IF Comp 2015: Koustrea’s Contentment (Jeremy Pflasterer)

The 21st annual Interactive Fiction Competition is currently on, through mid-November. Voting is open to the general public; the only prerequisite is that you not be an author, not vote on games that you tested, and submit votes on at least five games. (You emphatically do not have to have played them all! In a year with 55 entrants, it is very unlikely that most judges will get through anywhere near all of them.)

If you are looking for other reviews, this ifwiki page contains a list of places currently carrying them.

Koustrea cover artKoustrea’s Contentment is a pretty sizable parser puzzle game. It does not come with a full walkthrough, and no walkthrough at all was included in my original comp download, so I spent quite a bit of my available two hours wandering around making little progress — but even had that not been the case, I could not have finished it on time. The author knows that this is likely and states as much in the ABOUT text for the game.

All the same, there’s some interesting stuff going on here. The TADS 3 world model is used to good effect. It may be hard to play as a Comp game, but it combines high implementation standards and some modern design niceties with an old-school taste for freedom and open-endedness.

Back in the olden days (by which I mean 2003 or so), then-ubiquitous IF Comp reviewer Paul O’Brian used to penalize authors hard for submitting games to the IF Comp that they knew were massively too large for the competition. His take was that this wasn’t fair to the judges, who were taking on these games in good faith: knowing that you can only put in 2 hours on each game is part of what makes Comp judging possible. Besides, it may not be a net gain even for the author. Putting a long game into the IF Comp means that, yes, a lot more people may try your game than might otherwise; on the other hand, it also means that almost all of them will have a sub-optimal experience with said game, and may well not come back to it later.

There are some other options, at least in theory: the Spring Thing was invented in part to give people a venue where a smaller number of larger games had the spotlight, for instance.

Meanwhile, Koustrea also makes some specific choices that are likely to cut down on how many people play it or get very far with it in the comp in the first place. The initial resistance to having a walkthrough is one. (There is now a document that generally describes the actions you have to take to win, though it is not a turn-by-turn walkthrough.) Not being playable online is another — though it’s so long that I’m not sure I would have wanted to play online myself, I would guess that the number of casual tries it garnered was less than it would have been otherwise. Finally, the design of the game itself doesn’t hook as hard as some, and it sends some signals about how player friendly it’s going to be that turn out to be false. Right at the outset, there’s one object that you have to examine thirty times in a row in order to elicit all the information you need about it. There are other areas where you have to do quite a bit of exploring before you get a sense of what your puzzle-solving goals are and what parts of the room might be relevant. Also, there’s a prologue that sounds like it’s the lead-in to another amnesia game. It doesn’t quite go there, but you do land in an environment about which you know very little, with no instructions about what you’re trying to do and no background about your own character.

So as I was judging, I started to sympathize with Paul’s take, because this game seemed to be asking for things that an IF Comp judge is ill-positioned to give: time, trust, patience with a cold open.

(Edited to add: I should note here that when I say “I started to sympathize,” I mean: I started to understand the emotional stance, not that I decided to copy Paul’s scoring strategy. Traditionally I have always taken the tack of grading on the basis of whatever portion of a game I managed to experience in the two hour period, with no special penalty for the game being longer than that. And in this instance, I did not mark Koustrea down as a penalty for its length — though I might have been able to mark it higher had I been able to play more of it.)

I do a fair amount of bureaucratic overhead work at the beginning of Comp — I’d guess about 5-8 hours of preliminary work trying out the beginning of every game and writing notes to myself about it, figuring out which ones look long and which look short, which are going to requiring mapping or note-taking, which need headphones, which are going to be emotionally demanding, and so on. Then I try to arrange things so that I’m playing each game when I’m in the best mood and situation to appreciate what that particular thing has to offer. It doesn’t always work, and sometimes games turn out not to be remotely what I expected from the first screen or two (hello, Taghairm). But that’s the idea: as much as possible to simulate a situation where I play a game because I’m excited about it and chose to download it, individually, in the expectation that I would enjoy it.

The thing is that the ideal player for Koustrea’s Contentment is probably someone who has a whole lazy weekend to give it, lots of leisure and cups of tea and no sense of guilt about 30 other unplayed games. And I can’t be that player during IF Comp.

All this may explain why I’ve seen relatively little discussion of this piece. Even with overtime I haven’t finished it, haven’t come even close to finishing it. In two hours I barely did anything that I would identify as progress. That time was almost all exploring. But my impression so far is that Koustrea’s Contentment is a much better game in general than it is an IF Comp entry.

Once you start wandering around, that world starts to unfold in interesting ways. There is an NPC who is fascinated with football and who has apparently been keeping track of the teams and scores for tens of thousands of seasons. There are hints of a mythology or worldbuilding background only gradually explained. There are areas guarded by Myst-like machinery. The prose style didn’t grab me as hard as in some of my comp-favorites, but the writing here generally has the advantage of being clear about what you can interact with, which is really important in this kind of game.

