EctoComp 2017 Impressions

As I’ve done the past two years, I’m going to jot down my EctoComp impressions. I may not get to all the games. I may get to some but have nothing to say. These won’t be proper reviews, and they’ll almost certainly have spoilers, so beware!

First, I want to talk about two games together.

Do It by Santiago Eximeno and Corrupter of Dreams by Robert Patten

[spoiler]Both these games present you with an apparently evil task. You can either perform it or back out.

In Do It, you enter a dark basement, approach a woman tied to a chair, and grab a knife. Then you can “do it” or not.

In Corrupter of Dreams, you’re a nightmare in a dream. You have the chance to touch and thereby corrupt elements in the dream, or you can leave and let the dreamer sleep peacefully.

What both games have in common is that they assume the player will pick the “nice” choices: to leave the woman undisturbed; to leave the dream uncorrupted. But the “nice” choices are actually the evil ones. In Do It, you’re a cop coming to save the woman, and if you don’t “do it” and cut her bondage, the real murderer arrives and kills you. In Corrupter of Dreams, the dreamer is sleeping in a bunker, dreaming about a garden; leaving the dream uncorrupted encourages the dreamer to go outside to find the real garden upon awakening, abandoning the bunker and dying in an irradiated world.

So you have to perform the evil actions to win. But don’t worry, because you’re still a good guy. No need to fret over moral dilemmas. You can rot the dreamworld without having to feel guilty about deriving pleasure from its destruction. You can pick the violent “do it” option with the knife, get that subversive little thrill, without actually hurting anyone.

I find this quite interesting. These games want to have their cake and eat it too, and they rather manage it. In games in general, players want to rip environments apart, steal everything, murder NPCs, because it’s entertaining. But we have to keep it entertaining. Don’t make them think about it. They won’t like to think about it. Move consequences offstage. Arrange the narrative so that the resolution provides a Get Out Of Jail Free card for their previous misbehavior.

If the most dramatic path through a game appears to be the least moral, this is also a way to dangle a carrot for players who might otherwise protest on moral grounds.

Well, I picked the evil options first. With horror games, I’m willing to act horrible. But both games let me off the hook. I would’ve preferred if they hadn’t.

Although I have some issues with them, I find these games very neat to think about. They expand past themselves. They belong to a larger discussion. And they have compact conceptual cores, just right for their lengths. I also really like the mechanics in Corrupter of Dreams, but then, it’s a one-room limited parser game that exploits the TOUCH command. I admit my biases.[/spoiler]

DO IT spoilers.

[spoiler]I get the trick with subverting expectations, but in such a brief game it almost feels like the player is being trolled; the game lies by omission. “Ha ha! You did the wrong thing because the author deliberately omitted context!” The unreliable narrator is cool, but in this situation, there’s very little reason the protagonist wouldn’t know who they are and what they were doing. In a longer game, you’d never get away with this without being clever as 9:05.

Since the command “do it” doesn’t explain what “it” is, the result is basically a coin flip, which isn’t really as scary as it could be. I think this could have worked if it were stretched just a bit longer. If you had woken up in a room surrounded by the accouterments and home-decor of a serial killer (a knife in your hand, a bloody victim in the corner and drugs on the table that you obviously took, providing an amnesia veil…) and been given a little more time to decide what was your role (when actually you were just waking up as another victim)…I think this might have worked a little better.

I know, I’m overthinking. Speed-IF and expectations aren’t as deep as a normal game. I suppose it can be the equivalent, as I’ve said before, of a claptrap haunted house made of 2x4 and black plastic whose only goal is to get a reaction out of you, and in that sense, it is a success.

Plus, this game inspired me to look up “The Hustle” and play it 47 times on loop which made me very happy![/spoiler]

I was actually going to mention that too, but I cut myself short!

More spoilers for both games.

[spoiler]You never know what “doing it” will mean in Do It until you “do it,” but you can tell what choices the game expects the player to make by looking at the “don’t do it” path. It’s much more drawn out, with multiple points to bail or “do it” anyway, and it only works if the player doesn’t know what “doing it” will entail. If the player just clicks “do it” right away, the twist gets revealed. Replaying and choosing “don’t do it” doesn’t have any tension after that.

