(I’m traveling at the moment, so just slapping this into a forum post.)

There are two recurring problems in Introcomp entries.

The Great Evil is when you use an Introcomp entry as a public alpha; it may not have been tested at all, and the player finds themselves wandering among Under Construction signs. In short, the intro isn’t presented as a cleanly limited preview of what the final, polished play experience will be like, but as the half-built shell of an entire work in progress.

The Little Evil is when your Introcomp entry fails to present a very strong idea about what the heart of the game is going to look like, thus making it difficult for a judge to answer the question ‘how much would I like to continue playing this?’ An Introcomp entry should provide the player with enough content that they feel confident about their answer - most importantly, samples of typical gameplay. Really short intros are often guilty of the Little Evil; so are games where the intro ends on a dramatic change, such as when a mundane protagonist stumbles into a fantasy world.

The Vanishing Conjurer, Marshall Tenner Winter, Glulx

[spoiler]This seems to be the fourth in a series of loosely-connected games featuring a 1920s detective whose investigations always turn up Cthulhu-mythos-lite horrors, and based on existing Chaosium scenarios. Of the series I’ve only played Castronegro Blues, and that not to completion; but each game is meant to work as a standalone.

As with Castronegro, the writing takes potentially rich material - here, 1920s London, stage magic and esoteric secret societies - and renders them in generally flat prose. The Cheshire Cheese, for instance, is a great place to open a story: I’ve been there, it’s a pretty cool place, and the description doesn’t get anything wrong, or miss out anything important. But it fails to be really evocative; and this is true of the game’s writing generally. The detective is a template noir detective, largely invisible as a character except when the situation gets heated. To some extent, I have to wonder whether this is because Winter is cribbing from pre-existing Chaosium scenarios rather than settings and characters drawn from his own experience or imagination. (If you’re making something based on a scenario, based on an RPG, itself based on an ouevre of novels and short stories, the material’s likely to be wearing a little thin.) What this game needs is - well, okay, picture Robb Sherwin, only instead of eighties arcade games, snarky losers and Blade Runner, he’s got a giant fixation on Thelema, London entre les guerres, and stage magic. This needs someone who’s fascinated with the subject-matter and really wants you to be, too.

The game is a pretty orthodox mystery structure; explore an expansive location, discuss things with witnesses, unlock new plot. It gets you pretty straightforwardly to the creepy stuff; these secret societies aren’t really all that good at keeping themselves secret, one feels.

(Also, this is a minor niggle, but “you retarded fairy” doesn’t sound quite right for a 20s insult. True, ‘fairy’ has been slang for a homosexual since the late C19th, and ‘retarded’ as a description of mental disability dates from about the same time; but ‘retard’ as a general-purpose insult is c. 1970, and ‘retarded’ as a general-purpose intensified ‘stupid’ feels similarly late-C20th. Cussing is something MTW is clearly enthusiastic about, and I encourage him to continue with it, but it’s very much not the sort of cussing that fits into period pieces).

Great Evil: Not much of a problem. Although the environment and characters are a bit sparsely implemented, there’s a strong sense that this represents the final vision.

Little Evil: Pretty damn good, actually. We’re given a good idea of who and where we are, what our objectives are, what our MO for accomplishing them looks like. Being the fourth game in a series helps.

Do I Want To Keep Playing? Enh. On one hand, this is a pretty orthodox game in an established style that pretty much knows what it’s doing. On the other, there isn’t a whole lot content-wise to keep me here: the writing side of things is pretty basic, and I’m just not very interested in a story where a stock noir detective encounters a stock Lovecraftian plot.[/spoiler]

Werewolves Rising, Roger Ronald, ChoiceScript

[spoiler]One of Andrew Plotkin’s minor claims to fame is reskinning the game Mafia as Werewolf, a title under which it has expanded considerably. The setting of Werewolf is vanishingly light, only implied by the names of roles and by the game mechanics, but it’s pretty clear: a small vaguely-medieval village ruled by paranoia and violence, with a little hedge-magic and few effective institutions. This, fundamentally, is the setting of Werewolves Rising.

Lynching is by definition an act of mob violence, an extra-judicial killing; it doesn’t work to a schedule. Lynchings are not the sort of things that you schedule a week in advance: they’re immediate, heated responses to something perceived as an awful crime.

The pace is too quick: the author wants to set up some characters and make dramatic twists to them - this person is wrongly killed as a werewolf, this one turns out to be a werewolf themselves - but for these twists to carry much weight we need to be invested in the character already. It’s possible to get your audience invested in a character in a few lines, if your writing’s strong enough; but here the writing is either terse or overconstructed, generally boring and not always very clear. The other characters never really come to life; they’re never developed beyond their functional roles. Sam/Samantha is clearly meant to be the PC’s love interest; if so, we need to know enough about them to render them attractive, which takes a good deal more than hair and eye colour and a sympathetic stance towards the protagonist. My impression is that the author has a very clear idea of the story in their head, but is in too much of a hurry to get it all out.

