Victor's IFComp 2022 reviews

It was my pleasure! (Well, I also lost some sleep trying to wrap my head around the game, so I suppose it wasn’t all pleasure. But that’s fine!)

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Zero Chance of Recovery by Andrew Schultz

This is very reminiscent of last year’s Walking Into It by the same author. Both pieces recreate a board game, and both pieces are less interested in winning that game than in exploring the space of possibilities it affords and tying this exploration to a narrative. Walking Into It dealt with tic-tac-toe. Zero Chance of Recovery deals with chess, or rather, with one particular end game study, the so-called Réti problem (named after Richard Réti, 1889-1929).

I must have seen the Réti problem before, but didn’t recall it. The idea is interesting. Black can trivially promote his pawn to queen and trivially stop the white pawn from queening. But black cannot trivially do both; and in fact, the point of the problem is that through perfect play, white can ensure that black cannot achieve both objectives. To do this, white must make ‘neutral’ moves that force black to commit to one or another path of action, and then white can react. Pretty neat.

I’m an okay-ish chess player myself. I used to play at a local club for about 15 years, from maybe 7 tot 22 years of age. I still enjoy the game, though I now rarely play it. (I am also kind of lazy as a chess player, in the sense that I never studied opening or end game theory at all thoroughly.) Given this background, Zero Chance of Recovery wasn’t hard for me to move through: I quickly found the paths through the position. Then I got stuck. Turns out that you need to really absorb the opening text in order to solve the ‘puzzle’; but I found the opening text confusing and clicked through it quickly. So that’s a point where the game and I failed to connect.

I had fun with the game for the short space of time it took me to play through it. It didn’t manage to rise to the same level as Walking Into It, which was just such a supremely nice picture of adult/child interaction, but perhaps that was a bit too much to expect.

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To Persist/Exist/Endure, Press 1 by Anthony O

I was drawn to this game by the title, which seems to hint at the philosophical literature around endurance and persistence. It has absolutely nothing to do with that. Instead, the game is a short piece in Texture about receiving a call from the ‘Agency Of Neverending Happiness and Clearing Out Monsters From Under Your Bed!’ Even though they have called you, they don’t have a clue about how to help you, and in fact only make things worse by raising your hopes for a moment and then locking you in telephone menu Hell.

With To Persist/Exist/Endure, Press 1, Anthony O has found a very effective literary form for communicating a certain type – one hopes it is not the only possible type – of experience with mental health care. The frustrating phone menu, which is familiar and easily implemented as a game, is a smart metaphor for the endless chains of referrals and therapists and talk groups and waiting lists and closed doors. The most haunting scene is the one where you are asked to tell your story after the beep; and then, when you’ve told it, you hear that the recording didn’t work and could you please start again? This is what it must be like when you’re seeing your eleventh mental health professional and are asked to explain once again what you’re suffering from… only for them to say, at the end of the 35 minute consultation, that this is not the right clinic for you and they’ll refer you back to your GP.

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A Walk Around the Neighbourhood by Leo Weinreb

You’re trying to go for a walk rather than write a passage of your PhD thesis, and your romantic partner is physically present in the same house, but I still felt strong affinities with Violet here. You’re confined to one room. You’re trying to do what your partner wants. You’re presented with mundane problems requiring mostly mundane solutions. And the best ending sees you reconnect to your partner in a way that wasn’t quite obvious from how the original puzzles was framed. (That does happen in Violet, doesn’t it? I haven’t played it since it came out.) Also, heteronormativity seems to be off by default this time, with the characters having gender ambiguous names.

A Walk Around the Neighbourhood is good, simple fun. It’s a one room puzzler that doesn’t ask much more of you than carefully examining everything, although I did get stuck at one point. (You need to ‘look under door’, which is not an action that seemed very plausible to me. When it turned out I couldn’t open the door to check for the key, I took the door off of my mental list.) There are numerous ‘false’ endings which add to the fun. And there’s the special ending that gets you closer to your partner – though in a low key manner, with no background threat of impending separation. The game is well implemented, well written, and all in all an easy recommendation if you’re looking for some non-taxing parser fun.

