Some impressions on Introcomp

I tried the IntroComp 08 games and was turned off by most of them on the first playing (and wrote up notes about why). Later I felt guilty about that and gave several a second try. So the comments for some of these are divided into first impressions and second impressions. Sometimes the second impressions are warmer.

Storm Cellar — On the first play, I thought this game was just trigger-happy: I spent a long time doing various stuff with the rental car (trying to swerve, turn, get out, etc.) before I finally got to the next event (with the truck blocking the road). I thought this was just because the scene wasn’t designed to end until I did one specific thing. On replay, it looks like that’s not the case, because I was able to wait for a while and have the scene end instead.

Now, I have nothing against timed scenes which trap the player for a specified period before letting him move on to the next event. But there’s a danger — especially if you are doing this with the very first scene in the game, and especially especially if you haven’t been very clear about the player’s goal — that the player will think that he’s stuck or that the game is broken when he can’t make any progress for a long time. Which is what I thought here.

My impression is that the author wants the player to develop a feeling of dreadful immersion in facing a storm that can’t be avoided. To do that, though, I would suggest tweaking the first segment in several ways.

1) Make it shorter. This is usually good advice about trap scenes where the player can’t leave and where there are a limited number of implemented actions to try out. The author knows what all the implemented actions are, so the scene tends to feel the right length. The player doesn’t, and is likely to run out of the ones he can think of and get frustrated and bored sooner. (In fact, I’ve run into this exact issue with a previous introcomp game.)

2) (Optionally) Have some interspersed atmospheric messages about the appearance of the storm or surroundings. This will do two things: keep the player focused on the protagonist’s plight, and suggest that time is moving forward (as opposed to waiting for the player to do something).

3) Even if the player can’t accomplish anything at this point in the game, make his futile actions more rewarding. The only thing the player knows at this point is that he’s headed into a storm, and doesn’t want to be. He’s going to try various things to get out of that situation. Currently, a lot of these are accounted for (which is good) but they lead to the same response, like this:

There’s nowhere to go but the way you’re already headed.

>turn around
There’s nowhere to go but the way you’re already headed.

>pull over
There’s nowhere to go but the way you’re already headed.

After a bunch of these exchanges I feel less, not more, immersed in the PC’s plight. I stop thinking about the protagonist and start thinking about my problem: I, the player, don’t know of anything I can do to solve this puzzle of avoiding the storm, and the game is being very unhelpful about suggesting clues or drawing my attention to items of interest. Remember that I don’t know at this point that this scene is not really a puzzle; I just know that the game isn’t moving forward, and I assume by default that it’s my fault.

That’s too bad, because there are things the game could tell me in response to these attempts that would be interesting, and might make me feel more secure about the interaction. Why can’t I turn around? What’s behind me? I’m given a feeling of dread that I “have nothing to go back to”, but I don’t know what that means — am I homeless? fleeing a natural disaster? did I just lose my family or break up with a long-time partner? am I in some surreal landscape in which there literally is no “back”? or is that just an odd fleeting feeling I have, which doesn’t actually tell me anything important about the protagonist’s situation? This would be much stronger if these messages gradually unfolded a bit more back story (keep me interested!) or if they hinted at other actions I could take (which should have their own unique responses, even if they don’t get the protagonist out of the situation).

That’s not the only way the game feels broken. On arriving at the truck, I tried to get in, and was told there was too much blood — this was the first I’d heard of any blood. Then I tried >EXAMINE BLOOD (who wouldn’t?) and was told there wasn’t any such thing. Then later I stumbled on the action that I was supposed to have tried first, which gave me more detail about the truck’s interior. This is one of the irritating things about interactive exposition: if you have the scene in which the player is supposed to discover something, you can’t always be sure that he’ll perform the actions leading to the discovery in the intended order.

I got as far as the motel and having a key hanging from an unreachable hook, and a sense of weariness overwhelmed me and I quit.

Part of what’s happening here is very railroaded story, handled with less finesse than it needs; if that’s going to come with cliché puzzles, I’m not excited. (Yes, I’ve written games in which things were high out of reach. But in this case the unreachable hook feels completely arbitrary and soup-cannish.)

All I can tell of the plot so far is that I seem to be being toyed with by mischievous shadowy spirits who take away some of my stuff and give me other, new stuff purely for the sake of prodding me through the storyline. The Devious Imps of Plot Device, no doubt.