It’s a good decision, to be sure, to include at least one dramatic turning-point in your intro. But you need to establish why a turning-point matters before you do that. And the prose really doesn’t help.

This is a section that’s trying to interweave exposition and action. That’s a fine technique in moderation, but here it gets tangled up in itself. The first two lines are boring old standards, but otherwise serviceable. Things really start to go wrong in that third sentence, which rambles hither and yon, getting to the point only by abandoning its subject. Then that fourth one tries to wrap it all up neatly, but comes off as looking kind of silly. There’s some lack of clarity about whether the nightmare was about the window, or your mother’s insistence, or the werewolves; you can get that from context, but what’s odd here is how you have these brief, bald sentences all trying for Impactful Drama, but for some reason it still requires this tangent about home improvement before it can get to the point that the nightmare was about werewolves. The altered window isn’t inherently bad, here - the telling detail is a crucial tool. But delivering it in an extended parenthetical clause looks ridiculous.

And then you have things like this:

Contextually you can figure out what each clause refers to, but it’s a mess. The train of thought bounces around like a drunk flea; there are three parenthetical clauses. Three!

In line with the Choicescript house style, there are a bunch of character-shaping choices that you make early on. The effects of these are pretty transparent: you can only take some options if you have the right stats or the right background. But the effects of your choices are not really shown all that much, and sometimes not at all; nor do they have much effect on the general direction of the story. The result is that your character feels like exactly the same person regardless of what your gender or formative experiences were. A number of your choices are what you’d call reflective choices - ‘okay, this happened: how does your character feel about that?’ That’s not a bad approach in this sort of game. But they don’t feel as though these really hooked on to how you interacted with people.

Great Evil: Serious. ChoiceScript doesn’t provide a standard method for displaying credits, but this doesn’t feel like a proofread, polished work. Capitalisation is incorrect in a lot of places, some gender pronouns haven’t been switched appropriately, and the My First ChoiceScript Game title is right over the whole thing. It switches between the perfect and imperfect tense, sometimes mid-sentence: “You force your legs up, and groggily staggered out of your small, scratchy, bed.” It doesn’t reach a tidy To Be Continued ending, just errors as the game reaches dead ends. Certain words are used incorrectly: ‘you grieve him’ is used instead of ‘you grieve for him’. In at least one place, the story loops back on itself in a way that makes no narrative sense.

Little Evil: Tolerably good: we know who we are, our situation, the major threats. What I don’t have a really good idea about is how player interaction is meant to shape the story; so far, it isn’t really doing that very much.

Do I Want To Keep Playing? No. The writing needs… well, I’d say an editor, but an editor would find themselves rewriting too much. First of all this needs some time working on the basics of English composition. After that, there are aspects of characterisation, pacing and interaction design that could use some attention, but first it just needs well-constructed, clear writing at the sentence level.[/spoiler]

Akkoteaque, Anthony Casteel, Glulx

[spoiler]In this intro, you play a thirteen-year-old girl, recently orphaned and in the process of being sent off to live with her estranged grandmother on a little island, somewhere along the Atlantic coast of North America.

This seems as though it’s intended as a sort of open-worldish thing full of minigames. Right now there’s a sort of blend of seriousness - you’re a desperately awkward, miserable teenager, whose experience with the childcare system has clearly been pretty rough - and wackiness. (There’s an angry pelican. There’s an individual described as a “salty sea man”, fnarr fnarr.) This is not an irreconcilable tension, but it’s one that needs to be dealt with somehow or other, and it’s not yet clear how that’s going to play out. It seems as though we’re veering towards a Roald Dahl kind of horrible caretaker adult vs. world of fantasy setup, but the protagonist is probably a few years too old for that.

The prose is not exceptional, but it’s the most interesting in this year’s comp.

There’s a fishing minigame, which becomes significant for no clear reason other than that it’s a thing you can do. I am in favour of fishing, particularly fishing in places where fishing is very easy. I’m not sure that the fishing thing quite works as an all-text minigame: there isn’t a great deal of feedback, and it’s not clear whether fish are good for anything other than having a fish. There needs to be a further element here, I think - the fish need to be useful for something, or fishing needs to be a little more involved and less arbitrary, or something.

Great Evil: Low to moderate. It lists testers; it uses a ton of extensions, which suggests that a fair amount of thought has gone into presentation and user experience. On the other hand, I couldn’t escape the feeling that I was wandering among the scaffolding of a large and incomplete edifice, not all of which was quite planned out yet.

Little Evil: Moderate. I get that gameplay is probably going to involve a good deal of open-worldish exploration and collection-minigame stuff, but that’s really the B plot: what hasn’t really been established is where the A plot is going and what sort of tone it’s going to strike. Are we doing Srs Teen Issues or a wacky story with a teenage Guybrush? What’s the deal with this island, anyway?