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i wish you were dead by Sofía Abarca

They take hours, these conversations. Not because there’s so much say. There may be nothing to say, although you rarely know that at the outset. It’s just that the saying – even if it is a saying of nothing – takes so much time. It’s because the saying, the back and forth of the conversation, long and painful silences very much included, is a process where something, we hope, will be achieved. Some kind of clarity. Some kind of finality. Because nothing can be worse than leaving things as they are and being in the exact same spot two weeks from now, or two months. Or two years, God forbid.

I am a confessed and confirmed hater of timed text. But here it worked, or almost worked. I was anxious to hear what would be said. Also, my mind kept wandering. But that’s what it does in these conversations. Five possible directions you could go in have been thought of and discarded before something wells up that you blurt out without thinking. Silence. She looks off into the middle distance. Has she heard you? Of course she has. Nothing lies hidden. If neither of you is showing the truth about your feelings, it is because there is no truth about your feelings. You thought it’d be easier. But it never is.

It’s all very believable. Realistic. Not sure how I felt about the choice aspect. Having the protagonist tell the truth is the only way that I, the reader, can find out what that truth is, so choosing these options seems to be a no-brainer. It’s not my task to make things easier for these people. But with the choices I made the narrative development was rewarding, natural, and led to a conclusion that was almost satisfying. No thanks, I don’t need to play again. This is no doubt best for these characters. Certainly we’ve been given no reason to believe they can do better.

The dialogue reads well. The non-dialogue prose is another matter. It is frequently overwritten, ungrammatical, distracting. The very first lines of the game are:

That’s not a sentence. Here’s an example where the prose is very purple indeed:

The author has mastered the art of writing pithy, no-nonsense dialogue. Those skills should be applied to the rest of the prose too. Then everything will be good.

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The Lottery Ticket by Dorian Passer and Anton Chekhov

The reviews that I’m most happy with are the ones where I believe I really got what the author was doing. This is not one of those reviews. To be honest, I have no idea what Dorian Passer is trying to do with The Lottery Ticket; and that in spite of the fact that this game tries to explain up front and explicitly what it is trying to do:

I suppose that the difference between story-based agency and narration-based agency is that the first is agency that determines what happens, and the second is agency that determines how what happens gets narrated. So the claim is that The Lottery Ticket doesn’t allow us to steer the story in different directions (this is true), but that it does allow us to direct how the story is told. That latter claim, however, seems to be false. The player gets exactly four choice points where we have to either fill in a happy or a sad adjective; which is then used to change maybe a single sentence of the text, after which the narration goes on regardless of our choice. This hardly counts as having control over the narration. Since the piece doesn’t give us any reasons for preferring one kind of adjective to another, the notion of agency seems out of place anyway. In a choice game, being allowed to choose between going left and going right with no idea where those choices will lead doesn’t count as agency even if the two paths are entirely different. The happy/sad choices in The Lottery Ticket seem to fall in the same category.

The purported aim of the technique is ‘to avoid breaking a reader’s suspension of disbelief’. Now even assuming that there is a such a thing as suspension of disbelief (which I doubt), it is unclear why it would be especially threatened by story-based agency; or why it would be safeguarded by narration-based agency. I just don’t get what the idea here is, and nothing that I’ve seen in The Lottery Ticket has clarified things for me.

On to the story itself. Our protagonist is anxiously waiting for the results of a lottery draw, and as she is waiting she reads a Chekhov story about a lottery draw. The Chekhov story is very short and not, I believe, among his most famous ones; but it is interesting and as deftly pulled off as one would expect from one of the world’s most famous short story writers. Clearly, Passer is taking a huge risk by inviting direct comparison with Chekhov! Despite some nice details – I liked the concreteness of the recipe for tomato sauce, the way the characters joked about it, and how it also pointed at poverty – the new part of the story doesn’t reach the same level of intensity and psychological insight. The prose also wasn’t quite up to standards.

The first signal of a swell is a rush ahead of a calmness that is ebbing away from a face… you’ve definitely lost me there. And how do you distract yourself ‘back’ from a swell? I also don’t like the repetition of ‘swell of anxiety’, but that might be a more subjective aesthetic judgement.

So, yeah. This is a disappointing review, both for the author (whom I did not understand) and for the other readers (whom I’m not helping to understand the piece). But I just didn’t get much out of The Lottery Ticket, and I think that as a manifesto for an apparently new way of approaching IF, it leaves something to be desired.

