IF Comp Post-Mortems

Now that some time has elapsed since 2018 IF Comp has closed, a number of authors have followed up with post-mortems (and in some cases, there have also been a few game updates based on player feedback).

This is a tradition that has grown up over the past couple of years, and one that I really like: these posts in aggregate represent a pretty broad picture of the thinking around IF design and development at the moment, and one often hears from authors who don’t otherwise blog about their craft.

IF Comp saw a high number of entries, and there’s a lot to look at in the post–mortems.  In fact, there’s more than I personally could track, but with the help of my new blog assistant (“Mort”), we’ve done a little curation on posts to call out some interesting content and sort them by subject covered.

Just as a reminder, these all link to posts that are riddled with spoilers, so consider this your warning on that score.

Presentation & User Experience These post-mortems shed particular light on questions regarding user interface, design, and what the game would be like for the player.

Instruction Set (Jared Jackson). Jared wrote his entry with Scratch, which is fairly extraordinary given how very much Scratch is not a language designed for text presentation. The post-mortem explains a bit about why he took that approach, and what he learned from coming into IF Comp from a non-traditional direction using a different set of tools.

Abbess Otilia’s Life and Death (Arno von Borries). This piece invested heavily in presenting something that looked like a medieval manuscript, but that raised challenges and some players complained about readability. The post-mortem looks at the implementation challenges and trade-offs between readability and historical accuracy.

showimage.pngBogeyman (Elizabeth Smyth) “The nature of those weekly life-or-death decisions remains at the core of the game. It’s the only choice you really get to make: good vs “good”; conscience vs authority; defiance vs submission; integrity vs survival. Almost every major choice is designed around that conflict.”

The 2018 runner-up Bogeyman has a wonderfully detailed post-mortem that delves into concept, design, character, and the Bogeyman himself.  In the end, though, these elements were created in service to the choices in front of the player/character, as Elizabeth Smyth produced a game straightforward in its design, but emotionally resonant for those who experienced it.

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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.

Counterfeit Monkey (Release 8)

Cover.pngCounterfeit Monkey is now being maintained as an open source, community project, with Petter Sjölund spearheading the effort. Thanks to Petter and the rest of the team, it has just had its latest update with Release 8, available here.  This version fixes various bugs discovered since the last release, which came out about a year ago.  Thanks to Damien Neil, Dan Brown, Ian Kelly, Lauren Brazier, and Michael Gundlach for reporting bugs!  And special thanks to Dannii Willis and Andrew Plotkin.

There’s a link to the complete change log for those who are curious, but a quick summary is below.

Among the most important changes:

  • Fixes a hang that would occur on some interpreters when resizing the game window or clicking on the compass rose while being asked to reply yes or no.
  • Fixes a bug where the game would use the achievements from the save file rather than the external monkeyac file after restoring, This meant that a save game from a different session, such as from another interpreter or computer, would award you the achievements from that session. Achievements are now properly reloaded from the monkeyac file after a restore.
  • Works around a bug where the player could get stuck after showing the pass to the secretary.
  • No longer awards achievements upon dying that were meant to be awarded when finishing the game.
  • Makes all player input case-insensitive.
  • Fixes a bug where restoring a save game from an interpreter without support for graphics would break the map display on an interpreter which supports graphics.
  • Adds a massive pug.

 

Counterfeit Monkey is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 license.

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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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.