Victor's IFComp 2020 reviews

Sense of Harmony by Scenario World

Disclaimer: I was a tester for this game.

In Sense of Harmony, you play a cybernetically enhanced woman. This fact is reflected in the intriguing interface: keywords in the text give you side boxes with more information, information that you only have access to because of your enhancements. It is as if when you click on the link, the character is paying extra attention to this detail and allowing her cybernetics to kick in. This works really well, especially because this new information often allows you to choose more options.

Here’s an example of that. You – a sex worker – are having some post-coital talk with your client. And perhaps your only option is to say something rather offhand, cursory. But when you focus on his breathing, you notice that he’s under stress; and then you have the option to actually say something perceptive and helpful. Mechanics and content are in wonderful harmony with each other.

Of course, this would not matter much without a good story; but here too Sense of Harmony delivers, at least up to a certain point. What we have here is some really good set-up: several interesting characters are introduced, a sci-fi backstory is slowly developed, and tensions in the PC’s personal life are revealed. Then there is the meeting with harmony – perhaps the weakest scene, since it is quite disorienting not only for the player character, but also for the player – and then… things stop. Because this is a prelude! It’s definitely a good sign that this prelude leaves us wanting more. But it is also a bit of a downer that right now, there isn’t more, and all the set-up is there only for future use.

So I certainly recommend this, but that recommendation will become a lot stronger once more instalments of the sage become available.

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Amazing Quest by Nick Montfort

This is a, 11-line Commodore 64 BASIC programme that spits out a variety of ‘locations’ and ‘actions’, and asks you to state whether or not you want to take that action. In fact, though, what you type doesn’t matter at all: the computer ignores the input and just calculates a random outcome. After a certain number of ‘successes’, you arrive back at your home planet. The prose is extremely sparse, the story close to non-existent. There is no reason to interact with this piece of software that only the most generous could call a ‘game’ or a ‘fiction’.

So… what’s going on? Is Nick Montfort just trolling us? Or are there some hidden depths? I fooled around with the Commodore 64 shell a bit to read the (rather obfuscated) source code. But as far as I can see, there aren’t any hidden secrets in the game. So perhaps we should look at the Introduction and Strategy Guide. These are clearly meant as a joke, exhorting us again and again to use our imagination, to ‘get into the right cultural mindset’, and so on. But really, what’s the point here? Is this a parody of Infocom’s advertising that the best graphics are in your imagination? It certainly doesn’t seem to be a pointed or poignant reflection on anything with any contemporary presence.

Perhaps I’m missing something. But in the end, it does seem like Montfort is just trolling us.

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Move on by Serhii Mozhaiskyi

Move on explores the possibility of having a tense chase scene in interactive fiction in a rather unique way: the player only gets a button that says “move on”, but what happens after moving on depends crucially on the timing of your click. It is perhaps easy to miss the little motorbike moving at the top of the screen, but that it where you ought to be looking, while the text itself gives you descriptive hints about whether to click fast or slow. (I suspect that the bike might be more prominent on a mobile display.) Once I understood the idea, I managed to win in one go.

There’s not too much here, but it’s a worthy little experiment. Whether it would work as a game mechanic in a longer work is something that remains to be seen.

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Re: Amazing Quest by Nick Montfort

I too was rather baffled by this apparently inconsequential IFComp entry, so I went to ridiculous lengths to get at the BASIC source code for the program to see if there was more to the game than met the eye. There wasn’t. (Unless you count the bug that I found, which I then fixed for no good reason.)

Btw, in the comments on my blogpost, I had a conversation about the bug with the author. It’s probably the longest discussion of whether to use “>” rather than “<” in a BASIC program that there’s ever been — and I include the whole of the 1980s when I say that.

Oh — and please rest assured that I hate myself for pointing this out — the program is actually twelve lines long, rather than eleven as you said in your post.

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You’re right, it’s twelve lines. I didn’t realise that there could be a line 0, and it seems as if Commodore BASIC also didn’t realise that, since “LIST 0” doesn’t seem to work!

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Under They Thunder by Andrew Schultz

I think of Andrew Schultz as a bit of a cult author. He makes a very specific type of game, and makes that type of game very well; but it’s a kind of game that many players will find easier to respect than really get into. However, one just has to look at the scores of last year’s Very File Fairy File to see three people who gave it a 10 – and those people are the ‘cult’. I mean that it the most positive way possible. Those are the people who really dig the type of game that Schultz makes. And he is not going to disappoint them this year.

