IFComp 2022 - notes on entries

The Tin Mug

Everything begins and ends with nostalgia.

I love how the web interface emulated the user interface of a text parser interpreter from, perhaps, the late 1990s, down to the functionality of saving game files. The writing and tone of the narrative all seemed appropriately aimed at a approving rendition of a magic folktale type of story, but I can’t imagine that the game could have been made with intent for it to be played by actual young children in this present decade. I like the fact that this game unites its nostalgic mimicry of the old parser IF experience on the desktop with its sincere application of a children’s folktale narrative genre. This shows a pretty high ranking of the cultural value of IF and of computers in general.

I played the game on my mobile device - the small iPhone from 2020. It scaled down well to the traditional smartphone screen surprisingly well, there was only a little bit of bleed on the side of the rendered faux-status line and sometimes difficulty selecting the bottom option from the list of choices. It wasn’t at all unplayable, even if not the most ideal context for experiencing this game.

I don’t know what authoring system or engine this game uses. I’m just dropping back, and I’ve been out of the loop. It’s neither ChoiceScript nor Twine, and I’m curious about the relationship between this game’s sophisticated HTML-rendered GUI and the authoring system.

I can’t speak much to the interactivity or to the significance of the choices, although I did perform a second speed run after I reached the ending. (An ending? I’m not sure, but I’m guessing there is probably only one.)

As to the story, specifically, I appreciate the character of the intuitive old man who is clued in to the childlike magic. It takes creative insight to see significance in an everyday object like a spoon, and perhaps the oldschool aesthetic serves to show our old computer culture and our nostalgic memories of IF community past as a magic piece of tradition.

The Grown-Up Detective Agency

Nostalgia.

Here in the guise of a lowkey cynical, pre-emptively burnt out young adult compelled by time-space anomaly to re-examine her previous life as an idealistic adolescent, nostaliga takes us for a tour of contemporary Toronto with a full complement of comparisons between the post-COVID present and the city as it was in 2013. The portrayal of Toronto is one of my favorite qualities of this hypertext story, including its creative use of Creative Commons photography. CC resources are a great way to participate in the best kind of Internet culture, and the rest of this game references and otherwise evokes the history of Internet culture throughout the living memory of contemporary generations.

The writing is good spirited toward everyone, where it could have easily ventured into potentially toxic territory. Part of looking back on 2013 from 2022 is reflecting on the fact that controversies and insults that plagued fandoms and forums in these intervening years were intrinsically connected to other things that were happening culturally in a broader context.

Toronto is an interesting place with plenty of status for the demographic of Millennial indie creative types, and perhaps post-Millennials. I have never been there despite living in the greater geographic region (on the other side) and enjoyed the anecdotes about the neighborhoods of the city and about weird quirks like miniature park areas. But the descriptions of the city left me wanting more – not necessarily more information, which I could get easily enough – but more connection, more relevance. I wanted to see how Bell interacts with Toronto and lives the life of Toronto. I want to know what it’s like to grow up in Toronto and how Toronto makes an impression on the psyche of its longtime residents.

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The Grown Up Detective Agency, continued

I ran out of time when I was previously posting, so I’d like to conclude my thoughts about The Grown Up Detective Agency by reflecting on the characters’ state of life, and then with a thought on the format of this game/story and the interactive traditions that I think it’s drawing upon and continuing. I’m approximately as much older from the adult protagonist as she is from herself in 2013. With that credential of life experience, I’m satisfied with the author’s characterization of the common attitudes that people go through at various points in their lives. Sometimes I find myself rooting for the child against the adult – the still very young adult – and sometimes I find myself smirking with the young adult at the antics of the teenager. I feel like the gentle characterization and the kindly tone of the story are tailored for this adult nostalgic reaction, and to this end the game leverages its explicit and perhaps excessive nostalgia factor pretty well.

All together, I rate The Grown-Up Detective Agency as a satisfying and respectable (as well as respectful) member of the hypertext fiction tradition best represented by Twine, while also crossing over to the visual novel field with its use of character art and dialog-driven choice narrative. I consider to be a strong, likely better-than-average implementation, both in terms of being a web platform interactive story and in terms of being a Twine game. It deserves to be called something better than nice, but it is a nice game in the best sense of that generally distasteful word – its gentle, respectful, pleasant. Maybe its primary significance is as a kind of narrative therapy treatment for cultural angst of the relatively recent past, and this somewhat excuses its copious and explicit nostalgia.

