IF Comp 2014: Transparent

transparent

Transparent (Hanon Ondricek) is an I7 parser game, a horror piece in the well-beloved explore-the-house genre.

Transparent kicks off as a very traditional kind of IF: a little-characterised outsider explores an abandoned mansion. You’re a photographer working as part of a faux-reality ghost-hunter TV show; you’re looking for the rest of the crew, or something, but this motive is not strongly pushed, because Explore Spooky House is the point. There’s a map early on in the game, and it’s large: not Hadean Lands large, but enough to serve as a clear signal that this is not the kind of game you should expect to breeze through.

The house is dark, and in order to fix fuseboxes and find light-switches you need to rely on your camera flash – but the flash keeps revealing ghostly hints of the mansion’s past. Also revealed by the flash are assorted horror-movie vignettes with no particular motivation: the art on the walls is missing, and the frames are holes behind which a giant face peers through. It’s a consciously movie-like device: we’ve all seen movies where a ‘subliminal’ horrific image pops up and is gone too quickly to make out, or where erratic light momentarily reveals something in the shadows, or where the monster strikes somewhere between two flashes of a strobe. This is accompanied by horror-movie sound effects: creaking doors, chirping insects, ominous rumbles.

It didn’t work for me, for a number of reasons. Firstly, the key to horror is pacing, and the device as it stands makes for good pacing in the miniature, but terrible pacing at the grand scale. The camera-flash thing is a gimmick – a gimmick which would have been neat if it had been used once. The first time, it’s appropriately eerie: flash, a detail of furniture, flash what the fuck was that? flash there’s the light-switch, and you hurry to make the room safe. But having to use it to find the light-switch in every room takes much of the drama out of it. Yup, here’s my quota of horror-house scares, can we please get on with things?

Worse for pacing: the set of possible scares is tied to the individual room, and appears to be randomised; the house is not very heavily gated and you’re not otherwise directed. This means that once the fusebox is fixed, the game has very little influence over the sequence of scare events – and they vary substantially in intensity. Modulating the degree and kind of revelation and threat is vital to horror narrative; Transparent takes that tool and throws it out of the window. What I think was needed here is either more directed play, or some kind of drama-manager, a system to track and modulate the intensity of the horror.

To put it in more concrete terms: the first spooky revelation I got was in the cellar, of grave-pits dug in the dirt floor. That’s not a bad first glimpse: it’s unnerving, but the kind of thing that you could easily mistake given the circumstances. The second thing was a full-on poltergeist event, complete with sound, with rattling, smashing china. That’s a big deal. Picture a movie scene where the protagonist encounters that: you’d expect bulging eyes, backing-away, hands raised to protect the face. Screaming is a distinct possibility. I was unnerved by this scene – but afterwards, nothing had changed. My goals and method of play were continued as before. There was no new information, no new attitude.

The problem is exacerbated because the delivery is low-affect: the AFGNCAAP-y character isn’t shown reacting to any of this stuff. That’s a valid design strategy, to be clear. It’s completely feasible for horror IF to work beautifully without ever describing the PC’s most important reactions. But if this is to work, the player’s reactions must fill in for the player-character’s. The careful build of horror becomes even more important.

I dunno. Procedural output is a harsh mistress.

>flash
The camera flash reveals, for an instant, a naked, dark-haired young man with heavy black chains wrapping his dripping wet body.

>flash
The camera flash reveals, for an instant, a tiffany lamp.

Here, you have a juxtaposition that’s deflating, almost comedic – one minute things are SOOOO GOTH and the next you’re focused on an object that’s a byword for bourgeois bad taste. That has the potential to be a great cool-down moment – if it had been scripted then it could have played up the contrast, and even randomly it could have been a nice emergent moment if I had had been more invested in the game. But by this point I had lost all trust in the Random Spookiness having any structure or sense. These were just horror-house scares: they didn’t signify any threat. That sequence came off as a sign of the random output being tone-deaf.

A more mechanical problem is that many of the spooky descriptions – like the giant face mentioned above – assume knowledge of the room that the player doesn’t necessarily have yet.

*

In a number of other respects, I strongly felt that the game wasn’t done yet. Some of this was to do with implementation and text-presentation issues, but they felt relatively minor compared to the need for rewrites. Very often I felt that the author had a gorgeously Gothic image in mind, but was struggling to deliver that image in the kind of language the image deserved. I’m going to dissect the opening lines, because that is how I do.

You park the van at the location at the end of the GPS arrow and shut off the ignition.

This is not a bad place to open a story – arrivals are fine – but oy, redundancy. Parking typically involves shutting the ignition off; if you leave the engine running, that’s worth mention, but otherwise – unless switching off the engine has some deep contextual significance – forget it. ‘At the location | at the end of | the GPS arrow’ would carry the same meaning without ‘location’.

This must be the place. There’s nothing else like it around for miles.

That’s fine, though the ‘else’ and ‘around’ could be dropped without losing anything.

You slide your way down from the warmth of the driver’s seat and slam the door, shrugging your coat around you securely against the chill of the late afternoon sunset.

No. If it’s sunset, it’s no longer afternoon: it’s evening. I thought that the idea here was that it’s midwinter and sunset comes early – but then later we get an insect song effect, and where on earth do you get insect song in winter? This aside, this continues the pattern of somewhat over-full sentences; ‘securely’ was the point at which I really felt the pudding was over-egged.

Nothing but the highest bluish-gray roof tiles of the Thorne estate peers at the outside world above the overgrowth of trees surrounding the manor. Also, a ten-foot wall of roughly-mortared red bricks topped with ornamental iron spikes surrounds the property, establishing the border in castle-like fashion.

‘The highest bluish-gray roof tiles of the Thorne estate’ is a somewhat cumbersome noun phrase all on its own, and its position in the sentence makes this worse. It confuses the sentence, because in spite of comprising a big chunk of it, it isn’t the grammatical subject, and it divides the subject from the verb. But it is the non-grammatical subject, the thing that the sentence is actually concerned with. To its credit, it does end up painting a picture, but the style is a distraction from that picture. This happened a number of times in the game’s room descriptions: I’d read them, then frown a bit and read again because the picture in my head clearly wasn’t quite right.

*

I played the game until I managed to crash it. (Going OUT while standing in the crib, which is the kind of containment issue parser authors loathe.) I really didn’t feel like starting over.

Looking at the notes, it seems as though the game was conceived as very open-world: there are four ways to end the game, and none of them are very clearly signposted, so my sense is that the intended experience was to wander around poking at stuff. There are hints of survival-horror, too, in the resources that threaten to run out – a flickery flashlight, a camera flash with limited battery – but without a palpable sense of threat, these were annoyances more than causes for anxiety.

Other reviewers mentioned photographing objects as a major element – and now that I look, it’s mentioned in the notes. But I don’t recall it ever being flagged up as a thing to do in-game. Very likely this is due to something I overlooked early on – but when things are more open, you need to do more work to educate the player.

My general sense is that with more consistent signposting, some polish on the writing and implementation, and a little more attention to nurturing horror at the larger scale, this could be a damn good game: there’s a lot of strong imagery in here. In its current shape, I didn’t find it a very compelling experience.

Score: 5

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One Response to IF Comp 2014: Transparent

  1. Pingback: IF Comp ’16: Fair. | These Heterogenous Tasks

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