Saucers of Mud

October 13, 2011

IFComp, Part 4

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: “How Suzy Got Her Powers,” “Vestiges,” “Keepsake,” and “The Hours.” Previous reviews here, here and here.

“How Suzy Got Her Powers,” by David Whyld. As the title suggests, a superhero origin story. It’s a part of a larger planned saga. In fact, it turns out to be a very small part of a larger planned saga; I was expecting the PC to get her powers and then do something with them, but it ends at the point at which she gets her powers. (Which means that everything she does is done as an ordinary waitress in a troublesome situation.) This involves solving a few environmental puzzles in fairly naturalistic ways; everything you do at least aspires to behave the way it might in real life.

This was a nice enough game, reasonably well written — and a good thing too, because there’s a fair amount of prose every time you solve a puzzle (which basically involves getting to a new area). At least some of the puzzles have multiple solutions, and the implementation is fairly solid; games written in the ADRIFT system have the reputation of being sketchily implemented, but I remember this one as being pretty responsive to most of the things I did; though there’s one big complaint (which involves a major puzzle spoiler) below the spoiler space. (Also the default response to jumping, “wheee-boinng,” doesn’t belong here.) There’s a slightly odd metagame aspect to it; you can finish the game with 9 out of 22 points, and getting all the points seems to involve finding alternative puzzle solutions or doing things that might look useful but don’t actually accomplish anything (I’ll mention one or two below the spoiler space). Some people might be motivated to replay to get all the points; not me, though.

Anyway, this was fine, but also pretty slight. I can’t help thinking it would’ve been better suited for IntroComp. The main emotion it stirred was curiosity about the real story. Kudos for not annoying me by making the whole thing a timed puzzle, though.

Vestiges, by Josephine Wynter. This basically will not do. The prose is wobbly and the implementation is sketchy, to the point where the walkthrough didn’t actually work in the version I played — the syntax in the walkthrough was wrong for some commands, which wasn’t a problem, and a crucial item seemed to be unimplemented, which was a problem. There was also a character who appeared in the room description even after he was supposed to have left (and who I think wasn’t implemented as an object), and the objects in the room (including doors) showed up in room descriptions in a clunky way. It was interesting to have every room connected by doors (so instead of moving by compass directions you just could “enter door” for whatever door it was), and there was a story — which isn’t always true of the mostly-not-implemented games. But please, have people test your work and get feedback about what is and isn’t working.

Keepsake, by Savaric. Another very short piece — it seems as though the theme of this competition may be that a third of the games are extremely short and a third of the rest are incredibly ambitious. [OK, let’s do a count. Of the games I’ve played so far and the one that I spent a long time testing, half are short — I’m counting the choice-based ones as short, because they don’t take long to play through — and around a third to half the rest are ambitious, in that they involve novel mechanisms or big worlds or both. OK then.]

Anyway, this one has basically one gimmick, which I won’t discuss, but which reveals itself gradually as the game proceeds. It quite rightly helps you make it through — after a bit of exploring, it’s clear what you can do, and unproductive actions are blocked. I got a bit of a frisson from the mystery that the gimmick set up, but there’s a lack of characterization that maybe forestalls any real emotional impact — you’re told at the beginning that you’ve shot someone who you’ve been obsessed with for a long time, but you never learn who or why. On the other hand, I’m not sure the central conceit would sustain any deeper characterization. I’m sure it wouldn’t sustain any longer gameplay. Still, worth playing.

“The Hours,” by Robert Patten (online play apparently doesn’t work too well). Having glanced at a couple of reviews, I went in with low expectations, and I wound up having a smile on my face for almost the whole game. You’re a time traveler, but this isn’t used to set up a puzzle involving multiple paths through the same bit of time like The Binary (let alone the massive feat of time-engineering of All Things Devours; instead you get bumped along from one event to the next, willy-nilly.

Some people disliked the linearity here, but to me it felt like the garage-band version of Rogue of the Multiverse, another game where the obvious action is the one that advances the story. And by garage-band I mean, sloppy and unpolished in places, but fun. (Not that RotM wasn’t fun.) “Sloppy and unpolished” usually is a terrible thing in IF, because it means “likely to break on you in really frustrating ways,” but in this case somehow it doesn’t. I think it’s the linear structure; one of the most common kinds of breakage comes when a player does things in an unexpected order, but here that just won’t happen.

(Example: One of the room descriptions includes a mention of what happens as you enter the room, which is generally a no-no, because that will print even when you re-enter the room, or type “look” while in the room. But I only noticed it because I happened to type “look.” You can’t actually enter the room except at the appointed time.)

Not to say that there weren’t issues. For instance, “Look through window” at one point doesn’t give me a description of what’s on the other side of the window, an NPC who is supposed to be the same gender as my character is called “he” even though I was playing as a woman (don’t judge me), “sit” gets me “you must supply a noun” even though I’ve just been told to sit down, the line breaks sometimes get goofy, and there are sentences like “Moonlight slithering from a low window near the shelves is gulped in shadow.” I’d like to see the author do another version where there’s a little more polish in the interaction — though maybe not in the prose, which may be part of its charm. It was important to me that I wasn’t taking it seriously, and sentences like that helped set that mood.

The game also has some unusual technical aspects. You can’t navigate by directions; the status bar shows you where you can currently go, and you type the name of the room to go there. At many points through the game you have a menu of choices for how to react to the other characters; I’m pretty sure that the choices don’t affect any future gameplay, but I found them a nice way of keeping involved when the main plot was pushing me along. Again, the choices weren’t profound, but that fit the mood. And in a way I think the railroading is thematically appropriate, for plot-related reasons that go under the spoiler space.

