Review – A Rope of Chalk

I’m sure it isn’t necessary, but it probably helps to have played some of Ryan Veeder’s games before, and perhaps to have listened to a few episodes of the Clash of the Type-Ins podcast. The podcasts, so you can hear the whole story in your head as read in Ryan’s own voice. That helps. And the former so you will trust the author to payoff a series of events that becomes more and more disjointed and bizarre as the story progresses, only to be wrapped up with a bow by the end of the story, or a few bows, for those who are really into bows, by the end of the epilogue of the story.

I see no point in going into the details of the story — I really enjoyed this game and would put it in the top five percent of IF Comp games that I have played, so I don’t want to risk any spoilers, but I will remark on a few items.

Don’t peek at the walkthrough until after the game, but when you do complete the game and have replayed to whatever degree suits you, I recommend giving it a read, so you can appreciate the underlying structure of the game, which as Veeder says, is very linear.

The thing is: it doesn’t feel linear at all while playing it. The game has a silky smooth flow. There was no point in this game where I felt like I was spinning my wheels and going nowhere. There was always something to do, some place to go, or someone to talk to.

At points, I found myself taking actions that I thought were creative and unlikely to work, but that turned out either to be the required action or, maybe more impressively, just gave me the impression that I had done the right thing. As a player, how would I know? This effect is a combination of very deep implementation of objects, customized and context-sensitive responses, and the author anticipating likely as well as less likely inputs. Also, there is probably an element of built-in fail-safes that prevent the player from going too wrong, but not being heavy handed about it.

At one point in the game, I was trying to figure out what to do, poking around at various objects, trying things out, and a bit of help appeared in the form of an in-story character interaction. Help was offered if I wanted it, I assume because I was taking longer than expected to make forward progress. I really appreciated the subtlety and unobtrusiveness of this mechanic, which let me as the player know that I could have as much or as little help as I wanted, without the least insinuation that I was leaning on a crutch.

At the end of the story, there is a bit of epilogue, which is a good bit of fun and circles around to tie up the framing story; it is offered optionally, but really should be played.

Review – Deezlebub

Deezlebub is an ambitious parser-based game that was developed in TADS by three people, two writers and one coder. As many IF developers have learned, conversation is hard to implement, so kudos for using conversation rather than object manipulation to drive the plot along. There are a good number of interlocutors and the topics and responses change as the story progresses.

The story uses ask/tell/show, which requires a lot of work in terms of signaling to the player possible topics on conversation, anticipating branches in conversation, keeping track of the state of earlier replies and so on. This worked pretty well for most of the story, but there were places where it fell apart and I had to dive into the hint system, disrupting the flow of the story. Sometimes I felt like, oh, I should have thought of that, but other times I felt like there was no way I would have arrived at a certain topic of conversation.

Conversely, there are a few points at which the topics are hinted too directly, like “Perhaps Dave would be interested in learning more about the sanctuary or Balthazar. Reginald wonders what it’s like to live in Hell. What are the other demons like? Do they all like cookies?” In these cases, I dutifully lawnmowered my way through the topics, but I did not feel much sense of accomplishment. I think had the entire story used suggested topics, this would have not stood out as much. Despite these criticisms, I do appreciate the effort that went into writing all the dialogue and focusing on interpersonal relations rather than finding the brass key to open the heavy wooden door.

The story flows better at the start and gets rougher towards the end. I think this is because the story is essentially linear with steady pacing up to about 90% of the way through the story, followed by a strong upstroke in action towards the end of the story and resolution. In that last ten percent, there are a couple mutally exclusive choices to be made which determines how the story ends.

It is not unusual for the action to take an upswing at the end of a story or novel, and that pressed pace is welcome, but I found this part of the game difficult to play. Maybe I was just not on the same wavelength as the authors, but I found the conversations and required actions to be unintuitive. I have to wonder if the team that developed this story might have spent more time on the earlier parts, but had to rush towards the more complicated final scenes in the game. If so, perhaps there could be a post-comp release that smooths out the last portion.

I would have preferred less linearity in the first portion of the story, but there is a certain efficiency to it: the writers had a lot to say and we get to see it all. The dialog exchanges are not quite text dumps, but they are unusually long for interactive fiction, requiring multiple taps on the enter key to scroll through. I would have recommended chopping it up a bit more and integrating it with action.

Group projects can be tricky, and while I have collaborating on writing IF, it has always been with someone fluent in coding. I have often drafted an ” ideal transcript” to be able to get ideas on paper without worrying about code, but I am at least aware of which bits will require tricky coding, need more options, require variable text, and so on even when I am just typing a draft in a word processor.

My suspicion is that this game started as a similar document, which was faithfully implemented, but that there may have not been enough iteration (or perhaps time for iteration) between subsequent writing and coding sessions to polish the game. It does seem well edited, which is saying something since there is a lot of text, but depth of implementation is light at points, there are a lot of default responses, and sometimes the game does not keep track of previous actions.

These mechanical complaints aside, the game has a generally lighthearted and fun tone and I found the writing entertaining. The overall situation is not all that humorous, though: the protagonist is a brainwashed flunky in a religious cult headed by a charismatic leader who exploits his followers for profit — strains of Jim Jones, the Unification Church, and fundamentalist campuses.

There is a bit of cognitive dissonance in the main character being possessed by a demon from the start, taking an active hand in conjuring demons, and then actively covering up as his new found demon friend possess his roommate. I would have thought this would be alarming, particularly for someone so indoctrinated, but the authors’ choice is to play this mostly for comedy and there are, in fact, some consequences at the end of the game.

Review – Amazing Quest

This is listed as a choice-based game, and it very literally is: the player is presented with a series of very short prompts and can answer yes or not to each. After a certain number of responses, the end of the game is reached.

