IF Comp 2011: The Elfen Maiden / A Comedy of Error Messages

A Comedy of Error Messages is Wodehouse-style comedy — social comedy, romantic entanglements, plenty of misunderstandings — only reimagined for a world where Jeeves is a computer.

When I first played this game it was called “The Elfen Maiden” and listed no credits or beta-testers. At that point it was about a straight man who had accidentally set up a date with someone who was going to prove to be male as well, rather than the woman he was hoping to meet; as his faithful computer, you had to prevent him from going to that date and instead set him up with someone else.

My initial impression was that computer-as-Jeeves was an amusing concept and that the game had some good moments, but that the implementation flaws made it much harder to play than necessary: some solutions were underclued; some timed puzzles were finicky, and one of them appeared to lead to a broken ending if you did things in an unexpected order; numerous objects and synonyms were missing. Nonetheless, I did like the way the protagonist’s consciousness moved through the network, allowing access to cell phones and security cameras. And the writing was reasonably confident, though not polished to Wodehousian levels.

Version 2 features four named testers and an overhaul of the initial premise, such that the protagonist can be either gender and may be straight, gay, or bi.

I’m leaving my score for the game as it was based on version 1 — after all, I spent most of my judging time on that version of the game. But I’m happy to see improvements made, so I’ve gone back to have a look at the revised version.

Version 2 has dealt with some but not all of the interaction issues I noticed on a first playthrough. One of the puzzles I felt was confusing the first time makes more sense now (maybe I’d just missed the clue the first time around, or maybe that clue was actually added in this version). And — though I wasn’t able to verify this — it looks like the timing is more generous in one spot where I seem to recall running out of time on my first playthrough.

But other issues remain. Many — perhaps even most — scenery objects aren’t implemented. Directions to nearby rooms are capitalized, which seems like a helpful interaction hint, except that not all the capitalized things actually work as verbs; it felt like that would mislead new players who don’t understand they need to stick to compass directions plus IN/OUT and UP/DOWN.

Further — this is a higher-level sort of problem — the game doesn’t strike a clear balance between direction and free exploration. At one point a nagging message starts showing up every turn, but it’s not very informative about what you need to do next, making it an irritant rather than a source of guidance. At another, there are a number of basically useless explorable areas that do nothing but pull time off the clock during a timed puzzle. (I never did find any use for the Blogosphere, which may be a satirical point, but one made at the expense of the player’s time and convenience.) Elsewhere, in many places, the game is unresponsive unless the player does just the right thing. This is a problem that requires both design and writing changes to correct. In my experience, it comes from the author focusing on a single expected interaction path rather than thinking like the player.

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Here’s a sample of the kind of thing I have in mind:

The Router-Daemon is a robotic many-armed creature that points incoming data in the correct direction. Three levers – one gold, one bronze, one silver – protrude from its torso. Lost data packets talk to it to receive instructions on where to go.

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

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

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

>x data
You can’t see any such thing.

>x gold
You see nothing special about the gold lever.

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

>push gold
Nothing obvious happens.

>switch gold lever
That’s not something you can switch.

The correct solution here is to TALK TO DAEMON to receive instructions about which lever to PULL. And that’s not unclued by the text: after all, as we’re told, “lost data packets talk to it.” But not every player is going to focus first on that phrase of the description. If the player tries the other nouns in the same paragraph, they’re singularly unhelpful, with synonyms or entire objects missing and other obviously important things (like the gold lever) yielding no guidance in response to examination or not-quite-right verbs.

So the trick here is to clue redundantly but in varying forms. Talking to the daemon will get a riddle that suggests what the levers do. But mightn’t we get a (different but also useful and interesting) clue by watching the approaching packets? By looking at the levers themselves? By playing with the levers in the incorrect way?

The game has quite a few issues like this. More attention to what the player could do wrong, and ways those wrong moves could be made useful (or even turned into right moves), would improve the play experience quite a bit.

