Friday, 27 May 2022

Andromeda Acolytes Kickstarter adopts pre-launch stance

Flying saucer with caption "Is this thing on?"
A bit of "Plan 10", an ancient webcomic of mine

The Kickstarter for my sci-fi parser adventure Andromeda Acolytes has acquired pre-launch status. What this means is that Kickstarter have vetted and approved my campaign presentation. It doesn't mean that you can SEE that presentation yet! Such excitement remains locked up until launch day. But moving back to the topic of what it does mean... it does mean you can now press a NOTIFY ME button on the pre-launch page so that you will get an alert the moment the campaign goes live.

Here's the page link:

If you're not on Kickstarter yet, pressing the button should lead you into the process of signing up, too. 

I've been prepping this Kickstarter for about a year now, so if you bump into me in the street, please ignore any cock-eyed look I happen to have on my face. We Kickstart-preppers start seeing weird minor obstacles approaching from all directions all of the time.

Friday, 22 April 2022

Autumnal Jumble 2022 review: Phenomena by Dawn Sueoka

Preface: When I tried Phenomena, I didn't realise it had some mechanical interactivity in it; you can click the lines in the poems to change them. I reviewed it without this knowledge, and that's the review you're about to read. Phenomena made a bit of a mistake in not giving any direct instructions about how/where you could change elements in its presentation.


Phenomena by Dawn Sueoka, a Back Garden entry in Autumnal Jumble 2022, is a set of seven seven-line poems about UFOS. These poems are static from a technical perspective. It is their shared subject matter, and the broad similarity of their trajectories and on-screen presentation, that invites cross-reading of them. The author encourages readers to do this in the epigraph; this is the site of interactivity. The author says that the inspiring model is the 1961 book "A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems" by Raymond Queneau.

I like the poems. Some are sensorial and about gazing at the sky ("Only the flimsiest stars were visible"), others are metaphorical about what's up there. The one called AND HOW WOULD YOU UNPACK THAT? reads like an art film depiction of a pscyhoanalytic session under hypnosis. I was surprised that there were a few laughs and cute moments about the place, too. The first poem quickly moves from its evocative introduction to a camp bit of dialogue with which to greet a flying saucer: "Hello, darling!" Some of the last poem could be a quasi-text-messaging gotcha:

"This was never a story about UFOs!

It was a story about the night all along lol."

I also love comedic dialogue that magnifies pettiness, and the last line of the poem called HE WOULDN'T SHUT UP ABOUT HIS PLANET is, "Go back to your stupid planet, then, if you love it so much!"

The modern or colloquial elements woven amongst more expected (by me, in poetry) lyrical content in Phenomena make me wonder if some stochastic element was used to help make the poems. What I can say of each poem is that it has a satisfying dynamic of its own.

This brings me to the invitation to interactivity. Once I noticed each poem had seven lines, I tried flitting between them to see if I could slice equivalent numbered lines amongst the poems to new effect. The reason this didn't do much for me is because I'm already quite satisfied with the poems. Why muck around with complete entities I like? The other issue is one of technical facilitation. I'd have found the poem-slicing easier if I could have at least clicked instantly on any poem at any time so that the poems would visually replace each other on-screen. Instead, poems are separated by a BACK button. Still, I noted that a couple of poems, while maintaining an internal dynamic, consist entirely of one type of content. Poem five has only one-word lines. Poem six is all direct speech. In this way, they would allow their respective content types to be slid into any position in another poem.

I enjoyed reading Phenomena's poems as they are, and I was interested to learn of the "A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems" idea, but since the whole thing's presented digitally, I think its invitation to read its poems in different ways would be more appetising if it leveraged some programming or a user interface that would help a reader do this.

Sunday, 17 April 2022

Autumnal Jumble 2022 review: A Single Ouroboros Scale by Naomi Norbez

A Single Ouroboros Scale by Naomi Norbez is a hypertext trip through the archive of a fictional hypertext author, AlgieFreyir. The archive entries all have a trajectory towards extremity: The author's work is never received the way they want in IFdom so their internal fury mounts. Their mental health declines and their frustrations increase. Their lucidity decreases. Their physical health declines and death looms. The reader's position in this is as a moderator on the Jot Archive Volunteer Project, tasked with ultimately deciding whether AlgieFreyir's material is worth archiving. Or at least venturing their opinion on the topic to a doddering/patriarchal-seeming, gatekeeping overseer called REvans.

