Showing posts with label game reviews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label game reviews. Show all posts

Monday, 2 October 2017

IFComp 2017 review: The Living Puppet by Xiao Lin (web browser)


The Living Puppet is a creepy and classically styled horror IF about a pupeteer’s mysterious relationship with the doll that is the sole source of income for he and his wife Li Shaoxian. It’s delivered in a web browser as long passages of click-scrolling text broken up by several major decision branches that the player can choose for Shaoxian. I downloaded it to play it because the ‘Play Online’ button wasn’t working at the time and I’ve written the IFComp organiser about this issue. I played Puppet several times to different outcomes in 40 minutes. I enjoyed the game and recommend it generally, and to horror folks specifically, accepting that a couple of its presentation choices may be too irritating for some players. The game sports horror themes and one explicitly violent scene.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

IFComp 2016: "Whoops!". And other updates.

"Whoops!"

My plan to start reviewing IFComp games in a more targeted fashion was obviously a great one. The problem was it immediately fell down when I passed what time I’d hoped to spend on it to action in the categories of music and ‘life stuff’.

In retrospect, it was dumb of me to start out reviewing in a random order when there were so many entries in the comp. A moment’s planning would have made me realise I’d no chance of getting far into the catalogue overall. The trouble is, reviewing at random is really fun. I remember that from the years when circumstances allowed me to review everything (or close to it) to a certain personal standard, and in a mostly random order dictated by the IFComp site.

Maybe I just won’t be able to do that again, especially if the number of entries continues to rise. So I think I need to say to myself, ‘Right, I’ve had that particular fun in the past, I don’t need to try to recreate it,’ and change to a more targeted reviewing tack next time I come at this.

So, congratulations to Robin Johnson for winning with Detectiveland, and then to all the other entrants for everything else. Also, I know a few people were keen for me to review their IF, and I didn't get to it. I will eventually, but just because it looked like I was probably going to get to it during the comp and I didn't, I'm sorry.

American Financial Restoration Sale

I eventually noticed there was this Black Friday sale thing going on in the USA. If I’d been more on the ball, I might have taken advantage and put Leadlight Gamma on sale again. Instead I was too sluggish on the uptake, so I think I’ll just wait ’til Christmas or something. This way I also get to say I’ve avoided participating in yet more cultural behaviour doled out by Americans.

Works in Progress

My CYOA Extension for Inform 7 has been coming along really well. I need some third party tech put in place before I'll be able to finish it.

I continue to gather notes for my mystery IF project. The phrase ‘mystery IF project’ makes it sound like I’ve talked about it in this blog before, but I haven’t. What is it? Not telling! Yet, anyway.

I’ve been getting annoyed at myself over the past year for losing too many good ideas for the project. When I say lose, I mean that I didn’t write them down or type them up at the moment I had them. I think my lack of vigilance came from the feeling that their graceless accumulation in a few text files was amounting to a disorganised idea splat for the future that would probably annoy me in the future. How would I sort, find or string together relevant bits from the splat? And there are different types of bits in there. Dialogue riffs, character ideas, incident ideas, structure ideas, etc.

In response to these note-organising problems, I downloaded and am trying out the writing software Scrivener. (Interjection: Holy crap, it's on sale for Black Friday! I must buy now! Buy Buy Buy!) I find it’s working well. It allows me to store all my notes, research materials and prose for a piece in a single document in ways that make it easy to index, connect and rearrange that material. I expect I will produce the text of the IF project in Scrivener and then port it into my CYOA extension. It turns out that I can actually make a pretty direct correlation between blobs of text in Scrivener and choice nodes in a game.

An incidental bonus is that using Scrivener is looking like a good way to write manuals, too, and I expect to have to write a manual for the CYOA extension. I may even be able to publish it directly as an e-book from Scrivener.

Monday, 17 October 2016

IFComp 2016: It's a third of the way through.

IFComp is about one third of the way through and I've reviewed one sixth of the entries. I started suddenly this year (ie no thoughts even the day before about reviewing entries) and defaulted to doing what I did the first time I reviewed IFComp, which was in mimicry of what everyone else was doing – trying to review everything. I review partially for all of me, authors and reviewing (judgement).

Reviewing everything used to be more doable because there were far fewer entries. Now there are almost 60, and pausing to take stock of what I'm doing, I think that continuing to adhere strictly to my randomised playlist and then just stopping suddenly when the comp ends with a big, randomly determined unplayed/unreviewed list remaining is not going to satisfy me. Aiming to be satisfied is a carrot that helps you keep reviewing at speed, especially in any kind of time fight.