Meanwhile:

I’m also not sure how I feel about the big change between versions one and two. I think the change probably resulted from early reviewer feedback that the premise of version 1 (dramatizing the horrors of a straight man accidentally finding himself on a date with a gay man) could appear homophobic. Version 2, by providing alternate sexuality and gender options, appears to try to address this, but winds up actually complicating the core question here. Namely: is it a problem if someone likes you romantically and you can’t reciprocate for reasons of gender and sexual preference? How much of a problem is it, what kind, and why?

The original version of the game played with the idea that a straight man will be traumatized if he accidentally goes on a date with a gay man. This fits a commonly observed phenomenon, namely that some straight men are freaked out and offended by a gay romantic approach. (Enough so that some straight male gamers would like to make homosexual options invisible in the games they play.) In its worst form, that response stigmatizes homosexuality or casts gay men as a type of predator. Now, possibly in version 1 we’re supposed to understand that Jason is traumatized only by the disappointment of his romantic hopes and not because he has a strong homophobic reaction to being hit on by another guy, but it’s really not clear, and the idea that the date is “ego-crushing” and leaves him blank-eyed seems to play more into the second possibility.

Just to be completely clear: this doesn’t mean that I think straight guys are wrong to prefer women or that being straight means being homophobic or that everyone has to be comfortable with being hit on by everyone else; or that I would be unwilling to play a game about homophobic characters or that I think homophobia is unsuitable for discussion; or even that I think it’s impossible to write a funny scene about miscommunicated gender identities. But “Elfen Maiden” wasn’t really a character study about those things; instead it seemed, possibly and maybe without the intention of the author, to be setting up “straight guy accidentally dates gay guy” as a punchline in a way that would approve of and normalize the disgust reaction.

It doesn’t really solve that ambiguity to open up the straight male character to be any gender or sexuality, I think, because the response that character is supposed to have still comes out the same, in the text I saw: blank-eyed looks if s/he goes on a date with the wrong person, sense of massive impending doom on the computer’s part. The straight guy/gay date is still one possible version of this scenario.

What version 2 does is introduce the possibility of a number of other configurations that don’t carry the same cultural baggage but also don’t really make sense. For instance: I rolled a gay male who was threatened with a date with a woman and a bisexual woman who was threatened with a date with a straight woman. And dead-eyed horror isn’t (in my experience) a likely reaction to either of those situations. I could picture the gay man being disappointed or annoyed to discover his date was female, but most of the gay guys I know have been approached by straight women before, handle it with a certain amount of empathy and/or humor, and wouldn’t regard it as an ego-crushing trauma. And as for the bisexual Jane, perhaps she would wind up unhappily pining for her straight female friend over a period of months, but why would she be horrified, crushed, or disgusted by a first encounter?

Well. As usual, I find it hard to talk about these issues in enough detail to be clear without making it sound like a big deal, but in fact my reaction to the sexuality stuff in v1 was more “hm, there’s an unfortunate phrasing there that makes it sound worse than I think the author intends” than “OMG what insensitivity!!!”. If the focus of the narrative were more on the idea that Jane/Jason had raised hopes that were about to be grievously disappointed (rather than that this date was going to be an ego-crushing disgusting disaster), I think I would have had a different feeling about it — with or without the option to pick J’s gender and sexuality.

And to reiterate what was said waaay up there long ago: I did like the concept here of the computerized Jeeves, and the way that the setting was both familiar and exotic because one moved via cyberspace. That was fun. The puzzles were cute. Some typo correction and design refinement would help, but this one could be recommendable with a bit more work.

4 thoughts on “IF Comp 2011: The Elfen Maiden / A Comedy of Error Messages

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

  2. “I never did find any use for the Blogosphere”

    I asked Cory Doctorow about something, and he gave me advice that would have saved my life later in the game had I heeded it.

    I do think a straight male finding himself on a date with another straight male is pretty funny, though.

  3. Glad to hear I’m not the only one who was baffled and frustrated by this game in just the ways you were.

    Ron Newcomb said: “I asked Cory Doctorow about something, and he gave me advice that would have saved my life later in the game had I heeded it.”

    I remember it being clued that there was something you could ask him about, and I tried various things, but never hit on the right one before I ran out of time, even if I took what I thought was a pretty quick route there.

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