Introcomp 2019

Introcomp, one of interactive fiction’s long-running annual events, is out, with eleven entries.

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The past few Introcomps I have either missed or only looked at briefly, and I think I’ve got an expectations mismatch going on. I think that the value of Introcomp is largely about giving authors experience in a small version of an entire release cycle, including things like scoping and testing and figuring out how to process reviews. Another way to put it: I feel like an appealing Introcomp game should say not just ‘I have this idea’, but ‘and look, I have the full set of skills needed to pull it off.’ I’m thinking of it as something like a movie trailer – when I see a movie trailer I don’t expect a final piece, but I do expect a complete, polished, tightly-edited short, with the soundtrack in place and the CGI fully rendered.

For a non-trivial (and, I think, growing) proportion of Introcomp authors, that’s not the point at all – the point is to rough out the first part of your work in progress, put it in front of some people, and get a non-zero amount of attention and/or feedback for it. For feedback’s sake, this is probably something akin to an alpha test or a first-reader situation; for attention’s sake, it’s more like an early-access game.

The thing is, I think that while it’s very tempting (and a very familiar approach for modern creators), early-access is a really bad model for most IF, because early access only works when your early audience keeps playing the game, over and over, through each iteration. And most IF has very low replay value. There are exceptions, of course – very procedural, systems-driven things like Textfire Golf or Kerkerkruip or Sunless, grindy energy-limited things like Fallen London, pornography, arguably certain kinds of exhaustive-play visual novel, Yawhg-likes – but if you’re writing a fairly conventional IF narrative, the safest assumption is that your early adopters will not keep coming back.

On the other hand, alpha-test feedback is a very different kind of situation from reviewing an open competition! An alpha-test is a time to make big design changes. As an alpha-tester you need to be both encouraging (because the author may be unsure of the strengths of their premise and prototype) and brutal (because if there are major flaws, the author needs to know about them as early as possible, up to and including ‘this is a fundamentally flawed idea and you should not pursue it.’)  That’s a much easier balance to strike in a conversation than it is in a public review or anonymous feedback. For instance, a common problem with early-development games is that the author doesn’t really have a fully-articulated sense of what they really want the game to do – its themes, its mood, its player experience – and for this uncertainty to be reflected in the game. A good alpha-test questions the author about what they really want out of a game, and makes them confront whether the design they’ve got is serving that. That’s a back-and-forth exchange, a conversation.

So the upshot is that I’m not entirely sure how to address these. I’ve tried to modulate my responses somewhat more in terms of alpha-test feedback than as critiques of polished short pieces which are ready for review; but it’s a weird position. I’m not going to post my scores, but I will call out my favourites at the end.

*

There’s a problem that a lot of these pieces have, and so I’m going to be a bit of a broken record about this advice:

  • make sure you know what the Cool Things about your game are
  • make sure that at least one of them is present right from the beginning.

Some things in a game – mysteries, long-arc plot, complex puzzles, learned strategy, big ensemble casts, themes – will inherently take some time to get good, but you need to keep your audience interested while those have time to develop.

Some examples from IF and beyond:

  • Savoir-Faire’s Big Cool Thing is a puzzle-mechanic that can be a little difficult to grasp right away, and an emerging backstory that relates closely to how those puzzles work. But in the meantime it holds your attention with richly-described setting and a flamboyant, roguish protagonist.
  • Crypt of the Necrodancer is, at its core, a rhythm twitch game that gets fun once you develop fast-thinking, quick-fingered mastery. But if you stick around for long enough to get good, the excellent soundtrack and cute character design probably has something to do with it.
  • Elsinore is a game where, in order to really play, you need a fairly high-level grasp of a lot of different events and their causal relations: you need to absorb a lot of information before you can begin to exercise useful agency. But the process of absorbing that information is mostly about intentionally stirring up messy drama to see what happens, so you can be having fun long before the main event.

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Subway! The biggest thing that an intro has to do is to hook the player. Any game’s opening has to do that, really, unless it’s been so successfully marketed that anyone playing it already expects it’ll be great. Subway opens on a deeply boring situation: you’re a generic person in a generic office job who has to get to the job to give a presentation on nothing in particular. Then someone steals your briefcase with the presentation in it, so you… pursue the thief through the Metro network to get it back, which feels like it needs more justification than it gets. Protagonists feel more human when they’re given reasonable motivations – or, alternatively, when their ridiculous motivations are shown as ridiculous. We don’t know enough about this character, or this presentation, to see why they’d undertake this dangerous effort.

