IF Comp 2017: Tuuli

tuuliTuuli (Daurmith, Ruber Eaglenest) is an Inform game about a Finnish girl who has to take over the role of a dead witch to protect her village from Vikings. I am super into this premise and had high expectations.

It’s brief and economical, and this allows it to focus on a very sharp, simple character arc while maintaining a sense of urgency and significance. You can imagine it as the climactic sequence of a substantially longer work – but cutting things down to the final act makes a lot of sense. You’re given just enough time to get an appreciation of the situation and the stakes as the crisis builds.

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IF Comp 2017: Textcraft: Alpha Island

textcraftTextcraft: Alpha Island is a parser survival game made in Java. The protagonist is marooned on an islet for a bet, and has to survive for seven days without calling for help; in a standard twist, communication breaks down and you have to survive for real.

It’s a homebrew, which makes a certain amount of sense for a game with mechanical concerns this specific. It uses real-time effects (you can pause, though, and once I figured that out I did it constantly), recolouring the background and text depending on whether it’s sunny, raining, or night. None of the things it’s doing would have been impossible in Inform or TADS, but they’re not the focus or strength of those platforms; I can understand wanting to roll your own for this fairly specialised purpose. My main issue here is that it means the player’s stuck with the same retro-looking monospace font, and that there’s no way to select and copy text or to store transcripts – irksome for the reviewer, this, and not great for testing either.

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IF Comp 2017: Swigian

swiggitySwigian (Rainbus North) is a surreal, grim, mythic Inform piece about… well, you kind of have to figure out what it’s about as you go along. At its opening, you’re in a wood, by a lake; the narrator says

I don’t like talking. Let’s build a fire.

(Shades, here, of the lapidary opening to For a Change: “The sun has gone. It must be brought. You have a rock.”)

The most obvious thing about it is the aggressively taciturn voice. It’s curt, gruff, concerned with the practical and gruffly impatient with attempts to consider aesthetic or press for more detail:

x lake
The lake? That is what it is. I’ll tell you everything that’s important the first time.

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IF Comp 2017: Goodbye Cruel Squirrel

squerlGoodbye Cruel Squirrel (Extra Mayonnaise) is an Inform game in which you’re a grey squirrel.

The gag here is that you’re on a kind of Redwall / Animals of Farthing Wood quest to save your people from starvation, but being a squirrel you are in fact a total asshole and operate more in a Happy Tree Friends kind of idiom, leaving mayhem and destruction in your wake. The way you save your people is to fuck up the neighbouring red squirrels and take their stuff. There is a bowling ball in the game, and it’s decorated like a testicle; this pretty much sums up the game’s mode of humour. Continue reading

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IF Comp 2017: Bookmoss

bookmossBookmoss (Devon Guinn) is a Twine liminal-fantasy piece.

It was written for a fellowship at Harvard’s Houghton Library, and there’s a slightly forced air about it, like when the Poet Laureate is obliged to write a poem for a royal jubilee. From the outset, the Moral is clearly going to be that books and libraries are great and the Houghton Library and canon New England writers are extra specially great. I don’t see it explicitly flagged as a piece for children anywhere, but it seems designed to at least be child-suitable. The two protagonists, Jon and Gina, are a father and daughter visiting the Houghton.

YOU: Yeah, yeah, okay, but doesn’t the internet already do that?

DAD: The internet is pretty great. Libraries are special too, though.

So there’s a books-are-magical-gateways plot. This is a very well-established trope, to the point where if a story’s setup is ‘weird things are going on in the library’ it’s the most obvious possibility. Bookmoss is kind of ponderous about setting this premise up, and when it gets there it’s not really sure what to do with it; there’s very little that resembles a Story Problem, and the brief section where there seems like there might be one gets rapidly resolved. Rather than a dynamic plot, it’s mostly interested in dialogue and in exploration.

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A Hyperabundant Comp Season

ifcompIt’s October, which means it’s time for the Interactive Fiction Competition, IF Comp.

There are 80 79 entries this year, setting a record for the second year running. Historically, anything over 50 is a big turnout. There’s no way I’ll be able to adequately play every game, let alone review them. Some form of triage is in order. Naturally, I have an overcomplicated, procedure-based solution. Continue reading

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Heart’s Medicine: Time to Heal

Title screen of the game.It’s commonplace for a time-management game to feature character-driven plot, but Time to Heal sells itself really hard on narrative. The intro frames it as an original story. The game’s bumf is really focused on storytelling (and, in particular, that most irritating qualifier of Legitimate Narrative, ‘it made me cry’.) The plot opens in media res, in a flash-forward to the mid-game climax. Part of its gloss is an original soundtrack – melancholy singer-songwriter guitar stuff, pitch-perfect for the kind of heartache-by-the-numbers drama it’s aiming for.

The typical plot arc of time-management games, post Diner Dash, is straightforward Horatio Alger: a plucky protagonist grows their humble store into a business empire. Time to Heal aspires to combine this arc with a medical drama show; rather than growing a business, its heroine Allison Heart is building a career.

There are two things that drive a standard TV medical drama. One is the inherently high, emotionally-charged stakes: life, death, fertility, fear, suffering, the drowned and the saved; people at their most vulnerable and broken, on some of the worst (and occasionally best) days of their lives. The other thing is attachment to an ensemble cast, a surrogate family: this succeeds when the audience likes the regular cast, gets the sense of a circle of close friends, and feels included in it.

Heart’s Medicine knows this. It knows that these are emotional notes it has to hit. It devotes a lot of energy to them, and it doesn’t really succeed – and this is entirely due to the sheer weight of constraints it’s under. Continue reading

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