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The Staycation by Maggie H

Boy, that escalated quickly. One moment I’m waving goodbye to my friends, and the next I’m scared by a cat, and the next I’m sobbing on the phone, and the next I’m back at my parents’ house having apparently suffered a complete mental breakdown. All this takes maybe five minutes of interaction. There just doesn’t seem to be enough here to get us from one part of the game to the other; it feels like a disjointed series of mini-scenes which we can only look at with some puzzlement. (Finishing in five minutes is extra surprising when the game is billed as being two hours long.)

There’s one thing I liked about The Staycation, and that’s the use of icons. The problem with Texture is that it quite often feels as merely a cumbersome version of Twine: having to drag one text to another is extra work, it slows you down, and therefore it should have some clear benefit over clicking a link. Very often it doesn’t. But here there were some moments where, yes, I could see the benefit. For instance, I loved the place where the text is only

and the icon you have to drag to it is a little person doing a joyful somersault. That’s just fun. And it has the exact right amount of emptiness: the emoticon, being a stereotyped expression of a ready-made emotion, suggests that there’s nothing authentic about the protagonist’s joy. And of course there isn’t.

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A Matter of Heist Urgency by FLACRabbit

A Matter of Heist Urgency is a quick, polished parser game where you play a horse with supernatural powers; even more supernatural, that is, than those of all the other human-intelligence horses in the setting. The crown jewels have been stolen by a bunch of no-good llamas, and you must recover them! What follows is a series of quick scenes, most of them fast-paced action. You hit and kick, and perhaps you come up with a few nice touches like throwing the coconut or kicking the capstan, in which case you’ll be rewarded by appropriate narration. It’s all good fun. We don’t get many action sequences in parser, and it’s nice to see it pulled off so well, although the techniques used by FLACRabbit might not generalise to games that want to be more tense or substantial.

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You May Not Escape! by Charm Cochran

You May Not Escape! bills itself as a parable. The exact meaning of this term can be contested, but one usually thinks of a short, relatively straightforward narrative that teaches a lesson through allegory. Classic examples in the Western traditions are the parables told by Jesus, such as the story of the prodigal son, which conveys a lesson about God by telling a story about a human father. Some of the New Testament stories about Jesus can also be considered parables, like the story of the adulterous woman, which teaches us a universal lesson about punishment and forgiveness. Unlike the stories told by Jesus, the stories told about Jesus are not usually classified as parables, since from the point of view of traditional Christianity they are not supposed to be allegorical; but from the point of view of literary analysis, the adulterous woman and the prodigal son clearly belong to the same genre.

How does You May Not Escape! fit in this tradition? The game clearly invites an allegorical reading. To understand a maze as symbolic of the meaningless grind of daily existence is straightforward; when one adds details like the locked exit, the graveyard with victims of oppression, the surveillance cameras and the random messages that sound like typically shallow and unpleasant online interactions, the picture emerges of a tedious, hopeless life lived in a hostile society. To be honest, the game seems to be spreading its nets a little bit too widely – while there may be connections between, say, online hate culture, the surveillance state, and anti-abortion politicians, the game doesn’t do much to connect them. We are supposed to do a lot of the work ourselves, whereas it seems to me that the author of an allegory must at least surprise us with some of the work they do. In the end I took the core allegorical idea to be connected to the song of labour activist Joe Hills (1879-1915) that will resound throughout the labyrinth once you have turned on the jukebox:

This song, which bemoans the fact that the itinerant worker is nowhere accepted as a community member, not even in Heaven, combines neatly with the final image where we break free of the maze by using a large sledgehammer. In fact, I found myself humming The Internationale:

So while there is a clear allegorical component to the game, I hesitate to call it a parable. There is simply not much narrative. Almost all of the game consists of exploring a randomly generated labyrinth. (Mapping is highly recommended. Tip: this is the kind of maze that is mapped most easily by building up a map of the walls on a grid, rather than by drawing a map of interconnected rooms.) I found this quite relaxing, especially because I haven’t been doing a lot of mapping in the IFComp so far. The atmosphere is also well done: everything in our inventory getting wet and dirty was an especially neat touch that sets us apart from the usual impossibly clean adventurer. But as a story there is not much here. Is that a problem? Not necessarily. But I did find the experience to be a bit on the thin side. When we’re going to take a sledgehammer to the injustices of society, I suppose I’d like to have a better idea of what it is that we’re going to destroy and what the results will be like. Or perhaps I just want to hear more of what the author has to tell me.

