First, some general comments. Since the French mini-comp was not held last year, the four games submitted represent two years of production, 2012-2013. Although my French is not as good as it might be having lived a couple years in the francophone part of Belgium, I enjoyed playing through the games. The limited domain for word choice and grammatical constraints of the parser worked to my advantage.
There were two themes for this mini-comp, Africa and Female Protagonists. Authors could implement either one in whatever way they thought fit. Three went for Female Protagonist, and one for both themes (well, a female Zebra counts, right?).
Also, somehow, in downloading the games for the competition, I also grabbed “Ma princesse adorée”, by Hugo “Mule Hollandaise” Labrande, which doesn’t fit either of these categories. I think it might have been incorrectly linked to an article that pointed to the contest, or perhaps I just clicked on the wrong spot; in any event, I enjoyed playing it as well, and include a review at the end of this entry.
I will make a few general and non-spoilery observations about these works. First, it is notable that two of the games did not adopt the standard person and tense: Trac is set in the present tense, but third person. In playing that game, I noted that there was still a me/you axis between the parser (“I’m not familiar with that verb”) and the player (“Do you want to play again?”). Noir d’encre employs first person and past tense, which must have involved some significant effort in modifying the parser responses. The only quibble I have with that arrangement is that –and I don’t think it’s a spoiler for this horror genre story– some of the outcomes involve the presumed death of the main character. Who, then, is recounting the story?
Second, all of these games seem to be serious works in the sense that they were not just dashed off and sent into the competition. All of them seem to have been thoroughly proofed (although there could, I suppose, be huge errors in the French, to which I might be oblivious) and beta-tested for playability.
Third, aside from Source de Zig, which is a lighter work, I am struck by the amount of text in these text adventures. In Life on Mars, a lot of writing went into creating the emails that provide a solid backstory. In the other works, it seems to me that the amount of detail in descriptions and in responses to player actions is more complete than the more telegraphic style found in many English language works.
Finally, if I’m reading the headers correctly, Life on Mars and La Source de Zig are written in I6, which may be a reflection of the suitability of I7 for developing code in languages other than English.
From here out, there be spoilers…
In this story, you control a singing star, Danái, who finds herself on the stage and gripped by severe stage fright. Exploring everything within eye shot, you can piece together the beginnings of a strange backstory: you have history with the conductor, a former lover, and it seems that you have been around since the year 391. That revelation seemed to come out of left field, but I went with it, curious where this story was going.
In trying to simply understand the situation, I failed a few times, with the curtain crashing down on my miserable performance. After a while, I realized that the way to break through the stage fright was to remember happy times. By running through enough positive experiences (e.g., the rose, parents, violin, spectators, the public), she is able to break through her depression and overcome her stage fright. Finally, she succeeds in singing and the curtain falls to unanimous applause.
I thought that would be the end, but in the next scene backstage, Act 2, Danái is accosted by a policeman. From the first act, we had learned that the conductor, Philemon, had been tortured years ago in the Ukraine. Now, the policeman turns out to be an old enemy, Alexandre, who was the one doing the torturing. Alexandre alludes to hunting down “monsters of the last nuclear winter”, and offers to play a game of Russian roulette with the Danái. I didn’t play this out enough times to know for certain if the game is rigged, but each the diva died. I tried taking the gun, fighting, etc., but always wound up dead.
I ran out of ideas at this point. The hint system was helpful in guiding me to think about positive experiences during the first act, but had to go to the “solution” command to see what I’d missed. First, I didn’t delve deeply enough into the backstory during the first part — I was too concrete in my thinking and missed “think about the sentimental adventure”, since I was able to think about other items and get past this part of the story. Embedded in that response was mention of “the drama”, which revealed additional backstory. I also missed digging deeper on topics such as “l’infirmité” and “le problème” because I wanted to focus on positive thoughts to overcome the stage fright. Taken together, these topics provide a background about a high tech war involving biological and nuclear weapons that resulted in the rise of genetic mutations, including Philemon’s exquisite sensitivity to sound, which led to his mastery of the violin. Pursuing topics in this chain further led to thinking about a boarding school, and the scene is transported there, allowing some limited navigation. Entering the school’s office brings the action back to the stage.
