Saucers of Mud

February 23, 2010

JayIsGames IF Comp Wrapup

Filed under: Uncategorized — matt w @ 5:46 pm

The games are here, and the winners are announced here. My reviews of all the games are in three posts: one, two, three.

My personal top 5:
1. “Dual Transform” by “Nigel Smith” (Andrew Plotkin)
2. “Lurid Dreams” by Torgrim Mellum Stene
3. “Critical Breach” by Grey
4. “Fragile Shells” by Stephen Granade
5. “The Usher” by Branden Rishel and Daphne Gabrieli

…though it’s hard to compare, say, “Fragile Shells” and “Lurid Dreams.” “Fragile Shells” is a solid puzzler with a story that’s nicely integrated but incidental; “Lurid Dreams” has a couple of interesting puzzles (well, one of them is very cool), but is pretty much all about the story. I ranked “Critical Breach” and “Lurid Dreams” higher than “Fragile Shells” because of their emotional impact, but if you want a smooth-playing game for your downtime then you’ll want to go for “Fragile Shells.” Not an insult at all — downtime games are wonderful things.

February 21, 2010

JayIsGames IF Comp Reviews, Part 3

Filed under: Uncategorized — matt w @ 10:58 pm

First two batches of reviews, and the games are all here.

One note about these games; I find that my experience playing them is sometimes less stressful because I know the authors are often first-timers, and so I don’t necessarily feel that it’s my fault when I don’t get something. Perhaps related to this, I’ve been a little grumpier in this comp with more established IF authors; it should be understood that I’m grading on a curve. Also, it’s just an immense comfort to know that there’s a walkthrough right there.

Also, I think this comp may be an excellent introduction for first-time authors, because it lets you get instant feedback and revise as you go along. Jenni’s experience with “An Open Field” seems to me like it might have been better than mine, because a bug or two may have been fixed. (Or maybe she just didn’t get stuck and try “take all.”) What I’m saying is, it seems hard to beta-test your game, and if everyone knows that they’re kind of going to be helping the authors beta-test, maybe it’ll help ease authors in. This is related to the whole issue of whether IF people are too unwelcoming to first-time authors, which I really do mean to write about sometime.

Something not to add: JayIsGames’ captcha of doom. If you don’t enter the captcha in time, you wind up having to refresh the whole page, which in this case quit me out of the game I was playing and scrambled my whole playing order. So I’m not even sure I’m reviewing all the right games here. Also, I’m probably going to go out of order soon anyway, so I can play some of the games that look good and are now right at the end of my queue.

Oh, and I think the secret theme of this competition is cats. But then, I think the secret theme of everything is cats.

Reviews after the jump; as usual, any big spoilers encoded in rot13. Reviewed so far: “Terminal,” “The Manor at Whitby,” “Drama Queen 7: Mother Knows Best,” “The Zeroeth Dimension,” “Virtuality,” “Fragile Shells,” “Golden Shadow,” “Escape in the Dark,” “Escape into Fiction,” and “Party Foul” (sort of). Feeble excuses for not reviewing Also reviews of “Paint” and “Basic Train-ing.”

February 9, 2010

More JayIsGames Interactive Fiction Comp Reviews

Filed under: Uncategorized — matt w @ 12:12 am

First batch of reviews, and more of an explanation of what’s going on, here. One thing I’ve noticed so far is that, even though the contest explicitly encouraged one-room games, very few of the games actually take place in one room in the IF sense; even if they take place in one enclosed space, you can usually move around from place to place in it. (Or in some cases, doing something makes you move to another room, possibly in the Realm of Imagination.) Which maybe isn’t that surprising; a game that presents you with everything at once has a combinatorial explosion problem, in that you may not know what objects to use with what objects or what problems. Breaking the game up into different locations lets you introduce new items and puzzles gradually, so the reader isn’t overwhelmed. It’s probably no coincidence that the game that’s most restricted to a single room is the one that I found to be a marathon puzzlefest (Hoosegow), though I gather that the authors didn’t plan for the player to suck as much at puzzles as I do.

Another thing I realize about myself is that I have no impulse whatsoever to type “xyzzy” into games. It doesn’t even occur to me until I read other reviews.

Anyway, reviews below, any big spoilers encoded in rot13. Reviewed so far: Zegrothenus, Containment, Heavenly, Into the Open Sky, Critical Breach, and Couch of Doom.

February 5, 2010

I Am the Borax, I Speak for Febreze

Filed under: Uncategorized — matt w @ 1:40 pm

or, Further Contextual Imaginings

Did you know that “Just a Gigolo” was originally an Austrian song that was “a poetic vision of the social collapse lived in Austria after World War I, represented by the figure of a former hussar who remembers himself parading in his uniform, while now he has to get by as a lonely, hired dancer”? It was, and that is the most awesome fact you are likely to learn today. It makes you wonder, what other David Lee Roth covers have been ripped from their original context? Perhaps “California Girls” was a song of mourning for the flower of California womanhood cut down in the San Francisco Earthquake, never replaceable by the young ladies of other territories.

And in a world of gritty reimaginings (btw, you know what’s long overdue for one? Hogan’s Heroes), it’s sometimes worth looking back to the originals. For instance, you know the Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus novels? Hard-boiled Scottish noir, full of rain and drinking and gruesome crimes, all very hard boiled. The title character is a messily divorced inspector who doesn’t play by the rules, often drunk and foul-mouthed, haunted by his dark past and his failure to join the family business of… stage hypnotism.

