Carter's IFComp 2020 reviews

Hello! I didn’t submit a game to IFComp this year because I procrastinated was concerned that, with the growing number of entries, each individual entry wouldn’t get the attention from reviewers that it deserved. So to help solve the other side of that problem, I’ll be writing up some reviews of IFComp games!

Quick background on me: I’m a computer programmer, and English was my worst subject in school. (That and art.) More than anything, I like IFComp entries that try new things with their technical implementation, really polish the heck out of their user interfaces, or remind me of technology from the years 1985-2010.

I’ll be looking at some combination of totally random entries and entries that I think look interesting. If there’s a particular game that you’d like to look at, please feel free to let me know!


Lore Distance Relationship (Naomi “Bez” Norbez, entry ID 2195)

I'll admit, I came into IFComp 2020 feeling hyped for the Neopets game. (I'd recommend downloading this one instead of playing the online version.)

Lore Distance Relationship is a Twine game about growing up on a virtual pet website. (The game calls it “Ruffians”, but it’s so obviously supposed to be Neopets that the author says that in the entry description.)

Interface-wise, the game takes place entirely inside of Ruffians – there are chat conversations, presented using a traditional Twine interface, and there are segments presented as a series of fictional screenshots of Ruffians. The screenshots don’t really look like an actual website. Instead, it’s a more idealized, cartoony rendering that shows only the information you currently care about. You click on an icon of a keyboard, and your character automatically fills out a whole screen full of information. I was initially kind of unsure about this, but I think it helps establish that the player-character isn’t just an empty vessel for the player. The author still managed to fit in lots of little references for the Neopets fans in the audience :slightly_smiling_face:.

There’s also sound, which is nice! You get effects when your character types and clicks on stuff, and full voiceover when your big sister looks over your shoulder and gives you advice. It worked really well as a way to separate stuff that happened inside Ruffians from stuff that happened outside Ruffians. But it is why I recommend downloading the game ahead of time, since sound files are pretty big and it’s kind of awkward to wait for them to load while you’re playing.

I only ran into one minor bug with an undefined passage – if you’re currently stuck on this, you can go back by opening the developer console and typing SugarCube.Engine.backward().

There are some great moments in the story, like when your big sister trades you all her stuff when she goes off to college – that was a nice, bittersweet moment that really took advantage of how the game was presented. Unfortunately, there were also some moments that didn’t quite land for me. At one point, you meet Bee at a convention for the first time, and are surprised to discover that she’s in a wheelchair. But it’s not really much of a surprise – Bee alludes to it earlier in the story, and because the convention happens off-screen, you only get to react to it once you’re partway into a conversation you have with Bee after it’s over. I dunno, maybe there’s some galaxy-brain narrative strategy I’m missing. (It also seemed like kind of a missed opportunity when there wasn’t a sound effect for your mom banging on the door. EDIT: An update added this, yay!)

All in all, though, it’s a nice little game! I’d recommend giving it a shot if you were into Neopets, or if you’re curious about what it was like to be into Neopets.


What the Bus? (E. Joyce, entry ID 2313)

A surreal Twine game where you're trying to get to work by taking a train to City Center, but the transit system is frustrating. Seems familiar, somehow...

What the Bus? is one of those games that’s all about exploring all the paths and finding all the endings.

You start out in what seems like a fairly normal city situation, but get on the wrong train and you’ll end up in all sorts of funny and/or interesting locations. I especially enjoyed exploring the underground mall, and the joke where the “I” in “ClTY CENTER” was actually a lowercase L. The usually-pretty-brief room descriptions made me wish I could spend more time in some of these places and explore them further, which seems like good writing to me.

The choice structure was designed really well, with its dead ends and multiple ways to get to the same place. There’s just enough complexity that finding everything is a little bit of a challenge, but it’s not so difficult that you’d get frustrated or need to take out a pencil and paper to make a map.

The interface here is pretty standard for Twine, but it’s been customized with a border/background that changes depending on which transit line you’re on. It looks good! There’s also a “Back” link on every page that undoes your last choice, which is helpful from a gameplay standpoint, but it does occasionally create awkward situations where your choices are “Return” or “Back”. (Didn’t Twine used to support using the browser back button to undo choices? That might’ve worked a little better…)

And maybe this is just me, but whenever I play one of these games where you find a bunch of numbered endings, I always think there’s gonna be a super-special final ending that you get once you’ve found everything. This game doesn’t seem to have one of those, for what it’s worth. If there is, I would really appreciate it if someone could send me a hint.


