Saucers of Mud

November 17, 2011

IFComp Reviews, Part 7

The 2011 Interactive Fiction competition is over, but the games are still out there! Look here. Many of the games 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). Other reviews here

In this post: Reviews of Tenth Plague, Six, and Cana According to Micah.

Tenth Plague. A short game, and none would have wished it longer, which in this case isn’t an insult. You are placed in the incorporeal shoes of an aspect of Death, inflicting the Tenth Plague on the biblical Egyptians. The Tenth Plague, as you may remember, is the slaying of the firstborn. Spoiler: Slaying the firstborn of an entire nation is an awful thing to do, even if the leaders of that nation are arguably doing awful things themselves.

This is a game with a definite point to make, and it’s well done, with a commentary mode that’s worth unlocking. And some people, understandably, felt it difficult to play through in the way that the author surely intended. But it didn’t have that impact on me. Part of it is that the polemic is heavy-handed. That spoiler in the previous paragraph? It’s not really a spoiler. Now, you could argue that nuance is simply not appropriate for this story, and you may well have a point, but from a theological standpoint I’m not sure that this connects squarely with any of the intended targets; Jews devote a fair amount of discussion to the way that our celebration of our liberation should be diminished by the Egyptians’ suffering (and most of us aren’t Biblical literalists anyway), and Christians tend to view Jesus as overriding many of the awful things that the Old Testament God did, I think.

The bigger problem for me is the abstraction. As an incorporeal-except-when-you-need-it embodiment of death, the PC is hard to identify with, and that makes me feel detached from its atrocities. Sentencing Mr. Liddell freaked me out because I can put myself in the shoes of a father who sees his child’s stroller slip into a river, and who is driven to distraction by a screaming child, etc. It’s me in those shoes, doing the [thing that I didn’t want to do in that game]. Here I’m more willing simply to do what it takes to finish.

All this is arguing with the content of the game, because it does what it needs to to make me think about the content. So, worth playing; a little too His-Dark-Materials preachy for me, but that’s not the worst thing I can say.

Six. Not so much wholesale killing in this game. The other Australian hide-and-seek game, in some ways incredibly ambitious and unambitious at the same time. It has a lot of sound and art and a fair amount of gameplay innovation, but it also doesn’t (I think) aspire to be more than a hide and seek tip simulator that kids can get into. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

You have to go around and tag (or “tip”) your friends on your birthday. Some of them are easy to catch, some require a little work, though nothing too extreme. There’s some great pictures, a lot of sound, the park in which it’s set is captured nicely, and after you win as one twin you unlock the game from the other’s perspective. The NPCs are reasonably automonous and I think randomized from play to play. It’s incredibly polished, and there’s no way not to recommend it.

There were some things I wanted more from, though. On the first playthrough there are some things that are there to lock you out of areas you can play in as the other character, and I wanted to be able to do more with them. The concept limits the complexity of puzzles, which leads to a certain lack of variety in the puzzles (though there’s more variety than you might think); in particular, one puzzle seems to be the same in both playthroughs, except with an added “you can lose right away” aspect the second time which isn’t so satisfying. And I’d wished that it was more possible to figure out the patterns for the pirate duel; perhaps it was, but what I wound up doing was going through many try-die-undo cycles until I found something that worked. I didn’t feel as though the effects of my actions were predictable; I’d have enjoyed it more if there’d been more of a pattern to the combat, as in Backup, and if losing meant trying again until you figured out the pattern (perhaps by randomizing things within certain parameters, so you couldn’t just memorize a sequence of moves).

This is related to a problem I had with the characterization there. Marion is a bigger child who you can’t tag unless she lets you, so she challenges you to a duel and says that if you lose you have to lose the whole game. If I were six, I’d think that was completely Not Fair. Who says she gets to spoil my birthday just because she’s bigger? It’d be nicer if she let you try again until you beat here, and I think would work better in gameplay terms.

Obviously I’m not entirely the target audience here. Some folks have said this would be a good introductory game for kids, but I’m not entirely sure about that. It is a truth universally acknowledged in children’s and young adult books that your protagonist should be older than your target audience (no doubt there’s an exception when your protagonist is your target audience), but anyone who’s much younger than the PCs here will probably be too young to read well enough to play this kind of game.

Cana according to Micah. A retelling of Jesus’s water into wine miracle. Finally I have sympathy for everyone complaining about the baseball IFs, because I have the sense that a lot of this would be much more logical if I knew the Bible story. I mean, I know the general outline — Jesus turned water into wine — but I don’t get that thrill of recognition when I encounter a Bible character. It’s like, in the Dark Knight, I’m sure as soon as Harvey Dent showed up many people were all like “Aha! Let’s see the story of how he turns into Two-Face!” but that was a total surprise to me. He could have been a new character for the movie like Rachel Dawes, for all I knew. (My students were stunned by my ignorance here. They thought it was exactly the sort of thing I would know.)

Related to this, I’m not sure that I solved a single puzzle here without the hints. Some of this was dopiness — I managed not to find some locations — some of this was probably down to somewhat obscure puzzles, but some of it was certainly that I didn’t know what was supposed to happen next, or what the critical characteristic of NPC X was. But it was a fine experience anyway. It’s often quite funny, the hint system was smooth enough that it was painless to consult it every other turn, and most important, there’s a vivid cast.

Technically, it was excellent, though putting the cover on the well didn’t seem to do anything. Under it all there was a bit of a moral choice, but the right thing to do seemed pretty obvious. (Well, in one case it probably wasn’t obvious how to avoid doing the wrong thing, but that wasn’t a problem for someone who was already reading the clues.) At one point a dilemma involving Anna is supposed to be heightened because Anna is annoying, but I thought she was perfectly charming even aside from the fact that she helps me solve puzzles. [UPDATE: I did get a little bored with the messages she produces as she follows you around; there are about six of them, which is a lot to write, but I still saw them on the order of a dozen times each. In general, I think colorful repeating messages like that should only show up every few times something happens, if it happens a lot.] There was sometimes an interaction issue in that it wasn’t clear exactly what telling someone about something would do — something of an occupational hazard in ask-tell conversation systems where you’re trying to accomplish specific effects. Still, an excellent overall game if you don’t mind using the hints a lot. (But if you get the ending with the joke about the cookies, isn’t that a little blasphemous?)
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Six: I spent a while trying to chase the kid in the Spiderman suit through the spiderweb so I could trap him in the gazebo. It seemed like those two things should’ve gone together.

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