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…
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)
Santa Carcossa Nights comes from the mind of Bitter Karella, who recently gave us IFComp 2018’s well-received Basilica de Sangre. Like Basilica, Santa 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)
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)
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.