There’s also a “Back” link on every page that undoes your last choice, which is helpful from a gameplay standpoint, but it does occasionally create awkward situations where your choices are “Return” or “Back”. (Didn’t Twine used to support using the browser back button to undo choices? That might’ve worked a little better…)

It doesn’t anymore, or at least not automatically, which is too bad. Thank you for pointing out the issue with the wording, though! I’ve just uploaded a version with the text of the link changed to “Undo.”


Tragic (Jared Jackson, entry ID 2230)

It's like if XKCD #244, Photopia, and Hearthstone were all rolled together into one.

Tragic is, first and foremost, a deck-building game. It’s pretty fleshed out, especially compared to the kind of gameplay you usually see in an IFComp entry: there’s a whole bunch of different cards, equipment, and mechanics that interact in different ways. You use your cards to fight various enemies as you progress through a dungeon. The interface is custom-made in Unity, and while it’s definitely not as polished as a multi-million-dollar AAA game, it looks nice and gets the job done.

The story takes place on three layers simultaneously. The player character, Ben, is playing a tabletop role-playing game that Kelly’s designing for a competition. The player character of that game, Derrogan, finds himself transported from his fantasy setting to the twenty-first century, and he enters a card game tournament in hopes of speaking to a Grand Wizard. The player character of that game, whose name you get to select, is the one who has to fight through the dungeons and stuff. You might be thinking, “woah, that is too many layers to keep track of simultaneously”, but it’s actually communicated pretty well – one UI touch I particularly liked was that Ben and Kelly’s out-of-character conversations appear in comic-book-style speech bubbles on top of the game.

Unfortunately the game is kind of buggy. At one point, through a bugged interaction between a “your next Effect card triggers twice” card, a “retrieve a card from the Burn Zone” card, and a “gain two energy next turn” card, I managed to obtain a card named Card Name stuck permanently at the top of my hand that, whenever used, would cause me to gain two additional energy at the start of each turn. (This was a pretty massive advantage considering you’re normally limited to three energy per turn.) It’s also possible to get the UI stuck by clicking through dialogue segments too quickly.

I was a little disappointed by the ending I got – Derrogan wins the tournament and is about to meet the Grand Wizard, but it’s Ben’s bedtime, so the game ends with a promise that they’ll get to it in the next session. It was a little abrupt, so I’m not sure if this is a sequel hook or an indication that I made poor choices during the story segments. The walkthrough mentions that there are multiple endings, so I tried playing again to see if I’d get a different one, but I wasn’t actually able to beat the game a second time. I kept losing to one of the tougher enemies in the second dungeon – I think it was called a basilisk? – and while getting ten additional max hit points when you die is nice from a story perspective it doesn’t really help when the basilisk swings at you for fifty damage every few turns.

So, yeah! It’s a pretty nice deck-building game, and you’ll probably have more fun if you’re actually good at deck-building games.


Passages (Jared W Cooper, entry ID 2292)

The "Speculative" genre should probably have clued me in that I wasn't the target audience for this one. It's really short, so feel free to just play it yourself without reading what I have to say.

Okay so the story of this one is that we’re reading some mixed-up journal pages from a guy who lives in a neighborhood where people have wormholes under their houses that suck up important objects and people. The guy is sad because his girlfriend fell into one of the wormholes and now he can’t ever see her again, but he seems to think she’s travelling through time and/or reading his diary. I suspect there’s some kind of metaphor or symbolism here, but I’m not literary enough to understand what it is. (I kind of hope Victor Gijsbers reviews this one so he can explain what I’m supposed to be getting from it.)

As far as interactivity goes, this is one of those games where there’s a page of text with a link at the bottom, and you click the link to go to the next page of text, and then you repeat this process until you get to a page with no link at which point the game is over. You know, like a book. Which I guess is the question on my mind right now: why is this an interactive fiction and not, like, a book?

In my mind, the great thing about IF is that you have all these additional tools you can use to tell your story better. You can customize the way the text is presented to better fit what you want your game to feel like. You can use interactivity to let players make choices, or force them to think about what’s happening, or help them empathize with the main character. Everything from the cover art to the tiniest details of the interface can (and should!) be changed to better fit the feelings and messages you want to leave players with.

