IF Comp 2006

This year, since I’m not judging the competition, I played to enjoy
myself: I avoided games I was certain I would dislike, and I closed
some without giving them a fair chance because the style or genre didn’t
appeal to me at the moment. I may come back to those later. Scores are
just what I would have assigned if voting, prior to a rounding-up — I
would probably have reset the upper end of the scale upwards to give a
10 to my favorite game (Elysium Enigma) and a 1-point bump up to
several of my other favorites.

I played several games almost entirely from walkthrough. I think I was
feeling less tolerant of puzzles than usual this year — or at least,
less tolerant of puzzles that were out of place or not contributing to
the story. There seemed to be a lot of this going around. Mobius and
Delightful Wallpaper both did innovative and fun things with puzzles,
and I enjoyed them. Labyrinth may have as well, but this was presented
so abstractly that I couldn’t get into it right then. (I did have a lot
of flashbacks to David Bowie in tight leather pants, which may or may
not have been the author’s intention.) But in several other games, even
including Elysium Enigma, there were quite a few times where I was
conscious that the story had been hijacked to make room for an IF-style
puzzle when there was really no *need* for such a thing, and where the
puzzle itself was nothing that terrific. This is not, I should add, a
rant against puzzles in all cases — I like a really well-designed
puzzle for its own sake, and I like it even more if it can be justified
in the context of the story or if it sheds some new insight on what’s
going on. But I felt that several of the more narrative entries this
year did an awkward job of incorporating the puzzles, and should either
a) have done those puzzles better or b) come up with a different form
of interaction for the player. The feeling of puzzle artificiality kept me
from getting into Traveling Swordsman, which otherwise looked like something
I might enjoy.

I did appreciate the prevalence of walkthroughs and hint systems in
these games — another bit of polish that makes a game much more fun,
especially under competition conditions.

My comments on individual games follow, and, as mentioned, I skipped
a lot of things either because they didn’t look good or because they
didn’t suit my mood at the time. And some things I finished, but didn’t have
much to say about. So these only cover:

Elysium Enigma
Mobius
Moon-shaped
Delightful Wallpaper
Tower of the Elephant
Unauthorized Termination
Aunts and Butlers
Primrose Path
Carmen Devine
Legion

They have spoilers. Read at your own risk.

=====

Elysium Enigma (8)
Interesting story, though I got frustrated in a few spots about not
being able to confront Leela as directly as I wanted to. The secret
truths here were not especially shocking, I thought — no vast twists
that surprised me — but I did enjoy uncovering what there was to
uncover. (And I didn’t end the game with full points, so it is possible
that there was still more under the surface here that I just did not
ever get to.)

The puzzles felt a bit old-school for the narrative, though — this
doesn’t really feel like the kind of ‘verse where we ought to be
catching trout with a conveniently sharp hook just in order to move a
cat. Unless cats on this planet are much larger than they are on Earth,
I’m usually able to dislodge even an unwilling one by force. So the
puzzles of that sort felt a bit forced. There were also several that
were just too hard or guess-y: I would never have gotten the datatab
password without the hints, nor would I have thought of CRAWL UNDER
TARPAULIN as a plausible command. On the other hand, the hints *are*
pretty thorough, which kept this from ever getting to be too
impossible, and I did finish in just a bit over two hours.

The coding is strong and the work is well polished, as I would expect
from Eric; the game feels thoroughly tested and smooth.

There were a couple of conventions I disliked. The exits command lists
even the exits I have discovered are useless (like going outside the
borders of the town), and I found this distracting. I also found the
room description in the center of town quite confusing, in that it
suggested to me that I should go north, *then* east or west. Which
was wrong.

On the other hand, Leela’s interactions were very good. My least
favorite moments are the ones where she feels a bit too automatic —
the way you trick her seems too easy, and sometimes her behavior
is too obviously dictated by the needs of a particular puzzle.

But I’ve never before felt like I have been hoodwinked by an NPC.
I avoided her initially, figuring that she would lead to trouble,
because my orders warned me about people like her. Then I went
through a phase of thinking she really was the naive thing she seemed,
possibly trying to use me for food, but not otherwise untrustworthy.
But that evolved too, in subtle ways: I found myself telling her
things confidently at the beginning, then becoming suspicious when her
questions seemed unusually pointed for a person in her position; then
finally starting to think that maybe I had already said too much. The
whole way through, I knew she was trying to manipulate me, but I didn’t
always know to what end (just because she was hungry? because she
wanted a rescuer? because she was bored, or sinister?). And
that was really cool.

