Introcomp 2010

Introcomp, the yearly competition for the beginnings of IF games, is enjoying an unusually strong year this year, with quite a few entries and fairly high quality overall. My thoughts — mildly spoilery — follow the cut. If you’re interested in playing the games and forming an opinion yourself, I encourage you to do so. I’ve also truncated my RSS feed for the time being so that the content here won’t syndicate to Planet-IF, as is my usual custom during competitions. I’ll turn it back to full strength soon.

So:

Closed Circles. Game starts with a voiceover making philosophical pronouncements while my protagonist floats in a formless void. This is perhaps my very least favorite kind of opening ever: it gives me no hooks for character, setting, or premise to care about, instead making the game into a platform for whatever profound observations the author wants to share. I would have greatly preferred to start the game where the action begins — with my protagonist wounded and stranded beside a stagecoach. That gives me something to work with.

The prose needs an edit. Take this line from the first room description: “The sky is dark and chasing clouds are gathering into black mountains defined by the blinking stars they blot out as they build.” The second idea is fairly complex, and compounding it with the first idea — “the sky is dark” — needlessly slows comprehension. The second part of the sentence, “chasing clouds are gathering into black mountains defined by the blinking stars they blot out as they build”, is a good image in far too many words.

A few sentences later: “The moon is up, and its bleak presence , and its chill presence reveals a grotesque scene.” I’m not sure whether the repetition is an editing mistake or an attempt at randomized prose generation that didn’t work. But there are some typos (“tigh” for “thigh”, “blod” for “blood”) a little further into the game that make me think it might just be an editing error. More proofreading would be useful.

I get stuck pretty early on. I’m hanging out by a gutted stagecoach, bleeding like mad, but nothing I can find yields to my exploration. I can’t open this wooden chest. I can’t even pick up an umbrella, for reasons that aren’t clear.

Would I like to play more of this? Maybe. I’m not sure I got a great sense of what “this” is. I’m not sure I could swear to the setting. Regency England? The American old west? Somewhere else? The clothes might be a hint if this were a movie, but their written description doesn’t give me much to go on. I think I would be interested to see the full version of this, because I tend to like historically-set games, but I’d lose the opening meandering and give the text a good edit.

For the Love of Ornery Blue Yaks. I’m always a little nervous when presented with something the author says is the game he’s wanted to write since the 80s. I completely understand the motivation behind completing those games, but they don’t always equate to strong play experiences. This one is lacking some polish (missing punctuation, odd spacing and formatting, minimally implemented scenery). It’s also old-school surreal, with an assortment of familiar tropes jumbled together, and that’s not a game style I’m in the mood for very often. So when I got stuck dying repeatedly on a timed puzzle, I put this one aside.

Peanut Orchestra. The UI here is basically an adaptation of what you’d get from a graphical game — you can select objects, and then click on one of several verbs to interact with them — with the differences that you can’t pick just anything on the screen but must move around a grid, and that some of the interaction is narrated as text. This certainly addresses some of my recent concerns about parsing, but it goes further than I’d like, aggressively narrowing the range of possible verbs and taking the player’s attention away from the text.

I didn’t think either the prose or the art were really strong enough to carry a game. The art is goofy, but doesn’t give me much of a coherent sense of setting, while the text is pretty slapdash. The piece of story we get here is surreal and under-motivated. I don’t have a sense of narrative necessity.

Plan 6 From Inner Earth. The writing here could use a proofreader; the implementation could be quite a bit deeper. But mostly, I got stuck for something to do pretty early on, but didn’t feel a lot of motivation to go on.

The problem is that the protagonist is a bored person in a boring situation, who isn’t allowed to go even as far as the next room, and regards everything around him with exasperated ennui. Even though there’s a frozen alien life form mere feet away, he is bored with it and has almost no description to offer. So it’s hard for me to get excited either.

