My (Thomas Hvizdos) Thoughts on IFComp 2020 Games I've Played

I’m happy that IFComp is back, and excited to play and think about some rad games. Last year was my first experience with the comp. I entered Mental Entertainment, and getting feedback on my writing was a great experience, but I also really enjoyed seeing people’s thoughts on the comp games and sharing my own. I’ll be doing that this year in this thread. I’m working down my “personal shuffle.”

6 Likes

Adventures in the Tomb of Ilfane
This game is mostly a vehicle for a gimmick, but the gimmick’s fun enough, and doesn’t overstay its welcome.
The gimmick is, of course, that to beat the game you actually have to beat three games, each of which contains information needed to progress in the other. I spent about fifteen minutes clicking around “Adventures” before heeding the hint in the description and beginning to google. Willershin Rill seemed like a suspicious name, and googling that led me to the website that hosts the other two games that form the rest of the puzzle. From there it’s pretty straightforward to put the pieces together. There’s one path through the puzzles, and the game helpfully gives you the answers in big bold text, and suggests you might just maybe want to write the information down. That was nice–it was pretty clear what the relevant information was, and it saved what would have been tedious clicking through the text again.

The games are differently themed, enough so to be fun, and make the execution of the puzzles interesting. Pressing runes in a tomb isn’t really very different mechanically from adding ingredients to an alchemical mixture, but the theming did make a difference for me.
The puzzles generally took a few seconds to figure out, which is significantly different from 0 seconds–it was enough to get the satisfaction that I solved something, without having to think about it very hard, which I enjoyed.

I’m ambivalent about the story. It’s a lot of LORE about various alien(?) races with nonsense names like “Wukunstans.” It doesn’t seem like it’s supposed to be taken very seriously (when the story ends, the tomb is papier-mache, and there’s a note that the MacGuffin is fake), which is fine, but there’s a lot of it, and the nonsense names made it hard for me to follow. It seemed like there might’ve been some clever anagramming going on (Maggoteers==mortgagees??) but I couldn’t really tell.

Of note is the fact that there’s a lot of bits that seem to be commentary on current American politics.The Big Bad wants to “make the galaxy great again,” and he allies with “deplorables” and alien goons to impose fascism on the pacifist, diverse Action Scientists who just wanna hang out and make art, man. Oh, and he builds a dome around the city to keep the undesirables out, there’s a parable about refugees being turned away, and the few times he speaks it’s in a speech pattern that feels fairly recognizable.

That’s fine, I guess–the politics are broad, but generally line up with mine, so it was hard to take offense. The parallels felt jarring originally, but they did end up engaging me far more than the lore would have on it’s own: it’s going to be hard to invest me in the struggles of the Kermemarrians, but if the Kermemarrians are maybe some loose political allegory I can’t stop myself from spending some time trying to figure out if they are. Plus, I was curious if the story would eventually build towards saying something about current politics other than ‘fascism is bad.’ (It doesn’t, really). YMMV based on your politics, I suppose.

There’s nothing incredible here, but I enjoyed the experience, it’s relatively short, and the gimmick is fun. The story was odd, and I wish there had been less timed text (I get now why it’s such a common turn-off), but all in all it’s hard to really knock it for anything. Also, if you beat the game you get a link to the author’s soundcloud which is pretty good. Some of the songs kind of sound like They Might Be Giants.

3 Likes

Alone
Sitting down to write about this, I had the realization that I haven’t ever played this iteration of a parser game–the straightforward, meat and potatoes modern puzzler that does things well without additional bells and whistles. So Alone holds a certain honor in my limited personal experience.

I thought the game was great. It’s tightly contained, and the puzzle progression feels good: it’s pretty simple to figure out that you need to put a cinder block under a hole you can’t quite get to, a little more difficult to understand that you need to a use a scalpel to cut a cushion to get a spring to put in a dumbwaiter, etc. By the time I got to the final puzzle, which requires thinking a few steps forward and manipulating a somewhat awkward system to get the desired result, I trusted that the author had thought of everything I might try to do, and that I could figure out what I needed to do. That’s especially important for me as a relative newbie to the genre.

