IF Comp 2018: Animalia

animaliaAnimalia is a game in which you play four forest creatures who are trying to cover up the ritual sacrifice of a small child by piloting a replica of that small child. You get to choose which animals control the head, arms, torso and legs; some of them are more inept than others, but the sum effect is always a big mess. It is a very silly game, and genuinely funny. Continue reading

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IF Comp 2018 Blurbage

2018’s ballot is really big once again, so it’s been quite a lot of work just to go through all the blurbs and artwork, assess them, and unpack those assessments; hence this coming out rather later than I’d prefer. Hence also me not always finding very much to say, and sometimes only talking about the art or only the blurb.

But I think this is something that we ought to talk about, because presentation is absolutely critical in setting expectations, drawing in the right players, and establishing reserves of player confidence in your game – especially for authors who aren’t established yet. It’s also, to be honest, a set of skills somewhat distinct from those required to make a good work of IF, and it’s not something that authors get a lot of direct feedback on. So here we go again!

My reactions are based partly on technical proficiency and sensible choices made – but primarily from my personal reaction of whether this presentation makes me eager to play the game, pushes me away or just kinda sits there neutrally. You have been warned.

The Good

plusminus+=x. Strong suspicion that this title was chosen so as to come first in the list. That said, Chandler Groover consistently makes interesting games. With professional-quality graphic design, also. The cover doesn’t tell you much on its own – it’s the kind of pretty-but-generic image you’d get on the cover of a Penguin reprint – but it looks good and it meshes well with the blurb.

Abbess Otilia’s Life and Death: This isn’t very pretty – it looks like a digital tracing of a medieval illustration and the effect’s a bit rough – but it does a good job of picking out its setting, subject-matter and stylistic concerns. I would dearly like this to be good; I am into text-focused fictions and medieval nerdery, so it’s on the money for me.

Alias ‘The Magpie’. This is a decent cover, although it doesn’t look great at the size it’s displayed: there are a bunch of artefacts and the text’s gone fuzzy. The blurb gives a good idea of what to expect: a light-hearted, trope-reliant caper – and JJ Guest has done that well before. Got to say, though, either ‘Alias: Magpie’ or plain ‘The Magpie’ would have made a punchier title.

Basilica de Sangre: This is a not-obvious concept, and Bitter Karella writes with enthusiasm and dedication. In the past their goofy comedy didn’t quite click for me, but I’d be happy to be convinced this time around. Art: this is a pretty clear example of capable artist, meh graphic design.

Dead Man’s Fiesta: Concise blurb that gets at the meat of the premise, getting at both general mood and themes and the central hook, without overdefining everything. The art isn’t a feat of transcendent beauty or anything, but it’s decently-composed, legible, has a decent colour scheme. I expect this author to have a decent grasp of all the fundamental skills.

devotionaliaDevotionalia: The art text is trying something unusual and mostly succeeds at it, but the background is pretty illegible – obviously my monitor’s gamma wasn’t set just on the knife-edge of perfection, because I didn’t visually parse the two faces crying tears into one another’s eyeballs. Blurb: the theme is interesting to me but the writing could be punchier, although the last two lines are the Good Stuff.

Erstwhile: The cover is in the simple-and-boring-but-inoffensive camp: it doesn’t add much, but it’s legible and not ugly. The blurb is good: motive, interaction hook, not overlong.

Ürs: This is a striking and legible cover, and the blurb suggests something weird enough that I’m not bored by the game before I’ve begun; it might or might not be my cup of tea but it seems likely to be a piece with a strong voice and with craft invested into it.

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IF Comp 2018: The Master of the Land

masteroflandNext up in the Comp: The Master of the Land, a choice-based thing by Pseudavid.

This is an intrigue-at-the-fancy-party game, set in a fictional Mediterranean nation early in the C19th. It’s Burburum Day, a kind of Carnival or Saturnalia, a night of reversals and strange portents, of blurring of boundaries. You play Irene, Lady Victor, daughter of an influential and complicated family.

You wander around a small palace and its gardens; each location might have actions available, depending on the time and where you’re at are in various subplots. The presentation of choices suggests the influence of Fallen London, and the setting has a slightly similar sensibility for shadowy strangeness around the edges, but the fantastical is kept rather more distant, and its characters read as solid people rather than half-person, half-archetype.

This is an odd and audacious thing. There is a great deal going on here; it’s a story about the personal and the political, about the failures of liberal politics. I like a lot of the things it’s aiming for, and sometimes it hits them. At the same time, it’s got its share of problems. Continue reading

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IF Comp 2018: Birmingham IV

birmingham4This is a port of an I7 game written in 1988, using The Quill, on a BBC Micro. In the intervening thirty years there have been rather a lot of developments in parser IF, in terms of design as much as of technology.

I did not get very far. The protagonist, the ponytailed Phil, has a dream in which he time-travels to a sort of vaguely-Ren Faireish version of his Black Country home, which is now a quiet rural village. There is a Little John quarterstaff-duel-on-a-bridge bit, and a tavern, and a bridge troll, and rather a lot about exotic vegetables and contemporary instruments. I got through the first major puzzle by using the walkthrough, and it was sufficiently obscure that I knew I’d be using the walkthrough for everything thereafter. Continue reading

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IF Comp 2018: Devotionalia

devotionaliaI started playing Devotionalia over lunch. Lunch was cheesy ramen. I had to stop within five minutes because the two experiences were not aesthetically compatible.

Like a lot of weird fiction, this is a mood piece rather than a plot piece; it’s more of an evocative portrait of a situation than it is a progression of actions. The protagonist is the last priest of strange and indifferent gods – vast serpent-things from an ocean above – who have for no clear reason drawn back, and left their priesthood to dwindle. Continue reading

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IF Comp 2018: Abbess Otilia’s Life and Death

otiliaNext up in the Comp: Abbess Otilia’s Life and Death by A.B., a choice-based game presented as a medieval illuminated text.

This is a work that was very obviously inspired by Harmonia (although it’s made in Twine rather than Windrift): it’s presented as a literal, physical text, complete with marginalia, and it is concerned with Women in History.

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IF Comp 2018: Within a circle of water and sand

watersand

Within a circle of water and sand is a choice-based game by Romain.

This a Polynesian fantasy, a story about a people who use outrigger canoes to cross vast tropical oceans and have names with (C)V(V) phonology. The protagonist is from one pseudo-Polynesian culture and is encountering another, unfamiliar one; cultural exploration isn’t really a major concern of the work, though, and exists only to support the action-horror plot. It doesn’t pull anything egregiously awful around depicting Polynesians, but it’s a fairly superficial treatment, in much the same way that D&D-default fantasy doesn’t usually try to say or reveal much about medieval Europe.

I didn’t quite twig what this was going for until someone used the word ‘gamebook’ of it, and that’s about where you should set your expectations: it plays and reads very much like a particularly extended version of a vignette in a Fighting Fantasy book, albeit with less visible stat-tracking. It’s essentially a young adult adventure, primarily concerned with building exciting action sequences with a touch of horror. It’s not shy about killing you a lot. Often, when it kills you, it doesn’t make it entirely clear why; sometimes you get killed in service of the main plot, but sometimes just to remind you that the world is dangerous. (Some spoilers follow). Continue reading

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