Introcomp ’16: Astronomical Territories, Narrows, Deviled Kegs

Introcomp is a regular minicomp for the beginnings of interactive fiction games, now in its fifteenth year. (Disclaimer: I am married to the Introcomp organiser.)

Like the Spring Thing, it has historically been a very variable bag. Sometimes it has been used as a launching-board for already-substantial works-in-progress like Cryptozookeeper; sometimes you see the opening sections of really hefty works like The King of Shreds and Patches or Scroll Thief. And on the other hand, sometimes you get half-implemented skeletons of prototypes of ideas from first-time authors. Like many minicomps, a lot of its value lies in offering a compact version of the release process, with the added benefit that you don’t have to come up with an idea tight enough to work at that scale.

Introcomp games are rated on one question: how much do I want to keep playing this game? A lot of Introcomp games go just as far as demonstrating that the author has an initial idea, when what I’m really looking for is evidence of the development of that idea. If you just want to pitch the premise of a game, an intro is honestly not all that good a way to do it. An intro’s most useful for giving the player some direct familiarity with what the actual experience of playing your game might be like.

Astronomical Territories of the Great British Empire (G_G)

A very short intro, playable in a minute or less. It manages to nail down quite a lot in that time, however: it’s going to be steampunk-in-space. The opening and prose style have a certain Choice of Games-y flavour about them: quickly-established worldbuilding, flat-affect prose, a blandly undefined protagonist who seems likely to be player-defined later on.

So it broadly establishes a setting hook, but it doesn’t go very far towards suggesting where the player character fits in with the world, what the action will involve, what kinds of conflict the story focuses on, how broadly-branching the plot-structure. I don’t have much sense of whether the author knows, either: it seems likely that we’ll end up traveling to some planets in a steampunky spaceship, but that’s about all I can guess. Really, this felt very much like the author saying, “Hey, I have this cool setting, would you like me to make some kind of game in it?” rather than the intro to a particular game.

Narrows (G_G)

Another very short intro by the same author; in which, it’s implied, a traveler along an English canal will end up getting involved in dark local spookiness of some kind.

You grab a jacket, your wallet, phone and head off along the tow path to Mayweed Nook. As you walk you ocassionally spot the surface water on the canal disturbed by fish as they surface to feed. The birds are singing with joy tonight, and a swift tears into view, drinking for an instant as it skims the canal. Passing The Hounds’ Bolt, you continue on for fifteen more minutes. You find the exit from the towpath as described in the guide book and follow its winding path for another ten minutes between lush green oaks until you come to a clearing – your destination.

A story set in riverside England is basically something I’d love to see, and this is clearly prose that wants to evoke a strong sense of setting. But it doesn’t really accomplish this, and it took me a while to figure out why not.

First of all, it seems kind of tunnel-visionish; there isn’t much of a sense of what’s around you, and I say this as someone who has spent a great deal of time around British waterways, pubs and wooded corners, and could reasonably be expected to infer things. We see the fish in the canal, but we don’t have much sense of what’s on either side of canal and towpath. When we hear about the lush green oaks, we haven’t really got any sense that there was a wood coming up – is this dense woodland, open parkland, a copse?

Overprecision often gets in the way of establishing tone and mood. The precise times – fifteen minutes, then another ten minutes – might be important plot points later on, or they might not, but they give the impression of someone checking their watch anxiously every few minutes, not someone taking a relaxed evening stroll.

Lack of personal resonance. We don’t know very much about the protagonist, and there’s not much of them reflected in the landscape. British landscape writing is too old, huge and well-developed a genre for me to understand it completely enough to generalise securely, but: it is largely about the meaning of the land, which is to say its resonance for the observer. To reveal the land you must be willing to reveal something of yourself.

And, OK, some individual phrases just aren’t very good. The bit with the swift works well, but “the birds are singing with joy” feels like artificial Victorian sentimentality, a recycled phrase that doesn’t illuminate its subject. Similarly, the ‘winding path’ – it’s OK to use stock phrases, but they’re always going to be in a support role; it’s awfully hard to base an evocative description on them.

Deviled Kegs (Mo)

A piece of detective SF in a space-opera-ish setting: there are human-like empath aliens, and the action takes place on a resort space-station. You’re a detective-type person investigating the murder of one of these empaths at a brewing competition. (The empath aliens are also master brewers).

The advantage of detective fiction is that it gives you a protagonist who’s an outsider, but who has an impeccable motive to go snooping around and asking questions. And the detective’s focus is quite narrow: they care about the case first, and only need to start thinking about the broader context as it becomes relevant. So it’s well-suited to unpacking your setting one piece at a time, which is always a challenge in SFF.

Here’s the opening paragraph:

An enormous crystal vat stands in the center of the Quanto Hotel restaurant on Space Station Rinktis. The vat is twice your height and about 6 meters across. Beer the color of clover honey fills it to capacity.

Little bits of silver float through the bubbles, glimmering under the bright lights.

There’s an odd combination here: mostly this favours specifics over style, but there are a few capable nods to aesthetics. It’s more information than is really needed right away – it could have dropped the second line, relying on ‘enormous’ until the precise measurements became more relevant to the action.

One of the reasons why I’d really like to see a little more of the game here is that the mystery genre is a Big Unsolved Problem in IF generally, one that’s been extensively explored without anybody completely nailing it. A mystery protagonist has to be very active, and not just in the way that an action hero is active; they have to be intellectually active, analysing the evidence and creating answers out of it. This, the heart of the genre, is really hard to turn into a game – especially if it’s a single-player computer game; lots of approaches have been tried, aimed at giving you some of the experience. So: is this going to be a clue-hunt? An ‘interview the suspects and look for inconsistencies in their statements’ thing? Is solving the case going to require the player to understand it, or are they just along for the ride?

So my trouble with all three of these games, to be honest, is that they feel like a game demo which ends after the opening cutscenes. But the thing I want to know from a game intro – and the thing I really want to feel that the author has figured out – is what I’m going to be doing in that game, and what that will be like. That’s something I can’t really get from a pitch or a premise: game authors are often pretty unrealistic about what their game is actually like.

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One Response to Introcomp ’16: Astronomical Territories, Narrows, Deviled Kegs

  1. garygre says:

    Hi Sam. Thanks for so much constructive & detailed feedback on Narrows & Astronomical Territories. It’s appreciated. I take it all on board.

    Cheers – Gary

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