The 2019 French IF Competition

The theme for this year’s competition is screens.

This year, five games were entered in the French IF Competition. In the past, the comp has leaned towards parser-based works, but I think for the first time, Twine games predominated. The games are found on the main site for the French IF community along with a form to cast votes.

It may seem odd to review the games in English, but I can get my thoughts across easier that way and I think it will help expand the reach for these games that are usually played by the relatively small (but growing) francophone IF community. I’m also less likely to leak any spoilers this way. When I submit my votes, I plan to boil down these comments to hopefully intelligible French.

Escape Game

By Bryan

This Twine game was submitted by Bryan, who joined the French IF discord server earlier in the year and has brought a lot of enthusiasm to the group. I believe that this is his first game, and it’s a solid effort. Unlike some first time efforts that fall short because they are too grandiose and become overwhelmingly complex, this game lays out a premise, proceeds through some challenges, and concludes. Just learning a new system and producing a playable game is worthy of some applause. It is great to see new authors taking a stab at it.

The story starts right in without a lot of background, and you find yourself in a room full of screens. Immediately, a masked face appears and informs you that your only chance to escape is to answer some riddles; for each one correctly answered, you get a digit in a number that needs to be entered to unlock the exit. A couple wrongs answers, however, will unleash a knife-wielding maniac, who will make short work of you. It is sort of a traditional escape room, but lethal.

A series of riddles is a tough mechanic to pull off well. Players, particularly if they are playing alone rather than in a group, will often come up blank. If they’re not on the same wavelength as the author, some players may never solve a given riddle. Indeed, having tried some of these riddles and learned the expected answers, I don’t understand some of them. The conventional work around is to provide either some kind of progressive clues to help the player solve the riddle or to provide more than one path through the riddles. By allowing players to get a couple riddles wrong, Bryan effectively does the latter.

Answering one riddle after another would be pretty dry stuff if not for the back and forth dialogue between the player character and his sadistic, but entertaining dungeon master. The player can choose between cocky self-assured remarks or quivering in fear. It doesn’t much affect the course of the game, it adds favor and provides the player with a sense of control.

The game is not styled in a visual sense — it is more or less right out of the package Twine, but for a first game I think everyone would agree that it’s much more the writing and structure that matter. One place I would like to see the author invest more effort would be in soliciting proofreaders and testers. The beginnings of sentences need to be capitalized, they need to end with periods, and it would help to have more eyes checking grammar (if I can spot grammatical issues, I’m sure they were more glaring to native French speakers).

Regarding the story structure, most of the passages ended in one or two choices; I would have preferred a third choice where possible. Also, while I realize how scary it is to start branching, either that or some use of variables are needed to meaningfully payoff choices made in the game. Finally, the game ends a little abruptly — certainly, if you fail and die, but even if you succeed, there is nothing in the way of epilogue beyond that you escape and find yourself on a dark side street. I would have liked to see some explanation of why I was there and what it all meant; but of course, its the author’s prerogative to end the story as he sees fit.

So, I’m looking forward to Bryan’s next game, now that he will certainly walk away from this year’s competition numbering in the top five games. For the next one: a bit more framing story, puzzles that are more woven into the fabric of the story, and some rewards for the player having successfully negotiated the narrative.

Le Jour où la Terre Dégusta

By Yakkafo

I should mention that in the past of the French Comp, authors used to be required to enter under pseudonyms. That rule is no longer in place, but its still a common practice. I assume we’ll find out who “Yakkafo” is at the grand unveiling ceremony after the comp.

This is a fun game, which revolves around trying to understand space aliens who only communicate in emoji. That alone is worth a few points.

The game introduces you as Dr. Laetetia Duneuf, an academic philologist, who somewhat resents teaching a room full of students who seem more interested in texting on their phones and laptops. This not only checks the box for this year’s theme of “screens”, but introduces themes of electronic communication, social networking, and humans versus computers. Not bad for an opening scene.

The author takes a page from any number of movies — the military has sudden need of your expertise. Only you can figure out how to communicate with them… before it is too late. The willingness of the military to throw every nuke in the country at the space invaders is played mostly for laughs, but at least on the first few play throughs, it does add some tension.

The truth is, there is really no bad outcome for this game. There are multiple endings, some more surreal than others. Which path you take depends on what emojis you send in response to alien messages.

