IF Comp 2022: The Thirty Nine Steps

It’s once again IF Comp season; I’ll be doing some reviews. (Disclosure: I’m married to the lead organiser of the competition.)

This is Graham Walmsey’s adaptation of Buchan’s much-adapted novel The Thirty-Nine Steps, a mystery thriller of a man accidentally caught up in murder and espionage on the cusp of World War One. (I’m in the odd position having read the book and seen the original Corble & Dimon version of the comic stage play, but not the vastly more popular Hitchcock and Patrick Barlow versions.) cover art for The 39 Steps: view of a Highland valley

The adaptation preserves a lot of the original but adds additional material; I didn’t notice any major added scenes, but it’s been a while since I read the book; it is certainly possible to skip past many incidents of the original. (To its credit, the distinction between original and supplementary prose didn’t jump out to me.) It has snippets of original music, which… is very nice as far as it goes, but technical limitations make the audio cut in and out rather too abruptly to work in support of the drama all that much.

The game is designed to a principle of Everything Advances the Plot: you can screw up and the story will keep on happening, rather than terminating in a Bad Ending. I like this approach in general, but it’s an odd fit for this specific kind of story. The 39 Steps is a mystery thriller: the action turns heavily on the resourcefulness of the protagonist and the high stakes of the threat. You have to believe, in a thriller, that if the hero is not quite clever or quick or tough enough, they’ll die — or at least incur massive consequences. That suspended disbelief is harder when the game keeps reinforcing the idea that, while you can fuck up — fuck up quite a lot, be made unambiguously aware of your fuck-ups — the core plot will keep trundling along and the same basic finale will result.

In many ways this is a game that’s very good at reminding you about the immediate consequences of your choices – very modern, in fact, about the density of cues it gives you to acknowledge the impact of fairly minor choices you’ve made. If you don’t eat breakfast or shave before fleeing your flat, the game will make a point of letting you know that it remembers (and, by implication, that it’s keeping close tabs on everything else as well). But the most obvious consequence presented at the very outset of the story — that Hannay is in acute mortal danger, pursued by killers — is conspicuously not among them. The threat of the titular puzzle is also not real: you can fail to understand the meaning of the thirty-nine steps, yet still end up at the appointed place and time and avert disaster.

In linear media it’s easier to accept that the danger is real despite the hero always escaping it; it’s because the hero was brave, or lucky, or prepared, or clever enough. When you show the hero repeatedly not being those things but getting away with it anyway, that’s no longer a thriller; it’s a farce, an unlikely-hero action-comedy. The hero of a thriller can fail and be saved by deus ex machina, but not too often. And when the heroism involves solving a puzzle, the puzzle has to be actually solved, not blundered through.

In other words, this is a narrative that’s a difficult fit for a game structure that’s about failing forwards, about the story not ending just because some objective has been missed — at least, not without much broader variation in the story than is attempted here.

And this is more at issue because this medium makes the story much more centrally about Hannay’s capabilities. In the original story Hannay is a capable fellow, but the story isn’t centrally focused on that; he is not a Sherlock Holmes, where every story has to loudly reinforce the character of Holmes as brilliant; he’s understated. Here, the vaguely Choice of Games-ish mechanics unavoidably centre Hannay’s abilities, require you to be constantly focused on them. Choices are marked as Clever, Bold or Open, and using a skill improves it; so later in the game a Bold option might not succeed unless you’ve been working on your Bold. So you’re encouraged to focus on particular approaches — but also to view choices mostly in terms of your character’s skills. It makes it a story about what a cool guy Hannay is — or what a hapless failure — where the original is more interested in the sense of mystery and danger and ineffable sinister forces. But the no-losing-endings design makes this focus weird, because you can’t help noticing that the hero’s success or failure — the thing you’re told to care about most – doesn’t really matter all that much. And this shift of focus doesn’t make the story more interesting; it’d be fine to do a version of the story that undermined the original’s strengths if it was doing so in service of something that was more fun, but this direction isn’t really developed enough to be compelling.

To be clear, this is a work that’s technically proficient at a lot of different things, and that’s obviously conversant in a fair amount of design theory. Where it falls down is at the higher-level design questions: does this mechanical approach actually serve this narrative? is this story actually going to work in this medium, or does it have to become something else in order to fit? what do I want to preserve, to convey, to illuminate, and what can go by the wayside?

