B.J. Best's IFComp 2022 reviews

Like some others, I’ve participated in the Comp before but I’ve never reviewed the games I played. I very much enjoyed the community of reviewers in the last Comp, and as an author I know the value of seeing someone else play my game and thoughtfully consider it.

During the voting period, I tend to skew pretty heavily toward the shorter games, lingering with the longer ones later on. I’m not sure how many games I’ll get to or how long each review will be, but generally I want to attend to some of the lesser-reviewed games out there. I feel like, very broadly, shorter games also tend to do less well in the Comp. There’s probably a variety of factors at play, but here I’d like to focus on some cool things that some of the shorter games do well.

13 Likes

To Persist/Exist/Endure, Press 1 by Anthony O (Texture)

Well, the Agency of Neverending Happiness and Clearing Out Monsters From Under Your Bed has called. And we don’t seem that happy about it. Especially since, despite the agency calling us, we now appear to be the ones stuck in their phone-menu hell.

To Persist follows through on that premise. Your first option is to press 1 for Polish, and lo, the next page is indeed rendered into what I can only assume is accurate Polish. Option 3 yields a directory of a series of unreachable departments that mingle corporatespeak and self-help lingo: the department of “Quality Assurance and Self-Reassurance,” for example. Most branches finish up with only one meaningful action: hanging up the phone, leaving us as sad as we were when we answered the call in the first place, or worse.

Many stories in the fifteen-minutes-or-less category tend to falter because they can’t live up to their premises. The subjects are often too large, and a too-brief experience tends to diminish them. But here, the author has chosen the perfect form. We’ve likely already done enough wandering through several levels of a phone menu in our real lives, and we expect it to take no longer than the five minutes it does to complete a single playthrough of this story. To Persist does a very convincing job of making the facsimile real, in that the time amount spent in the story feels almost like a 1:1 correspondence to time spent in our actual lives.

Texture is also the perfect format for this story to be told. Practically, in such a phone menu, our only real options are to keep pressing buttons and onward, or simply give up. There’s no need to be fancy about it. The verbs “press” and “hang up” are almost always given as options, with only occasional other choices. The binary nature of the choice—to persist or to abandon—serves the story’s themes well.

Those themes get dark pretty quickly—the call from the Agency angers and saddens us. Sometimes we’re left questioning our worth or we decide the only thing we can do is lay down for a while. It was only here where the story’s brevity made the experience a bit wanting. I was often told how sad or weary I was, but I never really felt that as a player. Perhaps that’s because there’s a bit of a clash in tone. The writing, overall, is witty, and seems to satirize its subject well. I spent more time admiring the small details (“We hope you’re having a day!” is fundamentally amusing to me, for example) than necessarily feeling like I was getting dragged down by the oppressive machinations of some psychosocial exterminator. The story tries hard to make me feel the way it wants: a common ending line upon hanging up is, “Everything is the same as it was. Everything is as sad as it’s always been.” I wish I would have genuinely felt that more.

Still, there are deeper themes that To Persist approaches, such as how our seemingly ubiquitous connections to communications technology and, by extension, each other, often lead to us feeling more alone. We never get to talk to anyone at the Agency. We’re just another button-pusher to them.

To Persist has chosen its subject and its form well for the sub-fifteen-minute category. It gives us a robust experience in five minutes or less, enough that you’ll want to pick up the phone a few more times to see if you can finally reach the department of Monster Resources.

9 Likes

In Praise of the Python Games
Jungle Adventure by Paul Barter (Windows executable with Python source)
Traveller’s Log by Null Sandez (Python source)

As one begins a new IF project, the possibilities of straying from the heavyweight engines of Inform and Twine have a certain allure. Perhaps they will offer new ways to tell stories. Perhaps they’re a chance to craft an IF engine exactly the way an author would like it. Perhaps it’s simply a way for an author to tell a story in the programming environment with which they’re most comfortable.

The specific possibility of creating IF in Python crops up on the Intfiction forums every once in a while, including the provocatively titled “Why on earth would anyone enter raw Python code in the Spring Thing?” post from last year, which yields a pretty thoughtful discussion of the various factors involved. And Andrew Schultz with his charming Walking into It from last year’s Comp has proven that such a submission can place reasonably well.

