Friday, 15 October 2021

IFComp 2021 review - The House on Highfield Lane by Andy Joel

The House on Highfield Lane or The House... on Highfield Lane if you believe the punctuation on the cover image – and which in any case I shall now on refer to as House – bills itself as 'horror without the horror'. I would probably bill it as a mystery, fantasy and sci-fi parser adventure, which ironically covers all the major genres minus horror and romance. The PC is sassy teenaged Mandy who, fresh from school one afternoon and still done up in its accoutrements, finds herself compelled to enter this house in her neighbourhood after finding a letter addressed to its occupant. Wide-ranging, puzzly adventure game shenanigans ensue in a steampunk-leaning environment. There are big-small spatial gags, some quirky NPCs, a Frankenstein-styled laboratory and creepy silver-faced background folk who always manage to run away.

The House on Highfield Lane cover art

Summary

House took me a bit over two-and-a-half hours to complete. I spent more than an hour just exploring and fiddling with things without managing to solve any puzzles, though thoroughly in the mood all that time and not with any sense that I wasn't getting anywhere. I then turned to the provided invisiclues webpage for help, and used it a fair bit from them on because of time pressure, thinking (in vain as it turns out) that I might be able to get through the game in less than two IFComp hours.

House induces curiosity and enchantment, demonstrates interesting and sometimes challenging design, and is a great first outing for the latest iteration of the Quest authoring system. Indeed, it's the best-implemented Quest game I've ever played, though still not perfect in this regard (though what game is?) House is kind of hard, though, in a complex way. I don't mean that the puzzles are all complex. I mean that what's hard about it is complex to tease out, and has a nature I suspect will fall quite differently across different players, as might its third person narration. Ultimately, I loved the atmosphere of House, and quite liked the puzzles in spite of my troubles with some of them and the invisiclues.

P.S. The heroine swears A Lot! Mostly with the two most common rude words. I'm not going to say them because this blog is not a home to filth.

WEIGHTY CRITICAL DISCUSSION SECTION

I found the key joy of this game to be its development of a prolonged atmosphere of unyielding mystery. There's a derangement of reality at work that reminds me of Alice in Wonderland, as do Mandy's flip reactions to this reality. And like in Alice, there's a sense that there is some overriding meaning behind the weirdness. That's mandatory in this kind of game to prevent the feeling you're just solving a bunch of arbitrary puzzles.

The prose is narrated in third person present tense –

"Conscious that dust is about ninety percent dead skin, Mandy decides not to study it too closely."

– which is one of the less common viewpoint choices adopted for IF. I think the first way this choice helps House is that it gets the player through the unreality barrier faster. The game starts with what is arguably a lot of unexplained weirdness. My initial sense of separation from Mandy (she's not 'You' or 'I') helped me accept the lack of explanation. Once inside the house, Mandy quickly runs into some major discrepancies of physical scale and geography. Perceiving Mandy in the third person helped me appreciate the scale of theses scenes visually, as if I really was standing back and seeing a film frame of a relatively tiny girl in a room hundreds of metres high. Over time, Mandy's flip comments on the situation brought out her personality, and made me feel closer to her.

Returning to the topic of the game's puzzle challenge: That the first relevant puzzle entry I looked up in the invisiclues after playing for close to 70 minutes was named for an object I hadn't yet seen or heard of speaks to the difficulty of writing comprehensive invisiclues. This event did worry me, though. Was I really so out of touch with this game? Or had I missed some fundamental mechanic?

Fortunately, neither case applied, but I would say House's puzzles lean hard for a variety of reasons. First, some of them are old-school-styled, involving a lot of mechanical experimentation and repetition (rotate the object, look outside, see if anything happened. If it didn't, rotate the object again, check again etc. And have the idea to do all this experimentation in the first place). Second, this game is rich with interesting objects that seem like they'd help solve multiple puzzles, but usually only one solution is acceptable. I could think of several objects I possessed that could very feasibly be used to catch another falling object, amongst them a giant floppy hat and a magically embiggened chamber pot, but the game didn't have any programming in place for these attempts. The solution to this particular problem involved roping in an NPC I didn't even know I could communicate with, since he didn't speak when spoken to. Teaching players all the ways they can interact with NPCs in your game is vital for any game. Since the base level of game content here is solid, I don't see it as a great omission that House didn't have heaps of alternate solutions in place already, but I do see it as a necessary site for improvement when a game is at this level.

