IntroComp is a long-running interactive fiction mini-competition with a straightforward premise: create the opening of an IF game, and then people vote based on how much they want to see the game finished. (Full disclosure: I’m married to the IntroComp organiser.)
Walker’s Rift (Hope Chow): A Choicescript urban fantasy in an East Asian-ish setting. Because it’s an urban-fantasy setting, of course the protagonist’s job is some variant of Paranormal Troubleshooting.
An East Asian urban fantasy setting is, on the face of it, pretty appealing. Give me a writer who cares as much about Singapore or Shanghai as China Miéville does about London and I am down. And the writing here has some obvious strengths: a good eye for setting detail, for one. But I don’t think that this is currently putting its best foot forward. The opening just isn’t very grabby, either in terms of building investment in the setting or in terms of getting to the compelling parts of the action.
These are related problems! Establishing the stuff that the audience needs to know about setting is always tough, and it can bog your pacing down; there’s a reason why most Choicescript games situate themselves unambiguously close to a well-known genre, and why they often encapsulate the Essential Coolness Of What This Game’s About in a big splashy cold open.
Action-wise, the game takes a long time in getting to the punchy stuff. Too much of it has the feel of Routine Police Work. There’s a fair amount of Boring Bureaucracy, and it comes in the worst possible place – right at the beginning. There’s a series of scenes – where you’re following up with people who’ve been affected by Paranormal Stuff – which all feel very similar. You visit a person. You establish that they have the same symptoms as the first person you visited. They’re cagey and don’t tell you much. And this gets repeated four times – which is, in all probability, very much how actual investigative work tends to go, but in dramatic terms is really boring. When you frame a scene, you always need to ask – how does this move the plot along? What new information or complications does it add? Perhaps these characters will get developed further as the story progresses, but ‘introduce a new character’ isn’t enough to justify a scene on its own.
Then, just as the Cool Part comes to light – this is the result of some kind of monster! it has a name! we finally we get to find out what the deal is with monsters! the intro cuts out. This is not an awesome place to leave off: if I’m going to get excited about being a badass monster hunter, I need to see some badass monster hunting! I get that the idea is that you’re meant to be drawn in by the mystery, but mystery is only engaging if the reader knows enough to have some idea about the possibility-space. I see a lot of writers who try to grab people with mystery by hardly showing them anything – no, that’s not it at all, you’ve got to show them enough stuff that they’re able to make interesting guesses.
I get the sense that the author has dedicated a lot of attention to this setting, but by the time I reached the end of the intro I was still kind of hazy about things. What does monstrous activity normally look like? Is this string of incidents routinely weird, or extraordinarily weird? Why are we spending paragraphs on office minutiae – which are boring in every corner of the world?
The setting is delivered by starting out in the middle and letting the reader discover stuff about the world as it becomes relevant. This is a legit method, but it relies on cultivating your audience’s trust – and there are enough small infelicities in the game that I couldn’t really feel sure about that. Early on the game talks about how the PC is on their fourth cup of coffee – but later on there’s an option that seems to determine whether they’re a coffee-drinker at all. There’s a choice which makes you completely ignore the main plot and end the game – which is bad enough, but it’s not clear that this is what you’re doing. There’s some inconsistency as to whether you’re an important government figure or a little-regarded functionary. The accumulation of small points like this makes it harder to feel assured that the big things are taken care of.
The typical narrative arc of a Choicescript game makes them a tough option for intros. Choicescript’s delayed-branching idiom generally means that in the early game most of your choices have little or no immediate impact on the story; instead, they accumulate to produce results or unlock options in the middle or late game. When most of the player’s agency is long-term, it’s hard to show it in the short-term. That said, I didn’t get much of a sense of how this is likely to operate. There are eight stats, and my impression is that this is more than are really getting used. How is Charisma different from Rapport? Why are Health and Fatigue tracked separately? More to the point, is the player going to be able to intuit the distinction? Yet more to the point, are they distinctions that the author is really interested in exploring?
So: this is a story that has some things I’m pretty interested in, but it could use a lot of tightening up in order to draw out its strengths.