It was also good interactive story-telling. One of the things
interactivity can do for a story is get the player to buy into dubious actions, whereas
the reader might be standing back a bit: when you read a novel and the
protagonist does something foolhardy, you may mutter a bit at the page.
But how mad can you really get if that was *you*, innocently prattling
on with imperial secrets because you thought you were talking to a
naive village girl? I’ve played other games in which this was a gimmick, but
this one does something with it that is important to the story.

For me, that aspect of the game was the neatest, most art-revealing
thing to come out of the competition, and it’s likely to stick with me.
But this game had a lot else going for it as well, including its
extreme technical competence.

Mobius (8)
Tightly implemented, fun variation on the repeating-time-loop format. I
am a little tired of this idea — I didn’t finish “All Things Devours”,
for instance — but this was version was a fresh take on the puzzle. No
story worth speaking of, I’d say, but satisfying as pure-puzzle game.
It did occasionally get a little annoying that when I had screwed up an
iteration I had to then wait (or sleep, or commit suicide) a couple
times to get the chance to start over. Still, this is a minor gripe.

Moon-shaped (8)
A few of the puzzles were non-obvious, but overall, this was pretty
solidly constructed, with some interesting areas to explore. I did wind
up relying quite a bit on the hints; this may have reduced my
frustration with some of the less obvious bits.

I was a little weirded out by the idea that the seductive wolf was also
Red Riding Hood’s father — shades of the Baron, there. I did enjoy the
gradual realization of my true nature, though. The things that made
sense only in moonlight were neat, too. Good work overall.

Delightful Wallpaper (7)
Strange, evocative, and with the entertaining outlines of a plot in the
middle distance. But still really a puzzle game. There were a few
moments that felt a little-underclued, but generally it was good; I
even found I was able to solve the map puzzles, which at the very beginning
dismayed me with the prospect of something tediously labyrinthine. The
notebook helped a lot. Still, I enjoyed myself more when I got past
that phase of the game and into the business of placing the intentions. (The
distinction between the two phases did give the game a slightly odd
disjoint feel, but I suppose either side on its own would have felt
insufficient; and I do see that we want to get the player to
explore the environment thoroughly before expecting him to make use of
that knowledge when placing the intentions.)

Another point in its favor: the Dark City/Gorey/”Hush”-episode-of-Buffy
flavor, which was unlike anything else entered.

(Disclaimer: I played this game in beta.)

Tower of the Elephant (7)
I don’t generally have high hopes for games adapting pieces of static
fiction. It’s hard to do this at all convincingly: the pacing of the
original story is often wrong; there are usually elements that
are hard to convey in IF terms; often the protagonist of the original
does at least one thing that is weird and hard to get the player to
emulate. What’s more, the original usually doesn’t go into as much
detail about setting as IF has to, which means that there’s a lot of
text for the IF-adaptor to supply, and if he doesn’t have a very
strong sense of language, the result is prose that clashes with itself
stylistically. “Tempest” didn’t quite work for gameplay reasons.
Neither did Francesco Cordella’s “Land of the Cyclops”, though
its problems were more diverse. (Which I went on about at length here:
http://www.ministryofpeace.com/if-review/reviews/20020719.html)

And then I’m also a little suspicious of the impulse in the first
place. Why are we adapting this story to IF anyway? Is it because the author
actually has an interesting idea about why that particular piece of
fiction would make good IF (and, to be fair, I think both Nelson and
Cordella did have some such reasons in mind)? Or is it because he
simply couldn’t think of a plot of his own and/or wanted to cash in on the
popularity of the original? Derivative IF works, whether based on a
book or emulating/parodying previous games, often leave me cold. Where’s the
invention? Where’s the author’s new take on things? This is not to say
that it’s impossible to write a good retelling or re-envisioning of
existing work — people have been retelling classical mythology for the
last several thousand years and haven’t run out of interesting versions
yet. But the the existing art or story doesn’t mean that the author can
get away without doing any imaginative work of his own.

Anyway, Tower of the Elephant is one game where, unexpectedly, I think
the adaptation worked reasonably well at a craft level. Not perfectly:
I don’t care for the section where my PC watches the
thief do things. The problem here is not just that this section is
railroaded; it’s that the PC is completely passive. In static fiction
we can accept stories where someone else takes over the action for a while
and the protagonist doesn’t do that much; in IF, this doesn’t work so
well. In fairness, I discovered later that it’s possible for the player
to take another path through this section, but since it seemed (at least
to me) like the most obviously advantageous course was to hang out
waiting for the thief to clear my path, that’s what I did — and then
felt mildly miffed at the game for not giving me more to do. So the point is
not just that the player has to be *able* to do things, but that he
needs to feel encouraged to do them. I’ve played a few games where just
waiting was suspenseful and felt like real action, but that wasn’t
the effect for me here.

