Introcomp 2014: The Devil in the Details

The Devil in the Details, by Jerry Ford, is… weird. It has certain very strong preoccupations – which is a good thing in the abstract, but they’re deployed in ways that kind of confuse the central plot and make for awkward gameplay. In order not to get confused myself, I’m going to divide this review into sections.

The Map

The first and most obvious interest of the game is San Francisco. The game’s opening establishes relatively little information about the player or their motivations, but a precisely specified San Francisco setting, down to the cross-street.

The map is made up of very specific locations within the city, described in detail that is informative but not very evocative. We’re offered a certain amount of local history and a very great deal of relative geography, but little that summoned up any kind of image. A lot of exits that you can’t actually take are described as part of the effort of verisimilitude, and many areas are seemingly accessible before you can do anything with them.

Intersection of Coleridge and Eugenia

The intersection of Coleridge and Eugenia, where the Bernal Hieghts neighborhood starts to rise up from the Mission. You can go downhill from where you stand, to the northwest, in the direction of the roiling fog bank, where Eugenia Ave. T-bones into Mission Street.

Or, you can go the other direction, to the southeast and follow Eugenia up over the hill.

Or, you can go up the steps (on the other side of the street) to the entrance of an apartment building facing Coleridge.

At 84 words, that’s a reasonable length for a room description. But almost all of that space is dedicated to geographical relationships – we’re told a lot about where we can go, but very little about where we are. Connections are mechanically important, but a list of directions is not very interesting on its own.

I’m very much in favour of games with real-world settings which the author is familiar with (or has extensively researched), and San Francisco is a potentially compelling setting, but Devil is not currently using this to its full advantage; for a game that’s strongly focused on its setting, I don’t get much sense of the atmosphere or aesthetics of the place. It doesn’t summon up much of an image. The snarks about the town are the ones that everyone knows about San Francisco – housing is insanely expensive, there is fog sometimes, the summers are cool*.

It’s possible that the author’s local familiarity is working against him here – that for him, the combination of ‘Bernal Heights’ and ‘the Mission’ summons up a particular set of associations and images. But that won’t be true for most readers.

Also, it’s possible that this game is meant to be played with map in hand, but the abundance of red-herring exits – real-world streets that are mentioned but not accessible – made it a lot harder for me to form a mental image of the map and navigate it smoothly.

Accents

Oh dear me. Certain NPCs are rather wordy, almost every NPC speaks in dialect, and the dialects are… rather heavily rendered.

“Damn, chile,” an elderly black woman says, “come on inside here out’da cold.”

So, okay. I am very fond of dialectical narration – Riddley Walker, Trainspotting, Lost Pig, that kind of thing – but when it comes to dialect in speech it’s generally much better to use restraint.  The first questions you want to ask yourself when rendering dialect are ‘is this dialect one that I could speak naturally and with confidence?’ (because if you get it wrong you will look stupid) and then ‘is it a dialect associated with historically oppressed groups?’ (because if you handle it disrespectfully you will look like a bigot).

The most prominent annoying accent, that of Lucy, is… not clear. Maybe it’s meant to be Southern belle? Maybe New England aristocracy? Which is less skeevy, but it doesn’t add to the character to write, say, ‘here’ as ‘heah’: it makes her feel as though she’s being played by an actor who is trying a bit too hard to affect an accent. That doesn’t add depth: it just makes your work harder to take seriously.

To be clear: it’s good for characters to have distinctive voices. But if you’re not writing an outright farce, it’s important to be subtle about it. Distinctive voices, including dialect, are possible with standard orthography.

Temptation

Early in the game, the PC is offered a demonic contract. The temptress, the subtly-named Lucy, is not so much tempting as really annoying. Apart from the questionable accent, she has a severe case of logorrhoea.

A problem with temptation scenes: they need to be convincing. If Lucifer’s offer and the victim’s assent don’t come across as plausible, the story fundamentally doesn’t work. This means that, in order to write a good temptation scene, you need to be an excellent advocate for the Devil.