I find this year’s two Python games to share some pretty strong similarities. On the positive side, both tell stories and offer interaction opportunities that might not be otherwise elsewhere. On the less positive side, both are highly idiosyncratic visions of their authors, and often resist an outside player approaching them.

Traveller’s Log is essentially a very stripped down RPG. You are given somewhat of a backstory, and then are instantly thrown into the game’s loop. In a very literal way, Traveller’s Log is a walking simulator, as that is by far the most common action you’ll undertake. Sometimes you’ll find an inn, which will house you for the evening or otherwise give you a few coins of the realm. Occasionally you’ll have an enemy encounter—I believe there are only two, a bandit and a creature called a snadwick. You can warp to another area (though they seem pretty similar) or attempt to trade with a villager in order to become more powerful: a sword to slash with, and increased magical power if you happen to be magical (which seems to be predetermined at the beginning of the game).

Every turn you are given a sitrep: your coins, your inventory, your location, and the like. Then you take another step forward, afternoon turns into night, and then you repeat it all again. It’s not clear from the outset that it’s possible to win the game, but there seem to be a few conditions to do so. As a non-magic-user, which I was for my first two playthroughs, one is kind of painful to reach: collecting 100 coins. Fortunately, there are cheats to be found in the source code that can make this effort easier.

It’s not clear why a similar structure couldn’t have been implemented with more modern comforts in Twine, though. RPG-ish by Stuart Lilford proves the general idea can done in 300 words. I’ll return to that thought.

Jungle Adventure is a parser game. Your plane has crashed, stranding you in the titular jungle. Ostensibly, your game is to survive and escape. The game offers some nifty ASCII graphics as set pieces. But, like Traveller’s Log, your commands must be precise. “Status” produces your inventory, not “I”. The examine command is instead implemented as “look”. To begin, I made it precisely two successful moves before getting stuck (but not before inadvertently jumping to my death). I even guessed that maybe a radio would be helpful. But I had no idea where to find one—turns out “look pockets” or “look clothes” reveals that “You find a 2 way radio in your pocket!”. It seemed odd to me, as the player, that I wouldn’t have already known that, and there’s not much hint that my clothes or pockets are important to me or are implemented in the game. After calling over your co-pilot, you can explore more of the game’s world through a series of menus and individually presented locales. This part of the game is reasonably logical, except again for hidden items that require the author’s exact phrasing. Consulting the walkthrough, I learned that you can take the batteries out of the radio and put them in the torch / flashlight. But even with that knowledge, I had to look through the source code to find that the precise command is “take out batteries” with no mention of the radio at all.

After killing a wolf with a shotgun, you enter a maze of a cave. (But again, only with the correct command: “go in” works.) There’s a nice little minimap that shows your approximate location, and the game becomes a series of rights, lefts, ups, and downs. I died four times in the maze: twice losing fights to snakes, and twice by bumbling into traps of swinging axes. At this point, I gave up on Jungle Adventure, doomed to wander the cave maze forever.

Conventional wisdom suggests neither of these games will place well in the Comp. Asking someone to run an unknown .exe file or fire up IDLE or Visual Studio Code is a bridge too far to many. Both games are heavily underimplemented. In the case of Traveller’s Log, it’s simply that the game becomes very repetitive—both in action and the every-turn report you get that serves as the bulk of the game’s narration. In Jungle Adventure, you will receive one “You cant do that” response after another as you struggle to enter the exact commands the parser will like.

So why, then, have I come to praise these games, not bury them? Perhaps their secrecy is part of their allure. For me, these games hearken to a pre-Internet age. They are something you might have downloaded from a BBS or purchased from a shareware catalog. You had no idea what you were actually getting. And if you were going to make a genuine attempt to play, you had better quickly acclimate yourself to the author’s expectations; otherwise, you weren’t going to get very far. Each time I entered a correct command into Jungle Adventure was a momentary thrill: I had pleased the program, and it pleased me in return. And I enjoyed seeing the number of merged entities slowly increase in Traveller’s Log, even though I had no idea what they actually did.

