Sunday, September 7, 2014

IntroComp Review Index

This is a review index for IntroComp 2014. It is post-dated to after the competition.

My expected rankings:

1. Appearance of Doubt
2. Cuckold's Egg
3. Going Down (though the other two entries I tested could get swapped for this)

Tester Comments:

Reviewer Comments:
1st and last of the Ninjas, by nmelssx
Bridges and Balloons, by Molly Greene
Cuckold's Egg, by Veronica Devon
Devil in the Details, by Jerry Ford
Mount Imperius, by Kaleidofish
Tales of the Soul Thief, by David Whyld

Saturday, September 6, 2014

The Cuckold's Egg, by Veronica Devon

This was my favorite game of the ones I didn't test by a good way, and the title alternately grabbed me and worried me at the same time. When I was a kid, I heard the word and wondered if it was some sort of bird. Then I found out later. I'm not big on sex and sexuality in games, except for cheap sex jokes that don't offend anyone, or making fun of people who think they are risque and talking about sex too much. So I'm grateful this didn't have any of that nonsense.

I in fact managed to enjoy this game without looking up important terms in a book I'd started with, the Book of Lies. I didn't even realize I had a book. Somehow, I managed just to muddle around and get interested enough in the game without taking inventory, which says a lot (good) about its immersiveness. There's the Book, along with your notebook (which lists the tasks you need,) and working through the game without looking them up adds a bit of mystery. Nothing is too complex. But your power as a member of the Apostasy, which is very anti-religion and law-and-order, comes through. People act differently once they know who you are.

Then there's a dream sequence at the end. It's a bit different based on what you did, and I was interested enough, I looked through. In fact, I found two ways to get housing, and both were--well--forceful. It paints the character as dark, but also worried about the darkness of the Apostasy and whatever it opposed. This is good writing, which goes beyond straight fiction, and if it doesn't consider a multitude of possibilities, it gives the reader enough what-ifs to keep looking through.

The main thing I could think of is, list the subject so read in the Book of Lies. This is already getting pretty small, though.

Mount Imperius, by Kaleidofish

This work establishes itself quickly as an adventure, where you climb one of seven of the biggest mountains on various continents. I don't climb mountains and never will, but I like the concept immediately.

The author then establishes conflicts between the player and their expedition mates--some plan poorly, some are too bossy, and the player themselves almost got killed. This is all more than adequate, but I'd like to see more of it. The player never gets to do anything, only see the footnotes, and I was disappointed that the first real choice, where you must chase after lost mates, gave 'TO BE CONTINUED' both ways. Even different paragraphs before this message would've helped--as it is, I felt, well, my choices don't matter. And even if they don't, the player needs to feel that they do.

Seeing this left me feeling a bit ripped off. I'd have liked to see some sort of timing puzzle, or using inventory, or even a way to negotiate between squabbling expedition-mates. The characters, situation and tension are all there. It doesn't have to be something big. But it shouldn't be limited by what seems like the author not wanting to make any mistakes. I think the writing I saw was good enough, another paragraph summarizing what was ahead would've worked well.

Speculative ranting is ahead--the thing is, I'm partial to 'text adventure' as a term over 'Interactive Fiction.' The term IF has its own pitfalls. You can just say, I'll write some fiction, and oh, I'll add a few options I guess the player would like, and wham! It's interactive! Unfortunately I feel that that is as interactive as a gimmick book with pockets or whatever in its pages. And this effort falls into that trap.

The term text adventure, to me, nudges the programmer to give the player an adventure, a set of real choices, and most importantly, not the temptation of a cop-out just to read footnotes if they feel like it, where in this case the footnotes are not immediately visible. Text adventure has its own pitfalls, as in, the author can make the choices too obscure. But they're ones I'd rather see, although I have to admit, I'd like to have a walkthrough handy in that case. You can see what the author was thinking, even if it was something crazy, and you can get something from that. But in this case, the otherwise solid writing is, well, just solid writing.

1st and Last of the Ninjas, by nmelssx

Well, Spring Thing had 3 ChoiceScript games, and one included stats and pulled it off fairly well. That'd be the game that won Spring Thing, "The Price of Freedom: Innocence Lost." And I liked how Through Time used some relatively simple variables to track your progress through a time paradox. In fact, I thought it made the best use of the three games.

