Improv: Origins: some notes from the author

First off, thanks to everyone who played, rated, and reviewed Improv: Origins — this was my first I-F game since 2002, my first comp entry of any kind since 1997, and my first Inform game of any kind (my earlier games were all done in TADS), and it was encouraging to find that while I didn’t end up accidentally creating any fewer game-killing bugs when writing in a new coding system, I didn’t create any more, either.

I’ve now been through most of the reviews, and have learned two main things:

• Most of you liked the writing and characters.
• Most of you found the game way too damn hard, and wanted more hints for what one reviewer called “brutally tough” puzzles.

Let’s talk a bit about the hints, and the puzzles. From the start (see above re: 1997) the entire joke of my Frenetic Five games has been that the puzzles are impossibly hard — you’re a superhero, after all, so it’s going to take superhuman puzzle-solving abilities to accomplish your mission. Not to mention that you’re part of a team, each with your own specific superpower, so most of the puzzles are solvable only by your teammates.

Since you, the player, do not possess a degree in Ingenuity, how to bridge the chasm between Improv’s skills and your own? With hints, tons of hints — not via hint menus, but seamlessly provided by the game text, mostly by comments and suggestions made by the other members of your team.

I wrote a mammoth amount of code dedicated to providing these hints at the right time, depending on which puzzles you’re currently facing. How’d I do with that?

“I’m solidly stuck in this game.”

“I can’t help bemoaning the lack of modern conveniences like a hint menu.”

“I eventually looked at a text dump of the game.”

Sigh. Note to self for future games: MORE HINTS. THEN EVEN MORE HINTS. DID I MENTION MORE HINTS?

In all seriousness, this is excellent, helpful feedback, and one reason I appreciate ParserComp’s voting system: It makes it easy to see at a glance which elements of a game worked, and which didn’t. Big thanks to Dan Fabulich for taking it upon himself to write Invisiclues so that those stuck have an escape route, and to those who noted remaining bugs; I’ll be issuing a post-comp release of Improv: Origins in coming weeks to fix some of those. And I’ve already started rethinking the next couple of games I’m working on (another in this series, plus one unrelated) to make them harder to get stuck in. (But not harder to get stuck in for those who want to beat their heads against puzzles. We I-F players are an odd lot.) Thanks as well to those who sat through my groanworthy puns (no, “PIN and Teller” was not actually sitting around for decades — that one, amazingly, I came up with fresh in the year 2022) and those whose reviews taught me new terms like “allostatic-interoceptive.”

Finally, if anyone wants to check out my old games, I’ve made a central page for them all at freneticfive.com. I make no promises for the quality of the hints, but I will try to make myself available here to provide help, assuming I can remember how to solve them myself.

Thanks again, and see you back here next year, I hope!

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It’s not very clear to me that the moral of this story is “more hints,” because of the level of bugginess in the game.

We played “Improv: Origins” at the SF IF Meetup yesterday, and we hit a bug where you tape clip to rod, rendering both unusable. You have to tape rod to clip to solve the puzzle.

I think the real moral to draw is that the game needed more testing, both for bugs and playability.

Can you send a transcript to neil@demause.net? The game should be able to handle both of those commands, so I’ll need to check and see what’s going on.

(I just tested the command that you say didn’t work for you, and it did for me. So there must be some other specific conditions at work here.)

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The"level of bugginess" is just one bug?

I sign for that on my games!

There are more. I reported half a dozen of them in my IFDB review. Improv: Origins - Details

I’ve sent you a transcript. I’m quite curious to know what the hints were supposed to be for the major puzzles in this game.

In particular:

There’s a hint from your Ingenuity professor suggesting duct tape and to try looking behind things.

What was it your Ingenuity professor said? “When in doubt, use duct tape”? “If at first you don’t succeed, try looking behind things”? No, the other thing: “Don’t be afraid to ask for help, I hate failing students just because they’re too proud to accept that they can’t do everything themselves.”

Where were the hints for these points?

  1. The safe has three layers of security: there’s the password, the safe can be locked or unlocked, and there’s opening the safe with the clip-and-rod. But how is the player supposed to know that? Especially once you’ve gotten the password and you try to open the safe with the clip-and-rod, how is the player supposed to know that the safe is locked? There’s an error message, “but the safe remains stubbornly closed” but that really doesn’t explain the problem.

  2. Lexicon doesn’t know the password, but he’s the expert on words. It’s counterintuitive at that point that you’d use the phone again. How was the player supposed to know to do that? (And to do it again? And again?)

  3. Throwing the ball at the stick never works, even when you have 12 bands on the ball. Instead, the player is supposed to throw the ball at the shelf. How is the player supposed to know that?

  4. The duct tape is essential, but I think there’s only just the one hint, appearing once ever, from the Ingenuity professor, mentioning duct tape, but the hint’s phrasing (“No, the other thing”) seems to imply that the “duct tape” hint is irrelevant. If you’ve entered the password, unlocked the safe, got the rod, but don’t have duct tape, how is the player supposed to know that they can actually get duct tape?

My Invisiclues shouldn’t just give the hints… instead, all of my Invisiclues should say “here’s the hint that the game already gave you to solve this puzzle: …” But almost none of the puzzles can be solved just by listening to in-game hints, as far as I can tell.

I also recommend adding more detailed help about how to interact with NPCs. When you TALK TO an NPC, the game just says, “It usually helps to decide what you’re going to say first,” but instead it should explain that I should ASK [PERSON] ABOUT [TOPIC], and suggest some topics, like name, powers, etc.

Finally, this game is Nasty in the Zarfian sense. “Can get stuck, but this is obvious afterward. Beatable by saving frequently or arbitrarily.” Specifically…

If you push the button before the NPCs have arrived, there’s no way to get the password in time before you get turned into a toad. This makes the game less fun, not more. Perhaps there should be a guess limit, instead of a time limit.

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Storyteller: How do I know there's enough hints?

   Audience: That's the neat part. You don't.

Anyways, I’m glad you joined ParserComp this year and thanks for writing Improv: Origins. I’m looking forward to whatever’s next for The Frenetic Five. See you next year!

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You can already play those. They were written 20 years ago. Isn’t time travel marvellous?

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That would all depend on whether this is a prequel or a reboot.

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Well, it is called ‘Origins’, so I assumed it to be a prequel. Just like all super hero movies have their fair share of origin stories.

So this is an origin story sequel that’s a prequel to a reboot? Where’s the multiverse at?!


P.S. Today I learned that you started IntroComp. I know, I know — I’m fashionably late to the scene. Anyways, thanks for starting that!

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SPOILERS!

None of the top finishers from that first year appear ever to have been completed, so that went well. Though I guess I’m living proof that some of the authors may still be working on finishing them.

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FYI, I’ve now uploaded a new version 2 of Improv: Origins to both Itch and freneticfive.com, fixing all but one of the reported bugs so far. (Ifarchive is in process.) Thanks to all who’ve helped with bug reports and unsnarling nasty code!

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