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).
If I played a game 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: Sentencing Mr Liddell, The Elfen Maiden, Awake the Mighty Dread. Previous reviews here and here.
Sentencing Mr Liddell, by I-K. Huuhtanen. If there were a Golden Banana of Discord for the game I felt the most conflicted about, I’m pretty sure this would win it (having played about a third of the games). It’s a very ambitious game, even a major game, but I’m not sure I like it. But how much of that is sour grapes because I don’t like getting bad endings, and also that it’s trying a bunch of stuff that I’d like to do? I don’t know.
After the opening, this becomes a surrealist retake on Alice in Wonderland, with Alastair Liddell as the protagonist and his wife Cat and, well, I’ll let you find the rest of the parallels. The actions you take often follow dream logic, but they carry moral weight as well (and the epilogue reveals that there are multiple endings). The prose is good, particularly for a non-native speaker, though typos get more and more frequent toward the end. There are a couple of bugs — at one point I was able to pick up a ribbon that I think shouldn’t have been portable, and there’s one more (about the very end) under the spoiler space — but implementation seems mostly solid, including a couple of non-standard things.
The thing is that when you’re relying on dream logic, and you want the player’s actions to matter, I think you have to implement everything. I could say here, “If you tell me at the end that my family will respond to the way I treat them, kissing my wife shouldn’t have yielded ‘Keep your mind on the game,'” but that might be cheap. [UPDATE: From Emily’s review, that may have been fixed in an update, or maybe you usually don’t get that message.] Still, the surreality sometimes makes it hard to see how to proceed, and that makes it difficult to feel as though you have any choices, let alone one that matters. At a couple of points making progress in the game seemed to rely on remembering exactly where things had been before some incomprehensible things had happened, and though there’s a suggestion that I can avoid some of the more unpleasant outcomes, I have trouble grokking the logic of how I might do it. Which might be partly deliberate — the PC is supposed trapped in a horrible situation, and maybe that’s what drives him to do one of the repugnant things I did early on in the game. Still, I felt a little bit like someone who kicked a hat and found a brick under it. (I loved Blue Chairs, though; maybe it’s that the juncture for the multiple endings there seemed a little clearer, and you had a lot of open space to wander around before getting to it, instead of being stuck until you made a choice.)
Don’t get me wrong; you should play this. (And use the hints.) It’s an ambitious piece of work and does a lot of things; I may just be demanding an unrealistic level of polish, though I’d definitely like to see the author keep working on it. And I’ll bet it does a more effective job of turning Alice into something disturbing than American McGee’s Alice, or Tim Burton’s. It may even do a more effective job than Dreamchild, and without bringing in lovelorn Lewis Carroll at all!
The Elfen Maiden, by Adam Le Doux. Though this game apparently doesn’t list testers [UPDATE: but apparently it did have them], it’s got funny writing and an amusing premise — you’re a computer, and you have to find a way to prevent your losery owner from going on a real-life date with an Elfen Maiden from an MMO, because your owner is a straight man and everyone knows Elfen Maidens are never women. (Though is that a problem? I’d figure that men-playing-women wouldn’t set up dates with men who didn’t know their gender — seems like a low-percentage maneuver. I found the premise a little off-putting here.)
Anyway, this has a lot of potential, and doesn’t have the bugs I’d expect from an untested game (or even as much “You can’t see any such thing”), though there is the occasional problem — there’s a point with a gold lever that doesn’t respond to “golden lever” and really should. But mostly: NERF YOUR DAMN TIMERS. You start out with not many turns (even less than it seems at first) in which to prevent disaster, and a lot a lot of locations to search in order to find the thing that will prevent it. There’s a character (an online encyclopedia, which is pretty great) that burns a turn every time you ask it something, even if the answer yields no response. I hit my turn limit twice; by the second time I’d figured out what I basically needed to do but still hadn’t had time to explore all the locations, including the one which (with a peek at the walkthrough) contained what I actually needed. I might take another crack at this later, but if your game has timed puzzles the player should be able to find what they need to solve them, without knowing where everything is in advance.
(I’m coming close to a general theory of multi-stage timed puzzles, which is: No. A timer may create needed urgency, but let’s say you have 100 turns to accomplish six things. The first time through it takes you 75 turns of experimentation to figure out the first thing, and then you’ve figured out two-thirds of the second thing before you die. You restore the save, do the first thing, experiment for twenty turns and figure out the second, and then it takes seventy-five more turns to figure out the third. Restart, do the first three things…. This seems unrewarding. Whereas if each task is on a separate timer you can save after each puzzle you solve, and you don’t have to redo it every time you fail on a later one. As Gregory Weir said in a different context, “Making a player re-demonstrate their mastery of levels 1 through 3 in order to test their mastery of 4 is bullshit.”)
Awake the Mighty Dread by Lyle Skains. [I don’t actually recommend trying to play this online — in my experience it had a rather significant slowdown when you entered a word that hadn’t been implemented, which in my experience happened often.] Another surrealist game set (at least initially) on a train, and another game that ran up against my brand-new “Two unfair deaths and I quit” rule. You’re in a dream world that masks a reality as an abused orphan, and… well, things get surreal. But where Sentencing Mr Liddell seemed to hold onto a dream logic (even where I had to use the hints), I couldn’t figure out the logic of this game. Twice I died with basically no warning — once with the rather insulting message that I had to live with the consequences of my actions, when I didn’t think I had any way of knowing what they were. And there were some implementation hiccups, too; there’s one occasion where an NPC offered me his hand to climb up into something, but of “up,” “take hand,”* “enter x” only the last one worked — even though the next sentence was “You take Mr. Y’s hand to climb up into X.” Also, the death messages are oddly formatted; I think the author has typed “End the story saying ‘a big block of text with lots of formatting'” which puts the whole thing inside triple asterisks and goofs the formatting. It’d be better to have two separate commands, one to print the block of text and one to end the story with a pithier message.
But mostly, what I want to say is, clue things more and provide a nicer walkthrough. I checked the walkthrough and found a lot of actions that seemed poorly motivated, some that were there to kill time while a timer expired, and one that at what seemed to be the appropriate place gave me an error message. The walkthrough is part of your game, and if you don’t have hints (which are hard to program) I like to be able to glance at the walkthrough to see what the next action I need to take is. It’s nice to annotate the walkthrough “This command is killing time, this command does something that you’ll need to have done fifteen turns later, this command is a failed attempt that gives you a clue for the next one, this is the one you actually need to do now.” Otherwise I look at it, I try some of the actions that are there to kill time and some that don’t work if I haven’t done something else fifteen turns before, I get confused, I decide that I can’t finish the game without typing in the walkthrough, and unless your game is really knocking my socks off otherwise, I don’t type in the walkthrough.
*This yielded an error message about not needing to refer to parts of the body, which I also saw in another game, and which I think comes from one of Aaron Reed’s player-friendly extensions. This seems dangerous to me; it’d be easy for some novice author to drop this into a game where you did sometimes need to refer to parts of the body.
Sentencing Mr Liddell: I wasn’t sure why “WE LIVE LIFE” wasn’t accepted at the end — it’s a perfectly grammatical sentence. Perhaps I had locked myself out of those endings, but if so, I should get a response beyond “That’s an unacceptable sentence.”