Design and documentation journal for my interactive fiction (text games); also reviews and other miscellaneous stuff.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

IF Comp 2010: The People's Glorious Revolutionary Text Adventure Game

So I'm not really feeling like playing much these days.  I can marathon other games, even crummy games, but IF seems to take more application.  I will try my best not to take out this ambivalence on the game itself, but it's probably worth noting that I'm feeling a little impatient.  I want something juicy. 

The People's Glorious Revolutionary Text Adventure Game needs a better acronym.  TPGRTAG is not awesome. But it's available online - yay! - which is a plus. 

--  The People's Glorious Revolutionary Text Adventure Game --

 If I were wearing a fur hat, and it started to itch, I would start worrying about fleas.  In fact, I'm sort of scratching reflexively.  Because fur itself is usually all soft - it's only the parasites that are itchy. With the current explosion in bedbug populations, I'd be wary of wearing anything those things could be hiding in. 

Bonus points for nice list formatting, balanced by negative points for random uncapitalization.  Dear Authors, I know how difficult it is to get these things right.  In fact, by dint of Murphy's law there will be at least three horrendous eye-gouging mistakes in this paragraph.  But please, for the love of Marx, Lenin, and Snowball, check your text for misspellings, grammar errors, and formatting questionabilities.  Please?

That said, I've attended communist parties, and I can tell you the supplies you need: as much cheap vodka as two college-age students of able body can carry, plus enough punch to make it drinkable, and a DVD of The Smartest Guys in the Room.  And Twister, because nothing cheers up drunken revolutionaries like Twister.

Whenever I enter a command, I get a subliminal message from the game, but I can't tell what it is.  Something about "thanks to" and "Glorious".  Probably nothing, but it's kind of distracting.  I didn't notice this on any of the other online games.  Also "enter" from the help menu does nothing, which is bizarre and makes me wonder if the capatalist infrastructure is already broken.

Aww, no custom response for >WAVE FLAG?  :( 

Also, >TALK TO SEMENOV is not understood?  :((

Wait, I'm sorry, I seriously have to type out >ASK SEMENOV ABOUT DEVICE every single interaction?  Have mercy.

"The J. Edgar Hoover High School is the premier capitalist youth brainwashing facility in Freedonia."

One day I will found a school, and that will be in my brochure.  

""Trying to supply copies of the Communist Manifesto to the students in the classroom outside this closet," Rosalia says." 

Look, I know how this happens, because I've done it myself.  On the other hand, it's the sort of thing you notice if you test your stuff immediately.  And the spacing is strange.

>x beard
You can't see any such thing. That's exactly the problem.
I laughed.

I wish stuff got added to your list as you found out about it.  Now I have to remember stuff when I have a to-do list.  Sure, it's not a lot of stuff, but that's why I have a to-do list, right?

>x flag
This flag is the hateful symbol of the largest capitalistic nation in the world!

>burn flag
That would be unpatriotic.
Okay, then.

I don't know, I feel like the game is trying too hard to make me laugh, and not hard enough to respond to stuff.  I was in the middle of trying to destroy the government bathrooms when the display went weird - all I got were copies of the line at the bottom, the portion of the acknowledgements just below the game screen ("s Revolutionary Text Adventure Game is brought to you thanks to the Interactive Fiction Competition and p"). 

Save and restart didn't help, and I'm not feeling invested enough to keep going.  I think I saw enough.  It was cute, and I enjoyed playing it.  It's a little long for what is essentially a one-note joke game - by the end, I was tired of everything being a one-liner, and ready to be done.  But it's cute, and I suspect a better puzzle-solver might have been able to finish it before irritation set in.  I wish it tried a little less hard - as it stands, the game is an endless string of one-liners, and after a while, that wears thin.

