My EctoComp 2016 Impressions

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.

Things to Do When Alone by Glass Rat Media

I’m not actually sure if this is the title… maybe it’s What to Do When You’re Alone or What to Do When You’re Bored and Alone. There are different titles listed in different places. Anyway! The premise is that you’re searching an online engine that doesn’t accept normal search terms. Instead it “understands intent” and, of course, things go south when it starts advising you on how to dispose of a body and suchlike. It branches a few ways, always to an ambiguous but unambiguously negative outcome. There was actually a very similar game entered into a previous EctoComp: Boogle by Buster Hudson. You could type keywords into a searchbar in that one, and the UI was more elaborate. Whereas Boogle itself had a personality, though, the ReSEARCH engine in Bored and Alone always maintains a neutral tone.

Toiletworld Omega by Brian Kwak

I’ve been hesitant to talk about IFComp this year despite the lifted muzzle rule, in part because I don’t know what to do with the freedom, in part because I’m worried that what I say might be construed as “influencing the judges.” But I think it’s safe to talk about Toiletworld because everyone’s opinion about it is pretty established. Toiletworld Omega is a parody that mimics the original’s joke style and nonexistent mechanics by taking the extra step to actually program nonexistent mechanics. The infamous “x toilet / You can’t see any such thing.” response serves a higher purpose here, since Omega acknowledges that the toilet isn’t there, and uses this absurd disorientation to establish a comedy horror tone. What can I say? This game was a joy to play. It’s very much made for right now and people looking back after EctoComp and IFComp are over might scratch their heads, but that’s fine. The game did what it set out to do. It also features a severed (smoochable) head, which aligns with my sensibilities, as anyone might’ve guessed.

The Periwink by Jedediah Berry

There’s a certain weird horror style that I have a hard time putting my finger on, but I love it and this is it. Somehow it’s like pastel. Complex colors but always delicate. Faded grandeur but not quite; the grandeur is in the fading. A time period that’s more like a vague memory from childhood than a real era. But horrible: there’s something wrong in the water. Well, play this game and you’ll see what I mean about the mood. You’re the groundskeeper and you’re being escorted off the grounds at day’s end. The grounds are fantastic, disturbing. The game’s purple background darkens and darkens as the sun dips. Extremely fine writing, links expertly arranged to guide the pace, and to illustrate that the groundskeeper is always accompanied by a second presence. Berry wrote Fabricationist DeWit, which has received high praise, but I gotta say I think this is even better.

Thanks for trying out my game! Glad you enjoyed the name of the familiar… it just seemed like an appropriate, 17th centry sorta witch’s familiar name! XD

Yeah, it really is a great name! Little touches like that are what make the writing work so well.

Light Into Darkness by Christina Nordlander

A parser game where you’re driven to confront a demonically influenced family member. This was very disorienting! My first playthrough, I looked at the window in the bedroom, then I was suddenly in the garden; then I looked at the window again, and it was another day. See, you’re having weird out-of-body premonitions. When I replayed, I didn’t look at the window, but walked into the hallway and into Marjo’s bedroom… and still wound up in the garden! The game definitely succeeds at confusing you along with the protagonist until everything comes together and makes sense at the end. I do think one location-swap, from nighttime garden to daytime garden, would’ve been disorienting enough, but this is yet another strong entry.

Flight of the Necrovoyager by Joey Bones

At last, a solution to manning those multi-lifetime spaceship voyages: put an undead creature at the helm! It’s a clever idea, and you get to pick one of five different creatures, like a lich or vampire, to pilot the ship. The problem is that it’s a tedious voyage, and most of the undead protagonists only have a few actions to cycle through over and over as the 32-year countdown ticks away. For a speed contest, I think it would’ve been a better strategy to reduce the available undead characters, so that there’s more time to flesh out the ones that are included, or just to reduce the countdown from 32 to 10 years. This game has massive potential for post-comp development.

A slightly longer one.

Howled House by B Minus Seven

[spoiler]Howled House is a short piece made in Raconteur where you play as the titular house. Three imprisoned “howlers” howl during the night as they sleep, and a house with three wings is “raised” by their howling. Each wing has its own personality, and when an explorer enters, the wings attempt in their own ways to either repulse his advances or seduce him toward his doom. What does this explorer want? To scour the house, to take something from it, to understand what can’t be understood about its secret rooms (some open with links; others never open)? The house itself doesn’t quite know. The explorer is not repulsed, is not seduced, but is nevertheless trapped because, once he’s entered the house, he can’t leave.