Corrupter of Dreams handles it better, because your actions are clear from the start. You are indeed corrupting dreams. The game’s not coy about that. Yet it still manages to incorporate a reversal. At the same time, this also makes it somewhat more toothless, because its ending lets the player rest easy after they’ve done legitimate damage.[/spoiler]

I was inspired by your [CMG] comments to try Corrupter of Dreams next…

[spoiler]I agree with you, I liked this a lot more. I enjoyed the writing. Despite you telling me there was a “twist” I was still surprised.

I think parser has a distinct advantage for horror because there isn’t a button with “crank the scary jack-in-the-box” printed on it. Choice narrative can be scary, but the author has to work against the inherent lack of subtlety in specific commands. Parser gains the natural suspense of “is this going to work? Did the author think of the same thing I did?”

This is a great example of a bite-sized horror game. Despite its brief length, there was prose to enjoy and discoveries to be made.[/spoiler]

I agree, parser does have a natural edge there. But some choice games in this very competition show how to do it right. I’ll get to them later. Right now it’s time for…

Uxmulbrufyuz by Andrew Schultz

[spoiler]This was a weird one. Also a rather neat one!

At first, I wasn’t sure what to do. I bumbled around, and I had to both look at the walkthrough and use hints before I started to grasp the game’s main mechanic. So the intro text could’ve been written better, I’d say. With more clarity upfront. It was this game’s biggest weakness.

After I did get it, though, it was addictive! Finding words with the right vowels. Plugging them in to move around the map’s different routes. I got 24 in the end, which I think is everything, unless there are secrets.

The writing reminded me of Powers of Two by B Minus Seven, which is a game I put in the company of Edward Gorey’s alphabet and list books. There’s a delight in simply stringing words together, tapping into a rhythm. Sometimes it’s unsettling in quite a curious way. Uxmulbrufyuz is unsettling in that curious way too. It’s not horror, but it’s weird. It kind of crackles. And then it collapses room by room as you solve it.

I’m also impressed that a game with this much trickery (trickery in a good way) was coded in three hours. It could’ve been horribly broken, but it played very well.[/spoiler]

Who to Haunt? by Katie Benson

[spoiler]You’re an old lady. You just died. But it’s Halloween, so you get to haunt somebody. You can pick your “victim” from three options. Humor’s on the menu, not horror, and your hauntings tend to go sideways.

Two haunting victims are clearly the “wrong” options. If you choose incorrectly, you reach an anticlimactic ending and have to play again. Because interactivity is minimal, it feels like reading three distinct short stories with the same poltergeist protagonist. Rather than encouraging you to make a choice and commit to the result, the game prompts you to replay.

This is an issue I have with choice-based games that rely too heavily (sometimes solely) on branching for gameplay. If the game wants you to experience all the branches, and there’s not much fine-grained interaction along the way, it’s kinda like a book wanting you to read all the chapters. Your choices are nullified when your ultimate choice is “I choose everything.”

I would’ve preferred if the game had focused exclusively on the “right” path, which involves reconciling with your estranged daughter. In a three-hour comp, the author would’ve had more time to flesh this out.[/spoiler]

YOUR PARTY IS DEAD by Naomi Norbez

[spoiler]This game bills itself as a “kinetic novel.” I wouldn’t really say that’s accurate. Kinetic/dynamic fiction often lacks any choices whatsoever, but it still structures itself in ways that only work with hypertext mechanics.

YOUR PARTY IS DEAD could quite easily be printed as static fiction. There’s one choice that exists for flavor, which could be trimmed without losing much. Everything else is a “next page” link.

EctoComp’s three-hour limit is to blame here. The game’s page mentions different paths and endings that had to be cut to meet the deadline. This game has a lot of text, so that’s understandable. Choosing a concept that you can execute within the time-frame is a big part of the challenge.

That said, this story is screaming to be expanded into a full-fledged game. A ghost trapped in a treasure cave, forced to possess living creatures to interact with physical objects? Yes, please! By the Lake from ShuffleComp had a similar premise. Lots could be done with this.

Or what about haunting the cave for eons? I can imagine a parser game where every time you WAIT, one hundred years pass.

Also, a dragon with flesh-eating bats nesting under its wings? Amazing.

This particular game might not have hit the mark, but it’s got ideas bursting at the seams. Sometimes EctoComp provides a starting point rather than a finish line, and there’s plenty here to keep running with.[/spoiler]

I also played Who to Haunt?

