TWIFcomp: Some analysis

TWIFcomp, with its first prize of duct tape, was never meant to be a very serious competition, and I am pleased to say that most people took it at face value. Nonetheless, a number of very clever and even thought-provoking works were submitted. This is a post about the entries. In a couple days I’ll post another one about lessons learned in running a comp. Note: The final scores just went up on the main TWIFcomp page.

I’ve noted a few comments in blogs that the games are not much fun as games, and I don’t think that is much of a surprise given the constraint (with the obvious exception of one game which gleefully found a way around the size limitations). However, I would say that almost all the games are playable in some sense. When I wrote the rules, I had thought that the one that would draw the most debate would be: “The game must be interactive.” I guess everyone is at least intuitively onboard with Crawford at this point, and we all recognize interactivity when we see it. In looking over the voting, I have the sense that there is a strong correlation between interactivity (as I understand it) and score.

For me, what set one game apart from the next in TWIFcomp was wizardry. Every game in the comp accomplished the unlikely feat of coding a game in 140 characters. However, some games went a step further, continuing past “unlikely”, and moving into “improbable”, “impossible”, and “ZOMG, how the hell did they do that?” categories. It wasn’t enough to write a game in TWIFcomp, but to write a game with style. It’s not just a game, it’s an aesthetic. As the games began to drift in during the first week in increasingly exotic and densely written code, I was put in mind of the realm of obscure and obfuscated coding described in a paper by Nick Montfort. A lot of the TWIFcomp games have a similar mixture of playfulness and technical virtuosity.

The game METEOR could have been coded in any language, but it was written in BASIC — in all capital letters. Aside from the nostalgic appeal of BASIC, the capital lettering shouts at you. METEOR! The world is facing fiery annihilation, so this only seems natural. The player’s only option is the one that is required to start every BASIC program. Expression is so limited in 140 characters that the choice of language itself becomes a statement. The medium, or in the case its encoding, is the message.

A number of the games take advantage of the player’s expectation of IF. They print a “>” prompt and await input. However, these games are not backed up by the full weight an IF development language like TADS or Inform, they just look the part. The prompt is a facade, and the game either ignores the input, twists it programmatically, or parses out a narrow set of keywords. My favorite example is Travel, which the author describes a comprehensive travel simulator, allowing travel anywhere. It doesn’t really have much of a sense of what you enter, but it does manage to convey an impression of understanding. A-small-casual-game… also does a good job in keeping the player busy, and includes a termination condition. Neither of these is a sophisticated ELIZA-like conversation simulator, and the Turing Test has nothing to fear from these games, but considering the severe restriction in program length, they do an amazing job. The game I have hands and I’m ready to LOOT! satisfies the typical player’s natural urge to take everything in sight — and it gets super-extra points for implementing the game as a series of MS-DOS batch files.

Early in the comp, Andrew Plotkin had posted that he suspected there would be a limited number of types of story that could be told in 140 characters, and this seems to more or less be the case. I’ve tried to bin the games into categories. Some do not fit these categories, or at least not comforably, while others fit into more than one category. This system is not as classy as Jungian archetypes, nor as comprehensive as TV tropes, but here you go:

1) Life’s a bitch – You do something and then you die. It’s interactive in a fatal kind of way. This game can be written in almost any game system or general language, where there is provision for input and for termination of the program. It may convey meaning, but it’s unlikely to be a fan favorite or have much replayability. The games in this category includes those where you invariably die (predestination, nihilism: Short-Lived, Roulette, Untitled, Raison d’être, raison de ne pas être), those where you have some agency to decide your fate but lack information to make a rationale choice (absurdity: Burning, DecisionsDecisions, The Mourning Do in Pinellas Park, Buttons), and those where you can choose to live or die (free will: 43 and the closely related To be or not to be). I’d venture that the last category isn’t really free will in the sense that players, being curious, will inevitable kill themselves to either see what happens or end the game.