Still, it's much better than I expected, given the opening.  I enjoyed it, despite my grumbling, and I think it's the most salveagable game I've played all comp.  That sounds like damning with faint praise, but it's really not meant to be.  Polish a bit, fix the spacing, figure out whatever technical issue is going on, tune the characters so they're a little less like those dolls that will say one of six things when you push its buttons, and I think it would be a great game.  Not a revolutionary game (hurr), but fun and quick and amusing.

Friday, October 8, 2010

IF Comp 2010: The Bible Retold: The Lost Sheep

I'm a big fan of retellings of myths and fairy tales and legends and literature.  I am a huge, huge fan of Jonathan Goldstein.  I am also acutely sensitive to evangelization, so I hope this isn't preachy.  Every so often, myths need to be recast to make sense, and given that there really aren't many sheepherders anymore, this could probably do with some updating.  I also like the recursiveness involved.  Even if you take Jesus as a historical, actual dude, we're essentially dealing with an interactive game based on a translated account of a retelling of a story by a guy who was making a point some 2000-odd years ago.  Which is kind of weird, actually.

Oh, hey, spoilers.

---The Bible Retold: The Lost Sheep ---

Typo in the first sentence.  Ouch.  I think I need to adjust my expectations downward a bit.  On the other hand, the game is (theoretically) always winnable.  Good.  After Oxygen, I need a confidence booster.

>count sheep
(your herd of sheep)
That is either not quantifiable or not of significant quantity.


>kill sheep
(your herd of sheep)
You love them too much: you couldn't bring yourself to do it.
. . . shepherds *do* know what happens to the sheep at Ye Olde Slaughterhouse, right?

"A herd of buffalo lumbers towards you from the east."

. . . the fuck? 

I had already tried taking the tree/branch/etc. when I went by, but clues did not lead me to climb, or to believe the sticks up above might be drier.  

"The sheep - who was in the  bush - yelps and jumps from the bush, clutching a black section of its wool, where you burnt it."

It's . . . clutching?  HOW?  WHAT?

Okay, so I found the cowering sheep, and carried it home on my shoulders.  I'm happy, but the sheep seemed happier romping around on its own.  There's probably something snarky I could say here, but I'm going to let it stand for itself.

I dunno.  It was fine.  There were a couple cute bits.  (I particularly liked the response to >FOLLOW SHEEP.)  It was kind of hard to forget that I had a whole flock of sheep that could, even as I rode buffalo and set things on fire, be wandering off a cliff or something.  I mean, didn't I have a backup shepherd somewhere?  Also, I was sad I didn't ever get to pull anyone around with my crook.  It felt more like an intro piece than a finished game - you're introduced to the way the world works (peculiarly) and then thrown a couple softballs, and then - it's over.  Which is fine, it's just not what I expected.  Also, the main character came across as kind of a jerk, and I don't know if that's intentional or just the way I played and read him.

IF Comp 2010: Oxygen

I am pretty sure I have strep throat, which means I can barely swallow unless I am doing so with a mouthful of tea.  On occasion I indulge my masochistic side and swill orange juice, bathing the recalcitrant S. pyogenes in acid.  This burns like fire, but is still better than dry swallowing.  I have consumed approximately 60 liters of fluid due to this need, and can barely sleep because it means that I am not drinking.  The last time this happened, I ended up wandering delirious through the electronics section of the nearest superstore, completely disoriented and unable to remember how I'd gotten there from the hospital two miles away.  So if I start mentioning things that aren't actually in the game, someone drop me an email or something.  Let's see - that'll do for a segue.

Right.  Spoilers.  Possibly for things not in the game, unless my expired Tylenol have kicked in.  Also, non-reviewness.

--- Oxygen ---
"Deprive a person of oxygen, and you kill his body; deprive him of self-respect and you kill his spirit."  - Thomas S. Szasz

There are actually things out there that can't survive in the presence of oxygen.  I wonder if some people are like that - they actually thrive on self-hatred.  Also, I really want my last name to be Szasz.  In addition, it looks like all online games are on a cream background with a peach status bar.  I am not sure I approve, but it could be even more hideous.  At least it's legible.

