Cragne Manor

cragneCragne Manor is now available!

Considering the number of authors on this game, it feels possible that every person who is interested in parser-based interactive fiction is already part of this project. But I know there are a few exceptions, so for those who aren’t already familiar:

Cragne Manor was organized by Ryan Veeder and Jenni Polodna as a 20-years-later tribute to Michael Gentry’s classic 1998 Lovecraftian horror game Anchorhead. They put out an open call to the IF community for authors to write one room each — without being able to see each other’s work — and they themselves would stitch the results together.

I think it’s fair to say this succeeded more thoroughly than they anticipated. More than 80 authors created rooms for Cragne Manor — some of them small, atmospheric rooms like mine; others packed with story or constituting ingenious set-piece puzzles; still others brief and elegant vignettes. There are some individual author contributions in Cragne that would make respectable IF Comp entries in their own right. Not only that, but Ryan and Jenni did an epic amount of work, with great ingenuity, to come up with a puzzle structure that would make all of those disparate pieces contribute to a functional, enjoyable gameplay flow.

I haven’t finished it — a reflection partly of my supply of free time, but also the fact that this game is huge. But I can tell you already that if you like parser IF, you want to play this. It’s sometimes scary, sometimes disgusting, sometimes funny, sometimes weird, and sometimes all of those at once — but I’ll let you find the horse for yourself. And somehow all that surreal adds up to something greater than the sum of its parts.

Thanks, Ryan and Jenni. This was really, really fun.

Save the Cat (Blake Snyder)

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Save the Cat is one of those screenwriting books, like Robert McKee’s Story, that you can’t help running into if you’re looking at writing advice at all. The title refers to the idea that you must establish your protagonist in a movie with some sympathetic action. There are a lot of musts in this book. Snyder is telling you specifically how to write a three-act, 110-page movie script that fits a Hollywood formula of a few years back — down to which pages of the script should feature major events and reversals; how many beats should appear within each act; and how the hero should be feeling at the midpoint of the movie.

He explains that the heroes ought to be in their 20s at the latest because Men Under 25 are the most coveted viewing demographic. He does not overtly say they should be white, but that assumption is I think implicit. The book is a few years old; after Black Panther and Get Out and Crazy Rich Asians and so on, perhaps Snyder would now have something different to say about representation.

In any case, the book is largely about formula — and a formula much more genre-bound than my nemesis The Hero’s Journey. Snyder has very little to say about theme, other than to acknowledge that you probably should have one and mention it early in your screenplay. He has not much to say, either, about developing characters or about representing personal truths. He doesn’t very much care what the substance of your work might be. This book is about how to package it, how to make it accessible to audiences in a format that is familiar to them and that will help them quickly understand the emotional landscape.

So if this is mainly formula for a different medium and different market from games, does it have anything to offer?

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End of November Link Assortment

December 1 is the next SF Bay IF Meetup.

December 2 will be the next Seattle area IF Meetup, at University of Puget Sound in Tacoma.

December 5 is the next date for the upcoming Boston IF Meetup, discussing IFComp winner Alias: The Magpie.

December 5-8 in Dublin is the next ICIDS, an academic conference on interactive digital storytelling. (I have enjoyed this in the past, though it’s been a few years since I’ve been able to attend.)

December 15 will be the next Baltimore/DC IF Meetup, discussing IFComp winner Alias: The Magpie from 3-5 at Mad City Coffee.

December 15 is the submission deadline for SubQ’s Game Jam, for very short pieces that focus on the theme of love.

The Oxford/London IF Meetup does not meet in December, to give everyone a holiday break.

 

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West of Loathing (Asymmetric)

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West of Loathing is a fourth-wall-breaking comedy RPG descended from Kingdom of Loathing. The art is made of stick figures. The combat tends toward the gentle side, difficulty-wise. You may spend a lot of your time reaching into disgusting spittoons and harvesting needles from haystacks.

It’s not a genre of game I typically cover here — and I generally don’t have time to play loads of RPGs, which tend to demand a lot more time each than interactive fiction. But there is in fact a certain IF-y sensibility about many of the interactions. You can wander around the world and pick people and things to interact with, but once you do, you enter into a choice-based exchange. These make good use of standard small-scale choice structures: situations where your persistence is tested against assurances that you’re getting into trouble, or where the risk goes up. (You can play poker against other denizens of the town, which is a classic stakes-go-up, are-you-sure-you-stay-in scenario.)

Anyway. I don’t have loads of analysis on this one, and I’m not done with it yet, but it’s entertaining and may appeal to some folks here. (And yes, I know it came out last year. I’m slow.)

Beckett (Simon Meek)

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The author of Beckett reached out to me and suggested I have a look at it. So did a couple of unrelated people on Twitter. But when I looked at the website, I couldn’t figure out what it was meant to be: the premise, the play experience, how long it was likely to take. What was this thing? No one seemed eager or even able to describe this game to me. It was only after I’d downloaded and played a bit that I encountered this explanation. It has a clearer plot overview than I could really offer myself.

I’ve played the first several scenes of it now. I’m not sure whether I will play more: it is off-putting, intentionally so, and I am not sure whether it’s giving me enough to make me put up with its off-putting qualities.

But here’s what I can tell you so far. Mechanically, it is a point-and-click adventure, albeit one with a fair amount of text, and set in a moody sepia world generally viewed from above:

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As for genre and premise: I am not quite sure of the ground truths of the world, yet. The place is old-fashioned and noir-ish. The protagonist appears to be a form of detective, though he “doesn’t do domestics.” People use physical paperwork and old-fashioned desks. Images hung on the wall look like they come from the 1920s. At one point we visit a bar and to enter we have to speak through a buzzer at the door; it suggests a speakeasy. Someone tells us to plant a bug, and the bug that we see is of the animal variety, shown in video and from a disquieting proximity. Indeed, insects appear frequently and in contexts where you might not expect to see them, including at one point on the neck of an attractive woman, as though it were a kind of jewelry.

