Thursday, October 29, 2020

Creatures: IFcomp 2020

Creatures is a choice-based work by Andreas Hagelin. 

This entry deserves credit for re-creating a nostalgic experience. It's choice-based in the same way that some of the earliest computer games were choice-based — most of the game is spent choosing numbers from a menu of options. It felt like something I could have enjoyed on my Apple IIe, back when running a Dungeons & Dragons module on the computer was a huge deal. 

I would have done terrible things to get my hands on a game like this back when I was in grade school. 

Back in grade school, I would also get excited about the story elements in Creatures, which included electric lights, magic altars, knights, and medical experiments. In the present day, it is more difficult for me to identify a clear theme that links them together in a cohesive narrative.  

Unfortunately, Creatures has ignored a lot of advances in game design that have been made over the past three decades. Parts of it feel like something that the author created to see whether it could be done, instead of something that was created to be enjoyed by an audience. 

This entry has a simple play loop. Answer a riddle, fight a monster, answer another riddle, start another fight. All of the riddles involve entering sequences of numbers that unlock doors. Only 4 codes are required to complete the game, but the IFcomp details suggest that more than 2 hours may be necessary. 

Combat involves stats and random number generation, but enemies should be challenged in a specific order to gain equipment for winning the next battle. It means that the number crunching is narratively pointless. 

I do not have the programming skills that would allow me to create an entry like this from scratch, and Creatures works as a proof of concept. If the author develops this work, it would be interesting to see something more user-friendly that supported a larger, more intricate story.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Ferryman's Gate: IFcomp 2020

Ferryman's Gate is a parser-based entry by Daniel Maycock. In it, you search your uncle’s estate for his hidden legacy.

In Hollywood Hijinks, your uncle Buddy was endearingly quirky, imbuing his Hollywood-themed puzzles with a kind of silver screen logic. Ferryman's Gate reminds me of Hollywood Hijinks, but Osmond Ferryman was fussy and judgmental. 

Ferryman and I agree that clear communication is difficult without clear punctuation. However, Ferryman's interior design choices suggest that people should be put to death for incorrect comma usage. I’m not sure I can support that position.

This entry is solid parser work. There are locked doors, buried chests, dark rooms, and everything you'd expect in the "treasure hunt at your wealthy relative's estate" genre. The question is whether an obsession with punctuation adds novelty to the experience. 

A lot of work went into coding, writing, and proofreading not only Ferryman's Gate as an entry, but also the style guides inside the game that explain its preferred rules of grammar. I respect that work while questioning whether it was worth risking a catastrophic invocation of Muphry's law

I try not to pick on typos, but it's dicey to set characters up as supreme arbiters of correct language — giving them actual power over the gates of Hell — when your work is likely to include visible errors.

At the start of Ferryman’s Gate, a "volume of Gerard Manley Hopkin's [sic] poetry" is mentioned, giving an awkward example of possessive apostrophe use

The Utility Closet, two rooms away from the starting point, "is empty except from [sic] a strange copper panel," which might be a figure of speech that is specific to Georgia.

Overall, I think that the obsession with perfection weighed down this parser-based treasure hunt and made it less enjoyable.

*I personally guarantee that my reviews of this year's entries are riddled with typos, which is why I try not to hold myself out as an authoritative expert. 

Monday, October 26, 2020

(s)wordsmyth: IFcomp 2020


(S)wordsmyth is a choice-based entry from Tristan Jacobs.

Your character in (s)wordsmyth is a lousy fighter who has been trained to end disputes with words alone. I loved the concept behind this entry, but I was baffled by its design choices. 

This is not a story about negotiation and compromise. Instead, you have to outwit mythical creatures that exist solely to hunt and kill humans. Every physical action is described to you by your sword, which made me feel distant from the narrative.

A large black display crowds all this entry’s text into a small window, which made it difficult for me to follow some of the dialogue exchanges — carefully chosen words and skilled writing were already necessary to carry its story, and then extra constraints were imposed on how that writing could be displayed. 

A lot of clicking is required to advance between choice points, and there's no ability to save the game. A bloody splash of graphics decorates the (many!) endings that you reach through incorrect choices. Although it's possible to "undo" a bad choice, it rewinds to much earlier in the confrontation and requires you to redo several choices. 

There's a fascinating journey at the heart of (s)wordsmyth, and the main character encounters a wide variety of distinct opponents. It would have helped if this story was presented in a way that was less difficult to access.

I especially enjoyed the final confrontation, which was supported by writing that did a better job of indicating which choices were correct. I wish that every encounter had been designed as carefully.

Artwork from Donald Conrad:

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Deus Ex Ceviche: IFcomp 2020

Deus Ex Ceviche is a choice-based entry from Tom Lento and Chandler Groover. 