Howled House itself is also the house it describes, and the player is the explorer. Its words invite you inside and yet they push you back. What do you hope to achieve by playing? What right do you even have to poke around inside this house whose very walls have risen from anguished howls? It’s a question that extends to any art, but especially to art that’s born from pain. That description makes it sound deadly serious, which isn’t right. It’s lively and alive — but it is potentially deadly. “The blade-box, what fun!” says the clowning third hall.

As I write these words, I feel I must tread with caution. At this very moment, I’m walking into the house’s trap, and it wants me or it doesn’t want me or it wants both things. Maybe I’m a guest or maybe I’m a plaything. Maybe I have no business being here. No, I think I’m welcome. After all, the game’s been written for people to experience. But it’s difficult to know where I stand, just as it’s difficult for the house and the author to know what readers want, what their agendas are. And not just this house, not just this author, not just this reader: it’s difficult for anyone to feel their way forward through communication with another person.

Of course this reading might be wrong. Maybe I’m lost in the house. Maybe I took something from it that it never had or never wanted me to have. That’s a danger. All I can do is acknowledge the danger. It’s a dangerous game, but also a game I consider worth risking the danger to play. I wouldn’t be surprised if, a few months from now, I understand it in a different way.

The language is phenomenal. I may be unsure about a few things here, but there’s no question in my mind that Howled House ought to be nominated at the XYZZY Awards for Best Writing.[/spoiler]

Sorry I slowed down writing these. The election drained me for a few days, and then I was prioritizing my IFComp postmortems.

Scars by Olivia Dunlap

I worked retail for four years, and have held other jobs involving lots of customer service. It gets ugly, you get stepped on, sometimes worse, but the customer is always right, ha ha, and every job comes with its office politics, even if you’re not in an actual office. Well this is a game about working a crummy retail job in a world where, when you “make a mistake,” your boss gets to carve the punishment into your body with a knife. There’s a bit at the end that pulls the protagonist’s family backstory into the picture too, but I thought this didn’t have enough breathing room. Keeping the focus on just the retail world would’ve been tighter. Still pretty effective for a horror story, I’d say. It’s kinda like Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” where everything seems mundane at first, but then things seem wrong, and then you learn why.

Honeysuckle by Cat Manning

A Texture piece where you play as a wife whose husband is gone from the house. You do some poking around in his absence and discover nasty secrets. This is basically an adaptation of “Bluebeard” but with a twist: the husband and wife are alchemists. What this twist does is provide a different reason for the husband to marry and murder women, since now he’s doing it to harness magical power. There’s also an abusive student/teacher dynamic to the relationship, since the husband is the master alchemist with all the tools and prestige, and he’s intentionally marginalizing his wife’s work to keep her in line. I’m not totally sold on how Texture’s being used here, but that feels super nitpicky for a speed contest. Overall this is a confident adaptation with good writing and atmosphere.

A Checkered Haunting by Andrew Schultz

You’re a ghost in limbo and you have a task: to haunt areas around town by covering all the ground without crossing your own path twice. That premise is really just a scaffold for the puzzles, where you have to fill grids by moving through squares in the proper order, but the premise comes surging back into relevance during the last grid, which is way harder than the others. As you struggle along, your underworld masters mock your repeated failures, and you feel that, yes, this actually is limbo. Trapped forever in a state of mild disappointment. Except… there does seem to be a solution. But I haven’t solved it yet. Maybe it’s not really there.

The Train of Life [/b]by Marco Innocenti

There’s been a zombie outbreak and the world’s population is decimated, but this game’s got a slightly different approach than other zombie stories. The outbreak is basically over. There’s no running around as zombies try to eat your brains, no barricading yourself behind doors, no action scenes at all. The whole thing is told as a hypertext interview where you play as a researcher choosing how to answer questions after the dust has settled. It’s a little like Black Rock Township in the sense that you’re sifting information to mold the story. As the author acknowledges in the game, it does need proofreading, but I appreciate how it sidesteps the standard delivery method for this type of material.

Bring Me A Head! by Yours Truly

[spoiler]This is mine. Mini-postmortem time.