Implementation was very solid, but I found one semi-bug: the jukebox can be heard based on spatial distance on the grid, but it seems more logical to me if it can be heard based on how many moves in the maze we are away from it. (That is a bit harder to implement, though, so maybe not worth it.)

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I didn’t really look into the song, and I missed some of its connotations! So I’m glad you did so.

I’d think this wouldn’t be bad at all with Inform. I think I’ve done it before (I forget where–I did this for Ailihphilia, but I deliberately gave each room a direction called in-direction, to see the distance from the central entry room, so that’s cheating) and here is pseudocode. This fails if you have any loops in the maze, where in fact you’d need to keep track of each room by minimum distance e.g. set all room distances to -1 except your room. Then repeat through all rooms with min-distance of x: go through all directions, and anything with a current min-distance of -1, set to x+1. Then do this until all rooms have a positive value.

maze distance in Inform
to check-jukebox:
    now all rooms are not jukebox-checked;

to decide which number is min-dist of (r1 - a room) and (r2 - a room):
    if r2 is nowhere, decide on 99; [99 is arbitrary but something too big, given we take a minimum below]
    if r2 is jukebox-checked, decide on 99;
    if r1 is nowhere, decide on 99;
    if r1 is r2, decide on 0;
    now r1 is jukebox-checked;
    let a1 be 1 + min-dist of the room north of r1 and r2;
    let a2 be 1 + min-dist of the room south of r1 and r2;
    let a3 be 1 + min-dist of the room east of r1 and r2;
    let a4 be 1 + min-dist of the room west of r1 and r2;
    decide on (the minimum of these);

Also, I didn’t check to see if it was an open-air maze with super-high walls, where maybe sound would carry, or if it had a ceiling, where then sound wouldn’t. But that’s just semantic.

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You get rained on a bunch, so pretty sure it’s open air – which maybe means spatial distance makes more sense than maze-moves as the measure of audibility after all, as the sound’s bouncing around the air rather than just down the corridors?

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Nice code! I was remembering some struggles I had with getting pathfinding to work in Kerkerkruip’s randomly generated map and in an unpublished work with a very non-standard maze; but of course here we don’t need complete pathfinding.

I got the impression that the walls were very high, and sound doesn’t travel well over high walls. But I’m probably overthinking this rather minor aspect of the game. :smiley:

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Hey, thanks for the review! Your analysis of parable as a term and a tradition is really interesting—I’m planning to talk about why I chose to label it that way in a post-mortem after the comp, and I thank you for giving me a bit more to chew on in that regard.

Regarding the jukebox:

This was in fact my exact thinking for why it’s a radial area where you can hear the jukebox rather than a turn-distance-based system. Who knows, maybe I’ll change it in a post-comp release now that @aschultz has gone and made it easy for me!

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I remember considering their height and figuring they might not be very high. Half of me sort of wondered if there’d be a “helpful” message on the LCD screen saying “be grateful the walls are only 15 feet high and not 30 feet high, because that’d be really depressing” … as if there was a practical difference, or if the people who might leave/want you trapped there would bother to spend extra time or money on such high walls. But maybe it was just fun to imagine the snark.

I figured with the rain (which I forgot about until Mike pointed it out) the walls could be very low indeed and you couldn’t climb over them.

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Approaching Horde! by Craig Ruddell

That was surprisingly fun. Approaching Horde! is a worker placement game where we have to survive the zombie apocalypse by smartly investing in a variety of pursuits: finding more survivors, farming, improving our farming techniques, building up our defences, searching for a zombie cure. I played the game on Normal and didn’t manage to find the cure even after three tries (although the third time I was two thirds of the way there with 45 researchers working on it), but I was entertained throughout. The use of real time was effective, generating a sort of tension that one rarely gets from a Twine game.

I have one problem with Approaching Horde!, which is that it isn’t transparent enough. Some things are clear: for instance, it’s clear that improving your farm yield from 3 to 4 will generate a 33% increase in farm productivity, while improving it from 4 to 5 will generate a 25% increase in productivity, and so on. I also assume that the speed at which the different tasks are performed goes up linearly with the number of people working on it. But I never got a good idea of, for instance, the influence of captured zombies on research speed; the influence of happiness on research speed and other activities; the influence of defences or damage on anything; and so on. Strategic games usually have more transparency than this, e.g., when we see that our city in Civilization has 3 angry populace because [and then there’s a whole list of factors]. Although I enjoyed my time with the game, I feel less inclined to go back and master it because I don’t have the required information on which I can base my decisions.