This entry is a richly designed experience guided by a clear artistic vision. My attempts to describe that vision — it’s running a business that operates a church for seafood robots — will fail to do it justice. 

The main mechanic resembles a card game where "disks" are placed in three fields that guide the story, and modifiers can be added to change their effects. Different variables are tracked on the side of the screen, and a pixel-perfect advisor offers help. 

It's quick to figure out what will happen when various disks are submitted, but it's unclear whether you want those things to happen. You gradually gain awareness as you spend more time with Deus Ex Ceviche, developing conscious control over the proceedings. This mimics the experience of “you,” the central character in the story. 

At first, I couldn't tell whether I wanted to restore things to normal or create a new order. In Deus Ex Ceviche, that might mean a religious order, a sequential order, or a restaurant order.

Wordplay is a major component of this entry, but they aren't quite puns. In the real world, people share imperfect metaphors when they’re trying to describe the workings of finance, theology, and computer programming. Deus Ex Ceviche blurs the edges of those concepts and freely substitutes nautical terms, business concepts, programming ideas, and spiritual dogma. 

In a dizzying feat of logical consistency, those substitutions are consistent throughout the story. The three fields of play are front end, back end, and hardware, and each has an equivalent marine creature that is thematically linked with the rest of the work. 

(In one of my encounters, it noted that you can translate "serpent" as "python" to create a new religious paradigm.)

Your choices to invest power and piety can result in rituals that reveal mysteries and draw the game to its conclusion. 

...although pickling is always an option.

Ulterior Spirits: IFcomp 2020

Ulterior Spirits is a choice-based work created with Unity. 

This entry uses graphics, sound, and a futuristic presentation to support a story on a space station populated by aliens and robots. A lot of background material is necessary to introduce the laws, life forms, and technology of this world, but smart design choices bring readers up to speed without being invasive. 

While popup windows appear instantaneously to give more detail about races and technology, the story itself is revealed through individual paragraphs of timed text. I wish I could have experienced the main story at the same speed as the background reading. 

I needed time to get invested in this entry's narrative, but that investment paid off. Nuanced characters with understandable motives acted out a story arc that ended in satisfying personal development. I enjoyed it as an immersive work of fiction supported by well-timed, illustrative artwork. 

However, an immersive work of fiction is not the same as an interactive one. Some choices were obviously meaningless, only altering a single line in the next passage or responding with text that ignored the choice completely. Most passages ended with simple "click to continue" buttons. 

Although I tried to make choices as a level-headed senior officer, I suspect that I would have seen the same outcome from the wild and impulsive options. It was still an enjoyable outcome, and I'd recommend it to others. 

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Tombs & Mummies: IFcomp 2020

Tombs & Mummies is a parser-based entry, written in Quest, by Matthew Warner.

The magic, monsters, and ancient artifacts in this entry made it fun to explore the underground tomb of the Pharoah Haputet. Rooms are illustrated with Egyptian artwork, and an in-game hint system allows you to trade health for clues.

Instead of red herring objects, Tombs & Mummies has traps that affect how the player behaves. I enjoyed figuring out how to reverse the curses that were placed on me, but they could also be avoided entirely whenever I restarted. And I restarted frequently.

We should discuss the "torch" mechanic. Your torch is your lifeline, but if experience with other games has trained you to TAKE TORCH on the first move, then trying to light it results in the message "you don't have a torch." 

Also — you might not notice this if you restarted to use "LIGHT TORCH" on the first move — the torch is never just lying on the ground. If it's not in your inventory, it's in a wall sconce. You can only light the torch when it's in a sconce; trying to light an extinguished torch while holding it gives another "you don't have a torch" message, even when it's in your inventory.

Every time my torch went out, I had to use the DROP TORCH/LIGHT TORCH/TAKE TORCH sequence, making it faster and easier to RESTART. 

The torch experience was representative of the overall work, which has a lot of clever ideas that could be better implemented to improve the experience.
I eventually escaped the pharaoh's tomb. It was an entertaining challenge, but it would have been more entertaining if some of the challenges didn't involve figuring out what the parser expected me to type.

Artwork from Donald Conrad: 

The Impossible Bottle: IFcomp2020

The Impossible Bottle is a parser-based puzzle adventure by Linus Åkesson.

It would be an exaggeration to call The Impossible Bottle a spiritual successor to Trinity, but it wouldn't be much of an exaggeration. 

Both works involve the playful exploration of a logically consistent fantasy world, and both of them include Klein bottle references. 

Puzzles in The Impossible Bottle are beautifully integrated with its story, consistently blurring the lines between fantasy and reality in ways that weren't possible in Brian Moriarty's 1986 Infocom title. (Moriarty's London tourist obviously departs from the world that we know. It's difficult to say for certain whether Emma of the Impossible Bottle remains in the real world.)