So I'm going to break off the randomised list and prioritise playing and reviewing more things I expect I want to play and review. In reality this makes little difference to onlookers because they haven't seen my list and they don't know what I want to play and review. It probably favours returning entrants, since there are a lot of authors whose second+ game I want to check out because I liked something they did before.

Maybe it's more useful to list a few things I'm deprioritising or know I won't review:

  • Where someone entered two games and I know it's them because they didn't disguise themselves with more silly pseudonyms, I'll only review one, just to spread reviews around.
  • Steampunk games are deprioritised because I just don't like steampunk. I'm still interested in playing Felicity Banks's alt Australia game because I'm Australian, but I give no commitment right now. I promise nothing!
  • I'm not reviewing Rite of Passage because I helped test it, and re: Slicker City, as ASchultz is a friend of mine I'll probably hold on his game until after the comp.
  • I'm not interested in Manlandia. And I think I am probably not interested in This is My Memory… based on other reviews. But the latter is also short.

IFComp 2016 review: Tentaculon by Ned Vole

Here's a joke:

"I met Tentaculon today but we got off on the wrong foot."

The joke is only for people who know that the game Tentaculon contains squid-related material and that squid have eight tentacles, like octopuses.

I had to look up all of the following in order to make the joke:

  1. The number of tentacles a squid has.
  2. What's the plural of octopus?
  3. What's the plural of squid?

Because of the quality of the resulting joke (low) I feel in retrospect that I put too much time and effort into its creation, and then into writing about it. I apologise to the author of Tentaculon, whose game this is supposed to be a review of.

Tentaculon is a link-driven Twine game that initially appears to be an eat-or-be-eaten squid simulator. Its prose is keen, a bit gooey and very slightly uncomfortable-making as one cruises around trying to kill and eat stuff while not being subject to sudden spasmodic jerks at the same time. I admit I feared some kind of cheap game-ending blow to the back of my head was iminent, for instance a message saying 'HA! You killed to live! You lose!' – but this was unfair misapprehension on my part based on some past negative experiences.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

IFComp 2016 review: You are standing in a cave... by Caroline Berg... ! ... ?# ...!

You are standing in a cave... is a parser-driven adventure of perennial adventuring. Stuck in the title cave with only a random collection of stuff in your pockets, you, the viewpoint adventurer, must unstick yourself and escape. The environment is full of props and clues designed to speak tantalisingly to each other in the language of puzzles via your adventuring brain. The climbable, the ignitable, the combinable; they're all here.

This is plainly not a game for people who dislike puzzles. There will still be a dropout rate amongst people who do like puzzles based on either roughness of implementation or lack of upfront glamour / hookiness. Also, there's the issue that the game's title could as easily be read as a joke about the banality of some old adventure game as the unremarkable but straight-shooting meat and potato entity that it is. Though it is a more versatile statement than it first appears to be. Consider this existential juggernaut of a title: You are standing in a cave / You are dying in a sewer.

While cave's first room looks dull and prototypically cavey, things quickly become more involving if you give it a room or two.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

IFComp 2016 review: The Little Lifeform That Could... by Fade Manley

I thought I recognised the 'blob of goop evolves to starflight via all the stages inbetween' premise of Little Lifeform from somewhere. I've not played Spore but I've read about it, and that's the game. But I don't think Little is 'just' doing Spore via prose and the Choice Of Games engine. It has a particular aesthetic slant that is somewhat cute, somewhat dapper (hat-orientated) and generally encouraging. Simultaneously, it seeks to avoid throwing any eggs into particular baskets of peril. It presents a version of the universe that equalises all paths. Frankly this is not something I am used to, and in some bizarre way, I found it a little sinister. The most violent way through life turns out to be as good as the most arty, which is as good as the most capitalistic or the most dapper. That said, I don't think my subtextual reaction is worthy of any great dark spin. The goal of the game is obviously to let you play any way you want, give you a corresponding experience via its cute aesthetic, and allow your way to work. Then, if you like, you can try another way and see what humourous take the game offers on contrasting modes of behaviour.

Your stats in categories like Charm, Defensiveness and Patience are tracked, checkable at any time, and don't seem to lie, though I found the game's ultimate prose assessment of some of my performances a little off (one said I'd leaned on trade when all I remember doing was being the greatest artist and aesthete in the whole universe.) The game is otherwise pretty perfect at what it does, and it's charmingly written. I just missed having some emphases somewhere, because that's how I've always liked my games.

The Little Lifeform that could is certainly not the amoral spectacle of violent death in an uncaring universe that it could have been.

