IF Comp 2017: Guttersnipe

guttersnipeGuttersnipe: St. Hesper’s Asylum for the Criminally Mischievous (Bitter Karella) is a Quest game where you play a 1920s child who, along with her educated rat, has to escape an institution and thus win the title of most dreadful urchin.

The dialogue is utterly over-the-top; at first I felt like the tone being aimed for was dialect-heavy American comic strips from the first half of the twentieth century, which were written in very over-the-top dialect. But there are some obvious differences.

“‘Course ya ain’t! Ain’t no one who can hurt Lil’ Ragamuffin! I ain’t a’scared of you! I is the roughest, toughest street urchin in Garbagetown DC an’ nobody’s sweetheart!”

The old-school funnies mostly used dialect that their authors were familiar with, from growing up speaking it or from hearing it spoken around them; Guttersnipe‘s dialect is all over the place. And the limited space for text made those cartoons quite cut-down, while this dialogue sprawls. The real touchstone here, I think, is a TV cartoon – something in the Ren and Stimpy tradition where fast-talking voice actors overact all over the place, and it doesn’t matter if the dialect’s an off-the-cuff pastiche because the delivery will cover up for it, and besides, everything’s meant to be ridiculous, and anachronisms like “I is out like a whale-oil lamp” are part of the joke.

In the abstract, this all could have worked just fine, but in practice it didn’t quite click for me. In general I really like heavily dialectical writing, including author-specific dialects, but this grated on me a bit; I think the regular use of ‘I is’ might have been the thing that flipped it into feeling artificial.

It’s also a style that relies on fast-paced delivery; if it succeeds it succeeds through energy and movement. That’s a lot harder to do in a text medium. Guttersnipe, instead, moves at the leisurely pace of a traditional parser game: after the opening sequence, there are a dozen or so rooms to explore, an assortment of characters and blocked doorways and objects to think about, and no obvious order to tackle things in. That’s a perfectly good style, but it lends itself very well to certain moods and very badly to others. I feel this would have worked a lot better with a more laid-back, laconic orphan or a more high-velocity, Veederish pace of play.

In the blurb-rating bit I said mischief was a good mode of play? I think it’s an especially good mode of play for parser, because mischief is about breaking rules, and parser is pretty good at the illusion that you’re doing things that aren’t officially sanctioned. (I was thinking in particular of the bit in Chlorophyll where, in order to get thrown into the confinement tank, you need to convince automated security that you’re a wrongdoer; and the general sense in Oppositely Opal that you’re trashing your surroundings.)

A lot of IF is about escape, confinement and liberation; the emphasis on physical space draws attention to its limits. The thing is that Guttersnipe isn’t all that confining by those standards; you have immediate access to eighteen rooms, your time isn’t controlled, and although in theory you’re being observed by a panopticon, there isn’t much reminder of it and it doesn’t ever impede your action. There are locked doors and barred ways, but there are also lots of areas where narratively speaking you shouldn’t be allowed to go, but which are immediately accessible. I felt like there needed to be more of a gradient here, some establishing break-ins. (One of the things Anchorhead really gets right, in establishing what space means and how the protagonist relates to it, is that it starts out with an easy, justified but definitely-illegal act of trespassing.)

What held me back was more the puzzle structure; I got through the first, simplest puzzles, and I could see the shape of other some others – but I was also doing work to accumulate inventory that I didn’t see a purpose for. In general this seems pretty well-clued, but there I managed to get stuck on a crucial puzzle that’s pretty weird – you re-animate a roast chicken by putting it in an ECT machine, which works as a joke but only seems like a solution if you’re thinking in cartoonish terms. That puzzle happens to gate a great deal of the map, so without it I floundered and ended up relying on the walkthrough.

I think the hybrid parser/choice thing that Quest does is part of the picture here. Quest displays some of its verbs and object-verb combinations as links, but not all of them – you can interact by typing, or by typing and clicking links, but not by clicking links alone. And this makes for a situation where I’m less inclined to try actions that aren’t linked, partly because I’m used to clicking, and partly because it lowers the amount of trust I have that the author will have routinely implemented non-linked items.

For instance, there are items mentioned in room descriptions which aren’t listed in the Places and Objects sidebar; they aren’t implemented. I quickly learn that there’s no point in trying to EXAMINE PIT unless it appears in Places and Objects. Even if I’m typing, I’m checking that list for relevant objects. I don’t read room descriptions as closely as I would in vanilla parser. And that’s OK if it’s consistent; I’ve learned a new mode of playing and it’s doing the job.

But, in fact, it isn’t consistent. There’s no listing for the player-character, but >X ME produces a result – quite an important one, too, with its own illustration. And now I’m thinking ‘OK, the system I learned for how to play this game isn’t reliable, and sometimes you need to abandon it and try experimental input, but I don’t know when that’s appropriate.’ Vanilla parser has its issues, but it generally expects you to be in a mode of close-reading and experimenting for most of the time; this hybrid tells you you don’t have to do that, except when you do. The issue is as true for verbs as nouns; there’s a bit where you have to PUT COFFEE IN MACHINE, which is a fairly obvious action that isn’t possible through the link-based interface at all. So now I know that some puzzles are going to require vanilla-parser-type thinking – except that the game isn’t implemented with the expectation that players will generally be playing that way, so when I try to poke at scenery or experiment with slightly-outside-the-box verbs, I mostly get default responses. And I struggled a great deal with figuring out the right phrasing to play the film reel, only to find that it was a clue for an already-solved problem. Anyway.

The characters (there are quite a lot of them) are largely one-note caricatures; the humour involves a lot of creepiness and gross-out material. The combination of the two, together with a prison setting, is difficult territory: 2014’s The Contortionist, for instance, ended up falling squarely into the Bedlam mode, in which asylums are used as a human zoo of dehumanised freaks. Guttersnipe isn’t that bad, but it’s also not hugely invested in humanising its inmates; it spends a lot of time on showing 1920s institutional medicine as creepy and gross, but it does much the same for the patients. I suppose… I dunno. I think about this a lot, and I’m regularly disappointed with game depictions of inpatient mental health, and these are not issues confined to the past. I think, at the least, I’d have liked to have got some indication that this game was thinking more about historical incarceration and mental health institutions as serious subjects, rather than purely as a tropey playground. And while there’s a lot of evidence into research of the period, I don’t feel it’s really got a position here; it’s more about weird details than putting together a picture.

Anyway. That aside, this is a game which doesn’t have a huge amount wrong with it, but which entirely failed to click for me for an assortment of nitpicky reasons. 5.

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