This game tried for full-blown RPG stats, and I probably got bogged down in the RPG too much. I found a lot of bugs--infinite gold (I think I bought ramen before doing anything,) unexpected death, and also not being able to use the map after typing in a password twice after getting killed. I didn't really have any idea how good I was supposed to be before starting out, and the clicking around got frustrating. The "previous page" option did not work so well. It's frustrating as I often had to click on items and work in a certain order just to get things going. I also got into semi-traps where my only option seemed to be to break into a shop--I wasn't warned they were closed--but I could just click on the inventory, instead.

So the game allows itself plausible ways out, but people don't play games to say "Oh, that was frustrating, but I can see how something simple would've worked if I really thought about it." And I don't think authors want to have their players saying that, but that's what happens when the game design doesn't fit the tool.

I think this sort of game would be better off in Twine, which handles variables better. But even so, the double text and typos and lack of incisive text didn't leave me optimistic. I have to admit, I enjoyed writing an RPG, myself, way back when--I recognize it might not be so fun to play, now, and I think it must be tough to realize that the excitement over tools that -can- do something doesn't mean that they are good at doing something. It's also tough to judge how players will react to something you found easy to program, or you think you programmed as best you could. As someone who doesn't like clicking around that much, I found the game exhausting, and it fell into the same trap that A Game of Life and Death did.

This feels like a beginning effort, and the author shouldn't feel ashamed. It's tough to know where the players find pitfalls.

Bridges and Balloons, by Molly Greene

Games or books about talking animals are almost always fun, and this effort is, if a bit short. However, I think it uncovers one of the big problems I have with Twine, or with how it is now: there is too much linearity, and no real chance for mistakes, and everything can be funneled to an ending that makes me wonder if I wasn't better off just reading a book. I never get the chance to do something crazy (even having an obviously silly choice would be fun here,) and really, I like having some chance to make errors, because it does add a certain color to things.

I hope the game, if the author goes through with it, invokes rudimentary inventory or variables. I think Bound, by Starfinger X, does a good job of showing how variables work in Twine. I know there are others. But it is relatively simple, and while it's nice to be able to make something CYoAish with a clear plot and fun characters, I'd like to see a bit more given how powerful Twine is. Not using all the big features--but there are so many that are easy in Twine but tougher in a formal programming language, I'd like to see people risk it.

More seriously, I think things cut off before anything really serious happens. I mean, I like having the cliffhanger, but the choices I saw generally looped back to each other. The game was quick enough that I was able to check. So it's nicely inoffensive, and I like what's there. But it just feels like escapism now. My guess is that the author hemmed themselves in by the concept of an introduction, because I felt like the game just cut off.

Devil in the Details, by Jerry Ford

It's good to have a TADS game, and it's good to have a Trizbort map, too. The subject matter is interesting, as well.

But I found this game somewhat tough to get through. Part of this was due to the disambiguation problems (e.g. between the matrix of 300a, 300b and 300c, and the slot, door and doorbell,) and part was that--well, some of the details were devilish. So much so that I was reminded of the Terrible Trivium from the Phantom Tollbooth instead of the Devil him/her/itself. It took a while to SEARCH LEFT FLAP (I tried to open the flaps on my cargo shorts) to get going, and this cost time and effort.

The game picks up after that. The action at the bus stop is rather good. But it seems like an awful lot of detail is added to places that don't need it, maybe as an artifact of remembering what adventure games were like, or of not realizing the pitfalls players unfamiliar with the game can look into.

This game quite simply made it too difficult to do the necessary things to get it going in places. I know that, when I started, I expected I had to do this sort of thing, too. But I don't. Perhaps it would have been easier to go with, say, a multiple choice menu, or even to ASK LUCY ABOUT (whatever). I took several tries to get where I could take the bus, and while part of that was due to impatience before a deadline, the introduction to a game should be smooth, even if it discusses bumpy issues or plot.

That said, the major bugs can be fixed, and the writing and planning show enough talent that I believe the author can do this. Even if I can only read the walkthrough-flyby, I'm interested, darn it. I have the feeling the author made certain parts more difficult than they needed to be out of obligation to standards they guessed were the case and weren't sure why (from playing really old text adventures,) and not because they were trying to frustrate the player. It's a matter of finding ways to push the moral dilemmas you really want to discuss to the forefront. So, yeah, re-read the player's bill of rights and also maybe see Aaron Reed's Inform 7 book (even if you're a TADS programmer) or at least his Sand-Dancer code, which is understandable even without Inform knowledge, and that'll help a lot.