IntroComp 2014: The Terrible Doubt of Appearances, Tales of the Soul Thief, Devil in the Details

IntroComp is a long-running interactive fiction competition in which authors submit the beginnings of games and invite feedback and information about whether players would like to see more.

If you would also like to vote, you have through August 15 to try the entries and rate them.

The Terrible Doubt of Appearances is a parser IF game about a rich youth who falls through into an alternate universe full of self-animated arms and legs, cogwork giants, and wish-granting clocks — more Phantom Tollbooth than Alice in Wonderland, but with some debt to both. The protagonist does reach wonderland by falling down a massive hole, after all, while the fairy-like guide might be a nod to Tinkerbell.

It’s pretty solidly constructed. I didn’t run into any bugs or significant issues in my playthrough, and the polish level was high. The text tends to run a bit on the long side, with paragraphs appearing in response to most actions, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, just a different tempo than some games take.

I’m a little wary of surreal wonderlands as game settings, because surreal wonderland usually means that the world has permission to act very illogically and unpredictably, which in turn often makes for unfair puzzles; and because surreal landscapes are sometimes doing Vague Metaphor About Deep Emotions rather than exploring those experiences more directly. Given that that is what it is, though, this game seems to be doing a reasonably good job of it, introducing surreal-acting objects and carefully teaching you how to use them.

What would make me like it better: Eh, I don’t have any strong suggestions here. I am not sure where this is going or whether it will wind up in a genre place I’m keen on, but so far it is reasonably solidly constructed and I’m inclined to give the author the benefit of the doubt.

*

Even a stranger to Foreshadowing has heard of the infamous Tavern of the Blackened Soul…

Tales of the Soul Thief is a fantasy story about an exceptionally grim fantasy world with slaves and human sacrifices and the Fallen One’s fortress hovering menacingly in midair. There’s a mechanic where you can steal people’s souls and use them to solve puzzles: this is a bit like having a game with spell-casting, except that a) souls are one-use only, so far as I saw, which reduces the potential for interesting/surprising spell reuse; and b) the backstory is so much more evil than your average IF magic system.

Curiously, the game narrative doesn’t really acknowledge that there’s anything potentially bad about stealing souls — it’s just this thing you do. Maybe the idea is meant to be that everyone else you meet is so incredibly awful that it doesn’t matter anyway, but it felt a little odd to me that something that is at the core of the game’s mechanic and narrative gets so little exploration.

I got partway into this and then got stuck not quite certain what I’m supposed to be doing to pass a particularly villainous-seeming NPC. (Some characters can sense when you’re trying to steal their soul and react badly, which is fair enough because otherwise presumably no guards would be at all effective against the protagonist.)

What would make me like this better: there’s a curious sort of flying-on-automatic quality to the worldbuilding and the writing here. For instance:

You stand amidst ancient gravestones in a cemetery which looks long abandoned. Looming over you is a large church, though one which appears as long abandoned as the cemetery itself.

— a bit bland, a bit repetitious. Likewise, a lot of the setting elements feel drawn out of the bag of Fantasy Tropes (Dark/Sordid Edition), while the puzzles I saw pretty much all consisted of “find person in vicinity of puzzle, steal one of their abilities, and then maybe use it.” So I would like these things to feel more thought-out, less like they were created by default. But possibly this is also partly a matter of taste.

*

Devil in the Details is a parser game about making a demonic contract in order to get by in San Francisco. It is incredibly, incredibly fiddly. There are critical items that aren’t listed in your inventory but only found if you look in the correct pockets. There are actions that you have to do in an arbitrarily correct order for no reason other than Because. There are actions that you have to phrase exactly right (that is to say, not necessarily using the verbs you’d ordinarily be used to in IF) or NPCs will scold you. In a room with three chairs, the game makes you specify which one you want to sit in and then an NPC makes you move if you pick the wrong one. OPEN DRESSER fails ambiguously, not really hinting that you need to be opening individual drawers.

In other circumstances I might put this stuff down to under-testing, but there is in fact so much of this (in combination with the game’s title) that I think it has to be intentional: that part of this game’s concept involves making the parser and world model even more finicky than they normally are, about making the player conform to really precise instructions and actions, even while larger-scale goals are maddeningly vague. (It’s hard to work out what you’re even trying to do at the outset of the game.)

The narration also reflects this overprecise focus: for example, the description of knocking on a door reads

The knuckle of your middle finger of your right hand taps three times in quick succession.

…but gives you nothing to work with about why you’re here, whom you’re trying to find, how you feel about it. It reminds me a bit of some writing I’ve seen that is meant to convey neuro-atypical experiences, like what it is like to experience certain types of autistic-spectrum thinking, but I’m not at all sure that this game is trying to suggest that about the protagonist. All I’m (reasonably) certain of is that it’s Intentional.

In any case: I’m not sure what the author’s aesthetic aim might be, but I found it pretty frustrating to play, and the prolonged dressing scene in which I endlessly scrabbled around trying to wrest underpants and a shirt from Lucy was the point at which my patience ran out.

One thought on “IntroComp 2014: The Terrible Doubt of Appearances, Tales of the Soul Thief, Devil in the Details

  1. You stand amidst ancient gravestones in a cemetery which looks long abandoned. Looming over you is a large church, though one which appears as derelict as the cemetery itself.
    Fixed that for Daniel M. Stelzer.

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