2) Existence – Closely related, there are a number of games, where there is no central choice of living or not. The player’s state is alive, but without meaning. I was a little surprised that no one reworked “Waiting for Godot” in this category. Both Void and the TWIFplus game Space are very much in this vein, though. Dementia an epilogue also fits this category and suggests that meaningless existence leads to madness.

3) The Surreal – IF worlds may be creative, but they usually follow enough of the rules of the real world to allow the player to interact with the story and appreciate causal relationships. Andrew Plotkin throws a monkey wrench in the guts of Inform to produce You see chaos here. Other games used surreal imagery and unusual goals to convey a distorted world view including Dementia: An epilogue, Burning, and COD.

4) Exploration – Location and movement are central concepts in IF. The simplest game in Inform requires that the player be in a room object. A natural extension of location is movement, and a number of games trigger some terminating condition on either the attempt (as in LP0 and Ocn bttm) or the completion of specific movements (SWEDUN, Manifest Destiny). Navigator takes this further, giving the player an infinitely large canvas to explore, although there is understandably little detail in the world model beyond location (in that regard, this game reminded me of my first fifteen minutes playing GATOR-ON, Friend to Wetlands! from the 2009 IFcomp). Tumbleweed Hero is even more free form in its exploration of the world, but provides no feedback about where you are. Considering that the main activity of a tumbleweed is tumbling around, that it has no sensory apparatus to distinguish one location from the next, and that tubmleweeds are not particularly goal-directed, this seems like an uncannily accurate simulation. It also straddles the line between this category and Existence, as it can be argued that the tumbleweed’s life is not particularly meaningful (although perhaps a tumbleweed would argue otherwise).

5) Central Riddle – There’s always been a balance in IF between story and puzzles. In 140 characters, there’s only so much you can say in terms of narrative unless you pull in additional resources. However, it is possible to implement one puzzle of the sort that might appear in a longer work. The puzzle may literally be a riddle, as in Why? or Ring, involve manipulation of an object (or text) as in Make All Sad and Escape, or consist of a classic logic puzzle as in Monty Hall.

Matt Weiner’s Sin seriescould be considered puzzle-oriented in that the reader probably brings the social context of “deadly sins” to the game, and can then try to elicit each one by guessing the corresponding action in each game. The goal of Matt’s game reminds me Jim Aikin’s Heavenly entry in the JiG CGDC#7 earlier this year, where the player is motivated to find a way to sin. I suppose that the player in both cases must be considered an anti-hero given his goal. Games with a central moral decision could be considered a subset of central riddle. The ChoiceScript games (Love, Money) by Dan Fabulich and the Sin series by Matt Weiner comprise this category.

6) Redux of a larger work (and testing the boundaries of the competition) – The most notable entry in this category was Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis, which managed to pack not only a full game into characters, but also the entire Inform development system. The entry that was submitted was actually a perl script which decompressed white space characters in the perl script itself to yield scripts, folders, to install and execute the game. In my opinion, this was damn clever, and within the rules. Yes, it was something of a perversion, but I think the author would be proud of that designation. Adventwiture also plays with the rules a bit, effectively including the entire original adventure game as a library by the TWIFcomp game. It’s a bit of the tail wagging the dog, but again entirely legal by TWIFcomp rules.Duel in the Snow: Abridged Version vaguely fits into the category as a reworking of the earlier IFcomp game.  The game does capture some of the atmosphere of the original, but I’m more inclined to put this game into the Existence category. LP0 riffs on the the current Hollywood trend of making prequels, and is presumably the (very short) story leading up to Lost Pig! Finally, a number of works draw on either external works (Daigoro, Ramirez, Zed)  or real world events (The Mourning Do in Pinellas Park) for context.

7) Pure symbolism – Language itself is bulky and full of fat. Boiling interactive games all the way down yields a few lumps of blacked, charred and (hopefully) meaningful symbols. These games are like the engravings on the Voyager space probe — the author hopes that whoever finds them can figure out their meaning from first principles. Well, in the comp the player gets a little help from the title and the description on the website. My entry “😐” was a deliberate attempt at a purely symbolic game, but the clear winner in this category was “> by @” by Aaron Reed. While I think Aaron’s description was a little tongue-in-cheek, he does manage to tell a nuanced story in pure symbols. In OOP-speak, his game is full of very overloaded operators.