I’ve been batting around similar themes recently. This game spawned after my IFComp entries. Once again it’s centered around an aristocrat commanding a servant to commit crimes to maintain order. Putting it like that lays bare certain dimensions that I think people tend to overlook in my writing. We live in a climate where social and/or political messages are usually deployed with a bludgeon’s delicacy, and often the same precision. I find such blunt force frequently destructive to its own intent. Instead I make these weird little stories and probably don’t hit hard enough myself. Oh well.

Mechanically this game’s a chain of fetch quests. I wanted to write something where the items in the fetch quests were entertaining to fetch. You can deliver a few items to different people, direct the chain alternate ways. Hopefully navigating the rooms is quick enough that it doesn’t become dull trying to find recipients for the items.

Originally this was going to be parser but I thought it would work better in Twine. I moved it over and repurposed (sparse) assets from another Twine game I’d already consigned to the scrap heap. It took much longer than three hours to write, but in the EctoComp spirit I always went with my first instinct. As a result I’m happier with some links in the chain than others, but I didn’t allow myself to keep editing them. Push onward, don’t look back, etc.[/spoiler]
Vlad the Impala by Pumpkin B. Parjeter

A Twine game where you play as an impala whose identity has been stolen by Vlad the Impaler. You’re out for revenge against the more famous Vlad, although this is a one-room game where most of what you do is fiddle around with items in your enclosure. The puzzles revolve around activating an “Ungulator” powered by two “Frankenlopes” and there are some clever mechanics implemented. I must admit that I stumbled with the interface, however, in much the same way that I did with Dr. Sourpuss. Links didn’t always lead where I expected. Sometimes they kept converging on the same nodes. Sometimes they would cycle in reverse like the “back” button, but sometimes you still needed to use the “back” button. Establishing a more consistent behavior for links would’ve helped (which is good general practice for most Twine games) but this was fun to play even with the bumpy parts.

Psychomanteum by Hanon Ondricek

I beta-tested this one, so I’ve spent more time with it than the others. It’s a parser entry where you’re sitting in a dark room with a mirror and three matches. You have a safe word you can shout if things get too intense. There are multiple creepy things that can happen depending on what you might or might not try to do, and the game is structured around small windows of opportunity that open and shut when the matches are lit. The standard parser convention where most actions become unavailable in the dark is what actually drives the story, so you’ve got this very simple mechanic being channeled toward a larger purpose. The game’s also less about what’s happening in it than what’s happening in the player’s mind. Its goal is to give you the same mild paranoia you might feel while playing a “party game” like this in real life.

A Friend to Light Your Way by verityvirtue

Another Twine game like Vlad the Impala in the sense that you move through a small physical space to gather objects. In this case you’re gathering objects to perform a ritual to summon… something… while standing watch over your grandfather’s corpse before a funeral. Is the “something” your grandfather? Maybe, but maybe not. Maybe it’s what your grandfather has become. The supernatural is treated very matter-of-factly here, which removes any sting from the potential horror, but adds another element of weirdness. My favorite line was probably “what could he do with it?” in reference to a bead that the entity you summoned once demanded. That line is a fine light touch. It conveys a whole attitude toward and commentary on the otherworldly strands that are woven through this story from folklore and religion and legend.

Four Sittings in a Sinking House by Bruno Dias

I think this was made with ink. It’s definitely the glossiest EctoComp entry this year, with rolling purple murk in the background, and flickering candles that snuff out one by one after you perform each “sitting.” You’re a psychic detective, essentially, sent to investigate a house with spiritual disturbances. You revive memories in different rooms to uncover what triggered the haunting. It turns out the house itself, and its original affluent owners, are responsible for displacing and exploiting a smalltime local god, and now the god is suffering with information overload. You can kill the god and end the haunting by loading it with even more information — useless information — until it’s drowning in jargon and pop-culture detritus like many people are today. Ghost stories, of course, are never just ghost stories: they tap into something underneath normal life. In this case the story is tapping into veins that are rather closer to the surface, into current political discourse surrounding subjects like gentrification. As an illustration, a metaphor, everything slots neatly into place. On the other hand the game, like its haunted house, is built on some of the same foundations it’s condemning. I’m not sure whether its text will sink too or not. My thoughts are more complicated than I can fit into this little writeup, but the bottom line is that it’s well written and designed, and definitely worth playing.