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

Monday, November 15, 2010

IF Comp 2010: Mad Scramble

Am trying to get as many games done as possible before the deadline.  No time to take notes!  No time to let things percolate or sink in! Quite a few of them I'm not voting on, but some are pretty clear. 

I seem to have hit the "horror" section of gameplay.  Or, er, something.  Horror that doesn't seem to want to terrify.  It's like some authors bought all the horror tropes on sale after Halloween last year, and wants to put them to good use, so they're just scattered through the game.  Look, a corpse!  (Booga-booga.)

I *like* horror, dammit, enough so that I was procrastinating on gameplay by watching the borderline hilarious-awful Black Water last night.  I mean, that's dedication to the genre right there.  Black Water was all about the setup, with horrible followthrough.  Spoilers to follow (for the movie, not any particular game.)

Clueless tourists go out into the Australian outback in a boat.  This is not the first clueless-tourist-in-a-boat-in-the-outback movie I've watched, and I know now that boats with tourists are the equivalent of bacon-wrapped doughnuts for crocs.

They are almost immediately hurled into the water, and the rest of the movie is spent with tense music as the characters invent excuses to get close to the water so we can wonder if they're going to be eaten this time.  It is horrendously boring.  (A little actual research would have made the movie minimally plausible and infinitely more scary; crocodiles are predators, and territorial, but not necessarily loners.  They also don't kill people for the fun of it, or leave corpses floating around in the bog.)

The horrible climax involves the girl being dragged around, half-drowned, and carried by the crocodile to a sand dune.  Sole damage to girl: a broken finger.  Then she managed to kill the croc with a single bullet from a gun that has been in the water for at least 24 hours. 

The final shot is the girl rowing out of the marsh.  It's one of those glorious stock shots, because you know what's coming: the camera pulls back, and you see a crocodile!  Or: the camera pans right, and you see a crocodile!  Or: the camera pushes forward, and suddenly a crocodile overturns the boat!  Or something.  But no.  (There is a tiny little frog-splash off-screen, but no pay-off.  Fail.)

I have a point.  What was it?  Oh, right.  I don't give a toss if you include tropes in your story, but your have to make them pull their weight.  I think sometimes people think the set dressing *is* the horror - dead bodies are scary, so having one or two cavalierly strewn about is adequate.  Dying yourself is scary, so including some random and unfair deaths is horrific.  But the more expected and mundane those elements are, the less effect their mere presence has.  Ho hum, says the player, *another* corpse?

Horror is not about the presence of horrific things, or even about horrific actions (although we're getting closer, there).  There's plenty of movies about horrific things (war, rape, murder, Enron executives) that are clearly not genre-horror.  90%, 95% of it, is atmosphere, and to do that, authors have to go there, and embrace what's happening.  Several games I felt were faintly embarrassed by their chosen genre, and never went for the potential their concepts had.  (Or were so unclear as to leave me completely puzzled as to the desired theme, story, or goal of the game.)

So: horror.  Embrace it.  Horror's a neat genre, in that the goal is to provoke emotion.  A lot of genres are defined by the props they bring: if there are unicorns, it's fantasy, if there are werewolves and London, it's urban fantasy, if there is shiny tech, it's sci fi (even if the story is all mythology, it's still classified as sci fi - ask me about Star Wars sometime.)  Horror starts with a definitive goal: make the person on the other side of the screen feel something.  Creep them out, scare them pantsless, give them pause the next time they go to turn out the lights.  Text has the power to do almost every flavor of fear out there.  You don't get jump scares, but that's cheating anyway.  But since you're doing all this with text, you have to craft your writing, even more than usual, because to be successful, you *have* to tap into players' emotions.

In other news, Aotearoa is making me weep soft tears of joy.  The tutorial mode is sort of like a overly friendly puppy that just has to sit on your lap and lick your face this instant, but man.  I want to take this game home and pet it and feed it and call it George.

Ranting aside, I enjoyed this comp way more than last year's.  Better games, I think, and being in the community some really has helped.  I've had a couple interesting dialogs with authors.  I feel burned out, though.  I just don't feel like playing *that much* IF, and I'm sort of embarrassed to realize it.  I don't mind playing 50 hours of video games in six weeks.  But I'm slower with text, and I like time to process everything. 

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