This is a frightening read. Dying, being forgotten, thrashing against everything in the space you've chosen to work in. It works best as a wave of honest emotion. For logic or likeliness of the specificities of the IF world the foreword says it mirrors, it often doesn't make sense. For instance, digital storage space is cheap. The content-blind IF Archive can and does archive everything that anyone puts into it. The IFDB (Interactive Fiction Database) is the same, to the chagrin of some. IFWiki is editable by anyone. This hypertext's situation of having a prejudicial gatekeeper deciding which articles to save or delete on a one-by-one basis to shape history is better read as a metaphor for the broader feeling of rejection of one's work the game fixes on, and a tie-in to the fear of being forgotten in general.

The dynamic of the narration is excellent. The minutiae of thoughts skittering back and forth, and the general evolution of AlgieFreyir's outlook from an almost naive positivity to thorough, passive-aggressive bitterness by the end, is perfectly written. Inevitably, a good chunk of it is thoroughly unpleasant to read, too, in the way that a litany of negativity usually is. It comes back to the need for love near the end, but by that point it's also like a cry from a tunnel. Too little too late for the narrator.

Pieces with an autobiographical slant often lead me to an autobiographical slant as a reviewer. I don't know if the result is a review-review as I usually call the thing I'm writing about an IF; it's something else I haven't named.

I dislike and try to ignore moves to frame my response to creative work before I've experienced it, a few of the kinds of things Ouroboros says in its foreword. I do believe you put art out there, people receive it, and for the most part, you don't tell them how to receive it. Otherwise you may simply be the new gatekeeper you decry.

Once I started reading, I found the narrator character irritating in terms of his constant moves to pre-frame responses to his own ideas, the blind spot of desiring empathy but being so solidly bound up with his own assumptions as to share little of it specifically. This is reflected again in the Ouroboros-like circle of the idea of reputation that surrounds the narrative. The narrator wants a name and reputation, but all the baddies (the popular, the revered, etc.) are people with names and reputations. In turn, this made me think that part of the issue for the character is being in a social vacuum. They declare in the finale of the text that they've lost almost all their friends. The kinds of conversations the narrator is having with themselves aren't the kind that people can have healthily in their own heads at length. We need other people. Some of us need psychiatrists. By bouncing an idea off a real person, we can often return to reality in seconds. This is potentially one of the curses of intelligent people, that they can mount and sustain such negative self-talk for an eternity. I once read a description of this phenomenon by a "reformed" depressive as "a perverse form of mental masturbation". As someone with long term major depression and anxiety essentially behind me now, I wryly related to that description from my sense of where I am today.

The end of Ouroboros is interesting in that in different dimensions, it may be a very anti-hope piece of narrative or a generous conceptual gesture on the part of the text. At the conceptual end, it lets the reader decide whether they want to advise REvans to keep AlgieFreyir's Jots or delete them. The player can also choose to read as much or as little of AlgieFreyir as they like before they make their decision. In light of the thrashing of the entire narrative and its frequent foreclosing of other's thoughts and responses, this feels like a respectfully democratic moment for the player, an acceptance that others get to make up their minds about something offered to them. In the anti-hope camp, there is the fact that that REvans will veto the player's decision anyway, deleting AlgieFreyir's material and kicking (in a superficially genteel way) a recalcitrant player from the volunteer position. Again, the title image is appropriate: the snake will eat itself, the impulse will go around and self-destruct. Since I read REvans more as a metaphor than a real person, I didn't find the anti-hope element to be too heavy or didactic. It's certainly an accurate representation of the narrator's state of mind.