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IF Comp 2021: Goat Game

Goat Game is a tightly-crafted piece about complicity and corporate careers, the difficulty of effecting change, and how this intersects with how you relate to people.

The characters are all anthropomorphic goats. There isn’t really any reason for or against this: none of the characters have very goat-like personalities, either in terms of resemblance to actual goats or to popular-culture ideas of goats. Usually when you have anthro animals there’s some kind of correspondence – but here everyone’s just very mundane people, and you get the general impression that the author just likes drawing goats and had a story to tell and was like ‘why not goats.’

(It’s just odd! It’s titled Goat Game! I am extremely fond of goats, but I like them because, like cats, they’re egocentric jerks who respect neither man nor god and will cause the absolute worst trouble with a bland indifference to the concept of guilt. This is clearly not what goats mean here, but I can’t really tell what they do mean here, other than ‘I just think they’re neat.’)

The illustrations are very nice! They’re sweet and cosy, warmly-lit with grainy soft lines, and have a sort of lo-fi nostalgia vibe going for them; not Ghibli, precisely, but that kind of children’s-book-illustration warmth. And this is actually a bit of a contrast, in useful balance, with the writing, which tends towards tones of of grey, anhedonic anxiety, modernist alienation, mild subdued desperation. The prose is clear, efficiently descriptive, does the job, to the point of veering into being a little stiff; I think the art’s really necessary to impart some colour.

Emphasis on mild, here; this is more of an ambivalent world than a relentlessly bleak one. The protagonist works at a tech company and seems to be in a junior-ish but not insecure job; money isn’t really a major anxiety for them in most paths, they don’t fit in perfectly with the work culture and their work might not be deeply fulfilling, but they’re also not personally dealing with anything deeply toxic, and their angst is mostly described in fairly low-affect terms. The company’s problems affect a different set of workers; they’re serious but they’re not your problem unless you make it your problem. Your ability to affect change appears very slight; it has more consequences for who your friends are and where your career goes, and even those can feel like fairly low-impact choices; you can shift which characters you’re more likely to confide in, not so much which characters are likely to like or trust you.

It’s a bit like – you know how there are some visual novels where the intro is just an incredibly prolonged sequence of the protagonist emphasizing how boring and nondescript and nothing-special they are, and how they’re vaguely angsty in a non-specific manner? The idea here is to make ’em an everyman who works as an audience-insert character, I think, but to me it just makes them feel dull. That’s not precisely what’s going on here – it’s snappier, for one thing. But it’s also – hmm. The protagonist gets an clearly-defined visual identity in the illustrations: lanky, glasses, blonde. The text doesn’t give them a name. The illustrations give them a skirt and high boots, so I assumed woman or femme-presenting, but nothing in the text really supports this. If Totally Ambiguous Protagonist was the goal it’d have been straightforward to just avoid drawing them, but instead we get a nice recognizable character design.

A lot of this is about the presentation of choices, I think. A lot of the choices are, if not precisely reflective choice, a matter of how do you feel about this; sometimes that kind of choice can feel like an opportunity to assert something strongly about the player-character, and sometimes it feels as though the protagonist could take or leave any of these options. Here’s an example:

“Well, how are you feeling about the lab these days? Do you like Aegis-Liora better now that you’ve had some time to settle in?” she asks.

> I like working here (advance to next page)

> I like living here (advance to next page)

> I don’t like it here (advance to next page)

A choice like that doesn’t automatically feel like I’m choosing different realities for the protagonist; because it’s framed as a dialogue choice, it feels as though I’m choosing how frank the protagonist is being about the same situation: lie, diplomatic evasion, truth. With characterisation the signal of possibility-space is often more important than the actual choice. (Choosing Paragon or Renegade doesn’t customise an individual Shepard so much as it asserts that Shepard is always a character capable of, and pulled between, those approaches.)