Finally, there may be a stylistic issue that obscured some of the game's numerous props, all those paintings and windows and pipes and levers and bureaus and drawers spread out all through the text. Most IF games cater to this angle of interpretive difficulty by using presentation systems or logic to set elements off; the exits, or prominent objects or geographical features, etc. House wasn't so great at this, presenting most of its prose in solid blocks, so I forgave myself for missing some stuff.

The lead character of Mandy isn't built out of personal details, but out of a lot of behaviours and attitudes players might recognise from girls in this age group. I especially like the way her cynicism for schoolwork is tempered by the occasional excitement she experiences whenever she realises she can apply something she learned at school to real life. Her frequent sarcasm makes her a good fit for the classic strain of sarcastic parser voice that also gets a workout in House.

This game is the maiden voyage for QuestJS aka Quest 6. QuestJS was developed by Andy Joel, author of House and current head of the Quest project, and is a JavaScript incarnation of the Quest engine. House is a great ambassador for the new Quest, which is what you want in a maiden voyage. In the first place, it's engrossing and well-implemented by any standards. Second, it's the best-implemented Quest game I've played to date. I've been playing Quest games for about a decade and they've always been a bit querulous. You could only play on PCs, playing online was too buggy, and the parser was flakey. House seems to have eliminated all these problems, and the standard of its parser is way up. Unfortunately my transcript was missing all my own typed commands, but this feels like an easy tech fix.

I feel I have to address the game's final riddle (no spoilers to the actual answer here, though if you want to know even less about the question than a measure of spoiler-safe info, stop reading now. Then again, wouldn't you have already stopped reading much earlier?)... it is, as a joke, pretty good. As a puzzle, it's probably terrible because it relies entirely on the player's own knowledge if they want to be able to solve it themselves, with the out that they will soon be given the answer if they can't. But they don't know there's an out coming when the riddle happens. And the game had previously enforced a PC/player knowledge divide in the opposite direction, with a riddle to which most players would know the answer but which they weren't allowed to solve until they had first made the PC research that answer in-game.

The kindest spin on all this is that the game adopts two opposite positions as a joke. Even then, I'd ask is it worth doing this when there's a high risk of annoying players on one or both occasions? Reviewer Bitterly Indifferent wasn't as indifferent as he generally claims to be in the case of the knowledge enforcement of the first riddle, as evinced by his linked-to review here. This type of enforcement was, coincidentally, recently discussed on intfiction.org in this topic. The upshot is that I don't think ending any game with this kind of riddle is a strong way to go out, and even in the case of this game, which at least gives you the answer if you can't get it, it will be received as an unrewarding ending by a subset of players.

Wednesday, 6 October 2021

IFComp 2021 review: The Spirit Within Us by Alessandro Ielo

The Spirit Within Us is a parser-driven thriller with crime and mystery elements that opens with the injured and bleeding PC waking up in a bedroom. Amnesia-game-fearers need not fear per se; the amnesia is well justified and quickly overcome. The whole game plays out around this house setting in what feels like real time, and ultimately with an emphasis on realistic action.

The Spirit Within Us cover image

The author describes Spirit as psychological, but I found the prose too sparse and some of the content too vague for it to succeed at that level. It is evident English isn't the author's primary language and its use here is functional. The section of the game based in the house presents as an almost default set of IF content: a bunch of rooms, doors, fiddly doors, openable things and plain objects from daily life — sinks, toilets, boxes, etc. If it weren't for the timed interjections of the PC's returning memories and the few interesting book props, this phase could be a boredom challenge for the player.