According to Cain

Nostalgia, carefully measured and applied in an admixture with just the right proportion of gall.

The Infocom-like parser tradition stands among the lineup for 2022, and I’m glad to see both the presence of a sincere and well executed example of what is, at least for some IF players representing at least a significant core of the original community surrounding the IFComp, the original and perhaps highest status kind of IF game. Because the format of the text parser game is so old and because it is – let’s face it without apology – the foundation of the continuing IF tradition – its inevitable that some degree of nostalgia is going to be present in a traditional parser game made with a traditional interpreter-based authoring system in the year 2022. But as far as I can tell, the nostalgia only comes with the incarnation of this living tradition. According to Cain is a good example of its tradition in its own right and doesn’t need to stand on the shoulders of Nephilim.

I didn’t finish it. That’s another thing that comes with the parser territory – the format is generally badly adapted to today’s digital lifestyle. According to Cain does indeed adapt; for instance, by reminding players not to waste time reading every entry in its traditional encyclopedia object. It’s easy by the old standards, as nearly any adventure game in recent years would have to be, and it takes reasonable and appreciable measures to maximize the player’s effort and to reduce repetition to a bare minimum. Yet it remains a fully implemented adventure game using a traditional object-and-location model. It’s direct use of just about all the expected genre conventions is both nostalgic and slightly subversive insofar as it generally does so without much evident self-awareness.

I understand that there’s art accompanying the game. I haven’t seen the drawings yet, as I’ve been playing on the Lectrote and don’t have time to figure out how to properly play a multimedia TADS game in our present futurama. I would like to back to the game, finish it, and then play again on a different interpreter to see the accompanying art.

The nostalgia here is very subdued and organic, arising out of the phenomenon of the game itself instead of being an explicit theme of the game. But this sense of nostalgia is reinforced by the game’s direct story content, which also strongly evokes in multiple ways. The most interesting of those is the milieu.

I interpret the setting to be a hypothetical future in which the worldview of a minority of traditionalists turns out to be not only culturally victorious but also demonstrably true, though there could perhaps be other explanations including straight up alternate fantasy. The culture of the main character – who is a stereotypical dry and non-emotive IF player character – is not necessarily based on any particular religion, so far as I can tell, although I found myself wondering for moments whether his culture was the idealized reality of Baptists, Roman Catholics, or Muslims. I’m familiar with the arguments of Young Earth creationists, and I’m certain that author explicitly draws upon their material. The scholastic medieval philosophy undergirding the demonstrable reality of this fictional universe is reminiscient of a quaint kind of Catholicism. And then, finally, the alchemical tradition upon which the player character’s profession is based is largely descended from Islam.

I’m trying to feel out whether there is any irony toward the depicted traditionalism. I’m not sure yet. In any case, there is no irony toward the parser IF genre, which is implemented with near perfection in an engaging way.

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Thanks for the review!

My read on the PC’s culture was more or less “medieval monks who somehow discovered time travel in a universe where the worldview of medieval Catholics is totally accurate.” The alchemy didn’t read as specifically Muslim to me; although it did come to medieval Europe from the Islamic world, monks and other Catholic scholars adopted it pretty enthusiastically. But I agree that there do seem to be touches of modern Evangelical Biblical literalism in there, and I also was unsure whether there was any irony in the game’s approach to that.

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I like your interpretation at least as much as my own. I have more thoughts about this game and might share them here after I finish it, in a few weeks or so.

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When I do my postmortem / author’s notes after the comp, perhaps I’ll touch on some of the above topics. I don’t want to claim any interpretation is better than others, but I can discuss my reasons for the approach I took.

