2021 French Interactive Fiction Competition

The French interactive fiction competition went live over this last weekend with ten games maintaining a fairly consistent ratio of about ten to one with IFcomp over the last few years. A variety of authoring systems were employed including Moiki, Ink, Inform 6, Ren’Py, and Various flavors of Twine. Play time ranged from about fifteen minutes to about two hours.

As in previous iterations of the competition, judges vote on the games by assigning a score from one to ten in the following categories: Overall best work, Technical Quality, Quality of Writing. There is also a special prize for the story that best captures the yearly theme, this year “Ruins and Decay”. Voting is open through 10 January using an online form that can be completed in French or English.

I played the games in a random order and will review them in the same order, below. Note that the competition allows online handles or pseudonyms, some author names might be revised when results are announced.

Poussière d’Asphalte

This was written in Moiki by Tristan Bruneau. Before I discuss the story, I should probably say a word about Moiki, as it is a relatively new authoring tool for producing branching narratives. An online editor allows for a graphic layout of story flow, somewhat along the lines of Twine, with nodes and connectors. The editor also makes it easy to incorporate sound and icons into the story. I saw a number of shorter works produced earlier this year in the Partim 500 game jam, and it looks many authors have been able to get up to speed quickly with this very accessible tool. An interview with the developer of Moiki, Clément, was posted last year on the main French IF site.

As for the game itself, you play as an android who has regained consciousness after who knows how many years offline. Luckily, you are not alone: an embedded artificial intelligence named SALVA is there to provide some guidance. After such a long hibernation, not all your systems are what they once were, so SALVA will try to help you stay functional long enough to find power, repairs, and of course, humans.

Rather than immediately go explore the post-apocalyptic landscape in every possible direction, which is probably not feasible from a resources perspective, you conduct an analysis and simulate what you would probably find. This framing device provides an early branch point, and the game returns here providing a sense of progress as you complete analysis of each branch. Finally, there is an endgame portion with final choices and consequence.

Conversation in IF can be difficult, but the “character plus sidekick” arrangement often works well. Conversing with SALVA affords the player to establish their own personality and sets up SALVA as a cautious and pragmatic but loyal foil.

There is a lot of story here, and I found the writing enjoyable. The text shares screen space with a few unobtrusive game elements. Along the various paths, there are items to collect, and these show up as unlocked achievements. There is also a numerical display in a corner showing how many of the games passages you have seen. Someone bent on seeing every last bit of the game could indeed be sure whether they had or not.

Overall, this was one of the two best games in this year’s competition and is a good proof of concept that excellent, long form works can be written using Moiki.

Station spatiale S16 – Prologue

This was written in Inform 6 by Stormi. I should mention up front that it is not a full story, but is as the title states, a very serviceable prologue that introduces setting, characters, and core game principles.

I was very impressed with the first bit, where the player character is strapped to a flight couch while en route from the mothership to a space station. During that transit, there is the opportunity for good, very natural seeming and informative dialogue over the radio with another character back on the mothership. The programming manages to keep the player engaged, with something happening on each turn and avoids instances of “dead air”, where the player feels trapped or unsure of what to do.

Towards the end of that sequence, there is a bit of excitement during which the author has well anticipated the sorts of things a player might attempt. The same is true of points later in the game, where player actions have wider scope, so Stormi must either have very good instincts or have had good feedback from beta-testers.

I did get hung up a bit on the last puzzle, which establishes a motif for the rest of the game. In order to make progress the game, the player must take illogical actions. I do foresee a potential problem with this mechanism: while it is easy to write puzzles with few solutions, the universe of illogical things a player could do is huge. I assume that when Stormi fleshes out the rest of the game, some additional constraints will have to be added to narrow the possible solution space and avoid player frustration.

I am certainly looking forward to the next installment of this game!

Une Vie Entière

This was written in Ink by Doublure Stylo and like Station Spatiale, is the initial portion of a longer game, but even so is fairly extensive. The story is literally the story of someone’s life — from the point of birth forward, and all the choices that go with it.

As a baby, I had to think about weighty matters like will I smile, babble, cry, try to walk, and so on. Every action taken had consequences; at this early point, most of the world evolved around my relationship with my parents, but the game provides a link to stats such as relation with parents, health, money, understanding of the world, empathy, and self-esteem.

This demonstration version of the game ends around the age of entering school, so I had really just scratched the surface with my toddler antics.

I found the game a little slow off the ground, which is understandable in that babies are characterized by limited autonomy, and perhaps that realization is part of the game. Surely, when the player starts running around, playing, talking, meeting people and so on, there will be more opportunity to develop a personality in one direction or another. When the whole game is written it will be easier to figure out if pacing needs to be adjusted during this first portion.

This game reminds me a bit of Jérémie Pardou’s 2020 game, Karma Manager in the sense that it tells the story of someone from birth to death and exposes underlying parameters that can be affected by game play. Relative to that game, this one is much more granular, feels less random and procedural, and benefits from better prose.

Atlantide: La quête de la cité engloutie

This was written in Twine by Bryan, a name that I have often seen during my lurkings on the French IF Discord server. I’m glad to see he has tried his hand as an author.

In this short game, you and a bunch of other recent graduates are on summer vacation in Italy, when you come across some ruins. Reading a Latin inscription kicks off an adventure in the tradition of Greek Mythology – the gods propose challenges and you need to rise to the occasion. I’m a little confused why we’re running into the Greek rather than Roman version of the gods, but why quibble? The gods are inscrutable.