Saturday, 16 April 2022

Autumnal Jumble 2022 review: Bigfoot Bluff by P.B. Parjeter

Bigfoot Bluff, by P.B. Parjeter, is a busy parser adventure game of bizarre comedy. You play a paparazzi (?!) Bigfoot trying to snap a picture of your dad, a Bigfoot, in a national park he controls. You're doing this for reasons that are hard to understand at first and hard to articulate later. Plus the park has cryptids (? again) in it. And you're photographing them. Why to both? Well, it works out eventually, but this doesn't feel like the kind of game in which one should be fumbling for understanding as often as one is.

BB taps the vein of fun eight-bit adventures with its tons of amusing objects to collect, little puzzles all over the place and a sarcastic parser voice. It's quite compulsively enjoyable already, but simultaneously frustrating to play. Part of the trouble is in the realm of combinatorial explosion. With so many crazy objects in the game (you can sling a goat over your shoulder, dig chocolate out of a pie, wear a falconry glove, take photographs of things, build disguises out of bits of park detritus, etc.) interactions amongst them are underimplemented. This much stuff calls for that much more development work. Many great ideas I typed in received default rejection messages, making my perception of puzzle difficulty go up. There are also minor bugs and almost no synonyms, which leads to time spent retyping and rephrasing good commands.

And, for a good while, I genuinely thought the game was trolling me. Part of the HELP says:

"... Try to do various things that will help you stay hidden in the park. As you do, your score will increase and you will be able to track down Bigfoot Senior and catch him on camera...

Bigfoot Bluff is a forgiving game even though undoing is disabled. If you lose points, don't worry! Just keep playing and you will more than make up for the lost points."

So the score is related to stealthiness. If you act stealthily or increase stealth, your score goes up. But if you bumblingly draw attention to yourself, you lose points. I grew to find the numerous ways you can lose points increasingly hilarious, and suspected that the game's help message about its forgiving nature might be part of the joke.

Here are examples.

What if I...

– Put on some aviator glasses I found on a crash dummy in a downed plane?

>wear glasses

The glare from the reflective coating gives your position away

Score minus two

– Examine the drone I saw hovering near the plane?

>x drone

The drone focuses its lens and you hear a click as it photographs you.

Score minus one

– Try setting a weather-altering machine to SNOW in hopes of making me harder to see?

>set weather to snow

You set the weather machine to snow.

It begins snowing. Your tracks will only make you easier to follow.

Score minus one

Try setting the same machine to WINDY instead?

>set weather to windy

You set the weather machine to wind.

The wind picks up; this will only blow your scent around.

Score minus one

After twelve score-altering events had occurred in the game, I had made a net gain of only three points.

It took me a long time to get on the wavelength of BB. To really understand the premise, and what I was trying to do, and why, and how I should be going about it. I think part of this may be that the intro is too sparse. The premise is deliberately silly, but it's also sophisticated. The opening line is:

"Ten years ago you renounced Bigfootdom to become a paparazzi. Now it is your job to do an exposé on your reclusive sasquatch father. Welcome to... Bigfoot Bluff."

This bit of prose requires unpacking and raises a lot of questions. But the game just starts with you standing in a Parking Lot of short description. Probably the HELP text would be better placed as part of the introduction, and it could all stand to be more focused. I don't think having to make sense of everything slowly by playing the game is the best fit for BB, but that's how it is now.

The game builds up an effective aesthetic that is simultaneously funny and a little menacing. The emphasis on surveillance inevitably makes you feel like you're being watched. The descriptions of the park don't need to be extensive to create a strong sense of place, a naturally beautiful wilderness with your father's menacing cabin sitting in the middle of it, and the PDF map helps, too. There are wacky cryptids about the place, such as the Garbogriff, for you to photograph, and the taunting announcements / nature talks your father is strangely obliged to give by loudspeaker at such times are amusing as well as truly weird. His later revelations are even weirder and wilder.

BB describes itself as a sandbox game. I don't think I've ever really understood the term, but here it seems to refer to both the nature of the map, and perhaps the mechanic whereby there are many puzzles to be solved, but that you don't have to solve them all. I found this to be a relief because I had a good amount of unused stuff left in my inventory at game's end. And that end is quite spectacular.

BB is a detailed and very funny game, but its implementation isn't a match for its content, and I believe it's unnecessarily hard to get into. I'd like to see these issues addressed in a future update.