Or is it?..

No, it isn't.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

IFComp 2016 review: Aether Apeiron: The Zephyra Chronicles. Book I: The Departure --- Part I: Prelude to Our Final Days on Kyzikos by Hippodamus & Company

(I wrote this on an iPad over a few days while on holiday on an island where I occasionally had 1G/GPRS, and no signal the rest of the time. It made me glad that good old text-based IF requires very little bandwidth to function.)

Aether Apeiron: The Zephyra Chronicles. Book I: The Departure --- Part I: Prelude to Our Final Days on Kyzikos is an extraordinarily long title for a game, or for anything else. Its multiple clauses of descending magnitude promise tons of episodes, galactic-scaled adventuring, locally-scaled adventuring, sci-fi societal sculpting, a cast of thousands (or at least dozens) and the highly agreeable portentousness of prolonged high fantasy. This is a set of promises no single IFComp entry can keep within the context of its IFComp; the two hour rule makes that physically impossible. Folks can, have and will continue to use IFComp to introduce punters to their big multi-part IFs, and I expect a cross-section of judges will continue to be bemused by these introductions – some of which end in really weird places – as they try to interpret them as standalone experiences for scoring purposes, and regardless of whether or not the judges want to play more of them.

Aether is one of those introductory games that ends in a really weird place. And it starts in a confusing one. The end is not inherently weird, but it's weird in light of the experience it just spent all its time imparting. That experience is a link-based sci-fi / fantasy adventure with a scaffolding of Greek idylls, philosophers and mythology. The first screen, a page of prose from a log, indicates rhetorically that the narrator is or was something like a familiar of the eponymous Zephyra, then confuses by setting the scene with a series of nested geographical relationships (paraphrasing: the moon with the woods orbiting the planet surrounded by the clouds in the Propontis system) and raising the spectre of a great many groups of people and other entities with unusual names involved in Zephyra's story. Plus there's a quote from Plutarch. It's a tad overwhelming.

Zephyra turns out to be a space pilot in the now...

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

IFComp 2016 review: All I Do Is Dream by Megan Stevens

Short, existential Twine game in which you specify the manners in which you will veg out in the house during your girlfriend's next night shift at the pickle factory. This is an experience hailing from the drab end of the slice of life cake. You can think about the bedclothes, fiddle a bit with the bedclothes, clean objects in several boring stages. Your character is clearly depressed, as the prose is insistent about the pointlessness of any activity. A few prose studs of specificity about the characters' shared life don't make up for the more macroscopic lack of specificity that prevents any insight into their plight over the short duration.

Perhaps this is the Twine equivalent of the parser world's 'My Crappy Apartment Game'. The apartment is still there, but the focus shifts to the immediate crappy existential rather than the immediate crappy physical. 'All I Do's...' observations of fiddly-stuck depression make for better writing than that of most My Crappy Apartment games, but its small catalogue of anxious domestic activity didn't interest me because I knew almost nothing about the characters, before or after.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

IFComp 2016 review: Letters by Madison Evans

In Letters, you're a teenaged girl reading, tracing and clicking your way through a pile of letters from your ostensibly cool school friend Cadence after certain events have occurred.

Both main characters have solid writing chops and some wisdom beyond their years, and they communicate everything to each other by handwritten letters in the year 2008, give or take a few years. I felt this setup was a bit of a contrivance, the kind of thing that is outrageously possible in real life yet which takes a certain amount of feinting or explaining when delivered as fiction to get people to buy it. I decided to accept the premise and move on once I acknowledged I was enjoying Letters's sparky, emotional teen writing, and that I was also being prompted to think about how I was interacting with this IF. It worked for me both as emotional writing and as something with a bit of a puzzly feel, an experience I've rarely had with similarly presented IFs in the past.

I spent about twenty minutes with Letters and felt that I had satisfactorily experienced most of its content by that point, though probably not all of it. It's not easy to track which links you've previously clicked, unless perhaps you lawnmower them, or have a better memory than I do. It was a testament to the game's effectiveness that I had no interest in mowing the lawn. I was clicking particular links I wanted to click for reasons I possessed or imagined in relation to the story. Contrivances accepted, I liked Letters a lot.

More detail, with spoilers, beyond.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

IFComp 2016 review: Snake's Game by Nahian Nasir

Snake's Game is an exotic, pretty inscrutable prose'n'clickable choices piece in which a man walks into an eatery when some manifestation of existential evil – Snake, aka The Vermin – visits his brain and starts having a natter with him about a not-forecasting-the-future game they could play. If they do, the resulting conversations lead to the 'several psychedelic experiences… with demons, monsters, and some more!' promised by the blurb.