Also helpful to me as a newbie was the fact that Alone is very tightly focused on the puzzles. The zombie pandemic background provides some flavor here and there, but any given room is going to provide you with puzzle components, and not much else. That worked well for me–my focus was kept on the puzzles, and I had very few moments where I was frustrated because the environment seemed to provide a solution that the game wouldn’t accept. The post-apocalyptic setting helps serve that purpose–things are naturally picked clean so there’s not much to look at.

The puzzle structure is good too. Even though it appears to be mostly linear, the fact that you have multiple goals gives you the sense that you’re doing a bunch of things at once, even though you’re generally just marching down the progression path.

Overall, I thought this was great. It doesn’t try anything particularly innovative, but it does everything it tries to extremely well.

Miscellaneous thoughts:

-I am amused that a lot of the game is a hunt for PPE

-The cash register puzzle, where you have to remove the tray, was extremely satisfying for me, because it felt like it was the direct result of my real world knowledge. If I hadn’t worked at a Dairy Queen in high school, I probably would’ve been stuck there. That seems vaguely dangerous from a design standpoint, but I suppose it just punishes people who have never had to work crappy minimum wage jobs. In a broad sense, the puzzles felt like they were extremely based in reality, which gave me a real sense of immersion. “See,” I thought to myself, “I could totally survive an apocalypse.”

4 Likes

The Cursed Pickle of Shireton

This was a well-crafted, light-hearted RPG/adventure game hybrid.

The game is themed as a newly released MMO beta, and there are some fun nods to that. It crashes occasionally, forcing a re-login, and you get generated chat messages on the bottom of the screen, as well as some entertaining debug messages and bugs/bug fix messages. It also allows for a more sprawling structure–the game still has an obvious progression, but you usually have some side quests or other interesting avenues to poke down.

The first hour or so was a pretty standard pastiche of MMO intro level stuff. It’s fun enough, and it helps you get accustomed to some of the game systems, especially the combat, which was one of the highlights of the game. It’s a cool mix of text-based combat and action: you have a limited amount of time to select a move, then click links that approximate the action. This adds a lot of flavor and excitement: a warrior’s sword thrust is just click three windup links, then hit “THRUST,” while the wizard’s spells require you to select four correct links from a grid of 16. This played fantastically, and created a fun sense of player skill rising with character skill. As a wizard, I unlocked new skills based on my wizardry stat, but I had to practice them before I could fire off the combinations as quickly as good old level 1 zap. I didn’t delve much into the other classes, but that’ s partially a compliment: the wizard combat stayed fun throughout the whole game that I didn’t feel the need to.

There’s also a rough party system, which I didn’t engage with as much. Party members are essentially extra stats and moves, but since they don’t seem to extend the timer before your enemy takes their move, they didn’t seem as worth it. They’re also kind of expensive, and die easily, or run off when you use a super move you can unlock fairly early on in the game. The sections where they were available also weren’t very difficult, which disincentivized their use.

The sections where you meet them are all well-written and funny, though, with the first town having a bunch of misfits like a gnomish barbarian and a tone-deaf bard, and the second town being full of hunks and babes. They probably justify their inclusion on those sections alone.

Just as I was started to wonder if there was more to the game than the mildly generic intro, I was turned into a baker, and spent about a half hour playing a completely different game. This was by far my favorite section. Games that have you “play as an NPC” usually base the premise on the idea that such a life would be incredibly dull, so it was delightful to play something that made baking bread, dealing with customers, and giving quests genuinely fun. The writing here is wonderfully sensual, and made me really want to spend time in the warm bakery. The music is great, and switches from a calm melody to a bitching, vague-ly irish electronic track when customers come in. Just writing about that made me seek out the track (called “club seamus”) and put it on again.

Sadly, though, you can’t stay a baker forever, and you’re wrenched from your comfortable life by the titular cursed pickle. From there the game switches back to a RPG, with an extended adventure game diversion in an asylum. It’s all fun, with some great writing (the mayor of lunebyn, the insane gamer who’s recreated rock paper scissors complete with combat resolution tables, and some SCP parody bits) and enjoyable puzzles.