The author wrote the game and its parser from the ground up using C. While that parser effects the basics, the game's needs have definitely outgrown it. My transcript shows I once entered seventeen commands trying to eat a pill from a packet of vitamins before I succeeded, and twenty-three trying to execute the last action required by the game. What to do was obvious, but I had to consult the walkthrough to get the right phrasing.

The story that is revealed and the violent situation that grows out of it in light of the player's explorations and recollections are more compelling on paper than in the game. They're particularly filmic, as well. I've seen a lot of thriller and horror films make good use of the "waking up in a messy and potentially violent situation" scenario when they're also withholding some information from the viewer. Spirit is in this terrain, but unfortunately doesn't have the prose detail to sell it.

There's also a health timer element for the PC that induced a bit of unintentional amusement for me. The PC starts losing hit points from his injuries as soon as the game starts, and the player has to keep finding enough food and supplies to keep them up until the end. This mechanic does seem to be well balanced in terms of raising player stress levels while not being too savage under the hood. I finished the game without dying on my first play, and with plenty of health left, and this only took me about twenty-five minutes. (I acknowledge that geographically, I had good luck during my playthrough. After I'd made the whole map in my head, I could tell I'd fluked the ideal direction to explore in on a couple of occasions.) But the amount of time I'd spent rummaging around for food – fruits from gardens, leftovers from kitchens et al. – seemed to be too great a portion of the game experience. It's the major mechanical feature atop the find-and-use puzzles and some semi-randomised combat.

From the epilogue, I learned that the author's stated intention was to create a game with some moral challenge/choice. But again, the psychological content wasn't evident enough during play to make it clear I was making any moral path choices, at least in terms of my choosing them against apparent alternatives. If an action seems the obvious one needed in a game, I will take it. I don't come to these games to test my own morality, and I know this a difference between me as a player type and some other player types out there. Certainly the ending text I received was of the kind to indicate what the other endings might be compared to the one I got, but I'm not interested in replaying to see them.

I like the kind of story and situation this game presents, but its sparseness of writing and implementation mean the story doesn't really land, or with the right impact. The game's title is also too vague, in retrospect. I'd still say Spirit may be of interest to players who like a game with a bit of contemporary grit. And its mystery remains a little abstract, which is to say, I have questions about the backstory and I'm not sure whether I'm supposed to. This situation could just be due to the limitations of the prose. Even if it is, the particular degree of vagueness where the details have ended up is not a bad one.

Sunday, 3 October 2021

IFComp 2021 review: Dr Horror's House of Terror by Ade McT

I always start an IFComp season with a horror game, since horror is my home turf, mentally, spiritually, fan-wise and way-of-life-wise. This year I chose to go with the parser game Dr Horror's House of Terror (DHHoT) by the redoutable Ade McT.

(Link to ballot page with links to game: You might need to be registered with IFComp to see it? Search for 'house of terror' at https://ifcomp.org/ballot) 

I didn't finish DHHoT in two hours and, as far as I can tell, I was a long way from finishing. This outcome alarmed me, as I'm one of those people who seeks to avoid really long games in IFComp (re: the rules; you must lock your vote at the two hours of play mark.). I was given fair warning: the game is labelled "Longer than two hours". However, with my horror chutzpah I'd thought, "I bet that time label overestimates the duration and underestimates my great skill levels." I did not find the label to be an overestimation. I did not find my skill levels to be great, but they were sufficient.

Summary!

In this comedic horror adventure with a surfeit of exclamation marks, you play an actor of questionable skill appearing in the new vampire flick for Mallet Studios. After incensing the film's director, you find yourself embroiled in supernatural life-or-death shenanigans all over the studio backlot. The game is lively with dialogue and NPC action, solid with mostly mechanical puzzles, and has a deft light touch over an underscore of the uncanny that grows out of its highly varied studio settings. Implementation is very good but not great (there are a lot of omissions of inconvenience, and I feel more actions could have been implemented) and I didn't totally understand the mixed-up time aesthetic as a choice. Overall, an engaging long form puzzler with some extra juice for folks who appreciate the films referenced and the luvvie world. The playtime is three hours plus, and how much plus I don't know yet.