There is a lot of low-key polish in the general presentation, too: this feels really solid in ‘UX should feel invisible’ way. Lots of little customised touches that don’t intrude but feel really solid. The little progress tracker at the bottom right. The way the images scroll, the way menu options expand into secondary choices. The lowkey three-frame animations which bring a little extra life into the images without making them distracting. Those illustrations are used consistently – it’s really common for hobbyist IF to front-load all its art and run out later, which feels really janky, but that isn’t going on here. Choices are labelled meticulously. There are fifteen endings, and I know I’ve found five of them because it keeps track. A ton of effort has gone into making this thing feel accessible and smooth. (The one thing which is a little awkward are the pages where you have to make a choice in every one of several fields before you can advance to the next page, and often that means that you have to scroll back up to find the option you didn’t pick, but this isn’t a big issue, and I feel like often in a Twine piece you need a tiny bit of UI friction to hold the player’s attention.)

Quibbles. This is a pretty compactly-designed work, and I think that for the length and compactness it has it perhaps has a bit too much worldbuilding, done too much in the wiggly-river-and-jaggedy-mountains mode. There’s clearly been work put into capital-W Worldbuilding, to the extent that I suspect the author is pretty attached to this setting and plans to use it for other things, but it’s focused more on encyclopedic information than on creating a sense of place. There’s a map of the city, and a few bits where characters discuss the recent history of the city, its relation to other cities, that kind of thing – and it still feels a bit generic. (The art is exclusively interior shots.)

It’s a game of subtle nudges, not big dramatic decisions, and this can make it a bit tricky to gauge what effects you’re having. I think that’s probably part of the point – you are not Prince Hamlet, nor are meant to be. This is a game that rhetorically focuses you on choice – fifteen endings, that status tracker at the bottom – but also kind of feels designed to make your individual choices end up feeling less consequential than they initially appear. Most obviously, there’s a Big Commitment early on where you sign, or don’t sign, an internal petition about a major safety issue, and then the next day there’s a major explosion and your caution’s a bit moot. I found five endings but this took quite a bit more than five playthroughs.

One of those endings made me a little – huh. There’s an ending where the protagonist leaves the company and is struggling for opportunities a bit and, without player input, makes a seat-of-the-pants decision to kind of exploit her disabled niece for marketing purposes. I suspect some players would hate this because it’s an Unethical Act that the player is forced into; that doesn’t bother me so much as the fact that it’s kind of unprecedented, character-wise, and therefore feels like it should be a character turning point rather than an epilogue. The main story isn’t really about the character being consciously desperate for work, or being willing to manipulate people – and earlier in the story their niece is one of the few things they clearly assert caring about. So it just feels like an oddly weighty character pivot for an epilogue, regardless of how I’ve behaved earlier in the story.

Except – hm. While writing this review I found a sixth ending, which wasn’t hugely notable except that a sequence after that suggests that there’s content unlocked by getting more endings, so most likely there’s a True Ending deal that you can only get if you find all the other endings, which, very VN right there. So even though most of the outcomes are about how it’s exhausting and well-nigh-impossible to change corporate culture from inside, but leaving just screws you, it’s possible that there’s an ending. I’m definitely not gonna find it within the confines of comp season, and probably not after; I don’t really enjoy exhaustive play for its own sake, and there’s not enough variation between plays, or enough satisfaction in the individual endings, to make heavy repeat play rewarding.

While this is a really respectable piece, and there’s a lot to like about it, I don’t really love it. And I think that’s probably more about its priorities than its execution; I’d prefer a much more strongly-characterized protagonist, for example, but I think that this would likely go against its design goals, and it feels as though this is a piece that pretty firmly knows what it’s going for.

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IF Comp 2021: The Last Night of Alexisgrad

The Last Night of Alexisgrad is a choice-based game for two players. This is an unusual but venerable format – the first I’m aware of is the Duel Master series, first published 1986, which were sold as boxed sets of two books. The players in Duel Master were competing with one another, sometimes in asymmetric contexts (the second in the series, Blood Valley, is about a hero being Most Dangerous Game’d by a dark lord) and exchanged code keys in order to pass state information back and forth while keeping most of what they were doing secret.

At first glance, Last Night works kind of like this. You play leaders on opposite sides of a conflict in something roughly resembling 19th-century central Europe; a monarchist General who’s doing a revanche, and the recently-appointed Dictator whose Republic is crumbling under invasion. Your characters don’t directly interact at first; you each have your own narrative, which you read without sharing information until you come to a choice point, at which stage you exchange codes, input the code you’ve been given, and continue play. (I played over voice chat with the inimitable Astrid Dalmady.)

