ConFI 2023: Premières Réflexions

Je suis déjà en retard pour commencer mes critiques du Concours 2023 ! Avec 25 titres, je n’ai d’autre choix que de tricher un peu : j’écris mon premier commentaire sans même jouer à un seul jeu. Sans doute sera-t-elle superficielle, mais cette pratique a l’avantage d’apparaître immédiatement, assouplissant la faim des auteurs qui se meurt du manque de retours des joueurs.

Pour cette revue, je ne prends en compte que les titres, illustrations, et descriptions des jeux sur le site du concours.

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French IF Competition: 2022

There are only two weeks left to play and vote on games in the annual French interactive fiction competition. Games are hosted on and voting is via an online form. There are ten games this year, but you can vote without having to play all of them. Each year has an optional theme, which authors may use for inspiration. This year had two: reflection and masks. As usual, rules for the competition are available online.

This competition has a history of strong innovation, and this year was not disappointing with games written in a variety of systems, some of which have not been widely adopted outside the French community.

I’ve written some short review below. Although I played the games in random order, I am listing the first three in the order of preference, which I am sure breaks every rule of blog clickbait. If you have limited time, these are the ones not to miss.

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2021 French Interactive Fiction Competition

The French interactive fiction competition went live over this last weekend with ten games maintaining a fairly consistent ratio of about ten to one with IFcomp over the last few years. A variety of authoring systems were employed including Moiki, Ink, Inform 6, Ren’Py, and Various flavors of Twine. Play time ranged from about fifteen minutes to about two hours.

As in previous iterations of the competition, judges vote on the games by assigning a score from one to ten in the following categories: Overall best work, Technical Quality, Quality of Writing. There is also a special prize for the story that best captures the yearly theme, this year “Ruins and Decay”. Voting is open through 10 January using an online form that can be completed in French or English.

I played the games in a random order and will review them in the same order, below. Note that the competition allows online handles or pseudonyms, some author names might be revised when results are announced.

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Review – Turbo Chest Hair Massacre

From the blurb, and to some degree from the title, I had expected this to be a raunchy in-the-gutter joke entry, but was happy to discover it was a sincere entry in a sci-fi vein.

The story takes place in a futuristic setting in which two agents, one human, one synthetic, staff a listening post disguised as a residence, where they maintain a watchful eye on trans-dimensional enemies. There is some nice world building delivered en passant. At the completion of the game, I had absorbed enough to piece together a general picture of what was going on, but was still hungry for more.

The central task in the story is a bit odd, but okay, why not — removing some chest hair so the main character can go on a date. From the description, it sounds like the wispiest bit of chest hair and not a big deal, but if it bothers the main character, I was happy to go along in the typical mode of solving puzzles in a parser game, i.e., looking at every object in sight and trying to see how it might advance my goals.

There are plenty of obvious solutions, all of them poorly considered, as well as one not very obvious answer. I think players will consider that final, correct, solution most will not be able to figure out how to execute it without a peek at the in-game hints. I would say that the hint system pushed me in the right direction here, but in some other instances fell a bit short.

A key mechanic in this story is the ability to alternate perspectives between the human and robotic agent. This switching involves more than just a change in POV. The robot perceives the world differently and when you play her, you see not only the surface level of the world, but hypothetical projections of future events. Also, you are party to the robot’s dialogue streams, internal and external.

There are at least a few things going on during the story, including the robotic agent’s not very well hidden feelings for the human agent. Given the blurb and the robot’s lustful thoughts, it seems almost like a tease for most of the story that the robot cannot in anyway relieve the [unidirectional] sexual tension that exists.

The last couple scenes in the story pay off some of the exploration that the player has almost surely done by that point, although I think the solution could be better hinted. There are two points in the last scenes of the game where the player has to wait repeatedly, with no feedback that there is more coming. At these points, I wasn’t sure if I had done something wrong if I was supposed to be in some other room.

There are a few programming issues in the game, but I did not encounter anything game-breaking. One item that could be easily polished up is the description of what the other character (the one not under player control) is doing in the background; just adding a little variety would help.

I enjoyed this game and now that it is over, I realize that it addressed a number of themes. The blurb had set low expectations and raised concerns about crudity, but I found the game pretty well done and the sexual content mild. It’s not appropriate for children, but certainly nothing to make the townies reach for their torches and pitchforks.

Review – Limerick Quest

I really admire the effort it must have taken to write an entire game in limerick meter and even more for finding a way to incorporate puzzles — also in limerick meter. Additionally, I was impressed that the game managed spatial orientation and inventory-based puzzles without the affordances of the world model built into parser game systems.

I have a feeling that it helps with the rhyming constraints to have two main characters because their banter is a convenient way to broaden the vocabulary at the author’s disposal, but I have to give credit that this dialogue not only has the right form, but is entertaining and gives these characters personalities.