Fang vs. Claw. I’m glad to see that Ullmann is working on the next part of this series. Part I was solid and well-made. It wasn’t always exactly my type of thing — heavier on the shooting and core than I prefer — but I had fun with it anyway, and my biggest complaint was that I wanted more story. Part II looks likely to deliver on that.

I do wish Ullmann were a little less elliptical at times: I frequently felt like I was playing catch up with the story. He clearly knows the story so well that he expects the pieces of the narrative to feel equally obvious to the audience, but that isn’t always the case.

Waker. Hm! I’m pretty uncertain about where this will go. Positives: it felt pretty solidly implemented, if limiting (why can’t I explore the bathroom? would that hurt anything?); the core premise of a society with a god-king they routinely need to wake up sounds like it could be interesting; in this short piece, there was plenty to discover.

Possible negatives: first, and maybe this is just because there was so little to see in the introduction, I’m not yet convinced by the worldbuilding surrounding this premise. Is it possible that a technological society that has cryosleep might also be run as a religious monarchy? Sure, especially if the god-king was verifiably alive and effective — but I’d expect there to be some pretty interesting history leading up to that. This world didn’t feel quite different enough to me given its deeply strange premise. On the other hand, like I said, maybe that’s accounted for in the longer version.

Second point: the structure of this — interacting with a bunch of exhibits of past events — suggests a pretty linear structure that also doesn’t leave a lot of agency to the player, where all we can ever do is re-enact the past.

On the whole, though, I think the possibilities are fairly strong. I’d definitely try playing more of this game.

A Fleeting Case of Self-Possession, or, Memento Moratori. Ingenious concept: the PC regards the voice of the player as a demonic possession and is trying to fight against it, while we try to trick (him? her?) into doing things that will inadvertently lead to our success. This is clever, and it works pretty well here: I didn’t have any trouble achieving my goals, but I didn’t feel the puzzles were totally obvious, either.

If I have any concern, it’s that I don’t know how well this conceit would hold up for an entire game. But it works so far.

Tourist Trap. I’m sold on the setting: it doesn’t take much work to make me want to play a game set in Paris. And it felt pretty solidly made, though there wasn’t time to check out everything I would have liked to interact with during the duration of the game.

I am not sure where the story is going, though. There’s sort of an implication that the guy in the funny clothes might be a con artist, or maybe up to no good somehow… but only an implication. I don’t come away from this with a strong hook into what the future action will be. I could imagine something to fill that space, some kind of complicated romance-adventure-mystery-thriller story with artists and con men and carriage races through cobbled streets and so on.

So I’d probably like to play this thing, but I’m not completely sure what kind of thing will it be — or even what the gameplay will be like. Will there be puzzles? Will there be talking? Talking and puzzles? Exploring?

Cryptozookeeper. I’ve been looking forward to this game ever since Robb trailed it in an interview in 2008. That’s why I was willing to try this game on five different interpreters (Windows Gargoyle, the Windows Hugo interpreter; Zoom, Spatterlight, and native Hugo for Mac OS X) in an attempt to get it to work “properly”. It never quite did. Mac Hugo, Zoom, and Gargoyle all refused to really show me anything at all, though some turned the screen funny colors. It looked as though they were trying to draw me some graphics but weren’t managing.

In Windows Hugo I was able to see the images fully, but the text bunched and wadded in a corner so that I couldn’t read it. Spatterlight gave me the most playable experience, with usable text, but there were no images, the top of the screen devoted to an inventory listing and a lot of blank space.

It’s totally possible I’m doing something wrong here or that there are weird incompatibilities at work: getting a multimedia IF game to fly on the variety of available player systems can be astoundingly painful. I gather from other people’s reports that they did manage to play more than I did, so I bet there is some wackiness on my end that affects this. (Is my screen too small? Do I have the wrong configurations set? I don’t know.)

