IF Comp 2018: mini-reviews, part 2

Brief notes on Adventures with Fido,  Dynamite Powers vs. the Ray of Night, A Final Grind, The Forgotten Tavern, Intel Mission, Junior Arithmancer, Murder at the Manor, Shackles of Control, and smooch.click.

A Final Grind is a fantasy-hero cave-crawl CRPG thing in which, for no very good reason, you have to do maths problems to parry. This is a bad idea which makes boring combat more boring. It’s making some effort towards characterisation, but unfortunately it’s doing it via I’m So Sad That My Girlfriend Is Dead.

The Forgotten Tavern is a CRPG thing where you have to go through an interdimensional portal and defeat vegetables with a mallet to feed the tavern guests and turn around the tavern’s fortunes. This sounds goofy, but as zany comedy goes it’s kind of muted. It’s not any more interesting than the approximately one thousand other combat CPRGs in this comp, but its interface is rather more polite. I wasn’t really clear about where this was going, or if vegetable-fighting was the whole point; if there’s more to the plot than this, it emerges too slowly. I ended up in a bugged situation with no outgoing links while dodging some onions, and I wasn’t going to go back through all that again.

Murder at the Manor is a by-the-numbers drawing-room mystery set near London in 1936. Everything feels a bit off; the prose is long-winded and mannered to a degree that nobody, not even Wodehouse, was using in the 30s, and lots of details feel not quite right even if I can’t put my finger on how. The prolix style takes up an awful lot of space – the first screen of text is almost a thousand words, and that’s pretty representative of the game as a whole. Falls uncomfortably in between formulaic genre iteration and camp parody thereof, and I’m honestly not completely sure which was intended. (I really like ridiculous over-the-top flowery prose if the author has a good ear and knows what tone of ridiculous they’re going for. This is not that.)

smooch.click: A procedural generator that remixes a handful of fragmentary stories about kissing, described with a rather emotionally-distant affect. I know people who dislike the way the label ‘slice of life’ is used in IF, and mostly I get that, but this is kind of aspiring towards the unremarkably-mundane quality that the term implies. It mostly made me think about how many people I know could have done way better kissing procgen – funnier or hotter or weirder or more sharply observed or something. “What do you want in a game about kissing?” “Lots of things, I guess, but mostly I want the authorial voice to be detached and diffident,” said no-one ever.

Shackles of Control: This is a very short thing that feels extremely rushed; it’s sort of aiming at Deep Themes about free will and determinism, but at the same time it can’t really manage to pace its delivery or take itself seriously.

Junior Arithmancer: This is a game for people who like to do maths puzzles for fun, with a thin veneer of Zorkian narrative. The presentation is clean and clear – the narrative veneer does a good job of explaining how the puzzle format works in-game and the mechanical progression eases you into it, which means that I bounced off it way less hard than I did Ailihphilia, say. But it’s very clearly a game where the principal reward for solving a maths puzzle is another, harder maths puzzle, and I only really enjoy puzzles when they have substantially more narrative integration than this.

Intel Mission: The conceit here is that the story is delivered through voice-to-text and captured in a phone chat app; this seems like it’s planned as a commercial game and is using the Comp for testing. The plot concerns two rival Secret Agents working for rival fictional agencies; having been captured and imprisoned together, they argue, banter and flirt. Jones, the protagonist, is straight-laced, by-the-book, rather sheltered, easily frustrated; Ben, her love interest/antagonist, is a worldly smartass who doesn’t play by the rules. What we have here is a lawful good tsundere and a chaotic neutral charming rogue.

This is a concept that lives or dies on the writer’s ability to write engaging dialogue and make the romantic tension compelling. It missed the mark for me. Ben’s approach too often reads too much like negging to me – “For a smart woman, you’re really stupid sometimes“, and too much of the conversation is him telling Jones how it is while she responds with either “grr!” or “…I guess you have a point”. “I constantly sabotage your career because I like you so much and want to get your attention” is not a great look either. I felt as though the story ran on rather too long, but that’s probably a function of not shipping it.

Adventures with Fido: This is a game premised on corgis being really adorable. This is a correct premise – I don’t really like small dogs, and even so I am forced to admit that corgis are super cute. But, like, cute is largely visual, secondarily audio; it’s not a quality straightforwardly translated to text. An awful lot of this game feels like it’s some variation on ‘corgi bouncing on trampoline.gif’ but without the .gif. Otherwise, this is a story about a world where everything is cute and pleasant and free of conflict, which is kind of boring. Poking around opens up the world into fantastical areas – a haunted house, an underground mole kingdom – which are also pleasant and free of conflict. Honestly, I can see this basic experience as being pleasant and cute and minimal-effort relaxing if there was, like, a minimum of one corgi gif per screen. (Obviously that would be a difficult prospect without stealing a lot of images or owning one’s own photogenic cow-botherer.)

Also, stop trying to make me do recreational maths, IF Comp. Go to your room and think about what you’ve done.

Dynamite Powers vs. the Ray of Night! is a retro SF adventure that’s ostensibly about being a space action hero, but is actually about going around an abandoned space base solving puzzles. I generally don’t think superhero IF makes sense, especially not in parser – it’s fundamentally difficult to take a fast-paced genre about physical action, character conflict and broad-scoped power and fit it into a slow-paced, non-visual medium focused on constrained environments and medium size dry goods. I thought the exquisite-corpse monster machine was seriously cool and deserved to be the subject of an entire game, and was sad when it turned out to be used for only one puzzle with a single possible solution.

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