Do I Want To Keep Playing? Yeah, on balance, I do. I’m not confident that this’ll be a great game, but it seems likely to at least be an interesting one.[/spoiler]

First, Shannon Pickett, Glulx

[spoiler]This game understands that you need a striking first sentence. After that it sort of fails to go in any particular direction, though; you escape from a wrecked car, and find some cucumbers in the trunk of the car, and then… I’m not sure if it’s meant to carry on. A great many things are unimplemented, to the extent that when I ran out of things to do I wasn’t confident that the intro would continue until it hit a marked ending, rather than just petering out.

Great Evil: Pretty major. Lots of unimplemented scenery, and after a reasonably intuitive first puzzle or so the game sort of stalls out.

Little Evil: Pretty bad. We’re someone who has just crashed their car, and there’s a furry thing of some kind, and also cucumbers. Otherwise, who the hell knows. We can assume a roughly contemporary setting from the car-and-seatbelt thing, but that’s about it. Possibly the furry thing suggests some intrusion of F/SF elements, but who the hell knows.[/spoiler]

What happened in 1984, Glulx, Hunter Hoke


Wow. Four exclamation marks, three dropped capitalisations, two misspellings, and one missing quote. There’s a sort of enthusiastic, clean-cut, classic-CYOA-ish feel to this opening, undercut only slightly by the arch-grognerdery of the subject-matter.

Gameplay peters out pretty swiftly; glancing at the walkthrough, there really isn’t much to this except asking characters about specific topics. But this is because this is a joke more than a game, and it’s a joke that’s an extension of an earlier joke about how speculating on the subject is sort of pointless. It’s possible to pull off a skit about something that you’re acknowledging as pointless, but it takes a pretty high level of comic wit to pull off, and this ain’t got it.

Great Evil: This doesn’t really feel like a complete sequence, but then it doesn’t feel like something that’s really intended to be a game in any sense.

Little Evil: Low. We know pretty much exactly what this would look like: cheap computing-history references, gag alt-history and wretched implementation. But I’m not really sure that any continued game is actually intended.

Do I Want To Continue Playing: No.[/spoiler]

The Example of the Chicken Sexer, Simon Christiansen, Glulx

[spoiler]This isn’t really an intro; it’s more of a speedIF-sized game that’s been polished up, with all the wacky one-dumb-ideaness that that suggests. In this wacky alternate world, chicken-sexing is a high-powered professional gig, and the fate of every chicken is a weighty matter. As a chicken-sexer, you have to decide the fate of a male chicken; there are a range of options aside from the obvious, but it’s pretty much a one-shot gag.

Great Evil: Low. This feels complete. There are alternate solutions. It’s doing all it sets out to do. But that’s because…

Little Evil: Super high, because the game basically seems to be finished. Even if you wanted to make a sequel or an episodic format or something, I’m not sure that the gag could be sustained any further.

Do I Want To Continue Playing: I seriously can’t see how this could be extended, so not really. There’s a tiny bit of morbid curiosity about what the hell you could do to pull off The Chicken Sexer Chronicles, but common sense suggests that the gag here has been spun out for about as long as humanly possible.[/spoiler]

Best Laid Plans, David Whyld, Glulx

[spoiler]This is a One Interesting Mechanic kind of game: there’s a device that allows you to pick up (some) objects that would normally be fixed in place, then reinstall them in other places.

One problem with this is that it’s pretty easy to solve puzzles without realising why you’re doing it: I shuffled some doors around just to free up access between rooms, and they all started serving purposes that I hadn’t even figured out yet.

Developing an interesting puzzle mechanic is only half the battle: the other part is that you have to come up with interesting puzzles that use it. The trick here is that absorb/release is not all that different from picking things up and moving them around; indeed, SADI makes it impossible for you to move things around in the normal way, so for a number of things absorbing just seems like TAKE, albeit with an inventory limit of one. Moving tables and chairs around isn’t all that exciting a thing to do with this; the interesting thing is moving aroun stuff that can’t normally be moved. So you can get rid of locked doors, and then place them elsewhere to protect yourself from your enemies. That’s a good introductory puzzle, but it’s not one that you can get very excited about.

Too, the setting in which these puzzles are situated isn’t very compelling; it’s a sparse Somewhere In A Generic Building kind of environment, and the threat is some sort of nebulous corporate dystopia. Obviously if you had a more detailed world then the player would be messing around with everything and it’d be a ton of work to deal with, but there really ought to be something to inject a little flavour into the proceedings. It’s possible to create a sparse environment in an abstract setting and make it compelling - see Spider and Web - but it’s a tricky thing to pull off, and I just wasn’t all that motivated by anything here.

So I felt that what this really needed was a big set-piece puzzle that’d really show off the potential of the mechanic. I didn’t get to that. Maybe it’s staring me in the face and I just didn’t see it.

Great Evil: The implementation isn’t quite done: some ABSORB commands (ABSORB GATE) have no responses whatsoever. This meant that when I got stuck, I wasn’t really all that confident that continuing was even possible.

Little Evil: No, this gives a pretty good idea of what the game’s going to be about, I think.

Do I Want To Continue Playing: Meh. I’m not yet convinced that the moving-the-fixtures mechanic has legs sufficient to carry a game, and there’s not a great deal else on offer yet.[/spoiler]