OK, so that’s ridiculous. How’d it get in there? Because Rankin has done a gritty reimagining of the older Inspector Rebus novels, lighthearted romps about a rumpled inspector and his dapper hypnotist brother, swanning around Edinburgh solving wacky wordplay-based crimes. Wouldn’t you like to read those?

Actually, now that that’s typed out, it sounds like Ellen Raskin, whose books don’t actually need any added grit. I recently obtained a copy of Figgs & Phantoms and it’s exactly as messed-up as I remember it being, enough that I went and checked to see if it was written just after she’d found out she was dying. It wasn’t though. [Not, I hasten to add, messed-up in the typical YA manner of "the kids betray their old-man friend and get his place trashed and when they try to make it up for him by taking him to see his beloved baboon it's died and he expires from grief on the spot, so they have to think about what they've done while the brave high-school existentialist is Beaten Up by the Conformist Hordes Who Just Don't Understand Or Care." Messed up in an interesting way.]

This post may seem random, but at least I didn’t try to work in how Louis Armstrong, with “Black and Blue,” turned a song about black men rejecting a dark-skinned woman into a civil rights protest, just by dropping the verse. Anyway it’s not as random as the “Just a Gigolo” video:

February 4, 2010

JayIsGames Interactive Fiction Escape Comp: Some Brief Reviews

Filed under: Uncategorized — matt w @ 7:34 pm

[More reviews here.]

Everyone knows about JayIsGames’s escape-themed interactive fiction competition, right? [That page makes sounds for a few seconds.] At least, everyone who is into the whole IF thing? It seems like it might be important to IF — it has the potential to introduce it to new people, both as players and writers. And the games tend to be short, and are playable online, both of which are I think extremely important to the casual player. (They’re important to me, anyway.)

I haven’t seen any reviews online, so there are some below the fold. The reviews should be brief, and any big spoilers will be encoded in I will occasionally mention that there is a puzzle involving an object, and say something about its solution, but usually it should be pretty obvious that there’s such a puzzle (for instance, when there’s an object that you can almost take). So, no spoiler spaces.

I’ve been playing the games in the random order generated by the comp page, and will review them in that order. (And post the first eleven reviews in this post as I write them, with more here.) And they actually haven’t taken that long — maybe four or five total hours play for ten games so far, and probably more than half of that on one game. I abandoned a couple pretty quickly (and may return to them). It took me a while to remember that I can ask for hints, and even longer to notice that there’s a walkthrough button for every game. Also, many of the games are being updated as the contest continues — often in response to complaints like mine! — and my review reflects the version of the game I played, rather than the one currently on the site. I mean, it has to.

A few general thoughts:

Some of the authors are clearly first-time authors, and there wasn’t a whole lot of time before the competitions. There was some discussion around the IFComp about being more welcoming to authors, and I’m going to try. In particular, I think it’s worth being forgiving about technical flaws that don’t interfere with gameplay too much, but also in pointing out flaws that do. I’ve enjoyed a couple of games despite the lack of polish. It also means I might be grumpier to people I know to be established authors. But hopefully not too grumpy.

Also, some bugs seem to happen because of the online interpreters — the Parchment illegal object disambiguation bug popped up at least once, and one author said he couldn’t reproduce my bug on his machine (but fixed it anyway). This is not a criticism of the online interpreters! They are the greatest thing since sliced bread. And I’m really happy to see that Parchment now has scroll bars [or, it seems like Jay added them to some, but perhaps not all, of the windows]. (Actually, I prefer to slice my own bread, but that doesn’t detract from the greatness of online interpreters.)

People are going to be playing online, which means less save-and-restore (Parchment allows one save file, which you have to bookmark the URL to recover; I couldn’t get Leaflet’s save-and-restore to work on my computer). This means I’m going to be particularly grumpy about timed death puzzles. Though I’m usually particularly grumpy about timed death puzzles anyway.

It’s interesting to see what some of the issues faced by new players and new authors. For new players, it seems like the biggest issue is not being able to find exactly the kind of syntax a game expects. For new authors, it seems like a big issue is often… figuring out what things people might try and changing the responses so they point toward something helpful. This isn’t necessarily the best mix. (More thoughts on that in the next paragraph.) Other common issues are inconvenient disambiguations, which seems like it’s probably a fairly fiddly thing to fix, and elements that don’t work well when the game isn’t gone through in the order the author expects (for instance, item descriptions that presuppose that the item is where you found it the first time). Those issues even arose in games by experienced authors. Designing and setting flags is hard.

Because new players often have problems with guessing the verb, and that often arises because they just aren’t familiar with the expected syntax, I think that a good way to make an introductory game would be to use a keyword-driven system, like Walker and Silhouette. But that wouldn’t necessarily help people make the transition to more traditional IF… so maybe something to do would be to accept the keyword and then print the command that it stands in for. As in:
You see a table
(examine table)
There is an inscription carved in the table. On the table is a pen.
(take pen)
(read inscription)
It says…

Perhaps someone should sponsor a comp for games like this.

Also, I think people tended to go for puzzly games in this comp, even with the artier games — but remember, Small Worlds won the competition before this. Art games can do well in these competitions. (Admittedly, Small Worlds was really good.)

Future advice for everyone: Get your game tested! Especially for new authors, it’ll be worth seeing how people try to interact with the game; you’ll be surprised at how people try to do what you basically had in mind, but using words you didn’t plan for.

Last thought: I’ve never actually written a game myself, so you might want to ignore everything I say about coding.

Reviewed so far: The Blueprint, Roofed (sort of), Ka, I Expect You To Die, Lurid Dreams, Hoosegow, The Usher, The Cube, An Open Field, Dual Transform, Monday, 16:30. More here.

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