IF Comp 2017: Harmonia

harmoniaHarmonia (Liza Daly) is a choice-based story about college mysteries and 19th-century utopian communities.

In its general outlines, the story looks very much like something that could have come out of parser IF in the late 90s. It is a disappearance mystery set in a storied college, in large part disclosed through the discovery of scattered fragmentary texts; there are hidden, ancient tunnels to be explored, a disappeared person to find, and a time machine. There is a partially-buried meteorite which recalls the obelisk in Anchorhead; and, as in Anchorhead and Christminster, a constant tension of being a barely-tolerated outsider who has to break the rules to find out what’s going on.

But the delivery is radically different. Structurally, it’s hypertext, a friendly gauntlet with a scattering of flavour choices and a very small handful of plot-influencing decisions. But what grabs you by the throat right from the outset is its texture. The frame of Harmonia is journal entries –  attractive but untidy journal entries, with annotations bristling off the page and excerpts pasted into it. Fonts matter. Position on the page matters, with scribbled lines spreading out to marginalia which, on occasion, link to other marginalia. This is a very strongly first-person narration; the illustrations are pencil-sketches, meant to be in the narrator’s own hand. It’s a gorgeous piece, in a way that’s immediately apparent. I was slightly in love with it within twenty seconds.


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IF Comp 2017: The Living Puppet

livingpuppetThe Living Puppet  (Liu Zian) is a short choice-based horror piece.

The protagonist, Li Shaoxian, is the partner of a penniless puppeteer, Wu Sheng, who, down on his luck, somehow acquires a puppet ‘no different from the living’, with which he becomes obsessed, neglecting Shaoxian.

Any given playthrough has precisely two choices in it, with long stretches of narration between choices; the story after the choices, particularly the second, varies widely. This is a kind of pacing that’s unusual in the IF sphere, but it’s not uncommon in visual novels, or in works targeted at an audience who don’t have much of a games background and see any interactivity at all as an exciting novelty. The choices are presented as great big unmissable buttons – with fingerprint motifs on them, suggesting this is targeted at mobile. And it’s written in the first person, which – together with the relatively low level of player choice – suggests that you’re meant to read this more as you would a short story, without a player-character level of identification with the protagonist. Continue reading

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IF Comp 2017: Nightbound

nightboundNightbound (ProP) is a heroic-fantasy CRPG made with Twine. The blurb promises “an inventory system, turn-based combat, and class and leveling systems”, and that’s what it’s mostly focused on.

A compelling, tactically non-trivial, balanced, well-paced CRPG combat system is difficult and laborious to design. In an all-text medium, it’s doubly difficult, because you can’t lean on the visual excitement of action or the tactics of physical position. There are works of IF that have overcome this, but in most cases you end up with a system that’s basically filler: something that goes through the expected motions of RPG combat, without providing anything of the dramatic excitement or tactical challenge which those systems were invented to create, doing nothing but pad out the play time. And thus, Nightbound. Continue reading

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IF Comp 2017: Day of the Djinn

dayofdjinnDay of the Djinn (paperyowl) is a Twine fantasy story.

Its setting looks, at a first pass, much like the modern world, but it contains a substantial number of magical elements. Some of these are ordinary everyday things, and it’s not always clear how uncanny a thing should seem to the protagonist. There’s a certain Diana Wynne Jones-ishness about this, a sense that a bunch of stuff is going on just off-screen which will affect you but that you’re never going to entirely know about. There are big chunks of worldbuilding, but they feel fragmentary; I picked up a lot of Weird Features of the world, but they didn’t give me a cohesive picture. A lot of the time when I complain about boring writing, it’s because of a lack of attention to detail, and that’s absolutely not the case here; there’s a lot of attention to odd little details. But they felt kind of scattershot; many of them felt like little stand-alone ideas, rather than things which informed the world as a whole.

In many ways, it’s operating from a very conventional adventure-game playbook. There’s a room-based map, inventory, a lighting puzzle, a fetch-quest for a gate-keeper, a sequence that looks like a maze, books which contain puzzle clues. As a sequence of pure puzzle design, it’s doing pretty well, but it doesn’t sit well with motivation, either of the player or the protagonist. It’s quite easy to solve most of the puzzles before you have a particular reason to do so; there’s a map of spice mines in the forest but I had no real grasp of why it was a good idea to go and find them, other than it being an adventure-game clue. So some of the protagonist’s actions feel unmoored. Continue reading

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IF Comp 2017: Transient Skies

transkiesTransient Skies (dgtziea) is a Twine space-exploration game.

My initial impressions were not good. There’s a fairly substantial chunk of intro, and it’s aiming at a tone that it doesn’t entirely manage to hit.

You were sitting at the edge of the cliffside where you’d spent so many nights — weeks now — deep in contemplation, when you noticed Doranin, your village elder, was beside you.

How long has she been there? She nods to you, then the sky.

“Go, child,” She intones. “Apply. You are brave. Resourceful. Curious. Diplomatic. You will get in. You will get a ship. And you will go, go away from this world.”

“But the village, our people…” you protest, but even you could hear the weakness in your voice.

Doranin shakes her head. “The village doesn’t matter. None of us matter.”

And she sweeps her hand outwards, at the glittering stars and the expanse of neon-green sky in front of the both of you. “What matters is out there; out there is where we would’ve belonged, if things had been different. There is nothing for us down here, least of all each other. We band together to survive, but our true purpose is to expand outwards.”

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IF Comp 2017: Tuuli

tuuliTuuli (Daurmith, Ruber Eaglenest) is an Inform game about a Finnish girl who has to take over the role of a dead witch to protect her village from Vikings. I am super into this premise and had high expectations.

It’s brief and economical, and this allows it to focus on a very sharp, simple character arc while maintaining a sense of urgency and significance. You can imagine it as the climactic sequence of a substantially longer work – but cutting things down to the final act makes a lot of sense. You’re given just enough time to get an appreciation of the situation and the stakes as the crisis builds.

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IF Comp 2017: Textcraft: Alpha Island

textcraftTextcraft: Alpha Island is a parser survival game made in Java. The protagonist is marooned on an islet for a bet, and has to survive for seven days without calling for help; in a standard twist, communication breaks down and you have to survive for real.

It’s a homebrew, which makes a certain amount of sense for a game with mechanical concerns this specific. It uses real-time effects (you can pause, though, and once I figured that out I did it constantly), recolouring the background and text depending on whether it’s sunny, raining, or night. None of the things it’s doing would have been impossible in Inform or TADS, but they’re not the focus or strength of those platforms; I can understand wanting to roll your own for this fairly specialised purpose. My main issue here is that it means the player’s stuck with the same retro-looking monospace font, and that there’s no way to select and copy text or to store transcripts – irksome for the reviewer, this, and not great for testing either.

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