My 2015 EctoComp Impressions

I played all the EctoComp games on Halloween when they came out. I probably should’ve written down my impressions earlier, but I was too busy wasting my time in different threads around here. Also, I was working on another project. But mainly wasting time.

Speed IF isn’t something I feel I can really analyze properly. Sometimes the result isn’t too pretty, and you can’t blame the author. Writing a game in three hours is not an easy task. But sometimes people manage to create something great. Lime Ergot was written for last year’s EctoComp and it’s one of my favorite games.

I’m not writing real reviews. Just a few comments. Don’t take me too seriously.

These are for La Petite Mort. I’ll do Le Grand Guignol later.

The Ghost Ship by Jonathan Snyder

[spoiler]I like ghost ships, but I can’t remember playing many games that have them. There was one in Wind Waker and one in Dark Souls II and one in Gex 3: Deep Cover Gecko (which is a terrible, terrible game that I love in an almost masochistic way), but that’s all I can bring to mind. It’s a good idea to have one in a text adventure, and even though this game is small, it still manages to paint a nice little ghost ship in the space it has.

The compass directions are glitchy. Going “east” sometimes makes you go “west.” This is definitely a bug, and yet I thought it enhanced the story. Why should directions make sense on a ghost ship? The idea could be developed further, on purpose, in a longer game. (Also, I always get east and west confused in text games and in reality. My brain wants them to be reversed. This game seemed to be sympathizing with me, albeit inadvertently.)[/spoiler]

Home/Sick by Felicity Banks

[spoiler]The amount of text in this game boggles my mind. I could never, ever write this much in three hours. It takes not only writing skill but also typing skill to do something like this, and you’ve got to be driven. For sheer mass, this is extremely impressive.

As a story, it doesn’t really work for me, but how could it? This must have been written at breakneck speed, ideas smashing down onto the page as soon as they popped into the author’s head. It’s the sort of thing that you’d write for exactly that reason, to get all these ideas out, and then you go back and refine them later. Of course there is no “later” in La Petite Mort. Even though this story is all over the map, it still works as a glimpse into the creative process.[/spoiler]

Halloween Dance by MathBrush

[spoiler]Although this is an explicit tech demo for a conversation system, it’s still got a fun enough story. Nothing too unexpected, but entertaining for the five minutes it takes to play.

I can’t entirely see the benefit to the conversation system though. You have conversation topics in your inventory, and you can SAY them TO different characters. What this does is limit the dialogue while still giving the player some freedom about what to say. But it seems pretty similar to menu-based conversation. The only difference is that the menu is in your inventory rather than a pop-up list that appears when you initiate a discussion.

This is a difference. It takes one less turn to begin a conversation since you don’t need the menu to pop up. But it’s a subtle distinction. If there are larger implications about what this can do, I haven’t caught on yet.[/spoiler]

Open That Vein by Yours Truly

[spoiler]This isn’t a review. It’s a mini-postmortem. This game is too slight to require a full-length postmortem.

I stuck to the EctoComp three-hour limit rather more extremely than EctoComp requires, since I didn’t think about this game for more than thirty minutes before writing it. The idea came to me in the shower, I wrote most of it in my head in the shower, I made some coffee, and then I typed everything into a text file. Then I plopped the text into Inform.

I consider this game to be dynamic fiction. It’s mostly linear, but it requires input from the player to advance into deeper layers. You can’t just click a link. You have to type what you’re going to do, which involves a little more commitment.

I like the parser aesthetic. How text scrolls out. The blinking curser. Needing to type. I feel like these elements can be used to tell different kinds of stories than traditional text adventures. Whether this game succeeded is… another matter.[/spoiler]

Food, Drink, Girls by Roboman

[spoiler]I don’t think English is the author’s native language. There are many odd things about the prose in this game, and sometimes the story feels stalker-creepy due to the way sentences are phrased. I have no problem with stalker-creepy, but I’m not sure if that was the intent here. Mainly the game is just a slice-of-life snapshot about partying on Halloween and drinking too much.

I can’t say I was a fan, but it’s still an accomplishment to deliver a finished Twine game with a branching narrative in three hours. Especially if English really wasn’t the author’s native language![/spoiler]

The Physiognomist’s Office by Christina Nordlander

[spoiler]Physiognomy is great, isn’t it? Screwball science with many social issues tied into it and lots of nasty little medical appliances for a doctor to brandish in a horror story.