Being able to look at the source itself is also a kind of pleasure. Since the source is released with the game (or, in fact, is the actual game), the authors must expect us to look there. I think this is important: looking at the source and trying to discern what you need to do to progress is part of the game experience itself. These games, in some ways, become meta-games: you can’t play the game without understanding the author’s expectations. Those expectations aren’t rendered in the text of the game. Rather, the author has set up a scavenger hunt for you: “All the answers you seek are here. You simply need to decode the clues.”

There’s something romantic, too, about these authors eschewing traditional IF engines. They sailed away from all modern conveniences, departing for rough new lands. And you, as the player, get to join as one of those pioneers. Yes, things will not go well. Yes, things will break. But there are so few genuine exploration opportunities left these days. Everything else, it seems, has been mapped, charted, and solved.

These games invite you into such an intimate, walled-off experience that it becomes much like a candlelit table for two: just you, the author, and the occasional snadwick or wolf served as an appetizer. My Inform game and your Inform game are certainly good places to eat, as far as chain restaurants go. But it’s nice, sometimes, to go to this weird little basement joint that has like two tables and is only open on Tuesdays. There’s no menu, so you can only hope you like what the chef’s making.

In the end, Python games like Jungle Adventure and Traveller’s Log are love letters sent from the moon into the void. As such, they can be messy, neurotic, and inchoately passionate. They have a difficult relationship with gravity. But open your hearts, dear readers, and come love the code and the person behind it.

13 Likes

What an uplifting paean to the nonconformist Python IF game. I had a go at Jungle Adventure and loved your review a lot more than I loved the game, which I simply found very frustrating (I didn’t get very far). But, with your words ringing in my ears, perhaps I’ll draw on my reserves of patience and go back to have a more considered look at it - and maybe even have a go at Traveller’s Log which I’d have otherwise probably avoided.

2 Likes

Glad you enjoyed the review! Admittedly, it chooses to ignore the proverbial forest in favor of these two particular trees. I think Jungle Adventure is worth moving past the first scene (i.e., after you locate the radio). Death-trap mazes are my personal stopping point, but I bet the maze is easily mappable and I’d be curious to hear impressions of someone who completes the game. Traveller’s Log wound up getting pretty repetitive to me, though I enjoyed my time with it while I tried to make sense of the systems it constantly reported on. (I still have no idea if my location matters, for example.) It seems like there may be more interesting activities if you’re a spellcaster in the game, but I was not destined to be one, alas.

1 Like

An update on Jungle Adventure: I went and mapped the maze. It isn’t that large and has a few interesting features. The random enemy encounters are pretty lethal, though, so save early and save often. Once you’re through the maze, you’re also near the end of the story, which ends on a cliffhanger (almost literally). I remain charmed by the game’s idiosyncrasies.

Below, I’ve crudely mapped the maze in case you don’t wish to.

5 Likes

Thanks! I love the background on this. Also, this reminds me I was thinking of putting up a Trizbort map thread in general.

I took JA out for a brief spin and do want to get through it.This is going to be a big help.

1 Like

Indifference Is a Feature, Not a Bug
Tower of Plargh by caranmegil (Inform)

(Note: The whole game is spoiled below.)

Words are funny. You smash letters together and they can make funny sounds. You can smash other letters together and ask people to do things with them.

Maybe that’s the premise of Tower of Plargh. In the game, you play as You (as good-looking as ever), imprisoned in the eponymous tower. You begin in a central room, named as such, completely set with gray stone. Rooms lead off in every cardinal and intercardinal direction. The other eight rooms are identically described and identically stony. Each room has a name coming from the Funny Word School of interactive fiction: flod, plid, and the like. The central room has a colored egg and a Ye Shiny Red Button to press. It is up to You, good-looking as ever, to figure out what to do next.

You cannot eat, break, or open the egg. Pressing the button insists “You need the floor prize to continue.” Examining the floor leads You to conclude You cannot see any such thing. The ceiling, mentioned in the room’s description, likewise gives way to imperceptibility. Words are funny.