It did take me several tries and a hint to get past the spider; I think
this could have been better clued. There were also some implementation
faults in the endgame, where the syntax to cut out and use the heart
was fairly restricted and a number of (I thought) sensible phrasings were
not honored. This could be cleaned up before the final release.

Still, on the whole, the structure of the game essentially worked with
its source material, and that’s an achievement in itself.

I’m not quite so sure about the value of adapting this story to IF
rather than coming up with something new, but again, I was more
sympathetic this time than I usually am. In particular, the adaptation
provided texture: the game did a good job of preserving the prose style
of the original. That style is unusual for IF, but not unworkable,
since it does dwell heavily on descriptions of objects and actions. I enjoyed
the novelty. We don’t see a lot of this exact kind of fantasy, really.
I was a little reminded of the Oz books, which I imagine could also be
selectively adapted for interactive fiction, since they tend to be
heavy on imagery, setting, and wacky objects, and episodic enough to slice
into pieces.

All in all, I don’t think this was a masterpiece, but it was competent,
playable, and fun, and some of what I liked about it did come from the
work it adapted. Which makes it perhaps the most successful
static-fiction adaptation I’ve played to date.

Unauthorized Termination (7)
This had a bunch of rough edges, implementation-wise — some problems
typical of ADRIFT parsers, and some others. It also has a somewhat
railroady presentation — there are usually only one or two sensible
things for the player to do, and often these are more or less
explicitly laid out for you — and there was one bit, involving finding an item,
which I would never have gotten without the walkthrough. The endgame
could have been better paced, I think.

All the same, I found this strangely enjoyable. The robots, despite
everything, came across with something approaching a genuine
personality. I found the encounter with the First One almost touching.
The mystery plot, though laid out in a linear way, still took enough
turns to be interesting as I discovered it. So yes, there were some
flaws, but this was fun.

Aunts and Butlers (7)
This doesn’t always *quite* hit the mark for tone, but it does manage a
general Wodehousian flavor much of the time. There’s a trick about
this, though: Wodehouse plots tend to revolve around completely bizarre
solutions to wacky situations. In IF, this is a problem, because the
player is required to come up with the bizarre solution on his or her
own. This is the same problem I had with Hitchhiker’s and Bureaucracy
— amusing games, but not particularly *fair*.

In the case of Aunts and Butlers, I tried to get the zany solutions
myself, but one of the early puzzles stumped me; when I looked at the
answer, I realized it was something I would never ever have tried, and
lost faith. So I played from the walkthrough for most of the game. This
was probably wise, since in passing I noticed several other points
where it’s a good idea to do things in a certain order without any particular
motivation, or where the solution is fairly esoteric. It says something
that I still enjoyed the game anyway, but I would have enjoyed it more,
if, somehow, these implausible puzzles had been solvable.

I did very much like what happened with the pheasant hat, though.

As homebrewed systems go, this was pretty decent, too. Missing just a
few conveniences from other systems, but it didn’t annoy me nearly as
much as nonstandard IF systems usually do.

I also enjoyed this game a little more because it strayed from the
conventional genres of the rest of the competition. A fresh setting or
genre is worth a lot to players trekking through 40-odd games.

Primrose Path (6)
One great visionary puzzle/moment; confusing plot that I never quite
got a handle on; some minor annoyances in play. I felt pretty extensively
led by the hints, again because I was not sure how to make sense of
what happened by any other means. I used to be more tolerant of games where
I don’t get the plot; these days, I’m inclined to think that if I make
a solid effort, I should wind up essentially understanding what just happened.
(All Roads, e.g., I remember as a collage of nifty images, and I assumed at
the time that I had trouble putting them together because I played the game
in a feverish state. But I’ve never heard anyone else explain the plot in
a way that makes sense, either. [But I digress.])

I also wound up not liking the protagonist and Leo as much at the end
as I had in the middle of the game — possibly because some of the early
remarks about their relationship promised a substance and complexity
that never in fact materialized. I can easily believe in a relationship
that has gone through phases of romantic attraction and phases of
friendship and phases of distrust or dislike. What I can’t believe is
that said relationship would feature so few concrete events or specific
feelings. What draws these people to one another? What pushes them
apart? You turned Leo down before; why? And so on.

