IF Comp 2016 Roundup

Most of my IF Comp reactions have turned up at at Rock Paper Shotgun, or will do so soon; a few others have appeared in essay form on this site.

I didn’t cover all fifty-eight games. However, I did play at least some of every game, and I have some thoughts and recommendations about the comp as a whole, as well as a players’ guide to some of the common tropes and interest points.

There are no real spoilers below, but if you want to avoid any knowledge about the games before playing them, you may want to skip this discussion until later.

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Small-Scale Structures in CYOA

Over the last few years the IF community has become more systematic about how we talk about structure in branching choice-based narrative. Sam Kabo Ashwell’s Standard Patterns in Choice-based Games is a go-to article defining some useful terms; it pairs well with Choice of Games’ article on how to use stats to create long-term consequence without combinatorial explosion, and Jon Ingold’s talk on inkle processes at GDC 2015.

A lot of that conversation revolves around the shape of the whole plot, or at least whole chapters, though; so I wanted here to talk briefly about some structures that I find really useful at the smaller scale.

screen-shot-2016-11-05-at-10-19-11-amConfirmation-required Choice. One of the things Jon talks about sometimes is the use of text to let the player opt in to doing something profoundly stupid, through a series of escalating choices. Are you sure you want to do this? It looks like the monster is getting angrier. Are you still sure you want to attack? Yes? You notice that the monster’s bite is poisonous. Are you going to attack now?

Once the player has opted in multiple times, it’s really on their own head if they wind up in a situation with a combat roll that wipes them out. This expands what would otherwise be a binary decision into an experience with more tension; it also tends to work well in cases where there’s one dangerous-but-interesting option and one safe-but-bland option.

How to enhance with stats: count how long the player sticks to the risky path before giving up (if they give up). Use this later as a metric of their commitment to the dangerous cause, and/or their recklessness.

screen-shot-2016-11-05-at-10-59-04-amTrack Switching Choice. A variant on the Confirmation-required choice is one where the player is allowed to change their mind in either direction for several beats. Later beats might introduce some potential drawbacks and warnings about whatever track the player is currently pursuing. Like the confirmation-required choice, this is a way to give some extra weight to a decision and emulate a situation where the protagonist might be genuinely conflicted about what to do next.

How to enhance with stats: track how often the player chose the outcome they ultimately landed on, vs. another option. Use this later as a metric of their commitment to a cause, or their willingness to change their mind about things.

Scored Choice. In the track switching choice, we hold the player to their final selection, whatever that might be. With the same basic structure, we could also score how many times the player chose one way vs. the other, and then use their top score to determine the outcome. The track switching choice often works well when there’s a single tough decision in the story; the scored choice is a good fit for a montage of related choices. For instance, if the player is choosing between a career-enhancing move or staying with a romantic partner, we might have a series of small decisions that test their commitment to one option or the other. (This strategy pretty much requires stats.)

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ECTOCOMP 2016

Ectocomp is a yearly competition for Halloween-themed IF. There are two subsections, one for games that were written in three hours or less, and one for authors who wanted to take longer. That three hour rule gives a sense of the casualness level of this competition: it’s kind of a mental break from the much heavier-duty, on-going IF Comp. Still, there’s quite a lot in this year’s competition — 16 entries in the speed-IF category, and 5 in the unlimited-time category.

A couple of highlights from the things I’ve had time to try so far:

psychomanteumPsychomanteum (Hanon Ondricek)

On a dare, you are forced to spend some time alone in a dark room with mirrors. Which should not be inherently horrible, right? Besides, you have matches, and a safeword. But I’ll say this: I wound up having the protagonist use the safeword the first time through, because I was pretty sure they were too freaked out to stay and see how much worse things were going to get. Then I went back and played it to the other ending. An unnerving experiential game. It’s not exactly puzzle-y, but the parser aspect of it works really well, because there were several points where I wasn’t sure whether to WAIT or try to take an action, and that ambiguity is spot-on for the content. If you can, play with the sound on: the soundtrack also helps a lot.

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End of October Link Assortment

November 5, the SF Bay Area IF group has its meetup.

IF Comp voting wraps up November 15.

November 16, Boston/Cambridge: the next meeting of the People’s Republic of IF.

I’ve been talking this up for a while, but the weekend of November 19/20 is a double treat for IF and word game enthusiasts in London: the 19th is the one-day WordPlay event held at the British Library, and the 20th will see IF-related content featured at AdventureX. I’ll be talking about the history and future of IF at AdventureX. Various IF folks will be in town especially for the occasion.

New releases

In addition to the IF Comp games, this time of year brings Ectocomp, a competition for short Halloween-themed games. Some of these have been written very quickly (in a 3-hour time period) and others get a little more time for development, but they’re usually in the short-short category.

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The Seers Catalogue is a surreal, moderately fantastical hypertext piece: at times it reminded me of the old Avengers TV show, the one with Diana Rigg. It’s illustrated and supported with music, and the production values are high, if odd, throughout. I reached what I thought was the end, but it seemed to loop. There were a few differences in the second pass. Had I not finished after all? I am not sure, but the second pass was so repetitive that ultimately I decided the first pass was enough.