The inklewriter engine presents Snake's prose handsomely, and aesthetically it's very good prose, sometimes ripe, only wavering in a bit of proofreading and a rare mistake of the kind that makes me think English is not the author's first language. For other reasons, it is not easy or transparent writing. Not just because of its poetic leanings, but because I don't claim to really know what it was going on about half the time.

The game actively requests replays, encouraging you to build up a bigger picture of something, plus it thanks you every time you reach an ending. (I was thanked five times. That's a fair bit of thanking.) I almost quit after my first play because that first path I happened down was short and, in retrospect, still one of the least scrutable I ever read within the game, and not even in an abstract way. It was just like reading the middle few pages of a wacky book. So I was unlucky in that sense. I tried again, grew more interested, tried again, tried again. Ultimately I played one more time than I thought I would (and for about twenty minutes overall) feeling that I was building up some enjoyment, but there still seemed to be a cap on things making much sense, which is why I didn't continue on to try all the endings.

If you like, or think you might like, any of these things – existential psychedelia, flying into the sky suddenly with a cat, vivid visions of gore, celestial types chatting like they're in the pub, religious-leaning imagery – you might like Snake's Game.

If you love, or think you might love, the aforementioned things, you may truly love Snake's Game. I can as easily imagine people hating it pretty quickly. I admired it but in the end I like written fiction to make more coherent sense. I can say that Snake's Game shifted my perception of it significantly on each iteration, and that's something of a feat in a pretty abstract work.

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IFComp 2016 review: Night House by bitterkarella

Night House is a mystery-horror parser adventure of some spookiness. It mobilises a combination of vintage object-based puzzling (use A on B, B on C, C on D and later G, E on F) and the methods of backstory revelation that have become popular in both horror films and gaming over the last couple of decades. The protagonist is an eight year-old child who wakes to a mysteriously empty version of their home and unseen menaces.

The game runs – somewhat stickily – in the Quest engine. I loved the automap, but I didn’t love the way lots of useless items were highlighted with hyperlinks, often drawing attention away from important items buried in the inventorial sea. And it's a big sea in Night House. If you love amassing a huge inventory of doodads and using them to hurdle hurdles in all kinds of laterally conceived practical ways, Night House will whet that appetite. If you don’t have enough horror tastebuds on your tongue, you probably won't find Night House sufficiently distinguished from things you’ve experienced before. Overall it's a dense puzzler with a pretty good, mildly choppy story that I basically followed but didn't completely follow; I will express some of my ignorances in the spoilered part of this review.

The game also has a lot of implementation fiddles and some bugs. Many of the former seem to be a product of the Quest parser's design, though paradoxically, a subset of those are then resolved by Quest's hybrid interface.

The game took me about 90 minutes to complete. I made increasing use of the walkthrough as I progressed. Mac users can't play Quest games offline so I had to play at textadventures.co.uk. This resulted in an average pause time of 1 second between turns, significantly increasing the stickiness of the experience. If you can play offline, I'd do so. There's lots of backtracking and experimentation required in this game which you could knock down instantly offline.

Two pro tips:

1. In Quest, when in doubt about verbs, use the phrase USE (A) WITH (B)

2. In Quest, if still in doubt, right-click any lit objects to see if the action you've been agonisingly trying to phrase correctly happens to be a contextual choice that then shows up.

Spoilered extended musings beyond.

Monday, 3 October 2016

IFComp 2016 reviews: The Mouse by Norbez

In which a uni student in small town America negotiates domestic abuse and violence from her roommate.

The Mouse feels like a comic book with the multimedia additions that computers bring: audio and music, dynamics of delay, a few choices. You click through its pages in a forwards direction, usually by the tail of the last sentence on each page. I think it's assured in its comic bookish sensibility, for instance with a fan of images of the heroine's domestic preparations going from left to right down the screen, or with its generally well-judged interplay of text and images. However, I was frustrated by the story framing and scale in general, and by the constant hesitance of the main character in dialogue and narration. Spoilers below.

Sunday, 2 October 2016

IFComp 2016 review: Toiletworld by Chet Rocketfrak

Imaginatively, a fractally projected world of toilets. Practically, a few rooms with basic bad implementation and IFComp rule jokes. Game comes in three versions (web version, Z-code, Glulx) if you download it. All appear identical.

Rats!

One.

IFComp 2016, aka ‘The losers will be taunted and booed until my throat is sore.’

