I’m still pretty new to the IF world, but over the last two years this little EctoComp has somehow become my favorite event on the calendar. It’s a speed writing challenge, so you wouldn’t necessarily expect it to produce great material, but it does (including Lime Ergot from 2014, one of my all-time favorite games). This year struck me as especially outstanding, so I wanted to write my impressions as I did last time around.
Dead serious, I’d rank quite a few of these games on the same level as the IFComp games in the bigger contest across the way. Writing short fiction requires a different approach than writing a longer game, and when these short games work it’s because they’re doing something tight and sophisticated.
That said, the Petit Mort category is still a three-hour speed contest, so some games aren’t as polished as others. As such, I don’t want to formally “review” them at the moment. I’m just recording general thoughts. I’ve played everything except Edith’s Cats, which won’t run on my computer.
I’m starting with the first five and plan to just go down the ballot over the next few days. Spoilers ahead. Beware!
Going Home by Santiago Eximeno
This is a very short Twine game where you play as a zombie who shambles home to eat your daughter for supper. There’s nothing revolutionary in the premise, but what’s neat is how the opening’s structured. As a zombie, your thoughts and actions are breaking down, and you’re given a list of choices like “Bluuargh” or “Aaargh.” These choices seem like pick-any-random-one nonsense but they are mapped to a mini node maze. You have to navigate through the moans and groans to find an “Eeeeek,” which lets you move to the next stage (and probably represents a screaming citizen you’ve killed/eaten in the street). This reminded me of Laterna Magica, a game that came last in the 2014 IFComp due to its pseudo-mysticism. It also had a maze, not through physical space, but through conceptual space. Going Home pulls it off better, and it’s a mechanic I find pretty interesting.
Low by Peregrine Wade
You’re driving a deserted road at night. Something’s following you. Here we’ve got a parser game that exploits timed events to pack in much more branching than you’d expect for something written in three hours. You can sit in the car and keep driving, and it might crash or it might not, it might run out of gas, you might end up in different places, and it all depends on how attentive you are, how you react. We’re missing some basic implementation in room descriptions, but those bits could get fleshed out later. A solid mini text adventure with a beef sandwich in a paper bag for good measure. (Post-comp, please let me open the bag. I want that beef!)
The Curious Incident at Black Rock Township by Bitter Karella
Based on “historical records.” Somehow I doubt it! But this game nails the mood associated with reading literature from early America. It’s about a witch trial similar to the famous trials in Salem. Accusing someone of witchcraft is as good as proving they’re a witch, and the only way the accused can receive a lesser sentence is by “exposing” more “witches” with more accusations. We’ve even got a Tituba analogue in this game with the character Ezola Midnight. The story is 100% presented as extracts taken from “primary sources” and “academic books,” so you’re not playing as a character, but you still get to influence events depending on what links you select in the text. You’re basically reshuffling history to fit your preferred narrative. Hovering beneath this process is an almost imperceptible nastiness. After all, what right have you to reshuffle the documents to suit your pleasure? Aren’t your changes as baseless as the accusations the characters are leveling at each other during the trial? Who cares: your changes stick. Twist the story however you like. Short but rich. (Also, A+ for the name Red Rags.)
Because You’re Mine by Owlor
A parser game where you’re playing as a cute anthropomorphic horse in a cute horse world. Except the cute horse is vindictive, bloody-minded, on a mission to drug an ex-lover with a potion concocted from ingredients like mandrakes. And the world is filled with things like mandrakes, and swamps with deadly sludge, and a great gallows tree. This game is bitter, and the protagonist uses every opportunity to spit insults and frame events in the most selfish manner. My favorite part is when you walk into a shop, and the shopkeeper explains the barter system, and when you try to GIVE an item in exchange for another, the parser replies: “You couldn’t care less about the barter system.” All your polite expectations just smashed by the PC’s attitude! Time to do things the brutal way…
The Unstoppable Vengeance of Doctor Bonesaw by Lewis Blanco
Spectacularly over the top. You’re a tuxedo-clad bone-sawing philatelist on a mission to destroy your enemies, and your victory is so assured that merely by walking out your office door, every domino in your elaborate plot will fall into position. You can indeed walk out the door and win the game just like that, and it’s a totally satisfying experience, because there’s so much flavor and weird horror/comedy in the room descriptions that you’ve already got a full story. But — but! Wouldn’t it be so much more delicious to prove that the unstoppable doctor isn’t unstoppable after all? This game’s real strength is its subversion of the assumption that player and protagonist share a unified goal. It’s a perfectly packaged individual puzzle, where the puzzle’s not just a puzzle, but the means by which the story’s point is being delivered.