IF Comp ’16: Cactus Blue Motel

cactusblueCactus Blue Hotel (Astrid Dalmady, Twine) is a southwestern-surreal coming-of-age road trip story. Three high-school graduates are on a road trip across the Southwest; they stop at a motel, which turns out to be a magical wainscot or polder, and early on it’s unclear what exactly this represents – trap, refuge, portal, halfway house.

It’s got a very parser-y sensibility: a static map, setting-focused story, a bunch of NPCs who mostly hunker in the same place waiting for you to have conversations with them, which primarily involve asking them about one another. The reference points that spring to mind are all parser, too: The Trip and Sand-dancer for nocturnal Southwestern surreal, The Next Day for teen-limbo angst, probably a bit of Robb Sherwin night-journey and Blue Chairs as well. Continue reading

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IF Comp ’16: Fair.

fairFair (Hanon Ondricek, Inform) is a parser piece in which A.B. Astherton, a self-published science-fiction author, has been asked to judge an elementary-school science fair. A single playthrough is pretty short, but it really needs to be played through a few times to get it right.

If there’s a consistent feature of Hanon’s varied work, it’s that it tends to be less than immediately obvious what its deal is: it generally takes some digging to get to grips with their core experience, which often works to their disadvantage in the context of the comp. In the past, I’ve sometimes completely missed most of the game, or not really grokked the narrative approach. All this means that Ondricek games are pretty high on my list of Games I Should Not Take At First Impression. I usually get one or two games completely wrong in any given Comp year, and if you were taking bets, you could do a lot worse than sticking a few bob on Fair.

(Disclaimer: I am in the credits for this for ‘general Inform assistance’, which is very nice of Hanon given that I completely can’t remember what I did. I was not a tester and had not seen the game prior to the comp.)

(Other disclaimer: did I mention I was going to be doing Heavy Spoilers in these reviews? Probably not. It’s going to be Heavy Spoilers here, for sure.)

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IF Comp ’16: Labyrinth of Loci

Labyrinth of Loci (anbrewk, Unity) is a choice-based dungeon-crawl, with atmospheric music and art design. It appears to be incomplete or buggy: my first two playthroughs both ended after a pretty short time with a big white rectangle in the middle of the screen and no further options. I can’t tell if this is a bug that only I’m getting for some reason, or if it’s just that the author left a lot of unfinished branches; at a quick glance I’m not sure if anybody else has reviewed this yet. On a reluctant third attempt I made it to an ending.

lociAnyway. Despite the blurb, the game doesn’t clearly seem to be either memory palace or memory labyrinth; rather, it’s a genre fantasy piece minus the combat. You’re in an underground… dungeon is probably the better word, because a labyrinth must be navigated, and navigation isn’t important here. (It’s also not a labyrinth in the specialist labyrinth vs. maze sense, because that wouldn’t involve choices.) At each point, you have a choice of two doors leading to different rooms; there isn’t much to choose between them beyond aesthetics. Each leads to a room; on leaving the room, you get another two doors. Continue reading

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IF Comp ’16: The Queen’s Menagerie

queensmenagerieThe Queen’s Menagerie (Chandler Groover, Texture) is a shortish piece about feeding monsters. It’s highly Gothic; the closest comparison I can think of is Mervyn Peake, although the thematics are very much in the same general territory as With Those We Love Alive.

Menagerie is an exactly-used word, here. Museums used to be private collections of wonders kept by the wealthy for personal pleasure and to show off one’s cultured wealth to acquaintances; in the same way, before zoos open to the public were a thing, particularly affluent nobility kept menageries. Menageries were prestige projects with a side of worldly erudition: in an era where most people didn’t ever travel very far, but there was a huge amount of interest in far-off places, you could be all, guys, this is my pangolin. Like early zoos – and plenty of modern zoos, to be honest – these were generally places where animals lived in horrible conditions, cared for by people who didn’t understand them very well, until they died. Captive breeding was vanishingly rare, and conservation wasn’t something anybody vaguely thought about. Continue reading

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IF Comp ’16: Yes, my mother is…

yesmymotherYes, my mother is… is a piece of near-future social SF, focused on n/a, a social movement with the impossible aspiration of completely sui generis identity and presentation. The protagonist, an n/a counselor and the daughter of a prominent figure in the early n/a movement, has a series of conversations, with strangers and with significant people in her life, about the movement and her mother.

As usual, you arrive at work a good half an hour before you’re supposed to start. Time enough to drink a little something and do some boring but needed paperwork in peace.

In spite of that, about once a week, someone manages to come in even earlier than you. And today is one of those days. A skinny, frail, androgynous, and almost anonymous in their plain sweatshirt and trainers, person is sitting on one of the four plastic chairs making up your waiting room. Well, sitting may not be the best of words seeing how much they’re fidgeting and blatantly oozing with stress.

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IF Comp 2016: 16 Ways to Kill a Vampire at McDonalds

16ways16 Ways to Kill a Vampire at McDonalds (Abigail Corfman, Twine) is choice-based but designed in a very parser / adventure-game style: it’s heavily concerned with the acquisition and usage of medium size dry goods, it’s set in a consistent map of a handful of rooms, and actions make a timer tick down steadily, encouraging you to slow down and consider your moves.

As the title suggests, it’s not about figuring one single solution; it’s about trying lots of different stuff in the knowledge that there are a lot of ways to succeed. That said, success isn’t trivial; you can think you’re pretty close to a solution but still get killed because you weren’t quite there. So, for a game which is over pretty quickly, there’s quite a lot in here – and it’s also got an achievement system to help you keep track of the vampire-killing methods you’ve found, and hint at the undiscovered ones.