The Interactive Fiction Competition is on now, and you – ‘you’ meaning anyone out there in the world willing to follow a few rules – can now play and judge – judge meaning rating entries with a score from 1 to 10 – the competition games, thus enjoying the fruits of the competition while also helping to rank the fruits of the competition for the purposes of the competition before the competition ends at the end of November 15, 2016.

Here is how the competition is described today on its homepage:

“An annual celebration of new, text-driven digital games and stories from independent creators.”

I plan to review some of the games in this blog. My blog is syndicated on Planet IF, so if you follow Planet IF, you will see any reviews I do pop up in that stream.

For any new onlookers, my name is Wade Clarke. I’ve been involved in the contemporary IF scene since 2010. I’ve released three or four parser-driven games in that time: I entered Leadlight in the 2010 comp, Six in the 2011 comp and Ghosterington Night in 2012’s Ectocomp. I remade Leadlight as Leadlight Gamma and released it for modern platforms last year. I’ve helped test or produce art or music for about a dozen IF games by other authors, and I’ve reviewed 100-something IF games for IFDB or in various blogs. Other things I do or make are at my homepage.

There are too many games in this year’s comp for me to play and review all, so I’ve used the ‘personal shuffle’ feature on the IFComp website to fix their order in a randomised list. I’ll move down this list one entry at a time and consider whether I want to play that entry now, at some other time or never. This adds a little bit of alphabet-defeating fairness to my process that I’ve decided I want.

But right now I’m going to play Toilet World.

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Adage myth wreathe kid

I've reviewed IFComp 2011 entry Awake The Mighty Dread on IFDB, with review tagline

'Something like an Alice in Wonderland that's hard to get at/into/through.'

Click this sentence to go to the review.

Monday, 18 July 2016

Let Sleeping Dreads Lie

I'm writing this post in a Mac program called Focused. It's one of those 'no distraction' writing apps. It gives you a blank window with a nice large font, an obvious cursor, no icons, no sidebars, no title bar, no sidewindows, no sidebottoms, no grotesquely nested MS-Word ribbons of chaff.

When you turn it on, a random quote about writing sits in the middle of the blank page until you type something. My quote tonight was:

'Loafing is the most productive part of a writer's life.' – James Norman Hall

This was apt (they're usually pretty apt) as I was about to write about how I'm waiting for a really good idea for the most basic of my Inform CYOA extension examples to come to me. I spend a lot of time thinking about it in pockets of each day. It's taking a surprisingly long time to come, given that the ideas for the other five examples didn't cause me much struggle. They involve such entities as talking rats, a quiz show, ye olde Cloak of Darkness, a glass basket and a dragon.

After fiddling with other peripheral IF busywork – like updating my review tags on IFDB – I felt like playing something. I've been reading Mathbrush's nifty intfiction posts about past XYZZY Best Game winners, in which he often goes sideways to talk about the corresponding IFComps. I realise his posts have had the side-effect of engendering nostalgia in me for some of the games from the first two IFComps I participated in. So it seems it's taken me about five years to develop this particular nostalgia.

In terms of acting on nostalgia for 2010/2011 IFComp games, I find my typing fingers are restless for some of the one-shot games which had mixed receptions and whose authors didn't return. Things like 2011 game Awake The Mighty Dread, which has no reviews on IFDB. And that's why I'm going to replay and review Awake The Mighty Dread while I continue to wait for this idea I'm waiting for. Of course doing this review won't take as long as all that, and then I'll return to the waiting, but you can't force creativity all the time. Sometimes you must even deign to loaf.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Loitering with the Joneses of technology

– I've reviewed mystery adventure The Black Lily, from IFComp 2014, on IFDB.

– I participated in an IF podcast last week, but I don't know when it will be around.

– My Inform CYOA extension is pretty far along. I hope to release it sooner rather than later so that it can ward off the ravages of age. Tools are particularly susceptible to those ravages. Some of them get ravaged before they even get out the door. I reckon the important thing is not to dawdle in the doorway. Whether due to feature creep, or to the high and impatient current speeds of all of modern citizens, technology and history, you can be left palely loitering in the doorway with your outmoded tool.

This happened to me in 2012 with a GameSalad project. That this was only four years ago surprises me; it feels like much longer. Such time collapses are illustrative of the point.

I spent months using GameSalad to build the engine for an overhead viewed point-and-click adventure game with a dash of action. But not difficult action. The iDevice touch interface wasn't going to be slick enough for tight control. I was building this engine for a ghostly horror type game I was going to call Hedra.