Anyway, possibly I’m being unfair to the later portions of the game because the first part didn’t draw me in. If the opening narrative had worked better I would probably have been much more sympathetic to the later parts. Needs (more?) testing, ideally by the sorts of testers who are outspoken about pacing and narrative development issues.

Bedtime Story — A fair amount of work has clearly gone into the customization here, especially into getting the parser to provide feedback in your son’s voice, and in allowing input in the past tense. On the other hand, the cutesiness of the situation does not appeal to me at all. I’m happy to admit that this is entirely a matter of personal taste.

Fiendish Zoo — Nice ashglobe, but what is my goal? The environment is not quite thoroughly-enough implemented to tempt me to explore until I find something to do (e.g.: the cabinet can’t be opened, the oven doesn’t switch on, room exits aren’t listed). The story isn’t supplying me with any motivation, either. I have no idea what I’m supposed to be accomplishing. This is worse than the case of Storm Cellar, because there at least I had a general sense of foreboding about the on-coming storm; here there’s nothing.

So: needs a clear hook; needs more thorough testing.

Nine-tenths of the Law — First impression: MY EYES. Seriously, this doesn’t look like it’s necessarily awful as a game, but the yellow-on-black scheme just makes me want to close the window ASAP. My recollection is that back in the olden days amber-on-black screens had a slightly mellower yellow. Either that or I somehow didn’t mind back then.

Fortunately, Zoom lets me reassign the color scheme so that I can bear to look at it. Further impressions, based on a second play attempt:

Implementation could be more thorough. As a general rule, if you change the protagonist to something really odd (such as a fronded polyp), then a lot of the standard library messages are no longer going to work out for you. This game has caught some of those cases, but not all; e.g.:

>eat dirt
You have no orifice which serves this function.

[Really? I wonder if I have other functions.]

Real adventurers do not use such language.

[Hmm, and do I have vocal cords?]

Your singing is abominable.

It can feel like a bit of a slog, but in this situation I find it’s worth going through the complete list of LibraryMessages and making sure I like every single one of them for the protagonist. If the PC is going to change bodies a lot (which seems likely given the premise so far), then possibly it would be worth rigging up the LibraryMessages system in some more elaborate way to choose messages based on the protagonist — but the point, again, being to make sure that every combination of message/protagonist has been considered.

Meanwhile, I have succeeded in ceasing to be a polyp, and am enjoying the game more already. Sadly, though, I can’t figure out how to get out of the chains, and have run out of time for trying things out. Still, I would play more of this, especially if there were to be hints. I would also continue to hack the color scheme to do so. (Sorry.)

Positives: I enjoy the narrative voice, and despite my griping about the implementation, a fair amount of stuff is indeed gracefully caught. The idea of transitioning to a new body is well-cued by the text (I thought) and made for a pleasant moment of self-discovery.

Negatives: I have the impression from the extensive liner notes that the colors are going to be important in this game, and the prospect makes my eyes water.

Phoenix’s Landing: Destiny — the title and the opening sequence — with unknown Others arguing about the possible fate of one yet unborn — give me a bad feeling about what kind of story this is going to be. Gradually, though, it’s all winning me around: the implementation is solid and the world has obviously had a great deal of thought put into it. And then it goes into a long series of weird dreams, which include a maze (a MAZE!) and conclude with me stuck in a graveyard I can’t leave and where I can’t figure out what to do.

The good: at its best, this reminds me a little of Worlds Apart, with a densely imagined world, lots of places and characters, and a scope of vision outside what one normally sees in IF. What’s more, the implementation feels solid at most points and shows considerable authorial effort.

The less good: on the other hand, it’s not always ideally directed for IF play: several scenes left me uncertain what to do. The presence of the maze gave me the sinking feeling that the author feels a little uncomfortable with puzzles (this is mostly a puzzleless work, so far as I can see) but feels obliged to include a few because of what the game is. A mistake, I feel. I also get the sense that, while the author is daring about setting, she hasn’t got quite so much control of the plot: many scenes of the game are expended on vague hints about Portent and Destiny, but without giving me a very clear sense of what is going on, what is really at stake, why I should care, and so on. What is threatened? Why? What am I expected to do about it?

Griping aside, I was most impressed by this one, on a first look-through.

Second playthrough: As far as I can tell, it doesn’t matter that much which choices I make for my protagonist. Perhaps her personal qualities will be more important in the finished game. On the other hand, I find myself wondering whether the author hasn’t bitten off more than she can chew by giving my protagonist so many different adjustable features.

