Saturday, October 8, 2022

Blood Island: IFcomp 2022

Blood Island is a choice-based IFcomp 2022 entry by Billy Krolick that describes itself as a “philosophical Dating Sim turned Slasher.” 

Blood Island strikes an interesting spot at the intersection between reality shows and self-aware slasher films. They both involve performances from actors who intend to be observed, and this work was an opportunity to ask readers how their own performances might change in the presence of an audience. 

However, it might have been helpful to let the readers ask that question themselves. This Choicescript story interrogates readers after almost every passage.
How do you feel about reality shows?
How do you feel about slasher movies? 
How do you feel about Final Girl Theory? 

Blood Island asked me how I felt about things so frequently that I never had a chance to develop those feelings. The topics switched so rapidly from concepts outside the story to dynamics within the narrative that I was left on uncertain footing. 

I couldn't tell whether I was supposed to answer these questions as a character or as the player controlling that character, which left me over-thinking everything: did I need to avoid a killer, or did I need to avoid a killer who was constrained by the rules of slasher films, or did I need to pay less attention to reflective choices so that I could get further into the story?

My obsession with giving the “right” answers prevented me from enjoying the descriptions, which were howlingly funny in several places. 

I enjoyed the concept, and I had fun with the atmosphere, but the overall implementation was… questionable.

(I’ll see myself out.)

Friday, October 7, 2022

Headights: IFcomp 2022

Headlights is a parser-based work by Jordan White entered into IFcomp 2022. It was created with Perplexity

The action in Headlights consists of looking at everything to find items that can open new locations. It relies on an artificial sense of urgency, continually telling players to hurry, that is not supported by any gameplay mechanics. Mostly, these reminders drew my attention to the lag between typing a command and receiving a response. 

There’s no real “search” command with Perplexity — an object’s notable features are revealed when you look at it. The default state of objects involves less description, which led to an infuriating encounter with “a bush, a bush, and a tree.” (You couldn’t look directly at either bush, because the parser didn’t understand which bush you wanted to check, but “look at bushes” eventually revealed that each bush had its own identifying adjective.)  

Overall, Headlights felt more focused than Kidney Kwest, the last Perplexity game I encountered. Most of the experience involved looking at objects and applying them logically to move to the next location. I particularly enjoyed the puzzle that involved a surge of adrenaline, because it did an unusually good job of using a narrative to justify the following sequence of events. 

Headlights worked smoothly when the parser and I stuck to clear language and simple concepts, which raises interesting questions about the future of Perplexity as a game design tool. Creations like Lost Pig, Vain Empires, and Zozzled are entertaining because they play with unconventional language and abstract concepts, and it may be difficult for Perplexity to enjoy similar success.


Thursday, October 6, 2022

To Persist/Exist/Endure, Press 1: IFcomp 2022

To Persist/Exist/Endure, Press 1 is a choice-based work of fiction created for IFcomp 2022 by Anthony O. 

This entry was small and polished. It was created with Texture, and it involves moving verbs from the bottom of passages onto highlighted words above. Most of the action involves selecting options from phone menus, but a few choices offer glimpses into an existence outside of the automated call center script. 

This work was entertaining and responsive, and I particularly appreciated how hovertext confirmed my intended choices before I executed them. (When I tried playing it on a phone, it was very helpful to see whether I had moved to the right spot in the itemized lists.) 

I also liked the options that were available, including the choice to continue in Polish. The main menu suggested some interesting possibilities, and it found creative ways to redirect players back to the central set of choices. I kept hoping to find out more about monsters under the bed, but I might not have been clever enough to make the right selections. 

To Persist/Exist/Endure, Press 1 could be an interesting component in a larger work of interactive fiction. I enjoyed exploring it, but I was ultimately frustrated by my inability to make any material changes in the main character’s circumstances. 

Wednesday, October 5, 2022

The Hidden King's Tomb: IFcomp 2022

The Hidden King’s Tomb is a parser-based entry submitted to IFcomp 2022 by Joshua Fratis. 

As a text adventure, this entry covers all the bases. The Hidden King’s Tomb has treasures to collect, puzzles to unlock, and secret rooms to reveal. It’s a functional scavenger hunt — game historians have already chronicled how the earliest text adventures were scavenger hunts, so this entry continues a fine tradition. 

