Guest Review: Three Games from Ectocomp

The following reviews are from an anonymous-by-request friend who played a number of games from Ectocomp, had a good time with the judging, but didn’t have a good venue for posting his own responses. I invited him to share some reviews of his favorites here. His background is mostly in film and theatre rather than interactive media.  Without further ado…

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Disclaimer: I know Emily Short, but I’m not a game designer or programmer.  I have no games entered into this competition, and my opinions are my own, not Emily’s.

Ectocomp 2018 has just a couple days left before the judging ends!  Here are a few that I particularly enjoyed:

Santa Carcossa Nights (Bitter Karella)

f%2FCc1O.pngSanta Carcossa Nights comes from the mind of Bitter Karella, who recently gave us IFComp 2018’s well-received Basilica de Sangre.  Like BasilicaSanta Carcossa Nights is written using Quest as its authoring system.  It’s a short-ish horror-adventure (gameplay should take about ninety minutes) consisting primarily of exploring and a few puzzles.

I have to admit almost didn’t give this a try, for purely practical purposes.  I was using the itch.io app to play my Ectocomp games, but Santa Carcossa Nights was listed as Windows-compatible only, and I wasn’t going get very far by downloading it onto my MacBook.  Fortunately, the game’s comments section revealed a link to the browser version, which I recommend for Mac users, (with the added suggestion to go ahead and create the free account so you can save your progress.)

I’m happy I didn’t let myself be deterred.  Santa Carcossa Nights is good fun.  It has a bit of a late 1980’s aesthetic and feels a bit like going back into the past, containing ingredients that are reminiscent of classic adventures like Wishbringer or Zork.  You spend your time wandering around a strange town, discovering objects on one side of the map that unlock pieces on the other, while the horror element is constantly bubbling just underneath the surface (but not coming to its fruition until the very end).

Something I really appreciated here: Karella’s user interface has a control panel that allows the player to take stock of inventory, or to see the current room’s potential interactions with objects or other characters.  Additionally, a quick look at the game’s compass reveals all the directions one can go (that’s a godsend for us visual-learner-types).  Often a command can be given in multiple ways: by clicking on an option from the control panel, by clicking the bolded text itself, or by typing it into the parser.  The multiple avenues for gathering info and giving commands makes the game easier to navigate and less likely to hit a snag.

There are a few parts where the game does need a little fixing up.  I had several instances where examining an object immediately after “taking” it wound up returning the object to its point of origin.  In one case I walked halfway across town before I realized that an object I thought I had wasn’t with me any more (though to be fair, I’ve also done this in real life).

But these are minor quibbles.  The game is engaging, and if anything, it is over too quickly.  At the end I found myself wishing there were more (always a good sign).  There were only five reviews when I started this game, which is a shame –– it deserves more attention, and hopefully a few more players will check it out before the competition wraps up.

 

Wretch! (Josh Labelle)

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This was my first time playing anything by Josh Labelle, who has taken the basic premise of Frankenstein and brought it to a modern setting, with the player making choices from the point-of-view of the “monster.”  As you awaken in your stitched-together form, you are also sorting out memories from past lives.  Next you try to figure out your place in the land of the living, first in the home of the scientist that brought you back, and later in the outside world.

The Twine format is simple and user friendly.  Occasionally a choice will appear that you can’t yet click on because pre-conditions have not been met.  When this happens, the choice is rendered as a heavily blurred line of text, so you can guess at what it is you might need to do next.  The result is that the game gives you a hint as to the right direction – but doesn’t tell you exactly how to get there.

All in all, this is a charming game that is “horror” only in regard to its ingredients.  The structure, at least in the story I played, feels much more like a comedy of manners, with the monster awkwardly trying to talk to kids or blend into normal social interactions.  I can’t help but feel that there may be more here that the author didn’t have time to write before the game needed to be entered into the contest.  It’s not that it feels unfinished, but there’s potential here for something fuller (if he wanted to expand on it.)

As it is, I was engaged from start to finish, and am hoping we see more of Labelle’s work in the future.

 

Death By Powerpoint (Jack Welch)

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I most recently encountered Jack Welch’s work in the 2018 IFComp’s re: Dragon, a meta-story referencing the competition itself, and an imagined response to actual games from the previous year.  The result was light-hearted and hilarious.

Death by Powerpoint is not that.  It is considerably bleaker, at least it seems so at first.  After the first ten minutes, I began to feel as though I were watching David Lynch’s version of Office Space, as Welch gleefully piles on surreal imagery and then blends it up with ample helpings of all-too-familiar corporate-life banality.  The effect is unexpected and captivating.

Of course, it helps that Welch is an excellent writer.  I can imagine this falling flat in the hands of a less capable prose stylist.  Part of that lies in the game’s design: Death by Powerpoint feels less like a game than it does a short work of fiction.  Many of the choices one makes are revealed to be little side-plots that lead right back to the point of departure.  Indeed, navigating gameplay here is like being lost in an unfamiliar suburban neighborhood full of dead-ends and cul-de-sacs.  In the end, you keep running in little circles until there seems to be only one way out.

Of course, perhaps I’m wrong and there are some divergent endings… but I played through the game a few times and always got to the same endpoint (my paths getting there were wildly different, though).

What makes the game ultimately rewarding is the gradual revelation of the underlying reasons for the bizarre experiences you’re having.  The journey, in this case, is largely internal, and the “horror” element is more existential/philosophical than anything grotesque or spooky.

I can easily see this game being frustrating or confusing if the player is expecting something else… though perhaps that’s part of the point.  But I found myself thinking about this game for some time after I had played it through.  If you like having your expectations messed with a bit, give it a try.