(Also: in a parser game you’d need to describe all this stuff, and because we’re in a generic McDonalds late at night, most of the stuff would be pretty boring – unless the author  found a way to crack wise about the counter and the windows and so on. Parser becomes less valuable if you’re not very focused on setting.)

An often-tedious thing about vampire fiction is that everybody needs to have (and explain) their own iteration of Our Vampires are Different16 Ways just works on the principle that basically every story about vampires is true, and any way of killing them you’ve heard of will probably work. The game’s general vibe is that you’ve seen Buffy and Supernatural so you pretty much know the score; it suggests enough about the characters that they seem like real people, but it doesn’t expect you to be interested in extended backstories.

It’s witty, in a pretty specific register – a sort of Allie Brosh / Jenni Polodna girl-on-the-internet-being-perky-about-how-her-life-is-a-trash-fire voice. Even though its setting is objectively pretty grim, the tone feels enthusiastic and lively throughout. And there is, generally, a pretty optimism-among-garbage tone here. If you try to lure the vampire, it turns out that vampire seduction is really just hypnotic gaze plus shitty PUA techniques. On the other hand, the homeless woman who can be recruited to fight the vampire with the force of her faith does so not with the kind of fire-and-brimstone verses or Catholic-exorcism lines you’d expect, but Song of Songs. Song of Songs, apart from fitting very oddly in with the rest of the Tanakh, is basically an erotic poem about intense, reciprocal, probably spiritual and definitely physical love.

So, OK, one of the most common roles that vampires play is The Sinister Side of Sex. Which covers a bunch of things that are difficult to individuate when they appear in fiction; it can be tough to keep ‘this is my kink and that’s fine’ distinct from ‘I idealise abusive relationship dynamics’. 16 Ways handles this by showing the vampire’s seductiveness in a pretty functional way: the protagonist is someone who’s very used to dealing with vampire seduction, and manages by treating it as a completely physical reaction, to be handled as such. She doesn’t get enraptured by the dark compulsion of forbidden ecstasies, she gets high on vampire spit. The vampire himself is a pathetic creep; the danger he poses is real but not romantic, a problem that should be calmly and systematically addressed.

And on the other hand, there’s a lot of warmth between all the human characters, despite the setting being this basically alienating space. The protagonist’s team-mates are fondly described; the cashier you’re trying to save is ‘adorable’; the homeless woman takes some getting through to, but if you approach her sincerely then she’ll pitch in. So while the game doesn’t push on this all that hard, it’s got an underlying thesis about healthy relationships and the kindness of strangers driving out predatory shit. Which is not the most surprising theme in the world, and it’s not grappling with this stuff super-deeply, but it’s consistently articulated.

I think this is a pretty straightforward 7: it’s solid work, doesn’t have any glaring problems, and it’s a fun time.

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IF Comp 2016: blurbs and cover art

ifcomp16IT’S COMP TIME. The Interactive Fiction Competition is the biggest IF event of the year. A huge variety of interactive fiction is released for the Comp, from weird experiments to finely-crafted standards, from accounts of harrowing trauma to doofy comedy. Its a big weird cornucopia, the fruits of a community that’s historically not really been big enough to split up into subgenres.

I’m going to be reviewing as many games as possible (non-IF people: sorry), but there are a lot of games this year: 58, the highest ever. (2000 and 2015, the comp’s next-largest years, had 53 entries apiece). Slight tangent, but this seems like a good place to mention it: this is the first year that authors will be allowed to discuss games in public, and so I wrote a thing about handling this gracefully. As is my usual habit, I’m going to be posting scores alongside reviews, and I’ve written a thing explaining roughly what that means. Finally, this blog is going into summary-reposting mode, so hopefully giant reams of spoilers shouldn’t be showing up on Planet-IF.

Anyway, this glut of games means that it’s more important than ever to stand out. The initial presentation of a game – title, cover-art, blurb – goes a long way in setting up the player’s expectations before they ever open it, and getting players into a receptive state of mind is a pretty huge deal. And if they’re turned off by your blurb, they’re liable to extend less patience to your game, which makes overcoming that first impression harder.

Figuring out how to present your game is hard; blurbs are probably the hardest writing you’ll do for the game. I loathe blurb-writing. (Oddly, I don’t think most authors put their blurbs and cover art through the same testing process as the actual game.)

In general, a blurb has a few important things to do. It has to provoke interest and enthusiasm, which means that you need to give your audience enough information that they have something to be enthusiastic about. You also probably want to avoid telling too much of the story in advance – but on the whole, comp blurbs are more likely to share too little than too much. I think this is probably because talking about your own work is intimidating, and it’s easy to fall back on mystery.

Cover art doesn’t have the same burden on it. Good cover art can be evocative rather than illustrative, since IF is a basically textual medium; book covers rather than videogame boxes. It helps if cover art avoids looking half-assed – a better-made cover that the author cares about the game enough to invest work on its presentation.

And titles – oh, god. Titling is a delightful activity until you have to do it for real. I love titling hypothetical works, and other people’s children. But I’ve written two games, ever, whose titles I’m genuinely satisfied with, and they’re both speed-IFs. Titling is adjacent to poetry. Titles should roll off the tongue, and be suggestive but not on-the-nose. It’s sure as hell useful if they’re unique enough to show up prominently in a websearch, but you still want something short enough to be punchy. Anyway, my point is that this is hard stuff, and it is only tangentially related to the actual craft of making games, and all these impressions may be for the birds. (Also, if I’ve missed any, apologies. There are a ton of games this year.)

(In case it was unclear, these capsule reviews are written without actually playing the games; they’re the perspective of someone who’s considering which games to play, so the extent to which they reflect the actual games is all red flags.)

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