Liz Albl is a scriptwriter for Ubisoft and author of short stories.
Other posts written as part of this project can be found at this roundup post.
I didn’t post many reviews in December, partly because I was a bit burned out (thanks, IF Comp), partly because of paid workload, and partly because I was playing so many things, between IGF judging and working on the Kitschies list, that there wasn’t time to review all of it. But here are quick thoughts on a few December releases.
Lyreless, a Bruno Dias retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice story for Sub-Q magazine. This version tells of a journey to the underworld in which we must shed one aspect of ourselves after another in order to pass through the gates of Hell and find our beloved again.
It is not a love story. Eurydice is essentially uncharacterized: who she is, or was, doesn’t matter as much as the quest, and specifically the question of how a quest changes us and our motivation for starting out on that quest in the first place. What happens when you are motivated by strong passions – pity, anger, a sense of justice – but those passions get in the way of what you are trying to accomplish? What if you have to give up some of your identity in order to become the sort of person who can do what a person-like-you would want to achieve?
Disclaimer: I currently have a contract with Choice of Games. I bought this game with my own money, but I am not financially disinterested in Choice of Games projects. I am writing about this one because I particularly liked it, but you should take my views with an appropriately-sized grain of salt.
I first encountered Max Gladstone through his first Choice of Games piece, Choice of the Deathless — a work set in the Craft universe of necromantic lawyers which he’d already developed through several novels. I thought the game was good, but also that it did a handful of things that suggested (to me, anyway) an author not yet entirely at home with the mechanics of his medium. There were stats that didn’t seem to matter much; there were relationships that were interchangeable and made the characters consequently feel a bit less important.
Then I read the first of Gladstone’s novels, Three Parts Dead. (I have not read the rest, yet, but I’ll get to them.) The book was well-paced and fun, and I had more of a sense of an author at home in his medium. There was plenty of action, but some other elements as well: the Craft is used to make bargains between powers and institutions. A contract from a god might supply a city with heat, or water, or power its defenses. An arrangement of this sort has to be drawn up carefully, recorded publicly, and sometimes defended in court. It is, among other things, a fiction that’s good for talking about systemic arrangements and the deals we make in order to allow the world to function. (If you liked Cape for its themes, this might be of interest to you.)
Now Gladstone has come back to ChoiceScript with Deathless: The City’s Thirst. It’s more confident and better structured than Choice of the Deathless, and it is a standalone story in the same universe. It does a decent job of introducing the Craft universe — enough so that you could start here, if you wanted, without either getting lost or spoiling parts of the other works for yourself.
I recommend it; mild spoilers about its premise and themes after the break.
Monstr (Laura Michet, Kent Sutherland, Meagan Trott, Emily So, Travis Ford DeCastro, Rachel Sala, and Rosstin Murphy) is a game in which you’re searching for the dating profile of a monster you saw at a bus stop. It’s made up primarily of spoof profiles and then short “chat” scripts that go horribly badly until you find the one monster who is right for you.
As far as I can tell, it’s largely a matter of luck when you will stumble on the correct monster, and the chats with wrong monsters usually go wrong because the protagonist is scripted to say something foolish or horrible. So it’s easy to build up a sense of the PC as a somewhat-awful being before you get through to a win condition.
On the other hand, the dating site satire is fun and some of the monsters seem rather sweet.
Wonderland is a new audio IF game by veteran IF developer Jim Munroe. It’s a mystery puzzle centered on Munroe’s own neighborhood in Toronto, and it has a hangman-like mechanic of puzzles where you can unlock additional letters by walking around with your phone.
I’ve been enjoying it, as far as I’ve gotten — though I haven’t finished yet. I think this game would be ideal for someone who spent a lot of time on rambling strolls. Right now, that’s not really me: Oxford is pretty drippy and forbidding this time of year, so most of my exercise happens indoors. But the game has a pleasant radio drama quality and the voice acting is well done.
(Disclosure: I received a free copy of this game.)
One Button Travel (The Coding Monkeys) is a Lifeline-genre game: you’re engaged in CYOA chat with one other character, and there are real-time delays spacing out your conversation. The app is skinned with a somewhat retro, Device 6-esque design.