The first thing is that it starts out with a lot of wall-of-text. This means that you and your friend have planned to do this thing together, and now you’re sitting silently and reading instead of doing something together, but you’re reading kind of faster than ideal because you don’t want to make your friend wait around. The plot does start out with you already in the thick of the action, which is a solid choice, but even so, you get several choices deep before your characters are even aware of one another’s existence. And a lot of this isn’t necessary – the General gets several paragraphs of peroration about the mindsets of soldiers versus killers and what the attitude of a real hardened veteran is and blah blah blah, and like, I guess this fits in if I’m reading a fuckin’ Bernard Cornwell novel or whatever, but I’m not trying to fill time on a long plane flight, I’m playing a game with someone and would appreciate something much more tightly edited.

The thing here is that the Duel Master books were kind of, well, crunchy. They had maps you could traverse and re-traverse, inventories with spells and items that could be used (and expended) at many different points, combat systems. They had relatively brief text, partly because of the space constraints of a physical book but also because of the need for efficiency. The point of having a second player was so that you would have a Worthy Adversary, someone who you legitimately competed against and were trying to out-think. This wasn’t always very satisfying, in practice – the ratio of fiddly book-keeping and waiting around to actual Doing Shit wasn’t the best – but in theory there were actual, y’know, tactics. Last Night is not crunchy, and it isn’t really a tactics game. The Dictator always loses, and the game is mostly about the how rather than the if, about what sort of leader you’re willing to be: do you send in a surgical infiltration team to take key prisoners, or burn the whole Senate building to the ground? Do you offer your captive enemy terms or just have her shot? Are you willing to use your people as human shields? What terms are you willing to surrender under?

But the problem here is that ‘what are you willing to sacrifice’ doesn’t really feel like a weighty choice. The General always wins, so choosing to do so in a more brutal manner doesn’t feel like a cost-reward calculation so much as an aesthetic preference. The Dictator always loses, so why make terrible sacrifices to stave off the inevitable? And, OK, there are some consequences here – but those costs are all very hypothetical, offscreen costs, especially for the General. The King might be less happy about how I handled things. I might have to pay someone some money. Yeah, sure, but I don’t really know how much leeway I have with the King in the first place, or how easy it’ll be to round up that money, and it’s not going to matter within the scope of the game. The result is that the stakes feel very marginal and theoretical, and I felt pretty off-hand about choosing them.

There are several people other than the author credited with worldbuilding for this game, so I have my suspicions that this is a story set in an established shared world of some kind – my immediate thought was an RPG campaign world, but it could be other things. That kind of comports with the sense that the outcome of the conflict is mostly inevitable – this story has already been written and you’re filling in the details – but it really clicks with the sense that the stakes here are about the consequences of details that aren’t explored onscreen. 

There are definitely some advantages to this being a world that’s already well-fleshed-out; this does feel like a real place. Astrid said ‘this author definitely played Disco Elysium,’ and I’m not 100% on that, but it does have that sense of grimy post-disillusionment Europe.

So I’ve played quite a lot of gamebooks as a group activity, and in general it’s great, but it’s mostly great because of what you’re sharing. One person reads, and the rest yell commentary, heckle, discuss choices, gasp in horror, and the game doesn’t have to be good; in fact it’s pretty great if it’s terrible because that’s funnier, and you’re all in it together. When a narrative game asks you to play with someone else, but it also says you shouldn’t share information with the other players, I always feel immediate distrust – very often it’s one of those things which was in the designer’s original Vision, and at no point in the dev process did anybody ask them ‘hey, so, is this element actually contributing anything or are you just attached to it?’ Because, hidden information, if the gameplay doesn’t deeply rely on it, can cost you a great deal without adding very much. If I’m playing something multiplayer I want it to encourage talking with my friends! If what the other player is contributing is meant to be about the uncertainty of war – well, it would be pretty easy to make an AI player take their moves.

One of the big things that feels different between playthroughs: in some versions of the story your characters end up meeting face-to-face and having a conversation. And that’s kind of weird, because you’re just alternating handing off codes to someone and then going silent and reading, but it feels more fun because it’s more immediate, you have permission to peanut-gallery about it, it’s more social. I’d be interested in a whole game that was about this.

