I’m posting IF comp 2020 reviews at my blog Doug’s World. Today I posted reviews for “Sheep Crossing” and “Stuff of Legend”
Today posted reviews for “Magpie Takes the Train” and “Pinecone” at Doug’s World. Maybe more later in the day.
Last night I posted review for “Captain Graybeards Plunder”, and today I believe I may be the first person to post a review for “Happyland”. What a delight “Happyland” is, if you’re into the classic style of parser based detective fiction. Both at Doug’s World
I just finished playing the “Knot Series” by several authors.
There’s really nothing I can say about this that won’t be a spoiler, so I’ll spoiler tag the rest of my review, and may wait until later in the competition to post this on my blog.
Just revealing the actual titles and authors of these entries in the 2020 competition would itself be a spoiler, since that’s the bottleneck step in the puzzle. Once you figure which games belong to the set, it’s just a matter of reading and exploring the games carefully to find the trail of breadcrumbs leading to the solution. The clues, when they appear, are highlighted pretty clearly as clues.
I’m glad I played, but I imagine this could be a contender for the Golden Banana of discord. But which game would you award it to? The game is practically written in a fictional language, much in the tradition of Jabberwocky or Gostak. Even more distracting than that is a pattern of flashing irregularly timed text that spools the screen in several scenes. With enough patience, a player can read and understand the amusing stories that appear throughout the game. But will the average player have that much patience?
I’ve posted a review of “You Couldn’t Have Done That” at my Blog.
Posted Review for “Lovely Assistant”
The following review has also been posted to my blog.
“Dr Ego and the egg of Man-Toomba” by Special Agent. Based on the irregularly capitalized title and pseudonymous author, I wasn’t expecting much. Yet even in the opening scene my expectations were improved. The PC is an explorer searching the jungles of Papua New Guinea for the fabled MacGuffin “Egg of Man-Toomba”. The player can skip the first scene (a trip up-river) by typing “wait”. Yet I found so much detail implemented in the tiny canoe and the player’s possessions that the boat ride was over before I had run out of things to do. The game calls to mind the characters and setting of “Indiana Jones”. Indeed, the final puzzle (replacing a treasure with another of the same weight) is directly borrowed from the opening scene of the first film.
The world modelling is deep enough that a player can immerse themselves in examining details, even while they may be temporarily stalled on a puzzle. I was able to solve all the puzzles without hints (except for one, where I overlooked an obvious side exit) and finished the game in just under two hours. I reached a “win” state with only six of nine points, suggesting there may be a few optional puzzles I missed.
If there is one point where this above average entry might elevate itself to the top of the competition, it would be with better characterization of the protagonist. I tried to play as a callous European colonialist but wasn’t getting enough feedback to suggest this was the characterization intended. Who, then, is this PC? A sensitive ethnobotanist? An academic wonk? An agent of greedy foreign collectors? But this is a minor critique.
My favorite puzzle involved trading goods for services with a native wood carver.
“The Wayward Story” by Christmo Ibarra. This is a parser story which may have been inspired by Adam Cadre’s classic game “Photopia”. The shifting narrative perspectives, changing screen colors, puzzle-lite mechanics, and gauzy dream like style are all qualities shared in common with “Photopia”. I respected “Photopia” for its novelty when it was released. But mind you, it’s not in my personal list of top twenty five games of all times. So I report these similarities as a neutral observation.
“Wayward Story” differs from “Photopia” in its tone and cohesiveness. “Wayward Story” reads like a piece of spontaneous prose, a style of writing which helps the author get their words on the page, but which can be difficult for the reader. As best I can understand the story, it is about choices to be in a relationship or to be alone, and the risk it takes to begin a relationship. But the central location is a surreal fantasy landscape that does little to develop that theme, hence the weak cohesion.
Photopia varies in its tone; from a light account of child’s bedtime story, to the stark description of a traffic accident. “Wayward Story” is more uniform in tone, consistently dark and full of curse words even in vignettes which should be treated as more uplifting (the “white background” vignettes, if you’re playing in full color mode).
I had no trouble navigating the lite-puzzles in “Wayward Story”. Experienced players won’t even see them as puzzles. There was only once I looked at the walk through, not for an elusive command but to see how much of the story I had remaining. The world model is not fully implemented, so one doesn’t encounter red herrings or distractions. I look forward to reading other reviews, to see what added symbolism other readers may have identified.
I’ll add this to my blog, eventually.