Oooh, I get to enable sound!  You know, the weird thing about sound is that the explosion sound lasts for 1-2 seconds, while me reading about the explosion lasts for longer.  Thankfully, though, the author did not implement an alarm siren or anything, so I can continue reading in peace.

. . . I think Jefferies tubes are capitalized, and only live on Star Trek.  Am I wrong?  Maybe I'm wrong.  Too sick to google them now.  Googling takes precious energy that could be spent sucking down liquids.  Also, run-on sentence in the first description: "It isn't plugged into anything at the moment, however there is an outlet nearby."

Hey, the ABOUT command includes email and a web address.  Kudos.  Also, kudos for not making me type a bunch of commands to do things: >OPEN PANEL means automatic unscrewing and opening.  This makes me all giddy with good will.  I'm also apportioning a small quantity of good will for the inner monologue voice and attempts to make it interesting, but removing points for incosistency: "The display console gives a beef in response as if to acknowledge your success" is crisp and enunciated, but two paragraphs later we're "gonna be outta luck."  It's not awful, but it is a little distracting.

. . . is it standard operating procedure to leave override cards scattered throughout the ducts?

Oh, man, I can't deal with all these colors and Greek letters right now.  Is there a cheat sheet?

I can't tell if I'm doing things right or not.  There doesn't seem to be much feedback.  There wasn't any affirmative message when I thought I got the oxygen right. 

Oh, I was supposed to talk to the man.  I thought he was critically injured.  Hmm.

. . . and then I got sucked into outer space.

Really promising opening, but the setup was not described well enough for me to have any idea whether my actions were appropriate, which made the whole thing sort of like flailing in the dark.  And I still don't really have a good idea of what I'd do differently on replay.

After reading the walkthrough, I'm only a little more enlightened.  Apparently, I needed to spend more time reading the book (which is what I always do when the oxygen is running out).  Also, apparently I missed the status bar info, because the online interpreter scrolled down too far and it was hidden.  So that was sort of a critical confluence.  In addition, though, I just didn't have a good understanding of the mechanics.  Nitpick: Some combination of card insertion in different parts of the ship decides where the oxygen goes?  This seems like a pretty weak fail-safe system.

A fun game, and pretty well polished, although something of a single puzzle, trial and error game.  I don't feel any urge to replay, though.  It's not really my thing.  I think for players that enjoy this sort of thing, it's probably pretty sweet. 

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

IF Comp 2010: Gigantomania

More spoilers to follow, and non-reviews - just initial impressions/notes.  I seem to recall a David Sedaris piece about men who read stories about giant women.  Well, not just stories.  Porn.  (There.  That should increase the number of hits this blog gets.)  I am hoping this is not porn, but as far as I can tell there's no explicit rule against it.  Still, that story left such a clear impression on me that I'm kind of afraid to hope for anything in particular from this title.  Although I am reminded that the deli down the street sells really good cookies.  Usually large cookies are kind of gross, because it's hard to get the moisture right.  But these are really good.

--- Gigantomania ---

I'm playing the online version of this, too, and I just have to say: Kudos for design attempts.  The peach does nothing for me, but I am heartened people are playing with the options.  Bonus: I've never read any porn with quotes from people with names like dze Jughashvili, so that makes me feel good, too.

Oh.  So, a story about Russia, huh?  Not one of the upbeat periods in Russian history, either.  I can't think of any upbeat periods in Russian history, but things must have taken a swing for the better at some point.  I feel kind of bad about the porn references now.  Maybe I should start reading blurbs before playing.  I'm afraid if I did that, I'd be unnecessarily prejudiced against certain games and I'd never get all the games played. 

Wow.  So I played through the whole thing without feeling a single bubble of vitriol.  That space above is me having nothing vitriolic to say.  Then I had to spend a day thinking about the game, because I couldn't figure out how I felt about the end.  So all the next part is written in retrospective.  (This blog post is like traveling through time!)