I was concerned that the story of a six-year-old doing housework might be unapproachably childlike, and instead I discovered an entertaining challenge that re-defined conceptual space.    

Each puzzle in The Impossible Bottle asks whether you need to change objects so that they can better relate to their environment or change the environment so that it can better relate to the objects. 

Despite the constantly shifting perspective, the parser still understood what I was trying to accomplish. It must have required a lot of work to implement smoothly. 

I appreciated the tone of this entry's narration. Descriptions were clear and earnest, with the kinds of wry observations you'd expect from someone who doesn't quite understand the tedious social rituals of adulthood. Prompts from the environment gently steered me towards the entry's main mechanic, which was a deceptively simple concept enabling a large number of complex interactions. 

The Impossible Bottle is an incredible triumph.

Friday, October 23, 2020

Electric word, "life": IFcomp 2020

Electric word, "life" is an interactive story by Lance Nathan. 

In his author's note, Nathan states "I like games with meaningful choices and branching paths, but this is what I wrote." 

This is a linear Twine work where the reader can receive more detail about specific passages before arriving at the conclusion. It plays to its strengths, narrating a 1999 Halloween party and examining the protagonist's relationship with the guests. 

As a work of fiction, Electric word, "life" has been carefully constructed. The writing is thoughtful and polished. The reader is free to explore the party environment and learn more about the narrator's life, but facts are also revealed in a deliberate sequence to tell a complete story.

There is one instance of timed text that I understand from an artistic perspective, but as a reader it looked like a broken passage — the "back" arrow, displayed prominently throughout the story, was the first thing that caught my attention before the rest of the text materialized on the screen. 

This is a solid entry, and my main recommendation would be stronger packaging (blurb, cover image). It's the story of five friends who won't recognize the importance of their Halloween encounter until it's over.

Review Roundup: The Eleusinian Miseries

The Eleusinian Miseries is is a parser-based work by Mike Russo.

This is a game that I beta-tested, so I'm not going to review it. 

Instead, you should listen to these people of unusual taste and discernment

From Herr M:

"Really solid debut that plays like a mix of Asterix, Monty Python and Terry Pratchett"

From Lynda Clark

"A funny, nicely written romp through (I think) Ancient Greece with a really well made hint system that offers information nice and gradually to give you a nudge in the right direction without spoiling things."

From Anssi 

Based on what I was able to play, it was a hilarious, fun experience, and definitely worth checking out for the language used. 

From Walter Sandsquish

"Eleusinian Miseries" is a funny, engaging, well-structured game, with only a few implementation problems.

From Radioactive Crow:

"While many of the puzzles were very enjoyable, it is really the humor that makes this game great. Don't forgot to stop and read the prose in between completing tasks as there are more than just funny lines, but hilarious whole scenes. It is unusual to me to see humor mixed into a parser game this well and at this level."

Thursday, October 22, 2020

The Call of Innsmouth: IFcomp 2020

The Call of Innsmouth is a choice-based horror story by Tripper McCarthy. 

This entry is a serviceable addition to the Lovecraft universe. The work stumbles over some common challenges that plague initial releases, but its attention to detail suggests that the author will publish outstanding work in the future.

The story visits standard New England locations that are central to Lovecraft's work, and design choices support a creepy atmosphere. Presentation details, like the custom background and buttons to choose your next action, are a welcome departure from Twine's black-and-white defaults. 

I enjoyed my experience in the town of Innsmouth. It was briskly paced and full of suitably tense decisions. There are multiple ways to encounter plot points before fleeing to safety, and although bad decisions can end in disaster, the author allows players to undo their mistakes. 

The investigation that led the narrator to Innsmouth was much less exciting. Early pages end with the equivalent of "click to continue" buttons, and every possible conversation option must be exhausted before doing something else. I felt less like a sharp-eyed detective and more like a bored student hearing lectures that repeated the same few ideas about Innsmouth and its sinister residents. 

The writing in this entry suffered from a lack of trust — I couldn't tell whether the author didn't trust me to notice details the first time they were mentioned, or whether they didn't trust their own skills to correct the bloated, repetitive excesses of Lovecraft's source material. 

My hunch is that later parts of this entry worked better because of lessons learned during the development process. My hope is that this drive for improvement will lead to great work in the future.

Artwork from Donald Conrad:

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

BYOD: IFcomp 2020

BYOD is a parser-based entry from n-n.

Gameplay in BYOD is not so much a limited parser as it is an alternative parser. Although standard commands are present for exploring your character's physical environment, the main action takes place through your smartphone's custom VFS software. The VFS commands were easy to understand and I correctly followed the author's trail of clues to reach the "good" ending.