Guest Review: Three Games from IFComp

The following reviews are from an anonymous-by-request friend who played a number of games from IFComp, had a good time with the judging, but didn’t have a good venue for posting his own responses. I invited him to share some reviews of his favorites here. His background is mostly in film and theatre rather than interactive media, and he was drawn to several of the choice-based games. Without further ado…

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Disclaimer: I know Emily Short, but I’m not a game designer or programmer.  Neither I nor anyone I know (that I’m aware of) has games entered into this competition.  

This was my first time reviewing anything from IF Comp, so I’m looking at it from the standpoint of a relative newcomer.  As such, my opinions are obviously my own, not Emily Short’s.

There are quite a few games in this year’s competition – seventy-seven in total –  of which I played about thirty.  What really leapt out at me was the sheer variety of gameplay experience.  Let’s Rob a Bank, for instance, was stupidly fun but over so quickly that I felt I hadn’t really gotten the full value until I’d played it multiple times (which I was happy to do.)  On the opposite end of the spectrum, Cannery Vale, with its sophisticated interface and immersive story, was much more involved, and was a standout as far as shaping the player’s adventure.

Here are three I really liked, in no particular order:

 

Animalia (Ian Michael Waddell)cover.png

To be honest, I wasn’t really expecting much with this one, based solely on my reaction to reading the blurb.  (Blurbs can be tricky.  Sometimes they’ll capture the basic premise of a piece, but they won’t communicate the tone.  This was the case here.)  Animalia’s description mentioned it was a 30-minute game.  I figured it would be a simple, paint-by-numbers animal adventure…

…so I was completely unprepared for Waddell’s off-the-wall humor and the remarkable variation of storylines contained inside. 

Animalia kicks off with an emergency gathering of woodland creatures.  The annual offering to the Forest God has backfired, putting the forest at risk for human incursion.  During the opening chaos we learn that the animals’ offering was, in fact, a nine-year-old human child (!) named Charlie.  It seems like this ritual is all fairly routine for the cuddly little murderers, but this time their child sacrifice has been getting obnoxious texts from his worried mother, who has tracked his GPS location.  Now the entire forest is in an uproar over the inevitable search-and-rescue that will bring a deluge of humans.

The critters’ solution to this disaster?  Stage an elaborate cover-up, obviously.

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Mailbag: AI Research on Dialogue and Story Generation

I’m curious: do you follow much research that happens in stories and dialog these days? In the world of machine learning research, there’s much less in dialog and stories than other areas (e.g. image generation/recognition or translation), but once in a while, you come across some interesting work, e.g. Hierarchical Neural Story Generation (by some folks in Facebook AI).

For some years now I’ve followed work coming out of the UCSC Expressive Intelligence Studio; work done at Georgia Tech around crowdsourced narrative generation; game industry applications introduced or covered at the GDC AI Summit (though it is rarer to see extensive story-generation work here). I’ve also served on the program committees for ICCC and ICIDS and a few FDG workshops; and am an associate editor on IEEE Transactions on Games focused on interactive storytelling applications. Here (1, 2, 3) is my multi-part post covering the book Interactive Digital Narrative in detail.

That’s not to say I see (or could see) everything that’s happening. I tend to focus on things that look most ready to be used in games, entertainment, or chatbot applications — especially those that are designed to support a partially human-authored experience. I also divide my available “research” time between academic work and hands on experiments in areas that interest me.

So with that perspective in mind:

  • I’m not attempting a comprehensive literature review here! That would be huge. This coverage cherrypicks items
  • I will go pretty lightly on the technical detail since the typical readership of this blog may not be that interested, but I’ll try to provide summary and example information that explains why a given item is interesting in my opinion, and then link back to the original research for people who want the deeper dive
  • I’ll actually start by summarizing a bit the paper the questioner linked
  • Even with cherrypicking, there is a lot to say here and I am breaking it out over multiple posts

That Initial Paper

For other readers: the linked article in this question is about using a large dataset pulled from Reddit’s WritingPrompts board and a machine learning model that draws on multiple techniques (convolutional seq2seq, gated self-attention). After training, the system is able to take short prompts and create a paragraph or so of story that relates to the prompt. Several of the sample output sections are quite cool:

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But they are generating surface text rather than plot, and the evidence suggests that they would not be able to produce a coherent long-term plot. Just within this dialogue section, we’re talking about a tablet-virus-monster object, and we’ve got a couple of random scientist characters.

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Mailbag: Deep Conversation

This one was a follow-up question to the asker wondering whether Blood & Laurels was still available anywhere. (It isn’t.)

If there are any other games (IF or otherwise) that you’d recommend for deeper conversational experiences, I’d love to hear about those… I have a rather broad set of interests there, so anything you find especially exciting, new or odd would be great to hear about, especially where conversation is at the center of the game.

…right, okay. Well, that’s quite a broad field, but here are some possibilities, preferring more recent games (though interesting conversation games go back for quite a while).

Exploration-focused Dialogue

Parser-based conversation games are often designed to let the player explore concepts that interest them, treating the non-player character like a big encyclopedia rather than a goal-oriented partner in dialogue. That tradition goes back — well, back to the 80s, really, since Infocom’s murder mysteries allowed you to ask characters about important subjects and clues.

A few more recent examples that are either carry some of this concept over to a different interface or allow a different spin on it:

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Subsurface Circular (above) and Quarantine Circular are both primarily conversation games. Subsurface Circular has some embedded puzzles in the dialogue, including puzzles around manipulating emotional states and the knowledge of both the PC and other characters. As you find out new things, you gain “focus points”, an inventory of topics that you can introduce into conversation.

Speaking of manipulating emotional states, that’s really the primary approach in The Red Strings Club: you mix drinks for NPCs to affect their emotional status, then ask dialogue-tree questions.

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