GameSalad was in development heat at the time. Every time it got updated, I had to redo more stuff in my game. Plus Apple's Retina technology was coming in. Suddenly it came to GameSalad. Then everyone had to figure how to trade in double resolution graphics as well. As a one-man band, I was having a hard enough time tuning the engine per se to keep up with the Joneses of technology, and eventually I gave up on the whole thing. My demo no longer runs properly on my current Mac. It needs an old version of GameSalad on an old Mac or a bunch of updating, and even if I did update it, I'm no longer in the headspace or flush of interest to make that game.

I think this all makes Hedra the only computer game in my gamemaking history that I invested solid time in but which didn't get off the ground. I've got a decent number of incomplete games behind me, especially back on the Apple II, but I consider those to have gotten off the ground because they reached the point where they had either a bit or a lot of game content going before I stopped working on them. Hedra doesn't exist except in my head; all I've got is part of an engine that was intended to turn into it later.

Having only abandoned one project late in the fundamental development stage strikes me as a fortunately low stat. I think the rate has probably been helped a lot by most of my projects having been all me. The moment you become part of a development team, you can face exponentially more complex completion factors, but technology affects all projects.

Friday, 29 April 2016

Autumn All Stars 2016 review: Harmonic Time-Bind Ritual Symphony by Ben Kidwell and Maevele Straw

The PC in Harmonic Time-Bind Ritual Symphony is a self-described middle-aged hippie in Wisconsin. He's a mystic, musician and computer programmer about to release the incredible ANTS software that will allow the alteration and merging of different strands of reality, to what I would euphemistically describe as great positive effect. The author says that the resulting trippiness is an attempt to convey the experience of a summer manic episode in which he believed himself to be a character in an interactive fiction game.

I think Harmonic itself is an amazing game. The crucial thing is that its manic astral mysticism and free-associating subject matter are the province of its prose, world and characters, but not of the underlying structure. The game design is well-considered and has many addictive mechanics recognisable from both old and recent gaming. Harmonic's core gameplay carrots reminded me of a bizarrely disparate group of life simulation games, from Animal Crossing on the Nintendo GameCube to Shenmue on the Sega Dreamcast.

In Harmonic, your PC's base is his house, and the game tracks time through each day and night. You can wander out and around the town, meeting and making friends, warping their realities and yours for the better, setting up projects for later and dealing with social engagements. Some characters will email you. Some events will occur spontaneously (eg a birthday party to attend) and others are unlocked, after a fashion, once you've brought the correct circumstances into alignment. Events are also gated by time, travel restrictions (you can summon your pushbike to your side at will by typing LUNAR, but you have to get your cycling skill up to be able to ride to further parts of town) and major social and puzzle progress through the game.

Why are you doing all these things? Primarily because you're living in the now and having a great time. You're also gradually advancing the cause of new positivity that you began by unleashing your reality-altering software. You can enjoy the experience of this world in its own right, but there's also a simultaneously generous and rigorous score system with a maximum score of 999 which tracks how much of the game content you've experienced. You can get points for doing all kinds of things both grand and elementary, from playing the piano or finding a new place in the city to major stuff like binding whole reality concepts together with your BIND power. There are also optional ending points at which the game tells you how awesome you've been for achieving a certain degree of completion, and then says something like, 'You can keep on playing, or just type WIN now if you'd like.' I was too engrossed in Harmonic to stop playing by the time I reached the first of these points, and carried on until I had more than 700 out of 999.

This IF take on life simulation is catchy in its own right, but it is the freewheeling prose and dialogue, bursting with musings on the mystical, the philosophical and mental health, that makes Harmonic a game that could exist in no other form than interactive fiction. In the same way that the sturdiness of the game's structure does not mirror the unfiltered flood of information you might associate with the recreational drug-taking writ large in the game's events, the writing itself is basically precise even as the ideas contained within it fly around and attach to each other easily. And crazily. Lots of them are cute moon pie, fireworks, astral explosions and love irradiation, but lots of them are interesting or novel in a more cerebral way. The two types are often wrapped around each other, and as long as the game was, I never got tired of reading new conversations, or of clocking the next philosophy of some coffee shop owner or Loonie co-op member.

An early coffee shop encounter with one of the female baristas the PC admires sees her politely listening to his musical-moon-unity theories even as she needs to shut him down just so that she can get her work done. The PC is a bit disappointed but soon puts things into perspective. I thought this was a good observation about kindness, practicality and acknowledging realities generated in others' minds. Later in the game, after the influence of ANTS has advanced considerably, what's in the PC's head becomes the freewheeling fabric and nature of the city itself, and the restrictions of the practical are lifted. There is lots of drug-taking (frequent enough that, paradoxically, I barely noticed) some care-free sex, parties, journeys on the wheel of time, teleportation, time travel, astral crystals, a pizza shop and an arcade with a Tempest machine. This is a game where the response to the WAIT command is, 'You feel yourself traveling through spacetime at the speed of light.'

