IF Comp 2017: Insignificant Little Vermin

verminInsignificant Little Vermin (Filip Hracek) is a heroic-fantasy dungeon-crawl; the protagonist is an escaped slave in an orcish stronghold, and must fight their way out while doing as much damage as possible.

There are illustrations. These are at their strongest when showing posed figures and details of weapons, less confident when it comes to action scenes, and largely ignore setting.

It’s made in a custom choice-based system, designed with mobile devices in mind and centred around combat. There is a simple randomisation system, presented as a five-reel slot machine. I’ll be up-front: this is a game with a heavy focus on combat that is not very good at fight scenes, either in terms of writing or choice.

Here’s the game’s first combat option:

Nobody else is in sight. It’s just you, Agruth, and Briana. That’s Agruth’s first mistake.

  1. Kick Agruth to the ground.
  2. Leap at Agruth.
  3. Punch Agruth.

So those are all basically versions of ‘attack’. There is clearly some kind of combat system underlying this, but how it works is not communicated well to the player. Some of this is just about choice of words: ‘kick Agruth to the ground’ turns out to be some kind of tripping action, ‘leap’ is tackling to the ground, but both of those phrases are easily read as something else. But in general, you’re being asked to make tactical choices based on a very poor idea of what those choices mean. At a certain point you get the choice to ‘confuse’ opponents: the description when you do it suggests some kind of magical attack, but this ability is never referred to otherwise. After a number of fights – there are a lot of fights in this game, and they blur into one another a bit – I started to get a general sense that some moves do damage while others soften up opponents for future attacks, but by the end of the game I still hadn’t really got a sense of tactical choices rather than just picking options and seeing what happened.

This could have been salvaged by the prose. This is a text game, and its central focus is combat. This means that it really needs to be capable of good fight-scene writing. And it really, really isn’t.

Describing combat through text is a difficult proposition. Combat is action: it relies on things which are difficult to bring alive in text. Max Gladstone has thought and written about this much more thoroughly than I could hope to, but here are a few very simple thoughts.

You kick Agruth’s shin. But he doesn’t budge and drops the whip. He draws his sword. “You’re dead, slave,” he growls at you with hatred. He swings at Briana. She leaps back but she is too slow. Agruth slashes her thigh. She yells in pain.

This is very much a novice writer’s approach to a combat scene. It reads like a boring procedural text – like, say, the text output from a roguelike – and this might, in fact, be part of what’s going on. This happens, and then this happens, and then this happens. There’s little sense of flow or intensity, and even causality gets kind of muddied. Consider this line:

You kick Agruth’s shin. But he doesn’t budge and drops the whip. He draws his sword.

The structure there is misleading: it implies that both not-budging and whip-dropping are equally consequences of the failed shin-kick. It makes far, far more sense if slightly restructured:

You kick Agruth’s shin, but he doesn’t budge. He drops the whip and draws his sword.

That’s not exactly deathless prose – but it’s much clearer about causality, which is pretty damn important for making action flow. Agruth drops the whip in order to draw his sword, not because a shin-kick somehow knocked it out of his hand.

You pick up the sword and wield it” suggests that combat is being thought of primarily in terms of CRPG mechanics. Outside a game’s equipment system, there’s no separate action of ‘wielding’; it’s a general state of action, rather than a specific act. This is a tell that Vermin is taking its cues about combat writing primarily from games writing – but this is a very bad model when you’re making IF. Writing about combat in a CRPG or a combat tabletop game can afford to be dry and uninspiring, because those things communicate combat in other ways: through the tension of foregrounded mechanics, the visual action of animation, the tactical considerations of maps. When text has an auxiliary function, it has less pressure on it; writing to those expectations doesn’t work when prose forms your central delivery.

Choices aren’t a lot more inspiring outside combat, either. At one point you’re invited to name a sword – and, like, naming weapons is a pretty cool variety of aesthetic choice, this should be a slam-dunk. The problem is that you can choose between two really boring names, or nothing – and this seems really obviously like a situation that calls for 4-5 high-flavour choices plus a text entry. More than any other, this choice really tanked my confidence in Vermin‘s design.

Then there’s this:

Briana stands towering over Agruth’s corpse. She smooths her hair back and looks down into the expanding pool of Agruth’s blood, using it as a mirror.

“What?” she says when she notices you’re looking.

“We either go now, or die.”

This isn’t a big thing, but it’s significant: it casts the player-character as the Serious Business One and Briana as the silly girl who, in the aftermath of narrowly escaping death, is most concerned with her appearance. This is a dynamic I see a lot in games that have female sidekick characters: interactions that highlight serious, hypercompetent, grimly practical masculinity by contrast to frail, self-absorbed femininity. I don’t know that this was consciously intended – Briana is thereafter mostly characterised as a capable fighter, albeit not someone with a whole lot of characteristics other than a desire for revenge – or whether it’s that Vermin is taking all of its cues from existing games and not thinking too hard about any of them, and thus has imported their bad patterns of representing femininity. But it’s still a bad moment.

And the player-character’s line there is immediately undermined: you in fact have time to consider a name for the sword, search Agruth’s body, and chat with Briana. You can return to that area throughout the game. That makes the exchange seem more gratuitous.

It’s also, I should stress, a very generic piece of fantasy. I said that about Rage Quest, but at least Rage Quest showed some basic interest in exploring the implications of a particular fantasy trope; it didn’t take them very far or very interestingly, but it had somethingVermin is just interested in recapitulating tropes, which means that – at best – I would have been unlikely to love this. But it also has some pretty serious issues with execution that are dragging it down. 3.

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