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Glimmer

An unambitious Twine story inspired by the sense of introverted dismay with an overwhelming and inconsiderately unpleasant world in the aftermath of quarantine, Glimmer avoids coming off as tedious or wishy-washy due to the applicability of the distraught protagonist’s situation. The only notable interactive feature involves selecting to examine certain items, or not, expanding and expounding upon the narrative of the character’s downward spiral. It’s sentimentality isn’t really nostalgic, as it is well tuned in to the present cultural moment, of which the shadow of the pandemic is an inevitable part. As much as the dipictions of quarantine and of anxiety, the only other notable character, that of the Friend, reinferces the connection to the vaguely experienced present moment. This character uses the gender-neutral plural for pronouns, which feels larger in a an artistic vignette that aspires to such broad relatability; as if the formal and literary plural of traditional English culture and even Western theology could approach in the encompassing universality.

I found myself wanting to feel superior to the sort of experience depicted, particularly as the protagonist is, in fact, a judgmental person. The protagonist is disgusted by the sight of homeless people and begins the descent into isolation in order to hide from such an uncomfortable reality. The characterization of this attitude appears to me as a kind of snobishness, particularly in the subsequent scene. But the crumbs on the kitchen floor show the self-absorbed wastefulness that haunts my own habitation. In our digital world where psychological boundaries are scarce, retreating behind a wall of disgust is an understandable mistake, one that people who know me best have told me that I’ve made.

But I’m also the guy who sometimes brushes his teeth at the office in the morning before work, so there’s that.

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Hanging by Threads

The protagonist is very well characterized. His perspective as an elderly individual requiring the use of a cane to walk is the most colorful aspect of this Twine game, which makes use of some navigable chunks and some hypertext effects to present the old fellow’s reaction to being allowed to witness a rare and restricted marvel.

There is not really any context or explanation behind the fantasy environment, which provides the object of the protagonist’s wonder - the magical city of Oban, suspended on spiderweb-like threads hanging from the mountains. The people of Oban are xenophobic, haughty, and willfully incautious. Most of the sequences in the story serve to create this impression, setting up the city as an archetype of the once-great classical civilization ruled by prideful aristocrats consuming the glory of previous generations.

We may assume that the elderly protagonist is disappointed with the fabled city and its elitist decadence. I think an intended angle of the narrative is to show the protagonist having a grouchy old person’s reaction to a city full of irresponsible young brats, and to show such a reaction to be justified based on the short sightedness and elitism of the city’s inhabitants. It’s a little bit of a jump to arrive at such a characterization, but there are interesting details about the magical city and the old man’s experience of it.

Low-Key Learny Jokey Journey

Very conversational, the game advances an ongoing conversation with the player, which reflects the conversational vernacular of the wordplay. For the year 2022, it’s essentially a puzzlefest, but it draws from multiple subgenres of the parser text adventure, including the streamlined, linear narrative story-game.

I almost finished the game but ran out of things to do and didn’t know how to find the ending.

The wordplay is based on both rhyme and on alliterative consonant clusters, which makes it easy enough to be playable, though the solutions are often harder to guess than one might think. (There are multiple well-implemented hint systems and a walkthrough which keeps the conversational meta dialog.)

The game is English in a way that only poetry in this language can parallel, and its use of rhyme and linguistic tricks also make it distinctively American.

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Low-Key Learny Jokey Journey, continued

The way that this game makes sonic pronunciation paramount in an all-text experience is intriguing.

I wonder whether this wordplay works most naturally for native speakers of American English, not only because of the pronunciation of the vowels but because of the slang and vernacular terms and sounds used in the rhyme/alliteration pairs. I’m an Anglo American, and I struggled from time to time both with aligning rhymes and with understanding the silly slang syllables. For instance, the “awk/alk” and “ok/ahk” sounds are merged in some people’s accents. This game raises a phonetic question that I had never considered before and that I speculate that little if any formal research has investigated – what spellings of which specific diphthong qualities do English speakers most naturally associated based on their regional dialects? It does seem that the phonology in the game is based on a stereotypical impression of the diphthong renderings in General American dialect, but a player’s dialect background is very relevant to the experience of playing, though the game certainly takes every effort to be polite, fair, and accessible.

I wonder whether British and Australian players feel more distance between their instincts and the game’s linguistic assumptions. I also wonder whether this kind of wordplay is even fun at all to people who have mastered English as a second language – perhaps to those who are Western and who have always had a foot in the Anglo world. Many ESL folks who have strong linguistic skill might enjoy wordplay; an interpreter fellow I know comes to mind, but I can’t help but feel that this wouldn’t be the specific wordplay game for them.

