IF Comp 2011: Awake the Mighty Dread

Awake the Mighty Dread combines a surreal story about steampunky robots and floating palaces with a touch of the Frog Prince. Mostly story rather than puzzle.

I get the impression that the author of Awake the Mighty Dread has a cool and complex intentions for his story world. There are lots of visionary moments about the world we’re exploring; meanwhile, the protagonist has snippets of memory that suggest a nightmarish childhood, involving an orphanage and possibly some abuse. The opening feels like the beginning of a long-ish piece, setting up a number of questions. The combination of grim childhood events with airship-and-brass-robot fantasy put me in mind of Phillip Pullman and the His Dark Materials trilogy; for the rapid movement and disorientingly fantastical environment, it made me think of Deadline Enchanter.

Unhappily, the author’s vision is a lot clearer to him than it can be to the player. Awake the Mighty Dread sets the player down in an unknown universe with strange rules; provides uncertain goals; doesn’t implement thoroughly; and makes it possible to miss vital objects and pieces of information. It’s not so much a question of getting stuck in a narrow linear passage as of passing through a big open field, missing many important plot elements that lie somewhere in the grass.

Then it turns out that the comp entry is just part one of the story and ends on a cliff-hanger.

There’s a core of potential here. The writing is strong, qua prose (more about that later); it’s doled out in reasonably-sized chunks; for several of the game’s transitions, the author has accounted for several possible ways to play through, and they all work. Nonetheless it needs work before it will really deliver the experience I think the author had in mind.

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On my first playthrough, I got really, really confused and lost. I had tried to get into the information hut and failed. My interaction went something like this (I’ve actually reconstructed because my first transcript was lost, but this gives the idea):

>x hut
The hut has a window in the front, with an embossed copper sign reading “Tickets” over the top. The hut is shuttered and closed, but a faint scratching from within draws your attention.

>listen
You hear nothing unexpected.

>listen to scratching
You can’t see any such thing.

>in
You can’t go that way.

>go in window
I only understood the first part of that– trying anyway.
>GO IN
You can’t go that way.

>buy tickets
You can’t see any such thing.

>x hut
The hut has a window in the front, with an embossed copper sign reading “Tickets” over the top. The hut is shuttered and closed, but a faint scratching from within draws your attention.

>listen to hut
You hear nothing unexpected.

>in
You can’t go that way.

>enter hut
You can’t get into the closed information hut.

>x hut
The hut has a window in the front, with an embossed copper sign reading “Tickets” over the top. The hut is shuttered and closed, but a faint scratching from within draws your attention.

>x window
You can’t see any such thing.

>open window
You can’t see any such thing.

Baffled, I gave up on interacting with the hut for the time being (maybe it was meant to open up later in the day or something?) and went to explore elsewhere. That meant that I got taken up in a hot air balloon by the Ra character without ever having met the frog; without the frog, the passages in the palace were pretty much incomprehensible. Who were these people? What did they want with me? Without the frog’s prompting, I never talked to the king or queen at all, but wandered off on my own to a room with a truck that transported me somewhere where I couldn’t do anything. And that was the point at which I decided that I was so far off any kind of rails that I needed the walkthrough. Sure, I seemed to be in a dream state, and maybe I could wake up again, but in the wider sense, I had no clue what was meant to be going on or how to pursue the goal I thought I had in the game (namely, to find my brother).

Replaying from the walkthrough, I found myself perplexed all over again. Here’s the opening of the game as played directly per the walkthrough commands:

Sleeping Station (in the F-Train)
You find yourself alone on a train. The wheels on the rail click-clack-click-clack – that must have been what woke you up. You’re not sure what train this is, or where you’re going, but you’re no longer scared. If anything, you’re a tiny bit happy to find yourself lost on a train – your brain has this weird feeling, maybe even a dream, a memory, of being in a bad place, of clenching your muscles so he wouldn’t turn his attention to you.

>take book
You pluck the palm-sized book from the seat. Now that you’re a little more awake, you recognize the tiny leather-bound memo book as Ben’s book of fairy tales. The ones he wrote down just for you when the library wouldn’t let you check out books because you didn’t have a real home address.

Where was that book mentioned in the description? How was I supposed to have found it? I’d looked around during my first playthrough and seen no mention of it. Oh well; onward.

>read book
Which story would you like to read? ‘Lilly in Oz’, ‘Little Red Riding Lilly’, ‘Brakel Lilly’ or ‘Coyote Ben’?

>oz
You read:

A little orphaned girl named Lilly once fell asleep under a deep, dark underpass. She travelled to a strange world named Oz, where she met a bum made of newspapers, a can of beans who could talk, and an alley cat who believed he was a lion. They hitchhiked to the city, begged The Man for help, but the only help to be found was in the form of a crabby old witch, who happily shared the soup from her cauldron. It wasn’t a home, but at least it was dinner.

