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.