But You are intrepid. You learn You can go west to the flod room and drop the egg. “Well, now you’ve done it,” Tower of Plargh intones, and indeed You have. A golden egg has materialized. You go and press the button, and the walls of the tower seem to waver, then reform. Emboldened, You carry onward. You go to the pled room, where Tower of Plargh tells you to “Jump until it is holy.” You do. And You do. And You do until a golden seven materializes. And You press the button again. And then You are finding kewpie dolls. And then You are making Bobby Darin references. And then You have a golden octagon. And so forth.

And what do You see when You carefully examine the golden seven? Reader-player, let me tell you: You see nothing special. Because in the world of Tower of Plargh, golden numbers that materialize after holy jumping are exactly that: nothing special.

Now, it may seem like I am being overly critical of what’s clearly an underimplemented game. But it’s funny, in the way words are funny: there’s a genuine pleasure to be had in playing Tower of Plargh. The puzzles aren’t illogical—they aren’t unfair once you learn how to solve them. Rather, they are alogical. The distinction is important. The game never tries to mislead you or make you feel stupid when you can’t figure out what to do next. Instead, it abides, immovable and unmoved. Playing Tower of Plargh is like being in a room with one thousand buttons to press, and being delighted when you’re rewarded with birdseed for pressing the right one.

Here I am reminded of Ron Gilbert’s classic essay “Why Adventure Games Suck and What to Do about It”:

What makes most games tough to play is that the puzzles are arbitrary and unconnected. Most are solved by chance or repetitive sessions of typing “light candle with match”, “light paper with match”, “light rug with match”, until something happens. This is not tough game play, this is masturbation. I played one game that required the player to drop a bubble gum wrapper in a room in order to get a trap door to open (object names have been changed to protect the guilty). What is the reasoning? There is none. It’s an advanced puzzle, I was told.

Indeed, Tower of Plargh is simply a string of “advanced puzzles.” And the tower is small enough, and the objects few enough, that there’s always the breath of possibility that You will be able to escape, since golden numbers are nothing special, since You’re singing fifties tunes while bathing kewpie dolls in disgusting bathwater.

But then the monkey comes, replete with its frustrating random movements. You don’t know what to do with the monkey. You try talking to it; giving it your golden egg, seven, and octagon; killing it; commanding it; petting it; taking it. The monkey refuses your interactions with it. It walks away.

And then it is You, good-looking as ever, who does the unfair thing. You realize that >PURLOIN MONKEY is somehow still a command available to You. And You are asked if You mean the monkey or the golden monkey. You mean the golden monkey.

You have cheated the Tower of Plargh. Your reward is excommunication from it.

You (the reader-player, also good-looking) will probably think that Tower of Plargh is not a very good game. Tower of Plargh, frankly, does not care what you think. Tower of Plargh is like a Surrealist thought experiment: Imagine a golden seven on a pedestal in a locked gallery in an art museum which has never been open and which will be demolished tomorrow. The golden seven doesn’t need you. And it certainly doesn’t need You. You were no more than a “none of the above” answer on a theological pop quiz.

Ultimately, Tower of Plargh is only answerable to its creator, though we are grateful for the questions it asked of us. Then, once emancipated, we will do what we must. We will forget about how we thought words were funny. We will carry on with our drab little lives. We will wear our golden octagons not like haloes but like headbands, jumping, ever jumping, hoping to remember what it felt like that time back in the tower. That time when we were finally holy.

(Footnote: In conversation with @aschultz, I learned there is an in-world solution to the monkey: >TOUCH MONKEY. This does not mean the PURLOIN solution is illegitimate, though–the code allows for it, so we must assume it is a reasonable course of action.)

12 Likes

I was going to adhere to my rule of only reading the beginning of the review, but then I started crying with laughter and read through it all. This is the best review I’ve ever read. Perhaps you should win IFComp again for writing it.

7 Likes

WRONG. It clearly says “gray stone-like material”, not “gray stone”. It’s an important distinction. Adds to the atmosphere.

2 Likes

Ludology vs. Narratology in Interactive Fiction, or, Why the Heck Does Andrew Schultz Keep Entering Chess Puzzles into Various Interactive Fiction Events?
Zero Chance of Recovery by Andrew Schultz (Inform)

I suck at chess.

