Some thoughts follow on the IntroComp 2014 games I’ve tried so far. IntroComp is a long-running interactive fiction competition in which authors submit the beginnings of games and invite feedback and information about whether players would like to see more.
If you would also like to vote, you have through August 15 to try the entries and rate them.
The Cuckold’s Egg: This presents itself as a fantasy-cum-murder mystery. It feels ambitious, in a Varkana / Phoenix’s Landing way that hints at a huge load of worldbuilding. There’s an implied geography, religious and government factions, events of historical note, and some things that your protagonist has in his past that still have to be explained. There’s also a hint of what might become an intriguing mechanic: the protagonist is apparently able to enter other people’s memories through the medium of dreams, and it’s hinted that this will gradually unlock as the murder is solved and that you’ll be able to use these to find out more about what really happened. Implementation also feels reasonably solid. So pretty decent all around, though I really prefer it when introcomp games allow you to try the Cool Mechanic at least a little, rather than just foreshadowing what it’s going to be.
What would make it work better for me: I wouldn’t mind getting more of a read on the world and (especially) the protagonist faster. The main sense I get of the player character is that a) something bad happened not that long ago; b) he has reason to be cautious. Giving me more of a reason to be invested, sooner, would make this more compelling. I particularly think it’s a bit of a missed opportunity that we see the protagonist’s dream/memory palace but it’s empty of any kind of clutter about his home or past. Apparently this is a sign that he’s done a good job at meditating away all of his past baggage and so on, which is an interesting detail about the magic/religious system at work here, and yet as a player and reader I would much rather have seen at least a couple hints of his past than just be told that he’s worked through all that now.
Likewise with the worldbuilding: I want it to hook a little more. There’s all sorts of stuff that’s happened here, apparently, but what’s the first, essential thing that the player should know about this world and be excited to find out more about?
Hornet’s Nest: This starts off as a dream sequence about horrible orcs and then translates into a sort of semi-farce about trying to get rid of hornets in your tree. The genre “seemingly slice of life situation that gets ludicrously out of hand” is decently populated in IF, but it can stand a few more entries. (See also: Friendly Foe if you specifically want to play more misadventures in garden pest removal.) While I didn’t get all the way through the puzzle here, it seemed all right.
That said, I was turned off pretty hard by this section at the end of the introductory text:
…you smell something too. A smell you know oh too well. A flowery scent, one that strikes fear into the heart of any creature, large or small. The orc drops you where he stands and runs off in a panic, leaving you lying there.
The world begins to blur as the smell becomes stronger, you suddenly realize that it’s all been a dream and the orc attacking your village was nothing more than a result of some late night tacos. But that smell is one all too real. The perfume your wife wears every day, announcing her presence as she enters the bedroom you share.
“Will you get out of bed!!!”, she screeches.
You don’t see a lot more of her (at least as far as I got in the game), but this vicious intervention is your motivation in the story. Your character also deeply dislikes his mother-in-law, as we discover a few lines later. The net effect, especially in the absence of any context or mitigating factor, was to make me feel like I’d fallen into an Awful Wedded Life sitcom. Ha ha, women, they sure are nags, amirite? I was not at all eager to spend time inhabiting a straight treatment of this trope. Consequently, I quit when I found myself having difficulty in my hornet-removal task.
What would make it better for me: revising the approach to gender politics and the comedy based on interpersonal contempt? But perhaps this is really at the heart of the story. I don’t know. I may just not be the right audience for this one.
Bridges and Balloons: This is a choice-based piece in which you’re helping transport goods for a merchant who is a mouse. Mouse culture apparently exists alongside bird culture, and then there are also humans who do irritating things. Bridges and Balloons just sees you beginning your adventure and leaves you at the point where you’ve encountered a problem. Perhaps not coincidentally, this is also right after you’ve made the first choice that has a real branching effect.
I’m not quite sure who the intended audience is. The story is gentle and whimsical, and a cast of anthropomorphized rodents is usually a clue that you’re dealing with a work of children’s literature (the works of Ryan Veeder notwithstanding), but the diction is maybe a little strange for young readers.
What would make it better for me: I think this piece could use a clearer sense of its own purpose. Why am I invested in this story? What sorts of things am I going to get to do? What’s the interactivity for, here? It felt telling that the game ends on a cliffhanger whichever of two things you do, but they’re two different cliffhangers — so clearly the game’s vision isn’t specifically about that content.