Here’s the other thing about playing with a partner: you’re a lot less likely to play exhaustively. If the game doesn’t absolutely grab both of you, you’re probably going to call it after one or two playthroughs, because – look, sometimes I’ll stick with a game I don’t love for longer than I think it deserves, but no way am I going to ask a friend to put up with that. In fucking around randomly on my own afterwards, I managed to find a scenario where the General can make some obviously-rubbish decisions and kind of get to a situation where he accepts a lacklustre victory that, from the Dictator’s perspective, is basically a good outcome. But if you’ve played a couple of games with one of you as General and one as Dictator, it’s probably going to look as though the only real thing you’re deciding is the details of how the Dictator gets her ass kicked, and that’s mostly up to the General. Which – if this is meant as a competitive, tactical game – isn’t much fun for either player, and especially not the Dictator. Well, OK, so probably this isn’t meant as a Fun Game about competitive tactics – but all of the choices you’re making are presented as tactical and strategic considerations, so it’s going to feel as though it is. Moment-to-moment, the General mostly gets to decide how much brutal suffering he wants to inflict, and the Dictator mostly gets told about how much of a failure she is, and – if you consider this as a role-playing game, an enacted thing rather than a static text, that kind of sucks, actually?

Another thing about exploring this solo: those walls of text, frankly, are a lot less obnoxious when you’re playing alone. And I think it’s kind of a major problem when a story reads better when not read in the intended manner. That suggests pretty strongly that the writing isn’t well-adapted to its format. This is perfectly capable as prose, but it’s not a good fit as game writing, at least for the particular game that it’s in.

Which, y’know, is OK? This is not a new form, by any means, but it’s not a heavily-explored one, and anything in this space is going to be something of an experiment. I think this would be an unusual thing to design for, and would in in particular present some special challenges for testing. I’m not sure that there’s a solution to the problems it’s poking up against – see also Aspel, I think, in the sense of small-group multiplayer IF where the multi-player part mattered without just becoming a MUD – but it’s an interesting challenge and I’m glad to see it explored.

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IF Comp 2021: The Mermaids of Ganymede

This game is not in any way a reference to Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan; rather, it’s a straightforward space-adventure story that has, y’know, actual space mermaids in it.

It’s divided into chapters; each chapter takes place in a different part of the setting, and each has a very different central interaction mechanic – and, honestly, a somewhat different tone and set of genre touchstones. The first chapter is about managing the mood of your small crew under difficult circumstances, in a SF spaceship-disaster situation which hasn’t quite established how Hard SF-ish it wants to go; things flirt with SF-horror before taking a hard turn into mid-C20th pulp adventure, and the second chapter is about exploring the fantastical dome city of the space mermaids, and mechanically is about getting item A, walking across town and giving it to an NPC to receive item B. (There are Babel fish.) When you leave the city you end up encountering the Evil Tentacle Queen, which, still pulpy, but now we suddenly are expected to have strong feelings about radical body modification, which is the Evil Tentacle Queen’s whole thing but hasn’t really been at issue before. And after that we’re in a submersible searching an iceberg for a lost human spaceship, and abruptly we’re very firmly in Subnautica territory, mood-wise, but mechanically we’re in a somewhat difficult maze.

There’s a lot of polish on this: an appropriate and inobtrusive soundtrack, lowkey but solid-feeling Twine customisation; this level of things feels robustly confident. There aren’t any bugs. At the level of implementing design, this is solid work. What feels lacking is a sense of that design having purpose.

That’s not entirely fair. The thing that this wants to do is to fit in an entire space-adventure plot of several acts into a comp-sized game. And it does that: there are characters who want things, an ambiguous villain, the plot proceeds from place to place and offers a couple of twists at the points you’d expect, things build to a climax. A story gets successfully told, which is an achievement, but if you asked me ‘what’s cool about this story?’ I’d struggle to come up with an answer. This is a work with a lot of competence and no brilliance.

So here’s what I mean. The second chapter has you wandering around the alien city, aimlessly at first but with a growing sense of needing to figure out a way to escape. The city isn’t a dazzlingly original creation – when I say it feels like golden-age pulp, the general sense is that it’s pretty much like a human city except some of its inhabitants are merfolk and crabs and some plants are palette-swapped for coral and it’s all mildly goofy without ever quite being funny. And, sure, that’s fine, but if you’re doing a whole sequence about exploring the city then the point of that is to give me some kind of feeling about the city, you know? Maybe it’s showing the mechanisms and effects of a utopia or dystopia, maybe it’s a window into a culture, maybe it’s an opportunity to describe the protagonist through their reactions, maybe it’s just about the aesthetics or the mood. But I came away from this sequence without any feelings about the city except ‘they sure are fish-people, hunh.’ In theory this section’s about escaping captivity, but I didn’t ever feel like there was much pressure about this. It’s just sort of there, filling up a block of the narrative. 