However, many of the early text adventures had extrinsic motivation that broke the fourth wall to let audiences know when they were making progress. The Hidden King’s Tomb downplays these game-like aspects to leave players alone with their intrinsic motivations. If you don’t want to find out more about the Hidden King and the events that led him to bury his secrets beneath “a lake dark and deep,” then there’s little reason to enjoy your exploration. 

The classic phrase describes interactive fiction as a narrative at war with a crossword, and I would have enjoyed seeing more of the narrative that created these puzzles. I found very little backstory about the king, his queen, or other figures within the tomb. Many of the locations were richly described, but their descriptions fell flat when I tried to examine objects and features that weren’t implemented. 

The introduction mentions “a labyrinth of locked doors and false vaults,” but I only found one locked door. The gameplay might have involved a labyrinth, but that might have been an issue with my own reading comprehension; I found it difficult to identify how different locations related to each other. 

Despite my complaints about The Hidden King’s Tomb, I still managed to blunder my way to freedom. It was smoothly implemented, and I would have appreciated a chance to explore further.

Sunday, October 2, 2022

Use Your Psychic Powers at Applebee's: IFcomp 2022

Use Your Psychic Powers at Applebee's is a choice-based comedy by Geoffrey Golden that was entered into IFcomp 2022. 

This entry quickly establishes the stakes involved: the success of your next Zoom meeting with corporate depends on your ability to push Schtupmeister beer on a restaurant full of unsuspecting marks. It delivers an entertainingly goofy night on the job.

There are five different narrative threads that you can focus on, using either your psychic powers or more mundane observational skills. The key is to intervene at precisely the right moment, and spending too long with any one story risks missing a key moment elsewhere. 

I really enjoyed the tone of this entry, which fully embraced the absurdist corporate marketing deployed by retail food and beverage companies, describing edible horrors like Sriracha whipped cream that sounded just plausible enough to exist. 

It’s all delivered with a cheerfully sociopathic indifference: 

But it’s also worth noting that this entry, which asks you to engage in guerilla marketing to promote Schtupmeister beer, feels like its own work of guerilla marketing to promote the Adventure Snack Newsletter

And that’s fine! I honestly enjoyed reading through this story several times to explore each narrative thread and the ways that they could be pushed to interact with each other. 

Lord knows that there have been stunt entries in previous years that weren’t nearly as entertaining. 

No One Else Is Doing This: IFcomp 2022

No One Else Is Doing This is a choice-based community organizing simulator by Lauren O'Donoghue that was submitted to IFcomp 2022. It uses a second-person perspective to burden you with the task of going out on a Friday night and collecting £5 in dues for a community union. 

This entry is well written and smoothly implemented, combining large themes and small details to wrap the entire story in an overwhelming sense of futility. You are clearly not part of the community that you visit, located “in a ward the other side of the city from your own home,” and the union keeps itself at a distance, working through an authority figure that keeps encouraging you to collect money.

There are 32 houses that you can visit, and each one is experiencing its own problems. Even if you take notes and focus on the houses that are most likely to pay dues, the text continually questions your choices and doubts your impact. (Are you willing to encourage a bigot's prejudiced rant if it helps you meet your quota?) 

You also have to manage your own needs, because the shift ends early if you get too cold or ignore the fact that you need a bathroom break. You can goof off by reading news headlines and texting your colleagues, but their lack of commitment makes your own dedication seem even more pointless. 

I particularly appreciated the “glossary” in No One Else Is Doing This. It felt like the basic information that this faceless organization would provide to new volunteers, telling them just enough to get them started.

This entry ended so abruptly that I restarted it without noticing, and that appears to be an intentional design choice that drives home the futility of your efforts. 

If you aren’t going to do the work, somebody else might. And if nobody does it, will anyone notice? 

Chase the Sun: IFcomp 2022

Chase the Sun is a choice-based entry for IFcomp 2022 created by Frankie Kavakich.

This entry might be the depressing story of a person who gives up in the face of an unstoppable disaster. It could also be an encouraging connection between two people at the end of the world. (And it might have been an attempt to create a meta-narrative about persistence in the face of adversity? I thought that there was no way to avoid bleak destruction, but I kept trying options until I found something positive.)

Chase the Sun puts a lot of effort into establishing a specific atmosphere with its early passages:

 “Pennsylvania is known for its winding, aimless back roads like it was known for its abandoned coal mines and its flirtatious relationship with religion. That is to say, only the locals know the grimy, dirty truths.” 

It says exactly where you are and how the protagonist feels about it, presenting a consistent, richly described world that holds up across several readings. I appreciated how statements that seemed odd or out of place in the early passages were explained elsewhere in the story.