Announcing TWIFcomp

I’m not sure this is a good idea, and I’m not sure what kind of response it will get, but I’ve decided to create a new IF competition — TWIFcomp.

TWIFcomp is the result of a collision between interactive fiction and today’s fast-paced thumb-typing lifestyle: all games must be 140 characters or less.

How much interactivity, character development, narrative and theme can be communicated in 140 characters? I’m not sure, but I think it would be fun to find out.  It will be a challenge to crunch games down to that density, but I assume the community is up to it.

The full details of the competition are posted on the TWIFcomp page. In two weeks, when games are posted, I will list them all on that page, and also create a blog entry for each game.

I hope this works and I get at least a few submissions. I have optimistically tagged this as “TWIFcomp2010”, but this may well be a one-shot competition.  We’ll see.

Good luck, entrants!

– Jack

p.s. If anyone has any kind of graphic arts talent, it would be spiffy to have some kind of logo for TWIFcomp.

Les méchants meurent… encore

After the French IF Comp, results, commentary and transcript were posted on the comp’s website.

Of the three games in that comp, I hadn’t gotten very far with Eric Forgeot’s Les méchants meurent au moins deux fois, so I looked through the transcripts to see how other people had gotten through it.  On second look, I would rate the game higher than previously, although still behind the other two games in the competition.

Continue reading “Les méchants meurent… encore”

Jay Is Games CGDC#7 Thoughts

cgdc #7 /> interactive fiction competition_” width=”150″ height=”150″ /></a><figcaption class=Jay is Games: Casual Game Design Competition #7

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:

Continue reading “Jay Is Games CGDC#7 Thoughts”

Hoosegow wins Casual Game Play Competition

I got an email at work earlier today congratulating me on having won the Jay is Games CGPC#7. The site is blocked by policy where I work, but I logged on with my cell phone’s little browser, read the news, and fired a message off to Ben. Up to that point, all we could see were the “hearts” ratings on the competition page (where people rate the games from one to five hearts). According to that metric, few people had played our game, and many other games had higher ratings. I’d written off even placing in the top five at that point, and was thinking that Ben and I would have to sit down after the comp to review comments and figure out where we had misjudged what would work in a casual games competition. So, it was a very pleasant surprise.

Thanks go out to everyone who worked on the game. The process for developing this game was described in issue 57 of SPAG, but briefly, we had two phases of review. First, we asked a somewhat broad group of reviewers to take a look at the plot and structure of the game, and to critique the game from the perspective of design and writing. A couple weeks later, we started rapid beta-testing cycles. Our first wave of concept reviewers included David Anderson, Conrad, Matt Wigdahl, John Lodder, Duncan Bowsman, Jenni Polodna, Sam Kabo Ashwell and Yoon Ha Lee. Our beta-testers included Adrian Colley, Beth Vanichtheeranont, Jacob Lee, John Lodder, Peter Olson, and Rob Dubbin. Sarah Morayati gets special thanks for being both an early reviewer and a tenacious beta-tester. Rochelle Lodder also deserves credit for copy editing the entire work in record time. Without all of this assistance, Hoosegow would not have been half as well-written, and would have had (at least) twice the bugs. Thanks, everyone.

Hoosegow, released

A picture of an Old West sheriff''s office
Hoosegow

After several weeks of furious work, Ben Collins-Sussman and I have released a new game, Hoosegow. The game was written for the Jay Is Games Casual Game Play Competition #7, which solicited preferably single room games, with a theme of “Escape!”

You don’t have to dig too deeply to find either element in Hoosegow. You’re in a one room jail cell, and you’re going to be hanged at dawn. It is in your best interest to escape.  Luckily, your best buddy, Muddy, is there to give you moral support, if not helpful advice on escaping.