There is a sense of concealed meaning in the environment, meaning that I’m going to discover over the course of playing this game, which reminds me of what I loved about some of my very first text adventure play experiences. A lot of games are now written in a somewhat different style, but that aspect still appeals.

Meanwhile, the implementation at least as I encountered it was also solid: no bugs that I saw, plenty of scenery descriptions, nice exit listings. TADS 3 sense-passing means that you can hear sounds from the next room over and sometimes see things from a distance. That makes the model feel more robust and the rooms more connected. Not every game needs this, but it’s a neat thing, and one of the things we mostly don’t see these days because there are so few TADS 3 releases.

The conversation is old-school ASK/TELL, but works fine in that style, at least as far as I got. I was enjoying chatting with the NPCs, even if I hadn’t yet figured out the answers to such vital questions as “so are we human? or what?”. Like NPCs in many IF games, these seem rather static, obsessed with their hobbies and not really up to much in terms of long-term occupation. (Static, that is, over the long term. The game gives them plenty of short-term idle actions and so on, so that they do maintain a sense of immediate presence. But they’re not actively helping you with your quest, nor are they particularly engaged with any goals of their own.) But in the context of this story, that actually makes sense. Everyone has been living in this compound for a very, very long time, long enough to get bored of almost everything, and to have accepted the futility of trying to change it.

The game grew on me more and more as I played, though the most fun I had with it came after my two hours were already up. There was one point where I was exploring an object and I knew it was going to take some turns to see everything I wanted to see, but off-stage noises were making me nervous that I was about to be dangerously interrupted. It gave a really effective back-of-the-neck prickle.

There are also lots of nice, not-strictly-necessary responses to player actions. For instance, when I am in a room with some markings on the floor, I get this exchange:

It’s hard not to.

This is good! This says the author has thought about ways I’m trying to solve the puzzle, has anticipated that I might think it involves stepping on things, and is giving me feedback that I’m approaching from the wrong angle. I don’t know what the right angle is yet, but this level of authorial provision is especially necessary in a game as open-ended as this one. It is an instantly more trustworthy response than “That’s not something you can stand on.” would have been — the latter would have communicated that standing on the markings is the wrong approach, but it wouldn’t have helped refine my picture of what the room is like, and it would have made me feel like I was flailing.

This is not an isolated incident, either: many of the failure messages for standard actions either explain the situation more deeply in a non-default way, or direct the player towards actions that will work. (You can’t take an object, but you could push it, for instance.)

There are some things I had quibbles with (see above about the 30x-examined object), but that was a design decision more than an implementation decision. The author clearly did that on purpose, and I can in retrospect sort of see why — listing all the 30 things on this object at once might have been overwhelming and not as well paced as seeing them one at a time. In one sense it’s not really that different from a Twine game with cycling descriptive text that you have to click a number of times for all the variations. But this is not a standard thing for parser IF games to do, and it wasn’t clear even after I’d done it what I was supposed to make of the information I’d learned. So that was still a baffling experience for my first interaction with the game. In fact there are several places in Koustrea where you’re rewarded for doing an action repeatedly: playing darts to increase your darts skill (reminiscent of Endless, Nameless there), or playing pinball (where you get increasingly high scores, but have less and less fun).

Anyway. Two points here, I guess.

One: I’m a little sorry that the author entered this in the comp, or possibly sorry that there’s not a venue that appealed to him more as a place to enter it, or a better way to garner attention for this specific kind of work. Maybe that’s an issue of publicizing Spring Thing more, or an issue of getting more review coverage for it so that it feels like an equally viable option to the main competition, or something else. I’m not sure.

Second point: I do want to encourage people who identify as parser aficionados to try it out when they have enough time to give it its due — and, ideally, provide some feedback. I fear that this game may end up with one of the worst effort-and-quality to positive-review ratios in the competition, for the reasons I’ve outlined, and that sucks. At least as far as I’ve been able to get so far, it shows every evidence of authorial love and care.

2 thoughts on “IF Comp 2015: Koustrea’s Contentment (Jeremy Pflasterer)”

  1. The sad thing is I _want_ longer works, but if people are entering them into IFComp it means they feel like they’re going to fall by the wayside. There ought to be more we could do. I feel like when the review collective was going it didn’t make enough of a dent in the problem. What newbies need maybe is some help with promotion (that’s part of why I did the Text Games to Look For post). Maybe you or I or someone else should looking into doing interviews with people about to release games?

    Didn’t you write a “guidelines for release your game” post once?

    1. Erm. Probably, though probably also so long ago that any advice in it would be out of date at this point.

      I’m not opposed to helping if there’s something useful to be done here, but I am also really really not able to guarantee a service of checking out/reviewing/helping promote any long form game that comes along.

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