In the flashback, we learn that other children in the school made fun of Danái because of the beating they felt when the put their hands on her chest. Apparently, Danái’s mutation, apart from aptitude for singing, was an additional heart. Thinking about “beating” reveals these facts, and the player is supposed to then think about the right heart, which has stopped beating subsequent to the instructions of a yoga guru who taught her how to do this, presumably in order to pass for a normal human.
Now the story made somewhat more sense. Between the reference to Melpomene, Danái’s Greek ancestry and the reference to the year 391, I had assumed, absolutely incorrectly, that she had some special power that went back to ancient times — but no, that’s totally in the wrong direction. This is set in the far future, and they must have renumbered the years after the global war.
Knowing how Act 2 ended, I guessed what role the two hearts would play in confronting an armed adversary. Sure enough, in the suggested ending, she is shot, but survives because she has started up her second heart in advance, and is able to stab the policeman with a sharp key.
I clearly went down the wrong path in this story, and while I can attribute that somewhat to poor puzzle solving and language skills on my part, I’d suggest that the game could be crafted in such a way as to prevent a player from advancing to Act 2 without hitting the critical pieces of back story. I thought I was doing well to get through Act 1, and was willing to live with some confusion about the background, which I assumed would be explained in subsequent Acts.
While the parser allows the player wide latitude of action, in fact, the player can really only do one thing of consequence: think about items and events. Within that limited action, there is a specific chain of inquiry that must be pursued to expose the core (ou, peux-je dire, «coeur»?) revelation that she has two hearts.
The game is not linear in the sense that there are multiple endings, but I would criticize its design for having one relatively narrow correct path. EIther more guidance in the hint system or some collateral paths through the game would be appreciated.
In any case, the game concept was creative. Rather than run around collect keys, open containers and doors, and so on, this is essentially a one-room game, where the game play consists of altering the PC’s state of mind and discovering her unusual story through remembrance. I’m curious to see how other players fared with this one.
Life on Mars? (8)
This story also focuses on the main character’s state of mind, with action limited to a small area and few objects. That character, Charlotte, is the sole survivor of the first human expedition to Mars. When her ship crashed, the other three crew members, were killed and all supplies aboard were lost. Consequently, she must survive the next seven months subsisting on what limited vegetables she can harvest from the greenhouse, plus some less than appetizing reprocessed protein.
Email plays a huge role in the story. With resources constrained, most of the station is shut down, and Charlotte’s fears of venturing into other areas confines the action to just a few rooms. The computer is the main interactive object, so the player will naturally delve into the extensive list of emails in Charlotte’s account. Effectively, they begin with the day of her crash, and continue into the present, with additional mails rolling in as the story progresses.
Through these emails, we come to understand Charlotte’s state of mind, not only because of what is written in the emails, but because her often snarky comments appear next to the emails in italic text on the first read through of each mail.
Significant effort went into the email system in this story. The code taps into timed events to display each line of the letter as if it were being sent through a low bandwidth (e.g., 2400 baud) connection. Some of these letters were relatively long, particularly by IF standards, and I thought this technique helped somewhat impart an anxious sense of time passing. The delay in display is not enough to be annoying, and in fact, since I don’t read French very quickly, a couple times it scrolled through the message too fast for me to follow and after hitting “space”, I missed the parenthetical remarks from Charlotte. For these, I looked back in the recorded transcript, so at least I didn’t miss them entirely.
The messages in the mail system are dated, so it is not much work to follow the events leading up to the present: the initial state of affairs after the crash, reaction from company that had sent the ship to Mars, public reaction, and so on. A few off-screen characters become established as well, including some of her coworkers and her psychiatrist.
Being both depressed and increasingly paranoid (due to her head injury or is something really going on?), Charlotte’s main motivation to move around is her stomach. She’s given up on doing any useful work, but she still has to eat.
The end of the story came about somewhat abruptly. There were hints that Charlotte might not be alone — detection of heat in one of the rooms, and then the tender robots becoming unresponsive to remote commands. At several points, Charlotte wondered if she saw something out of the corner of her eye, but had always convinced herself that she was mistaken. In the final scene, with one robot keeled over in a dark room, we learn that there apparently is life on Mars, and it doesn’t like visitors. That, or she just went entirely crazy, which I suppose is also a possibility.
This story intentionally raised some questions: was Charlotte responsible for the crash, or did she imagine that she was due to some combination of survivor’s guilt and post-traumatic stress? Was she seeing things that really were there in the station, or could her head injuries and maybe her strange diet of Martian-grown vegetables have led to delusions?