It is not always possible to figure out which choices will please the gods, but I suppose that has always been the case. In any event, although there are “wrong” choices, negative consequences are limited and in the end the player will end up on the right path.

La Faille

This story was written by Chester in Ren’Py, a cross-platform scripting tool for creating visual novels. I have to admit that I came to the game with a slight negative bias because visual novels are not usually my cup of tea — I usually find the pacing tedious, writing so-so, and interactivity marginal. Imagine how surprised I was when I realized that this is not only the best game in this competition, but up way up there where the air is thin in terms of some of the best interactive fiction that I have played. I think this story would place in the top five or so in your average IFComp.

Before discussing the story, a bit about the medium: visual novels typically display a background image that provides setting and sprites in the foreground representing characters with whom you can interact. Text is presented a line or two towards the bottom of the screen, with longer passages displayed line by line with multiple taps on the space bar. The character sprites are usually slightly animated — eye blinks, changes in posture, hand gestures, but far short of full animation (but also much more within the grasp of a single designer/writer versus an entire graphics team). I believe that visual novels are more popular in Japan and would say that this one bears strong design influences from Japanese media. And… that’s where my knowledge about VNs ends.

In this story, you are one of six students on a school trip to the countryside. As mentioned above, one of the hardest tasks in IF is conversation, but this story manages meaningful, plot-advancing, empathy-evoking conversation with all of these characters. Further, the ability to bring one, two, five, etc., characters in or out of scenes leads to many potential paths and keeps the player focused as the story progresses.

The story itself has depth and feeling. When I started the game I was dreading that this school trip would turn out to be a teen dating simulator or something of the sort — I am glad that I was dead wrong. This is a first class sci-fi story.

I usually find graphics and sound distracting, but they really worked here, probably because they are so well integrated. Only when the final credits rolled did I realize just how extensive the media assets were: incidental music, foley effects, scenery and the sprites.

Goduality

Goduality is self-described as a Space Opera and was written in Twine by Valentin “Samus” Thomas. It is ambitious in the way that Space Operas can be, with extensive worldbuilding. However, it just did not resonate for me. There is a lot of text and as I waded deeper and deeper, I found that I was not following the story very well — it could well be that my French just isn’t up to this challenge. It reminded me of when I picked up the Simarillion at the age of 10 and only later realized that I should have been reading The Hobbit instead.

Kerguelen 1991

This atmospheric story about a writer seeking inspiration at a desolate outpost was written in Ink by Xavier Direz. It is a relatively short, but takes an entertaining twist at the end. It also manages to implement a verbal version of the Towers of Hanoi puzzle (thankfully, a relatively simple version of it), so extra points for that.

Sur Le Temps – Capitaine

This game was written in Twine by Bstrct. The player is the captain of an ocean-going sailing ship that transports cargo. Game play consists of issue orders and short texts that describe the result. The range of options is fairly limited; after playing a while I did not get the sense that there is some grander story buried beneath the sailing simulation, so I called it quits. If I am missing something, though, please let me know.

Le Donjon De BatteMan

This is an old school adventure game in the sense of waking up without memory in a dark monster-filled dungeon and learning through multiple deaths — but it works, largely because the humor is spot on. I really enjoyed playing it.

Not that I did well — mostly a reflection of how poorly I do at solving puzzles in parser games. I died a lot, but at least the deaths were entertaining. Also, the game pulled its punches a bit; in a sense deaths turned out to be so lethal as advertised. From the standpoint of Zarfian Cruelty, this game is polite, so there really is no harm in the occasional fatal misstep.

Like Station Spatial 16, this game is a very well written parser game, with deep implementation of everything that matters, good anticipation of player responses, and some nice flourishes.

One interesting side note mentioned in the PDF document that accompanies this game: the game was developed on an Amiga. Since the game is available as a *.z5 file, it of course runs on any number of systems that z-machine interpreters.

Reading through the PDF document, it is clear that BatteMan has been bitten hard by the IF bug and has been absorbing IF culture like a sponge over the last year. That zeal coupled with strong writing instincts leads me to think that BatteMan will be a rising star on the IF scene in the years to come.

Dernières heures avant liquidation

This game was written in Twine by Fabrice G. The other Twine games in the competition used more or less a default format, but this one has a customized appearance with the screen formatted into several functional text boxes. I believe the other Twines were all written in Harlowe, but if I am not mistaken, this one was based on SugarCube.

This story is set in a distant future in which the world is run by the mafia. Your family is up to their ears in hock to the mob, and time is running out. A side bar puts this in stark terms: how much time is left, how much you have on hand, how much you owe, and how many goons are in your employ.

Game play consists of a cycle of taking on jobs for the mob, making some choices during commission of your various crimes, and then sorting the consequences, particularly how much money you made and how much time it took off your clock.

No matter how good a criminal you are, you cannot make enough to pay the debt off on the first go, so when you fail (and find yourself sleeping with the fishes), you continue to play as the next head of the family to inherit the debt. All the while, interest accumulates on the debt, so it is a race between your illegal earnings and the compounding debt.

Summary

The yearly Francophone IF Competition continues to grow, to discover new talent, and to demonstrate innovative tools for development of interactive fiction.

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