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.

Tuesday, 4 August 2020

IntroComp 2020 review: Navigatio (The Confession of the Second Man) by P. James Garrett


I don't think I've reviewed any IntroComp entries in my blog before this year (2020). IntroComp is feedback-focused. If I play an IntroComp 2020 game, have enough to say about it and feel that what I have to say is appropriate to share in public, I will review it here in my blog. Otherwise I'll share my feedback by the mandatory private mechanism that's invoked when you vote on an entry, and/or in notes in the Some Introcomp 2020 Reviews thread started over on intfiction.org. And I won't say anything about A Fool's Rescue because I helped test it. 

Navigatio (The Confession of the Second Man) is a parser-driven IntroComp 2020 entry from P. James Garrett. It's the first chapter of the prospective longer adventure and took me about twenty minutes to complete. I'm definitely keen to play more. Coincidentally, the game has some structural and content similarities to the last game I reviewed on IFDB, Napier's Cache.

The PC in Navigatio is a monk's assistant at a monastery in the middle ages. The prologue about his rough upbringing and how he got to where he is is catchy and confidently delivered, even if there was one element of it I didn't quite understand. Then comes the first prose of the game proper –

Frozen Northern Bank

It is the third of a series of strange mornings. Lauds was late, but time has been misbehaving. So have the monks of this community.

– which I really like. It conveys a lot, moving through levels of awareness and connecting ideas quickly.

In the vein of 'assistant' games, the PC is tasked with fetching news and objects, communicating between different NPCs and solving environmental puzzles that get in the way of his goals. The monastery environment is compelling, and apparently the product of some research, sporting religious and manuscript-making details that evoke time and place. The implementation of the physical details is light, and probably the area of the game I'd most like to see beefed up in a later release.

The puzzles in this intro are simple and well-cued. I also nabbed some items that I expect will be of use in a subsequent chapter. The transition to chapter two has several elements that are hooky, including the continuation of a mystery thread set up in the first chapter and a suggestion that the metaphysical nature of the world might change as the game continues. I'm keen to see more either way. Some typos aside, Navigatio is well-written and well-directed, with a strong sense of place (including a few random environmental elements for flavour) and effective characterisation between the PC and his mentor. I would like to see stronger implementation of the environment in an expanded version, mostly so that the game would have a means of elaborating on its world's interesting details.

Saturday, 11 April 2020

Spring Thing 2020 review - The Golden by Kerry Taylor

The Golden (playable link) is an elusive, faintly ominous (though ultimately, unqualifiedly ominous) Twine CYOA about a sister, brother and father stuck together in a seaside house in an unspecified end-of-days situation.

There are some tense character bits involving familial strain – a tortured card game especially on the first run – but the characters aren't specific enough for these to have full effect. For instance, if the blurb hadn't told me the heroine was seventeen, I wouldn't have suspected it from the writing. She seemed much younger to me, partly because of a sense that she looked up to her brother and partly because she didn't express anything too complex. She just didn't express enough. I don't really know what the problem was with the brother. Only the father has enough tics to make him stand out. Geography is a little fuzzy, too, a not uncommon situation in a Twine in which you can move around a little.

I don't know if there's a standard model in Twine that involves making the last word in a passage the link to the next page, a typical strategy in this IF, but if there is, I'd say – beware it. Words should generally be lit with intention. When 'God' on the end of 'Thank God' is the only link on a page, that looks highly significant, but proved to be no different than other standard forward links when clicked.

I liked the end of the story because of the aforementioned ominousness. I also felt that the game worked to build an anticipatory mood for it. Characterisation was the thin area. A piece this compact, written from one character's point of view and clearly indicating its characters are specific, needs to specify those characters more. There's not a lot of time to do it in, but maybe that means what time there is can't be handled this gently.

Friday, 3 January 2020

Leadlight Gamma finally gets all its text to speech power (thanks Gargoyle)

Happy new year, Planet IF folk.

Today I updated all of the download bundles, websites and docs for Leadlight Gamma in light of the arrival of the 2019 version of the Gargoyle IF interpreter. This means that finally, four years after I released it, Leadlight Gamma now supports text to speech on Macs the way it's always supported it on PCs, at least on MacOS 10.13+

I'm disproportionately pleased about this because I released Leadlight Gamma in 2015 with a thorough screen reader mode. It might have been the first parser game to have such a mode, though I'm not sure. At the time, I talked about issues I encountered and feedback I received at. The IFTF was recently able to investigate and report on accessibility issues in IF with the aid of a lot more empirical research.

