IF Comp 2015: Two Shorts

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.

Cover for Seeking Ataraxia

This time around I have short comments on two pieces that were themselves not very long plays: Forever Meow and Seeking Ataraxia. (Edited to reflect: initially I thought that Forever Meow was built on a rather modified base of Twine, but in fact it’s a custom engine. Sorry about that!)

Forever Meow is a cute game about the adventures of a cat on a spaceship.

At the beginning of comp, I fire up all the games to confirm which ones play on my system and to get a sense of how long they’re likely to take, so that I can schedule reviewing time. Forever Meow was short enough and charming enough that I wound up playing through the whole thing right then. There are puzzles of a sort, but they’re so gentle that I solved them just be exploring the space.

Meanwhile, the text delivery will advance on a keypress any time there isn’t an actual choice to make, and I found that a welcome change from click-to-continue Twines — for some reason it’s just a bit more comfortable for me to be hitting a key than clicking, so if there’s going to be a large amount of that in a story delivery, it feels smoother via the keyboard. That probably also contributed to my getting into and through this game fairly quickly.

Games that have you play as an animal face a narrative challenge in deciding how to represent the thoughts of the animal. Are we going to have the cat recognize the things a human would recognize? Share a human style of motivation?

Forever Meow mostly describes objects in physical terms, though it does allow the protagonist to be aware of human-measurable distances, and to read text. And it does keep the things you do well within the realm of what a cat could accomplish: jumping on things, pushing small objects. I also enjoyed the protagonist’s preoccupation with, say, batting a screw around on the floor. Thank goodness there wasn’t a laser pointer implemented, or the protagonist would never have gotten around to solving anything.

Given the cats of my past acquaintance, I’m maybe a little less convinced that they tend to care about fulfilling human goals, but perhaps this particular one is more cooperative than most.

I’m not sure the experience of Forever Meow is likely to stick with me through the years, but if you want something light and cuddly, it does that well.

*

Seeking Ataraxia is about the difficulties of living with OCD. In particular, the protagonist has a hard time ignoring or blocking out certain kinds of distraction; studying while the living room is a mess proves to be nearly impossible, for instance.

I found this pretty easy to relate to even though I don’t, to the best of my knowledge, share the condition. One of the odd side effects for me of playing games about mental health is that I start to hypochondriacally wonder whether I also exhibit a few of the symptoms. But of course a lot of these symptoms are a strengthening of mental habits most people have to some degree, not necessarily something that is wholly different in kind. It was informative to see this at work.

As other reviewers have noted, there were some bugs at least in the initial release of this piece, which is the one that I played. It was possible to get a scene to repeat. There was also a bit where the game popped up some text in a pop up window to convey the effect of intrusive thoughts. This was a clever concept that didn’t quite work for me. Perhaps this wouldn’t be the case for everyone, but my pop-up window contained some Chrome text, and so I felt thrown out of the game by it rather than interpreting this as a part of the protagonist’s mental experience. At least for me, timed text that turns up and adds to/displaces regular text (as in Cis Gaze, e.g.) tends to do a better job of communicating the experience of intrusive thoughts. But I’m glad of the experiment; it was an interesting thing to try.

I was also a little surprised when I got an ending saying that I’d drifted away from a friend of mine. Though this character pops up at several points in the story, she isn’t really emphasized that heavily. I think from the ending that trying to balance the demands of friendship is supposed to be another challenge to our limited resources of time and energy, but while the story was progressing I was so focused on dealing with my studies and the condition of my house that friendship maintenance didn’t come through as all that urgent. I think I would likely have cared about that more had it arisen more in the narrative.

Nonetheless, the story gave me enough sense of presence that I felt a bit anxious on behalf of the protagonist and eager to get them back on an even keel.

3 thoughts on “IF Comp 2015: Two Shorts

  1. Seeking Ataraxia is more like Depression Quest, a bit shorter, but in my opinion, better. There should be more games to do with mental issues. E.g. I haven’t heard game about Schizophrenia.

  2. Nah, I agree with you about pressing a key vs. clicking (in general as well as in the specific context of choiceless “next” buttons in hypertext games). They seem to be fairly similar motions at the most basic level, but I know it’s not just me, or just you; my manager prefers typing to clicking as well and says many programmers of his acquaintance are the same way.

  3. Pingback: March Link Assortment | Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling

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