IF Comp 2010: Leadlight

As has been my practice for the last few years, I’ve set my RSS feed to truncate entries so that I can post reviews without spoilerage. Within an entry, there is a short, spoilerless discussion (though the comp purists may want to avoid reading even that before playing for themselves); then spoiler space; then a more detailed discussion of what I thought did and didn’t work in the game, if appropriate.

I’m also pursuing an approach I came up with a couple of years ago: I’m playing and reviewing games that have listed beta-testers, and skipping those that don’t. In 2008 that turned out to be a pretty fool-proof indicator of which games were going to end up scoring 4 or less on my personal scale, and it made my reviewing process a happier one in 2009, so I’m sticking with it. I’m hoping this will mean I have more time to devote to the remaining games, which in turn will (I hope) be of higher quality, and you, dear reader, will have fewer rants inflicted on you.

Next up: Leadlight

Disclaimer: The author of this game emailed me a couple of times to make sure I would review it, which had the (I am sure unintended) effect of making me feel a bit nagged about something I do as a hobby. This may have colored my response to Leadlight. I’ve tried to review as objectively as possible, but may have failed. I am recusing myself from voting on it.

Leadlight is the kind of game I would be unlikely to try outside of the comp: a gory horror game (one of my least favorite genres) with loads of randomized combat (one of my least favorite mechanics), combined with instant death-traps, harshly timed sequences, and a two-word parser, all running in an unconventional system that may require special setup.

Obviously, the ways in which the game deviates from modern IF standards aren’t accidental: the author has a vision for the experience of playing this game. A lot of work has gone into achieving a very specific effect. There’s a polished website, striking cover art, a player’s guide, instructions for how to get the thing running on a vintage Apple II if you happen to have one lying around.

The death-traps are also, I think, meant as a kind of teaching or even storytelling mechanism: though it’s not generally possible to UNDO out of death, you can UNDO a death-trap, at which point you’ve learned something about why you shouldn’t go into that room/pick up that object/whatever. It’s a more vivid, if slightly less friendly, approach to danger than the “You don’t dare pick up the scorpion! It looks dangerous!” approach we usually take to setting barriers.

So for the person in the right retro mood, who feels like doing a lot of replay to optimize an approach — that is, someone not primarily obsessed with story and one with a fair amount of patience for dying over and over — I imagine it’s fun. But it’s a pretty different kind of fun from the fun I usually associate with IF. It reminds me a little of an old-style platformer, the kind that takes many many replayings in order to learn the optimum run, discover where all the secret coins are, and get used to the trickier jump timings. The gameplay experience at that point is less about story, exploration, or puzzle cleverness than about performance and luck: can you memorize and execute the right sequence of moves flawlessly, and are you fortunate enough not to be killed early on?

I’m probably not the target audience. I never played this kind of game or used an Apple II much, so I don’t get the nostalgia hit. I can respect the goal of writing a specific retro style of game without necessarily being that excited by it, and I’m afraid that’s the case here. I played five times, and despite attempts to explore in different directions, on each playthrough I died before finding enough food or drink to restore my hitpoints. When I got sufficiently frustrated, I gave up.

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I’m not against replayable games. There are games that are fun to replay for narrative reasons, because they take on new meanings (Slouching Towards Bedlam, 9:05, and Make It Good all come to mind). There are games where there’s a clearly defined optimization problem, which becomes compelling in its own right (Lock & Key, Möbius). There are games where there are so many ways to play that your second playthrough can be very unlike the first (One Week, Blighted Isle), or where startup randomness or choices refresh the challenge on a new playing (An Act of Murder, Narcolepsy, Scavenger). But here I felt like the experience got less compelling with each restart; the scares become less scary, the atmosphere less atmospheric. By the time you’ve mastered the gameplay of an area, you’ve lost what was interesting about the story there.

The form of the game constrained how much it could do to hook me with story anyway. The prose has to be terse in this context — lettering on the emulated Apple II screen is very chunky and doesn’t give the author that many characters to work with. So the author needs to be picking the most evocative details to get across a sense of place and mood. Unfortunately, what I got from this was more often “generic school” or “old-school-game environment” than “well-observed Australian boarding school.” Some of the details are effective here, but many are not: generically tidy or messy dorm rooms don’t do much to feed my imagination, for instance.

Tone is also inconsistent. For instance, when I wander into a room where dozens of girls are impaled on top of a fence, this fact is mentioned in passing in two sentences and the paragraph continues with a matter-of-fact description of exits. An encounter with a frightened fellow student falls incongruously between scary and humorous.

Finally, my protagonist, though in some ways very specific, seems oddly detached from her own situation: when she first realizes she’s standing next to a corpse she seems pretty much unaffected by it. It’s definitely possible to overdo the protagonist’s reaction to gore or describe it in such detail that it becomes funny instead of horrific, but I felt like Leadlight erred in the other direction. Given the vague hints found here and there, I’m guessing that the protagonist is to blame for what has happened and that her lack of affect is a sign of mental illness or worse. But the fact that she’s presented as a mass of stats at the beginning and then gives me few points of access into her psyche during the beginning of play meant that I had a hard time sympathizing with or caring for her, either.

2 thoughts on “IF Comp 2010: Leadlight

  1. I gave this one an NR twice—first when I saw that the game itself is written for the Apple ][ and the emulator requires an Intel Mac, and there I was stuck in the middle with my G4, and then again when I discovered that I could actually play it online, and found that it was Not My Sort of Thing, for pretty much exactly the same reasons you’ve listed above.

    What I’m still completely mystified by is where the balance is in this game between earnestness and irony. I can’t tell how much the decision to write for the Apple ][ is intended as a distancing sort of framing device and how much it’s simply a labour of love. Maybe if I were more interested in weltering in virtual gore, this would have become clearer.

  2. Pingback: IF Comp 2011: Six | Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling

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