The virtual feelies that accompany this entry include newsletters and supplemental information formatted to look like Usenet discussions and GameFAQs walkthroughs. I don't know enough to judge whether these are accurate representations of hacker culture, but they certainly evoke the 1990's mood of a group that I was never cool enough to join in real life.

They also make it unexpected for the main character to be using apps on a smartphone; I remember those showing up much later.

The packaging for this entry deserves special recognition — the files bundled with the game itself are accessed online through a menu designed to look like a C:> prompt.

You can't actually type any commands on that screen (and I had to learn that the hard way), but hovering your mouse over the different files shows that you can click on them.

These outstanding presentation details support a shallow narrative that needed more development. In this entry, corporate stereotypes tell a brief story about the abuse of power. When BYOD ended, my character had accomplished very little.

The powerful CEO retained his job, perpetuating an industry described as the root of all evil. The secretary was momentarily protected, but what happens in the future? (And what happens to other employees who catch the CEO's eye?)

BYOD offers a tight, carefully defined experience that let me feel like a hacker. I wish it had put a similar amount of effort into telling an engaging story.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Quest for the Sword of Justice: IFcomp 2020

Quest for the Sword of Justice is a choice-based comedy by Damon L. Wakes. 

This entry first looks like an abnormally well-implemented fantasy adventure created with RPG Maker. The player starts in a small village, and obstacles are presented with obvious clues for overcoming them. Then the game delivers its punchline — the big twist might be familiar to fans of Chrono Trigger. 

Quest for the Sword of Justice differs from Chrono Trigger in that the proceedings have (at least) two possible outcomes. When I acted like I was in a normal RPG, I ended up in an increasingly silly situation that seemed like a permanent end state. Starting over and changing my behavior led to a different outcome with a clear "game over" screen. 

Wakes has a past record of well-implemented Twine games that blend the solemn and the silly, and the use of RPG Maker software skillfully delivers Interactive Fiction conventions through a new medium. 

This entry is a polished, smoothly executed joke, but it ends quickly.

Artwork from Donald Conrad:

Monday, October 19, 2020

Chorus: IFcomp 2020

Chorus is a choice-based urban fantasy by Skarn. 

This entry asks you to divide six people between three different community service projects. The enjoyable twist is that they're all monsters and mythological creatures integrated into modern society. (Oddly detailed personnel files offer scientific discussions of their abilities.) 

The story follows a run down, under-funded nonprofit that is already stretched to the breaking point. In a normal city, these organizations serve different groups of people whose needs are regularly in conflict with each other. When those people are harpies, gorgons, and beings from alternate universes, the conflicts become more interesting.

Chorus relies on a player who is willing to return to the story and learn from repeated playthroughs. Early remarks about "the reorganization of the district" hint at tensions behind the scenes, and my first experience left me eager to investigate why the city felt like Nazi-occupied Paris.    

Individual paragraphs of text fade in gradually, but a prominent "animations" toggle allows you to access entire pages rapidly. That was helpful for speeding through familiar passages to focus on new behavior from different members of the group. 

The different factions in Chorus interact with each other behind the scenes to create an intricate backstory, and the result is an experience that replaces the worst aspects of community service drudgery with tense fantasy conflict.

Artwork from Donald Conrad:

Sunday, October 18, 2020

The Cursèd Pickle of Shireton: Ifcomp 2020

The Cursèd Pickle of Shireton is a choice-based fantasy adventure by Hanon Ondricek. 

This entry is not parser-based, but its choices are intricate. You will enter text in some places, select options in other places, and open windows to click links that create additional options in menus that you might not even be aware of. 

It is immense. 

Cursèd Pickle of Shireton is a choice-based facsimile of an MMORPG where you can explore, take quests, build stats, and grind for experience. There is an entire adventure outside of the titular pickle's storyline, packed with outright comedy, subtle in-jokes, and external references that are serious and silly. 

It's enormous, and it's amazing, but my experience felt unfocused. Compare this entry with others from the same author: 

  • Cannery Vale: You must finish writing a manuscript before the deadline is up.
  • robotsexpartymurder: You must solve a murder before the deadline is up.
  • Cursèd Pickle of Shireton: Welcome to Age of Aeons, where you can do anything!

The first two titles push readers with clear motives for investigating worlds full of immersive, engaging situations. Although Cursèd Pickle of Shireton is as carefully crafted as its predecessors, its content has to do all the work of pulling in an audience by itself. 

This entry's greatest strength and biggest weakness is that it's a sprawling assortment of wonders. Without a clear motivation, it took me a long time to find the pickle — and at that point, I wasn't even sure it was a threat. 