There isn’t much to say about writing within the game proper — terse is an understatement, but the introduction and strategy guide are well-written, and the game is random in deciding whether players choices will be successful or not (so, I suppose it is up to the gods after all).

The introduction promises success if the player can get in the right frame of mind, which presumably is to follow the advice presented in both the blurb and above the main text window within the game “I must decide as if it all depends on me, trust as if it all depends on the gods”. The intro warns that it may at first be frustrating and require several plays to get the hang of it. I found that the advice was only somewhat helpful and I did not really fully grasp the criterion for good versus bad choices, but by playing repeatedly, I felt like I was able after a while to pick the right choices even if I wasn’t sure exactly why they were correct. Perhaps the gods were with me.

The main game screen looks old school – big chunky characters with limited screen width, reminiscent of mid-80’s computers outputting a composite signal to a television set. Reading the strategy guide and some additional material at the bottom of the guide, the reason for this is clear. Aesthetically, I enjoyed this presentation, but I would have preferred to have been able to scroll backwards (I realize that is at odds with the authenticity of the display, though, so no points off for that).

For me, the best part of the game was when it was over and I was presented with a “READY” prompt — the sort you used to get within the BASIC interpreter on early microcomputers. Reflexively, I typed “LIST” and was rewarded with the program iteslf, a nicely compact bit of BASIC code. The real kicker is that it can be modified and run. I inserted a line, added my own responses and ran it. I even tried “LOAD” and was instructed to press play on the tape machine! I was really hoping that this was a fake game on top of a deeper game that could be loaded and run, but no.

In rating IFComp games, I reward writing and the play experience. There is very little writing or content in the game itself, and I can’t characterize the repeated hitting of Y/N as much fun, so this game will score relatively low, but not at the very bottom: it deserves some bonus points for innovation. This work is more an art piece, but it resonated with me.

Review – Shadow In The Snow

I was a little put off by the blurb: a dark picture, horror genre, described as bloody. An awkward choice to follow Stuff of Legend, like orange juice after mint toothpaste.

Structurally, this is a short Twine piece with two main forks that can merge, several possible endings. Its format encourages reply, which after a couple passes allows the player to get a picture of what is going on and figure out how to reach the most successful ending.

The story goes a good job of creating atmosphere, but there is little time for character development. The text is well edited, and my only minor gripe is that for a brief bit it lapses out of present and into past tense.

The horror aspect shouldn’t be that off-putting, yes there is blood and such, but nothing you haven’t seen on a monster -of-the-week episode of Supernatural.

Review – Stuff of Legend

This parser-based story channels some of flavor of Buster Hudson’s Wizard Sniffer, although it is a smaller, faster game with about a dozen locations and one central puzzle. The game has a nice rhythm of lighthearted banter, internal thoughts, and appropriately painful puns. Overall, it is well written and edited. While the game is not huge, everything is deeply implemented and the author (and likely testers) should be credited for supplying customized responses for most things the player might try.

The game employs a menu-based conversation mechanic that in a couple places updates based on plot developments. I would have liked to have seen more of this but that would not really have fit with the games duration. The blurb says two hours, but I completed it in about an hour.

The central puzzle is well-designed and adequately hinted, the only snag for me was my own fault for perseverating too long on a solution that was not working. There is a second puzzle at the end of the game that I found more difficult. The basis for that puzzle was a natural extension of the experience in the story, but I will admit that I had to look at the hints to complete that portion of the game.

The author has made an effort to make the game playable, with the inclusion of background material, and a built-in hint system that progressively reveals clues to try to avoid spoilers.

Le Concours 2020 de Fictions Interactives

I am emerging briefly from my IF cave to post some quick reviews of games from this year’s Francophone IF competition. The competition is open for judging through 1 March for anyone who is willing to rate at least three games using a web-based form.

This year broke a record: eight games were submitted, all of them web-based, with play times from about fifteen minutes to a couple hours. Once again, I’m reviewing them in English so I can get the reviews out quickly and because I think it will reach a wider audience and perhaps lure some folks to try out the games, even if it is with dictionary in hand.

I intentionally played the games out of order, and am now reviewing them in that same order.

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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.

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Found In Translation

Based on some feedback from IFComp, for the current version, the cover art was dezombified and a serif font was chosen.

This year, I learned a few things about implementing text games in languages other than English, or more specifically, in porting a single game across three languages. My IF Comp game, “En Garde” was originally written in French for the 2018 Francophone IF Competition. Subsequently, I translated it to English for IFComp and the game is now part of the 2018 Russian KRIL Competition thanks to translation by Valentin Kopeltsev. I would like to share some practical experience regarding this effort and some of the solutions that I found along the way.

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KRIL 2018 Thoughts

Logo for KRIL 2018The Russian counterpart of IFcomp, KRIL, went online yesterday with 25 original games, two translated games (one of them mine), and two exhibition games that will not be included in voting. KRIL has been an annual event since 2006, but since I was not involved in previous years, this is my first look at it. I thought it would be interesting to compare and contrast a bit with IFcomp. I should add the disclaimer that my Russian is pretty rusty and that all the heavy lifting on my entry was done by Valentin Kopeltsev, so if I get any of the details below wrong, just leave a comment.

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Bring Out Yer Dead 2018

As is tradition, with IFcomp 2018 freshly over, I’m jotting down some brief thoughts on games that I entered: En Garde and Re: Dragon, which placed 14 and 26 out of 77, respectively.

First, I’d like to thank those who ran the competition for staging such a quality event: gathering funding and prizes, maintaining the web site, getting the word out, and supporting authors all the way along. Similarly, a huge thanks to my proofreaders and beta-testers, who probably logged as many hours playing and commenting as I did developing the games.

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