“Entangled” by Dark Star. Always a fan time travel yarns and parser games, I was looking forward to this one. Not bad, but time travel doesn’t actually play a role in any of the puzzles. The player has been sent back to the 1980s and now has to figure out how to return to the present. Most of the puzzles relate to finding the time travel device, then finding the pieces to fix it.
The map is fairly sprawling (36 locations) and I began to wish the author had included a map. But after some play I figured my way around the rust belt town, and began to meet its denizens. There are quite a few other characters with whom to interact, and the game mercifully suggests conversation topics (although some of the topics necessary to advance the game must be figured out by the player).
World modelling is adequate. I never felt “stuck”. However the game aims for a wide map more than it does for depth of location, leaving it sometimes feeling lonely and barren. Maybe that’s deliberate for the 80s rustbelt setting. I finished with a “win” state in under two hours, but only 30 out of 50 points, so there will still be things to find on a replay.
There is actually a map included with the download.
“The Impossible Bottle” by Linus Akesson. This was about the tenth game I played in this year’s interactive fiction competition (though I’ve played a few more since). Which means I’m what, ten percent of the way through all the games? Good Lord. From that small sample size, however, this is the best thing I’ve seen yet. I loved the central puzzle mechanism (though I had to consult hints more than once). I loved the over-arching story and the surprise ending. Mostly I loved the technical innovation of this complex programming achievement.
Programming achievement first, I admired Akesson’s 2019 game “Pas de Deux” for its innovative hybrid parser-click interface, though the game itself was narrow in scope. “The Impossible Bottle” applies the same hybrid interface to a fully imagined game. One can play with either form of input, or toggle back and forth. I started with point click but later switched to parser. Actions requiring a maze of text links were sometimes trivial with typed entry. Yet I love the direction that Akesson is taking his craft, and hope that others will follow this model.
The central mechanism (magically changing the scale and size of objects, including people) was impressively well implemented, and never became stale as a source of puzzles. The story, a girl helping her father prepare the house for some dinner guests was sweet. By midgame, there are a few additional challenges, including capturing a dinosaur which Dad has unwitting released on the upper level. The ending came as a surprise, despite some subtle foreshadowing along the way.
“Sage Sanctum Scramble” by Arthur DiBianca. Word games are a natural match for parser systems and have been around at least since Infocom’s “Nord and Bert”. Author Andrew Schultz has specialized in this type of game (and is listed among the testing crew for Sage Sanctum) but this is relatively new territory for DiBianca. At the same time, those who enjoyed Arthur’s past work will find a familiar style. DiBianca writes simple imaginative prose, like a cartoon sketch artist whose medium is words. The navigation system of “Sage Sanctum” feels similar to last year’s “Skies Above”. Visitable “locations” appear on a link list, and more locations are added as the player progresses through the game.
The puzzles in “Sage Sanctum” are widely varied including ciphers, riddles, word searches, anagrams and concept association. Individually, each is short, but there are so many the game can easily provide hours of challenge. As I write this I’m already past the two hour time window and I’ve opened up about forty scenes. If you enjoy word puzzles and ciphers, this game is really a lot of fun.
“The Copyright of Silence” Ola Hannson. The game is most interesting for the research it compelled me to do to find out who John Cage is. John Cage was a mid-20th-century avant-garde composer and philosopher, perhaps most famous for his composition 4’33”, which consisted of four minutes and thirty three seconds of Cage sitting at the piano, not playing. The comments section of the youtube video of this performance are pretty funny.
“The Copyright of Silence” has its own light moments mocking John Cage, but it’s not right off obvious what the player’s goals should be. The graphics are nice, a visual map of Cage’s apartment. The player moves from room to room, interacting with a parrot and a dog and (of course) John Cage. The interface is a menu based. The most interesting aspect of the game is the conversation with John. Some of the score seems to be calculated based on whether or not you were a polite guest, but you also get points for remaining silent (which is impolite). Eventually I turned to the walk through. This is an interesting art piece, but ultimately the player’s goals and means of achieving them are not adequately clued.
Glad you enjoyed the conversation and glad that you were compelled to find out more about John Cage!
(Those who uncover the entire, and quite disturbing, background story as well as all of the endings, will probably conclude that I hate John Cage deeply. That is, however, not the case. I rather like him.)
I am sorry that you – and others – feel that the player’s goal isn’t adequately clued. My brother told me I should state the objective on either the title screen or right in the start of the conversation, but being stubborn and stupid, I insisted that the joke would be ruined that way. I wanted to use the first play-through as a prologue to set up the goal (and the central joke) for the game proper, which thus doesn’t really begin until your second play-through.