Harmonic offers all kinds of helps for negotiating its large inventory of content. Actually, so many are offered at the start of the game that I was a bit overwhelmed. You can THINK about things to do, get general HINTS, get people or object-specific HINTs, EXPLORE at random, and you can also customise the progress of time and scheduled events, a concept you are unlikely to appreciate until you've been playing for awhile. There are also multiple meta commands which give you background information from the author, and in the reality-exploding style of the game, it's made clear that it's fine to read these before or alongside the game itself. Reality will eventually have exploded to the extent that I don't know if anyone could solve the last puzzles without hints, but this outcome seems to suit the nature of the whole piece, which is about drawing all realities into one plane. Life, the game, the author, the hints and all information in general. (Also, an anticipatory review the author wrote of the game as if someone else!) The game's cover painting conveys this collapse of dimensions nicely.

There's also a soundtrack of mp3s to be played at particular piano moments in the game, but I found this to be the only element that didn't really work. The first issue is that the songs are dispensed by copy-paste links within the game. Stopping typing, going outside the game, downloading the files one at a time and listening to one before continuing, if you intend to experience it at the directed moment, is too cumbersome to the overall flow, and something most players would consider technically cumbersome per se. The other issue is that the simple, average-fi room recordings of these piano songs are in no way able live up to the bath of figurative crystal light that the game's prose frequently emits.

Harmonic is a big, fun game that is generous about ways in which you might experience it. It offers a main story track, lots of optional content, lots of helps to access both of the above, interesting meta content and scores of ideas about existence, both wacky and thoughtful. Also, I didn't know anyone could make a game I'd really like that also had this much recreational drug-taking and Grateful Deadism in it, two things I would normally have to endure through gritted teeth. Philosophically, I understand that one of the (many) reasons I respond so positively to Harmonic is because the game is organised and disciplined art, even though it's about a lot of things and people that aren't necessarily organised or disciplined. I do feel the primary author shared or simulated (or both) a difficult-to-share personal experience successfully, too. This is my pick of the Main Festival Spring Thing games that I have played.

* Tech note – I was at first a little surprised the author managed to keep the whole game in the smaller Z8 Inform format, rather than having to go up Glulx. Then I learned the game was written in Inform 6, which provides more economical/sparse initial programming conditions than does Inform 7.

Monday, 25 April 2016

Autumn All Stars 2016 review: Three-Card Trick by Chandler Groover

In the parser game Three-Card Trick you play Morgan the Magnificent, a magician seeking to assure that he's never again upstaged by Ivan, that other magician whom he considers to be a charlatan hack. This short, linear and impeccably written parser adventure debuted in the first Quadrennial Ryan Veeder Exposition for Good Interactive Fiction (an exposition whose name I hope to not have to type too often in life, and given its quadrenniality, my hope should be realised) and now reappears in Spring Thing 2016. Three-Card Trick manages to develop multiple dimensions of surprise and suspense over its duration, and thus, like a good magic trick, is itself surprising in a delighting way.

The archness, pride and arrogance of both magicians comes through in the narration and the dialogue via all kinds of showmanship, ranging form the boastful to the oily to the spectacular (spectacular within the parameters of a card trick). Each card that is turned over and each bold pronouncement presents another dramatic moment in which the story could easily take a sharp turn, and the author zooms in on a lot of these held-breath moments by having the player hit a key to draw out each word of a sentence. I personally think this device needs to be hitting home above a pretty high threshold to merit its use, and it's handled about equal best I've seen in this game.

The craft of directing player action to a single end in a linear parser game is wrangled breezily. The phrases you need to type are often dispensed verbatim as part of prose descriptions in the preceding paragraphs. Subtlety doesn't really matter because these directions coincide entirely with the strong motivations of the narrator and the scope of the required actions in the game. Nor does the overall linearity mean that Three-Card Trick is underimplemented. Most good idea tangents work, and almost all people and things I tried looking at were described through the consistent prism of Morgan's condemnational eye.

