. I think this last effect is just down to some of its oversights reproducing what we now perceive in older games to have been an absence of helpfulness, and not to any intent.

For instance, reaching for a wet newspaper spied on the ground prompts a 'Leave it alone, it's wet'-type rejection message. But really, the game wants you to READ the newspaper. So there's a kind of needless misdirection there. The prose is also a little misjudged in giving overall direction. Early on it presents the heroine's internal dithering as to whether she should hasten to get on a train or keep exploring her neighbourhood, but the game is really about doing the latter. Her dithering is too dithery re: what's important to the game. New location descriptions sometimes scroll partly out of view, meaning you have to mouse back up the first time you enter a new area.

It took several plays for me to apprehend all of this, and the first play felt especially open ("What's going on? How does this game work? What does it want? What can it do? What should I do?"). I certainly enjoyed the intrigue of trying to make out the game's aesthetic over those plays, its suburban London setting and the mystery of its plot. I barely dented that plot. I do ultimately find the game curious. There's something non-transparent to me about how this particular story's being delivered – with this old font, with these graphics, with its mystery plot versus its simple parser. It may be transparent to the author or Adventuron folk; it might have become clearer to me were the game to have continued. I also confess I don't especially like the graphics overall, though they have their moments. The pastel colour scheme leads to a kind of non-differentiation that I find hard to interpret at times. I also find the PC's notebook contents, presented via the graphics, pretty illegible.

On the excerpt of Marie given, I don't quite get it, but my curiosity does prompt me to give the IntroCompish verdict of, yes, I would like to see more of this game. And I like that IntroComp allows me to have this kind of totally unheralded game experience.