Detail!

Geographically, this game can be viewed as a series of hubs. Most of the hubs are sets for different horror films. These sets riff on the production styles of both the 1930s/1940s Universal horror films and 1960s/1970s British Hammer films, and on the classic monsters that appeared in both studios' films. The hubs have self-contained puzzles as well as elements that help you solve puzzles elsewhere. So even though the map isn't huge, this style of puzzle construction takes a lot of work to tackle. The environment quickly goes from being gated to semi-gated to open, meaning you may have to explore everything in the open area before you can work out what puzzles there are and what tools might help solve them all. I should point out there's a hint file with the game that I didn't use. I felt the difficulty was about right for me and that I'd be more satisfied going without.

The surface tone of DHHoT is initially light, and the humour is very perceptive of the world of dry-witted British luvvies, all these actors constantly caught up in the preciousness of their work and the gossipy connections of thespian life. This lightness becomes darkly funny as the game pushes you into a confused reality, the adjacent film sets and their different worlds being quite disorienting. The monsters may be real and the actors may not be acting, but even as the latter realise this they're still speculating on how life's going back at the Old A, or the prospects of the chap who went to Brazil to appear in "If you like it, Missus".

When there is gore, it has a slapstick silliness about it that fits the overall lightness. The creepiness of the game is in the reality gulf depicted in its cloistered studio world. Your actor pals are largely oblivious to the nature of the weird, trapped life they're leading, and your'e the only one who notices the grisliness of some of the studio props (or not-props). Still, your PC takes goings-on at least half in their stride, and they have to, narration-wise, or the game would be entirely bogged down in reactions to every strange occurrence. It's solid with prose already for a game of this pitch.

At first I assumed DHHoT was set in the 1960s or 1970s, based on the kind of typical-for-Hammer vampire film Mallet are making in the opening scene. But then I came across a keypad-locked door and security cameras. After that, I encountered the elaborate set for a werewolf film which definitely seemed to be a version of Universal's famous backlot from the 1940s, and not something Hammer could or would have done in the 1970s. The game also distracted me every time it mentioned the name of the character Blake Lively, a contemporary female actor in reality but a male Laurence Olivier-type playing a vampire in this game. It may be that the author christened him thus primarily for the sake of the joke of having Blake Lively's name on the cover of the game, and I have a sneaky admiration for that kind of commitment.

I ended up concluding that DHHoT is set in no particular real time. Its reality is constructed out of anachronistic ideas related by theme that the author wanted to put into this world. I actually wish it was set in a particular time and place, because that would have made its specific references resonate more strongly with me. People who don't know this turf as well as I do, and those who've grown up in the postmodern maelstrom of the 2000s, will probably not notice or care about this.

After a few hours, I had cleared one-and-a-half hubs and explored another two. There were hubs I hadn't even entered yet. So that speaks to the ultimate volume of this game.

Monday, 14 June 2021

1. Remember newsletter 2. Tristam Island review

1. I recently contributed to Remember, Hugo Labrande's monthly newsletter about text adventures. The topic of issue seven was Horror, or more specifically, why weren't there more horror text adventures in the 1980s?

You can subscribe to Hugo's newsletter at the following link:

https://mailchi.mp/d6b9066312dd/remember-newsletter

The topics of previous issues have included Compressing Text, Women in Text Adventures, A History of Text Adventures in French, and Where Doesn't the Z-Machine Run?

2. Earlier this year, I reviewed Hugo's new .z3-format adventure Tristam Island for Juiced.GS magazine's March 2021 issue (issue contents list link). Tristam Island is available on 36(!) different platforms (https://hlabrande.itch.io/tristam-island); I reviewed it for the Apple II.