I live with a child whose age does not yet end with “-teen” and this person routinely beats me at chess, even though I’m the one who taught him the damn game in the first place.

I suck slightly less at being a gracious loser.

So, I’ve resisted trying Schultz’s previous chess efforts, figuring they wouldn’t be My Thing. But in last year’s Comp, Andrew told a charming story via tic-tac-toe, a game in which I can at least play my tween to a draw. So this time around I thought I’d saddle up my trusty knight, and ride out into the checkboard plains of whatever awaited me in Zero Chance of Recovery.

The plot is present but thin: you are the white king and have been waylaid by mercenaries sent by the opposing black king. They strike a bargain of sorts, and you are dragged to the corner of h8, out of the way of both the black king and his remaining pawn who will soon reach the other side of the board, be promoted to a queen, and conclude your miserable reign.

This is where I began to chafe against the story’s aim. Why does my location need to be h8? Why can’t I be instead dragged to the stockade or a pond at the edge of a forest? The answer is simple: It’s because this isn’t interactive fiction. It’s a chess puzzle.

Except that’s wrong, too. It’s easy to abstract chess, to speak of various openings and gambits, to write down the progression of matches in algebraic notation. Even in this game, chess is rendered, abstractly and admirably, on an ASCII grid, with your role denoted by an uppercase K. There is no physical board, no physical pieces, no actual person on the other side of that board bearing a cocksure grin because he is about to beat his father.

And even that game is an abstraction. Because chess, fundamentally, is a story of war. There are royalty and those who serve them. There are the infantrymen who are nigh meaningless and destined to die. There are the cavalrymen whose loss pains us more, castles with which to protect ourselves, and a very powerful queen who will be sacrificed if and when necessary. The blood is black and white and drips off the side of the board.

These observations, of course, are not revelatory. We all know the pieces, their names, their hints of a medieval past. But I find it’s easy to forget those connotations when I’m failing the calculus of all of this, when I’m just trying to hightail my queen to one square out of sixty-four where maybe I can regroup for a while.

Ludologists would find that proper. The names of the pieces and the very vague backstory are dim baubles. Chess is simply a honed system of rules that has provided emergent play for centuries.

But—and here is where I am won over—not to Schultz. Yes, the bulk of the gameplay of Zero Chance of Recovery is making chess moves. The game says that from its starting position, no more than seven moves are needed until you reach an ending, and I was grateful for that kindness. The game also helpfully explains when you’ve made some key choices that have impacted the black king’s motivations, thus furthering the chance you may eventually succeed in the story. The jeering dialogue from the opposing king is appropriately aggravating while clueing the approach he’ll be taking this time around. And you get apt descriptions upon examining the other pieces of the board and their roles in this frustrating affair.

But then you consider the others. The ones long since slain. Yes, they’re all there (but in memory—you must examine them and they will be recalled), and all described with the same haunting staccato: “It’s been so long. So many deaths. So many people to keep track of. No time or energy to get them all straight.”

This is no mere puzzle. This is the blood of your court, of his court, mixing together and staining the field gray.

Schultz wisely plays this lightly, though, lest the tragedy rend the game. The writing is affable and breezy. There’s even a fun meta-moment should you RESTART.

Still, the title is Zero Chance of Recovery, which might mean something very different were it slapped onto, say, a sci-fi thriller. There’s no reason, though, why we can’t use those potential meanings here. This is literally a game you cannot win. At best, you can make things slightly more uncomfortable for the black king, but doing so requires the sacrifice of the only two remaining soldiers. There is nothing left for you anymore, nor him. Flags have fallen, armor is mangled, and castles have been trebucheted into ruined rubble.

What are you going to recover at this point, anyway? Bones? Ghosts?

The game itself isn’t harrowing—indeed, it’s entertaining!—but I find its implications to be. In the end, the story wins, as it should. Here, Schultz offers us a sobering one, finely wrung from the diagrams of a chess puzzle more than one hundred years old.

11 Likes

Thanks for the review and sorry this response/acknowledgement slipped! I still have a bug to fix, and I said “Oh, I’ll fix this bug before responding!” (spoiler: I still haven’t.)

I have to admit, I sort of just wanted to start a title with Z.

