Riddles and Madlibs UI: Blackbar; Interactive Sexy Story

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Blackbar is an interactive puzzle story, for various mobile platforms, about censorship: you see one side of a correspondence, and must guess the missing words in order to move forward, as the participants try to communicate through the filter of an oppressive regime. It got a reasonable amount of enthusiasm at the time, and appeared on some top-ten lists for 2013.

screenshot-2-3.5-outlinedI have to confess that I went to a walkthrough for some of the later puzzles. One of the issues with riddle-style puzzle design is that it isn’t very explorable: you either have that flash of understanding or you don’t, and if you are thinking along the wrong lines, it can be very hard to get back on track. A few of the puzzles in Blackbar are divided up into components that you can try to solve individually, which moves it more towards crosswords territory — you can figure out some bits, get confirmation, and then use that to work out the parts you don’t understand — but others aren’t as friendly.

I also thought there wasn’t all that much to the story when it was all stitched together. Others described its storyline as Orwellian and said that it critiqued censorship, but that critique mostly boils down to: “Censorship. It’s bad.” Orwell made points about how controlling language ultimately means controlling thought, as sophisticated arguments become impossible to form. Blackbar is more about goofy ways to try to get around the censors, and casts the censors themselves as pretty incompetent. Surely a censor who really wanted to suppress information would black out more at a time, leaving us with puzzles that were harder to solve. Still, it was entertaining and competent and lots of people had fun with it.

I was reminded of Blackbar again recently because, while I was looking for a completely different thing, the iOS app store recommended Interactive Sexy Story, a free to play app with in-app purchases. I downloaded it as a piece of potential kusoge, and I was not wrong.

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The Secret Language of Desire (Megan Heyward)

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The Secret Language of Desire is an iPad app, enhanced with images and music and sound effects, which tells the story of a woman’s erotic awakening through a series of 27 short vignettes. It is available via iTunes, and will also be shown at the upcoming ELO conference in Bergen.

It’s fully linear: there are no branches in the story, no hypertext links to dig into. Unlike in PRY, there’s very little hidden information to tease out of the interactions, either. In one case, there’s something to uncover that explains the meaning of an intentionally vague and referential bit of text, though I was pretty sure what I was going to find there. This is the exception rather than the rule.

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Lifeline (3 Minute Games)

lifeline-ios-02Lifeline is an iOS and Android mobile game in which you are fielding a distress call from someone named Taylor (gender never actually specified — I’ve seen some reviews refer to Taylor as male, but I pictured a woman). Taylor was the youngest, most naive crew member aboard a space ship that has crashed on a distant moon. They have no previous space experience and only the most rudimentary safety training. For some reason you are the only person in communication range, so they need you to prompt them through a series of survival decisions.

The story plays out in roughly SMS-sized messages from Taylor, which sometimes come in rapid succession and sometimes only after a substantial real-time delay. These exchanges are backed by atmospheric music, and though the actual content is quite bare-bones and without visuals, the presentation is glossy and solid.

Lifeline has also garnered reviews calling it the best game available for the Apple Watch — one of those statements that might feel like faint praise while still being quite important from a marketing perspective. As far as I can tell from here, Lifeline is another example of the success of commercial IF on mobile. (This Offworld article talks a bit about how the piece was actually prototyped in Twine.)

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Shift Escape

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Shift Escape is an abstract puzzle game for iOS by Toby Nelson. Toby’s also maintainer of the Inform 7 IDE for Mac OS, and (non-coincidentally) my brother-in-law. So my remarks should perhaps not be viewed as wholly impartial, but I’m enjoying it. The interface has a cheerfully hand-drawn look; the puzzles themselves are elegant if occasionally fiendish.

The aim is to move your character to eat all the dots on each level before leaving, with the restriction that your motion can only be stopped by walls, so if you head in one direction, you’ll keep sliding along willy-nilly. The geometry of some levels means it becomes possible to lock yourself out of ever reaching certain dots, but even if you don’t do that, there’s the challenge of optimizing your number of moves.

The slide-til-you-hit-something rules make the floor-plate-activated flippers a significant complication:

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It doesn’t all take place on a square grid, either…

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And here I am losing, because every time I try to get that dot in the lower right corner I have to pass over the blue diamond and that moves the blue flipper out of the way and I overshoot and argh

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Spoken IF: Codename Cygnus, Multi Path Audio, Mayday: Deep Space

cygnusCodename Cygnus is interactive radio drama: there are voice-acted scenes with music and sound effects. The premise is that you’re a secret agent, and you can download several missions; each mission is itself divided into smallish episodes, so when you start something, you’re not committed to a long session. It’s highly genre-determined, trope-y stuff, where you’re meeting bad guys with foreign accents across a gaming table, or slipping truth serum into someone’s drink.

Periodically the narrator asks you which of two options you’d like to pursue in order to continue your mission, with specific keywords for you to speak (“Athletic? Or Clever?”). You can either speak the next word or tap the option on-screen, but the system is designed so that you can play entirely hands-free, without holding or looking at your device. As with Choice of Games titles, your actions may determine character stats rather than causing immediate narrative branching; and in fact in Codename Cygnus a lot of your choices (“Athletic / Clever?” “Hostile / Charismatic?”) are explicitly asking which of your stats you want to use and enhance. Because you’re not viewing the text, the screen consists purely of a stats readout, plus controls to scrub or replay audio sections you’re currently listening to. It’s simple but attractive.

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Choice of Robots (Choice of Games)

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Choice of Robots is a recent large-scale Choice of Games piece: you take the role of a gifted young graduate student in robotics, about to make significant breakthroughs in your field, generating a line of robots that might become surgeons, soldiers, companions, factory workers. Your choices include design decisions for the robots and business decisions about how to manufacture and sell them, but also personal decisions about how to relate to your robot creations, and what you think it all means. The scope of your activities is such that you may find yourself flying to Shanghai to take meetings, or spending months in a military jail, or preventing the invasion of Taiwan — and along the way it’s pretty likely that you’ll also make a considerable personal fortune, which you can choose to spend on luxuries, philanthropy, or a mix of things.

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