The game is rather gender-norming; I mentioned that you can choose your gender, which you do by wearing a suit or a dress. This didn’t really bother me (if I’m going to play as a woman, I’m going to wear a dress, I suppose), but Emily Short subverted it and it really bugged Elizabeth (runnerchild). Gender-norming is one of the less charming aspects of garage bands.

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How Suzy Got Her Powers: In one playthrough I encountered the following sequence:

> use fire extinguisher
Sorry. That isn’t recognised. If you’re stuck for general commands, type COMMANDS.

> turn fire extinguisher on
Please be more clear, what do you want to turn? The fire extinguisher or the fire?

> turn on fire extinguisher
You can’t turn that.

> x extinguisher
It’s one of those ancient models that looks like it was probably taken on the Ark with Moses and his animals. A label on the side indicates the correct usage for it is

use extinguisher on {name}

and recommends this is adhered to in order to achieve the best results. Certainly a handy thing to have with you in a burning building. It also has a picture on it of someone throwing a fire extinguisher at a fire in order to put out a particularly fierce blaze.

[and then a little later]

> throw extinguisher at fire
I don’t understand what you want me to do with the fire extinguisher.

This was annoying, especially the last one. It later turned out that I had done something in the interim that made throwing the fire extinguisher useless, and that under different circumstances that command would be recognized, but still, pretty misleading. (I should note that the preferred ADRIFT interpreter is Windows-only, and playing under other interpreters apparently can lead to weird bugs, so it’s possible that that’s what was happening here.)

About the extra points: I got points for tying a tissue around my face (to keep from breathing in smoke) and banging the sprinklers, but neither of those actually seemed to get me any closer to navigating the fire.

The Hours: Emily Short complains that “[t]he protagonist is not the prime mover in his [!] own story.” That feels thematically appropriate to me; she discovers that her life has been manipulated by invisible forces, specifically to make her worse off and put her in a position where she can be exploited. At the end she can make one gesture to fight back against it and show that she does control her own life, and that’s exactly when the player has to do something that they’re not told to do.

In fact, I read something slightly subtle here. The reason the PC gets into this fix is that “All you wanted was a job, any job.” The recession is another force outside individuals’ control that is putting many of us in a position to be exploited. (Digression about Bridesmaids: I don’t think many people remarked that it was a story about someone who goes into a downward spiral after the recession destroys her piece of the American Dream — she owns a small business, it closes, and this breaks up her relationship and eventually sends her home to live with her mother.) And the job she can get involves plundering the history of the world to cater to the super-rich.

I may not quite have understood the ending though; why does the PC feel secure? It seems to me that she’s under as much threat as ever.

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4 Comments »

  1. The Hours: Emily Short complains that “[t]he protagonist is not the prime mover in his [!] own story.” That feels thematically appropriate to me; she discovers that her life has been manipulated by invisible forces, specifically to make her worse off and put her in a position where she can be exploited. At the end she can make one gesture to fight back against it and show that she does control her own life, and that’s exactly when the player has to do something that they’re not told to do.

    I’d buy that argument about The Binary — indeed it’s fairly explicitly true there. In the case of The Hours, I meant something at a lower level of narrative granularity, though. I don’t mean that the protagonist is being ordered around — that’s okay, you can write good stories about people who are being bossed around — but that the individual incidents of the story felt disconnected, new ones triggered apparently by happenstance. So the narrative doesn’t have the shape “the character tried X and Y resulted” or “the character tried X but it failed, so Y happened,” but a rather more shapeless and low-agency “X happened, and then coincidentally Y happened next, and then after that Z happened.” (The lab explosion is a particularly strong example of this, but I felt it several times in the story.)

    And yeah, fair point on the pronouns. I suppose I came away feeling like the protagonist normalized to male, but that may be because my clothing choices had plainly confused it.

    Comment by Emily Short — October 13, 2011 @ 10:13 pm

  2. Re “How Suzy Got Her Powers”:

    I think some of those error messages are down to you not playing the game on the standard Windows Runner (and how annoying that ADRIFT games sometimes play differently on other systems). In particular, “throw extinguisher at fire” should get you:

    “You lift the extinguisher above your head, hope you’re not making a really big mistake, and then throw it at the fire. It disappears into the flames and for a second or two nothing seems to happen. Then-

    BOOM!!!

    The extinguisher explodes, shooting foam all over the place! The fire all around it is temporarily put out and you take the opportunity to quickly rush past it and to the next floor of the building, only realising as you get there that the foam isn’t going to keep the fire at bay for long and you’ve probably now no way of getting back down.

    [Your score has just increased by 2 points.]”

    Shame on me for not overriding ADRIFT’s awful response to “jump” though.

    Comment by David Whyld — October 17, 2011 @ 4:01 pm

  3. Hi David — my transcript excerpt wasn’t clear there; that’s the response I got when I tried to throw the extinguisher at the fire after using the extinguisher on the fire. (I didn’t say that in the main post to lessen the spoilage a bit.) When I threw the extinguisher without using it first, I did get the correct response. Though I do realize that playing ADRIFT games on other runners can be erratic, so that may account for some of

    Emily, it’s been something like two days since I started a comment apologizing for how long it was taking me to respond to your comment, and I think I contrived to be interrupted twice while composing the next sentence. So, thanks for your comment, and I will respond eventually!

    Comment by matt w — October 17, 2011 @ 5:08 pm

  4. […] doesn’t actually have anything to do with the reason you advance. That’s the complaint Emily had against The Hours, but at least there the game rushed you on past the puzzles instead of making you […]

    Pingback by IFComp Reviews, Part 6 « Saucers of Mud — November 13, 2011 @ 11:03 pm


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