It’s a thin line between good frustration and bad frustration, and I want to try to offer good frustration. But that’s so hard to describe! I guess I can liken it to working out and encouraging someone to put a bit more weight on the machine. But some people don’t want to turn into muscleheads (I don’t) and I can’t blame them!

Incidentally, the previous working title was “You’re Too Old and Slow.”

4 Likes

Why One Should Not Write One’s Own Footnotes
Lost at the Market by Nynym (Gruescript)

One of my favorite adages about writing poetry comes from Stanley Kunitz, who says good poems “end on an image and don’t explain it.” This advice recalls, perhaps, the much earlier Modernist ending of Archibald MacLeish’s “Ars Poetica”: “A poem should not mean / But be.”

Lost at the Market by Nynym opens pleasantly, with the screen a muted palette of blues, oranges, and browns. There is an odd displacement felt in the introduction: “On my boatride back to my hometown after a failed music career, my insomnia seems to have finally ended, yet the world I have woken up to seems so different than the one I know of, and it talks to me in it’s distinct voice known only to me.” Our opening room description is equally dreamy: “A fog covered room, unseen yet familiar, in your heart you knew you will be waking up here, yet you kept that thought aside. Still it is comforting to be here, but there’s nothing to do.” Okay, so we’ll settle in a bit, and try to make our way through the haze.

The concept of a room, as defined by traditional parser games, is often used interestingly loosely. At the beginning of the game, we visit such rooms as Who_am_I and reach_for_the_mirror. Whether this is intentional by the author, a byproduct of something odd going on with Gruescript, or the author not necessarily having command over the tool is unclear. I found myself engaged by the non-spatial navigation the game at times offered.

The next main room is a similar dreamscape: “You are now in a big bright room, you see a beautiful white tree, a white tree within a white room, a beautiful white room that you will never encounter again in your dreams. But you are happy to have seen such a sight, and happy even if it was just a dream.” After that, the game proper begins to start, where we need to perform tasks to progress. For no particular reason, we must break a sandcastle. Then we must unbolt a toilet seat which causes a hole to form on the bathroom floor. (But, before entering the hole, we must pause and admire the unique inclusion of “hammerhoid cream” in the bathroom—because if that isn’t the best damn trade name for hemorrhoid cream, I don’t know what is.) Then there’s a somewhat more traditional layout of rooms and a rudimentary quasi-puzzle to get a guitar. All along, there’s the thin narrative about your relationship with music and the life you dream of with or without it.

It’s all fine, in a hazy sort of way. The sentences are written in odd rhythms and often favor surreality. The whole experience takes maybe fifteen minutes. It’s pleasant enough as an experiment. But my concern with Lost at the Market is that it often uses the surreality as a dodge instead of addressing the central issue: the narrator’s apparently failed dream of making music for a living.

My concerns were amplified upon visiting the “Walkthrough and Hints” section of the game’s website. Seeing as the link is constantly available on the game’s main playing area, we should properly consider the linked text to be part of the game’s experience. In the ABOUT section, one paragraph begins: “While an “Author’s Interpretation” portion is something I would like to avoid for this game”—and I want to stop the author right there. Yes. An author’s interpretation portion is indeed something all games should avoid. If an author feels the need to preemptively explain away their game, it is highly indicative that the game itself is underdeveloped or otherwise misshapen. The explanation should live within the game itself.

What follows inspires even less confidence: “I personally wrote it as a representation of the dichotomy we often face in our lives. Our protagonist is someone who enjoys going with the flow, someone who likes to avoid overthinking life’s hard decisions, yet the subconscious doesn’t lets anyone be it’s master.
Symbolic representations such as the old man by the beach, the poster on the wall, taking off the toilet seat :slight_smile: are thus open to interpretations. One can see the old man as an imagined future self, perhaps a boundary between the protagonist’s sense of self and what forms the concept of others.” This sounds, unfortunately, like someone making up answers for an essay on a work of literature they’ve heard about but haven’t directly read. And it makes me question the whole experience of Lost at the Market. The rest of the story is written in a very similar linguistic style. If all aspects of the story are open to interpretation, Occam’s razor suggests that the story is ultimately meaningless, not that it is a deep and tangled web of meanings that we are ever on the verge of apprehending.