Maybe the maze isn’t really a real maze but just a faux maze-impression. This time it was easier to escape than I recall from last time.

This time around I did manage to find the mirror in the graveyard and eventually it occurred to me to talk to the shadow in the mirror, but that whole sequence took longer than it really should have. Possibly I was being dense, but I think it could have been a little better clued.

Some further gripes re. personal taste: there are bits of this that feel a bit too florid or too new-agey for my taste, and I found myself getting a little impatient with the nine constellations and their moral messages, etc. I also found the long intro (as mentioned) one of the dullest things about the game.

Part of the problem may be that it’s actually quite hard to design a fantasy religion/metaphysical structure from scratch, especially if you want it to be a) serious [ie, not like Pratchett’s DEATH et al]; b) plausible [not like various Star Trek cultures where people have nonsensical moral values that would militate against their survival for more than a few generations]; and c) compelling [not so much sweetness and light that the reader gets bored or disengages]. Then you have the additional challenge of providing good exposition about this alternative mythos.

I think there may be something interesting in the backstory here about Ferran and Adisha and Sarvath — has Adisha betrayed Sarvath? — but mostly the religious/mystical bits of the game seem to be played out in terms of abstracts. Nine constellations each with its own virtue. A power and its Other. Very systematic; rather unengaging. What’s the hook of this religion? We’re spending a lot of the storytime on it, so it must be important to the narrative, but why (aside from the fact that it seems to have resulted in our protagonist’s geas)?

The Bloody Guns: doesn’t play on a Mac, so never mind.

One thought on “Some impressions on Introcomp”

  1. Yes, the color is obnoxious, admittedly. There’s a reason behind the ocular assault, though. In the game you play an undead creature, the exact nature of which is not really made evident in this introduction. However, you’ll note that you have no difficulty seeing in the dark without a light source. Under those conditions, the world is monochrome and everything between black and white is rendered (in descriptive text) in grey. Here, the white-on-black screen is meant to indicate that you are in the dark; the retro look of white on black text also seemed evocative of an older IF genre of the “you enter a cave and explore a dungeon filled with puzzles and have the opportunity to die a lot” sort. The eye-sizzling yellow on black is what your average zombie sees when walking around well-lit places. “It burns, it burns”, as they say.

    I started writing this game on my dying windows laptop, and the color scheme didn’t seem so bad with WinFrotz. When my hard drive died, I put in another one and continued under Ubuntu and Frotz, again, color wasn’t an issue. Then the motherboard went and I got a MacPro.

    [surgeon general’s warning: writing IF may kill your computer]

    Under Zoom the fonts are particularly bold, and probably thanks to better display quality (brighter, more contrast), the yellow is really intense. At this point, I was into late beta-testing, and I wasn’t keen to gut the color system. If there were an option in the z-machine spec for “yellow ochre” or controls for brightness, I would have dimmed it down to something reasonable.

    The good news is that the color is not integral to the game, it is only flavor. I can disable the entire color system easily in a future release, as there is a test in the initialization routine to see if the platform supports color. If I force this variable false, everything can render in white-on-black, and players can always override to a more pleasant setting. The text will continue to describe items differently in light/dark areas, so no functionality is lost. I’m hoping to continue writing this game in November, but can add an option to the menu system to customize the configuration within the game.

    Regarding library messages, I’ve delved deep into the library message system, but not in the way you indicated. Partly because I’m new to IF, I hadn’t covered all of these possibilities, but it wouldn’t be too difficult to make them appropriate to each inhabited body.

    As you’ve suggested, the possession shtick is an ongoing motif. If you play your cards right, you can end up in five bodies in the introduction, and there will be more body snatching in the main game.

    Given feedback from IntroComp, there are a few things that I would change to lower the “barrier to entry” into the game. There is a hint system of sorts built in to help players get out of the polyp and out of the chains, but I need to lower the threshold for help to kick in. Essentially, it counts non-wait turns and gradually gives more and more direct clues.

    I made the intro fairly non-linear because that’s my personal preference, but from reading through transcripts and talking to people who’ve played the game, I am inclined to give more direction, foreshadowing and clues in the intro.

    So, thanks for your comments, and I hope you’ll consider playing the rest of the game (with or without sunglasses) when it eventually is finished.

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