That said, this game is very subtle. It’s so subtle that, once I had finished, I thought that I’d missed… well, the whole plot! Nothing frightening actually happens in the physiognomist’s office. You’re just there until you escape. Since you do escape, I assume that you’re being held against your will, but this isn’t made clear. And while physiognomists might have held some patients against their will, this isn’t exactly what I think of as standard practice.

I do appreciate that this game has gone the subtle route. It’s nice to see horror that’s not all blood and guts – that has no blood or guts! It’s more like a classic ghost story in that sense, where the horror is very understated. You feel that something is wrong but you can never quite put your finger on it. A post-comp release could flesh things out more without losing that aspect.[/spoiler]

The Oldest Hangover on Earth by Marius Müller

[spoiler]Very clever, this one. I like mummies. I like the premise that being a revived mummy is like having a terrible hangover. This game has quite a few puzzles for being coded in three hours, and even though the cluing could be better, more synonyms could be added, etc., the puzzles themselves are solid! You’ve got your main goal, to escape back into society, and you’ve got little sub-goals that you need to solve to regain your strength and identity to make the main goal happen.

As for the ending… well, that left a sour note. Suddenly the whole game becomes a punchline about 9/11. It didn’t work for me, and I think you could cut that part out and the game would be stronger for the omission.[/spoiler]

The Story of the Shinoboo by Adri Mills

[spoiler]One of the first things I tried in this game was “carve pumpkin,” and it worked.

I’ve played The Legend of the Missing Hat before, and this game features the same four tiny ninjas running around on cute little missions (at least I think they’re the same). The object here is to wear a costume and collect candy and that’s about it. Everything is minimally described, but to compensate for its sparse prose the game runs very smoothly. I didn’t find any bugs, and in a speed competition that’s nothing to shrug at!

This is one of those games where I can look at it and say, “All right, these are its goals, and it definitely met those goals,” and yet it’s not for me. It seems like it would be quite good for children to teach them how to interact with a parser interface.[/spoiler]

Heezy Park by Andrew Schultz

[spoiler]This is the second Andrew Schultz game I’ve played, and I have to say, I think I might be turning into a bit of an Andrew Schultz fan.

The game only has one main puzzle, involving the MegaSol display, and even though I figured it out, I still think it was obscure. It’s just a guess, but it seems like the MegaSol’s grid-like letters are an indication that the player should map the route they ran through Heezy Park. Presumably their route would produce a three-letter word like the ones on MegaSol.

Maybe this is wrong. I didn’t map the game. Instead I got the answer by thinking, “What could I say that’s related to the words MegaSol is printing?” But if there really is no purpose to the grid, then it was a confusing element to include.

Well, I’m being negative here after saying I might be an Andrew Schultz fan. Okay, so MegaSol could’ve been clearer, but otherwise I thought the game was a good little snappy vignette. I’m almost tempted to call this dynamic fiction. It’s extremely linear, but by having to run around through Heezy Park yourself, you’re actually getting the experience that’s described in the text.

I also think Schultz is a good writer. He’s got a talent for casual prose that just rolls right out. I gather from reading reviews for his other games that he’s mainly focused on puzzles, but I think he could write a narrative-driven game if he wanted. Perhaps he has and I just need to go play it![/spoiler]

Thanks for the reviews!

I’ve said before that I wanted to use the 2001 ending as a sort óf very, very dark Twilight Zone like Twist. Guess it didn’t work, as every reviewer so far has complained about it.

Yeah, see, the thing is that in The Twilight Zone, the twist would normally fit pretty well into what was already established in the episode. Even if it took a left turn and aliens were suddenly involved or something, that would still match the tone and narrative expectations that were set up beforehand.

It didn’t work like that in Oldest Hangover.

The game went from slapstick horror-parody to political critique in a way that made 9/11 seem like a punchline. Not only was it jarring, but it just felt kinda tasteless. You could probably still keep the “Arab man in a hostile world” element without pulling 9/11 into the story if you wanted. It’s just that 9/11 is such a heavy, touchy subject that you’re really playing with fire by joking about it. Of course people can joke about it. But they’ve got to be great comedians to pull it off.

Thank you very much for reviewing my The Physiognomist’s Office! (I might pass up your other reviews until I’ve played the games, but thank you for those as well: reviewing is a great service.)

I agree that it’s not a massive success: I’ve actually had the idea for the setting long before I learned to use Inform (because like you said, physiognomy is great), but I didn’t really have an idea for a game to go with it. When I finally sat down to do my three hours, I went for the path of least resistance and made an escape-the-room game. There’s no actual way to lose, which is kind of deadly for a horror game.