A lot of the key plot elements are action-adventure sequences, to do with fights and man-shark attacks and other kinds of physical risk. Exciting action sequences are always a bit of a challenge in pure-text games, and this one doesn’t really land it. The fighting is mostly taken care of by NPCs, and it’s often glossed over in ways that can make it feel as if nothing consequential really happened. This effect is particularly notable in the iceberg sequence, where the threat of sharks and stuff looming in the background is fairly effective, but if you screw up and they get you then it’s not a HOLY SHIT moment so much as an ‘oh, how annoying’ moment.

One thing this wants to care about, quite a lot, is its NPC cast: in particular, the three crew-members and the one mermaid who gets attached to them. The first chapter is centrally about interacting with them, and in a game whose central mechanic was NPC management, it’d be a decent start. The problem is that in the next three chapters they’re mostly absent or of minor relevance to what you’re doing, and then in the final chapter they matter again, and there’s kind of the expectation that you’ve grown strongly attached to these characters by now and care a great deal about what happens to them, when I absolutely hadn’t. Some of this is that we haven’t had time, and some is that the player-character is a faceless ageless gender-neutral etc., which makes it harder to develop interesting interpersonal dynamics. They’re more diverse than you’d expect of golden-age pulp, which I guess is nice? But… yeah, there’s a moment where you deliver a rousing speech about how great you think they all are, and it doesn’t feel like an earned moment. It feels like – and this is a really common problem – the author has spent enough time thinking about these characters that they’ve come to love and understand them, and that they’ve kind of assumed that the audience has developed that feeling too.

It’s absolutely possible that a stronger voice could have made this jump out, or woven all of these somewhat-disparate elements together. I also think it’s possible that a game not written for Comp length could have had the space to develop and maintain the elements that this sort of grazes briefly against – or, more likely, that a shorter, less discursive plot could have allowed more focus on any one thing. In general I think it’s preferable – especially within the limits of a comp-sized game! to be really good at a couple of things rather than OK at a lot of them. So this is probably in the 5-6 zone; solid, nothing I really hate about it, but also not really anything I could get enthusiastic about either.

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Cloud Gardens

Cloud Gardens is a game by any definition. If you’re someone who thinks that “games” describes something that’s inherently and centrally about challenge, progression, and victory states – then we are never going to agree on this, first of all. But the thing is, Cloud Gardens has got all those. They’re pretty conspicuous, even. They’re tools that it uses. What it doesn’t do is design around them as the point of games.

The thing you do in Cloud Gardens is to place objects inside little urban-wasteland scenes. You can place seeds, which attach themselves to the scenery, or bits of scrap – from tiny beer-bottles to road signs to entire cars or rooms. Some of the scrap bits also glue on, and some have gravity and collision physics and will drop into place, topple and roll around if not placed in a stable spot – and a lot of the levels are pretty vertical. Every piece of scrap has a radius of effect when placed, and plants within that radius grow a bit. Scrap bits destroy any sections of plant they directly touch when first placed, but after that plants can grow over or be planted directly onto them. When plants grow enough, they produce flowers and fruit which you can harvest for new seeds. To finish a level, or advance it to the next stage, you need a certain amount of plant cover.

This has the shape of a puzzle: you have limited resources (space, scrap, initial seeds) and have to make efficient use of them. You can make mistakes – trying to prop one car up on top of another, only to have it topple over and crush lots of plants. There are lots of games that play around with this kind of optimal-placement puzzle; the question of ‘I want each piece of scrap to affect as many plants as possible, but also I don’t want to put down too many plants and not leave room for future scrap’ is very familiar. The authors could have designed this as a tight little optimisation puzzle game.