The game’s Thing is that you’re navigating a smallish metro system. This has potential! Metro systems are fascinating on a bunch of different levels! You can make the map complicated enough to be interesting on a structural and logistical level (as in Mini Metro), draw on the sense of the subway as a surreal, liminal underworld (Metrofinál), use it for social observation of everyday people, and thus as a sketch of a society (Space Punk Moon Tour) or to explore the psychological state of the protagonist; or, hell, you can just use it as fast-travel between more interesting locations. I’m sure there are other answers, too! But Subway, for now, is just a different kind of map to run errands across.

creepyDungeon Alive! This has pretty good presentation; the fonts, the pencil illustration, the background all feel unified. The writing needs some basic editing, but this is part and parcel of it being a work in progress.

On one level this is a very conventional shape of survival horror story: there is an apocalypse in progress and you’re fleeing to safety, with the everyday world transformed into a deadly obstacle course. This is an apocalypse of weird, unexplained spookiness rather than anything as straightforward as ‘zombies’. There are some effective moments here, but it felt very much of that school of horror where the point isn’t to tell a story so much as it is to confront the audience with creepy, suggestive imagery. The play-time of any given thread is quite short, with the more serious encounters not really resolving – so I’m still not really sure about how this is going to hold together at a larger scale.

Gallery Gal’s Architectural Adventure. The writing is capable and sparky, and the one big joke – that at every choice point you have the worse-than-useless ability to transform into an art gallery – is funny. The main issue is that, again, this isn’t a real intro, but a work in progress with lots of unfinished threads everywhere, and that the time to get to an unfinished thread is very short. This, in turn, means that the game just kind of fades on you rather than reaching any kind of good breaking-point. So this leaves me with a good impression of the author as a game writer but unsure about the design of the final thing. In particular, I don’t really see the shape of any longer-form plot: the protagonist is just going about her unremarkable day, except that she can ruin everything if she wants: a clearly-labeled deadly gauntlet.

Homeland. This is aiming for the near-emotionless affect, low context, low characterisation and because-it’s-a-game motivations of a certain register of mid-to-late ’90s parser game, the kind of assumptions that 9:05 was riffing on. The hook is that there are strange goings-on at your neighbour’s house, which turns out to be some kind of weird teleporter thing. There’s one puzzle, which I felt I solved mostly through persistence and the sparse environment’s lack of distractions. It has a distinct ending at an obvious breaking-point, which is good, but it also has the problem of having its Bland Mundane setting up-front and then breaking off right at the point where it should be getting interesting. There are some cues that this is going to be a Zorkian fantasy, but that’s about the extent of it.

Imprisoned. This is a very standard premise: a woman is kidnapped by a weird and creepy man and has to escape. It’s a difficult subject to handle, balanced as it is between trope-heavy horror, BDSM fantasy and realistic trauma and atrocity. Imprisoned suggests elements of all of these, but doesn’t really commit whole-heartedly to any of them, and this makes it feel awkward and kind of gross. If anything, it feels closest to a sort of Lifetime-movie tone, where the victim is pitched as a generic Strong Woman and loses some clothes without ever undergoing (or being explicitly threatened with) sexual assault. As a game, it’s mostly standard parser fare, except for uncomfortable dialogue sequences where you have to choose whether to defy or obey your captor; it has one or two misleading parser responses but it’s still pretty easy. So I think that this is a piece which really needs to figure out what it’s actually trying to accomplish, and whether that’s worth venturing into such dark waters.

The Devil’s Music: Immodestly atmospheric, strongly visualised descriptive writing, and a grabby premise. Aside from that, there’s very little here yet: what areas exist aren’t fully implemented, and I couldn’t really find anything to do. So my feeling here is that this is quite lovely setting writing, and I’d like to see more of it, but I don’t have much to go on for anything else. To channel a great thinker of our time – this was a showstopper, and we’d really have liked for you to show a greater variety of skills.

memorosaMemorosa.  This is framed very much as a digital novel, with only the most minimal of interactivity – a single cycling word choice per page, slightly reframing the protagonist’s attitude but not offering a deeper sense of their thoughts. I’m OK with this, in theory, but it puts a lot of responsibility on the plotting and prose, and it doesn’t really hold up. This absolutely needs to either open at a more exciting point of the story, or to make its exposition much punchier. The general premise feels a bit rote – in SF every experimental science facility harbours a dark secret, memory-exploration games are commonplace, mental-traveler frames are well-represented in Psychonauts and Inception and their ilk. And that’s OK, but it means that you can’t have your initial focus be just on establishing the commonplace elements! You need to start showing the audience what’s cool about this thing, right away.