That brings up the issue of interface. This game has styling for color and fonts and a smart looking interface for picking from a limited list of emoji to send. The list has to be limited since I believe that the game provides commentary about every possible combination you send, and you have several chances to send a message. That’s a lot of writing, although some of the choices do re-converge.

Compose an outgoing message by clicking on possible choices of emoji.

One interesting choice the author made for this game was to disable the undo button. That makes a lot of sense, since otherwise you could lawnmower through the various combinations of emojis. It is not a long game, so playing through multiple times is not burdensome and it is fun to discover the alternative endings. Conversely, I appreciate that Bryan did not disable this feature in his game, as playing through a gauntlet of riddle choices repeatedly would have been less fun than having the option of backing out of a bad guess.

This game had an excellent sense of humor and was my second favorite in this year’s comp.

Panoptique

Cowritten by Hugo Labrande and Nighten Dushi

Illustrations by Nighten Dushi

Hugo has been busy. He’s run the comp for the last few years and has churned out articles and tutorials for the French IF site at a prodigious rate over the last year. He was also an early adopter of Vorple, and has produced a number of games written in Inform 6 plus Vorple. I believe that this current game is the first full game produced by anyone with the most recent version of Vorple, 3.1.

I would take some of the games in the comp to task for falling short in the art department: some of the cover art is just text. I don’t put as much emphasis on cover art and blurbs as some folks, but I do think it’s important and that not investing some effort on first impressions can have the effect of selling these games short.

In Panoptique, not only is there a painting on the cover, but one for each scene in the game. As the name would suggest, this game revolves around a panopticon. You are employed by the state to watch a bank of monitors and report any concerning behaviors that you observe. Simple enough. As far as I can tell, your commands are limited to switching from one monitor to another and writing reports.

The view on monitor 10.

But there is a little more to it. Initially, I just flicked back and forth between monitors. I didn’t see anything interesting, so I just continued to channel surf. That got me fired. Turns out the State doesn’t appreciate non-productive employees. On my next run, I over-compensated, reporting anything that I thought could lead to a crime or that didn’t quite smell right to me. Again, I failed my employee review.

There’s actually a lot going on in the game: each screen tells a story that evolves over time. I played through a bunch of times, but perhaps not that carefully. I think that there may be threads that run horizontally through the game as well. I recall seeing a flag appear in more than one location, for instance, and I have to wonder if there the events connect from one location to another.

The tone of this story, a surveillance state, and the way its puts the player in a position of complicity reminded me of games from recent IFcomps (e.g., Ostrich in the 2018 comp), where the player has had to redact documents or play the role of an informant in an authoritarian state. One aspect of this game that I felt was absent (intentionally?) was giving the player a way out. I suppose being fired from the job is one way, but I tried quitting and that did not work.

Finally, a word on Vorple. Hugo has written games and demos that put Vorple through its paces, but in this story, I think it is used mainly to place elements on the web page, particularly the art work. It’s an important demonstration that while Vorple opens up a long list of bells and whistles, it may be of most service to stories when employed subtly.

FireFly

by Indigo

What is it with English Titles? This year: Firefly, Escape Game, Night City 2020. Is this a general trend for games in the Francophone world? If they keep this up, I am worried that the Academie Francaise will may need to intervene.

When I saw this title, I wondered if this would be some kind of IF adaptation of the TV series by the same name, but thankfully it is not. Rather, it is something that appears on little blips of light on your heads-up display, like the little glowing summertime insects that people in my neck of the woods call “lightning bugs”.

In this story, you are an “enhanced” human, cybernetically enhanced and wearing power armor, kind of a cross between RoboCop and Starship Troopers. That’s about all you know at the start of the game. Almost immediately, you are plunged into the action when “terrorists” set off an explosion that wreaks havoc with your power armor.

This game is written in Twine, but the UI has really been polished: images, sound, delayed text, and other effects. After the explosion, your suit reboots, with command line information scrolling up in glorious old school green-on-black. I think this part is an intentional callback to RoboCop.

Hovering the mouse over the image of the armor will highlight various systems, like optical sensors.

That screen is replaced by a clickable image map of the upper portion of your power armor and game input then consists of clicking various modules. Your power main power systems have failed and your backup battery is running out of juice rapidly; you have only a few turns to figure out how to extricate yourself from the situation.