I guess it’s not necessary to spell all that out if this is a puzzle
game, but it felt like it was reaching to be a story game in spots —
especially since I get to decide whether the protagonist accepts Leo’s
offer of marriage. And before I can feel much of anything about that, I
need to have feelings about him — more detailed than “I guess he’s a
talented artist and his mom has some real issues”.

I don’t know — I guess ultimately it seemed that this game was trying
to do several different things, and it didn’t quite succeed at any of
them. But the climbing of the raindrops is an awesome scene and will
stick with me. I would encourage the author to write more. Preferably
with a bit more clarity about what he’s trying to accomplish.

Carmen Devine, Supernatural Troubleshooter (5)
There are some writing issues here. Unfortunately, one of the worst
offenders is the first room description in the game: “Bouncing along in
a 4×4, the harsh bite of Chen’s cigarette burns in your lungs as his
smoking fills the jeep.” “Bouncing along in a 4×4” is a dangling
modifier: grammatically, it should apply to “the harsh bite of Chen’s
cigarette”. Even when we rule that out, it’s not immediately obvious
what it *does* refer to — not Chen’s cigarette either, presumably, but
Chen himself? Or perhaps the player, who is not mentioned in the
sentence at all? We can work out what sort of scene we’re probably
supposed to be imagining here, but it requires some unraveling of that
very first sentence.

This wasn’t the only thing about the beginning that made it hard for me
to get immersed. I’ve never been to northern China, and I could have
used a few more elements of physical description to set up scene and
atmosphere. What’re the road conditions like? What’s the landscape?
Flat, mountainous? Dominated by huge abandoned steel mills from the
1950s industrial push? Rural, with the occasional house or farm? Empty
wasteland? Is it just cold, or is there snow or ice on the ground? What
does Chen look like? What is he wearing? For that matter, what am I
wearing? Not that we need to answer *all* of these questions by any
stretch. The author obviously did enough research to choose a specific
city for the protagonist to land in, but more sensory detail would have
helped flesh this out.

Finally, and perhaps worst, it took me a little while — possibly
longer than the author intended — for me to understand who and what the
protagonist is. There are hints in the cover art, I guess, but they’re
not entirely clear. If I examine myself, I’m told I have “natural
weaponry”, but there is no indication what that might be or how I might
find out. Result: I am reminded of the distance between myself and the
protagonist by the fact that she knows a bunch of important things that
I don’t — and have no way to explore. Attempts to look at myself, the
landscape, Chen, my outfit, my “natural weaponry”, etc., aren’t very
revealing.

Well, all right. So after this stark beginning, I was not able to get
Chen to do anything, at first, and then READ FOLDER inexplicably
crashed the game.

Tried again, now with more confined expectations. Managed to read the
folder, arrive in the village, and so on. Then found that most of the
puzzles seem to require a certain amount of reading the author’s mind,
and that the walkthrough doesn’t actually give the commands needed to
win, just a general description of what you ought to do. Which
unfortunately is not quite enough to get me through this one. Oh well.

I wish I liked this better than I do — “Chinese werewolf story” should
be a fun departure from the usual fare, but unfortunately this is not
developed far enough for me to get into it. The setting is not very
rich; the werewolfiness is not very fully explored. In its favor, I do
like the fact that the player can do different things depending on
whether or not she has shifted into wolf form. Still, this could have
gone further and been more interesting. That interesting material could
have been revealed through puzzles, plot, or exploration, and it
wouldn’t really have mattered to me which the author picked: I would
have enjoyed learning more about the PC’s history and powers, or
solving more puzzles using her wolfiness, or having more plot events that
turned on the politics and behavior of the pack she meets. But as it was this
potentially novel premise was really underused.

The reason I’ve gone on about it so long is that I felt Carmen Devine
could have been so very much better than it was, and that possibly
there
were some neat details that remained languishing in the author’s
imagination rather than making it into the game so I could see them
too.

(Random aside: I can only remember one other IF game about a werewolf.
Does this comp really triple the existing corpus of werewolf IF?)

Legion (5)
Managed to get rid of “her” by descending into the core and waiting.
Suspect from the hints that it is also possible to do other, more
complicated things, but never really got the hang of what I was
supposed to be doing and how. I am told something way more interesting is
possible, so maybe I will try this again later. However, I think it is
a major tactical blunder to have a trivially easy win-state that can
distract the player from the actual point of the game. The *author* may
know that that side path is just there as an easter egg of sorts, but
the player — especially in a game like this where the goal, setting,
and even the nature of the PC are all completely mysterious at the
outset — is likely to explore blindly and reach it by accident.

One thought on “IF Comp 2006

  1. Pingback: Spring Thing: Vague « Emily Short’s Interactive Fiction

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