My own risk aversion was an impediment in playing this game. I believe it was early in the game that I tried solving a puzzle by brute forcing it with a shovel — which I knew was the wrong way to go, but I wanted to see what would happen — and the shovel disappeared from my inventory. Later in the game, I got to think, but what if I need the shovel? What if some other clue ends in “hovel” and I’d be SOL.

I’m sure that the author thought long and hard about whether to implement UNDO in this game. Not having given it as much thought, I don’t know what I would have decided in their shoes, but as a player I would have been a bit bolder and probably would have progressed faster and exposed more of the game content had UNDO been an option. I did eventually get a little more trusting as the game progressed and realized how extensively the game addressed incorrect attempts by the player, most often with a customized response (of course, in meter).

I was a little lost at the first real puzzle, but the walkthrough pointed me in the correct direction. I was proud that I was then able to solve the next few puzzles. However, I hit a hard stop at the Aztec Enigma.

That puzzles requires a bunch of different elements to all be adjusted to the proper state and I knew full well what was expected — I just could not find the right solution. I am sure that the problem was me and not the game, but I just could not get past this puzzle even with the walkthrough open.

I think that the mechanics of the puzzle made this harder than it needed to be. Each element in the puzzle had two possible states, but to switch between them required a full page reload. To see the two possible states for each item took quite a while. Had they been implemented as, say, a drop down box showing the two options, the puzzle might have gone a lot faster, although I appreciate that this would have changed the nature of the puzzle.

Due to this puzzle, I could not evaluate the last stage of the game, but I did enjoy the portion that I played.

Review – Electric word, “life”

Some of the entries in this IFComp are novel size, but this one is the ideal length for a short story. In a few screenfuls of text, the author lays out the scene, gives some insight into key characters through short vignettes, and pulls off the plot twist gracefully.

This is a ghost story of the first order: not grisly, not vengeful, but presented as a sincere recollection surrounded by mixed feelings — and never told until this day!

As a factual recounting, there is not much choice in this story, which somewhat limits its game aspect. The outcome is the outcome and most of the hyperlinks expand descriptions, drill down on short scenes that flesh out the character and setting or advance the fairly linear story.

I thought the story element was strong enough that I did not mind the linearity and in fact, appreciated how streamlined and well edited this story was. I am intentionally playing a random shuffle and it is a relief to come across a shorter work as a change of pace.

This was a strong first work, and I hope we’ll see this author again, if not in IFComp, perhaps Ectocomp?

Review – Lore Distance Relationship

There was something cinematic about this story. Yes, I was occasionally clicking on my mouse, but mostly I was watching this go by, fully immersed and emotionally engaged in deciding whether to steer the story towards more dramatic but potentially painful topics or to choose a safer, more avoidant path. On my first play through I figured that there was no sense in holding back. I can tell you that choice made for a memorable and touching experience, but I was so drained at the end of it that I did not reply. Maybe I will at some point, but not for a while.

Needless to say, when a story connects that way with the reader, the author has done something right, and is towards the top of my list.

The game follows the main characters from age 8 (in 2001) and through university. The setting of the story is a ficticious version of an online virtual pets website like Neopets, i.e, a multi-user virtual environment centered on virtual pets, but in which chatting with other users is a central activity.

When the two main characters met in this environment, I was nervous that the story would take a cringy turn towards stranger danger territory, but thankfully, this is not about online pedophiles trawling for innocent children, but actually two children using the website in a very positive way and building a virtual friendship that eventaully becomes not so virtual.

This game taps a lot of nostalgia from that era but I’m one generation too old to have experienced this directly The ficticious website and the culture of online RP is a dead ringer, though, for what I saw my kids grow up with.

This work is more multimedia than almost anything I’ve encountered in IFComp and avoids the clumsiness of most attempts to include sound in text games. At best, sound in most twine games can enhance atmostphere and often I find it gratuitous or distracting, but it really worked here. The voiceovers were used sparingly and to dramatic effect, the sound effects were short and unobtrusive.

The subject matter was relatively heavy and I’m reluctant to call it a game, but it very much succeeded in the CYOA aspect — I felt like my choices mattered and took them seriously.

Review – Trusting My Mortal Enemy?! What a Disaster!

This story is told from the point of view of both a superhero and her arch-nemesis, and although the player has to consider whether to punch or energy blast the opponent at some points, the game is not about super powered face offs, but about trust, friendship, and finding work-life balance.

Don’t get me wrong: it is still about creating genetic mutant monster henchmen, wearing capes, and so on, but the real choices in the game all take place in a coffee shop, where a superhero and villain meet between battles to talk things out.

The game is in fact very linear except for these conversations that come down to a decision that translates into increasing or decreasing trust between the two central characters. That decision point is telegraphed by an animated graphic announcing that it is …

Trust Time!

Someting about that graphic made me feel like this was an afterschool special, and that I really should do the right thing and build trust. I think most piece will hew that way during their first play through and then naturally see what happens if they intentionally try to upset the boat on their next playthrough.