There’s a bit of a puzzle at this step, but skipping over it for spoiler prevention, you do manage to get up and running again, and have to make some choices about seeing your mission through. The game is not very long, but it does have some twists and turns, which lead to a new understanding about your world and your role in it. There is more than one potential outcome, but the game steers somewhat towards the preferable one.

I really appreciated the work that went into designing this game’s various interfaces; both it and Le Jour où la Terre Dégusta push the Twine design envelope.

NightCity 2020

by hoper

Explanatory material on the initial screen of this Twine game provides some interesting background — this game originally was a pen-and-paper game to be played by rolling actual dice. I think the comp organizers made a great decision in allowing this story to be ported over to Twine, which must have been a huge amount of work for the author.

Converting the story to Twine was not just a matter of creating a hyperlinked document, but implementing inventory, statistics, and a combat system in Twine, effectively producing a fun to play CRPG with a strong narrative.

Normally, I just want to launch into a game without a lot of preface, but in this case, it is worth reading the background material about how the original game came about, the rules for the pen and paper version, and about the game setting.

The game was written some time ago, in the heyday of William Gibson-inspired cyberpunk. The general flavor of the Sprawl and cowboys who jack their decks into the matrix would have been in the air. 2020 was a far distant date, rather than next year, but the story holds up. Played now, the dangerous dystopian city isn’t too far from a Marc Levy banlieue story, and the cybernetic enhancements still feel twenty years in the future.

The game starts with a relatively long block of text, which might be off-putting for players who are used to one or a couple paragraphs on most screens followed by choices. In general, text passages are longer in this game, but that is actually one of its strengths. This is more “interactive fiction” in the original sense — an electronic book, but its game play is none the worse for having a solid narrative.

I think the game’s origins as printed text come through in the strength of the writing, scene descriptions, character interactions, and overall integration of the various paths through the story. I have to imagine that this story was written and rewritten in a word processor, and that all that focus on the writing yielded a more satisfying story.

This is a very replayable game, and I spent hours on it. Firstly, because I kept dying. There is a learning curve, both with regard to initial strategy in equipping the player and in making choices as the game progresses. If you have ever complained that choices in a Twine game don’t seem to matter, this will cure you of that. Sometimes death comes very quickly, other times, it’s a slow attrition. After the first few deaths, I came to really appreciate the ability to save game progress.

I found the game challenging, but in that sort of Pavlovian intermittent reward way that I wanted to keep playing. Part of the difficulty is the extensive use of random outcomes in combat: some times the rolls are in your favor, some times not, but since your adversaries’ stats, their to-hit and damage and your ability to avoid damage all seem to involve some randomness, sometimes the combination of factors makes a scene unwinnable: you can rewind to a save point, but there is no way that you have enough ammunition or hit points (endurance) to prevail.

The adaptation to Twine takes advantage of some design features like selecting equipment by clicking checkboxes on a list. However, the implementation is just a little short of complete. In this example, you have a number of character creation points — it would take just a bit of javascript to make a counter show the remaining points to be allocated on this screen.

The game is almost entirely text, but there are a few illustrations, which must have been carried over from the original printed version. Stats are show in the collapsible panel on the left.

The options at the bottom of each page are probably verbatim from the original document, and it looks odd to see them written as referring to “turn to page 234”, where 234 is now a hyperlink. In one sense, it is quaint, but a little distracting. I think it would look better with a bit of styling as some kind of list.

Some of the formatting choices are also a little off. For example, alternating dialogue is often presented as bullet pointed text, where each bullet introduces a new speaker. This isn’t too far from standard usage, and it would only take a minor tweak to CSS to change those odd-looking bullet points into more familiar em-dashes.

I would love to see a post-comp version of this. There are some minor formatting issues and it could do with more proofreading (that said, there is a lot of text here, so the occasional typo is entirely forgivable). Some mechanics could use a little polishing, like better access to inventory items. In many battles, I wish that I could have injected myself with “dorph” as my action on a given turn.

But, these are minor criticisms. Like last year’s winner, the modern Hansel and Gretel story, this one successfully marries story and action without letting RPG mechanics detract from the flow. I considered this the best game of this year’s competition and think it would place high in any comp.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.