From an implementation standpoint, some strong programming chops are present. The scrolling display worked, although I found that to keep Charlotte’s comments formatted correctly, I had to increase the width of my screen.
The dream scene and the final scene were automated in that text was displayed and “autopilot” commands were entered to move the scene along. In the last part of the game, various noises and exclamations display briefly at somewhat random positions, almost comic-book fashion, conveying rapid, harried action sequences. However, these display techniques rely on the reader being able to keep pace with them. Yes, I could refer back to the script, but that’s not how these were meant to be experienced. Even if I were fluent in French, I think some of the text may have displayed too fast to be read. If this was done intentionally, then it worked, but if the reader was meant to digest all the information, slowing it down a tad or introducing some kind of “more” prompt would be helpful.
I wish this story had gone longer, as I was enjoying it, but I realize that even this much of the story must have required extensive writing and programming.
Noir D’Encre (8)
It appears that some tropes are universal: how many English language stories in the horror genre have a gibbous moon in the first paragraph of the first room description? Well, this story does not disappoint, with a “lune gibbeuse” illuminating the first scene. At least we know from that description what kind of game this is going to be.
The protagonist is a thirteen year old big sister, who is concerned with keeping both herself and her five year old brother out of the clutches of “Him” (or, “It”, the French pronoun leaves this ambiguous. Suffice it to say, something nasty). We don’t know her name, and I don’t recall ever seeing her brother’s name, so I have to remark that the character development is shallow, but maybe when you are running for your life, these sort of details are less important.
It also isn’t clear why they are in this creepy house in the dark woods in the middle of the night. It seems like poor parenting to me, but again, there immediate danger is so great that all of that can be sorted out later. That sense of immediate danger is driven by a series of timed events, namely “Him” coming for you. A pendulum clock is prominent in the front room of the house, and it tracks time for you. If sound is enabled, the loud tik-toc is unnerving. Without taking preventative measures, “He” comes for you around midnight. You can successively delay when he comes by putting wards in place, and this is the main activity of the game. At my best, I have managed to go a couple hours after midnight, but I haven’t succeeded in coming out of this game alive. “Save often” is my best advice.
You and your brother aren’t the first ones here. Someone more learned has already laid the groundwork, although it seems not to have entirely panned out for him in the end either.
There are about ten locations in the game, and plenty of items that must be used in the correct order to enable access or activate other items. This is very much a classic adventure game, which requires leaving no stone unturned, no rug un-looked-under. Some items are very well hidden, others just require some poking and prodding.
From here out, my comments will get more specific regarding parts of the game that I have solved, so if you want to try your hand at solving this game from the beginning, stop reading now.
There are a few in game reference materials that give the player some direction: a volume about “Monsters, Demons and other Creatures of Local Folklore” (search the bookshelves), a notebook (locked in a drawer in the office on the second floor, the key is under the carpet in the hall), and a paper with a map found in the same room. Consulting the notebook (consulter cahier à propos de <date>) reads the journal entry for that date.
Between these information sources, the beginning of a plan takes shape: first, you need some kind of holy symbol. Well, there’s a chapel, so you can figure out where to find one. Still, it takes a few steps to recover the item and sanctify it. Next, you need to concoct a mixture to paint an esoteric symbol on your forehead to ward off the creature.
That’s about as far as I got. I had some difficulty hitting on the right combination of wording to draw the symbol on myself, and I think there may be some interpreter issues at work here as well. I tried initially running the game in Spatterlight, as I’m on a Mac (OS X 10.8.4) and wanted to hear the sound effects, which I think do add nicely to the game. However, at a few points, I had difficulty with crashes after reloading a saved game. Even worse, this problem seemed to be intermittent, so it might be an ugly sort of problem to fix.
I got into one situation where I had everything that I needed to put the symbol on myself, but the parser kept objecting that “this isn’t the time to be drawing” and offering conflicting messages like “(first taking the mixture). You can’t take it, better to leave it in the mortar. You need to first take it in hand…” or something along similar lines, which left me scratching my head. Luckily, I had a saved game beyond this point, but as mentioned, I couldn’t always get it to load. I did a little better using the Zoom interpreter, but had to forgo the sound effects.
I got a little further in the game thanks to the hint system, and was able to lock the front gate. This hint system is mentioned in response to the “astuces” command; it advised you to go to the chapel and pray about each item to get some insight, sometimes more cryptic than I would have liked, about the utility of each item.