My first playthrough ended rather abruptly when all the villagers killed me for not contributing enough.  Which surprised me, because I was carting around like twelve bags of grain and two of potatoes, and I'd expected the collector would just come around and whisk them away.  (I'd even squirreled a bag or two away in my cabin, I think, in case they took everything.)  I'd also thought that the collector needed 10 bags total from the villagers, so I was only planning on contributing one or two.  It turns out that you actually have to hand the bags over yourself.  Life as a Russian peasant is really hard.

This is the first game I've played in the comp where the setting feels rock-solid.  Not that there aren't artificialities, but I can envision in my mind's eye the exact layout of my land, the look of the beggar, the smell of the earth, the huts full of the sick and dying and weak.  For a portion where the bulk of the interaction is typing "harvest wheat" 12 times, this is a big accomplishment.

The second chapter I was just grateful not to actually have to make 44 bars of steel.  It was actually kind of fun alternating turns with pouring steel.  The writing is top-notch.  (I advised my supervisor to lay off my coworkers.  Go revolutionary spirit and black lung!)  There's a line of black humor underlying this whole scene that is just brilliant and heartbreaking.  The downside: I spent the rest of the game, and a good portion of the evening, singing "I am the man who arranges the blocks!"

The third chapter is less awesome, perhaps because I was missing the intermittent boring work.  All I have to do is hide all my questionable stuff - and there's a lot of it.  (Dude has fine taste in music, if not literature.)  I got caught out because my picture of a butterfly was not Russian enough.  The black humor is not just a line in this scene - it's practically a current.

And then.  The fourth chapter. 

I think I am not adequately meta for this chapter.  I *want* to like it, because I think that's what a real literature geek would do.  I would scrounge up a Foucault quote and go all post-modern on its ass.

But it didn't work for me, and it didn't feel like the game ended at the right point - I didn't feel like I had closure on the game, which was a problem because I spent the whole thing is an uncomfortable roil of emotion.  (Mostly in the first two bits, but even some for the poor bureaucrat.)  I didn't feel connected at all to the dictator; worse, I felt like I wasn't even playing any more - I was just reading a one-sided conversation that some half-delusional sadist was having.

Often I could make a trivial choice, like having caviar at dinner, but not a more critical choice, like hanging dissidents vs. giving them a mock trial.  More often, the narrative went with option #3, which was never an option for me to choose anyway.  This was incredibly frustrating, and I could feel the distance between me and the game growing by leaps every time I pushed enter.  Then there were the little letters after pretty much every phrase, which were really distracting.  (The last line indicates they're probably chess moves, but I didn't go back and play them all or anything.)

The narrative of the story was still compelling, but it was no longer interactive in a meaningful way.  Which is why I think I should go all post-modern: maybe the discomfort I felt was an intentional nod to the intoxication of power and blah blah blah.  But it didn't help me get into the story - instead I found myself thinking about my laundry, which may not be where the author wanted to go.  I *did* love Stalin's voice, though, and his no-holds-barred, bat-shit crazy.  I just wish it felt less like looking through the wrong end of a telescope.

But the first three bits were so successful that I still have a warm glow, and I really want to know how the author managed to make typing "harvest wheat" over and over kind of a compelling experience.  I'm also really reluctant to start anything else, because it feels like the game is taking up all my head space - I'm just full of the game and the images and the taste of it, I don't want to put it away yet.

Score:  I don't even know.  7?  8? 10? This is definitely the high bar right now. 

Monday, October 4, 2010

IF Comp 2010: A quiet evening at home

I feel like this title is a setup for something awesome.  Like the end of the title is something impressive: "A quiet evening at home . . . with HITLER."  "A quiet evening at home . . . on the surface of the SUN."  It's got potential to be really 1950's-y, or really 1950's pulpy.  I'm hoping for a sort of MST3K-tastic "Date with Your Family" type deal, myself, full of quiet WTF-ery. 

Fingers crossed! 