Now, the good news is that the little bit I did manage to play under Spatterlight looks pretty fun, with a typically Sherwinesque insane premise, zippy prose, and a setting that grabs you immediately. So I still really want to play the full version. Hopefully it’ll have settled down a bit, and/or I will have figured out what I was doing wrong.

11 thoughts on “Introcomp 2010”

  1. the structure of this — interacting with a bunch of exhibits of past events — suggests a pretty linear structure that also doesn’t leave a lot of agency to the player, where all we can ever do is re-enact the past.

    Honestly I think this could be a strength, in that it’s a clever diegetic justification for linearity and lack of agency. Inevitably your agency in this sense is going to be pretty restricted, and I like a good rationale for it, though it’d be easy to abuse this as a way of explaining away non-solutions (“Yes, using the blaster to shoot the lock would’ve been a good idea, but that’s not what I did, so you’ll have to solve this puzzle”).

    The setting seems like it can go either way. I like the idea of a society that’s so tradition-bound that (huge spoiler rot13ed) jnxvat gur uvtu cevrfg gb nfx uvz gur pbzovangvba vf haguvaxnoyr, nf vf fabbcvat va gur onguebbz naq jneqebor, ohg oernxvat gur punzore vf yrff haguvaxnoyr guna gung. Be znlor gur fbeg bs guvat lbh qb bhg bs cnavp. But that difference needs to permeate the rest of the game, too.

    1. True, but even in a pretty linear game, it can feel like it’s important that you accomplished something, because otherwise that thing would (fictionally) never have happened. Whereas here, the premise is such that the fictional reality is unchanged; the only thing you change by participating in the exhibit is your character’s knowledge of those events. Which could be important too, for some reason — but we don’t have a hook yet that says it is.

      1. Maybe it’s that I think of myself as playing as me (or some other adventure protag) in the museum and as Vel in the scene, so my character still has that kind of agency. As we can get emotionally involved in a story within a story. Of course I can’t think of any examples right now where the inner story doesn’t comment on the frame a la The Blind Assassin. I was going to say “that one Shakespeare play” except I think it’s Taming of the Shrew, which is problematic in itself.

        Then again, once I’m playing as Vel, the “But that’s not what I did” could mess with my suspension of disbelief. Fortunately there wasn’t actually any of that.

      2. Okay, that is a fair point. I certainly wouldn’t be bothered by a game in which the viewpoint character switched around and in some cases let you play a figure who was historical relative to another viewpoint character. So if that’s the idea, great.

        At this point, of course, I’m totally playing guessing games about what the author intends to do, anyway.

    1. That silence you hear is me not slapping my forehead. Where was the clue I was supposed to do that?

      Hrm. Maybe I didn’t read carefully enough, but that really hadn’t appeared on my radar as a possibility. I did try trggvat bagb gur jntba be vgf frng, ohg sebz gur erfcbafr V unq gur vzcerffvba gung jnf whfg abg vzcyrzragrq.

      1. Yeah, I flailed around quite a bit before I got that. Part of the problem is that there are two leads on what you’re meant to be doing, and the more obvious one (the ybpxrq purfg) doesn’t seem to be solvable yet and therefore doesn’t advance the plot.

      2. Yeah, I tried interacting with that, and also with assorted other objects in the area, including the qrnq obql. Nothing seemed to be getting me anywhere, so I assumed that either the game just ended at that point (always a risk with introcomp games) or that the implementation thoroughness had dropped off enough that I wasn’t going to be able to find the next step.

      3. Yeah, I didn’t feel at all bad about asking for that hint.

        My big attempt was that I was going to use the umbrella, or maybe the oebxra jurry (which I couldn’t even find the second time around), to slash the padded seats, and then use the stuffing as upholstery. Guess which well-known game I’ve been failing miserably at lately.

  2. Cryptozookeeper worked for me under hewin (Hugo for Windows).

    I was unexpectedly fond of the art in this first section, for fairly obvious reasons.

    Adam

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