The Magic Circle (Question)

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If that’s hard to read, here are the first couple of sentences:

The gods of this world don’t know you, boss. But they’re scared of what you might do. They have to treat you like some reptile with a credit card, who can’t stay awake without watching something die…

The Magic Circle is a first-person puzzle game that recently left Early Access for full release on Steam. The premise is that Ish Gilder, a game designer with a massive cult following, has been trying for decades to follow up on his early text adventure success. He’s been promising exotic features for the sequel with Molyneuxian abandon, and he’s held something like five separate crowdfunding campaigns, but the game never quite comes together. In fact, a nearly launch-ready version gets totally scrubbed at one point, a complete space-station setting buried in favor of something more fantasy-oriented.

There’s a whole website dedicated to documenting the sad history of the game development.

(Disclosure: I received a free review key for this game.)

You play as a tester who has gotten access to this desperately broken thing, and you’re trying to get it to function for you. Early on you meet the Old Pro, a self-aware AI of the protagonist who has been waiting all these years for his game to be released so that he can get out into the world. (How exactly he came to be a self-aware AI is not deeply explored and neither are the ethics of releasing him.) You don’t have a sword because Ish has decided late in the process to remove combat, but you do have access to debug tools that allow you to meddle with the flags controlling NPC behavior. When you’ve learned about a skill from one NPC, you can apply it to others.

You thus spend the bulk of the game play time — I’d estimate about four and a half hours for me — exploring both the space and the fantasy areas of the game, which are linked, and solving puzzles in order to get close enough to creatures to yank their skills out of their bodies.

This is an elegantly designed puzzle space: consistent and comprehensible mechanics, lots of fun bits where you can combine different character skills to produce useful or funny or horrifying results, and a non-linear design that lets you tackle problems in the order of your choosing. It is possible to find solutions the devs didn’t specifically anticipate. I did once waste a lot of time trying to solve an enemy, the Securitron, because I hadn’t yet picked up the skills that would have made it easy to kill, but eventually I remembered that I had other options and went off to try something else first. Most of the time I was challenged enough to have to give situations a bit of thought or experimentation, but not all the way to stuck, which is what you want.

Lots of nice work has also gone into making an easily navigable map with clear signs of where you will find new puzzles to solve, so you’re not wandering around this big space desperately looking for doors and triggers.

So that’s fun. And while you’re doing it, you get a bunch of diary-page style storytelling in the form of change log notes and director’s commentary and other scattered text and audio clips, messages from the Old Pro, and the occasional scene of avatars interacting in-world. This is how you learn about Maze, the expert player who has come on to work for Ish as a designer, who loves high-difficulty gameplay and hate hate hates cut scenes; Coda, the long-time fan who has grown up waiting for Ish’s next game; references to Ish’s ex-wife and to other QA testers and designers who came and went over the years. From time to time you hear music, overlaid with instructions from the composer about what it’s supposed to sound like in this context.

Eventually – but let’s have some spoiler space.

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Tightening the World-Plot Interface: or, Why I Am Obsessed With Conversation Models

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Framed is an interactive comic game in which you move around the panels of the story, reordering events in order to change what happens in the story. It looks really attractive, too.

Forgetting is a graphic novel with CYOA-style branching when you click on certain panels.

Forgetting is a graphic novel with CYOA-style branching when you click on certain panels.

When I first heard of this game, I was hugely excited about it. There aren’t that many entries in the interactive comic space, and this seemed to offer a slightly different set of mechanics to go alongside Dan Benmergui’s (unfinished but, to judge by the demos, awesome) Storyteller or Troy Chin’s Forgetting or the somewhat over-difficult Strip ‘Em All.

When I actually played Framed, though, I had essentially the same reaction described at The Digital Reader:

While Framed is based on a clever dynamic, the actual game is repetitive to the point that I am bored… Rather than have the user solve puzzles with different goals and different solutions, the vast majority of the levels I played all had the same goal: avoid the cops. Other than setting things up so the protagonist can either bypass cops or sneak up behind cops and hit them over the head, there’s not much to this game.

I’m maybe a little less harsh than this — I did feel that Framed was worth playing, and I know that some people did enjoy the puzzles — but nonetheless, I was hoping for something that did new work in telling an interactive story, rather than just setting up a bunch of puzzle levels. In that area it fell short. All of the puzzles are about a similar problem — one set of characters escaping another — and the stakes don’t alter much either. This makes for boring story.

The problem occurs at the world model-to-plot interface. That’s a challenging area for parser IF, too — and indeed for any game in which the player cannot influence the plot directly, but has to change the world model in order to move forward. Choice-based games vary in this regard, but probably more of them are of the directly-influence-plot variety than of the indirect-influence variety.

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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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Choice-Based Multiplayer IF: Bluedorn (Ryan Veeder), Salvanas (Andrew Plotkin)

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Seltani is Andrew Plotkin’s Myst-themed multiplayer universe riffing on Twine, in which authors can add their own explorable Ages. It’s been around for a bit over a year now, and includes the Barbetween age, which I’ve written up before. It just recently picked up a couple of new ages: Ryan Veeder’s interactive museum experience Bluedorn, and Andrew Plotkin’s own puzzle age Salvanas. It’s a timely development, given the considerable interest in multiplayer IF that turned up during our recent discussion on new directions in IF.

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Hadean Lands (Andrew Plotkin)

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Hadean Lands is Andrew Plotkin’s massive parser IF game about an alchemy-driven spaceship. It’s been several years in the making, after a substantial Kickstarter. And it’s now available.

I backed the initial drive, I’ve been following the dev blog since, and I spent probably upwards of 20 hours beta-testing it, becoming (to the best of my knowledge, anyway) the first person to finish the game other than Zarf himself. (Yes, I am bragging. Play it and you’ll see why.)

So I can’t really claim any sort of unbiased reviewer status at this point. Nonetheless, I would like to talk about some things that I thought about the game.

The discussion below will be mildly spoilery for information found in the very beginning of the game and in the ABOUT text. It will reveal no significant puzzle secrets, but if you want to experience the game entirely free of such preconceptions, then don’t read on.

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