Comp 2014: Hill 160

hill160Hill 160 is a historical-fiction parser game set in the trenches of the First World War.

Judging by the walkthrough, it is a game of substantial size; I was unable to get very far in it, however, and by the time I got stuck had already bypassed a good deal of (optional?) content that’s mentioned in the walkthrough. There’s one tester listed – which I think is not enough for any game at all, and definitely not for a parser game of this size and complexity.

The writing in Hill 160 does not inspire confidence: it feels like a haphazard jumble of history tropes rather than an individual’s experience.

Was it only over a year ago? All the razzamatazz, all the hero marching, over by Christmas they said. You’d been in that bloody factory since the age of 14, gone through all the strikes and misery of the early 1900’s now. There seemed a way out. At least you’d get fed and there was the glory of England to fight for. Oh, how merrily you marched away to the depot, not knowing whether or not you’d come home to a hero’s welcome and a chest full of medals or become another statistic of the first world conflict in history.

‘Become a statistic’ is not a WWI-era phrase; this particular sense of ‘a statistic’ dates from 1939. Now, I certainly don’t expect that historical fiction should completely eliminate modern terms and phrases (and the author states that this isn’t an aim), but obviously-modern-feeling phrases can be jarring, particularly if the author’s otherwise making efforts to emulate contemporary voice. And an inattention to it can often signal a lack of attention to use of language in general – which is definitely an issue with this game.

At the level of paragraphs and sentences, the writing structure is generally kind of a chaotic mess. Sometimes this kind of works for the chaotic, messy situation it’s describing, but it’s verbose and shapeless stuff:

Road to the Battlefield
This rutted road, for want of a better word, leads and winds towards the front lines. No road is straight out here, they snake and twist round shell holes, they bridge deep mud, there are duckboards all over the place and it also has gaps in it, making the soldiers have to dodge round and return back to the road again. Another road leads west to a roadside camp and cafe. Sergeant Major Grant and your platoon are here.

While the language is not a strong point, there’s a lot of attention dedicated to historical detail, to the point where it’s often overwhelming:

You open your backpack revealing:
a blanket, a bayonet, a spare pair of socks, a singlet, a bunch of underwear, a mess kit, a shovel, a canteen, a bunch of sweets, a powder jar, a cigarette tin, a cigarette lighter, a boot laces, a bunch of spare buttons, a spool of thread, a needle, some safepins, a bar of soap, a toothbrush, a pair of wirecutters, a gas mask, twelve grenades, twelve ammo clips and twelve shotshells.

We talk a fair bit about the potential for parser IF as a thing similar to diorama or living history; the actual games that fit this category, however, are rather thin on the ground. (Doing it well adds ‘historical researcher’ to the already substantial skillset required of an IF author.) This piece is obviously focused on the details of recreating a specific historical era, but it’s trying to do a great deal all at once, and in a game context, a lot of the elements are in conflict with one another. The diorama effect (lots of researched details to peruse at leisure) feels strongly at odds with the experiential, action-driven effect (chaos, confusion, suffering, random death).

The game’s direction is frequently confusing. You’re offered a number of pointers about what to do next, but they’re decidedly erratic; they’re sometimes very specific about the next thing you need to do, sometimes leave you hanging entirely, and sometimes appear to suggest something that you’ve already completed or that isn’t possible yet. At times the correct sequence of actions is very tightly controlled and if you veer off it you die; at others you can backtrack or hunt around, and these don’t always correspond very clearly with what’s happening in the narrative. You have a bewildering number of inventory items, which require fiddly management and don’t always behave in ways you’d expect (CUT WIRE WITH WIRECUTTERS didn’t work in a situation where the wire seemed to be the problem.) Similarly, there are a modestly large number of NPCs, who blurt out character-summary dialogue and then lapse into silence. Objects can only be examined once, for no very clear reason.

By the time I got stuck, I figured that if I was going to get anywhere at all, I would probably have to follow the walkthrough very closely – and then I saw the size of the walkthrough, and balked.

The game kills you rather a lot. Which is fair enough for a game set in the trenches of WWI, but it often kills you for reasons that could be better-explained in context, and sometimes for buggy reasons, and sometimes apparently at random. I was killed for forgetting my rifle when I was carrying it (the game wanted me to be wearing it). Parser responses often give contextually-misleading responses when you try something that the game doesn’t expect you to do yet – which is a particular problem because the game is both pretty damn large and offers erratic direction.

This is clearly a labour of love, and has big ambitions; but it’s also the least playable game I’ve played in the comp thus far.

Score: 2

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One Response to Comp 2014: Hill 160

  1. Pingback: IF Comp 2014: Hill 160 (Mike Gerwat) | Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling

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