Ectocomp is a Halloween Speed-IF competition in which authors have three hours to code a spooky game. (They may spend some additional time before that preparing to write, though.) Capsule reviews follow. I mention a few things that didn’t work for me, but I want to emphasize that three hours isn’t much time at all, from a game writing perspective: rough edges are to be expected.
Recommended pieces are starred.
** Lime Ergot (Rust Blight) — A masterful little parser game by someone who has a good grasp of what can be done in a small scope. There’s an interaction joke at work here — the need to examine things and then keep examining sub-parts of those objects — combined with evocative description and a compact but punchy background story about colonialism and decay. The writing verges on excess sometimes, but in a way that I felt worked quite well with the supposed hallucinating state of the protagonist. Good enough to be enjoyed even outside the context of ECTOCOMP. I hope the author will do a little polish and re-release post-comp.
A Fly on the Wall (Nigel Jayne) — A parser game where you have an opportunity to watch multiple monitors at once, and the main puzzle is working out what the various characters are up to. Personally I found this a bit hard to work out without the walkthrough: possibly I needed to be playing with more time and concentration, but a lot of the understanding seemed to turn on tracking a character from one monitor to another, and it wasn’t always clear where someone had gone; and then I didn’t always get the implication of what I was seeing. I’ll be curious whether others found this easier to follow than I did.
Choose Your Own SCARY Death (Healy) — smallish Twine piece in which everything you do leads to an arbitrary demise. Lightly entertaining, though the writing could use a trim: it’s sometimes verbose enough to dilute the effect of its jokes.
* Devil’s Food (Hanon Ondricek) — written with AXMA storymaker, which looks a bit like Twine in its current manifestation. This is a short, goofy story about being a demon who winds up manifesting as a slice of cake. My favorite part was the surprising Porpentine pastiche/homage in the middle, though there’s also a suite of demonic super powers that change depending on your situation.
First Person (Buster Hudson) — parser-based game about being trapped in a basement waiting for a serial killer to come down and do zir serial thing. As far as I can tell, there’s no way to avoid that fate, but this definitely works better as a parser-based game than it would as a choice game: the prompt invites you to try to invent ways out of the situation even if there aren’t any. I don’t think this would have held up if it had been any longer than it is; the scope is a very sensible one for speed-written flash-fiction IF.
ACAG (Another Cliched Advenure Game [sic]) (David Whyld) — String of parodic adventure game situations, including the amnesiac opening, the generic bedroom, the generic forest, the generic afterlife, et al. Does what it says on the tin.
The Weird Mirror (M. J. Antonellis) — Story about a one-eyed hermit who encounters a ghost. I’m not sure I completely understood the motive for this.
Carriage Returns (David Good) — I got stuck on this one: I got as far as eating breakfast in a diner, but then I’m not certain what I’m meant to do next, and attempts to interact with objects and NPCs didn’t seem to be advancing my situation. Points for the cheddar, though.
Wedding Day (E. Joyce) — A woman past hope of other marriages faces her wedding day. The story is on the predictable side, but there are some touches (especially the possibility of dancing at the feast) that worked for me. It would be interesting to see a version of this that more deeply fleshed out the worldbuilding and the story of the protagonist.
* Eclosion (Buster Hudson) — A single sequencing puzzle in Twine themed around parasitic alien insect birth. As with the author’s other contribution “First Person,” this is pretty sensibly sized for the competition.
* It Is Pitch Dark (Caelyn Sandel) — A resource management puzzle in Twine, about producing light long enough to avoid trouble with a grue, with enough content to feel like a complete thing. I particularly liked this game’s touches of world-building, imagining a grue-containing world quite different from the Zork universe. My impression is that there are several ways through the puzzle situation.
LISEY (Marco Innocenti) — A parser-based ghost story told around a short, straightforward puzzle. The puzzle is mostly a pacing and discovery mechanism, though, around which is told a story that’s more about grief than about fear. (Or at least, it was for me.) A little more specificity about the characters would have served it well, I think, but the structure is pretty functional.