Juiced.GS is a print-only and commercial magazine, so I can't just go sharing my review of the game at this point, but I can let slip that it was positive, as evinced by the four stars I gave the game over on IFDB.


Friday, 14 May 2021

Andromeda reawakening?


Today on intfiction.org I read Rovarsson's new review of Andromeda Awakening and I thought, "This is timely," as I will have an Andromeda-related announcement to make somewhere in the next eight weeks.

If you like a sci-fi parser game with a lot of what they're calling worldbuilding these days, and puzzles, you should go check out the pair of Andromeda Awakening (2011) and its sequel Andromeda Apocalypse (2012) by Marco Innocenti, both from IFComp, the latter the winner of IFComp 2012.

Link - The Andromeda series games on IFDB

The wicked cover art for all the games is also by Marco.

After the first two, you get a series, with games by other authors adding to the world via two Andromeda Legacy competitions (that I helped judge). These games are Andromeda Dreaming (Joey Jones), Tree & Star (Paul Lee), Andromeda Ascending (Truthcraze) and the currently unavailable Andromeda Genesis (Joey Jones).

Reading back my own analyses of these –

Andromeda Legacy 2012 results link

Andromeda Legacy 2013 results link

– I was reminded of how tightly these games work with details from the original pair. I would say that without playing Awakening, Dreaming is part-incomprehensible, and Genesis is entirely incomprehensible; plus you need to have played Dreaming before playing Genesis! From the not-incomprehensible perspective, Dreaming is a five star game for me. Re: the absence of Genesis online, Joey Jones has said publicly that he did it in too much of a rush, and would have liked to revisit and properly develop it. That was a long time ago, so I admit I'm not holding my breath for that postcomp version.

The other two additional games, which are a lot more linear and action-based, have a different relationship to the original pair. One can have some fun with Tree & Star and Ascending without playing Awakening/Apocalypse first, but both get a lot of their effects or amplification from integration with the preceding stories, or rely on direct reference to them to develop their meaning.

Tree & Star might be the most playable on its own. Ascending shows deep knowledge of both Awakening and Apocalypse, and makes a lot of specific jokes about them. Actually, it's an outright comedy, and now I see it as the Thor Ragnarok of the Andromeda games.

Finally, there's another game, the retro quasi-amusing remake of Andromeda Awakening as Andromeda 1983. Here the original game is redone as a simpler-style adventure (with cool graphics by Marco and a C64 soundtrack by me) that might have come out for the C64 or Apple II in 1983:

Andromeda 1983 gameplay

The extra games have been played a ton less than the originals. I guess that's a combination of them lacking IFComp exposure, the fact they're seen to require more investment by playing other games first (broadly, they do require that) and the fact they inevitably differ from the tone established by the first games. If you're ready to see different facets of the original world, though, I'd encourage more people to play the followups. It looks rare to me to see parser games that follow up on their originators and which Are so tightly integrated with the originators' details. That's how the additional Andromeda games have operated to date.

Other links:

Marco's Andromeda page (http://www.andromedalegacy.com/) (unsecure link... tsk tsk!)

I've written two pieces of music for Andromeda games so far. Here are playable Bandcamp links:

Black Giant (for Andromeda Apocalypse)

Andromeda 1983 (for Andromeda 1983)

Tuesday, 1 December 2020

IFComp 2020 spiel: Amazing Quest by Nick Montfort

I played Amazing Quest by Nick Montfort today, having only glanced at some reviews of it. I enjoyed it and was curious about its contents, which I knew I'd be able to look at and comprehend.

I then went to read every other review of it to see if anyone had said what I might say, thus removing the need for me to say anything. I was surprised at how much negativity the game had drawn. Reviews declaring Amazing Quest could be full of hidden meanings that might elevate it if they weren't hidden, was some arms-length ironic joke, must be full of in-jokes, was definitely trolling them, had wasted their time, meta-this, meta-that, etc. So much suspicion for something so simple! Below I share some thoughts and rhetorical meanderings on the game with reference to some ideas coming from the reviews.