Except here, the author hasn’t really used any of the tools available. It’s just some text presented in that default Twine theme with the white-on-black serif font. So, yeah, why?

Maybe it has something to do with those themes and stuff that I didn’t understand.

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BYOD (n-n, entry ID 2254)

Don't let the "micro" in the subtitle scare you off: it uses the house-made-out-of-a-shipping-container design philosophy where all the important amenities are packed into one room.

BYOD makes a great impression right off the bat with a DOS-inspired landing page. It includes a couple nice little “feelies”, and I liked the IBM-PC-looking web font. (Incidentally, I also liked that the web font is actually included in the download package. Sometimes authors use resources from Google Fonts that don’t work if you try to play the game without Internet access.) If you aren’t familiar with DOS or don’t care, you just have to click the word PLAY that flashes white when you first open the page. Everybody wins! The subsequent page that has the interpreter on it is sadly a little default-theme-looking, but hey, I’ll take what I can get.

The plot of the game is that you’re a new intern at a big tech company, but they didn’t actually get your desk or computer ready yet, so you just have to putter around the reception area with your personal smartphone trying to get SOMETHING useful accomplished. (Hence: Bring Your Own Device.) Helping you on this quest is VFS, an app that lets you hack things in your vicinity with a couple of vaguely-Unix-inspired commands.

BYOD turns out to be one of those games that introduces a central mechanic, explores that mechanic a little bit, and doesn’t overstay its welcome. Like I said in the intro, it’s short but well-implemented! Both of the puzzles are easy enough to solve, but they still made me feel a little bit clever for figuring them out. Everything’s nice and fleshed out with object descriptions, it responds to a bunch of common joke commands like JUMP and XYZZY, and it’s got two different endings you can get.

In summary: good game, recommend! If you’re stuck, remember that you can type I to check your inventory.


The Place (Ima, entry ID 2212)

The great thing about interactive fiction is every once in a while, you have a completely magical experience through sheer luck.

The Place is a short, linear Twine game about holing up in your room and using books for escapism. There isn’t much choice-based interactivity, but every once in a while, the game will ask you to type in some piece of information like “what’s your favorite color” and paste it into the text of the story. Story-wise, it works well to set up a sort of connection between you and the main character, and the questions it asks help put you in the right frame of mind to appreciate what you’re reading. Implementation-wise, it’s a little clunky – the default values might’ve worked better as HTML placeholder attributes, and you can sometimes see the half-filled-out story text peeking out from behind the dialog box.

I like that the game sort of commits to using the dialog box interface for everything. When it needs to generate a random number, for instance, it just asks you to type one in! (Technically, then, I think The Place qualifies as a parser game.)

Alright, here’s the part where I had the magical experience: At one point, it asks you to name your dream destination. The default value in the text box is Paris, but I thought, okay, let’s choose a famous city, I’ll write “Tokyo”. A few more scenes pass by, I tell it my favorite book and my future career and whatever, and all of a sudden the game is TALKING ABOUT VISITING TOKYO. The background is a photograph of Tokyo, major transit stops and tourist destinations are mentioned in the text, WHAT THE HOW THE!?

My mind immediately filled with all kind of crazy ideas with how the author could possibly have achieved this. Was there a handwritten paragraph about tourism for every city I could possibly have thought of? Were the intervening scenes only there to buy time for the game to, like, go out and put the word I typed into Google Maps Search, and template one of the most popular tourist attractions into the text, and find an image to use for the background?

No, it turns out that the game is just hard-coded to talk about Tokyo at that point, and I got extremely lucky. That or the game performed some sort of Las-Vegas-mentalist-show mind trick on me. Either way, it was fun.


Having now played six of this year’s entries, I think I’m starting to figure out what I’m actually looking for in an IFComp game. I’ve taken a swing at making a spreadsheet with my scores:

I have no clue if the scoring system I’ve come up with actually works, so I might end up re-jiggering it later.

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Thanks for reviewing! The PC fonts come from this awesome place. I used the 9-column VGA font for the homepage and the 8-column for the doc viewer, as I think it looked a bit better.

I appreciate you pointing out the care that was taken to make the package usable offline. Also, there are people out there that really dislike Javascript, so the site should degrade gracefully when browsed without it (with the exception of the intro, of course).

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