Edit: played a fourth time in which I focusses on defences and an escape tunnel for an easy win. There’s an amusing look at ‘our’ notebook when you receive this victorious ending.

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Let Them Eat Cake by Alicia Morote

Let Them Eat Cake is choice game – I don’t know whether short or long, for reasons that will become clear – in which your ostensible mission is to gather ingredients for a cake by talking to people in the quaint small town you live in. For me this rings a bell labelled ‘JRPG’, but I haven’t actually played enough of that genre to know whether this labelling makes sense. Anyway, Let Them Eat Cake quickly, nay, very quickly subverts the expectations here, because every person in town is quickly discovered to be either a murderer or a swindler. This creates some good narrative tension, especially because being too inquisitive can lead to death at the hands of a murderous farmer who feeds people to his pigs. (This is a Snatch reference, perhaps? And the severed hand might be a reference to the IF game ) Unfortunately, once I had gathered the ingredients I got stuck in a loop. When I make butter in the bakery, the game then shows me an ingredient list on which butter is still not made; clicking the butter restarts the entire bakery scene. There seems to be no possibility of escape. I gather that other reviewers did not get stuck at the point.

What I saw of Let Them Eat Cake was rather disjointed: okay, all these people are horrible, but how do these stories tie together? This question seems extra important because some of the crimes are relatively innocent (mixing sawdust with flour), while others surely must become the main focus of the story (the poisoning of the fiancee, who is also, I suppose, the person being eating by the pigs). Given the show-stopping bug I ran into, I can’t say how these tensions are resolved or if they are resolved at all.

Presentation is very nice, with good colours and fonts. The writing could use another round of editing. As a small example:

The first half of this is very awkward grammatically (there’s nothing for ‘the first’ to refer back to, and also nothing for ‘that’ to refer back to). The second half bungles the metaphor: the point of a breath of fresh air is that you draw it, not that it passes over you.

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Clearly I have experienced a slowdown in playing and reviewing. I had some social occasions that took away the evening time in which I can play, and then my daughter got ill and kept us awake at night with coughing fits, which meant that I ran out of mental energy. Still, I’ve played 2,5 games that I haven’t yet written reviews for, and so here we go with:

A Long Way to the Nearest Star by SV Linwood

If one of the aims of the early sections of a piece of IF is to prepare the reader’s expectations for the rest of the game, then A Long Way to the Nearest Star cannot be judged a full success. Everything was so smooth, nice, accessible and pleasant – despite the premise of having to explore an abandoned space ship – that I didn’t realise that I was actually playing a relatively tough puzzle game. I don’t mean ‘old school tough’, but nonetheless requiring a solid amount of lateral thinking and especially a solid amount of thoroughness. I was under the mistaken impression that the paths I needed to tread would be clearly marked; and so I resorted to the hints quite early, because I thought I had simply overlooked something. Instead, I had not been thorough enough in my attempt to solve the game’s puzzles. (To be specific, I had too easily assumed that the energy stone was only for detecting security devices, and had not tried it in the garden.)

In fact, this kept tripping me up. I consulted the hints numerous times because I wanted to see all of the story and I was looking at a list of at least ten other competition games I wanted to play. Almost every time, I could have easily solved the problem if I had only spent the time required to be thorough. I’m talking about simple things, like clicking the terminal in every room. Was it just me and my lack of mental energy? Or was it also the choice interface? A Long Way to the Nearest Star is very close to a parser game, but with an undeniably more cumbersome interface – it reminded me of Lux in that respect. Typing ‘n.s.w.ne’ is simply a lot less work than locating the correct link for going to another location four times. I suspect that one of the reasons I couldn’t fully get into the game as a puzzle game is that the interface was a little to slow to make thoroughness feel like anything less than a burden. And this was exacerbated as the inventory filled up with more stuff and the paths through the space ship grew longer. Having said that, the puzzle design was in fact solid.

