IF Comp 2015: Kane County (Michael Sterling, Tia Orisney)

The 21st annual Interactive Fiction Competition is currently on, through mid-November. Voting is open to the general public; the only prerequisite is that you not be an author, not vote on games that you tested, and submit votes on at least five games. (You emphatically do not have to have played them all! In a year with 55 entrants, it is very unlikely that most judges will get through anywhere near all of them.)

If you are looking for other reviews, this ifwiki page contains a list of places currently carrying them.

cover1Kane County is a choice-based game about surviving in the desert, light on plot but with lots of branching and simulation elements. I played three times, and on the final playthrough finally managed not to die in the wilderness. It could be more polished — I ran into some punctuation issues and typos, and the user interface includes some strange typographical choices. Nonetheless, the scenario keeps up a good pace and the setting is described in detail. I stayed interested throughout.

I associate Tia Orisney with three previous pieces that focused on long passages of text (which I often felt could use an edit) and focus on story over simulation. Kane County reverses that structure: you can have one of two characters, the athlete or the survivalist, but they’re both essentially uncharacterized clusters of stats. Meanwhile, the story has choice points every paragraph or two, and it’s easy to die from lack of preparation.

The whole experience had very much a gamebook feel, to me. There are a number of choice points where possibly someone with more wilderness experience would have naturally known what to do, but which were learn-by-failing exercises for me. You don’t always know whether the area that the game describes as a likely water source will actually yield any such thing. It’s always a judgment call whether to use up a given piece of equipment, and it’s not always clear whether a particular action is going to destroy something or just put it to use. So sometimes you use a digging tool and it’s none the worse afterwards, and sometimes it breaks on application.

But if you approach it with a gamebook mindset, it works pretty well. (Though I’d be curious to see comments on it from someone with more gamebook experience, too.) The action moves briskly; the setting is varied enough to keep things interesting and provide a real sense of progression, rather than just generic Desert Slog 1 and Desert Slog 2 and Desert Slog 3-9. The resource and health mechanics are not that far off from what I might expect to see in a Windhammer entry. I took some notes on the second playthrough, and that was enough to help me survive the third.

About the UI:

Screen Shot 2015-10-09 at 12.12.29 AM

This is more complex than the average out-of-the-box choice-based UI, so points for effort. And I did like both the cover art and the background image used here, which helped set ambiance.

However, there were a bunch of things about this UI that just read as clunky to me: the separate links for adjusting the sizes of fonts along the bottom edge; the margin size; the typography of the main list. The UI never settles on a single consistent way of reporting the results of your actions. Spacing sometimes looks weird. Occasionally you’re offered a link that would allow you to “use an item” in your current situation, only then to be told that you have no items that are applicable — so why was that link even made available, then?

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Since this doesn’t come with a walkthrough, a few hints after the spoiler section for people who find it difficult:

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Inside the jeep, search twice for additional items before you leave; you’ll get two granola bars that will help with your stamina issues later. If you search a third time, you’ll get a rope, but it will cost you a point of stamina as you then have to jump out and hurt yourself; I didn’t consider this necessarily to be worthwhile, though it might be.

The first night, the cave is in fact free of animals despite the warnings in the text. It’s safe to stay in there, and seems to gain more stamina than staying outside.

During your travels the next day, going through the wash will gain a boat part; going through the scrub instead will gain a digging tool, but that’s not really as useful because you’re about to have another opportunity to get one.

The base of a cliff is a better place to look for water than among the boulders. Cactus is not as liquid-yielding as you might hope.

Later in the game, you’ll have the opportunity to descend to a river and build a boat. This is a good idea — it avoids you having to camp in a spot that will later encounter a hard-to-survive wildfire. So collecting boat parts and rope is helpful; I think I had one rope and two or three boat parts the time I made this run successfully, and I also chose to reinforce my boat that night when I had the opportunity.

On the river, side canyons are a bad idea. Stay on the main course if you want to live.

2 thoughts on “IF Comp 2015: Kane County (Michael Sterling, Tia Orisney)

  1. Pingback: Guest post: Kane County reviewed by SA | Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling

  2. *spoilers*
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    In the “travels the next day”: after choosing your class you can gain a rope from following the old fences in addition to getting the boat part and the digging tool. I found the boat parts to be much more useful so it was better to wait in the jeep until you get the rope and take take damage so you don’t have to waste looking for the rope part here. Later on if you look in a pile of sticks on top of the mesa you’ll find a digging tool.

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