Age of Aeons, the fantasy RPG where this story takes place, is big enough and weird enough that I wonder what would happen if the pickle was left unchecked. Why not embrace the way of the brine? Would the wizards' guild steer me wrong?

Artwork from Donald Conrad: 

Saturday, October 17, 2020

The Copyright of Silence: IFcomp 2020

The Copyright of Silence is a choice-based entry by Ola Hansson. 

(PRO TIP: You have to click on the word "Welcome!" to begin the experience, which took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out.) 

This entry is laid out like a board game, taking place in a four-room apartment where you interact with the composer John Cage, his dog, and his parrot. Text tracks the four of you moving from room to room, and different actions become available depending on who is where. 

I appreciate the effort involved in implementing these characters. Their behavior is governed by logical rules that can be deduced through observation — you are expected to understand and apply those rules to engineer a specific result.

The blurb for this entry hints that it's like Elsinore or Varicella, where you are expected to fail many times and learn from your mistakes. However, those games immediately establish that a catastrophe is imminent and encourage the player to start working towards victory from the beginning. 

If Copyright of Silence explained what it wanted during my first visit with Cage, I was too dumb to notice. There's a stopwatch in the kitchen that suggested a course of action, but the how and why only became clear after my visit ended and I endured the triumph of Cage and the failure of my own character. 

The success of this entry relies on an accretive player character who can play through the scenario quickly and have fun learning new things each time. That's where I stumbled. 

I might have spent too much time thinking through each of my character's moves, or I might have missed substantial parts of the environment and the characters' interactions, but I felt burned out and frustrated from failure long before I had accumulated enough knowledge to reach the best possible ending.

Artwork from Donald Conrad:

Doppeljobs: IFcomp 2020

Doppeljobs is a choice-based story by Lei, and it was a delight. It’s told from the perspective of a doppelganger who endures situations that clients would rather avoid. Humans and doppelgangers don’t have much experience with each other, so it’s a journey of discovery for everyone involved.

The fantasy world of Doppeljobs is inhabited by stone goats and serviced by sandpipes, which encouraged me to match the story's tone of excited curiosity. Choices are smoothly integrated with the narrative: you're thrown into unfamiliar circumstances and asked to decide what your client would do. 

Are there things you don't know? Has important information been left out? The City of Sand is part of a magical foreign world, so you're never sure what will happen. 

Things are complicated by the fact that some of your choices might mean that your clients make lasting impressions on you. (The narrator chirps, "Surely, this will affect neither your business nor your life in any way whatsoever!") 

The tone of this story fits the perspective of a naïve magical creature trying to survive as an entrepreneur in the City of Sand — it's exactly the kind of blank-slate optimism that you would expect from an entity that knows nothing about humanity. 

I also appreciated the brisk pacing of the story. This entry was focused, consistent, and entertaining.

Artwork from Donald Conrad:

Friday, October 16, 2020

#VanLife: IFcomp2020

#VanLife is a choice-based entry by Victoria of Stimsims math games. 

Stimsims describes its games as tech enhanced evolutions of the word problem, and its website calls this entry "Van Life Challenge." It might take you less than 15 minutes if you're a fast reader who makes terrible decisions, but you should prepare to spend more time if you’re serious about completing it. 

The player makes a series of choices affecting their character’s mood, battery power, and bank balance. These attributes must be maintained at healthy levels, and there are spot quizzes that ask about things like loan repayments, energy usage, and solar panel trivia. 

Mike Spivey, author of A Beauty Cold and Austere, has explained that teaching through games is more effective when the material is kept in context. Working with this entry — making decisions to conserve either my batteries or my mood — gave me context-appropriate choices that provided a clearer understanding of the relationship between volts, amps, and watts. It was more approachable than other energy discussions I've encountered.

However, I had some concerns about the story supporting this entry. The main character publishes daily inspirational quotes, experiences cravings for avocado toast, and makes money from freelance photojournalism and product reviews. Are we laughing at their expense, or is this something today’s hip youth can relate to? 

It felt like I was supposed to cosplay as the worst kind of millennial stereotype. And guiding this character to financial independence through smart energy consumption felt like I was perpetuating that myth that anyone can give up their daily cup of coffee to become a millionaire.

Some energy management games consider electrical tradeoffs at a city's scale, asking players to choose the greatest good for the largest number of people. #VanLife presents those choices at an individual level in a way that makes some tradeoffs clearer while making others too cute.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Big Trouble in Little Dino Park: IFcomp 2020

Big Trouble in Little Dino Park was written by Seth Paxton and Rachel Aubertin, using Ink.

I enjoyed exploring the question at the heart of this entry: "What if Jurassic Park gave summer jobs to disaffected teens?" Things quickly change gears from summer job to survival challenge as catastrophe strikes and you must find a way to escape the park's hungry inhabitants. You make choices to visit (and re-visit) areas while avoiding the park's hungry inhabitants in a search for survivors.