I reasoned that the first play-through shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes tops and thus was worth it. But I realize now that it can come across as too confusing, even more so if you aren’t familiar with 4’33” beforehand.
Although I haven’t played to the ending yet, I’m going to try. I’m expecting the ending is the player steals John Cage’s inspiration for the performance, and replaces him at the concert, earning fame and acolades.
I do like the artwork and visual map. This is clearly a tongue in cheek tribute to Cage, composer and philosopher.
It’s worse than that, I’m afraid. But you can reach the best ending without having been explicitly exposed to the whole story. Nevertheless, you’re partly right It is part tongue in cheek tribute, part dark satire.
“Last House on the Block” by Jason Olson. Putting the games of the competition in random order, I have to go three down the list to find one I haven’t played already. I’ve got this competition nearly wrapped up then, right? (an interesting problem in probability to be considered later).
From the opening paragraph, Last House is a treasure hunt in an abandoned house. This feels a lot like a beginner’s programming exercise; lots of details implemented that don’t really need to be (a fishing tackle box with multiple identical lures, a pill bottle filled with twenty identical but useless pills). Also a long list of verbs and nouns that haven’t been implemented, but which would contribute to the world model if they were. (“examine me” is the first thing I type in almost any parser game. I’m always disappointed when I get the default response). The game does some neat things with a companion character, a friend who follows the player around the house and sometimes does things on her own. But as far as I could tell, there was no way to communicate with the companion. The game also does some neat things with stacking objects to reach an elevated location, although that’s a puzzle I’ve seen before and better implemented in other games. The game itself (searching a vacant house for treasure) is a familiar trope in parser fiction. Compelling enough to motivate me to continue searching the house, but needing the walkthrough to finish it.
“Quintessence” by Andrea M. Pawley. A short (fifteen to thirty minutes) Twine story with multiply branching paths. A curious blend of poetry and cosmology. The player makes a series of choices which determine the fate of the universe. Although the anthropic principle isn’t explicitly mentioned (the philosophical principle that a universe has to be fine-tuned to accommodate observers, or else it can not be described as “existing”) I find it meaningful in this game that you get less interesting stories if the player makes choices which allow the virtual universe to collapse back on itself too soon. A few graphic images appear in the background, which on my machine took some time to load. During later stages, the player choices feel arbitrary, sending the story in directions which cannot be anticipated before you read them. Should this make me contemplate the indeterminate nature of the quantum universe, or am I reading too much into it? Altogether, more concept art than game or story.
The number of comp entries has grown exponentially over the last ten years, leading to a broadening definition of what “interactive fiction” means. Yet when an essay or story appears which provides only as much interactivity as I would find reading a paperback anthology of short stories, I feel bad for the author. It’s like they’ve entered their prize pig in the beauty pageant at the state fair. Or maybe the reverse of that analogy is more apt, when an author who is aiming to be a darling of the literary world, puts it up against awesome games like “Lost Pig” or “Wizard Sniffer”.
“The Turnip” by Joseph Pentagelo and “Passages” Jared W Cooper are two of this year’s entries which I found inadequately interactive, but which are written well enough to recommend as short stories. Between the two, I liked “The Turnip” better. This is a surrealist fable about a world where people and dogs work side by side in the field digging holes, then go home to their warm cottage at night and eat wild game by the fire. There is also a magic turnip involved, but you’ll have to read it to find out how. “Passages” is another surrealistic story, this one much sadder, about relationships and loss. The interesting gimmick in “Passages” is that it is told as a series of diary entries, presented out of sequence.
Contrast these against “Congee” by Becci, a Twine story which is also very short and very linear, but draws upon more of the tools available in the electronic medium: music, graphics, text animations, player selected text replacements, even some graphical animations. The story is well told, about an immigrant from Hong Kong to the UK who feels ill and yearns for the comfort food of his homeland. The telling made me hunger for Congee myself (unlike the protagonist, this is something I’ve eaten maybe only once in my life). The multi-media effects and user selected text make this entry seem more appropriate to the intent of the competition.
“You will thank me as fast as you thank a wearwolf” by BJ Best. A choice-click game with soundtrack (which is essential to the experience). I’ve always been a sucker for footnotes, and this game contains an infinite supply of them. Also a sucker for psychedelic easy listening electronica. I was already on my second beer when I started reading this, so I was as much in the right mood for this experience as I’ll ever be. It’s a love story. Or the ramblings of someone taking shrooms. F*ck if I know. I liked it. Your experience may differ.