But they very much didn’t. Every level of the game, despite being a confined space with finite resources, is really easy to overcome. The level-complete notification is pretty subtle – you can keep playing after it’s done – and often I didn’t notice I’d won until some time after. Most of the time you have way, way more than you needed by the end. Cloud Gardens isn’t a game about careful optimisation with scarce resources. You’re given way more scrap than you need to solve the level, which converts into way more seeds, which you multiply with yet more scrap. By the level’s end you usually have a space teeming with flowers and fruit that you never had to pick – there’s no score, no bonus for it, so you may as well go with whatever’s prettiest. This is a game about abundance.

Cloud Gardens feels like… when I was foraging wildfoods in bush Alaska, one of the fruits of late fall is the highbush cranberry. Highbush grows over a lot of the Pacific Northwest; it’s a straggly in-between plant, a very spindly sapling or a very sparse bush. There’s a lot of variation by local climate; the more rain, the more abundant and sweeter the fruit. (It’s always a bit too tart to eat in handfuls off the tree, but it’s the difference between pleasantly sharp and mouth-shriveling, drown-in-sugar-before-touching sharp). And in Yakutat it rains. I’d go out to gather and feel overwhelmed with the glut: every bush was heaving with more plump red berries than seemed plausible. I could pick more than needed with minimal effort; and there’s a special feeling there, the particular joy of this is so much, of ‘will this be enough’ being a distant speck in the rear-view mirror. 

There are rewards for progression, paced in a game-like manner: you start out with very few kinds of plant, quickly unlock a few more, and then gradually get others. Different plants have different strengths – the wisteria grows kinda small but has hanging flower vines that reach into open space, the ferns cover up surfaces indiscriminately but take a long time to produce, the broadleaf tree is big and slow-growing and offers lots of fruit. But these powers overlap a fair bit, such that there’s rarely an obviously correct plant for a particular spot, and that lets you treat this as an aesthetic choice. I often found myself wanting to exclude or emphasize particular plants to get a distinct feel for a level: putting down a cactus changes the whole mood. Which is a big part of how actual gardening works.

But only one part! A lot of gardening games look at gardening and decide that it’s mainly about diligence and patience: be sure to water all the things regularly, harvest at the right time, and so on. Do the small tasks of regular maintenance, over and over, dedicate time to them, and things will grow. That’s a critical quality for a real-world gardener; to be a good gardener you don’t just have to love green things and fresh produce, you have to love low-key grind. My mother’s like that; she really enjoys taking a chunk of her day to water and tend and monitor everything. It’s not a chore for her, it’s how she chills out; and she has a very lovely garden as a result. I love green things, but I don’t get much out of this part and do not stick well with it; and this, for a gardener, is an absolutely fatal flaw. But there are lots of other aspects of gardening, and a gardening game doesn’t have to focus on all of them.

 (I have yet to see a gardening game that’s mostly about considering sunlight, soil type and drainage, which to real-life gardens are as the law and the prophets. And I can’t picture what such a game would look like, beyond an opaque spreadsheet sim*.)

Cloud Gardens is concerned with the design part of gardening, the curation and arrangement, putting plants down in a particular way, thinking about how they’ll grow into the space – and then you just get to see that happen and be around the resulting green space, without any grind required. So as genre goes this is most obviously a Chill Game, right. (It’s got ambient music which you will absolutely not remember, but if you try to play it without the music it’ll feel like a strange lifeless experience.) But it’s a Chill Game which – okay, so often the question of player action seems like you have limited options. Either player activity is about Challenge, or it’s about perpetual grind, or it doesn’t really matter and it’s just click-to-continue, or it’s a directionless Creative Mode. And Cloud Gardens – is sort of a lichen, all and none and more than the sum of its parts, carving out its own odd little niche.

Aesthetics are a big deal here. It’s a game of little voxels; the author worked on Kingdom, which was similarly a pixel-art game heavily reliant on atmosphere and visual mood. The overall effect, though, is not a million miles from the original Myst. Calm artefact-worlds, small enough to fit in the palm of the hand, constructed in oddly-enjambed ways and then abandoned.

Part of that means that you are also, at times, doing some light architecture: sticking arches onto pillars, concrete slabs onto other concrete slabs, stacking boxy rooms into little towers. Taken purely on its technical qualities, this is kind of a weak element; the bits snap onto one another okay, but rotation can be a bit awkward, and the camera often doesn’t cooperate as nicely as it could, and – but this doesn’t matter too much, really. For one thing, there’s the Brutalist principle that you can make a really ungainly building made of weird bad shapes, and as long as you integrate a lot of plants into it, it’ll look great. Then – well, these are ruins, and unearthly ruins floating in a sea of mists at that, so it’s not jarring if your arrangement doesn’t entirely make sense.

