IF Comp 2011: Andromeda Awakening

Andromeda Awakening is an apocalyptic science fiction piece, in which the protagonist knows things are going horribly wrong. More after the break.

…only not a great deal more.

Andromeda Awakening credits beta-testers, and I believe it did have them. All the same, the implementation and the prose in particular put me off from the beginning: the writing is full of not-quite-right words, tenses misapplied, commas and pauses in the wrong places. Given the author’s name and the nature of the errors, I assume this is a work in English by someone who natively speaks another language (probably Italian), and given that, it’s way better than I could possibly do in another language. So props for trying. There’s every evidence that the underlying ideas are actually rather lyrical:

The foggy light coming from the grates on the top half of the stairwell looks like a cascade of dusty milk.

That sounds kind of cool, but what does it mean? Can you envision it? I can’t. In what sense are the grates on the stairwell? Are there lights behind grating in the ceiling? Are the stairs themselves lit from below? How does light cascade? Fog could cascade, sure, but if there’s fog, where is it coming from?

And elsewhere the prose just slips out of being idiomatic, in mildly confusing ways. “A flight of stairs moves up to your front door.” Do we just mean “leads up to” or is there actually a portable set of stairs a la Hogwarts? In a modern-day setting I could guess, but in this one it’s not totally clear. “The cyanotic, vibrating light of the station stands as a formal counterweight to the usual pink of the open air.” Doesn’t “cyanotic” apply specifically to the bluish skin color of ill patients, especially those deprived of oxygen? Is it ever accurate to talk about light being cyanotic? Okay, maybe it’s being poetic, but it’s still jarring. Or this: “The rails cut the earth in two further south, while a more tender atmosphere breaks in through the entrance, northwest and up from here.” What does that mean? Just that the outdoor air is back to the northwest? I think that’s all it means, but what’s this talk of tenderness?

I constantly felt as though I was swimming against the tide, guessing what the words meant and not being quite sure.

Then the implementation (not too spoilery, as this is the very first room):

Condominium
The foggy light coming from the grates on the top half of the stairwell looks like a cascade of dusty milk. You are standing just mere feet from your house entrance, above the first step outside.

>x entrance
Two meters of solid vibertron alloy, as the regulation from ASA imposes. No handle: just the usual hand scanner.

>x scanner
To be honest, you just left.

>put hand on scanner
You can’t see any such thing.

>x viberton
You can’t see any such thing. [As pointed out in comments — this is my misspelling, not the game’s fault.]

>open door
The door will open automatically as you step into the next room.

>u
You can’t go that way.

>in
You can’t go that way.

Basic clues that might help me orient myself refuse to work:

>i
You’re carrying some files in a folder, an expired railway ticket and an E-Pad.

>x files
As you drop your eyes on the cerulean cover of the folder, your own writing jumps out almost new, as if someone else has inscribed on it the words: “Reports to the Council”.

>read files
You know these Reports by heart.

Except that I the player don’t know these reports by heart; on the contrary, I’m fairly confused about why it is I’m apparently not able to go into my own house and why I’m setting off for the train station with an expired railway ticket as my chief possession, but no clothes or keepsakes or survival goods. What kind of disaster is this? Do I not need those things? Is the game streamlining them away for convenience?

But the game won’t let me look at the files and won’t acknowledge my need (that is, mine-the-player’s) to know what’s in them. If it’s totally out of character for the protagonist to reread the files here on the doorstep, that’s fine, but in that case it would be nice if the narrator provided a little summary for the sake of the player: “You don’t have time to reread the Reports, but you already know what they say: …INFO DUMP HERE.”

So I didn’t play very far. There were too many kinds of ambiguity at once: I was having to guess what the words and phrases really meant, how the space was supposed to be configured, what my character was doing and why, what kind of science-fictional universe I was dealing with, which of these objects were likely to be implemented and which were dummy scenery. I could deal with some of those issues at a given time, but not all of them at once: I just felt like I was constantly floundering, and not getting enough information to be enjoying myself.

18 thoughts on “IF Comp 2011: Andromeda Awakening

  1. Ouch.

    Well, I knew my italian writing style would not be easily passed to another language, and my proofreaders finding not-so-many-mistakes made me feel the more uncomfortable because I knew this was too lucky to be true.
    What I just hoped for is that this wouldn’t hinder a player from trying and experiencing the game a little more.

    I see this is not the case.

    Now, I could be offended by the fact that finding it hard to visualize a “cascade of light” or a “cyanotic light” made it impossible for you to try and reach past the train station (it’s there where you left off, right?). I may be incredibly beaten by the fact that an obscure background story stopped you and now you’re reviewing my game for like 5 rooms where it counts more than 30.

    But that would be if I was 15, while I’m not.

    Actually, as I forethought, reviews like this one is what my game needs, more than praises or caresses. :)
    Now I’m more aware of what a bad designed beginning can do to spoil a player experience. I should have though about it better. And so, now I’m compelled to try a new way there, and make the game playable. So, thanks for your time.

