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.

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