There were minor bugs and aesthetic problems in the version I played, but I don’t think those are more than circumstantial for the purpose of the Comp. Such cosmetic irregularities are even less problematic here then they might hypothetically be in other Comp entries, because this game seems to be written to the audience as much as for the audience.

I believe that this wordplay genre is one that has been developed considerably. I have little experience of it, certainly not recent. I feel that this game as a whole is in the middle of something, a conversation with its audience, a refinement of this kind of experience.

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This issue deterred me from playing the game. Accents are very specific. I’m Scottish, and even in a British context I pronounce many things very differently from a lot of Brits. And I pronounce stuff very differently from many Americans. So I’m not confident how I’d get on. Might well try post comp though!

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Blood Island

What I assumed to be a typical choice game with relationship stats turned out to be an excellently designed and well defended narrative game that reflects gently and academically on pop culture. Without any fancy features outside of the usual choice-based text game experience, without ambitious prose style or any glaringly obvious mechanics, Blood Island impresses by using its format so flawlessly in order to tell a good-hearted story that takes critical aim both at its own IF genre and, more importantly, at the cultural archetypes undergirding the entertainment genres of reality television and slasher horror film.

If such a description makes the game sound like a monument to nerdy media professors at third rate community colleges and aging movie-store retro punks, that might be a fair complaint. The unambitious writing is not quite strong enough to make its periodic dialog dumps about feminism and about audiences’ thirst for disturbing content completely vindicated from any charge of preachiness or nerdy obsessiveness. The characterization is good but not legendary. As a ChoiceScript game, it is both technically perfect and nondescript. Yet this game ends up being significantly better than these descriptions of its individual qualities suggest, because these characteristics pull through to a refined narrative affect that rises above the crude wish fulfillment often seen in this interactive genre.

I only played through once, and that is not enough. My single experience through the story left me deeply curious concerning how my choices affected the player character’s place in the story, which the end game explicitly brings in to question. And it is not only the character’s significance to the immediate plot but also to the meta-plot of horror victim. While I don’t know yet, my impression of the implementation is that it is deep, carefully designed, and tested – I suspect there may be quite a bit of variability to the story based on player choices, and I intend to find out soon enough.

I’m not really judging the Comp, this year and don’t expect to be assigning this game a formal score; however, for me, Blood Island represents the first time that a ChoiceScript game has ever registered in my mind as “one of the really good ones.”

To Persist/Exist/Endure Press 1

Here is one of the strongest examples that I have ever played of the sub-genre of choice-based, web browser platform micro-games about mental health experiences. First of all, the interactive engine – this newfangled “Texture” thing – whoah! You select actions, and doing so reveals the set of relevant possibilities within the text narrative chunk. You don’t know exactly what the relevance is until you drag an action over to a hyperlink, like trying to use an inventory item from an old graphical point-and-click adventure game.

Here the use of Texture’s weird new interaction mode makes the experience feel more technical than a purely link-based design would. This is thematically appropriate in at least one way, since the game simulates the experience of navigating a phone menu when calling in to a contact center. This is also one of those games where the relative non-interactivity of the interactive medium is part of the theme – the player can’t choose any truly effective paths and soon runs out of options, quite literally. Texture’s input mechanic increases the ambiguity of the simulation, making the implementation feel a bit deeper than it is, and this aligns commendably with the kind of psychological false hope that the story is depicting.

With the exception of the initial start page, it worked comfortably on my little phone.

When one is about to run out of things to say about this well implemented but sparse entry, it pulls out another narrative trick that deserves mentioning. One of the options on the simulated phone menu is for the Polish language. This simulates the experience of American customers being told by the recording to select option 6 “para español”. But why is it Polish, in an environment that is primarily English? I’m not aware of any country where English is the primary language but where Polish is such a significant language that it would be the only other language offered in any kind of experience design. I’m deeply curious to know whether phone menus in Poland or elsewhere in continental Europe are actually primarily built in English. I’m almost afraid to learn the answer.

