Saucers of Mud

October 7, 2011


The 2011 Interactive Fiction competition is on, with lots of games in lots of different systems. Interactive fiction is generally the kind of game where you read things and then type in commands to do things, though not always. People used to get eaten by grues in these games, but that’s rarer now.

Here is the list of games, many of which can be played online; for others you’ll need an interpreter (playing offline with an interpreter may improve your experience with some of the off-line playable ones; in particular, Calm froze up on-line on my (cranky and slow) computer, and Sentencing Mr Liddell slowed down noticeably toward the end).

I’m going to try reviewing the games briefly this year, in order to get it done without annoying myself too much. I’m playing them in a random order, except where I decide not to. If I played it online, my review will include a link to the online-playable version. I’ll start with mostly spoiler-free discussions, though I will talk about general themes and the like; some spoilers may be rot13ed in the main discussion, but if I extensively discuss something spoily it’ll be at the end of the entry below a spoiler space.

In this entry: The Play, Binary, The Guardian, Cold Iron, Ship of Whimsy. They’re all quick plays.

The Play, by Deirdra Kiai. An online choice-based game (that is, instead of typing in commands, you click on hyperlinks) about trying to guide a rickety play to its conclusion, and also about sexism and harassment. The stats you’re managing (this kind of game often involves managing stats, for good reason concern how disgruntled your cast and crew are, and on a pure gameplay level trying to keep everyone on track was fun. Overall very good, though if the writing had been that much funnier it could’ve been ridiculously awesome — I’d have liked the dialogue in the play to have gone way over the top. Still, it takes only a few minutes per playthrough (and is worth replaying), so there’s basically no reason not to play it.

As I said, one of the themes is sexism, both in the shopworn play you’re putting on and in the cast dynamics and backstory. There’s one especially nice moment when you can do something that seems to be a pure win from the gameplay standpoint — one person’s mood improves, no one’s worsens — but made me feel like a heel. More interesting discussion here, including the question of whether the PC is male or female (I think I wind up at “studiously unspecific,” except after I wrote this Matt Wigdahl pointed out this). A bit of a spoiler below the space.

The Binary, by Simon Mark (Bloomengine). Another web-based choice-based game, using a custom system in which you have an inventory of items and thoughts to click on to see their descriptions (and maybe use them). There’s a time-travelly plot that forces you to go through the same sequence multiple times, which works very well with the puzzle structure — and unlike many choice-based games, this is a puzzle game, in that you have to figure out a sequence of actions that will accomplish your goal. Doing a puzzle in a CYOA pretty much requires repeated failures and restarts (or you would just lawnmower through all the choices), and Binary does a good job of making that natural; and the failures aren’t wasted, as going back to the beginning gets you an interscene that gives you some nice world-building. Recommended (and again, won’t take you long); it could’ve been a parser IF, but if it had, I think I’d have spent a lot of time banging around trying to see what I could do.

Also, when I pointed out a typo, the author sent me a very nice ASCII drawing of a beer.

The Guardian, by Lutein Hawthorne. This was… very short. It’s mostly a narrative, with very little in the way of puzzles, and not badly written, with some niceties (for instance, in some places examining something gives you something more than a description in an interesting way). But it didn’t add up to much for me; I think it was going for something archetypal, but I would’ve liked more detail in the backstory. [UPDATE: To be fair, there are some indications that I may have missed some backstory.] Still, given its short playtime, you might give it a go. (My first playthrough I hadn’t read the pdf manual, which not only gives more backstory but would’ve kept me from getting stuck on the last turn — it explains that you only need a limited number of commands, which would’ve kept me from attempting some unproductive alternate syntaxes. Still, the author should really have accommodated those alternate syntaxes.)

Cold Iron, by Lyman Clive Charles. This is also very short — but good. Well written with a distinctive voice, guides you (well, forces you) through what you have to do very naturally, and specific in a way the Guardian wasn’t; by the end I knew something about these characters. It’s not a masterwork; there’s not much tension or conflict (and about half a puzzle, though that’s not a bad thing), so in the end it’s slight. Still, worth your time.

The Ship of Whimsy, by U.N. Owen. Another very short one — and it exceeded the expectations I have for an untested game by U.N. Owen. No bugs I detected, which is non-trivial since it uses nautical directions. The writing is pretty competent, you have to solve a few basic puzzles and then you’re done. On the other hand, there’s some unimplemented stuff in the descriptions, the PC is “as good-looking as ever” and in fact has no distinguishing features, there’s really nothing in the way of story, and the ending is frankly obnoxious. Pretty painless if you want to play all the comp games, and it won’t take much of your time, but I can’t recommend it.

The Play: One of Emily’s commenters is skeptical that letting the actors improvise in the dress rehearsal would actually lead to anything good. I chalk that up to something we have to suspend disbelief about, and it reminded me a lot of Slings and Arrows, where shaking things up at the last minute tended to make plays awesome in a way that may not have been scrupulously realistic. But my point is, you should watch Slings and Arrows. The headcrusher from Kids in the Hall is in it.


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