Now even though A Long Way to the Nearest Star is a puzzle game, the real reason to play it is certainly the interaction with the one NPC who is present, the maverick AI, and the story that unfolds as we investigate the space ship and talk to them. I’m usually critical of revealing story through audio logs, taped videos, data pads, and so on, since those all make the story something of the past rather than the present in which the player is acting. But SV Linwood makes the very smart choice of telling most of the story through such past-facing devices (because this is easy), but then making them relevant to the present by making them relevant to both our assessment of the AI and the AI’s self-assessment. We don’t just care about the past, but also about the effects of revelation.

The revelation that makes us reinterpret the fictional situation, known to criticism by the fancy term of anagnorisis, is a classic element of both tragedy and comedy. What I especially like about A Long Way to the Nearest Star is that it keeps us in suspense for an extraordinarily long time about whether it is a tragedy or a comedy. The insane AI tropes are well-known enough that we suspect from the beginning that our digital friend may be a killer. But we’re far from sure. And there’s a smartly written string of revelations that keeps us on edge, that makes moral judgement hard, and then grants us and extra big sigh of relief when we find out that the game is, in the end, a comedy, a work of reconciliation. Things may not play out that way, but the game can only be a tragedy if we do not arrive at the perfect level of knowledge; if we mistake the penultimate anagnorisis for the ultimate one. Which is not a tragic structure, but an ironic one. (And in case you’re wondering, yes, I’ve been reading Anatomy of Criticism lately and it shows, perhaps not to my advantage.)

I ended up thoroughly enjoying the game, especially for its central character and plot. A very easy recommendation.

(One final note: the board game didn’t render correctly in the latest Firefox for Linux. But I managed to interpret the mangled lay-out correctly and defeat my opponent anyway!)

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Huh. I did test that on Firefox for Linux. In fact, I just checked right now on the latest version of Firefox and it still displays fine for me. I’ll try and see if I can figure out what went wrong. Glad to hear you won anyway!

Anyway, thank you so much for the review! It’s incredibly rewarding to see people engage with the story and narrative in such an insightful way.

(And thank you for the suggestion in the other thread as well.)

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No One Else Is Doing This by Lauren O’Donoghue

What are the purposes of writing interactive fiction? I gave a short talk about the medium today to a group of librarians, and I had chosen five possible purposes to briefly discuss: allowing the player control over where the story is going; merging the power of prose fiction with the power of games; increasing the attentiveness with which the text is read; allowing the player to co-perform a pre-written script; and using choices as a mode of communication, for instance, communicating what is or is not a possibility for the protagonist by presenting and not presenting certain options. Now when I was preparing this talk, the most recent game I had played was No One Else Is Doing This, and I was very much aware that it doesn’t fit any of those five categories. Instead, this game uses interactivity to make us present in an activity that we otherwise wouldn’t be able to experience from the inside.

In No One Else Is Doing This, you are trying to recruit paying member for a ‘community union’. The early game threw some unfamiliar terminology at me, such as the aforesaid community union, which was explained in the game’s glossary as being like a trade union but for local communities. Since the main business of a trade union is to negotiate collective labour agreements, it wasn’t very clear to me how this would carry over to a non-labour context. Perhaps that is part of the point; the game suggests very strongly that there is nothing the community union is for. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Another unfamiliar term from the early game was ‘rape alarm’, which was strange enough that it set me off on a google search with somewhat inconclusive results. It is possibly a key chain that can make a lot of noise when you press a button? If that is in fact what it is, then the game was trying to communicate to me that the protagonist was going to a very unsafe place, but there would have been less confusing ways to communicate this which might have the added advantage of not suggesting that sexual violence would be a major theme of the piece. (It is not.)

The core gameplay of No One Else Is Doing This is choosing a door to knock on. You don’t have any reason to choose one door rather than another, so in effect what you are given is a string of vignettes. Many of them come to an immediate close, because people are absent or don’t want to talk to you. But you sometimes get into conversations with people, and then you have to decide how to best talk them into becoming due-paying members of the union. The entire set-up of the game, with the time limit, the hostile physical circumstances, and the infrequent chances of success, push you towards being as utilitarian as possible: these people are there to be manipulated; they are the instruments for achieving your goal. It’s very easy to understand that this is how this job might feel when you’ve been doing it for a while, and therefore why an idealistic person might become disenchanted with it! And that’s the experience that the game wants to give us. All in all, I think it’s quite effective at that.