This entry could have used more polish, but it's entertaining in its current state. The authors explain that Big Trouble in Little Dino Park was created in 30 days, which explains why it includes a substantial number of typos. 

Some descriptions made it difficult to tell where I was in the park, or where I wanted to go, but other passages updated to show how my previous choices had changed the situation. In some places, like the Dinosaur Nursery, it seemed like I was repeating passages that were only supposed to display once. 

I was a bad employee and a worse survivor, dying 5 times and seeing 4 out of 7 possible deaths. 

Parts of this experience felt like living in one of those horror movies where the main character is alerted to obvious danger. I appreciated having the option to just go somewhere else, although calculated risks were necessary in a few places. Overall, this entry delivered thrills, chills, and the omnipresent threat of violent death.

Artwork from Donald Conrad:

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Accelerate: IFcomp 2020

Accelerate is a choice-based multimedia project credited to The TAV Institute. 

This entry is set in a future dystopia (with many recognizable elements from the present day), and it puts a lot of work into creating a specific atmosphere. Some people might interpret this as attention to detail, and others might dismiss it as trying too hard. 

For me, the interesting question was whether the interactivity in Accelerate supports its story. Early chapters, which put the audience in the role of an addict trying to score drugs from a religiously affiliated medical clinic, set up a conflict that made it difficult to engage with the narrative. 

Open-minded curiosity will help readers explore this story, but that makes it difficult to act like an addict on the prowl. 

Assuming the role of a cynical addict will encourage the audience to remain distant from the religious propaganda, and that could mean rejecting the entire entry by quitting early. 

Indoctrination is difficult to implement in fiction. If you haven't created a bona-fide mind control program (in which case, why are you squandering it on IFcomp?), then it's easy to abuse a reader's patience while trying to show a change in perspective. 

During my time with Accelerate, the narrator completely embraced the cult, which was made apparent through repetition and heavy-handed metaphor. Others may have had different experiences, but this entry is large enough that I’m reluctant to attempt a new outcome.

This story is set in a future world where nations have already been remade by violent conflict, but political and economic actors are still engaging in familiar behavior that divides and controls the public. I’m interested in reading about someone who challenges this status quo — no brainwashing required! 

Screenshot from Twitter: Shannon Watts says "This is literally my Saturday calendar, except before I Attack and Dethrone God I’ve got to get to UPS. They close at 3 pm on the weekend."
As interactive fiction, it was difficult for me to identify my place in this work. Accelerate is a story of assimilation with a movement that is led by an entity as controlling and destructive as the authority it seeks to overthrow. It might have functioned better with a more traditional narrative structure. 

You should try Accelerate. It sets a consistent mood, and it's quickly apparent whether this experience will appeal to you. 

I stuck with the story hoping that I would learn whether the religious movement was genuinely transformative or just a charismatic sociopath running a con. I found an ending that was open to interpretation.

Artwork from Donald Conrad:

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Seasonal Apocalypse Disorder: IFcomp 2020

Seasonal Apocalypse Disorder, written by Zan and Xavid, is a parser-based mission to save the world from fiery destruction. (Xavid is also credited on Vain Empires.)

The narrative of your adventure, which may involve cow tipping and casual murder, describes impossible developments in a consistently matter-of-fact tone. I was entertained by its understated absurdity.

You play one of the good guys, dispatched by the Federal Bureau of Druids to travel through time and undo a global catastrophe. This is not an elaborately crafted drama exploring the deepest recesses of the human psyche, but it doesn't need to be. 

The nature themes and seasonal locations were a good fit for the time travel puzzles. The clues are fair, and you don’t need to understand druidic rituals or know which magic powers are associated with specific plants; this entry does a good job of providing necessary information. 

I appreciated how the challenges were designed in Seasonal Apocalypse Disorder. Your magical abilities are limited at the start, which keeps early puzzles confined to specific areas. As you develop your powers, you are given more opportunities to explore how objects and locations interact with each other. There's also a map at the top of the screen, which helped me keep track of time periods and spot rooms that I would have missed on my own.  

There was a lot to like about this entry. I got stuck in a few places, but it was my own damn fault for failing to pay closer attention.

Artwork from Donald Conrad:

Monday, October 12, 2020

Captain Graybeard's Plunder: IFcomp 2020

Captain Graybeard's Plunder is a choice-based pirate fantasy by Julian Mortimer Smith.

This entry is a smart interpretation of the phrase "interactive fiction." It's carefully crafted, compelling, and short enough that I don't need to spoil the main idea — you should experience it for yourself.

I appreciate how this author paid attention to the presentation details in this entry. Although the story uses standard colors to display dark text on a light background, style formatting is applied to differentiate specific passages. 