While I’m not too proud of how it turned out, I had a great deal of fun and will definitely participate again in the future.

All right, so I fell behind writing these mini-not-review things, and I apologize for that (to everyone out there who was just waiting on tenterhooks these past few weeks). But better late than never, right? I tried to write longer impressions for the longer Grand Guignol games, and I’ll probably repost the Voice Box one in particular on IFDB.

Ashes by Glass Rat Media

[spoiler]Here’s the most interesting thing about Ashes to me: I went into this game expecting supernatural horror and got a psychological thriller instead. It’s still horror, no doubt about that, but it made me realize that this approach seems more unusual in the IF that I’ve played. Everything is set for the stage to be supernatural: people gathered alone in a cabin to memorialize a friend’s cremation, with hostile feelings lingering around the dead person. It would be natural for a malevolent ghost to manifest in an ash cloud.

But this is the kind of ghost story that doesn’t need a ghost. Ghosts are certainly involved, but they’re memories. They have as much real influence on the story as a poltergeist would pushing furniture around. The “friends” at this cabin who have come there to honor the dead with a “celebration” are knit together more by passive-aggressive bitterness than camaraderie. The history between them is not nice, to say the least, and although the story enters slasher territory by the end, it’s got more emotional weight at its core than most slashers. The characters have wounded each other in personal, intimate ways long before there’s any bloodshed, and the worst wound is probably how no one will acknowledge that anything wrong happened.

Maybe it’s for this reason that I found the slasher-style ending to be the game’s weak link. Compared to the build-up, the resolution felt somewhat abrupt and wasn’t as satisfying to me as the more grounded social interactions during the beginning and middle. At one point, the game also presents you with a choice to identify a potential murderer, and I balked a little because I didn’t think I could make the right choice with the information I had. But I made a choice, and it was apparently correct, and when the story plunged ahead, it felt as though the text now assumed I was on the same page with it. But my footing was still shaky.

On the other hand, there’s one section in the middle that I found extremely effective, where the characters play “Never Have I Ever” and their histories are revealed. This sequence works really well in a choice-based context. You’re presented with “drink/don’t drink” options during each round, and since this is exactly what would happen, the limited options feel genuine. They aren’t just a gameplay mechanic anymore: they’re realistic.[/spoiler]

Invasion by Cat Manning

[spoiler]Somewhat lazily, I just want to say “+1 Bruno Dias” for this game. If anybody hasn’t read his review, here it is: … asion.html

He mentions that you can see the monsters coming in Invasion, you know them intimately, and that’s a major theme in the game. It’s a major theme in lots of horror nowadays. But what I like most about the monsters here is that you can’t know them too intimately. You can only guess at what you think is in their minds. They are expert shapeshifters – so expert that they can shapeshift their emotions. They want to draw you close, to gain your sympathy, in order to suck your life away, and in order to do this they transform into figures ranging from the seductive to the pitiful. A crying child may not be a crying child. This “child” may not even know what “crying” means. “Crying” is just a physical action that humans do, and other humans respond to it, and therefore this “child” will “cry.”

Unless that’s not true. Unless the monsters know exactly the emotional game that they’re playing. That’s the thing: you cannot know for sure.

Although the story resonates on broad social levels, it was this particularly sinister little detail that stuck with me the most. Invasion isn’t just about fearing the unknown, and it’s not just about fearing the known either. It’s about fearing both, unsure how much you can read into any interaction with another person. Invasion’s monsters, like so many monsters, are not very different from humans. They have the capacity to smile and pretend to be your friend even while they’re draining you to feed themselves. But they also have to feed themselves. They’re starving. There’s not an easy way to interpret this situation.[/spoiler]

Nine Lives by Merlin Fisher

[spoiler]I am not oblivious to the fact that this is the second game released this October to revolve entirely around cat-killing, having written the first game myself. It’s interesting to me to compare Nine Lives with Taghairm. In Nine Lives, every cat death is unique, and there’s meant to be fun in the variety; in Taghairm, every cat death is the same, and there’s no fun at all. In Nine Lives, there are no stakes, the cat doesn’t stay dead, it’s just a game; in Taghairm, there’s no coming back. But I think the most striking thing is that whereas you have a reason to kill cats in Taghairm, vague and unpleasant though it may be, you have no reason in Nine Lives except amusement at killing the cat protagonist in as many diverse ways as possible.