This often comes apart, because often the purpose of temptation scenes is religious propaganda, where the overall point of the story is that demonic temptation is a) a real thing that happens and b) a very bad thing that should be rejected outright. The author often balks at the necessary job of making Satan look good, and goes straight to the goal of making him look bad – with the result that his ability to successfully tempt anybody who is not a blithering idiot becomes implausible. (A principle of horror: if the monster can only get you when you split up to explore the basement, it’s not very horrifying.)

To some extent I think we’re meant to find Lucy an effective temptress because she’s attractive (she doesn’t gender-switch when the player does, natch). Writing female characters whom the viewpoint character finds attractive is difficult, has a lot of pitfalls and is important to get right; this is not a strong effort. For a start, this is text, so what a character says and does is generally going to be a relatively bigger deal than their physical description. (Maybe someone out there is into controlling, prolix women with affected accents. I’d be willing to bet it’s a minority preference.)

Tall, slender, with long wavy black hair pulled back into a pony tail, Lucy exudes elegance and beauty. Her full lips are colored with crimson lip gloss. She wears a luscious white silk blouse with a dark marroon scarf around her throat. Black wool slacks over her long slender legs. She wears silver sandals with six inch heels. She is, in a word, gorgeous, you think silently, mouth slightly open in awe.

She exudes elegance and beauty. All over the carpet, too; hurry up and put down some towels. (Rant about ‘exudes’ excised for briefness.)

So this is an image, sure. It’s not a very distinctive image, and – more importantly – it’s not a very alive one. It feels like a post-it note saying ‘cast a model for this role.’ It’s sort of business-casual plus a bit of mainstreamy fetish – crimson lips, stripper heels – but this is just a fashion plate. We get mentions of her conventionally attractive attributes, but very little that picks her out as an individual. We get nothing about her face, except as a vehicle for lip gloss. So not very much sticks in the memory other than a handwavy sense of model-hot: which doesn’t count for much against the stuff she’s actually doing. There’s a disconnect here, because the stuff Lucy does is active, even frenetic. But the description doesn’t show us any of that – no movement, posture, mannerisms, expressions.

*

Devil in the Details solves the problem of Lucy being the world’s worst temptress by not letting you say no for Game Reasons.

I think of this as a Three Bears choice, due to a game from my very distant childhood. ‘Goldilocks is missing,’ the game opened, ‘do you want to help the Three Bears find her?’ This was a implausible departure from canon, and Goldilocks and the Three Bears were baby stuff, so in spite of being kind of a goody-goody kid I said no. ‘Of course you want to help,’ said the game. This is bullshit, I thought, albeit not in those words. What was the point of even asking me that?

Obviously the choice to be tempted is necessary to the plot here, but the point of a temptation scene is that the choice is real and important, that the tempted character can and should refuse. If the protagonist were more strongly characterised, more distinct from the player, it might be another matter – but this is a choose-your-name-and-gender character. If Lucy were genuinely persuasive rather than overbearing and irritating, it would be more reasonable to say, okay, if the player refuses here then they’re just being obstructionist. But given all this, it seems to me that a better place to start the story would be immediately after you signed the contract, rather than going through the motions beforehand.

Clothing

In most interactive fiction, clothing is unimportant and unmentioned. We are not meant to assume that the player is naked just because they don’t have clothes mentioned or listed in their inventory: rather, we’re meant to take this as an indication that our clothes aren’t all that important. When it is mentioned, it’s most often a minor flavour point, the inventory equivalent of a piece of scenery.

This is not the case with Devil. The very first puzzle has to do with your clothes: INVENTORY does not actually include items that are in your pockets, as you might reasonably expect. (This took me exactly 100 turns to figure out, because of the aforementioned vague motivation and focus on the setting – I thought that the first thing I needed to do was take the bus.) Things like the following, which I had previously tried, didn’t help:

>search pocket
Which do you mean, the right pocket or the left pocket?
>both
The pocket is empty.
>search pants
Cargo pants contains nothing of interest.

That second command features the sort of helpful guess that is actually not all that helpful. See also:

>x graffiti
(x traffic)
You can’t see the traffic.