Unlike Lifeline, its rather less successful sequel Lifeline 2, and its free-to-play imitator Timecrest, One Button Travel invents a premise in which, instead of aiding a mysterious stranger, you’re the person in danger (at least initially). Your correspondent is trying to assist you, though assisting you quickly involves them getting into trouble as well. They’re also able just occasionally to send you messages with photographs inside, which the Lifelines did not attempt.
So I was well-disposed when I started the game. However, the timing elements are really frustrating. There are a lot of pauses that run for 30-120 seconds, as far as I could tell. (I’m estimating: I didn’t keep a stopwatch on these.) Maybe the delays are meant to add to the realism of the situation, but they really annoyed me. They broke up the narrative just long enough that I put my iPad down and went to do something else, only to be interrupted with a notification just as I was settling into a different task — meaning that to make any significant progress on the game, I had to let this game fragment my attention and keep me from getting anything else done, even though it itself wasn’t keeping me continuously engaged. And it wasn’t necessarily signaled when my interlocutor was going to be gone for two minutes and when they were going to be gone for hours. Sometimes when I did respond to the notification, the result was another page of texts without any further choices for me to make at the end of it, so there was functionally no reason (other than perhaps a long-ago eroded sense of suspense?) not to have given me those additional messages right away.
Meanwhile, after the initial hook, I found myself increasingly detached from the story itself. Some of this is because that bitty, occasional level of interaction made it hard for me to connect. Some is because the world-building is so implausible — you are “helping” someone escape through, among other things, a really bizarre system of automated laundry handling that sounds like it was designed to be an amusement park ride. Some is down to lack of agency: it wasn’t until I’d been playing for something like a week of real time that I encountered a choice where it felt like that choice might have caused a significantly different outcome than if I’d picked the other option.
Anyway, I’m declaring bankruptcy on this one. I haven’t finished it, and I don’t plan to: it’s not giving me enough in exchange for my time.
(Disclosure: I played a copy of this game that I bought with my own money.)
6Quest is Hungarian interactive fiction based on a gamebook series. The creators are currently running a Kickstarter to have the app translated into English for a wider audience.
I was able to find this list of Hungarian gamebooks by Demian Katz, but I’m not even able to translate the titles, so I don’t have a huge amount to go on. So I asked Paul Muranyi to tell me a little more of the history of gamebooks in Hungary, as well as the current scene and their project.
Z Files: Infection is a project currently being Kickstarted, an interactive comic book set in a zombie universe. I talked with Ruber Eaglenest, aka El Clerigo Urbatain, about the project, and how it works as an interactive comic, as interactive fiction, and in terms of how it portrays its protagonist.
RUBER: There have been other games that have tried to this fusion, but they are most experiments, or resort to the “infinite canvas”.
EMILY: I think that is an interesting direction. I’ve seen a handful of pieces that do similar things, but I think there is probably a lot of additional room to explore it. IIRC, some of the Tin Man Games pieces do include some comic illustration elements; also a few other things I’ve covered.
RUBER: To be honest, sometimes I’m not at all satisfied about how I try to communicate how interesting is our project compared to other attempts to make interactive comic. I do not want to look as I disregard other attempts, especially when I can climb on his shoulders and improve from there.
We are going to stay inside the pages of a comic, and so, the challenge is to apply the tree structure of CYOA to the finite space of a comic book.
EMILY: What actual constraints do you have in mind here? For instance, are you trying to make all the pages be the same size, or have the same amount of visual space assigned to each node?
RUBER: You see, people and the press likes to praise the infinite canvas because we simply love to see common things applied to new technologies. But when one uses the infinite canvas in a digital or interactive comic, you lose some of the features and inherent properties of the comic format. For example, the ability to close a page narrative, or leave it open with a cliffhanger so that an important revelation occurs at the turn of the page. To play with the structure, with graphic symmetry, among other wonders you can do within the pages of a comic book. For example, in the following conference praising Watchmen, Kieron Gillen explained very well the capacity of traditional structures of comics raised to its maximum capacity of artistic expression.