Thursday, 14 April 2022

Autumnal Jumble 2022 review: Hypercubic Time-Warp All-go-rhythmic Synchrony by Ben Kidwell and Maevele Straw

Hypercubic Time-Warp All-go-rhythmic Synchrony (HC from here on) is the semi-autobiographical parser sequel to 2016's also semi-autobiographical Harmonic Time-Bind Ritual Symphony by the same authors, Ben Kidwell and Maevele Straw, and which was also introduced via Spring Thing.

I found the first game to be extraordinary. It's a hippiedom-infused, life-living sim seen through the window of manic depression, and transfused with plenty of bike-riding, fictional computer tech, new age alternate realities, loving, drug-taking and blasts of mathematics. In spite of its chaos, it displays an almost perfect marriage of form and function in relation to its subject matter, and is wildly written, and fun as well. (You can read my 2016 review of Harmonic Time-Bind Ritual Symphony in this blog.)

The follow-up, HC, has deep connections to the first, albeit in a fractalised, non-continuous way. Memories and events recur, or are revisited, or are re-analysed, or are fit into a continuing narrative of what has been happening with the authors since the first game. While all of the same subject matter returns in this second episode, the result is superficially less satisfying than the first because this time around, the framework is not conspicuously gamey. The player may still be the PC, now known as Mycroftiv (the narrator Ben from the first game) but they aren't a doer in a game world. They're invited to read what amounts to Mycroftiv's hypercubic journal of their memories and experiences. Each location in the game functions as one of 64 journal entries, and they're divided up in a virtual filing cabinet navigated by a bit-based nav system worthy of an Andrew Schultz game. The player's goal is open-ended: they can read entries as they see fit, and try combining some of the objects they find along the way. Objects like a Boolean Prime Ideal or a Measurable cardinal axiom. Examining these objects gives points, which is a measure of progress, but not a particularly important or logistically useful one in this game.

As I found the first game very moving, I found reading the entries in HC just as moving and stimulating, and somehow enveloping. They deal, through the authors' anecdotes, with family relationships, the nature of friendships, peak experiences via people and nature, and theories of "the mathematics of loving communication". Thus encapsulated, that last one may sound flakey, but the journal entries devoted purely to mathematical theories are not light reading. While two authors of the work are credited, the narrator voice is Ben Kidwell's / BenJen's / Mycroftiv's.

In both games, what I feel as I play them is the accuracy of the reality espoused (or theorised) by their authors, because in its bizarre way, it is perfectly articulated through wonderful writing that is never didactic. The narrator can be frank and proselytic when in their manic phases, but they're also tempered by acknowledgment of their mistakes, by moments of standing outside themselves, and by a lot of extended musing on the nature of empathy. The major declared mistake that forms a cut-off point in their life for the genesis of this game sounds especially disastrous (giving voice to sexual interest in a teenaged ward during a ritual invented during a manic phase) and this declaration is made in the first lines of the game. All the player's reading is declared to be about to happen "backwards in time... before everything shattered." So there is a sad frame placed around the game. However, its core narration is clearly an espousal of optimism. The sum of its multi-dimensional journal of positive memories, breakthroughs, mathematical progresses and wonderful human connections is an Eternal Yes.

Like the first episode, I see HC as demonstrating a perfect melding of form and ideas. The author's favourite idea, articulated in a thousand different ways, is about the interconnectedness of all things. The hypercubic nature of the game's journal connects its 64 locations in a fashion that allows you to get between any of them in fewer moves than it would take on, say, an eight by eight grid. This is a mechanical demonstration of what it may be like to have access to another dimension. In turn, the player's path through these locations may be entirely random (people who don't get binary numbers) or may follow a certain logic (people who know binary and can use the game's binary coordinates to lawnmower the journal). Somewhere on their journey, the player will likely find the journal entry that muses on the nature of free will and randomness:

"... I'd like to propose instead that free will is better understood as what randomness feels like from the inside. The intuitive sense that free will is different from randomness is a dichotomy between the external view of dice rolls as meaningless and arbitrary versus the meaningfulness we feel motivates our own choices. A more careful examination of the definition of 'random' shows that the identification of 'random equals meaningless' is not objective. The real definition of random is simply anything that cannot be externally predicted on the basis of available information..."

