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 itch.io 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.

Retrospection

This is a relatively lengthy, psychological piece written in Twine by three authors. I would be curious to hear how they managed their collaboration, because the work comes across with a single, consistent voice. There is a potentially off-putting optional content warning at the start, which made me think the story would go in darker directions than it did; I think most people won’t find the story disturbing.

The hyperlinks in this story do not substantially fork the story in different directions, but either expand detail or allow the main character to approach the story from different frames of mind. From a practical perspective, this avoids combinatorial explosions and the need to periodically regather the narrative threads of the story permitting the authors to concentrate on the through line. Despite that, I found the variations worth replaying a few times.

Whatever guesses I had about the nature of the story based on the content warning slowly melted away in an unexpected direction. I won’t say anything more about the plot than that a central element involves discussions between the main character in the back seat of a car and the driver up front. They view each other through the rearview mirror, retroviseur in French, and their discussions look back over the course of their lives. In addition to nicely checking the box for the reflection theme, literally and figuratively, the identity of both passengers and the nature of the car itself and their situation, is also unmasked over the course of the story.

The French competition has subcategories including quality of writing, technical quality, and use of theme as well as an overall category of best game. In my opinion, this game nailed the theme solidly and had excellent writing.

Cher Journal

There is a bit of emergent story about writing entries in a diary, but mostly a very solid game with a single core mechanic that will appeal to people who love word puzzles. It takes only a bit of interaction for the player to catch on to what is expected, but the game cannot really be rushed – and the game knows that and leans into it. The pace of the game is just the right balance between addictive and frustrating. I won’t give away the mechanic itself, since that is part of the fun. I will say that game play is smooth. The interface is not picky about accents and does not require spaces that would typically occur prior to punctuation in French. Finally, just at the point where you might begin to question how long this will go on, the game rewards you with a final, satisfying twist.

I did not look under the hood to see how this game is coded. The interface consists of a status window at the top and text entry beneath, so could very well be an Inform 6 game, but it could also be any general-purpose programming language with some web formatting on top. One feature that delighted me was that as I wrote entries in my diary, the date and time were correct, so at the very least, the underlying code can read system time.

This is a terribly efficient game. I imagine the code base is small and the amount of narrative text short, but the entertainment it provides is disproportionately large. I am sure that someone with better French would play the game faster, but perhaps not too much faster since there is some uncertainty in the game mechanic. Conversely, the mechanic is relatively forgiving, which means that this game would also be appropriate for someone with relatively limited French (and a lot of time to experiment).

Entre le vin et le dessert

This is going to be an amazing game – when it is done. The version submitted to the competition is a limited prelude to the game. Even so, I must have played through it seven or eight times to explore different branches that are available in this version. I assume the game will eventually be released commercially, and if that is the case, I would be inclined order it if the price point is reasonable. I don’t think that playing this preview version would detract from playing the full game later on.

The game is written on the Moiki platform, an authoring tool that has made its appearance in previous iterations of the competition (e.g., last year’s Poussière d’Asphalte). This platform produces games that are well-suited for mobile devices and seems to aim at the same casual game experience as Choice of Games products. This game shows off many of the strengths of the platform including graphics, background sound effects, stat tracking, and unlocking milestones.

You have been invited to a fancy party full of people of quality, far out of your league. There is a brief character construction portion at the start, where choices about background clearly link to some underlying statistics like strength, intellect, agility and social skills. Later, while milling around the party, talking up the guests, and sampling the hors d’oeuvres, various situations present themselves where these skills come into play. I do not think that the underlying stats are as much in view as they would be in a Choice of Games story, but the player is aware of them having an impact on the story and either improving or worsening depending on results of key events.

While the game turns out to be a matter of life and death, the real stakes amount to avoiding shame of some sort: not letting your family down, not embarrassing yourself in polite society for lack of manners, not creating awkward situations because of your clumsiness, ineptness, lack of refinement or poor rhetoric skills.

The story is hyperlink driven and some choices are more for flavor, others can divert the story towards some early endings. While playing I felt like I had significant agency, although on replays I can see that general story contours do not really vary much.

The prelude is enough to begin to uncover some of your own backstory, to get to know your host and his guests, and to discover that there is more to this party that a simple get together of society – something sinister. I think it is enough to allow the player to decide whether the rest of the game would be appealing.

So, those are my top three choices, but it’s largely a matter of taste and games that rated further down my list are also worth playing.

Così Fan Tutte

From the title, you might wonder if this is an entry from the Italian Interactive Fiction competition, but no, it’s a remediation of an Opera by Mozart, and the text is in French. As I understand it, the libretto has been adapted into an interactive dialogue, which strikes me as an ambitious project.

This entry gets my award for style: the story is framed by an engraving of a stage, the typography is period appropriate, and an animated curtain goes up at the start of play revealing a theatrical backdrop. Dialogue then alternates between characters at stage right and stage left, with options presented at bottom as translucent overlays. It’s very well done, and although it’s a modern computer game, it has a classical feel. Looking at the meta-tags, this is written in Ink, but has some elegant web design on top.