I'm not normally a fan of handwriting fonts, but other design choices might not have made the story so engaging.

Captain Graybeard's Plunder is a tight, focused entry that put a lot of care into smoothly delivering a gripping pirate adventure. If I have one complaint, it's that there isn't more of it.

Artwork from Donald Conrad: 

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Fight Forever: IFcomp 2020

Fight Forever is a choice-based entry by Pako, and it poses some challenges. 

As a work, it is heavy on interactivity and light on story. You are given one line of explanation ("After all failed, now that everything is lost, you will fight") before being asked to choose a destiny (character?), a sensei, and a team. Then you get to a screen with your character's stats. If you select the "oracle" option, you can choose the "about" link:

"Think of it as Second Life meets GTA meets Fight Night meets UFC meets Street Fighter."

That sounds amazing. But that wasn't my experience.

Another statement from the oracle: 

"This interactive fiction is in itself the white paper. The goal is to grow this project from it's neonatal text-based existence to a console playable open-world that will bring esports to the minds of older audiences."

I was unable to find anything like a tutorial, or tooltips, or a meaningful discussion of what each choice meant. Someone who follows professional fighting tournaments might recognize some of these options, but I had no idea how choices would affect any of the stats being tracked for my character. (Similarly, I did not know how my stats would affect my performance.)

Inside Fight Forever, a walkthrough is available:

"As much as this is a fighting game, it's a word game. The further you get into it, the more cumbersome it is to take note of opponents' styles, fighter traits, strategies, and techniques. Take notes."

For a game centered around fighting, it's odd that the fights themselves involve no input from the player. Fights start, there is a loading sequence, and then the outcome is reported. If you don't die, you are returned to the screen with your main character's stats. 

As a diagram of the backdrop for an amazing fighting game, this entry looks great. As an actual game to be enjoyed by players, it needs a lot of work.

Review Roundup: The Magpie Takes The Train

The Magpie Takes the Train is a parser-based work by Brian Rushton (Mathbrush).

Under the IFcomp rules, judges may not rate any games that they have beta-tested. That prevents me from rating this game. 

However! The act of using beta-testers is a signal that the author wants to provide the best possible experience for the audience, showing a care and attention to detail that may not be present in all of the entries. 

For specific commentary on this entry, I'll refer you to other people. 

From Stian

"I was very excited to see this sequel among this year’s IFComp entries. To my further enjoyment, it turns out this sequel is almost just as good! Not that there is anything particularly wrong with it; I just wish it was longer and slightly more challenging, matching the length and difficulty of the original."

From Doug Egan:

“'Magpie Takes the Train' shares several features in common with its inspiration: an entertaining detective farce involving frequent costume changes; dialogue with an amusing cast of upstairs-downstairs society figures (but curiously set in the states). Both games have a well implemented full parser interface."

From Viv Dunstan

"Fortunately you don’t have to have played the original to enjoy this. It sets things up quickly and efficiently at the start, so you know what you need to know from word go."

From Radioactive Crow:

"The prose is excellent and laugh-out-loud funny at times (particularly when you try the amusing things suggested after you beat the game for the first time). Mathbrush is a long time IF author and one of the most passionate and dedicated advocates for IF that I've encountered."

From Josh Labelle
"This would be a great game to give to a person who wants to get into parsers -- they'll understand the fun without having to toss them right into the deep end."

Also, Donald Conrad has done some fan art:

Savor: IFcomp 2020

Savor is a choice-based horror entry by Ed Nobody.

I appreciate the technical work that went into this entry's presentation. It includes music and monochrome images in the background, but it also takes the rare step of allowing you to use keyboard controls to select choices and advance the story.

Not all of the technical details improved the experience.

You can hold the spacebar to speed up the timed text in this game, but that also makes choices for you.

Some choices are enclosed in red boxes with a warning to choose carefully, but choices offered outside those warnings can still end your story early — it was challenging for me to determine which choices would be meaningful.

From a narrative perspective, I was unable to enjoy the story that this entry wanted to tell. That might have been a personal failing. 

In my defense, a lot of the text describes terrible pain inflicted by a mysterious curse. But as a player, the option to avoid the pain by quitting is there the whole time! After facing extensive descriptions of suffering and the open contemplation of suicide, it was cleaner and less anguished to just end the game. 

This entry may be interesting for people who enjoy rural scare stories and works that dwell on the themes of life, death, and renewal that frequently appear in farm horror. I found more than one ending, but mysteries involving slaughter and unnatural harvests remained. The person who unravels them will not be me.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Quintessence: IFcomp 2020

Quintessence is a choice-based work of science fiction by Andrea M. Pawley. 