However, it could have been even more effective if we had been allowed to understand a little bit of the idealism. We never learn about anything that this community union is actually doing. It doesn’t seem to have any ideas of its own that it wants to share with the neighbourhood. Instead, you’re always fishing for grievances, and then promising that the union will deal with them. This feels empty. Which is fine if the point is satire; but I think the point is disenchantment. And to feel disenchantment, we must first have a taste of the enchanted. The vision of a better world is conspicuously absent here.

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Lost Coastlines by William Dooling

As 10CC might say: I didn’t like Skybreak!; I loved it. William Dooling’s 2019 IFComp game let me wander a seemingly endless universe filled with adventures while becoming slowly more powerful. It was so relaxed. Pure sword & sorcery in space, with nothing to worry about except whether it was already time to close the game and go sleep. When I realised that Lost Coastlines followed pretty much the same pattern, I made some tea, relaxed into my comfortable desk chair, and started it up. And then… it somehow fell flat for me. It wasn’t relaxed. It was stressful and punishing, and when I ended up stuck through what seems to be a game breaking bug, it almost felt like relief. Which is too bad, since Lost Coastlines features much of the same creative energy and zany juxtapositions that made Skybreak! so much fun.

What is it that made Lost Coastlines feel unwelcoming and punishing? The first thing is that the game comes with an in-built degradation loop. As you explore the world, you continually lose both food and supplies. In order to keep exploring, you need to buy food and supplies; and in order to do that, you need to find Pleasance. But Pleasance is extremely hard to find. I rarely made more than 1 to 3 Pleasance in an encounter, and a single food item costs upwards of 5 Pleasance. So as I was playing the game, it didn’t feel much like exploring a dreamscape; it felt like a desperate struggle for survival in economic hard times. Which wouldn’t be much of a problem if there were clear ways to gain Pleasance. Sunless Sea had pretty much the same mechanic (with Food and Fuel), but it has easily identified money-making loops that you could go through to stay alive and even make a profit. In Lost Coastlines, you are sailing through mainly empty seas, and I didn’t find a single Pleasance-making loop that would allow me to survive.

The second thing is that while the goal of the game is to gain as much Pleasance as possible while gaining as little Unpleasance as possible, it turns out to be far easier to gain Unpleasance. While the little Pleasance I managed to gain was quickly expended on the bare necessities, I kept accruing more and more Worry, Fury, Madness and Sadness, getting ever deeper into emotional debt. If the point of the game was to generate an atmosphere of mounting despair, it certainly succeeded, and perhaps I should not judge it against what I was hoping it would do. But I really didn’t enjoy this slow descent into an ever deeper pit.

Then I sailed to a location where I had to BRAVE THE STORM, and the storm had an impossible difficulty level, and… my entire ship was gone. I had to start anew with a ‘smaller’ ship. I don’t know what that meant, but it sounded bad. Five minutes later, I failed another encounter and once again lost my ship and crew. By that point I was pretty ready to give up. I persevered, and finally found something that seemed to give me a bit of a chance: a strange unvisited island where I became a God and was awarded 100 Pleasance. Still a lot less than the Unpleasance I had accrued, but it finally allowed me to buy some much-needed items. (The encounter also claimed to give me a crown and a sceptre, but it did not in fact do so.) A little bit later I entered a mysterious library, was unable to tell a character the way to Yian… and then got stuck. There were no keywords. LOOK didn’t work, and neither did any other commands. Having played for about 90 minutes, I decided to call it quits.

So… it looks like another solid piece of work, and I saw glimpses of the trademark Dooling creativity, but I just never got into a mental state where I could enjoy the dreamlike navigation as I suppose I was meant to enjoy it. One further thing that didn’t help the game was the geography and map. The randomly generated location names are sometimes awkward and never very evocative; and they don’t help at all in getting a mental picture of the map or remember where certain events were located. ‘The murderous shallows’ were neither murderous nor, as far as I could tell, a shallows. It also seems very much a lost opportunity to not show on the map the difference between locations where you can do something and locations where you cannot; to have a specific colour for locations where you must BRAVE something before you can sail on; to show the markets; and so on.

I’m really hoping for a post competition release that decreases the punishing difficulty a bit and allows me to explore more of this world in the relaxed way that I crave.

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