Review – The Traveller

The first thing that caught my eye in the blurb was that the estimated time to complete this work is greater than two hours. I expect that will dissuade many potential players — we will see after IFcomp is tallied how many people voted on this story. It is also a disincentive for judges, since only the first two hours of interaction will count towards the assigned score for the competition. With so many games in this year’s bumper crop, the long ones are likely to sink towards the bottom of people’s playlists unless the author is well known. I read through one iteration of the story top to bottom in about an hour and a half, and I wasn’t pushing hard, so in fact, I think most players will get through this in under two hours and hope it gets played.

The annotation of “headphones recommended” may also turn off some players — me, for example. A more helpful description would say whether sound effects are optional or essential to the story. If there are audio clues that are not rendered alternatively in text, I cannot turn the volume all the way down without fear of missing something. From an accessibility standpoint, if there is important audio content, it would be best practice to make sure that the game could be played without audio as well. In the case of this story, the sound effects are not required, they are just there for background and atmosphere. I turned down my volume and found that they enhanced the game.

Some of the twine stories in this comp incorporate the occasional picture in the flow of text, but this story reverses that: All of the text is displayed over custom-drawn background illustrations. Text is displayed in very small chunks, usually a sentence at a time, and the reader moves through the story by clicking on the text. Each click clears the existing text and prints a new sentence towards the bottom of the screen. Every refresh does not load a new background picture; I can only imagine that if that were the case, this story would have taken a few more years to produce. It also would have been distracting. One illustration stays in place for a few screens of text, and often the same illustration is used later or with slight modification at a later point in the story.

Regarding the need to click on sentence after sentence, at first I found it tedious and felt like I was doing more work than really necessary (the age of the Jetsons has arrived – my button finger got tired), but after a while, I stopped paying attention and just followed the story. I thought it was a curious decision for the author to make until I tried playing the game on a phone. In portrait mode, the image is centered and left and right borders crop in, so not all of the visual information comes through. However, the amount of text displayed is ideal. Any more and the font would begin to get too small for casual reading. Clicking through the text on the phone also felt more natural than left-clicking on my laptop’s touch pad. In landscape mode the whole drawing is visible and the text still looks okay, but I was more comfortable viewing the game in portrait orientation.

The only UI improvement I would suggest would be to make the title of the speaker more distinct from the text that is spoken. To convey dialogue, the name of the speaker appears in bold white font, and then immediately underneath is the spoken text. I agree with the general convention, which avoids quotation marks, but thought it would work better if the speaker title were just a bit more different style, maybe just color, and if there were a fractionally larger vertical space between that title and the dialogue. I’m also aware that in designing content for web browsers, that no design will please everyone.

[Some spoilers follow beyond this point]

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Review – Charlie The Robot

Most twine games are text first, visual later, but playing Charlie The Robot felt at times more like watching an interactive movie than reading a CYOA book. This author clearly knows how to bend the twine platform to his will. The inclusion of blinking elements, color shifting backgrounds, animated sequences, and even embedded videos could have been a discordant train wreck, but the grab bag of visual effects serves the story well.

If I had to describe this story in terms of other familiar works, I would say that it is what you might get if you tossed The Office (British version), Steve Jackson’s Paranoia game, and the movies Brazil, and Blader Runner into a blender, and poured the results into a web browser.

[Some spoilers follow beyond this point]

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Review – Rage Quest: Disciple of Peace

This is a nicely presented, relatively short Twine game that shares some of its DNA with a Choice Of Games story. Pages are a few paragraphs long, followed by a series of choices, most often two or three, but sometimes more. There are a few parameters along the top of the screen, shown as linear gauges with superimposed numerical values: health, rage, discipline, and claws. There is no back button, so on any given run through the game, there is no taking back actions, and players have to live with their choices.

As the blurb indicates, the player must choose a path through the story, either suppressing or giving into their natural bloodlust. Most choices dial up or down the rage and discipline counters, so the player has some immediate feedback of the degree to which they have turned to the dark side.

[Some spoilers follow beyond this point]

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Review – Future Threads

My interpretation of the cover art and blurb weren’t too far off for this short to medium length parser-based game. There isn’t too much I can say without entering spoiler territory, but I will remark on the long list of extensions employed in the game, including some written by the author. Some relate to the game’s most visible design element, a graphic pane for a game map, but most provide subtle functionality that gives the game a polite, polished feel.

Integrating graphics into an Inform game is not trivial, even with the extensions. Last year, I started looking into various options for graphics and found that a lot of the libraries that worked with earlier versions of Inform no longer worked with the most recent release, and that some were not being maintained. Compared to past years, I found multiple versions of some extensions and spent quite a while digging through revision histories and figuring out compatibilities, dependencies, etc., so I appreciate the effort that this author went through. The map in the game works well even when the interpreter windows is smushed, stretched, minimized, etc., and it updates smoothly when the characters change locations.

[Some spoilers follow beyond this point]

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Review – Escape From Terra

This is an ambitious game with a fun style, but I consider it unplayable in its present state. There’s no hint of proofing or play testing, and the implementation is paper thin. There are confusing parser responses, logical inconsistencies, undescribed objects, narrow vocabulary for understanding objects, and I came across one run time error. Most significantly, there are guess-the-verb issues that players cannot avoid or work around. In summary, it’s a Spring Thing sized romp written to the standards of a SpeedIF.

[Some spoilers follow beyond this point]

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Review – The Very Old Witch and the Turnip Girl

This short hypertext story punches above its weight. It’s not that much to look at for the most part: the typography is unremarkable, there are the usual hyperlinks, and the text is displayed is reasonable chunks of a paragraph or two. It looks as plain vanilla as can be, and as it gets rolling, it wouldn’t be unreasonable for the reader to think that this will pan out as a typical fairytale involving a witch.

However, this is a modern story; it just happens to involve a witch. I realized that we were headed in a different direction when she complained not so much about the infirmities of old age, but the coming to pass of four live action chipmunk movies. What a world, what a world.

[Some spoilers follow beyond this point]

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Review – The Castle of Vourtram

I had a favorable first impression when I started playing from the “play online” link. The initial screen is nicely laid out in a somewhat fancy font and displaying useful info like license, version, title, and the introduction itself. I had just started playing when I got called away, so I closed the game and took it up again at home. When I relaunched offline, all the text was rendered in a monospace font. It looks like the font information must reference some web resource, so if you want to see it at its prettiest, better to play online.

Before commenting on the story, I would like to mention two interface features that I thought were very considerate: First, the prompt about whether to play the game with music or silent; glad to see that is becoming an expected feature for works that incorporate sound. Next, a hamburger menu button in the upper right corner that brings up additional options including a way to report bugs to the author.

[Some spoilers follow beyond this point]

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IFcomp: Halfway There

I have now played through and posted reviews for thirty-nine games in this year’s IFcomp. I understand that NOIR was withdrawn due to an issue with pre-comp release, so I am roughly halfway through this year’s official offering. I think that’s enough to get a snapshot of where games are falling in terms of my preliminary scoring:

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Review – Rainbow Bridge

This is a short and sweet parser game built around a central puzzle. The goal of the puzzle is presented immediately and the player is guided through the first step towards that goal in a sort of tutorial. The first few commands in the game are essentially overridden with railroaded conversation to provide exposition. I appreciated the clear instructions about what to do, but thought that there was just a tad too much handholding in these initial scenes.

[Some spoilers follow beyond this point]

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