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Jay Is Games CGDC#7 Thoughts

Unlike the IFComp, there was no rule in the CGDC that forbade authors from commenting during the judging period. Even so, I didn’t feel inclined to comment publicly on other people’s games during the competition itself. Knowing how much I like receiving feedback, and how helpful it is in terms of making the game better in subsequent releases, I did privately send some comments and transcripts to a few game authors.

I haven’t played through all thirty games in the comp (notably, Ka and Roofed are still on my to-play list), but I’d like to jot down a few quick impressions of what impressed me in this batch of games. I’m not going to do into detail on each game, although there are some excellent reviews by Emily Short , Matt Weiner, Matt Wigdahl, and the fluffy bunny known only as “gruelove“.

These aren’t listed in order of preference; in fact, every time I look at the list, the games slide back and forth. Each of them has unique strengths, and that’s what I’d like to highlight here:

Dual Transform:  Like Byzantine Perspective and Earl Grey from the 2009 IF Comp, Dual Transform has a brilliant central gimmick. That’s not to say it’s a one-trick pony, though. The mechanism is quickly discovered by the player, but then has to be used repeatedly but in different contexts throughout the game. Knowing about the mechanism does not spoil its ability to subsequently serve as a puzzle.  Amongst the games in this comp, I’d say that Dual Transform makes the best use of the IF medium.

Typically, when I begin a game, my first move is to turn on transcript recording (beta-testing habits die hard) and then run through some orientation commands like “help”, “about”, “credits”, “hints”, “x me”, “i”.  If the responses are null, null, null, null, as good as ever, and carrying nothing, I know I’m likely  in for a suboptimal experience. In this case, I’m sure the absence of help, etc., was not an authorial oversight or laziness, but intentional. After a couple of moves, it is clear although descriptions are short and text is relatively sparse, there was no skimping on implementation. All the senses are covered, there is depth to explore, and there is a sense of internal consistency that does not jibe well with this game having been written by a first time author (which, indeed is the case, as the author, Nigel Smith, turns out to be none other than Andrew Plotkin!).

I’m not sure if the omission of the help/about/etc., was intended to reinforce the cover identity, or a decision made to avoid distracting the player from the plot. The game is so well implemented that even the puzzle challenged (me, for instance) could get through it without hints or other explanations. The work is lean and focused on its goal, but its conciseness is a plus — in a Strunk & White or K&R sense). This is definitely the sort of game I’d put in front of someone who isn’t sure whether they’d like IF, and then watch them play it over their shoulder.

Party Foul: I appreciate the number of games in the CGDC#7 that put some creative spins on escaping. In terms of setting, Hoosegow was very conservative — escape from a jail cell — but no game gave me the visceral sensation of wanting to escape so much as Party Foul. It probably reflects my social graces, but being trapped at a dinner party full of mundane people is my idea of the center ring of hell. The situation and characters in Party Foul are the most memorable of the competition, particularly Abbey. She filled me with much the same queasy dread as Lottie in Sarah Morayati’s Broken Legs. In fact, the two pieces have a lot in common. Both were probably the best out and out writing in their respective competitions, although I found the puzzles easier to navigate in Party Foul (we’ll have to see what the post-comp-comp brings for the revised Broken Legs). I didn’t find myself stymied by the puzzles, although I did at some points find myself limited by what the character was willing to do — pouring a drink into the toaster, stealing the dish soap, kicking in the TV set. In the same way that the player begins to yearn for sinfulness in Jim Aikin’s Heavenly, I would have like to have seen what would happen had the protagonist been able to snap and engage in inappropriate behavior. At the same time, though I can appreciate that this would open up a huge range of possibilities that would be difficult to program and weave into such a coherent story. BTW, it is well worth checking out the amusing items at the end of the game, some of them are gems.

Monday 16:30: Although this game made an effort to point out every cliché of the Escape Games genre, it had a very fresh feel to it. I am stunned that this author learned I7 in the course of writing this game, and even more stunned to find that such colloquial and flowing prose was written by someone whose mother tongue is not English. From the quality of the game, I would easily have assumed that it was written by a native speaker with several years of I7 programming under his belt. Things I liked: 1) the sense of time; 2) the sense of time distorted by caffeine (something I think we can all relate to); 3) the seamless implementation of sublocations à la Shade; 4) the gnome.  Finally, how many games can convey so much about the NPCs (the girl next door, the gnome) without uttering a word? The game did a great job of teaching everything from how to run the copier to how to fold exotic animals out of paper. I’d consider this game the second best use of the medium for what it did with miming. There are lots of solutions to the issue of conversation in IF, and very often some way has to be found to limit the range of topics and responses. This game turns that programmatic limitation into a strength and builds it into a well-integrated puzzle. This is the sort of game that I find myself thinking about for quite a while after I play it.

Fragile Shells: Very often, there isn’t much science in the science fiction, but I had no gripes on that account when it came to Fragile Shells. The level of detail and explanation made the situation believable and  concrete. The implementation was very smooth and I so far as I can tell, the programming was flawless. The puzzles made good use of materials that might reasonably be at hand.

Trapped in a space suit with limited oxygen, on board powerless space station which has been ripped open to space and sports jagged metal everywhere presents the player with an urgent need to escape, and to do it quickly. I appreciated that while the main issue was to get into the escape capsule, there was a lot of back story just below the surface in this work.

The Usher: The implementation in the Usher is not as smooth as in these other games, but the story, imagery, and humor are strong. There was a lot of creativity in both what is seen in the game and what is alluded to as background for the story. The game does a good job of sticking to the single room theme while not having everything jumble up — the downstairs, upstairs, coffin, and climb up to the skylight are sufficiently separate to avoid confusion. I played this game early in the competition and I suspect that many of the items that were more programming-related have already been improved by feedback. I’d be eager to try out the next game Branden Rishel and Daphne Gabrieli write.

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