Rant: English should not be the international language. Being the pragmatic universal language is very bad for the integrity and authenticity of the English language and its many native speakers who have no linguistic community. This is all in addition to the more obvious problem of the gross harm to the other linguistic communities done by the dominance of my native language.

More relevant: This reflects the experience of people whose first language is not English but who struggle to use the world’s dominant tongue not out of proactive delight in languages; nor a desire to expand their educational, career, and creative circles; nor even for tangible cultural connections; but simply to navigate the information systems of this world that have been explicitly based on English since their invention. In a broader sense, it depicts the English tongue becoming inhuman, a part of the machine, something alien and cold that people need to surpass like a locked door.

It’s also very interesting to note how this game represents an audio interface in text. The Polish sequence is one of the narrative features that highlights this.

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Campus Invaders

An Italian professor saves the world by projecting his design onto the monsters of parody.

It’s a straightforward, basic IF game using the most commonplace and archetypal engine of them all, Inform 6. Its puzzles are fair, though the mechanics modelling more sophisticated actions such as pushing around a cart are rather simplistic and potentially awkward. Its scoring system is traditional and well designed, escalating the sense of progress so that at the beginning of the game, it feels longer than it really is; and when the scoring starts to pick up toward the middle and end of the game, the player consequently feels increased increased motivation to continue.

It was, of course, great fun to play, with knowledge of its references and with a background of participation on this very forum.

HOURS

Running out of time is among the most basic anxieties in common experience, and this generically implemented Twine story utilizes this anxiety within an interesting, quickly portrayed Eastern fantasy environment reminiscent of Final Fantasy.

My take on the story proposition: You are one of the run-of-the-mill medieval foot soldiers in a fantasy martial arts, the ones that get mowed down in waves of carnage as the uniquely skilled and supernaturally aided elites duke it out.

The use of narrative choice design is truly commendable. The player can make a very significant choice resulting in an alternate and probably less satisfactory thread that nevertheless leads to the same ultimate conclusion. This leads to a well conceived meditation upon the central themes of the story.

The big problem is that the most likely narrative thread – the one that most players would find more satisfying and which explores the narrative ground laid out by the opening text – isn’t really finished. You can reach the end, but you will inevitably run into a bug that unfortunately dampens the success of the story’s climax. There is clearly a mechanic that clearly was intended to have had ramifications for the final sequence, but the actions that the player is prompted to choose result in an error message, presumably from the Twine engine, and fail to alter the following narrative chunks.

The writing is just about right – quite serious, but not too heavy, and willing to utilize its genre mashup for geeky fun and comedy. There is truly a lot of potential here.

Unfortunately, it appears that I have likewise run out of time.

Thanks for reading – and, authors, thanks for creating.

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Thanks for these reviews, not just of my entry but the others! It’s good to see you back.

Yes, the pronunciation issue is tough. But I tend to think more abstractly than most when entering IFComp, and I’m okay with if things don’t work out. I was hoping for some combination of being able to brute force things and also mess with pronunciation a bit, or poke at it in different ways. It’s tricky–I cringe at non-rhymes in, say, that song that’s blasting at my local athletic club, but I enjoy when a show tune or whatever stretches it cleverly. And I don’t want to be too straightforward, but on the other hand, I don’t want to be too obscure.

I’d be interested if you remember any of the small bugs you mentioned, as I do want to put out a post-comp release with some features I have, but don’t stretch too hard to recall them. Even if they seem trivial, they often open up wider issues/features worth attending to.

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I want to append to my thoughts on LLJJ that I really do like the fact that it plays around with the English language. Wordplay is one of the things that parser IF can do better than most anything else, and it’s really cool to appreciate how elaborately IF can simulate and/or stimulate the word-brain’s natural tendency to mash up sounds and words.

Another related thing that I appreciate about all the Schultz games that I’ve played is that they are deeply drawn from the Anglo American cultural background without being about such a background, for the most part, and entirely without highlighting culture or ethnicity or nationality as any kind of issue. The fact that they are not self-aware in that specific way makes them great examples of the background from which they are drawn and really powerful empathetic experiences for those of us who relate to said background.

I’m just starting to realize that this is why the linguistic Englishness of the worldplay in LLJJ seemed noteworthy to me.

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