Memorosa is setting itself up as a mystery, I think, but mysteries take time to establish and need lots of immediate flavour to hold the attention while their terms of the question are being laid out. The problem is that there’s a kind of aesthetic blandness about the whole presentation: the game is set in a sterile-feeling facility, the prose is neutrally styled, the artwork has a feel of stock footage about it. And this makes it harder to stick around for the slow pacing! So I think the missing element here is something to immediately grab and hold on to the player.

Neurocracy is near-future sf told in a nonlinear fashion through a Wikipedia-like encyclopedia; most of the linked articles are just tooltip summaries, so the things that are actually full pages signal what the story thinks is important; there aren’t that many full pages at the moment, but they’re pretty extensive. I think encyclopedic IF is an undertapped field, but a lot of the reason for this is that in order to really get the feeling of encyclopedic exploration takes a lot of work. Neurocracy feels much more like reading a highly footnoted linear text than an encyclopedia dive: the author wants to control where your attention goes, to keep the highlights on the parts of the story that are important.

A big problem here is that Wikipedian prose style is aggressively dry, and the story’s near-future speculation isn’t enormously surprising. Wikipedia dives are still interesting because they’re about real stuff, because you’re learning new and strange things. Fictional works can’t lean on that as hard. There are hints that a more character-driven story might be emerging, but it’s fairly difficult to be sure about that. What we have here feels like exposition. I think this needs to be stronger-voiced, or give the player more exploratory range, or offer more surprising developments sooner.

Steamed Hams, But It’s A Twine Game. This is pretty much what it says on the lid. It is an iteration of that one Simpsons scene that became an absurdist meme; if you super love the meme, maybe this is for you. It relies heavily on video and audio footage from the original, tends to hit blank dead-ends when you diverge much from the original’s script, and feels rather like someone experimenting with using Twine as a platform for interactive video – although it could equally have been made with shitpost motives. As an adaptation, the main points of interest are where it inserts the choice menus and what options it offers beyond the canonical one – but this doesn’t feel like it adds all that much, particularly since those are the branches most likely to be unimplemented.

Sunder: An interactive poetry piece: there is some light branching, but the main interaction is to expand the text into its complete form by clicking on it – kind of like blackout poetry in reverse. It’s blank verse, and its construction is fundamentally competent; in this regard, it’s better than 95% of poetry that appears in games. But it left me pretty cold, as poetry. Poetry is really, really difficult to do well and I often struggle to usefully criticise it, but a lot of getting it right is about developing a really strong voice, and this isn’t quite there.

So, the general style is: opaque except insofar as it’s about anguish. There are individual sections that are clearly about self-harm and and gender feelings, but the central thread is a series of metaphorical torments, sprinkled with classical allusions. This is a very common mode in poetry, and it takes really exceptional writing to make it feel fresh.

Hide and Seek: This is a story about being a sad kid on the last day of high school and wanting to reach some kind of resolution with your unrequited crush. It’s very short, fading off into unimplemented passages almost as soon as the premise is established. The writing wasn’t sparky enough to grab me within this time, mostly because it’s very firmly in the My Crappy Life register. Everything in this world, including the protagonist, is portrayed as mediocre, disappointing, or vaguely shitty – except, potentially, the love interest, who does not make an appearance within the intro. It’s very difficult to do disaffected teenage anhedonia straight and have it be compelling! There is a lot of effective Sad Teen IF, but it generally includes contrasting moods to hold the interest: the highly character-focused, sparky dialogue of Known Unknowns; the furious intensity of Rameses; the lurid magical realism of Cactus Blue Motel; the careful observation, maintaining empathy for the character while allowing them to be seen through a more mature and detached lens, of Everybody Dies.

*

This year I was most impressed by The Devil’s Music and Gallery Gal; they’re both a little patchy, but the writing’s fundamentally enjoyable in its own right, and strong prose is something that kicks in immediately.

This entry was posted in cyoa, interactive fiction, parser-based, review. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Introcomp 2019

  1. Jason Dyer says:

    The thing is, I think that while it’s very tempting (and a very familiar approach for modern creators), early-access is a really bad model for most IF, because early access only works when your early audience keeps playing the game, over and over, through each iteration.

    I’d generally agree to this off the cuff, except an absolute tonne of Choice of Games stuff is written this way with giant forum threads where authors keep posting and players keep giving feedback. So I think it’s more a matter of having the ecosystem for it.

    I really have no clue where the authors are going to go with Gallery Gal’s Architectural Adventure and Steamed Hams; it feels like they’re “done” already so to speak. Maybe there’s a twist that will open them up but there wasn’t enough in their respective demos to know where that twist might be.

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