When it comes to accomodating actual typos, this behaviour is very helpful: but it’s quite aggressive in its guesses, and often guesses wrong. (This may be more to do with the platform than the game itself.)

Later, there’s a creepy scene in which you change your clothes. Lucy fusses around while you’re doing this, shutting drawers before you’re done with them, taking unused clothes away, telling you where to stand and generally making the whole exercise more difficult. There appears to be a random generator for the styles of underwear you can acquire. When your outfit doesn’t pass muster, it often (but not always) doesn’t tell you why. If you’re not standing on the rug, you can’t open the wardrobe or drawers. If you’re already wearing clothes but no shoes, you’re not allowed into the wardrobe to look for more. I came very, very close to ragequitting. I’m really kind of confused about the purpose of this sequence; it’s fussy and overdetailed, and never yielded an outfit that I really wanted.

Some of this, perhaps, is meant to be helpful, but it also feels as though a lot of it is compensating for weaknesses in the world model.

Clothing-selection puzzles aren’t inherently terrible – there’s a great one in Pinched, for instance. But here the main effect is to be super-annoying, and it’s not obvious what the intended purpose is. Is it meant to suggest the decadent abundance of clothing options available to the newly demon-contracted? (If so, why the leopard-print underwear and Hawaiian shirts – isn’t the dark side meant to have all the good style options, together with the best tunes?) Why does Lucy have to micromanage this part of my demonic-lackey duties while being impossibly vague on everything else?

Putting on briefs crashes the game. Evidently Satan favours boxers.

>take briefs
You reach down and pick up a pair of black cotton briefs with a leopard spotted design.
Lucy looks over at the dresser and furrows her brows. “I thought I closed all the drawers,” she mutters to herself as she pushes the open drawer closed.
>wear briefs
Runtime error: nil object reference

Do I want to continue playing? So far, my experience has been wracked by frustrating design, and the content skeeves me out in places. I wouldn’t really want to continue playing this without a major overhaul. It’s an unusual and interesting mess, which I would want to figure out if it was in better shape, but it’s such a mess that I don’t know how likely that is.

Great Evil: Severe. The release notes call the game an alpha, and no testers are credited. The gameplay is awkward and overfussy about certain things; while a good deal of thought has gone into helping the player, this assistance often gets in the way more than it helps. There is a general lack of direction. There are many typos. In the scene where you’re mugged, I could avoid the mugger by ignoring him for a while and then getting off the bus.

Little Evil: When demonic temptation is at the heart of a story, the obvious question is what it indicates in terms of narrative goals. Demonic contracts are such a stock figure in Western art that their presence doesn’t necessarily suggest any kind of religious purpose: it might be meant as a Christian parable, but it might as easily be a satire about the rent being too damn high, or any number of things. I’d have liked to get some clearer signals about this by the intro’s end. Part of the deal here is that I don’t really trust any given element to have a purpose: is the overly complex costume-change scene meant to signify anything, or did the author just think ‘hey, at this point in the story the PC should get some spanky new duds’ and then get excessively wrapped up in implementing it?


* I call bullshit on this one. People from places that have delightfully mild weather seem more given to complaining about it than anywhere else, and San Francisco is the absolute worst contender for this. Rule of thumb: if you can grow citrus trees, you don’t get to complain about cool summers.

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3 Responses to Introcomp 2014: The Devil in the Details

  1. cendare says:

    Re: clothing being unmentioned and assumed, there is a game out there where the secret way to win involves the player intuiting that they are wearing clothing that can be manipulated. It was written specifically to be unsolvable. (Just a tangential remark.) I’d name it here but of course that’s a big spoiler.

  2. Miguel says:

    SF gets freakin’ cold at all times of year because it’s right on the water, and the ocean breeze comes in. Speaking as a Texan who lived in California for a while about 70 miles inland from SF and was often taken by surprise when I traveled there and forgot to bring a windbreaker and wear pants instead of shorts.

  3. Rain Watson says:

    Citrus trees don’t actually do well in San Francisco.

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