On repeated play, I convinced myself that there is probably a trust variable that increases or decreases according to choices made. The game is fairly consistent regardless of initial choices made, but it is clear that if the variable swings far enough in direction or another, the last portion of the game can differ considerably.

I found the overall story entertaining and well-paced. Although comic book heroes are not known for depth, the two main characters in this work were well developed, with clear, consistent voices.

My only gripes are very minor and all easily fixed; none of these detracted from enjoyment of the story:

* Occasionally, numbers were written as digits rather than text. For example, “The 4 vassals attacked.” I don’t know why this makes my teeth itch, but it does. The same can be said for ampersands. They are perfectly fine for “D&D” and “Books & Brew”, but just too informal when used in prose like “she stops, & nods.”

* Since there are no paragraph indents, putting a bit of additional spacing between paragraphs would have helped presentation. Also, sometimes quotations were not rendered as new paragraphs when speakers changed. Fixing that would make the text scan better for readers.

* The story layout is clean, with legible fonts on muted photographic backgrounds. I might have missed attribution of the photos in one of the game files, but I would suggest citing the sources on the final page in game to make sure that credit is given.

Review – Ferryman’s Gate

After forty-five minutes, I found that I had explored a large number of competently implemented but bland locations in this parser-based game, but felt like I had made no real progress. I dutifully searched all the places that one searches and conversed with as many characters as I could find about all supplied topics, but still had no clue what to do to advance the game.

It was clear where the game wanted to go: the blurb advertises it as a gamified tutorial on grammatical rules for use of commmas, and in the game I had encountered many set ups that were obviously puzzles where the object was to fix comma placement, but the game is not well clued in terms of how to go about this.

I am guilty of having written games that are underclued at the start and which ask a lot of faith from the player in plodding through some monotony to get to the meat of the game, but I felt like after forty-five minutes that if I has not having fun, I had given the game a good shake and could move on. Before throwing in the towel, I did try the built-in help and after closing the game read through the walk-through, but I still felt somewhat clueless.

I recognize that substantial work must have gone into producing this game, so rather than just add some negative comments, here are a couple suggestions in case there is to be a post-comp release or perhaps for future games.

* The player needs more support and encouragement at the start of the game. My suggestion is to initially gate off a tutorial portion of the game with restricted geography. In the current game, I was overwhelmed with the layout of the huge mansion and the large number of puzzles encountered without any sense of which ones to approach first. In such a tutorial it would be helpful to force the player to solve a watered down version of the sort of puzzles to be encountered later. A focused in-game hint system could progressive aid the player in accomplishing this single goal. This would assure that the player leaves the starting area with a success under their belt and some idea about how to approach the rest of the game.

* While some players are amazingly determined to play a game to the finish, most (me included) have a low threshold for boredom and frustration. The start of the game needs to hook and retain the player by providing some early payoffs and keeping things lively. As has been pointed out to me by many reviewers, nobody will care about the second half of your game if they don’t get through the first half.

* Some players will want more story, character and plot, while other players will be attracted by a more puzzle-heavy mechanistic game. Ideally, the game could satisfy both camps, but that is hard, and it may help to pick one or the other. I feel like this game was more in the puzzle-fest category, and if that is the case, I would suggest looking at techniques used by, for example, Andrew Schultz and Arthur DiBianco, e.g., how they carefully introduce game mechanics and gradually build on complexity, always being very respectful of the player and trying to optimize the game experience. In particular, try to avoid situations where the player knows the answer to a puzzle, but can’t figure out how to convey that within the game.

* Shorter is better. Puzzles are always harder than the author expects, play takes longer, and the only way to assess the play time and difficulty of a game is to have fresh beta-testers that have not seen the game earlier in development.

I hope that didn’t come off as a too preachy. Every game is a chance to improve, and there are plenty of other punctuation marks, so I look forward to this author’s next effort.

Review – Academic Pursuits

The blurb describes this as a move-in simulator, and that’s exactly what it is, or for full disclosure, it is a single-room paranormal move-in simulator. As is the case in approximately fifty percent of interactive fiction, give or take, the protagonist is a new university faculty member (the remainder being knights, wizards or detectives: the unholy triumvirate).

Most of the game — in a sense all of the game — consists of unpacking moving boxes and I will admit that at first I thought this was going to be a very tedious and possibly fiddly puzzle of fitting objects of different sizes into containers of various capacities, but from the point of opening the first box, there are suggestions that there is more to this story.

As you dig through the boxes, the backstory fills in. There is literally a lot to unpack here. The player does not have any real agency and the overall story is on rails, but the player is still engaged because each choice requires some deliberation taking into context the player’s evolving state of knowledge right up to the end. The task is a bit mundane, but I thought the payoff was worth it; it is, after all, a pretty short, and I would say entertaining, game.