So what is the type of game I’m talking about? Well, the typical Andrew Schultz game is a wordplay game built around one very specific type of wordplay – palindromes, for instance, or, in this case, pig Latin. [See Footnote.] In a sense, the game then tries to be exhaustive: there is a systematic attempt to put an incredible number of instances of the wordplay into the game, and to build all aspects of the game (world, puzzles, story) around those instances. Furthermore, Andrew Schultz games comes with often quite incredible quality-of-life features, including sophisticated ways of getting hints. And finally, they always confront, in one way or another, the subject of bullying: these games are full of people who use verbal or emotional tactics to shut others down or manipulate them, and your job as player is finding ways to deal with people like that.

Under They Thunder is no exception. It is full to the brim of instances of pig Latin, often being quite encyclopedic about it, such as when it offers ten different variations on the formula “X-ile X-ay Isle”. The setting and story make little sense except as containers of precisely these instances of word-play: the reason that we have the locations we have is that they fit the pig Latin scheme. But there’s also the clear undercurrent of a confrontation with bullies and manipulators. And finally, we have great quality-of-life features, this time including several teleportation commands and an object that will close off all parts of the game that you don’t need to see on an ‘easy’ run.

I spent a solid hour with the game and managed to gather in more than 20 points. By that time I was kind of exhausted, and running out of ideas for what to do with the ray, and I decided to call it quits. Like the last two years, I admire what Andrew Schultz is doing here; and like the last two years, I feel that it’s not quite for me. It’s a bit too overwhelming, a bit too far from what fires me up about interactive fiction. But I certainly think that there will be some people who are going to enjoy the hell out of this!

[Footnote]
If you are as clueless about this as I was before I looked it up on Wikipedia: pig Latin is a form of wordplay in English where you transform, say, “boat” into “oat bay”, or “goat” into “oat gay”, or “stout” into “out stay”.

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I know Andrew Schultz is a huge fan of Games magazine and similar which offers puzzles appealing to advanced puzzle fans with tricks and layers and extra rules: you never get just a straightforward crossword puzzle or word-search, it’s done with rebuses or has a theme or an extra logic-layer to figure out a situation (like the cabbage/sheep/wolf river crossing). That’s the type of games he’s most interested making - themed word puzzles that take advantage of the interactivity of a parser.

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Absolutely! Of course, that’s why these games tend to be overwhelming to people like me (and the fact that it’s word puzzles in a language that is not my native tongue is adding another layer of challenge). But as I say in the review, I admire the results.

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The Cave by Neil Aitken

“A Journey of Self-Discovery”. That turns out to be a rather misleading subtitle; I think much more clarity is created by the walkthrough, which tells us the following:

I think it is hard to understand The Cave without this knowledge. It looks a lot like a simple fantasy adventure where you have to escape from a cave and defeat some enemies along the way. But then why create a cave with random connections, where you revisit the same locations over and over? Why have puzzles that are mostly trivial, easy to solve without even meaning to? And why have the game end rather abruptly, not because of some series of achievements, but because we have taken a certain number of otherwise causally inefficacious actions? It’s hardly a satisfying experience compared to what a much more traditional approach might have brought us.

In fact what is happening is that the game purposefully throws situations at us, sometimes repeatedly, giving us different routes to success; all with the aim of allowing us to define a character by choosing to use certain stats. If you cast spells a lot, you end up with a high Intelligence. I suspect that if you fight a lot, you’ll be increasing your Strength.

As a dungeon crawl or a story of self-disovery, The Cave is rather lacking, although there are some nice moments of surprise. (I especially enjoyed the moment when I crawled into a chest in order to feel safe and sound.) But how does is succeed as an alternative way to generate the basic character ability scores for your favourite roleplaying game?

Given the six scores you end up with, the assumption seems to be that the game we are talking about is Dungeons & Dragons. Now character creation in D&D is in some ways very complicated (when it comes to choosing the mechanical bells and whistles of your character), but very simple when it comes to choosing your ability scores. If you want your character to be half-way decent, there is little choice. A wizard simply must have high Intelligence. A fighter needs Strength and Constitution. D&D4 indeed goes so far as to indicate, with the character class, how you should distribute your points. So… what problem is The Cave trying to solve? You could go in, cast a lot of spells, and end up with scores that are good for a wizard; but then it seems you could as easily just have chosen scores that are good for a wizard. (And it’s not the case that the game is a good way of discovering that you would like to play a wizard. For that, it is far too far removed from the actual D&D experience.)