Even though Nine Lives is written in the second person, the “you” in this game is clearly not “you” the player. If you were actually roleplaying as this cat, you would not gleefully explore the house looking for new and exciting ways to murder yourself. Especially not time after time after time. This cat has made it to adulthood, and yet now within a single day it has expended all its nine lives at once. And why is this? Because now it’s being controlled by a player who wants to see it die.

I sound really negative here. I liked this game. I got on board with the concept, and went right along to find the different deaths once I realized that was the purpose to the game. But having just written Taghairm, I couldn’t distance myself enough from the material to enjoy Nine Lives in the way that it was intended. Taghairm is all about adding weight back to weightless violence in games, and Nine Lives is all about taking that weight away again.

I think it’s safe to say that if someone hated Taghairm, they’ll probably like Nine Lives a lot more. And if someone liked Taghairm, they might also enjoy Nine Lives![/spoiler]

Voice Box by B Minus Seven

[spoiler]At this point, I’ve become a shameless B Minus Seven fan. Even though Voice Box came in fourth place in its EctoComp division, it was my favorite game entered into the whole contest. I wasn’t too surprised to see it place where it did, since B Minus Seven’s games are usually divisive (to put it mildly), but I was also happy to see that it got a decent overall score despite its rank. I think people may be warming up to B’s style!

Voice Box is probably the most accessible game B Minus Seven has written to date. One reason for that is because it’s so short. It also doesn’t tax the player like A Trial or play any weird tricks with the code like Inward Narrow Crooked Lanes. You can read it like a traditional story. Another thing that makes it more accessible is that it’s tonally consistent. Something I love about B’s games is the humor, which can be indirect and eccentric enough to make other people wonder if there is any humor, but although Voice Box has clever wordplay, it sticks to the same surreal horror tone throughout. So at least in that sense, you always have your feet on the ground with this game.

When it comes to the story, things get more obscure. A woman has her voice stolen by two creatures in the night, and she has the choice to either “weep” or “seek” in response. Weeping suggests passivity, retreat, denial, but also perhaps (curiously) acceptance, whereas seeking suggests action, rebellion, an attempt to reconcile what’s happened. Each choice leads to another branch point with another “weep/seek” decision, and after three branches the story ends.

But this isn’t really a story that ends when the text runs out. It may be short, but you cannot just blitz through it and then say, “Okay, now I’m done.” A ton is packed into each little sentence. I’ve played Voice Box four times, and every time I come away with another idea about what it’s doing. Rereading it, I make new connections between the different branches.

Essentially, this is branching flash fiction. It’s tiny, but what it manages to do with its tininess is impressive. Even more impressive, to my mind, is that the branching is such a major factor in such a small game. There’s barely anywhere for the branches to expand, the space is so tight, and yet every branch is meaningful, and the branching itself is one of those rare gameplay mechanics that illustrates what’s happening in the narrative. You don’t finish one branch and stop. You go back, you try again, you search them all, attempting to wrap your head around all the possibilities just as the protagonist is trying to do. If every branch tells another story, the protagonist cannot of course know what’s available in the different branches that she isn’t occupying at the moment, but she does have a sense for the emotions that are flowing through these different branches. She may not encounter her masculine clone when she climbs a tower in another branch instead, but her masculine clone is still out there; ditto for the tower when she does meet her clone.

In the end, Voice Box is a game about identity, and what happens when you’ve been denied the right to express who you really are. Sometimes outside forces deny you the right. Sometimes it’s an inner struggle. Sometimes it’s a combination. There’s not really a good way to approach this problem logically. You have to feel your way around until you hopefully understand things better.

I like one bit in the game that almost seems like a commentary on the game itself:

All day she speaks in her hazy way to a tape recorder. Each night she ships her tapes. To some they bring peace, to others unease, depending on their need.

As always in a B Minus Seven game, the writing in Voice Box is great. Even if you never do manage to understand the story, you can still float along on the prose’s rhythm.[/spoiler]

Yay :smiley: Thanks for posting these.

Thanks for these! I have my own design thoughts on my game–but the short version is, I thought of the puzzle October 29th, drew up a bunch of stuff on a piece of paper, and got to typing. I just didn’t realize

how many letters could actually be converted to LCD. I thought it was maybe half of them, which would cut things down a lot more, but it turns out letters like Y or Z are doable, and even Q is, if you twist it.

Also, I was hoping to write a topic like this, but I never really tackled the Grand Guignol games. I’ll do that in a bit.