Does knowing (not even necessarily understanding) tech/historical context help one like Amazing Quest?

Probably.

This is the kind of game you can (and did) write in BASIC in the 1980s, especially if your microcomputer was low on RAM. The Commodore 64 that Montfort has used was not low on RAM, but contests to produce maximum program bang for minimum listing length (sometimes called 'one-liners' for a single-line program, for instance) were popular in the day. Now they remain popular in retro circles. Amazing Quest is in the spirit of such contests in either context. Looking at its listing, it's also a good example of getting that much effect out of that short a program.

In my review survey, I see that even amongst reviewers who lived through these times, had such computers and/or performed such activities, opinions on the game still vary. Someone said (paraphrase), 'I wrote better (programs) when I was fifteen.' Well, I did as well, but I don't think I ever went in for the minimal source approach. In itself, Amazing Quest's source to outputted game ratio is impressive.

The context of the instructions and strategy guide

The instructions for the game are presented as a single typed sheet. It may have come from a typewriter, a daisy wheel printer or be a facsimile of such output. The upshot is, this is a pastiche presentation of 1980s instruction sheets that came in games.

At the stage of the instructions alone, interpretation can sit easily between sincere and cute. Instructions absolutely were this florid about basic content in the day, often embellishing a game's simple graphics with some imaginative strokes to get them to take off in your brain. Similar mechanics are at work with the simple prose in the Scott Adams games. Neuroscientifically, I don't know how younger people today read into the Adams prose. Does it ever take off for them? Or does it just sit there on the page looking literal and undernourished? I assume it, and other prose like it, could work for them if they persisted, thanks to neural plasticity. But who's going to do that work now unless they have a special interest in the kind of material they're doing the work for? There's not enough of it around now, casually, to generate much need or interest. Response to Amazing Quest also shows there's not much tolerance for it per se, but this has to be figured in with some sense of IFComp expectations. IFComp always generates haste and a degree of intolerance that, objectively, we'd have to say is reasonable, especially now there are so many games to play. This means an Amazing Quest can get eyeballs on it, but those eyeballs are primed to quickly move past anything for almost any reason. And relatively speaking, Amazing Quest has prompted a lot of folks to come up with a lot of reasons.

The strategy guide is definitely even cuter than the intro, raising the embellishment stakes even higher and at further length for what is, mechanically, an all probabilities-based random game.

Is the game's randomness so obvious?

It wasn't to me. However, knowing I was dealing with a tiny BASIC program - and still before looking at it - I suspected it could be. There was definitely no way to know just from playing. I think it's testament to the prose Montfort wrote and the style of choices offered, and the fact they can turn out clearly positive or negative outcomes (even if only two!) that players can feel their actions altering things, as reviews indicated they did.

Does it matter if (or should I say That) they don't? For this kind of game in the 1980s, it didn't to me then (assuming the game didn't screw you over. Then I'd be angry. But this game is just measured progress towards victory) and so it doesn't matter to me now so long as the journey evokes something.

Would it matter if the same game had been presented to me in Twine?

Here's context again: For me I'm sure I would not have received it as well. I've got my memory of the time the game can be said to be a pastiche of, the context, the knowledge of how it's done then or now, the knowledge that the knowledge is specialist knowledge. That all impresses me and I enjoy the technical level a bit, but only because I enjoy the experience of the game enough. If we took all that away and I've just got small, random texts in the Twine interface for a short duration, I'd be considerably less entertained.

Am I consistent about this kind of thing? Definitely not! But I expect my own sliding scale involves the scale of the game. As any game gets larger, I feel it can stand more on its own by the girth of its design, no matter what system it's being delivered with. My positive appreciation of Amazing Quest is both dependent upon its small size and outsize to its size because of the tech involved.

Does it matter how something was made?