    I hope you will find the motivation to go through a second try, when the Comp’s over, because I find your critics inspiring and you for sure have the right experience to be a guidance, as you’ve always been.

    —M.

    PS: How come almost EVERYBODY, finding themselves over a stair pointing out, with a game that tries to push you outside, keep losing like 100 moves by trying and ENTERING the damn door? :O

    • What I just hoped for is that this wouldn’t hinder a player from trying and experiencing the game a little more.

      I see this is not the case.

      It may not have hindered other people. What got in my way, though, wasn’t any single thing, but a combination of factors that collectively made me uncertain about where I was going, what I was supposed to be doing, and what it all meant.

      That said, I think I am personally more sensitive to this kind of problem than a lot of other players. There are other games that have stopped me in my tracks for similar reasons, including some that other people have really enjoyed. I have tried and given up on Mulldoon Legacy three or four times over because certain room descriptions are so hard for me to envision that I just can’t figure out what the elements of the puzzle have to do with one another. Maybe it’s possible to soldier on anyway without really understanding what’s going on, or maybe some people are able to parse those descriptions better: I don’t know.

      Either way, I personally tend to get hung up if I can’t parse the words into images or some kind of model world in my head. This may sound silly, but trying to play such a game actually makes me a bit anxious, as though some part of my brain is worrying over the phrases even when I have consciously decided to forget about trying to understand them precisely. I also admire the concept of The Gostak, but have never gotten very far in it, for just the same reasons.

      PS: How come almost EVERYBODY, finding themselves over a stair pointing out, with a game that tries to push you outside, keep losing like 100 moves by trying and ENTERING the damn door? :O

      Ah, that I think I might be able to shed some light on. Many IF players (myself included) will instinctively try to exhaust the interactive possibilities of a starting room before moving on to somewhere else; or they’ll try to visit the local rooms before venturing off to other nodes that will lead into a wider part of the game. It’s something to do with the way we’ve learned to organize the world model in our head and be disciplined about exploring it. Not every IF player takes that approach, but I generally do. So if I find myself in a location where one exit plainly says THIS GOES TO THE BIG WIDE WORLD and the other says THIS GOES TO A SMALL ROOM WITH NO FURTHER EXITS BEYOND IT, I’ll check out the smaller one first.

      On top of that, I was very confused at the beginning of the game about what my protagonist was so afraid of, and I thought there were likely to be more hints about that in his house than I might find out on the street somewhere. So I was eager to go in there and see if I could find out what was going on before I ran off to deal with further dangers.

      Both of these boil down to the same basic concept of interactive narrative, which is that the player may at different times want to move the plot forward or find out more about the situation s/he’s in now. It’s not always possible for the player to know what actions will lead to which outcomes, but often local exploration is a good way to get more exposition in the present. If you feel like people were interacting “wrong” with your opening, that might mean that it would help to (a) remove distracting elements that aren’t actually useful — maybe even by skipping ahead to the point where the player is about to go get on the train — and (b) make more starting information available in other ways, so the player does feel like s/he understands the premise adequately and is ready to go forward.

      In any case, I’m sorry if you’re offended that I reviewed just a fragment of the whole game; typically I don’t review games I haven’t finished, but a quirk of comp game reviewing is that I feel like it’s useful to report my experiences back even if I found a game hard to complete.

      • No! I’m not offended! Like I said, I’m not 15 :)
        It may hurt to be thrown outta the window in a few steps when you passed months delivering the game, but it will never hurt. Indeed, it will help.

        I can’t go on saying “g***mn EmShort, she knows nothing!”. I must admit there IS a problem and I want to solve it. It’s the way I’m used to work (I’m a designer and I know problems are not there to be ignored). I have some ideas already. I WON’T upload them even if I had the time. Infact I’m thinking about withdrawing the game from the Comp, given the “new-rule-problem” that has arisen in intfiction.org, lately. I don’t wanna be remembered as a cheater.

        Back to the argument: as a wannabe writer myself, I’ve been in the que outside the editors’ chamber too many times to know not of the “rules of the game”. A book (and IFs are books, after all) is ALWAYS judged by the first 30 pages or so. If the plot doesn’t kick in there, or the story/characters etc are not alive by then, it will be a failure. This knowing, I did it wrong the same. Some of the reviewers and testers DID actually go on, so the “beginning problem” was not there to be found. But it WAS there. And that’s all that counts.

        I tried to develop the plot during game, as the first bit of important information comes out after you passed the train station (although one can consult things on the E-Pad well before that, those don’t quite give complete hints: they just describe the world). It’s obvious that’s too far ingame. Dropping the walk-to-the-station part could be a solution. Although, presenting one with the questprobe-one-puzzle (the “I’m tied hands and feet to a chair, what now?” kind of puzzle) isn’t my turf. The other idea is to give off more info in the first steps (maybe the protagonist’s internal soliloquy is not enough). Either way, you helped.

        I’m not offended.