It was a cute story. If there are “cozy-mysteries” then this might be “cozy-horror” (which now that I say it isn’t ‘horror’ per se but I guess “supernatural”?). I pretty much guessed the optimal path the first time through and had no reason to replay. The structure essentially seemed to be “pick one of four branches” after receiving a short biography of the possibilities. My only suggestion would be to let the player “haunt” some more and hang around these people observing their behaviors before having to choose. It seems a little odd that the player makes this choice from a position of being somewhat unaware when the PC has lived with these people all her life and wouldn’t be in the dark so much about their motivations and personalities.

I also guessed the optimal path right away (it seems like it’s meant to be obvious), but I didn’t pick it at first. I do this thing, perhaps more often than I should, where I’ll choose the wrong or “boring” path on purpose to see how the game handles it.

By the way, anyone else who wants to jump into this thread too, feel free! I’m fine with people using it for general EctoComp discussion.

Civil Mimic by Andrew Schultz

[spoiler]This one wasn’t as successful as Uxmulbrufyuz for me. I wouldn’t have solved it without the walkthrough.

Well, I needed the walkthrough for Uxmulbrufyuz too, but only as a starting point. I mainly did solve that game on my own. With Civil Mimic, I’m not sure how I would’ve ever figured that the friend’s name is Viv. I kept trying to convert Liv or Mimi or even Mimic into Roman numerals, somehow, by rearranging them to match the clock. No dice. It didn’t make sense to really focus on those words, but I didn’t know what else to try. And even if I had discovered Viv, I doubt I would’ve thought to turn it into Viiiiv.

I did like that the Mimic was this amalgamation of people in the end. Since the game was pretty much just the puzzle, though, and the puzzle 100% stumped me, I can’t say much more about it.[/spoiler]

I was stumped by this one too. But I really like the title!

I really liked Corrupter of Dreams and Bloody Raoul of the petite mort games. They both had a lot of vivid imagery, and didn’t feel under implemented, since they had strong cluing and small settings.

Bloody Raoul is so bizarre, but somehow appealing. It reminded me of Buckaroo Bonzai in a way, something just so over the opt and out-of-this-world but with method in its madness.

Bloody Raoul is my favorite one so far in Petite Mort, although I haven’t played them all yet. Let’s do it next!

Bloody Raoul by Ian Cowsbell

[spoiler]Knife punks. I love it.

This is a game fundamentally about identity. Your knife is your identity. It has a name: Bloody Raoul. You’re just the hand that wields it. You’re a nobody. A nobody with no body, since even your vital organs can be replaced with fungus and it doesn’t matter. Your suit is cardboard: “Cheap enough for a punk, sturdy enough to last a few weeks until fashion changes.” In other words, disposable. Like you. Punks don’t last. They get cut up, cut out, replaced.

When the game starts, you’re cornered in a close by other punks. No escape. But there are two deific statues in the neighborhood who might do you a favor. Gameplay is light item management to offer the right offering to the right statue. You get to slice into a vein with Raoul at one point, but I’ve gotta confess, I wish the mechanics had concentrated more on cutting stuff. Most interactions are the standard parser variety.

The writing is sharp. Sometimes it slips: “She is a merciful guardian knight, said to offer succor to those in need. Though not without cost – nothing’s free in this city. She’ll offer succor to anyone, in need…” I sense EctoComp’s three-hour limit. With more time, everything could be trimmed into shape.

A suspicion: Ian Cowsbell is a pseudonym. We’ll see.[/spoiler]

Saturdays by Verity V. Lee

[spoiler]What? He has half an extra finger!? And he can do things with it? Extra thumb?

Saturdays does a good job of planting possibilities in the reader’s mind and then letting them wallow away and disturb you later. The story describes a black-goo dripping portal that appears in a school - usually every Saturday - but inconsistently enough that it seems less a natural phenomenon and more a biological one. I really enjoy “what the hell physics are these?” types of stories where the scary stuff masquerades as normalcy; House of Leaves being a particular favorite. There’s also a line between being pointlessly cryptic and leaving unanswered questions strategically to induce delayed Fridge Horror, and Saturdays stays cool, waiting for you in the refrigerator.[/spoiler]

I changed the thread title so it’s more general purpose. More comments are welcome! Anyone can pitch in!

I played Saturdays once but I want to go back and play it again. But yes, that one detail…

Half an extra finger. Nothing special about it. Just… half an extra finger. Delicious.

dripping with the waters of SHEOL by Lady Isak Grozny

[spoiler]This story has beautiful visual presentation and prose styling. The writing is lush as well. My only suggestion is basically the standard “show don’t tell” - especially in horror adventure. Telling the reader in second-person how they feel is a quick immersion-breaker unless the author intends and sets up a definite separation of PC and player, in which case second-person might not be the right narrative voice.