-- A quiet evening at home --

. . . this is the most depressing opening paragraph ever.  Man, if this wasn't comp, I'd go find something else.  Please, please don't let the point of the game to be finding and using the bathroom.  I know compelling drama is supposed to be about the small conflicts in life, but please don't let this game be about pee.  I can't go from the surface of the SUN to urine.

Missing period in the first paragraph.  Nothing makes me feel better about the next 2 hours of gameplay than that! 

-- Interlude of deep breaths and happy optimistic thoughts --

What's a half-staircase?  Is it like a short staircase, or does it only go halfway to the basement?  Also, if you describe the rooms in terms of what's on my right, and then don't implement those directions, things get confusing.  Also, capital letters at the beginning of sentences are your friends.

Okay, I can't find my can opener.  Who takes their can opener out of the kitchen?  I am the worst housekeeper in the history of the world, and even I can find my can opener, unless it's migrated to the kitchen sink and is hidden under a bowl or something. 

I don't have the faith to fiddle around on this - straight to the walkthrough! 

. . . oh.  Well.  That's . . . how do I say this in a positive way?  Oh, right.  A non-linear progression.  In other words, completely illogical.  And reading the rest of the walkthrough, I get to take out the trash *and* put the hamster back in the cage!  Wow.  That's . . . great.  I will complete those steps just to say that I did.

I dreamed about being an alien spy, which is indeed more awesome than taking out garbage.

I have nothing very nice to say about this game.  It's basically a My Apartment exercise.  Which is competent, but not very exciting.  That's really the nicest thing I can say about it, so I will just mention that the architect was doing crack, because the long axis of houses should be east-west, to get full southern exposure from the sun, rather than north-south, which gives you a short period of sun in each room (unless you're in an urban environment.  The only room in this game that would get consistent sun is the Foyer, and that is deeply sad.

Oh, and everyone should implement "about", even if it's just to give people your email address.  How can we all follow Conrad's suggestion to send our transcripts if we don't know where to send them?

IF Comp 2010: East Grove Hills

Normal warnings and disclaimers apply - here be spoilers (sort of) and general first impressions of East Grove Hills, which is totally one of those teenage shows on Television Without Pity, like Dawson's Creek or Seventh Heaven.  (Is Seventh Heaven on TWP?  It should be.)  I got this amazing ginger orange sauce this week.  It is good on everything.  I am thinking of making beef stirfry.  Cabbage has a lot of vitamin C in it, and peppers were on sale.  Mmm.  Now I'm hungry.  (The risk of writing spoiler-free paragraphs?)

-- East Grove Hills --

HA, I was right!  High school.  Wow.  That never happens to me.  This one I'm playing online, so no transcript.  That makes me sad, but not sad enough to break the encryption on a library computer to download Frotz. 

Huh.  Interesting.  EGH is written in past tense, which is an interesting choice, especially since it jumps back and forth in time a lot.  It's not entirely successful.  The plot consists of little vignettes around a central event, sort of like Photopia, although the viewpoint remains stable.  The opening is strong, but the lack of interaction really detracts.  The story is structured around an implacable clock: things take place at a certain time.  This is kind of neat, but pretty much anything you type, successful or not, advances the clock.  I spent a lot of play typing three things, then undoing them, then trying something else. 

So few of these were successful that by the time I got to the point where the game hinted broadly that I might be able to save a life, I was not very hopeful.  Indeed, I utterly failed to save anyone.  Not really surprising, given that the main character is a high school student.

The author went to the trouble of rewriting the default responses, which really helped with emersion; unfortunately, pretty much nothing I wanted to do in response to the shooting/bombing helped.  I couldn't help, or hug my dying sister.  I couldn't try to talk the gunners down.  Which . . . is realistic, I guess, but feels so uninteractive that I wonder why I'm playing. 