I hit the two hour limit while in the asylum, and my last half hour was probably harmed as a result. I was enjoying the game quite a bit, but felt compelled to try and sacrifice some of that enjoyment in an attempt to rush through to the end. Fun puzzles became frustrating because they were a barrier to my experience, especially the haunted mansion that required frequent backtracking and punishing combats. The length harmed my impression of the game as a two hour experience, though I would have had no issue if I was playing outside of IFComp. I’m not sure if I have a recommendation here–the sprawl makes the game feel like the MMO it’s representing itself as, and overwhelming amounts of dialogue options are, I think, part of the author’s style, so it seems like cutting this down to a more focused product would’ve harmed it overall.

I did like the game enough to go back and finish it immediately after I had rated it. The ending is a bit anti-climactic–having the Big Bad be a pickle is a fine gag, but inherently makes it hard to view as much of a threat, so getting to destroy it felt more perfunctory than anything.

I liked this a lot. It feels like three or four games in one, all of which are pretty fun, which perhaps hurts it given the competition framework, but it stands alone as a very impressive work.

Miscellaneous thoughts:

-I couldn’t give the sheriff the paper cup from the royal party. Not sure if that’s a bug or not.

-Is there a way to find out the cat burglar’s name?

-Similarly, is there anything in the haunted mansion? I gave up once I unlocked the second floor because I was trying to finish, and didn’t go back.

3 Likes

SOUND

This was a short game about what seems to be a therapy session that’s a part of a larger program.

The premise is enjoyably mysterious, and I was curious as to what was going on. The end, where the last text on the screen is duplicated (echoed), is a cool effect, and the patient’s intense connection to sounds was novel and effectively communicated by the text.

Unfortunately, the writing was a little rough. The grammar and punctuation needed more polish, and I often couldn’t tell who was talking. When I began the game I thought I was the patient, and, though that might’ve been just me not reading carefully, the choices that you’re presented with seem like they put you in the POV of the patient, not the therapist (“Where were you before this? A dorm or a coffee shop?”). It seems like there’s something I missed about the larger story (Who is this patient? What is this program?), but I couldn’t figure it out. It also seemed odd that a game about sound didn’t contain any.

Overall, some interesting ideas, but the execution needed some improvement.

3 Likes

I had similar thoughts on SOUND, and I wasn’t actually sure whether the ending sequence was actually the ending – I found it effective, but the lack of a clear “OK we’re done now” statement was confusing – so helpful to know that’s where you wound up too!

3 Likes

Yeah, I played through the game a second time trying to figure that out. It didn’t seem like there was anything else, but I’ll be curious if someone is able to find something more.

1 Like

The Eidolon’s Escape

This was a well-written CYOA that didn’t connect with me, mostly due to my own preferences.

As a disclaimer: I’m generally not a fan of serious fantasy stuff, so this game was probably going to be a tough sell for me. Some, (perhaps most) of my coolness on it is due to that.

You play as a mystical creature that’s been imprisoned by a wizard, and has to take possession of a few different characters to escape. The choices are generally cosmetic, though you can reach dead ends if you are especially vicious or foolish in your decision-making. You move through the wizard’s tower, collecting the information you need to successfully stage your escape.

The writing is very descriptive. I usually have a hard time visualizing things as I read, but the author did a great job of consistently including the little details that made the characters and castle vivid in my mind. The elderly guard was especially memorable.

Similarly, the characters are drawn quickly and well. They are generally stock types, but they all seem to have a real personality and life behind them. Again, I think the consistent inclusion of little details helps a lot here, as does the fact that you get to see the same characters react differently to the two different youths you possess.

Along similar lines, I was amused how most of the adults knew you were obviously lying and breaking the rules, but were willing to look the other way since they thought you were just sneaking around with your boyfriend/girlfriend–it helped justify the leeway they kept giving you.

There’s some decent fish-out-of water humor as you, an ephemeral creature, try to pretend to be human: “I’ll be back before you know it, kitten” becomes “I’ll be back before you know it, infant feline.”

Overall though, I found it hard to connect with the protagonist. At its core, the game is about brutally wresting basic autonomy away from someone, then manipulating decent people who love your host into doing your bidding (the excellent characterization probably made this even harder for me to swallow). The Eidolon is incredibly hateful, especially in the beginning, and a lot of the choices boil down to being extremely cruel, or fumblingly flattering. It felt very true to the character, but I didn’t enjoy it as a player.