I can imagine a game like The Cave being actually quite interesting in a very different context. Take Ultima IV, where character creation takes the form of being presented with a series of ethical dilemmas. “You are honour-bound to serve a lord who tortures innocent people in his dungeon. Will you free the captives or honour your commitments?” That could be interesting. Traveler had a character creation system where you basically simulated an entire life-path. That could also work really well in a choice format. More in general, it seems to me that it makes a lot of sense to use interactive fiction as a way to create interesting, surprising, narratively meaningful characters for particular roleplaying games. (It depends on the game, of course! You can’t do this kind of thing for a game like My Life with Master, where the characters have to fit a detailed collaboratively created setting.) So I see some potential in the underlying idea, but I don’t really see The Cave itself as a particularly useful tool.

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Little Girl in Monsterland by Mike Stallone

Note: Little Girl in Monsterland is supposed to be a 15-hour game. This review is based on approximately 2 hours of play, perhaps a little more, and just looking at the map it is obvious that I haven’t seen most of the piece yet, though I solved a fair number of puzzles (by myself or using hints) and suspect I have a reasonably good idea of what the game as a whole is like.

With its use of graphics and an interface with persistent buttons, Little Girl in Monsterland sits somewhere between a choice-based interactive fiction and a point-and-click adventure. It tells the tale of a little girl, Olivia, who teams up with princess Camilla in order to have adventures. Possibly there is a greater point to the whole narrative, but this has not been revealed yet. Mostly, you’re just goofing around, trying to help people with little quests, and doing things that sound fun, such as meeting a famous knight, seeing a mermaid and winning a horse race. The entire thing is very good-natured, rather silly, sometimes a bit puerile, over-the-top in its parody, and overall just fun in an inoffensive way. To be honest, I rather liked playing a small girl who gets into all the weirdest situations and tries things that most adventure protagonist wouldn’t even contemplate. The atmosphere is definitely strengthened by high quality graphics; and judging from some screenshots in the forum, a future version of the game will have much better graphics yet.

In the puzzle department, Little Girl in Monsterland is trying to solve a problem that people have been thinking about for a long time: how to test player comprehension. Sure, the player used object A on object B… but did they anticipate what that combination would do? The way that Mike Stallone attempts to solve this is by explicitly asking the player for a rationale. If you try to use the paint on the statue, the game asks you to choose what you then expect to happen from a small list of options – and Olivia will only proceed with the action if you make the right choice. This is a nice idea. When it worked well, it was pretty satisfying; and it certainly discourages trying to brute force your way through the world.

That said, it didn’t always work well for me. [Just to be entirely clear, major puzzle spoiler will follow.] For instance, at one point you have to find a necklace in high grass. So I decided to use Camilla’s horse to eat the grass so I could more easily find the necklace. You choose to use the horse; then you state that you want to use it to cut the grass; and then you have to state “what will happen next”… but finding the necklace wasn’t there! This totally stumped me, and only use of the hints made it clear to me that I should have chosen the “someone will eat something” option. But that doesn’t happen next (it just is the cutting), and it wasn’t the reason for taking the horse to the grass.

Overall, I found the puzzles somewhat hit and miss. Some were quite logical and satisfying, such as finding the mermaid, entering the castle, and winning the horse race. Other seemed to be unsolvable without hints, such as the bizarre things you have to do in order to (unsuccessfully) cut the wood: somehow, a news item about a wooden house struck by lightning must give you the idea that you can cut wood by standing on top of it with a parasol. This is the kind of puzzle that makes no sense even when you have heard the solution. Another example: in order to get little girl’s tears, you must somehow come up with the idea that you will cry if you have a bellyache, and then seek out some nasty berries and eat them. I mean, I could hurt myself in a million ways in real life (and frankly there seem many more reliable ways of making myself cry then eating something bad); thinking of this specific course of action seems to be a study in reading the author’s mind.

And here it is unfortunate that the hint system is unhelpful to the point of being hostile and dismissive. First, it is slow, requiring you to open it up anew and wait a few seconds every time you want to show an additional hint. And then most of the hints aren’t really hints at all. Sometimes they’re even messages that say something along the lines of: “You don’t need a hint for this, you can just solve it.” For instance, when you try to find an out-of-circulation coin, the first four hints don’t tell you anything at all! (To be exact, the fourth hint is: “What place have you seen that could contain old coins?” If I knew that, I wouldn’t be asking for a hint, would I?) I found the combination of slow, dismissive hints that then reveal a totally obscure puzzle solution sometimes rather disheartening.

As it is, Little Girl in Monsterland is promising and I did enjoy checking it out; but I also found it somewhat frustrating. A more helpful hint system would go a long way in addressing this. And possibly also some code optimisation to speed up the interface? I at least experience notable lag after most button presses, and this really slowed down the play experience.