There was a quote somewhere in the IFComp debates like, 'This isn't a competition for technical proficiency, it's a competition for interactive fiction.' True on the surface. Nobody can hold any player or judge to more than that, but where individuals know or are interested in more than that, or are authors themselves, they probably can and will apply it. We'll also typically write such evaluations into our reviews.

Re: how things are made, in movies, I particularly dislike how CGI has stepped in for things that weren't even that hard to do practically when they were all done practically. Every time some character stands on a nondescript hill in a Lord of the Rings film and I'm supposed to believe the sun and sky are behind them when they aren't, I'm irritated. I can see the fake, intensity-lacking light that's barely falling on anything, unlike even in the cheapest sword and sorcery film of the 1980s. In the context of a film filled with tons of photoreal people and Earthy environments, I wish they'd gone and shot on a real hill at the right time of day. I've plenty of similar annoyances with CGI blood and other cinema topics, etc.

Why do these things matter to me? It's not just dogmatic principle. Certain ways of doing things create aesthetics which may not be obtainable in other ways. If I value the aesthetic, I value the way of getting it, and may not accept substitutes that produce poorer facsimiles. In films, I mostly like real light when there's real light everywhere else. If it's a hypercolourful ballad like The Phantom Menace, then I'm open to the CGI look, because that's the whole aesthetic.

I'm sort of speaking to Amazing Quest's isness here. It's a C64 game, and has that aesthetic. If you don't know about or care for that, or feel (justifiably) that you're only here for interactive fiction, the words on the page, I can see why it may not have done much for you. For me, it's a case of all of how the words get there, what they are, how the game's made, how the whole thing feels, and how the instructions and guide reproduce a certain technological and historical context accurately.

(y/n)

How would I rate Amazing Quest, were I still able to? I don't know, and because I don't have to, I'm spared agonising over it. The more things are unlike each other, the harder they are to rate against each other on a single scale. Amazing Quest is a lot less like the other things in this IFComp, and there are tons of other things. My appreciation for it stands out on some other limb of the tree that I probably can't see if I stand so I can see the other hundred limbs all at once. In life, I encourage anyone to go more towards any game and stand there, rather than standing out in the tower/bungalow/semi-detached house of yourself and looking in with unnecessary suspicion. This isn't the worldview I endorse just for Amazing Quest, it's the one I try to endorse for any game. I probably fail myself sometimes, but that'll always be the dream.

Monday, 23 November 2020

IFComp 2020 review: Alone by Paul Michael Winters

 'A well-implemented parser game is a joy for ever.' - Keats

This will be my last IFComp 2020 review.

Alone, by Paul Michael Winters, is an adventure of survival set in a sparsely populated post-apocalyptic world. The initial situation of having your car break down out on the road leads gradually (but not too gradually) into a series of dense and satisfyingly overlapping puzzles, especially of the mechanical variety. With its keys, locks, recalcitrant security doors, fuseboxes, circuits and deserted environments, Alone's puzzlebox reminded me most of the Resident Evil games. Alone also steps into the equivalent IF tradition of the Resident-Evil-type game, though pointedly without gunplay, shooting or much violence at all. I'm now finding it harder to think of other similar parser IF games than I expected; there's Divis Mortis, and, with a supernatural spin added, One Eye Open. Calm has deliberately very fiddly mechanics in a post-apocalyptic world, but not any bogeymen if I recall correctly. Alone has The Infected. Zombies if you prefer.

Alone's puzzles are broadly familiar in the adventure game aesthetic, but that doesn't  matter when their execution and interweaving are as solidly performed as they are here. That doesn't mean the game's perfect – a couple of the most difficult actions only accept one very specific phrasing, and I had to use the walkthrough to get through those parts. But otherwise, there's consistent logic to all the mechanics. Alternate solutions to problems are considered by the game and well-excused. Nearly successful attempts on puzzles give feedback to point the player in the right direction. Irrelevant objects fob the player off to avoid time-wasting. These standards are maintained for the game's duration and that is very good work.

A few spoilers if you read on: