Wednesday, October 12, 2016

If Comp '16: Twine Games

The next game up on my personalized list is "Thaxted Havershill And the Golden Wombat" and yeah, I can't be bothered. I think it's time to be honest with myself and say that I don't enjoy Twine games. There's only a handful I've ever played that didn't feel like a chore (Horse Master, and Birdland jump to mind). For the most part, I find them to be tedious and the presence of in-paragraph hyperlinks to be disruptive to flow. The proliferation of entries made in Twine over the past few years have been a serious roadblock in my playing and judging of the Comp. There's too many, I don't enjoy them, and I struggle to evaluate them.

That's not to say that Twine is bad, or that games made with it are inherently deficient. They're just not for me... or should I say I'm not for them. While playing a CYOA I want something beyond just storypaths. I enjoy gamebooks because they have to marry CYOA structure with game mechanics and make those mechanics work on paper. I find that challenge invigorating. Pure CYOA lacks that appeal - at least, in the context of the Comp. I'm a parser guy though and through. I come to the Comp to see what people are doing with that specific format and for a while now CYOA and Twine have gotten in the way of that.

So I'm going to abstain from playing or voting on any more Twine or pure CYOA games. (Unless they have a lot of great buzz. I don't want to miss out on something great just because it isn't in my preferred format.) Not only will this allow me to focus on the games I'm passionate about, but also cut down on the daunting number of entries in this year's competition.

Apologies to any authors of these games. I promise, it's not you, it's me.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

IF Comp '16: Inside the Facility

Inside the Facility, by Arthur DiBianca.

What a charmer! "Inside the Facility" is a puzzle parser game with only the basic of premises. You're dared by a friend to explore The Facility, a institute where researchers experiment with all manner of super-science. The stakes are delightfully low: if you can explore half of the Facility you'll win a whole twenty dollars. While the premise may seem simple, simple is what this game excels at. The jaunt through the facility is lighthearted and fun, with clever snippets of writing and some good jokes ("Through a huge window in the north wall, you can see the Invisibility Lab. It appears to be empty.").

The game only recognizes six commands: the four carnal directions, status, and wait. For a puzzle and exploration game this seems woefully deficient at first, but turns out to be remarkably fresh. DiBianca exhibits great creativity at designing puzzles that only rely on movement to execute. There are gate and key puzzles, knowledge puzzles, observation puzzles, investigation and trail puzzles, and intuitive-leap puzzles based on your understanding of the map. I especially loved the ice delivery puzzle, the gardener, and the business with the Chance Lab. Actions that require use of an object are done automatically. So if, for example, if you walk into the Granola Bar Dispensary, your character will automatically grab a granola bar. And upon finding a hungry NPC, you will hand it over with no need for input. The game is streamlined enough that there are no mindreading issues or unclear surprises on what your character is capable of doing. It is really quite excellent.

Speaking of the map, DiBianca encourages players to print a black map that comes with the game and fill it out as they go. For me, this was wonderfully fun. I loved filling in the blank squares, discovering new pathways, seeing how far I had come and how far I still needed to go. I'd almost say the game would lose a large something without this physical component.

The game starts easy but ramps up to some really innovative puzzles. (I'm not sorry to admit that I got stumped in the dark area and had to turn to the walkthrough). It's also fairly long... perhaps too long for the competition, but it does offer a bail-out point halfway. Most players should be able to get the 60 rooms that will win the bet in the time allowed. That the game essentially has a whole second half to sink your teeth into past the win-state gives it a lot of value, and there are even optional hidden challenges to attempt after the end of the game proper.

I had a blast playing "Inside the Facility." It was impressed by it's implementation of a small verb set, it's lighthearted tone, and variety of design. It's great fun. Anyone who's a fan of classic text adventures where the story is just an excuse for some puzzlin' deserves to give it a look.

Monday, October 10, 2016

IF Comp '16: 500 Apocalypses

500 Apocalypses, by Phantom Williams

"500 Apocalypses" is a series of vignettes where, if anything, you have even less agency than "Black Rock City." But because of premise and context it works far, far better.

The entry (I can't call it a game) is a series of short fictions about the deaths of alien civilizations. It presents itself as a found object; a database discovered in deep space on which these entries were stored. The entire experience involves clicking through and reading these entries at your leisure. Sometimes they will be hyperlinked to other entries of similar subject matter, but otherwise, there are is no choice or interactive elements. You pick an entry from the main menu (they represented as a cascade of blue dots with nothing to distinguish them) and get a bit of micro-fiction.

Luckily, the writing in "500 Apocalypses" meets the challenge a project of this scale presents. The entries are imaginative, surprising, solemn, and profound by turn. They vary in length from just a few lines to a handful of  paragraphs, and each one brings something unique to the project. In the dozens I explored I didn't come across any clunkers. The imagination on display here is quite the accomplishment, especially considering the size of the project. Five hundred short stories is a real achievement.

While the interactive element is at about the minimal amount that a Comp entry can have, "500 Apocalypses" in no way suffers for it. As anyone who's gone on a wiki walk knows, exploring a database can be a fun experience in itself. The stories here are worth discovering, and the premise gives the entry that grounding that I felt "Black Rock City" to be missing. I think that despite being on the far end of the story/game division "500 Apocalypses" will do well.

IF Comp 16: Black Rock City

Black Rock City, by Jim Munroe

"Black Rock City" is a CYOA with a couple interesting interface designs. It's set at a fantastical version of Burning Man where things like flying carpets exist. You have six turns before a dust storm hits and the game ends. For each turn you can grab one of two verbs and then drag them to one or two nouns in the body of the text to make a choice. This strikes as an odd mechanic at first, a bit of busy work for the sake of busy work, but I discovered that I liked how it hides the choices until you grab a verb. Only then do the operative words turn into links. One thing I dislike about Twine and other browser based CYOAs is the hyperlinks distract from the text. So often you're confronted with a hyperlink in the middle of a paragraph and if you're anything like me this pulls you out of the emersion or even the understanding of that body of text. In "Black Rock City" you're allowed to digest the section before having to engage with the choices. I admire that a lot.

I played through the game four or five times exploring different avenues (the six turn limit makes replaying easy), and while the prose is nicely written, nothing about the game or setting really engaged me. It's got a surrealist quality and leads to some pleasant images but there's nothing concrete about setting or character or purpose or goals. I never felt like I had agency within a story. Even the impending dust storm isn't written as a threat or an event of consequence, it's just an excuse to wrap things up.

"Black Rock City" works as a series of ephemeral vignettes, but I found myself wishing for something with a bit more substance. However, it does make a good case for a different type of CYOA interface and that's worth something.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

IF Comp '16: Tentaculon

Tentaculon, by Ned Vole

"Tentaculon" is a Twine game, but in the style of an older "Scientist in the Lab" parser puzzler. You play, yes, a scientist in his lab, who's been working on experiments involving inceptioning into a squid's dreams. Sure enough, something goes wrong and it's up to you to figure out what and how to fix it.

While it does use Twine effects to some success (my favorite is a bit of bobbing text you have to click on at the right time), I feel that it would work better as a traditional parser game. So much of the action is taken up by moving around and solving object-related puzzles that Twine feels like an ill fit. It's also sloppy: sometimes exploring a tangent link will provide you with a back option and sometimes you'll have to use Twine's step-back feature. At one point there's an external link that does not open a new browser tab, and so following it means you'll have to start the game over from the beginning. More time spent on polishing the player experience would have helped.

As for the game itself, it seems fine enough. I got to a point with no more forward moves, which I suspect was because I didn't explore more a control panel I had encounter earlier. I wasn't engaged enough to go back and give it another go. I really wonder if "Tentaculon"wouldn't have gone down a lot smoother if it had been a parser game like the ones its emulating.

IF Comp '16: Mirror and Queen

Mirror and Queen, by Chandler Groover

"Mirror and Queen," is a parser game in the Aisle tradition. You input single words or short phrases and get a response. Unless I'm missing something, there's no game elements, goals, or winning states; just a place to explore.

You're positioned as the queen from Sleeping Beauty as she consults her magic mirror. You can inquire about all sorts of aspects from the story, and dive into the motivations of the queen. Despite some nice prose, I felt like the game didn't add anything to the fairytale. The motivations revealed here aren't anything you might not expect and don't deepen or reconstruct the story. And as there's no way action beyond questioning the mirror, there's no way to change the story, play off what character is revealed, or even just advance it down traditional lines. It all feels very slight.

Last year Chandler Groover entered "Midnight Swordfight" which also seemed like a one-turn game, but then became something bigger and stranger. It was one of the gems of the competition. "Mirror and Queen" feels like it doesn't have a fraction of the ideas or flair. I'm really wondering if I'm missing something here.

I've got to be missing something. Right?

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

IF Comp '16: The Game of Worlds TOURNAMENT!

The Game of Worlds TOURNAMENT!, by Ade

The Game of Worlds TOURNAMENT! is a parser game where you play an indentured worker in a dystopic future where the only means to freedom is by participating in a card game. There's little story to the proceedings: you either play and win your freedom, or you lose and don't. The story is an excuse for the card game, which is fine with me because the game is fun and engaging.

Int the Game of Worlds two players use cards to manipulate civilizations of creatures living on tiny worlds orbiting miniature suns. It's an evocative image that can only work in a digital environment. Not only because of the impossibility of the premise, but also because the game is keeping track of changes in populations of hundreds of thousands. The goal of the game is to wipe out the other player's civilization or dominate it so completely there's no chance of recovery. This is tracked along several different lines such as population growth, expansion, size of army, or social evolutionary level. The cards themselves either influence your own civilization, impede your opponent's, or change the conditions of the world itself (which in turn changes how the civilizations make due). Additionally, each player gets five "counter tokens" to block a card (and a counter can be countered, and that counter countered, and so on). What impressed me the most is that while the mechanics of how populations growth and evolutionary changes occur are obscured, they never felt arbitrary.

On top of the very cool game itself are very polished aesthetics. I didn't encounter any parser problems, implementation issues, or grammar mistakes. There's also a graphic border that displays the planet for each game and representations of every card as well. It's all very slick.

"The Game of Worlds TOURNAMENT!" isn't easily classified. It doesn't fit in well with either the story-based or as a puzzle parser game. It feels closer to a toy. But it's a fun and engaging toy that I enjoyed immensely. I played a dozen or so matches and never lost interests. The Game of Worlds is a neat idea, actualized well, and with style. I don't know how it will do against more traditional entries, but I hope it does well.