About the only thing that even mildly perturbed me was that the compass the player is handed at game start, which is supposed to make navigation super-easy by allowing one to type IN and OUT to move towards or away from goals, confused me. Not the idea of it, which is great, nor the explanation for it, which is basically 'it's magic', but just that in this scheme that's trying to be so simple, I found it ironically easy to be uncertain about where IN was going to lead next and where OUT was going to lead next. Sometimes I had to reverse when I found myself going the way I hadn't anticipated.

There's some weird humour attached to the title of the game in light of what it reveals to be the significance of the 'three-card' element of the trick. This plays to the idea of misdirection in magic, as if everyone who is amazed by this trick was somehow figuratively looking in the wrong direction, or figuratively dwelling on the wrong thing, in the first place. It's also strange that the people at the exposition can be repeatedly amazed by the same trick when it's being repeated in back-to-back performances, though the game certainly points a finger at their notions of fashionability. I found that these unusual little openings in the gameworld, applicable to but unnoticed by its characters, added a speculative dimension to the experience of a kind that I think is hard to get out of parser games that direct player action as strongly as this one.

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I recently showed my three and a half year-old nephew how to do a magic trick using a special trick cup and ball that I got out of a showbag when I was a kid. I was impressed that he had the dexterity to manipulate the ball-hiding fake lid on the cup, but after he did the trick and I acted surprised at the ball's disappearance, he put his finger inside the fake lid and whispered confidentially, 'The ball's in here.'

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Autumn All Stars 2016 sorta review: Fourdiopolis by Andrew Schultz

What is the fourth dimension?

Some people say it's time.

Some say it's Odorama, the scratch and sniff card system that accompanied the John Waters film Polyester.

Some say the fourth dimension is the tesseract, the four-dimensional analog of the cube. As the cube is to the square, the tesseract is to the cube – and obviously that's all the explanation you need from me to perfectly understand the concept in its entirety. Dragon Magazine, a major resource for Advanced Dungeons & Dragoners, went a bit nuts with tesseract articles in the 1980s. You could dump a group of adventurers in a tesseract and then stand back and laugh at the poor bastards as they tried in vain to map the thing, or slew each other while arguing over where the ceiling was.

This all leads me to Andrew Schultz's Spring Thing game Fourdiopolis. It's the logically titled sequel to his 2013 game Threediopolis. Andrew's a friend of mine, so I don't normally review or rate his games in competitions and things, but since Fourdiopolis is in the Spring Thing Back Garden and I spent a few hours playing it this evening, I feel like talking about it. I will be as coy about the puzzle details as everyone has always been about the puzzle details for Threediopolis, for reasons that all of those people who have been being coy already get. Know that Fourdiopolis is, like its predecessor, a wordplay/quasi-maze game.

Before I booted Fourdiopolis up, I was wondering how this game would build on the mechanics of Threediopolis. The new addition is simple at a glance, but it very significantly increases the possibility set for the solutions. This multiplies the difficulties wrapped around the various methods you can lean on to solve the puzzles, and definitely makes for a harder game overall.

If you never played Threediopolis, the initial puzzle is just working out what you're meant to do. If you have played Threediopolis, Fourdiopolis begins with you resurrecting the skills mustered in the first game. Their interplay is trickier this time and you won't get as far taking wild, inspired swings. Not that there was anything wrong with those; there were a strangely high number of ways you could approach each puzzle in Threediopolis, including the wild swinging, and that number has increased in Fourdiopolis. I found I kept getting better at this game in basically a straight line fashion over the couple of hours of play. I continued to notice new interrelations, new clues and patterns, and they all helped me start to attack some challenges proactively rather than start out with guesses and then poke or jimmy the holes. At one point, the gears did change, leading me to think, 'OK, now I'm seeing the extra hardness that Andrew talked about in his unnecessarily-scaring-people-off blurb.'

The great thing about playing Three or Fourdiopolis is that the experience is very much its own thing. What I find most interesting is how the games give you basically no advice on how to go about things. Eventually you find one way to do something, then another, then others that relate to both, then more. It's like building a neural network whose structure becomes more apparent the longer you stare it. In the case of Fourdiopolis, non-savants might have to sink some serious time into it to progress with the further-in stuff. But there's not really anything else like either game, and they're very addictive once you get stuck in. They're also the kind of game where you can easily break off and come back later, or on another day, and you may find when you do so that having let things percolate in your mind in the interim can suddenly lead to a blast of progress.

If this all sounds interesting and you haven't played either game, you might want to start with the first one. Note that it's not essential to do so. But playing Lode Runner before trying Championship Lode Runner wasn't essential, either. It just made for an easier life overall. That's a non-enforceable analogy about the relationship between the games. I've already got a lot of satisfaction out of my progress in Fourdiopolis so far.