On the other hand, it would have been helpful if the story mechanics had received a similar level of attention. This work was created in Texture, and it asks readers to drag words from the bottom of a passage to connect them with highlighted points in the text above. In theory, Texture enables new types of interactivity. In practice, a lot of that potential went unused in Chase the Sun. 

From a game design standpoint, there’s almost no difference between passages that end with “click to continue” and passages that end with a single verb to be moved onto a single highlighted noun.* Chase the Sun had both types of passages and some other design compromises that felt more like awkward attempts to deliver additional backstory and less like a valid method of reader participation.

My overall impression was that stronger editorial choices or conscious design changes could have improved this story’s focus — there were a few satisfying combinations of words that moved the story forward, but it made the other sections feel under-developed. 

It’s a solid work of fiction that would benefit from some improvements to the user experience.

*You could argue that dragging words around makes the reader actively participate in the suffering of this protagonist, but the 2018 IFcomp entry Bogeyman did a fine job of exploring complicity and torment without an interface like Texture.

Friday, September 23, 2022

Narrascope 2022: Designing Authentic Choices

Narrascope 2022 was an event organized for people to exchange ideas around narrative games, and it took place on July 30–31. The recordings are available on YouTube

For her Narrascope 2022 presentation, Hélène Sellier discussed how she approached the challenge of creating authentic choices for difficult situations:

Sellier and her colleagues at The Seed Crew wanted to design a narrative that provided more nuanced choices than simple options to “accept” or “reject.” This led them to examine the cognitive emotional, behavioral, and somatic reactions to events that are perceived as painful, worrying, or threatening. 

Research by Richard Lazarus and Susan Folkman provided a starting point by identifying two main styles of coping: active and passive. 

“The active coping strategy consists in controlling or modifying the situation by taking action on what causes stress,” Sellier said, and “passive coping strategies consist in denying or avoiding the origin of the problem and diverting our attention somewhere else.” 

These ideas make it easier to keep an audience engaged with a narrative — by shifting the framing from accept/reject to active/passive, people can choose how to respond, but none of their choices provide an opportunity to completely reject the situation. 

Within this new frame, Sellier and her colleagues also wanted to provide a wider range of choices. Ideally, their narrative would offer three to five options, but they also wanted to avoid implying that some choices were morally better or worse than the others. 

Sellier explained that Jakobson’s functions of language ultimately provided a way to create a larger range of dialogue options that still felt authentic. Sorting Jakobson’s six functions into active and passive responses created four final options: passionate, rational, conciliatory, and flippant. 

The result is a set of categories that apply to a broader range of narrative situations. “We wanted the model to become compatible with neutral events,” Sellier said. “We do not want to single out discriminatory situations from other moments of the story.” 

Seed Crew applied this framework to RecovR, an episodic narrative game that addresses diversity and inclusion issues like sexism, ableism, and racism. They have chosen a difficult task in trying ot create choices that feel authentic for these situations, but their work is grounded in published research and thoughtful approaches to game design. 

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Narrascope: Chess and Narrative Depth

Narrascope 2022 was an event organized for people to exchange ideas around narrative games, and it took place on July 30–31. The recordings are viewable on YouTube.

I watched Nessa Cannon’s Narrascope presentation, “Using chess as a metaphor in game narrative.” The title accurately summarizes its contents:


Cannon drew on her background — someone who started playing chess at the age of 3, and who later worked as a chess coach — to discuss how the game and its pieces have been accumulating symbolic meaning for centuries. This means that the symbolism of chess can easily be integrated with other thematic elements, and Cannon identified three ways of involving chess in storytelling:

  • Overt chess inconography. The example that Cannon gave was the character from Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney whose office includes a chessboard. It’s a prop to make them look smart.

  • Characters representing specific chess pieces, which is something I have seen in The Avengers: it’s a pair of characters named “Knight” and “Steed” who work for a higher authority and foil the plots of diabolical villains.

  • “Chessboard subtext,” where story elements reflect the interactions of chess pieces on a board. This rarely happens on its own; authors often include one of the other approaches to call attention to the subtext.

It turns out that there are more possible variations of chess games than there are atoms in the observable universe, which means that dedicated enthusiasts will find historical matches or sequences of moves that fit almost any story. 