That said, the author isn’t really going for scares. This is a fantasy slice-of-life that happens to include a “ghost” (? read the story). This is totally legit for Ectocomp, avoiding horror trappings normally expected in a “spooky” competition. Removed from comparison with other entries that lean more enthusiastically into the horror genre, SHEOL stands on its own as another piece of a larger world Grozny is building.[/spoiler]

Primer by Christina Nordlander

[spoiler]This one is very interesting!

The story is thin: you shoot your father, but you can rewind time, and maybe do something different. What’s neat is that you don’t choose to rewind time yourself by typing a command. It just happens. The game loops. After three or four loops, it ends for good, but before that point you want to acclimate yourself to the repeating sequence, try to poke it toward alternate paths. So you are under a time constraint, but also under no time constraint, since you’re rewinding time.

I found three endings. One involved interacting with an intangible concept. I figured this out without too much trouble, but I’m not sure how easy it’ll be for other people. But then, maybe it shouldn’t be easy, since other endings are available. And I could still be missing something major. It’s hard to know where the game’s boundaries are. Different options might become available at very specific points in the repeating sequence that I didn’t find.[/spoiler]

Something in the Night by AnssiR66

[spoiler]I’m not sure I saw everything in this game. You’re alone in your house, and you’re spooked after watching too many scary videos. Your object is to get upstairs, turn on the hallway light, and reach your bedroom. Well, I got to an ending, but I never made it to the bedroom. Maybe you can’t?

It’s a somewhat boilerplate situation. That said, it does have some neat interactive elements. The challenge is figuring out how to move. You start off too terrified to leave the living room. So the parser keeps thwarting you, until it reveals two new verbs: SPRINT and CRAWL. Most parser games treat GO as an all-purpose navigation command, with all movement synonyms mapped to it. This is a different experience. SPRINT and CRAWL don’t actually lead to very different outcomes, but the idea has potential. Imagine CRAWLing all over a game and having special options open up.[/spoiler]

The Rats in the Bulkheads Bruno Dias

[spoiler]I bounced off this a couple of times because it does things I don’t usually care for - I had to download a thing for my specific system, the text types out - in full words at least instead of letter by letter.

But I finally got time to sit down and relax with this and treat it as an almost cinematic experience, and I was not disappointed.

At first, I thought I was looking at a fancy background movie, but I think the game text plays over a live rendered 3D environment and that’s why you download a thing. I could be wrong, but if so I was fooled expertly. I watched the sparks and they never seemed to repeat, bouncing off the floor and drifting in antigravity.

The sound design is oppressive at first and it took me several tries to get along with it. The text and choices are displayed with different metallic banging sounds that pace the work and create a background texture along with the smoky popping of that aforementioned wire. And other sounds.

The story combines the loneliness of vast space with existential dread and oppressive hopelessness of inhabiting an environment you aren’t built to survive long in. Then there are rats. I’m not really afraid of rats. I’ve never had a bad experience with them. There are no actual pictures of rats in the game (and, respectfully, no jumpscares). But you will remember the rats.

This is a quiet, nonlinear, brooding horror with a diegetic, musique-concrete background score that builds and works its way into your psyche along with the words. And other things.

At first, I was critiquing as a designer and thought, “Why did I need to download a thing to look at one room?” By the end, I was convinced. Meticulously and thoroughly designed with words and multimedia, this is what Bruno Dias excels at. It even earns the Dutch angle.[/spoiler]

I’m curious if Primer has anything to do with the indie time-travel movie it shares a title with, or if that was just coincidence.
You’ve made me interested to try it next!

I appreciated Something in the Night. [spoiler]I went along that it was speed IF and went with it…yeah…horror movie setup, yeah I’ll do the thing…

I can’t remember the last line verbatim, but it[rant](totally paraphrasing) Holy shit that was scary! You move out of your house and keep living your life instead of staying the scary house. Good End![/rant] made me laugh and subverted my expectation.[/spoiler] My experience is that it was a great setup and punchline.

I wondered the same thing about Primer, whether the title was a reference to the movie. The game kinda involves the same concepts, vaguely, but I don’t remember the movie well enough to know if there were specific callbacks in the game. My assumption would be no, it’s not meant to be directly related. But I’m not sure.

After playing Primer, I don’t think it’s related Intentionally in any way, unless the author was perhaps inspired by the movie.