In this entry, you are one of many quanta in the universe, and you choose how the story keeps unfolding. The narration blends astrophysics with metaphysics in ways that never clearly define the reader as a character, which seems appropriate for a story about universes that are continually expanding, collapsing, merging, and separating. 

The choices in Quintesence were less about deciding how my character acted, and more about choosing which actions would affect it. Events repeat over and over in this universe until one of your choices uncovers a way "out."

I appreciated how this entry tracked details like the age of my universe and the number of times that it had collapsed. Even when I was repeating choices that I had seen before, I knew that some type of progress was being recorded. I also liked the visual details that enhanced the presentation of the story. 

I was less appreciative of the novelty cursor, which felt like it spent more time getting in the way than adding to the experience.

The language in this work did its best to relay events that are far outside the scope of my comprehension. Stars are formed, civilizations rise and fall, and black holes... do the astrophysics-y stuff that they do. I don’t always understand hard science discussions, but  I thought the animal imagery added a novel twist to the story. 

It explains the callous indifference of the universe as the extension of an aloof cat's bad behavior. 

I found a few endings and decided to stop after it seemed like the quanta and the forever cat were all happy. I liked that one, even though the story can always begin again.

Artwork by Donald Conrad:

Friday, October 9, 2020

Passages: IFcomp 2020

(Not the game's actual artwork)

Passages is speculative fiction by Jared W. Cooper. 

I had to play through this entry a few times before I got a sense of what the author was attempting, which was fine, because it's a quick read with no choices along the way. 

Quick does not mean simple. Passages is set up to read partly like a journal and partly like a one-sided conversation between the narrator and his missing partner. Each new passage (in Twine) starts with a date, and it jumps around a bit so that you can share the narrator's sense of disorientation

The writing evoked a sense of loss — it was clear that the narrator missed someone important. This entry kept Twine’s default white-text-on-black color scheme, and it used almost no custom formatting, which added more weight to the few instances where the font did change. As an artistic choice, it emphasized that something significant had changed. 

There is a small amount of interactivity in Passages, but it doesn't affect the story. It seems thematically appropriate, because the narrator is also given few choices and they don't seem to have much effect. 

At the end of Passages, I wondered whether I should try to piece together the chronology on my own. Then I decided to follow the narrator's example and accept things as they are.

Tavern Crawler: IFcomp 2020

Tavern Crawler is a choice-based, screwball noir fantasy by Josh Labelle. It had everything I like about fantasy RPGs with none of the tedium. 

The experience was less about fighting through obstacles and more about finding opportunities to apply your skills. Combat sequences are rare and resolved in a few choices, leaving you to enjoy conversations with other characters while you choose the best way to complete several quests.  

Even as it uses standard fixtures of an RPG fantasy world, Tavern Crawler leaves room for the unexpected. You can make choices that are in character for a Tank (fighter), Mage, or Rogue, and I found each path supported by strong writing that kept things interesting. Quests develop unexpected dimensions as new information is uncovered, and you gradually learn more about your companions and their backstories while working your way through the narrative. 

While the story unfolds, information updates in the sidebar to explain what has happened to your character. Different text formatting makes it clear when choices have affected your status, showing you which options are (un)available due to your current state. These updates helped me understand how I was altering the story. 

Overall, this entry tilts more toward "game" than "interactive drama," which I appreciated. Too much dramatic tension might have cramped the interactivity and left me feeling like an observer. Instead, I had enough slack to play around inside the story and enjoy myself.

Artwork from Donald Conrad:

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Desolation: IFcomp 2020

Desolation is a parser-based horror entry from Earth Traveler.

I had a difficult time engaging with this story, and I'm not convinced that a parser was the best format for delivering it. The author wants to provide information at a very specific pace, which means that sometimes your commands are ignored so that the next chunk of story can be revealed. In other places, you know where you will end up, but you can't get there until you figure out what the author expects you to do. 

Item management was a huge stumbling block for me. When I'm in a parser game, I will pick up anything that isn't nailed down. Desolation was not prepared for this behavior. 

Some items showed up in a location description even after they were in my inventory. Some item descriptions did not reflect that they had been removed from their starting point. One object could not be picked up until I figured out the right verb for inspecting my surroundings. 

The map was another challenge. If the author wanted to cultivate a creepy feeling of pursuit, it might have been more effective to offer several connected locations with a handful of choke points — unavoidable locations could reveal more of the story and question whether the player had taken the right path. 

Unfortunately, Desolation feels like you are fleeing on rails, moving through a series of locations with only one path forward. 

This author does have potential: I enjoyed an early scene that gave me some freedom to explore while steering me towards the next confrontation. I think this work could be improved either by using more of the parser's capabilities to provide more options for the player, or by switching to a different format so that the player expects their choices to be limited.