The other big issue I had was with dialogue.  There's a relatively large quantity of dialogue, but most of it is railroaded.  Ignore a question by "saying nothing", and the game will offer you the same responses again, rather than advancing the conversation in any meaningful way.  A lot of it is pretty stilted (given a humorous nod by the game text itself, which breaks the fourth wall so often they must have the repairman on speed dial.  Bad-dum-dump-chh!).  I think my favorite line was "So let's get to work or something," a line I'm fully intending to utilize at my next project planning meeting. 

And yet . . . I found myself a little charmed.  The game itself needs work, no bones about it, but it tries to be innovative in a couple small ways, and it has a kind of offbeat quirkiness to it that's engaging, although the game itself doesn't follow through enough to be satisfying.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

IF Comp 2010: Ninja's Fate

Spoilers probably follow the break, but this is just buffer space.

I'm always vaguely impressed by writers who get their entries small enough to go into zcode.  It's not really a big deal, but there's a couple extensions I really can't do without that require glulx.  Or I program something memory-eating.  Or I just miss a feature, like larger numbers.

I'm hoping that the "Ninja's Fate" is to die old and surrounded by doting grandchildren, perhaps in a picturesque inn overlooking the winter sea in Hokkaido.  It seems unlikely, but I can hope, right?  Okay, that should buffer enough.

Oh, one final note: these "reviews" really aren't meant for authors - they're just first impressions, and as such not censored.  Sensitive authors may want to hold off reading them; I don't usually get abusive or anything, but I do usually focus on the negative more than the positive, and it may not reflect how I feel about the game in a couple days, when I've had time to digest.

---Ninja's Fate---

"This idol had been the centrepiece of religious worship . . ."
Yeah, when you're writing about *real* people and their cultures, it's really helpful if you get details like, you know, religion right.  This does not sound right to me at all.  I'll handwave it this once, but just once.

Okay, so this is a tribute game.  I started reading raif just before Panks died, so I'm not familiar with him or his work.   

Wait, this is supposed to be modern?  With this kind of characterization of ninjas?  *sigh*  Look, I don't mean to be humorless, but . . . really?  Argh.

The bust is a ghost?

Yeah, I don't think I have enough fluency in the background material to appreciate this game.  For someone who doesn't know the Pank, this seems like a pretty straightforward adventure.  With a maze.  (Why, authors?  Why do you do this?  WHY?)  And weird implementation.  ("kill [x]" results in attacks with your bare hands, which always fail, so you have to type out "kill [x] with sword", which . . . gets old.)

Score: Not sure how to do it, honestly.  I'd give it a 3, but probably won't submit a vote.

Download Complete

IFComp already?  Jeez, time flies.  This year, like last year, I start with the highest intentions: play the games in random order, without spoilers if I can help it.  We'll see how far I get before devolving into only playing the ones that interest me personally, based on the reviews that I can't help reading.

Also, this year will be enlivened by the oncoming Death Plague that I can feel taking over my respiratory system.  It's not here yet, but I can feel the little critters digging past my cilia even now, so I'm probably going to spend a significant part of the comp overdosed on Nyquil.  The perfect state to play games in, not to mention writing responses.  I think I'll probably save comments and transcripts, so I can go back and look at play style a bit later, and then write up impressions if or when I feel like it. 

Random order listing has not failed me - it put most of the games whose titles interest me towards the middle to end, so I have incentive to keep going. 

__: Ninja's Fate
__: East Grove Hills
__: A quiet evening at home
__: Gigantomania
__: Oxygen
__: The Bible Retold: The Lost Sheep
__: The People's Glorious Revolutionary Text Adventure Game
__: Mite
__: Heated
__: Pen and Paint
__: The Bible Retold: Following a Star
__: Flight of the Hummingbird
__: Aotearoa
__: The Chronicler
__: R
__: Divis Mortis
__: Leadlight
__: Gris et Jaune
__: The 12:54 to Asgard
__: Death Off the Cuff
__: One Eye Open
__: Rogue of the Multiverse
__: The Warbler's Nest
__: The Blind House
__: Under, In Erebus