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Thanks for trying my game Victor :slight_smile:

Maybe the hint system is a bit too “progressive”. I’ll try to change that. I was assuming the first few hints should only tell you how to reason in order to solve the puzzle. But for those particular puzzles I might have been too gradual and cautious…

I’m a bit sad that you’ve seen the worse puzzles. Basically you’ve mostly only seen the “side puzzles”, because it seems you haven’t finished talking to Van Helsing, which didn’t unlock more interesting objectives. Interesting… I wasn’t expecting that… Maybe I need to make it more clear that the yellow talk button is supposed to be pressed. Thanks a lot for your useful feedback! :slight_smile:

Actually you don’t need to come up with that idea. You are supposed to read it from the available choices (and recognize that’s the correct option). One of the purposes of that interface is exactly to reduce the number of possibilities you have to consider.

The same holds for this puzzle: actually you don’t need to come up with the idea just from that clue. To the contrary, you can read the ending sentence “a lightning bolt will come” in the UI. (disguised among 7 other sentences). And this was supposed to instill the idea in your mind, without giving away the puzzle.

Thanks again for the valuable feedback! :pray: I hope you don’t give up :slight_smile:

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The Moon wed Saturn by Pseudavid

Note: I was an alpha-tester for this game.

The Moon wed Saturn is an experimental piece that plays with non-chronological narration. Of course, that’s by itself is innovative, but Pseudavid uses the possibilities of electronic fiction rather nicely in making the three moments of time across which the story takes place happen in three different columns on the screen. Thus, we always see where each of the three threads of the story has been left hanging. Switches from one to another thread are generally motivated by causal connections: we go back to the past to understand what just happened, or we move to the future to see the results of something play out. I found this an interesting technique, and one that should definitely be explore more by authors of interactive fiction.

The story of The Moon wed Saturn is relatively minimal. It tells us about the love of the nightly caretaker of an abandoned building site and the possibly unattainable girl who comes to visit her. The main theme being explored are those of satisfaction and safety. Are you willing to settle for just a little bit of future, or will you embrace a more dangerous but possibly also more satisfying life? The protagonist is inclined to the former, but her desire for the girl is slowly pulling him towards the latter. I did find that the story remained rather abstract and the characters rather distant from me – I wasn’t really drawn in to it. So although The Moon wed Saturn is definitely more than an abstract formal experiment, it’s the formal aspects that had the biggest interest for me.

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Interesting. I found a different solution to this puzzle.

If you lose the horse race, Camilla will also cry. In fact, I did this before I got to the point where I needed little girl tears. One I knew I needed the tears, I just went back to the finish line of the race and collected them. I never discovered there was another solution to this puzzle involving berries.

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Unfortunately Victor had already defeated Mike Stallone, so he could only find the fallback solution, which is admittedly the worst puzzle of the game. :slight_smile:

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Ah? No, I managed to get to Van Helsing, but he didn’t seem to have anything interesting to say, so I left him among his admirers. I didn’t realise that I should have persisted! (I did notice that at some point I had only objectives that the hint system said I couldn’t solve yet; but then the witch came home and some new options were unlocked, so I thought it was on purpose.)

I still don’t think I would have made a connection between lightning bolts and cutting wood, to be honest. :slight_smile: But actually – and this is possibly useful feedback, or possibly just me being weird – I was avoiding contemplating all the other options in these menus, because I guess they would be about future puzzles and it felt like cheating to consider them too closely!

Well, no promises… I first have to get through about 90 more games and I tend to be a bit burned out after that. :smiley: But the game is certainly on my radar, and I might well return to it as some point! Though I’m tempted to wait until that gorgeous graphical version is released…

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Well actually I had first lost the horse race, but I had not anticipated that rerunning the race would cause the tears to disappear, so it was a bit of a nasty surprise when they were gone… and then I had to find the alternate solution. :slight_smile:

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(puzzle explanation removed — I think I know how to redesign the puzzle now. Thank you for pointing out the problem! :slight_smile: )

I see both of your points, but I think that a game needs to stand alone without having to be explained by the author. If you have to explain how the puzzles are fair, it usually means the game itself needs to be tweaked. I liked Monsterland a lot, and I know it’s weird to see people point out flaws, but for me I’ve made it my goal to respond to criticisms by improving the game or by making the next one better, or to accept that people will just not like some of the stuff I like to do.

Because for everyone who posts their problem online and you respond to, there are 10 who don’t and who will never talk to you. Talking might fix it for one person, but changing the game or adding a few more hints fixes it for everyone (or leaving it in and not worrying if people don’t like it).

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You’re completely right :blush: very wise words :slight_smile:

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Update: I’ve fixed or worked around all the issues raised by Victor :slight_smile:

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