Some of the issue was that I wasn’t sure what that tone was in service of. I think you can make a character as imperious but ultimately helpless as the Eidolon comic. Leaning harder into the selfishness and revulsion of the Eidolon could probably create something interesting as well, though it probably wouldn’t have connected with me, personally. As is, it feels sort of like a fantasy romp where the main character just hates everything, which was hard for me to engage with.

There is an interesting twist to this, which is that the more inhuman options tend to lose you the game. My first playthrough I generally just tried to be nice to people and was able to win pretty easily. I picked the more evil options in subsequent runs, and, though most of the choices are cosmetic, if you decide to kill people, you lose the game. I really like the idea of having to balance your character’s rage with the need to be human to accomplish your goals, and wish that tension was more present in the narrative.

Overall, I think most people will like this more than I did. It is very well-written, and I think a lot of the things I don’t like have more to do with me than the story itself.

3 Likes

Thanks for the great review! I’m glad to see people are enjoying the game, and receiving it pretty much as I had intended. A good enough environment to be entertaining and somewhat immersive, but a puzzler at it core. Also I’m glad you enjoyed the hunt for PPE. This was exactly my intent as this was inspired by the hell-scape we’ve all been having to live in the last several months. :slight_smile:

4 Likes

Sheep Crossing

This is a fun toy implementation of a classic riddle.

The game’s extremely short–you could beat it (especially if you already know the riddle) in a few minutes. Since the scope is so narrow, the author has thoroughly implemented a lot of different potential interactions (I was thrilled I could eat the grass!).

I found the process of mechanically acting out the riddle solution surprisingly satisfying. There’s a difference between knowing conceptually how something would be done, and actually going through the process of doing it. That difference here just added a new perspective on the classic riddle, which I really enjoyed.

I would be extremely interested to read about someone’s experience who hadn’t already heard of the riddle the game is modelling. It seems naively like it would make the puzzle easier to solve, since you have to paddle the boat back anyways, but maybe not.

2 Likes

Thanks for taking the time to explore Cursed Pickle! I’m glad to know that the combat was enjoyed and not just a deal-breaker for everyone as timed events can sometimes be.

2 Likes

BYOD

This was a short, well-executed hacking simulator.

The game revolves around using your phone to connect to various office devices and solve puzzles: connecting to the printer to print an “out of order” sign, for example, or deleting nudes that are being used for blackmail.

Those are really the only two puzzles, but they feel great, and the game is paced well. The only hint the game gives you is a message at the end about having ‘done everything you could’ or not, but that was enough to bring me through the entire game.

The puzzles transcend the “find a password so you can unlock the next computer or folder” lock-and-key paradigm, which helps ground them. There’s also enough extraneous stuff floating around on the computers and network to make the hacking feel “real.”

I also really enjoyed the mundane nature of the puzzles. The few other fake terminal games I’ve played have been more focussed on massive corporate conspiracy or intrigue, which ironically makes the games feel less significant. Part of the thrill of the fake terminal game is that you’re actually looking through a company’s real files, and some of them being mundane and boring enhances the voyeuristic thrill, because it feels more real.

The game’s great, and my only complaint is that it was too short. I’d love to see more of this type of thing–and if anyone has recommendations I’d love to hear them.

Miscellaneous thoughts:

-The game opens with this quote:

These men of the technostructure

are the new and universal priesthood.

Their religion is business success;

their test of virtue is growth and profit.

And there’s some anti-corporate sentiment sprinkled throughout the game. I didn’t mind that, but it doesn’t really tie into the gameplay. It gives the PC more motivation for hacking into the company’s systems, I suppose, but I didn’t need much motivation beyond it being cool.

-I liked the intro menu, which is themed like a DOS prompt, but was sad I couldn’t actually DIR around.

2 Likes

Popstar Idol Survival Game

This seems to be broken–I couldn’t progress after finishing the introductory competition. That’s a shame, as I was enjoying the playthrough. I have basically no experience with the source material, so it felt really fresh, and the author’s enthusiasm shone through. I’m sad I can’t test my strategy of min-maxing my looks to victory.

