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.

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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Choice of Magics (Kevin Gold / Choice of Games)

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Choice of Magics is work from the author of Choice of Robots, one of Choice of Games’ most successful commercial projects. Choice of Robots was appealing to players for a number of reasons, especially the scope of the possibilities available to you and the sheer size of the project. It delivered a sense of narrative agency that a lot of Choice of Games’ audience really responded to. (Gold also wrote Choice of Alexandria, a smaller and more constrained story.)

Choice of Magics is in a similar mold to Choice of Robots: very large, at over half a million words, with room to customize your style of magic and confront different final challenges depending on how your story has developed so far. The story positions itself at that scale, too — the very first page lays out an absolute mass of background information about the current and previous state of the world, which most fantasy novels would be more likely to introduce gradually over the initial chapter or so.

The game also gives you the option of explicitly noting whenever you’re gaining and losing stats, right inline with the rest of the narration. And the stats page has been enhanced, with some special icons and more content than the average CoG stats page, including a journal of major plot points you’ve encountered — again, to help the reader track the game’s extensive machinery.

This foregrounding of mechanics carries through into the rest of the fiction as well. The story needs to rapidly introduce the five major schools of magic, so it runs you through an adventure scenario that teaches you about each in sequence, surprisingly rapidly.

Several of the world-building choices are quite tropey, which makes them generic but easy to communicate to the player in a hurry: there was a lost ancient civilization, they knew various magics, the magics are currently outlawed but you find your way to the ancient academy where you can recover tools and documents which are written in a muddle of Latin, Greek, and old versions of romance languages — played more for humor than for cultural resonance. At the same time, these ancients were also not so very different from modern people and had magical pseudo-airplanes and microwaves. It’s not quite the Great Underground Empire, but it has something of the same flavor.

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The Red Strings Club (Deconstructeam) and Minigame Conversation

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The Red Strings Club is a cyberpunk narrative experience about fate and happiness featuring the extensive use of pottery, bartending and impersonating people on the phone to take down a corporate conspiracy.

The Red Strings Club was recommended to me by a reader who explained that this was a game that used mixology as its conversation interface. If you want someone to talk to you, you make them a cocktail.

That does really sound like my kind of thing, I have to admit. I have written multiple prototype games, all of them sadly occupying dusty corners of my hard drive, that were based on some variation of “you have to mix evocatively-described liquids together in order to elicit information.” In one, it was a form of scrying with magical ingredients. In another, you were going to custom mix perfumes for yourself to wear to social events in order to subtly influence the conversation of the nobles around you. In a third, your choice of how to weight components in the mixture was going to drive the probabilities in generated descriptive text, so if you used a lot of one liquid you might become more perceptive about physical qualities, or a lot of another liquid would reveal memories.

None of these projects ever got finished. The perfumes one didn’t get further than an “oh I think I see how I’d do that” level of spec. But what appealed to me was a combination of challenge, physicality, and expressiveness

The challenge would have to do with the mixing rules: you might find that the ideal potion to scry out the murderer was one requiring ingredients that reacted horribly together, and you’d need to find a way to mix them safely.

The expressiveness would arise from the fact that you’re combining several elements into a single choice, and they could carry different axes of information. Imagine a perfume in which the top and heart notes express the noun and verb of action, the “what are you doing” portion of the command, while the base note expresses how you feel about it, a touch of protagonist characterization. Patchouli for the earnest, unguarded, irony-free. Sandalwood if you’re old enough to know better but not quite old enough to be genuinely subtle. Myrrh for bitterness. Vetiver for an inscrutable smirk.

It’s too rare in games that we’re allowed to say whether we take an action eagerly, or joyfully, or with reservations, or because we can think of no alternative.

Anyway. That is a very long preamble to say: that is not how The Red Strings Club works at all.

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Write Worlds Your Readers Won’t Forget (Stant Litore)

51v0a2EYVGL.jpgI’ve written already about some of the world building books I’ve worked with in the past. Stant Litore‘s Write Worlds Your Readers Won’t Forget is relatively new — published late 2017. It’s not a game writing book specifically, but is meant for anyone in the speculative fiction space. It’s also quite compact, about a hundred and fifty pages, and meant to be used, with a sequence of exercises for the reader. More than that, even though it’s a book about world-building, it’s focused on the plot and character implications of what you’re doing:

This book treats worldbuilding as a process for conflict and exerting pressures on your characters. Unforgettable characters live unforgettable stories that are made necessary and possible by unforgettable worlds they are trying to survive and thrive in.

So though this is a book for writers and not for interactivity, it’s bringing in some of the same worldbuilding motives as a tabletop game like Downfall.

In addition, Litore immediately identifies two approaches to worldbuilding: the Tolkien approach, where you start at the ground level in some particular area. And he correctly points out that this is even more difficult than most people give credit for:

It is theoretically possible for you to create an unforgettable imaginary world in the same way that JRR Tolkien did if you have an advanced education or deep training in one particular field relevant to worldbuilding, plus an inquisitive mind that is always asking questions about how your area of expertise informs and is informed by others. For example, if you are a gifted economist, you might begin building a world from the ground up if you start by designing a unique and detailed, though fictional economy…  This kind of deep dive is rare because it requires more than just a “research phase” to inform a novel or screenplay. It relies on committed, dedicated expertise and conversation with other experts in that area of knowledge.

I found that pretty interesting because of my own interest in the idea of research art — but also a strong argument for why not all worldbuilding on all projects needs to go the Tolkien route. And certainly most of mine doesn’t.

Instead, Litore recommends the approach of inserting an importantly different detail in each of three areas: the physical conditions of a world and the requirements of surviving there; the biology and the creatures who live there; and the culture that persists there. He then devotes several chapters to unpacking each of these techniques.

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