This sort of half-explaining, half-apologizing writing undermines whatever the text was trying to accomplish. The opacity of the original narration doesn’t help matters. I worry the game increasingly looks just like a run-of-the-mill dream, the kind you have every night: odd, but bodiless and therefore meaningless.

This is not to say authors shouldn’t try to engage with their readership. There is a strong tradition of authors posting postmortems following various festivals and comps. These posts are a place where writers can be, if we so choose, our neurotic, disorganized, and maybe mildly defensive selves. But all the “what I tried to do with this story was …” talk comes after the initial spate of community engagement, not before or during it. And there is a joy in the communal commiseration of those postmortems: most times, trying to write something good and memorable and engaging and emotional and fun and catchy and gripping and insightful and whatever else is really, really hard. It’s nice to see that for all the varied stories and games that people create, we’re united by a shared truth: sometimes making something that’s supposed to be fun is no fun at all.

Lost at the Market makes the mistake of tipping its hand too early. There are no philosophical riddles here; if the story could ultimately mean anything (indeed, dear reader, what meaning would you make of a sandcastle, a toilet seat, and a hand-painted concert poster?), it most likely means nothing.

A poem should not mean, but be. End on an image and don’t explain it.

For example, here. Feel free to take this coupon good for one free tube of Hammerhoid™ cream.

4 Likes

I overall agree with what you say here - about the game and your more general points - but for what it’s worth I thought the sandcastle did kinda work: somebody put effort into making something beautiful or at least personally satisfying to build, but because you can see that the tide will inevitably wash it away, you preemptively destroy it since at least that way you have agency over how it ends. So it’s a metaphor for how the protagonist has decided their artistic dreams are doomed and then turned that into an ego-protecting self-fulfilling prophecy.

The others I got nothing out of - maybe the toilet entering scene is a reflection of the protagonist’s self-degrading hatred because of their cowardice? Or maybe it’s a Trainspotting reference? - but yeah, I thought that one wasn’t too arbitrary.

(If this interpretation does match the authorial intent, though, it does call into question the “I dunno, you decide what it means” vibe you note in the walkthrough)

4 Likes

Yeah, you raise a good point about the sandcastle. I’m wondering if the issue is a larger one about how good surreality should work. I was most interested in the front half of the game with its weirdness. When the game became more typically parser, with its logical room connections and its reasonable-ish puzzle to get the guitar, I was less drawn to it. On the other hand, “make your game even more surreal / weirder!” seems like bad advice overall if one hopes to do well in the Comp. (Though I vaguely recall Funicular Simulator last year kinda being more surreal / philosophical in nature? I might be misremembering, though.)

2 Likes

Funicular Simulator was definitely surreal, but I think one reason it didn’t go off the rails (ha!) was, you noticed some surrealities were, indeed, odd, and based on how much you knew, things might make more sense or be interpreted differently. And it was about investigating oddities and a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. It had a Groundhog Day sort of mechanic. So it wasn’t just surreality for surreality’s sake.

BTW, I tend to give up on surreality if it doesn’t have a cheap semi-familiar joke to grease the skids to get me going. So I missed the possible significance of the sandcastle.

3 Likes

Yeah I think surrealism is really hard to get right! The line between so out-there that things feel wacky, and so on-the-nose that the allegory feels leaden, can be a very narrow one. And for me personally, I tend to respond very positively to writing with concrete, well-realized details (and respond negatively to writing that doesn’t have them), while surrealism often winds up trafficking in symbolism and abstraction that grope towards universalism, but can end up washed out and uncompelling.

Funicular Simulator is maybe a good example – I really liked it – because beyond just being generally well-written and well-designed, it did two things surreal games often don’t: it created a contrast between the High Weirdness stuff and a more grounded, though still unfamiliar, reality, and it had characters with developed personalities, who were very much archetypes but felt like specific spins on the concepts they represented rather than just being cardboard stand-ins.

It’s hard to reduce this to a formula, though – there are probably other examples of games that tried similar things but didn’t wind up being as effective. This might be more the realm of induction than deduction…

2 Likes