3 Likes

The Place

This feels like an author’s relatively early foray into the genre, and it suffers from some of the standard growing pains. That said, there’s some extremely canny choices that made the game remarkable.

The grammar and writing are a little clunky, and I ended the game without being very sure what the story was about, other than a brief look into the protagonist’s experiences.

The main avenue for interactivity is frequent prompts that ask you about yourself: “What’s your favorite song?” “What’s your favorite book?” “Have you ever been to Japan?” These answers are then applied to the main character; frequently it turns out that her favorite song is 21 questions, too, and the thing that brought her joy in the last week is smoking a cigarette, too.

Though somewhat clumsily implemented (the game pastes your response directly into the text, capitalization and grammar issues be damned), this works well in a lot of different ways.

There are a lot of choices, which builds the character quickly. The choices largely land in a sweet spot where they’re simple but meaningful, which allows the character to develop depth while avoiding larger clashes between writing and story. The author provides an example answer for each of the prompts, which primes your brain to answer with something that sort of fits the structure they’re expecting. And, several choices are referenced more than once, which is key to making the player feel like they’re meaningful.*

Applying statements about yourself to a different character is a really clever way to do this. If the game were to presume to tell you a personal story about you, you’d experience a lot of cognitive dissonance as other aspects of the story didn’t line up. But by presenting you as infatuated with Sally, and then applying things that are true about you to her, you’re drawn into the story, because it’s created a character that really does have a lot in common with you. I’ve never seen that done, and, I might just be a narcissist, but I thought it worked extremely well.

There’s a potential darker side to that, though I’m not sure if it’s intentional. A close friend of mine experienced a lot of trauma in her childhood, similar to the protagonist of The Place. That trauma left her feeling like she didn’t have an identity, and one of her coping mechanisms was to attempt to adopt identities of people who she liked and wanted to be like. For example, she’d get into a band because she wanted to be like the people she knew who liked that band, not because she liked the music or not. There seems to be a clear parallel here–there are things that are true about Sally, but she also exists, in some ways, as a creature that you created; she (or the game) creates her based on your specifications, in order to bond with you. I doubt that parallel was intentional, but it is nonetheless able to stand as a fairly striking mechanical implementation of one of the effects of trauma.

I liked this game a lot. It’s rough in a lot of ways, but it displays a mechanical canniness that was, perhaps, all the more striking given its rough spots. I hope this author continues to write.

*There’s a Samuel R. Delany quote that goes: “Everything in a science-fiction novel should be mentioned at least twice (in at least two different contexts).” That’s some of the best world-building advice I’ve ever read, and applies even more severely to player choices in games.

4 Likes

Thanks for reviewing! I’m glad the story resonated on you. It was originally written in 2015, and certain news and media of the time filtered into it (Mr. Robot TV show, the Horvath-GitHub story). Looking back from 2020 it feels like a whole century has passed, but I decided to stay close to the original (I added some details, but the core is basically the same).

About the menu, I considered accepting typed commands and simulate some DOS stuff like debug or edlin, but felt it would grow into a parallel game and ditched the idea.

2 Likes

Fight Forever

Fight forever is a pretty standard stat grinding game with ambitions to be something more.

You play as an up-and-coming fighter who dreams of greatness. Gameplay consists of choosing training (or social) options between fights, then clicking the fight button and seeing if you’ve won or not. As you win fights, you advance up the rankings.

I wanted very badly to like this game–I used to box, and have a lot of love for the sport. Boxing is incredibly satisfying because of the interplay between physical ability, technique, style, strategy, and reading your opponent. There’s always something new to learn, and even a short sparring session is an intimate experience where you’re both trying to outwit and wear each other down in service of landing a clean hit.

Unfortunately, Fight Forever doesn’t really capture any of that. It’s more of a training game than a fighting game–you spend most of your time selecting from an overwhelming array of training options, and fights are two lines of text. It feels like there should be more to it, and maybe some of the social options you unlock later are worth it, but after about a half hour of repetitively clicking through links, I wasn’t interested in exploring further.