Unfortunately, the benefits of LLG's screen reader mode couldn't be exploited on any Mac at the time of the game's release. That problem is now gone, leaving the game in the best "almost everything about it is how I wanted it to be in the first place" situation it's ever been in.

I just read Andrew Plotkin's blog post about his iOS IF interpreter framework reaching the end of its life cycle. I was thinking about similar software maintenance issues when I reviewed how all my emulation solutions for playing the original Apple II Leadlight were travelling, today.

On the PC side, everything's going great. The ActiveGS emulation kit is still pretty much a "double click the app and you're playing" solution.

On the Mac side, MacOS Catalina's arrival means the end of both the free Mac paths. ActiveGS is a 32-bit app and so is Sweet16, so both emulators are broken under Catalina. Frankly, all that's left is Virtual II. And I don't mean that Virtual II is bad — au contraire, it's a magnificent emulator of Apple IIs — but it's commercial.

I probably shouldn't be complaining. It just gives folks more reason to buy Leadlight Gamma.

Sunday, 20 October 2019

Leadlight Gamma Halloween 2019 sale

When macOS Catalina was released, something spooky happened.

The Mac version of the IF game I'm selling on itch.io did not break. No maintenance was required in order to keep it working on Macs running Catalina. None at all.

If you find this story eerie, consider that it's only half as eerie as the survival horror-CRPG-text adventure game I'm spruiking, Leadlight Gamma (itch.io page link) (works on Macs, PCs, iOS via Frotz for iOS, and anything that can play gblorbs EXCEPT Android interpreters) which will be on sale for half price during the itch.io-defined Halloween period October 24 to November 5th-ish.

That half price will be USD 3.33 (THIS IS THE ACTUAL SALE LINK).

Here are a couple of things about Leadlight Gamma I haven't mentioned too often:

* If you clear the game, you get the so-called-helps, which make it easier to find missing points.

* If you clear the game with a perfect score, you unlock the tour mode, which brandishes images from some novel sources to illustrate its points. For instance, this image,



and this one,


And don't forget about the features I have often mentioned: graphic automap, soundtrack, easter egg that's a playable game, customisable in-game display, etc etc.

Friday, 27 September 2019

IFComp 2019 music prize info

This post will be linked to from the IFComp 2019 site to offer a few more details than can fit on their screen.

I'm offering a music commission as a prize. So if you pick this prize, I'll compose and produce something for you, or derive something from unreleased recordings I have, for your chosen purpose. The piece can be for commercial use or other.

I specialise in instrumental and electronic music, but can do or wrangle almost anything, so long as you don't want vocals.

Length is a limitation, but up for reasonable negotiable 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.

If you pick this prize, you have to call it in within a year.

* My long-term music project is Aeriae: https://aeriae.com/

* Here are some other pieces I've made. A few were mentioned in my preceding post about parser games and music: https://wadeclarke.bandcamp.com/

Parser IF and music

I don't think parser-based interactive fiction and music are easily mixed. I say that both as a player and as a musician who has made music for parser games, my own and others'. I'm not saying they can never work together, but that they can easily not work together. I decided to gather my thoughts on this topic while preparing to offer a commissioned music prize for IFComp 2019, details of which in my next post.

Probably the first point of parser-music difficulty is that playing parser IF is psychologically analagous to reading. Most people don't read novels with a looping soundtrack cued to the material they're reading in the background, or expecting audio punctuation of particular moments in the text. It can break concentration, or make concentration impossible.

Reading is also about generating the life and world of the material in your mind via the words. It's interpretational. If it's accompanied by music, the audio stream seems to arrive as something literal, and may not gel with what your mind would generate in response to the text if left to its own devices. There is of course a mental space in which to interpret music in its own right, but you tend not to be interpreting music in a cordoned-off area of your brain if it's accompanying a game, the same way you tend not to interpret a film soundtrack in a cordoned-off area of the brain while watching that film for the first time. So I think there are neuroscience issues involved.