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IF Comp Roundup

IF Comp is now over for the year! Here are a few recommendations for different audiences, depending on what you’re looking for.

 

If you want serious story:

cover.pngBogeyman (hypertext) is a story of children who have been taken away by the eponymous character as punishment for behaving badly. It’s a little simplistic to describe it as horror, because this is less a work about fear and more a work about moral queasiness, complicity, and responses to abusive power. It made me feel vaguely ill a good portion of the time — but despite how that might sound, this is a recommendation.

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Dead Man’s Fiesta (hypertext, on the dynamic fiction end of the spectrum) is the story of the after-effects of grief.

 

 

 

 

If you want evocative, illustrated story:

cover-1.pngÜrs is an illustrated hypertext piece about a rabbit who has to learn to manipulate the technology of the ancients in order to save their warren. The art is really good: beautiful, stylish illustrations for every location that manage to communicate the functionality of the technology, the wonder of the setting, and the viewpoint of the rabbit (along with a little Watership Down flavor) all at once. It’s very mildly puzzle-y in a way that I think most people will find easy to solve, but that component gives the story a bit of body and some agency for the player.

 

If you want playful story:

cover-2.pngRe: Dragon (hypertext/fake email interface, executed with Inform and Vorple). Though framed as a meta-piece about the IF Competition, the piece swiftly becomes a charming and well implemented comedic fantasy. This game included some of my favorite turns of phrase in the competition. There is a cocktail recipe that looks pretty good, frankly, though you might have to omit the unicorn sparkles.

 

 

If you want something reminiscent of a Choose Your Own Adventure or gamebook:

cover.pngWithin a Circle of Water and Sand is an attractively illustrated story of a Polynesian girl who has undertaken an adulthood ritual that requires her to visit other islands. The setting is unusual for IF — Aotearoa is vaguely reminiscent but is told from the point of view of a white visitor, for instance. Structurally, this is a bit of a gauntlet: there are many ways to die suddenly and relatively few ways to manage the final ordeal, and you’ll likely need to replay several times in order to build the necessary understanding of the world. There’s a lot of text between choice points, as well — but as you replay, you’ll likely stop reading those closely and move towards a more mechanical traversal.

 

If you like a story/puzzle balance:

magpie.jpegAlias ‘The Magpie’ (parser-based) sees you playing a gentleman thief infiltrating a manor to acquire a priceless artifact. It’s Wodehouse-y farce with one ridiculous scenario piling on another, complete with implausible disguises and unreasonable excuses. As a nice bonus, it comes with stylish virtual feelies and a map of the estate you need to rob. The game does depict mental illness in a pretty unrealistic way for comedic effect; if this is a concern for you, that’s something to be aware of.

cover.pngErstwhile (hypertext) is a murder mystery in which you’re trying to solve the question of your own death, from beyond the grave. As you explore the testimony of the suspects, you’ll build up an inventory of clues and topics, which you can link together to discover new evidence.

 

 

If you’re interested most of all in the texture of language and interactive poetry:

cover.jpgTohu wa Bohu is both puzzleless and storyless, a piece that explores particular ways of thinking and states of mind. Built in Texture, it asks the player to pay close attention to the individual words, and to changing words as a representation of changing thought. Very formally experimental.

 

 

If you mainly want puzzles:

showimage.jpgJunior Arithmancer is your bet for mathematical puzzling. None of the mathematical operations are more difficult than you’d see in a pre-algebra course — there’s some square root-taking, and that’s about it — but some of the challenges require a bit of thought in how you string the operations together. Written by Mike Spivey, who contributed last year’s excellent A Beauty Cold and Austere.

 

showimage.pngAilihphilia is a workout for fans of palindrome-based wordplay. It’s the work of prolific wordplay game creator Andrew Schultz, so if you’re already familiar with his work, you’ll probably have a good sense of whether you’ll enjoy it.

 

 

cover.pngTemple of Shorgil, meanwhile, is an Arthur DiBianca game — this too is becoming something of a brand. DiBianca’s work often has a very light fiction wrapper, gameplay that relies on 2-5 core verbs, with brainteasers around maths, timing, sequencing, and understanding symbolic references. The Temple of Shorgil’s premise is that you’re exploring an ancient temple full of tricky puzzles, as ancient temples always are in Indiana Jones/Infidel-style fiction. Wall paintings and snippets of legend provide additional clues. This was a bit smaller and more focused in design than DiBianca’s earlier comp game Inside the Facility, but both games involve exploring a gridded map in quite a systematic way.

 

If you’re a fan of superheroes with silly powers:

cover-1.pngThe Origin of Madame Time (parser-based) is a sequel to last year’s The Owl Consults: there are a bunch of characters with strange powers, but they’ve all been frozen in time, and you need to rush around dealing with a crisis-in-progress, sometimes drawing on the abilities of these characters in various ways. Solidly constructed, not terribly difficult.

 

If you’re really feeling it being 2018:

There were several games in this comp (Bi Lines, A Woman’s Choice, Ostrich, Careless Talk) that in some way or other address currents of incipient fascism, government oppression, the possibility of fighting back, and the treatment of women at the hands of men. I didn’t play all of these, but we did play Ostrich in the London IF Meetup; I think that was an ideal context to experience. The satirical aspects were broad, but that played pretty well in a group experience.