IDSPISPOPD (?) — This looks like it’s a parser-based horror game about the writing of Doom (you play Carmack and Romero), but as far as I could tell on my playthrough, it didn’t really matter what I typed. Looking at the script suggests that actually there were branch points, but it wasn’t at all obvious to me what I could type in order to change things. YES and NO were apparently sometimes key verbs, while most standard IF verbs aren’t generally recognized. So I found this hard to control, though the lack of control was maybe not such a bad fit for the story content.
* Candlesmoke (Caelyn Sandel and Carolyn VanEseltine) — One of the more complete and distinctive stories in this comp, concerning a man who has apparently disappeared and the real story of what has happened to him. There are a number of sharply creepy details (take the contents of the fridge, for instance) that make this memorable despite the short development timeframe. I also liked the thematic undercurrent of the work, which suggests that oppression based on the assertion of power is always fragile; there will always come a time, through intention or coincidence, when that control slips and the oppressor loses their position. In that respect, despite the horror theme, I actually saw it as a somewhat upbeat story.
halloween candy triage simulator 2014 (j. marie) — Procedural toy about pulling candy out of a bag and sorting it. I played for a while, but didn’t reach an ending; I’m not sure whether there is one. Some cute asides about candy preferences.
Candy Rush Saga (Andrew Schultz) — A sliding-block/fifteen-style puzzle given a slightly different story wrapping. Fortunately this is a bit easier than a real fifteen puzzle — there are only nine slots and eight things to move, and there are multiple acceptable outcome arrangements. This helps it not to outstay its welcome too much, though I basically took two turns (one of them reading the ABOUT text) to work out what I was supposed to do and then many turns more executing the algorithm.
* The Voodoo You Do 2 (Marshal Tenner Winter) — A brief, evocative story about the afterlife by way of voodoo beliefs, with some pleasingly sinister lines: “Baron Samedi is smiling, as if remembering a filthy joke.” I ran into some interactive hitches — if you fail to understand how the conversation works, it’s easy to get stuck, which I did on my first try before restarting — but I enjoyed the setting details and atmosphere. More, there’s an emotional arc here that only emerges after a little thought: the protagonist committed suicide, but there was someone who cared enough about him to have left him with a protection against evil, and the protagonist is now grateful. To me this suggests a belated, post-death escape from despair. I am aware that many stories exoticize voodoo beliefs and don’t do them justice, and I know too little to judge how/whether this piece might be problematic in that way, but I enjoyed the aspects I mentioned.
City of the Living Dead (Tanah Atkinson) — Highly reminiscent of Begscape, this is a generated story of having to move from one neighborhood to the next as gentrification takes over your neighborhood. As far as I can tell, there’s no actual ending, only an endless sequence of unpleasant anecdotes. The entry of this piece into ECTOCOMP is as much a statement as the game itself: it treats the effects of poverty as horrific.
Character Creation (Erin Gigglecreek) — You’re in front of a mirror and you’re allowed to take off body parts and add new ones: beaks, scales, etc. There’s not really much more to it than this (and I felt the game slightly missed a trick by not changing the look description when I took off my eyes…), but cute.
** The Northnorth Passage (Caleb Wilson) — technically a non-entry because it took longer than 3 hours to write. A story of irresistible compulsion. The protagonist is cursed to have to move consistently north, a trip that sends him through many surprising situations to an inevitable conclusion. More haunting than traditionally scary — not to mention massively linear — but well-written and a memorable experience. There was one point where I think maybe I was supposed to be able to go northwest or northeast, and couldn’t — but I’m not actually certain what the intent was here.
Halloween Scarecrow II: Interview with a Scarecrow (Duncan Bowsman) — likewise, a non-entry because it took too long to write. Possibly interesting, but the default text here, dark grey on grey-black, is so low-contrast that I found it almost unreadable, and gave up after several minutes of leaning into the screen. I’m also in a situation where I can’t listen to sounds right now, so I think I’m missing an important part of the experience.