Musical taste is also temperamental, and people's gut reaction to music is immediate. In the sole musical space, people can do mental work to go towards music, or try to figure it out, if it's not to their taste. Not everyone can or will do this anyway. So in the context of an IF game, I think this is an additional hurdle players would rather not jump after the others I've mentioned. If they don't think they like the music they're hearing, they'll probably switch it off right away so they can concentrate on the game.

As an author, you can forget about all this and just be an artist and lay down the music you want anyway, but this isn't really a dictatorial triumph if it turns out people turn it off at first opportunity.

The challenge, then, is to have music that works for your game, so people will interpret it positively as part of the experience.

Strategies might fall into two areas: cued and ambient. Neither is foolproof, but here are a few observations.

Cueing music is about attaching pieces of music to particular events in the game. These events can be elements of the game's presentation, or in the game itself.

The title screen comes up: that's an event. (Personally, that's my favourite event at which to place a musical cue, and I think the one ripest for success) You gain points or make progress. You die. You solve a major puzzle. You enter a new area.

I think cueing works well because it's discrete, preventing any particular piece of music or sound from outstaying its welcome, and psychologically it leverages the event itself to make the audio work. The music is perceived as part of the fabric of the event, not as a separate stream of information atop the main one dispensed by the game. Players in general are used to audio cues from other media.

Ambient music is more dangerous in IF, but authors never stop having secret (or non-secret) desires to make it work, and to include a soundtrack for a whole IF game. (Try Robb Sherwin's Cryptozookeeper for example, a correspondingly large download due to the audio content.) When I say ambient, I broadly mean that a piece of music is playing all the time during a period of the game, unconnected to specific game events occurring within that period. This is not the same as the chosen music being considered 'ambient' in genre, though it will generally be true that the less direct and more ambient the piece of music is, the less danger there is of it impeding player concentration.

Ambient music runs into all the dangers I mentioned earlier. If people don't like it and it's going to keep playing, it'll be off. If it at all interferes with their concentration, it'll be off. If it doesn't gel with their view of the gameworld, it'll be off. If it loops too frequently or is heard for too long due to the time required for a particular stretch of the game to be completed, it'll be off.

Of course, there can be contextual allowances and exceptions. If a game is short, or bombastic, or somehow has a looping soundtrack aesthetic, ambient music has a greater chance of success.

If I think of the games I've put music into, I've had a different experience with each, most of which I'll recount here.

Six - Of my own IF games, I think the audio probably worked best in this one. The music and FX are cued to events, but never run very long. There's also enough of them that they're able to impose an aesthetic in the long run. And there's one part of the game that uses the audio for gameplay.

Leadlight Gamma - I included an ambient (approach, not genre) soundtrack in this game which could be controlled from a built-in virtual mp3 player of sorts. I didn't think hard about how it would or wouldn't be used, so in retrospect, I view it as kind of an experiment. Some players found the virtual music player unintuitive, and the soundtrack probably wasn't long enough for something that could be left running and looping. I think the music itself probably ended up a little weirder or bleaker than I'd anticipated, too. The final problem was that the music wasn't handled properly by all IF interpreters, and doesn't run online. Actually, my Leadlight Gamma soundtrack experience put me off making a similar IF music effort again unless the technical situations change.

Andromeda Apocalypse - I created a theme track called Black Giant for Marco Innocenti's IFComp game. It hit a couple of logistic hurdles. One was that it was missing from the initial upload of the game to the 2012 comp. For people who tried this game later, I think the music only plays if you win. Having not heard any music before that point, did you (winners of that game) have the volume on and up at your moment of victory? If so, were you also in the mood for unexpected music at the time? I really like this track as a match for the subject matter, but I don't know how many people heard it, or did listen when it struck. This leads to another lesson about IF music: players have to be introduced to it and/or ready for it in order to receive it.

Kerkerkruip - I created a multi-phased main theme for this rogue-like with an approach inspired by music from the original Diablo. The author's ideal would have been to have a lot more ambient music in the game, but I only had time for this piece. I think the track works well with the game's opening title loop.

Andromeda 1983 - Marco Innocenti made a retro 8-bit graphics version of his sci-fi game Andromeda Awakening, and called it Andromeda 1983. Correspondingly, I made a 1983-style track using the Commodore 64's sound palette. The track was designed to loop, and moves through several relevant moods, so given the affordances of the retro style, I think it worked well.

My next IF game will have only one piece of music, and that will be for the title page.