A lot of gardening games are about taking untouched or neglected land and Improving it – which, in general, means clearance and irrigation, erasing everything distinctive about the land in order to make it suitable to plant anything you want. Here, you’re working in very anthropic environments; there’s no wilderness here, everything is a fragment of bridge or train-station. And you’re not converting city back to wilderness, not entirely; you keep throwing more garbage in there, rubber ducks and road-signs and rusted-out cars and broken cathode-ray TVs. And you’re doing so in ways that are useless to people; stairways get blocked because you need a place to pop down that table or that vending-machine, you jam down bench-seats across train-tracks because that’s where it’ll boost the most plants; the space has more and more man-made shit in it while getting less and less useful and comprehensible for human use. This, too, is abundance, but not in any economic sense. You’re not harvesting fruit for consumption or for money, just for more seeds, for the land itself. The only animals are the crows. Perhaps you’re making this world for them.

(* I honestly think Tropico‘s the closest here, which considers elevation, rainfall and (I think) something like fertility or soil richness for the productivity of farms? And I am told that Sakuna: Rice and Ruin has similarly fiddly systems for rice terroir.)

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The ‘semiosis’ part

In its initial development, before I showed it to anybody at all, Scents & Semiosis was really just a pretty text-generating toy. I make a lot of cool text-gen toys, and I wanted this to be a bit more than that, something that was played rather than passively absorbed.  I completely don’t remember how I got to the idea of selecting scent-notes to associate with meaning; it was part of that initial rush of design ideas that comes all a-tumble in the early life of a really exciting idea. But it was basically the last thing I put in place before I started reaching out to contributors. Continue reading

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Scents & Semiosis

scents-semiosisI made a game. It’s called Scents & Semiosis.

It’s a piece of interactive fiction about perfume, memory, and the process of assigning or re-evaluating personal symbolic associations with things: semiosis, the creation of meaning. I’ve been working on it for far too long, and – as is the wont of procgen pieces – it’s never going to be fully done, but it’s ready for public consumption.

A perfumer – someone fairly advanced in her field, with a peripatetic past – collects perfumes of particular significance, associated with specific memories. Periodically, she goes through the collection, remembering, throwing out no-longer-important ones, re-assessing what others mean. You get to see her past only as fragments; it’s not a methodical biography. It’s a reflective, relaxing kind of piece – not strictly reflective in the mechanical sense, but not a piece where challenge is important.

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IF Comp 2019: The good people

pseudavidThe good people (Pseudavid, Twine) is a piece of horror, or of horrific magic realism. A couple, Alice and Daniel, take their first holiday together; they are from different cultures, and the relationship is coming under its first real strain. They are visiting a ruin, a village once inhabited by Daniel’s ancestors, that was flooded by the construction of a reservoir and newly revealed by global warming-induced drought – and this has awoken a supernatural horror. Continue reading

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IF Comp 2019: Black Sheep

Black Sheep (Nic Barkdull and Matt Borgard, Twine) is a cyberpunk mystery. Your father – head of a Singularity-focused corporation with a cult following – has died, and your sister has been kidnapped. The protagonist, Irene, is (despite a fake-out opening) not a PI, but is obliged to act like one.

Structurally, it’s a mystery plot on a timer: you can travel between different areas, but doing so advances your limited time, so the puzzle is not just about uncovering the clues, but doing so efficiently. In theory this is a nice compromise between making time pressure part of the plot and allowing the player time to explore – Heaven’s Vault does something similar – but it’s still set up to be challenging.

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IF Comp 2019: Flight of the CodeMonkeys

codemonkeys.pngFlight of the CodeMonkeys (Mark C. Marino) is a cyberpunk-resistance story rendered in the Jupyter Notebook platform for Python coding. You’re a codemonkey, a peon making edits to obfuscated code that, apparently, runs your dystopian society. You interact by editing snippets of that code.

This is not really a novel idea, but it’s a challenging one to make work, and it’s something of an accomplishment that this is playable by people not fluent in Python and still works as a story. Continue reading

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