A lot of work must have gone into setting all this up, so it is not surprising that this release of the game is limited in length: only the first act has been adapted in this version. The interactive choices must diverge from what is in the libretto, but the variations also seem consistent in tone. Writing with that sort of constraints can’t be a quick affair.

Les Androïdes

This series of six vignettes feels like an episode of Black Mirror: near future, tech-focused, and dystopian. The story revolves around a key event: a subset of young men believe that they are turning into (or have always been) androids. It is never really clear whether this is the case or not. Is this some sort of mass hysteria? Willful self-delusion? Some kind of body dysmorphic psychosis? Fake news by people in tinfoil hats? It doesn’t really matter for purposes of the story, except as a common thread that ties together five chapters and an epilogue told from different perspectives.

This looks like a twine story with a couple choices at the bottom of each page, but it is very much not a CYOA. Choices do not branch the story or change the outcome significantly, but they do express the main character’s state of mind. Almost all of the story is related as dialogue alternating with introspection as the main character considers the next thing to say or do and how it will be perceived by others.

I am not the best judge of writing quality, but it seemed like it would be among the best in this competition and the most varied. The third chapter for instance, is set in a banlieue and I had to keep one hand on the urban dictionary to cut through the verlan. I don’t know if I caught all the nuances of these stories, but I did appreciate the detailed characterization in each chapter.

Le Sécretariat des Adventuriers

This is a twine-based game in the sword-and-sorcery tradition. After a bit of business at the front end filling out forms to go adventuring, choosing a name and getting equipped, you’re immediately on the road to encounter hermits, dragons, and magical artifacts.

The game implements both an undo and a save feature, so I approached it without finesse and just powered my way through by trial and error to a not quite optimal ending. Only after playing a few times did I go through the game in an order that made more sense. On one hand, I appreciate the author letting me do things my way without railroading me into one sequence. On the other hand, the game played so much better with one thing leading logically to another that some kind of staging may have helped.

La Princesse Spéculaire

This story has the distinction of being the first French game written in Dialog. The setting is fantasy and the goal of the game is to free a princess from her magical slumber. There is a good progression of puzzles in the sense that an earlier location or item is needed again later in the game and takes on new significance. I got stuck at a couple points. In some cases, I had not read carefully enough and in other cases I was trying more or less the right action, but not hitting upon the specific phrasing required. A bit more hinting and more flexible acceptance of alternative solutions would improve the game.

Malédictions

The Halloween color palette gives this one away – kids: don’t go into the haunted house. Actually, I am thankful that the game provides an easy way to shift from orange and black to the a more readable, if less atmospheric, black text on white background.

I believe this game is also implemented in Ink and game play consists of clicking on hyperlinks to try to survive. Given the existential nature of the game, a save / restore feature comes in quite handy.

The game has a couple rough spots in terms of implementation, mostly issues with logical inconsistencies and continuity errors from one scene to the next, but overall plays well. One thing it does particularly nicely is making puzzles work with only hyperlinks, which essentially translates to getting sequences right. I found the game entertaining and worth replaying a few times to explore variations.

Sylvar

This is a parser-based game that runs on Donjon FI, a site which also provides for online editing of the source files in a French natural language code similar to Inform 7. I took only a cursory look at the site, but there are tutorials, demos, etc., on the site and it looks like the source code can be exported and saved locally. I do not know to what degree this game shows all of its capabilities, but it certainly seems to cover the main items like location, containment relationships, defining verbs, and so on. I believe this might be a nice way to quickly prototype a game, but I am not sure I would want to use it for a complicated project.

In this game, as an apprentice alchemist, you have been sent to essentially gather intelligence about a competing alchemist by poking around his lab and taking pictures of his set up. Commands are given just like for an inform interpreter, including the most common abbreviations. However, the input is a bit more finicky and requires getting accents correct. That’s not a big deal since I presume anyone playing would have a keyboard that can generate accented characters – it just is usually not the case with other interpreters. A more limiting aspect is that the parser is relatively rigid. I had expected to take some shortcuts, like to take the red key, saying just “prendre rouge” rather than typing out “prendre clé rouge”. Similarly, some events require very specific and lengthy phrases without much accommodation for synonyms. For locks, I found that “ouvrir” worked, but the verb “déverrouiller” was not recognized.

Une Histoire

The description of this story on the competition website mentions that it is a first effort, so congratulations to batty44 for learning Inform6 and producing a full game for the competition. This requires a lot of effort and the initial learning curve is relatively steep.

I found the game playable and was able to explore the game world. I thought it was an interesting choice to make the help text and hints physical objects within the game. I did rely heavily on the solution to get through the game, but that’s fine: integrating the mechanics with narration and game play takes some experience plus a lot of beta-testing. This is a very promising start, and I hope we see another game in next year’s comp.

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