This symbolism moves in either direction: writers can start with a chess game and develop it into a story, or enrich an existing story by drawing parallels with chess strategies. Weak stories can also benefit from chess allusions to appear more fully developed. And when I say “weak stories,” I specifically mean Kingdom Hearts III. 

Cannon brought up Kingdom Hearts III during her talk to note that it opens with two characters playing chess. “Seeing this, like, in the very beginning of the game, shows a lot of how methodical these characters’ plans are.” She pointed out that it suggests “there’s a long game going on, and the people have been planning this for a really long time.” 

I support that interpretation, but I’m reluctant to say that the subtext is applied consistently throughout Kingdom Hearts III. The overall plot is a barely functional pile of excuses — the entire franchise exists solely to escort players through experiences with various Disney properties. 

(And that’s fine! I had a lot of fun re-enacting Disney moments while smacking monsters with a giant key. It’s entertaining, but I would not hold this series aloft as a triumph of narrative elegance.) 

The good guys in Kingdom Hearts III win every time, and there are only so many ways to maintain dramatic tension in that situation. The idea of a grand strategy is invoked to claim that you were supposed to foil evil plans at Location A, that it was a ruse to draw you away from something sneaky happening in Location B.  

But this ultimately proves Cannon’s point about chess being a way to enrich narrative experiences. "It's really powerful," she said. "I think that it's really under-utilized." 

For intricate stories, the inclusion of chess metaphors can add extra depth. For shallow stories, chess imagery can disguise the lack of a coherent narrative. 

In Cannon's words, "It'll add a layer to your game that might not have been there before."

Sunday, July 31, 2022

Alliance Alive, Gameplay Successes, and Storytelling Failures

I have been enjoying Alliance Alive recently. The combat system feels like big improvements over SaGa Frontier and even Legend of Legacy, but the storytelling component needs some help.

There’s a lot going on! It has unique characters, distinct cultures, and world-altering conspiracies, but it feels like everything interesting happens off camera. My characters always felt like they were racing to hear about a story that happened somewhere else. 

This game originally hyped its connections to Suikoden, and I'll admit that it has improved on some aspects of that series over the past (checks notes) you know what? Never mind how long it’s been. 

The combat system is nuanced and rewarding. Every character can use every skill, and their abilities improve when they get used more frequently. It’s more than just picking fight off a menu or working towards an arbitrary EXP goal; you are encouraged to make thoughtful choices about the roles that you want each party member to perform.   

Your characters also build skills faster when the stakes are higher, which actively encourages players to seek out more powerful enemies and hunt rare monsters. As a whole, the system works to deliver victories that feel more meaningful, making it less like grinding and more like seeking out new challenges for sharpening skills.

However, the base building felt like a giant step backwards. You literally built bases, placing identical structures in interchangeable locations on the map, but they had no effect on the story. In Suikoden, new recruits unlocked new areas of your castle and opened up different functions in the game. In Alliance Alive, you just fill a bunch of empty rooms with NPCs who have a single line of dialogue. 

The entire story felt like a sequence of empty locations waiting to be populated with something interesting. NPCs traded speech bubbles with the lead character on the screen, and different members of the party had their own personalities — serious, silly, inquisitive, or wary — but it was rarely reflected in their surroundings.

It’s the opposite of the storytelling that you see in a game like Dragon Quest XI. Those stories force the player to use specific characters at different points of the game so that they can explore an environment that reflects their struggles. (Think of Erik confronting his own greed as he explores the fortress made of solid gold, or Sylvandro leading his post-apocalypse parade into a town that’s plagued by a dancing curse.) 

Any member of the party can take the lead in Alliance Alive, which means that each location has to support several different interpretations. Is the player leading a quest for vengeance? A mission of scientific inquiry? A race to recover lost artifacts? There are so many possibilities that the designers can’t commit to any specific emotions. Everything is presented with an identically accommodating blandness. 

I second-guessed a lot of my story choices, trying to figure out whether I was supposed to experience exchanges as something serious, funny, sad, or silly. I kept asking whether it would play better with different lead characters. And then I wasted a lot of time re-loading different scenes to find out that it didn’t. 

The big cutscenes weren’t much better. There were so many characters in each sequence that none of them ended up being memorable. Marketers have a cliché that describes this phenomenon: when you try to appeal to everyone, you appeal to no one.

It ended up being like the paradox of immersive gaming: you have to remind the player that they’re in a game if they want to feel like they’re making choices that matter. In this case, if Alliance Alive told more narrowly focused stories, its world might have felt more expansive.