IF Competition: wHen mAchines aTtack

Another IF Comp review, following my format for this comp. There is a cut, then any spoiler-free comments I have, and then spoiler space, and then more detailed feedback that assumes the reader has tried the game.

But first, we have some obligatory filler to try to make sure that the RSS summary does not accidentally contain any review. Filler, filler, la la la…

Okay. Here we go.

It didn’t take me long playing this game to get a familiar sort of feeling about the writing (flawed in weird ways) and the implementation (inexplicably missing stuff, mostly). And then I realized: this is the author of Press Escape to Save!

To be fair, he seems to have toned down some of the more bizarre phrasings. But there is still no sign of testing. And this time around, I confess, I just didn’t feel like spending more than 20 minutes or so with the game.

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I don’t know what sentences like this even mean:

You look away, but when you look back you find that he is still staring at you, from his faraway, yet such close a position up on the catwalk to the north.

Is he physically close but giving you a far-away look? And “such close a position” doesn’t work as English — “such a close position” or “so close a position” would both be acceptable phrases, but what we have isn’t.

Even when sentences aren’t self-contradictory, they often leave out vital information:

You meet up the receptionist, who you find is fidgeting with the gate to northwest. She finally opens it and looks at you, some strange dots flickering across her face as she does.

What am I supposed to envision here? Are there lights playing across her face because of the gate? Or skin-color blotches? Or is her forehead turning into a computer readout (which wouldn’t surprise me much, considering all the heavy hints about her being a robot so far)? The game is full of descriptions that leave the player at a loss for what to visualize. (At another juncture, Mr. Wong’s eyes sink a little into his face. This sounds grotesque, but I think it’s meant to describe an ordinary human facial gesture. I think. I’m not sure.)

Or consider this:

Looming overhead above you, you can sense a pair of menacing eyes staring collectively from the catwalk.

First we have the redundancy of “overhead” “above you”. And can eyes, by themselves, loom? Usually looming things are big and overshadowing. Then that whole phrase is a dangling modifier, which technically ought to apply to “you” rather than to the pair of eyes. Next: what does it improve to say that the pair of eyes is “staring collectively”? Barring unusual medical conditions, it’s impossible for anyone’s eyes to stare at different things at the same time. And then the phrasing of “from the catwalk” makes it sound as though there’s just a pair of eyeballs, sans face or body, up there.

This isn’t writing so much as spackling with words.

Now, having said all that, I still think this author should stick around. He is obviously interested in telling a story. His implementation this year felt a little sturdier than the one last year. He is trying some moderately challenging kinds of scenes. He’s clearly capable of learning and enthusiastic about the ideas he wants to communicate in the medium. But I think he’s not going to improve significantly until he brings on board a bunch of testers and listens very carefully to what they say about the implementation, the writing, and the interaction design (for instance: not so many turns of following an NPC all the heck over the place, next time — a few turns is fine, but then it gets boring).

3 thoughts on “IF Competition: wHen mAchines aTtack

  1. I was similarly frustrated by this one. The author is trying, but trying way too hard. I like the emphasis on writing over puzzles, but if he’s going to focus on that, he really has to improve the quality of it.

  2. As odd as it is to leap to the defense of the writing here, what’s wrong with someone nearby giving you a faraway look? I’ve always thought of such a look as being kind of “spacey” – their eyes are pointed at you but they clearly aren’t looking at you. And then they’re also standing next to you.

  3. what’s wrong with someone nearby giving you a faraway look?

    Nothing — if that’s what is actually meant here, which wasn’t clear to me. I mean, “from his faraway… position” suggests that he’s meant to be distant, not that he’s looking distantly.

    It occurred to me once or twice that this effect might be intentional — that the author was deliberately creating descriptions that cram together conflicting details (starting at the beginning of the game, where we’re apparently both 20 minutes and an hour and a half late), in order to produce a sense of disorientation and confusion about what is really happening. But I think it would need to be more controlled in order to pull that off.

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