For all its wildness, the game has this seer-like, synchronous way about it, and contains journal entries addressing almost any mechanic or idea demonstrated by the performance of the game itself. Some of these entries are indirect, others explicit. One that made me laugh was the authors discussing whether the entries describing mathematics would prove too thick for readers. I'd already found my concentration wavering when trying to follow some of those entries down at my lay level. Another entry stepped out of the game to posit that the player is actually a character in another game played by 17-dimensional chipmunks.

It's with tricks like these that the game seems to be what it proclaims reality is: a demonstration of complete interconnectedness in ways we can't anticipate or understand. That it's also an emotional diary of creative experiences, introspective moments growing out of bike rides, jokes, and mathematical ponderings, demonstrates the authors' great instincts for mapping the personal onto the cosmic and the existential. And that it has no end as such, instead just failing to provide new material at some point – petering out, even – seems to be saying something about the imperfect movement between different episodes in our lives or creative outputs.

I think the game is also superbly written from word to word. The voice is persuasive, lyrical, able to build ideas clearly when necessary, and also able to explode them with illegal syntaxes when necessary. While HC drops its gaminess relative to its predecessor, its lack of a need for world model implementation has allowed the authors to take even more flight with their prose, at greater length and as often as they like.

I find it hard to imagine just how HC will fall on players who never tried the first game. It's bound up with that game's contents like the posited hypercube. A cube placed in the first game, and which then expanded simultaneously in all directions, might produce the vertices of the second game as a diffracted take on the old mixed with the new. Given that the parts of the old that reappear are reconstituted in detail, I suspect they might work and stand alone for new players. And if you like HC, you should certainly return to the first game to experience its more purposive take on an earlier stream of the story. Both games come with optional outside-the-game music, and HC's extras folder contains css files with theory and speculation about Enlightenment Escalators and Harmonic Ultrafilters. Together, the two Harmonic pieces comprise one of the most singular visions in IF.

Friday, 8 April 2022

Autumnal Jumble 2022 review: The Prairie House by Chris Hay and Kelsen Hadder

* When I first posted this review, I mistakenly claimed the soundtrack was partly original. It's actually entirely original, all by Kelsen Hadder. This mistake came from me misreading part of info on the page. The mistake has now been corrected in the following review.

In Adventuron parser game The Prairie House by Chris Hay and Kelsen Hadder (I'll call it PH for short) the PC is a student involved in soil-collecting field work on the Canadian prairies. Running out of light at the end of an enthusiastically spent day, they drive to an empty but storied communal field house to stay the night. The game's mystery-based trajectory of spookiness is a steadily upwards one.

I played PH on a Mac Pro (mid-2010) and's online player for it wouldn't run in either my Safari or Brave web browsers, so I just downloaded the game. I had no trouble playing in the Brave browser once I was running a local copy.

PH took me about half an hour to complete on my first play, and I was thoroughly enveloped by its atmosphere and story details all the way. The experience builds to solid folkloric ghost tale chills, and even gets in a quality and non-cheap jump scare en route. The game's prose of geography and props is minimal in general, but expands at the right moments. It cues fear right from the first screen:

"As you look around the open grassland, and nervously at the nearby aspen groves, you feel utterly exhausted and alone, and you realize how vulnerable you are."

Part of playing any IF game is divining its general outlook on how to make progress through it. Is it going to be a game where you're meant to grab everything that isn't nailed down? A game where you'll advance if you just pay attention to the PC's thoughts? Or something else? PH starts off looking pretty open. There are good number of objects on the first few screens, but the game shows quickly enough, by policing what you can and can't take with you, that it's not going to be a kleptomania piece. It's important that it gets this out of the way early, because the later scariness might have been easily derailed had the player been allowed to muck around too much during it. That's to say, had they expected that they should try lots of prop and inventory busywork during the spookiness, simply because they could. The spooky sequences need to cast a kind of unbroken spell to hold their effect.