The game was submitted to Jay Is Games on the evening of January 31st, a couple hours before the deadline. It sounds like they’ve had a good response to their call for submissions; their forum for the Casual Game Play Competition #7 indicates that 30 games have entered. These games have not yet appeared on the Jay Is Games website, but their staff are presumably getting the site ready and perhaps thumbing quickly through the games to make sure they don’t post something inappropriate for their general audience.  As soon as Hoosegow appears on the Jay Is Games site, we’d like to steer people over there to play all the submissions and vote on their favorites. In the meanwhile, the Hoosegow game file is available for download at the game’s main site. You can download the source code and walkthrough documents from the same site. For the sake of convenience, we also listed the game on the IFDb and IFwiki sites.

Catapole

chimney sweep
chimney sweep

Catapole is a cut above the other two games in the competition, and among the best games I’ve played this year. It is not necessarily a long game, but it does some serious world building. The main character, Jenker Harmlot, is a chimney sweep — apparently, one of the best, as he’s the employee of the month. He has one more chimney to clean before turning in for the evening, so he sets out on his task. Along the way, we learn a lot about him, and the society in which he lives.

Over the course of the game, we learn of some class divisions in society. There’s an above ground society, which is less and less known to the successive generations of underground workers who labor to produce power and materials for their upstairs cousins.

His assignment doesn’t go very well. His chimney sweeping partner, they guy who stays up top and lowers him down, is thrown into the chimney and sliced to pieces by fan blades. Apparently, these aren’t so much your Santa Claus type chimneys, but more the industrial kind. Who did it? Those who are intent on bringing down the class structure. They’ve specifically targeted overachieving Jenker as a message to the other workers.

After the somewhat gruesome (see, there really are grues) death of Jenker’s buddy, Markus, the game can take several courses depending on what Jenker does. The multiple endings are seamlessly integrated, and give the player a great deal of freedom is deciding what happens. Jenker can fight the resistance, he can run away, or he could even break with his mundane life, join the resistance, and end the game on the surface. Each of these is a well-written ending, although the last one feels the most satisfying.

Points are not easy to come by in this game, and I don’t think I found them all. The voice is consistent, with excellent bits of humor. Any item that is implemented is given a thorough description, although some items that are mentioned in passing are not implemented. Aside from that one criticism, though, this game gets full marks, so a nine. I think this game would have ranked amongst the top entries in the IF Comp 2009, language barrier aside.

One observation about both this game and La Chambre de Syrion: the games have some non-interactive elements, where text is revealed paragraph by paragraph, with each tap on the space bar. I remember this being very annoying in Condemned this year, but it was almost transparent in these games. I did not feel a lack of agency, even though these were essentially cut scenes. I think the difference is that the blocks of text were short: one or two lines, and not a giant text bomb. Also, this method lends itself to both establishing a sense of timing and revealing twisting plot little by little. You literally don’t see what’s coming next until you hit the space bar.

[note added in proof — originally, I had mentioned that this takes place in a society of Elves. I had written these reviews up about a week after playing all three games, and although I had my notes in front of me, I mangled it. Elves were part of Chambre de Syrion, not Catapole. I guess I had Elves on the brain, though. For some reason, I found it easy to imagine Jenker as a dark elf, like a drow. It didn’t help that I was editing Rover’s Day Out for the post-comp-comp and Hoosegow for the JiG competition at the same time. Sometimes multitasking is not a good thing. Anyhow, this was a fun game — and it won the French IF Competition for 2009. Hope to see more from all three authors next year! – Jack]

Transcript: catapole

Les méchants meurent au moins deux fois

MI5 Emblem
The emblem of MI5

From the title and the author’s pseudonym (Yann Flemmard), you can guess that this is a send up in the style of James Bond. There’s even a movie teaser cut-scene that alludes to this being a particularly low-budget super-spy production. The help menu continues the theme, with a recap of your goals provided in a Mission Impossible style message that will self-destruct.

The game begins after you’ve killed the bad guy, Maurice McVile. You weren’t supposed to have killed him, but you know how these things go. Anyhow, you’re on his secret tropical island base, standing atop his medieval castle, looking down into the court yard at his dead body…. and I’m stuck. I have to admit I can’t give the game a good rating, possibly because I’m bad at puzzles, but from my perspective, there isn’t any more game that this because I can’t get to it. Given the grading scheme for the competition, which strongly weights playability, this game can’t get a good score.