        As long as you PROMISE you will take another chance at the game soon enough :)

      • Infact I’m thinking about withdrawing the game from the Comp, given the “new-rule-problem” that has arisen in intfiction.org, lately. I don’t wanna be remembered as a cheater.

        You should do whatever you like, of course, but in your shoes I wouldn’t withdraw. There is, as far as I can see, one person who has an outspoken opinion about what the rules ought to be who is applying the “cheating” terminology; pretty much everyone else seems to agree that the rules are the rules and following them is by definition not cheating.

        I would further venture to predict that the entire argument will blow over and be largely forgotten surprisingly soon, like any of the other approximately one gazillion past arguments about what the comp rules are or ought to be. We can’t really know whether the rule change has been a benefit to the comp until a bit later in the proceedings, and I imagine that that is what will determine whether we keep the new rule or go back to the old way. But I think the chance of any long-term stigma attaching to your name because you happened to (legally and within the rules) update your comp game is approximately zero.

  2. Just a tiny question: you misspelled “vibertron”. Was that just in the review, or in the game as well? And if the latter, was it intentionally or by accident? Depending on the answer, you may want to correct it, explain why you did it, or remove it from the transcript.

  3. Pingback: L’avventura è l’avventura » Un appello: votiamo in massa Andromeda Awakening!

  4. Pingback: IF Comp 2011: More on Andromeda Awakening, and comp reviewing in general | Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling

  5. Pingback: IF Comp 2011: Overview | Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling

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  7. Your criticism of the sentences leaves me perplexed. Have you never heard of metaphor?

    – “The foggy light coming from the grates on the top half of the stairwell looks like a cascade of dusty milk.” The light is coming from the top half of the wall above the stairs; that it’s coming through grates makes it likely that it’s coming from outside, but I don’t know the context. The “dusty milk” comparison would refer to the motes illuminated by the light source, and the “foggy” bit refers to how cold, gray, and insufficient the lighting seems in these conditions. The use of the word “cascade” would lead us to conclude that the light is angled downward.

    – “A flight of stairs moves up to your front door.” A moving set of stairs is generally called an escalator, so it would be safe to assume “leads” is meant. This game was translated from Italian, so I’d give it some leeway there.

    – “The cyanotic, vibrating light of the station stands as a formal counterweight to the usual pink of the open air.” Wait, you refuse to allow “cyanotic” for light, but you’re fine with pink air? The use of an organic term for something typically inorganic, contrasted against giving a hue to colorless gases, is being used to show that while the outside is warm, natural, and inviting, the station feels cloistered and sickly.

    – “The rails cut the earth in two further south, while a more tender atmosphere breaks in through the entrance, northwest and up from here.” Again, contrast. To the south, the ground has been cruelly sliced in half, giving a feeling of harshness. To the northwest, things look the opposite of harsh – which is to say, tender – so probably bursting with foliage and flowers, or the land is otherwise undeveloped. Also, I’m not sure where you got the idea that “atmosphere” can only refer to air, as outside geographical connotations it’s generally used to refer to the emotions an area causes an entrant to experience (a torture chamber would have an unsettling atmosphere, for instance).

    • Your criticism of the sentences leaves me perplexed. Have you never heard of metaphor?

      Of course I have. But metaphorical language can be more or less clear, consistent, and evocative. I contend that this language is unclear and that it introduces implications that confuse the reading, especially given that this is the beginning of a speculative fiction piece where the rules of the universe are initially unknown. (And if I recall correctly, you’re reading in some details about the staircase and the natural life outside the station that the game doesn’t make explicit or even contradicts.)

      • True, it was difficult to make entirely accurate insight without knowing what context some of the sentences were placed in, as I noted myself (I made the assumption that the good things were blatantly “natural,” for instance, as this is common fare in sci-fi). Part of the joy of artistic language is in ambiguity, and nothing made ambiguous that I saw was vital to the crux of the plot.

    • Metaphorical language can be good, but it’s an art. Remember that in IF, the text is your world. Where a movie has set design, camera angles, costuming, acting, cinematography, etc, IF has text, text, text, text, and more text. And just as two directors could make very different choices at HOW to show the same information, two authors can use text to portray the world differently. These differences are sometimes subjective, but other times most critics would agree that one is definitely better than another. I wasn’t as put off as Emily was by Andromeda’s text, but I still found it overblown and distracting.
      Remember that the text is your window to this world. Poor word choices can be distracting or mood-breaking in the same way that a jerky camera or bad acting can be. And while I understand your point that the author isn’t a native English speaker, his word choices still affect the way we experience the game: Imagine a movie where a young man who’s never left his Kansas farm is played by someone with a thick Irish brogue.

  8. By the way, on the subject of the files – you can look up any topic of note the game mentions in your E-pad. It’s a very sleek set-up, and renders garnering information from the files unnecessary. Besides that, I’m not that familiar with IF, but there’s a lot to be said for withholding select information from the reader in traditional fiction, whether for purposes of conciseness or suspense.

  9. Pingback: IF Comp 2012: Andromeda Apocalypse (Marco Innocenti) | Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling

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