Given the wolf howl at the start of the game, a rifle, a mold (presumably for silver bullets), and some iron-jaw animal traps in the shed, I think we’re dealing with a loup garou. There’s also a sorbier plant, which Wikipedia tells me is the mountain ash or rowan, which in folklore has some magical, protective qualities. I don’t know how a young girl would know that, though. I can tell you that it burns well, but perhaps that wasn’t what I was supposed to do with it.
I have a lot of unanswered questions about the objects and places in this game: what is the significance of the crate, which I can push about, but apparently can’t climb on or open? How do I get the animal traps without being killed when they fall on me? What good is the secret basement room? Do I ever have a chance to go on the offensive with the rifle? What of the locked bedroom upstairs? How do I get in there? I assume that I’m only about halfway through this game.
There is no walk-through or solution, and so far as I can tell, no one has posted one on the internet. Consequently, I’ve spent more time on this game than all the others combined. I’ve really wracked my brain trying to figure out the next step, but until some additional insight clicks, I’m stuck. If anyone is stuck at an earlier step and needs more explicit instructions, I’d be glad to help.
Not surprisingly for a game of this scope, there are some programming issues. It is possible to order your little brother to do things that make no sense, for example, “frere, prendre pièges”. Accrording to the programmed response, he has no trouble doing so, yet they also remain hung up on the wall. There are several items that do not update correctly. For example, when you push a crate into a new location, it isn’t visible. Some item descriptions are too hard-wired, for example, the mortar and pestle are both mentioned in the mortar description, but I believe the objects are treated separately.
Other programming issues are just typical inconveniences, such as lack of implicit actions. For example, I would expect “open drawer” to both unlock and open a drawer if I had the corresponding key. However, in this implementation, I have to unlock the drawer with the key, then open it, and then look inside it.
The little brother has essentially no personality in this story. He is there to hang onto items that would otherwise overflow the main character’s limited inventory and he is an extra set of hands for pushing stuff around. I suppose that his presence does provide some motivation for his sister, who must feel responsible for him.
La Source de Zig (6.5)
This is a short work that plays well, and is notable for an animal protagonist, Zig. There is one central problem to solve, and it is evident from the beginning of the story: something is blocking the flow of water to the zebra stomping grounds (and, we learn, equally to the lion and elephant territories). A bit of investigation reveals that the blockage is too much for a single zebra to push out of the way, and the rest of the game revolves around the main character enlisting the aide of the lions and elephants. Zig overcomes the “laws of nature” to bring together the three species in this cooperative venture, and her deeds are commemorated in renaming the stream, “La Source de Zig.” Although short, this game was a pleasure to play and I found the end rewarding.
These are all entertaining and well-polished works, and I’d put their average score a couple points higher than the average score for IFcomp. Regarding the themes, I enjoyed the Le Source de Zig, but I would have also enjoyed a less fantastic story set in a modern African culture.
I think that all of the stories with female lead characters would have been believable with equivalent male characters; none of the stories capitalized on having a female lead.
Finally, not part of the competition, but still reviewed here…
Ma Princesse Adorée (7)
So, as mentioned, this wasn’t part of the mini-comp, but was sucked into my stream of stories to review. It does, of course, have an important female character, but as princess in need of rescuing, she’s about as far from the theme of the competition as one can get. We see this isn’t entirely, true, though, when her suitor does reach her — she isn’t the one who swoons on weak knees.
This story was originally written as part of a speed IF, although this is its fourth revision, so it has been extensively cleaned up. The setting made me shudder a little: the protagonist is an apprentice in training to a sorcerer. There should be an icon for that, it comes up so frequently in IF. However, there are good sorcerer’s apprentice stories, and bad ones. This is one of the good ones, where the teaching sorcerer is helpful and kind, and has a good relationship with his pupil, who is neither trying to escape nor kill him.
The object of the game is clear: despite his lowly station, the apprentice wants to win the love of the princess, who literally lives in a tower. The apprentice incrementally learns spells, which function in predictable ways. The scope of the game is relatively limited, but the implementation level is good, and the author has provided reasonable responses for most actions undertaken.
The game is not overly complex and the programming does not implement extensive tricks, but it is very playable and entertaining. At times, particularly the end, some “cut scene” text dumps are a bit long for IF, but particularly considering that this was developed in a Speed IF, it does not detract from the story.