There is one parser shortcoming in the game, and I don't know if it's due to Adventuron itself or author programming, but objects with two-word names only respond to one of the words. And sometimes it's not the first word. (e.g. a rare orchid is only recognised if you type "orchid", not "rare"). I'd hope most players would clock this during those item-heavy first few locations, but I'd also hope this could be addressed in an updated version of the game.

The feeling the game creates is a specific one with many notes. On the one hand, there's the environmental sparseness of the prairies, the power of nature out there and the fear that comes from being alone in it. But PH also evokes the comfort of finding civilised shelter at a time when you're scared, and also the great indirect civility of the community-minded folk who look after and use the field house. The third note is the history of the house itself, manifest in the mementos and books found inside. Their contents, and the immigration backstory, set up a mystery and some ghost lore. The note wrapping all of the others together in PH is the supernatural reality that encroaches during the night.

PH has an original atmospheric soundtrack by Kelsen Hadder and wields some evocative eight-bit / minimal-palette-style graphics at times. It's also glazed with incidental chiptuney sound effects that simultaneously make the whole thing feel like a lost horror game for the Nintendo Entertainment System – had that console ever hosted parser games or a keyboard with which to play them. PH further offers seven font and colour-controlling themes a player can choose from, both before and during play. My main theoretical interest in these was to see what the scene graphics would look like in different colours, but these graphics usually occur during cut scenes, a time when you can't change themes.

While the game is simple and accessible in its delivery (I scored ten out of ten on my first game, but I'm not saying you suck if you don't) it builds a rich and particular world in a short space of time, and succeeds in developing eerie tension, further enhanced at a visceral level by the soundtrack. This kind of spell can be hard to sustain in IF, and I was completely under the spell during this game. The aesthetic is entirely coherent and the overall effect is charming as well as eerie. Yes, horror can charm.

* The author cites the films Picnic at Hanging Rock and Deathdream as recent influences. I know both films well, and while the influences don't appear in an overt way, I can detect them.

* If you have a decent amount of money to spend on a collection of international folkloric horror films, have a look at All The Haunts Be Ours: A Compendium Of Folk Horror, for sale at Diabolik DVD. No, I am not affiliated with Diabolik. Yes, I spend a lot of money there. No, I do not own this particular item yet.

Wednesday, 6 April 2022

Autumnal Jumble 2022 review: Confessing to a Witch by HeckinRobin

Whether it's beautiful-beautiful, or Hallmark-beautiful, or actually in some sweet soft-Photoshopped stock image zone inbetween, the cover for 2022 Autumnal Jumble Back Garden entry Confessing to a Witch (by HeckinRobin) made me sit up straight. I generally like witch subject matter and I often begin a festival or comp with something short. This game fits those bills, being both a Twine piece and a demo.

The game is narrated in the first person by a girl who's setting out to confess her romantic feelings to her friend Juniper Merryweather. Juniper's "a talented witch with a bright future ahead", a line that tells players a lot about the gameworld. The presentation is of an attractive click-to-proceed kind, with a saturated autumnal photo of the scenery on each page and a well chosen ambience of background music. I found the combination of the narrator's building nervousness in the prose and the inexorable first person visual trek towards the house (through a forest, over a bridge, towards the house, etc.) to be surprisingly effective. "Surprisingly" makes it sound like I expected there to be something wrong; the surprise for me was simply that even without a parser, this presentation took me back to the earliest graphic adventure games. The way they used graphics showing each scene in the first person.

The author gently mocks her own Photoshop/stock-image-wielding skills in some post-demo text, but I think the choices they've made are good. The images they've edited to incorporate fantastic elements have a high contrast, lolly-coloured aesthetic that sold this witch world to me. It's perhaps also helpful that the images aren't filling the screen. As postcards on a black background, they're working. The accompanying background music has a strolling-through-the-woods piano plinkiness combined with some low held chord menace and tension. Again, well chosen.

Without spoiling anything, all's not well with Juniper when the narrator arrives at her house. This is the setup for what the author says will be a text-based adventure with original art. Narratively, the stage has been set, and would still have been set had the game consisted only of the prose, so that's a good sign. If the game retains the mysterious, slightly tense and pendingly romantic tone the demo achieves, it should come out well.