>read brakel lilly
I didn’t understand that. You used a word that ends in “ly”; if it was an adverb like “slowly” or “carefully,” you don’t usually need to type those in IF.

>read coyote ben
I only understood you as far as wanting to read ‘Coyote Ben’.

… [ some bits that involve frustrated attempts to get off the train, snipped for length ] …

>remember consequence
You can’t see any such thing.

>x consequence
You can’t see any such thing

So plainly there’s a lot of information here that I was supposed to get — the contents of the missing book pages, and something about the consequence (of what?) — that might have grounded the story better.

The prose quality seriously outstrips the implementation quality. For instance, when at last you get to the frog:

This time you reach out to pick Hal up yourself. Your tongue pokes out in concentration as you feel your fingertips squishing through his solid brass skin. Slowly, as though you are plucking a troublesome jellyfish from a tank, you lift the frog from the ground.

“Is this safe?” Hal’s voice is squeaky, and his limbs swim in the air.

This is crisp, active prose that engages all the senses and communicates the protagonist’s viewpoint (“tongue pokes out” suggests a child’s mannerisms; “squishing” is also a childlike word).

So there’s good stuff here. But it needs extensive testing and structural overhaul; I feel like the author was often not considering what would happen if the player didn’t take exactly the steps anticipated by the walkthrough. So Awake the Mighty Dread would need to be revised in line with design around the player’s experience. Alternatively, if the author wants to do something a bit more linear and streamlined, emphasizing the writing rather than the simulation, something closer to Undum might be a sensible vehicle for the content.

5 thoughts on “IF Comp 2011: Awake the Mighty Dread

  1. Where was that book mentioned in the description? How was I supposed to have found it?

    I think it shows up when you “X TRAIN.” In the original walkthrough there was something very unclear at the beginning suggesting a branch where you could X TRAIN or do something with the glider — of course there’s no glider at the beginning, but if you X TRAIN it makes more sense. There’s now a new walkthrough posted which is clearer (though I’d still like to see some explanations of which actions in it are just killing time and which are necessary). Of course, I didn’t start by doing that on my playthroughs; I went to sleep, got thoroughly confused, failed to get anything out of the information hut, and died abruptly two different ways.

    The “Brakel Lilly” response seems like it must be one of Aaron Reed’s player friendliness extensions — I’m starting to think that authors should be really careful that those messages don’t bump up against things that are actually in your game.

    • I think it shows up when you “X TRAIN.” In the original walkthrough there was something very unclear at the beginning suggesting a branch where you could X TRAIN

      Aha huh okay. I had that branch text at the beginning of mine, but it didn’t appear to work or make sense as a branch, so I assumed that that was from some blip in the skein, and ignored it. Because it didn’t occur to me that you were supposed to X [room you’re already in], so I assumed X TRAIN was meant for some time when you were outside the train.

      The “Brakel Lilly” response seems like it must be one of Aaron Reed’s player friendliness extensions — I’m starting to think that authors should be really careful that those messages don’t bump up against things that are actually in your game.

      It is — from Smarter Parser, I think — but it shouldn’t fire unless you’ve gotten to the parser errors phase, which means that it’s already failed to parse normally. So if this command worked, it should never get that interference.

      Playing with this some more, it appears that the chapters of the book are implemented as objects, and the book as a container. (This explains why you can take the chapters out and drop them on the floor if you choose; also why LOOK UP RED RIDING IN BOOK or CONSULT BOOK ABOUT RED don’t work, because it’s not using standard consultation topics.)

      Furthermore none of the chapters respond to “lilly” or “ben”, possibly because those names are connected to other objects in the game world and the author was having disambiguation problems? (Not sure about this.) I can’t diagnose more completely without looking at the code, but I’m pretty sure that Smarter Parser didn’t by itself break this.

      (That said, there are some edge cases with Smarter Parser you have to watch for; my WIP runs into a few. But I don’t think it’s the case that it will muck with each and every object that ends in LY.)

      • Oh, I wasn’t clear; I didn’t mean to say that Smarter Parser was causing the error, just that in circumstances like this I could see it producing a misleading message. And I was actually thinking of the body parts message; I could easily see an inexperienced author dropping Smarter Parser into a work that requires you to examine someone’s hand at some point, and then the message you get when you type “x eye” would lead to much weeping and gnashing of teeth.

        (Though in this case it was helpful — I tried “TAKE HAND” to take the ballooneer’s hand in order to get into the balloon, and the message told me not to try that. But it should have worked!)

        Unfortunately, I think it’s Smarter Parser that’s causing the game to hang up occasionally in Quixe, since that seems to happen when I trigger a parser error.

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

  3. In all fairness, reading the book is optional. I didn’t find it either, and it didn’t affect my ability to continue with the game. Skipping the frog, on the other hand, is a big problem.

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