At this point, I turned to the help menu, which again provides the apparently not-so-self-destructible background information, and mentions that in game hints are available, along with a full game solution.  I tried the hints, but they were of limited assistance – they told me to look around carefully and that I already had enough to move ahead. So, I tried going every direction, examining to death everything in my environment, and carrying out every action I could think of on the trap door which is buried in the grass. The hidden trap door is not so hidden (which is good, or I would not have found it), but it has been closed from the inside, and our dead nemesis in the courtyard has the remote control.

I tried again. And again. And brought my wife to play it. And tried again. Finally, I typed “solution” to see the step-by-step full solution… only to find that this prints a blank line. This was enough to make me wonder if perhaps this is not so much a game as an introduction to a game that was not completed by the time of the competition.  Presumably, given the underground theme, the right way to go is down, so I’ll keep an eye on the forums to see if anyone can suggest how to get past the trap door.

In the mean time, the game gets a three or four. The setting and voice are pretty good, but the hint system is not helpful, and solutions system fails entirely. Perhaps a post-comp release will fix these issues and flesh out the rest of the game, which looks like it would be enjoyable.

[Note added after the contest: This game placed 3rd in the competition, and was contributed by Eric Forgeot, aka Otto Grimwald on RAIF and the forums. After playing a revision of the game dated 17 Jan 2010, I revised my opinion of the game upwards somewhat, see the later review]

Transcript: mechants2

La Chambre de Syrion

Illustration from Der Zauberlehrling
Der Zauberlehrling

The setting of this game is a little clichéd: the sorcerer’s apprentice. I think the last game I played like this category was Berrost’s Challenge in the 2008 IF Comp. These are the games where the novice protagonist is left with (or has stolen, found, inherited, etc.) some of the master’s spells and they need to prove themselves in some way to move up a wizardly rank. Given this year’s theme of underground, the twist on this story is that the PC’s master, Syrion, had his lab underground. Theme satisfied.

The spells are a mixture of extremely specific spells (a spell for opening an unopenable bottle) and general (spells for seeing more detail in things, and for making complex things simpler). As you might imagine, the bottle-opening spell portends the appearance of an unopenable bottle in the course of the game.

The king of the spells is one that gives you more detail about items. Effectively, it is a super-examine verb, and means that some items have not just a description but a meta-description. A key turning point in the game is when the player realizes that the spell can be applied not just to visible objects, but items appearing in the details of objects. This allows the player to drill down, for instance, into the contents of a painting. This literally adds depth to descriptions, and I suppose is even metaphorically consistent with the underground theme because you can dig down.

It is not a huge game: there are essentially four rooms, three underground, and once accessible by teleporting above ground. The level of detail is inconsistent. Not every item that appears in descriptions is covered by dictionary words and descriptions, but there are no gaps in the major items. The puzzles are reasonable and do allow you to exercise all of the spells. A couple of the spells are not actually helpful, but are entertaining. I did look at the hints at one point, and they are well-written and helpful. The only down side to the hints is that you can’t exit them without revealing all of them. The best you can do is look off into the distance while hitting the space bar repeatedly.

The game has a good voice, and it is interlaced with some humor, particularly in Syrion’s descriptions of his spells, which suggests that he did not particularly like his in-laws. The goal of the game is to get out of Syrion’s lair, and when you finally do so, it feels a little like the ending fizzles. You walk out the door, and there are your friends. But the game isn’t over. What more does it want? They just stand there. Finally, you have to talk to them to trigger the ending, et voilà.

This wasn’t a stellar game in terms of theme, and I would prefer a deeper implementation, but it was fun to play and fair. Given the rubric for rating these games, I’d give it a seven or eight. Four for playability, one and half to two for writing, and again one and a half for technical implementation. If I were rating it against the IF Comp 2009 games, I would have given it a seven.

[Note added after the competition: This work placed second in the competition, and was contributed by Benjamin Roux, aka Yoruk on the forum]