There might be more depth here than I’m willing to credit–you seem to have a lot of different stats that increase or decrease based on training, but they game doesn’t tell you what they do, or even display them. I wasn’t confident they’d have enough impact to try to figure out any underlying systems.

Of note: The game says it’s a “white paper” for a larger fighting MMO, with 3d action and complex career management. It makes a lot more sense given that context–if all of the options were fleshed out, and the stats played into a fighting game instead of just being crunched behind the scenes, this game would be rad. I hope it gets made, but, right now, Fight Forever is hard to love.

1 Like

The Land Down Under: Mrs. Wobbles and the Tangerine House

This was a charming children’s story about a trio of foster kids who get sucked into a magical paper world.

The world of The Land Down Under was extremely creative and enjoyable. I liked the paper people, the tracks they move on, the relationship between the king and the queen, and the final water war. The story’s a little shaggy, and there’s a lot of stuff that gets introduced suddenly, which gives it a bit of a dreamlike feel, but that’s probably not a bad thing for a children’s story, and it makes sense given that it was a semi-improvised collaborative effort.

I didn’t like the prose on my first read-through–it felt a little meandering and unclear, with run-on sentences, lots of asides, and some grammatical issues. Going back to it though, it works very well if read out loud, which, again, makes more sense given the structure and aim of the story.

I enjoyed the stats that the game tracked: poetry and page points, number of jetpacks, and courage level. The courage level came into play at one point, but I’m not sure if the other statistics have any relevance. But I really liked that reading and finding poetry was rewarded.

Overall, I don’t think I’m really the target audience for this, but the setting was a delight, and will stick with me.

2 Likes

Thanks for reviewing our story! I have a longer response to share after the comp!

1 Like

Looking forward to hearing it!

Lore Distance Relationship

This was a beautiful piece of IF about a relationship that takes place over a neopets analogue.

Summary

You play as a young person from an abusive home who finds solace in a friendship with another kid on the “Ruffians” website. Most of the game takes place over fake IM, with the player selecting responses from a list, and occasionally clicking through the Ruffians interface.

The Ruffians interface is spot on. The creatures are adorably doofy, and the interface generated a lot of nostalgia. It’s too bad you don’t have the ability to explore it more, but the game gets a ton of mileage out of what it has.

The story does a good job balancing the heaviness of the protagonist’s life with the joy they find in Ruffians. You get enough of a sense of their outside life to understand it’s bad, and why they find escaping to Ruffians so appealing. It’s a relief to go from your mom angrily banging on the door to the bright colors of Ruffians, your pet Slimmy, and your friend. Thankfully, the focus is on the game and your relationship with Dee, which prevents the story from feeling too grim or exploitative.

By the time the game’s over, I was deeply invested in the characters, which is a major accomplishment, given the game’s relatively short length. This was a wonderful piece, and one of the best I’ve played so far. I think it has a lot to offer, even if you don’t have the nostalgia for Neopets that I do.

Miscellaneous thoughts:

-The game does a wonderful job of capturing heartbreakingly sweet kid fiction:

“The flower kingdom is a happy and beautiful place. They are led by Queen Blue Rose, a extra helpful and kind Ruffian who loves justise and helping other people.”

“I like Queen Blue Rose because she’s kind to everybody especially the dogs who don’t deserve it.”

-As an adult man, it was strange to play a game where I pretended to talk to a child over IM. The game does the best it can to set you at ease–your friend’s dad is a nice guy and knows about it, you’re frequently reminded of your character’s age, and your sister is supportive of the situation. But, especially when things turn romantic-ish (in appropriately juvenile ways), I wasn’t sure how to handle it. My character would probably be interested in play-acting dating through Ruffians characters or cyber dating their 14 year old friend, but I found it extremely difficult to click those options. Thankfully, the game basically always gives you the option to kindly tell your friend you’re not interested.

At one point this worked in the game’s favor, when my character was struggling especially hard at home, and Bee asked if I ~liked~ her. I didn’t, and said so, but I was worried that option would drive my only friend away when I needed her most. It was a powerful emotional moment.

-The voice acting for your sister is great, and extremely comforting.

3 Likes