Main Course is a new, free text adventure from Quantum Sheep where you play an alien trapped aboard a space ship.

Choice of Games has a new game on Steam: Congresswolf:

Is the next member of Congress a werewolf? Can you survive a lycanthrope’s bite? There’s no silver bullet for winning an election!

On Sub-Q from Veve Jaffa, there’s Which Passover Plague are You?, a piece that falls somewhere between short story, job interview, and personality quiz. It’s a bit less serious than Tenth Plague. This piece slightly fell between two stools for me — longer than strictly necessary as a joke, but without as much of a focused point as I might have expected from a deeper story… but your mileage may vary. I turned out to be the Plague of Frogs, which is accurate about the quality of my singing voice at the very least.

This is no longer a really new release, but I’ve accumulated a bit of a backlog of press releases and game announcement emails. Silence! The Elder Speaks describes itself as

a choice-driven narrative adventure about an aging shaman, an isolated forest village, honey fetishism, unforeseen consequences, and unrequited inter-species love.

and while I haven’t had a chance to try it out yet, can you really go wrong with honey fetishism?

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Venom, Beeswax, Fallen 落葉 Leaves

Having come up with an idiosyncratic terminology (Venom, Beeswax, Mushroom, Salt and Egg) for talking about some aesthetic aspects of procedural literature that matter to me, I now find myself reverting to the same terminology even when talking about other people’s work.

Fallen 落葉 Leaves is a procedurally generated poetry cycle in this year’s IF Comp. It draws on sample texts from Confucian poetry, and combines them and other elements densely, producing couplets with a great deal of strangeness per line. In my terms, it’s therefore heavily applying the principles of Venom (particularity, color, surprise) and Beeswax (varied, allusive, culturally rich source material).

The effect is indeed a bit like reading the translation of something whose metaphors, idioms, and cultural references are outside one’s personal ken:

800px-Shi_Jing.jpg

Some phrases sampled from the Shījīng (詩經),
the Confucian Book of Songs, the Classic of Poetry,
as translated by Arthur Waley. — author’s note for Fallen 落葉 Leaves

To start, you select an adverb from a menu and a verb from another menu; then a poem is generated in couplets, with your adverb and verb plugged into one of the couplets. You may repeat this loop as many times as you like, your adverb and verb changing the contents of the cycle overtly and perhaps also in more subtle ways. The author suggests that a hundred or more moves might be appropriate, and that one might want to pull out specific couplets. Looking at the source code reveals that there are many variables being tracked, perhaps iteratively across repeated builds of the poem.

Because the phrases are so allusive, it is not always easy to extract even a notional meaning from them. More often, I found that I could come up with something but that it was a general rather than a precise interpretation:

You sniff oil — writing home about our walks on the terrace —
Your sailing moon, your arrival — sing my pulse.

The first line is easy enough to imagine: the correspondent stopping mid-letter to breathe in the scent of a perfumed oil, possibly. “Your sailing moon, your arrival” perhaps refer to the time when the lover is to set out and rejoin the poet; “sing my pulse” indicates, presumably, that the poet’s life and heartbeat are in some way responsive to the lover’s movements, or else described by them.

Taken as a whole, though, across multiple sonnets, the experience becomes suddenly Mushroomy: overtly repetitive and generative, not concealing how much it is the result of mechanical operation. The grammar that generates sonnets seems to hit the same major points in each couplet, with allusions to erotic time the lovers spent together in the middle, and then a disagreement (with the player’s adverb/verb choice) toward the end, and the lover departing. (Sometimes on a “well-dressed horse,” which I thought was particularly good.)

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Games on hard topics; TAKE

cover.pngLast night I gave a talk in Vienna at the Subotron arcademy series — an invited talks series aimed at the indie game dev community in the area, taking on matters of art, craft, and politics. Previous speakers have included Meg Jayanth on the narrative of 80 Days, and Marie Foulston on curating video games for the V&A, among others.

I was talking about sex, intimacy, and non-sexual but emotionally intense elements in games; about how fiction gives us enough distance to be able to handle these topics, but how interactivity makes it harder again.

I talked about some of my own games in this area, and also about some games by other people: the emotional brutality of That Dragon, Cancer; the curious partial invitation to intimacy in 36 Questions; the way 18 Cadence invites the reader to pick out themes they find resonant.

And I spent several minutes talking about TAKE, Amelia Pinnolla’s game for this year’s IF Comp, because it is dealing with all of those topics — sex, trust, intimacy, revelation, the vulnerability of the author.

As far as I can tell, even a lot of people who liked TAKE didn’t completely get it. The biggest weakness of the piece is that it doesn’t guarantee that the reader will get what’s going on, because it’s otherwise pretty amazing; and in many cases what it’s saying would be very painful reading if presented without some layers of indirection.

So I want to talk about all that. This will be spoilery: proceed at your own risk.

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