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.

Pensées Profondes

by White Fangs

First up was Pensées Profondes by White Fangs. My recommendation for this one is to stick with it for a while before judging it because it does eventually start to make some sense.

At first I wasn’t sure if this work was a piece of linear fiction: it seemed to me that page after page, the link at the bottom of the page just advanced to the next page of surreal text, but eventually I came to a two-option choice. A small proportion of pages do end in such binary choices, but when you when you take into account the length of game text, this story has significant branching. Still, it’s a long way from most twine or choice script games that pepper the game with choices every few paragraphs.

While the text flow is laid out mostly linearly, the story is anything but. The central plot device in the story is a “mind surgeon” machine, which appears to be used for psychotherapy. The machine comes with two helmets, one typically worn by the therapist, the other by the patient, and it allows exploration of the other’s mind. However, it seems to be at least as much art as science because the experience is a surreal mixture of thought, memory, and imagination, with two selves weaving back and forth in a shared mindscape. Trippy.

The core of the story revolves around a mother, who I believe invented the machine, her father and her daughter as well as a traumatic event in the father’s past: a railway accident in an abandoned tunnel. All of this is jumbled in time, mixed in perspective, as well as tainted by not knowing what is fact and what is imagination.

The story is laid out in chapters and at the end of each chapter, a small summary becomes accessible. I kept plowing through half grokking what was going on, but when I went back and read those summaries (accessible via a little cloud icon at the top of the screen), the story began to coalesce.

There are some nice touches in terms of layout and function. One feature that is likely to draw ire is the use of teletype printing — i.e., one character at a time. For some reason, it didn’t both me much in this game even though I wasn’t able to bypass it as one often can by hitting the space bar. I think what made it tolerable is that it displayed about as fast as I can read in French and the timing took punctuation into consideration, pausing just fractionally at the end of each sentence, entraining the reader to keep the same pace.

However, that feature ruined the game for me in terms of replay. Even though I has spent probably two plus hours on and off reading through the game, I was very interested to see what would have happened with different choices and to try and fill in parts of the story that I felt I had missed on the initial play through. Here, the slow text display really grated on my nerves — I just wanted to get to the first choice, but I didn’t have the patience to plod through back to that point, and with seven more games in the comp …

That aside, I quite liked this story and it got my vote for best writing in the competition. The technical aspects of the game were solid and it is clear that the story was carefully proofed.

La malédiction dont vous êtes le héros

by Nighten

This was a great premise — you are the personification of a curse placed on a country field. Your choices in this game are how to torment unwitting visitors. Tonight’s victims: two students, one of of whom is an amateur astronomer and wants to view the moon with his telescope, and the other who is perhaps not so rabid about astronomy, but is at least a good sport about tagging along for the evening.

The game blurb promises up to sixteen endings, and as far as I could tell, there were four choices in the game, so I can see how that structure would be likely. However, I was only able to reach four of the endings and I am not sure if I was doing something wrong or if the game had a bug (which might be patched by the time anyone reads this).

The game uses a point system of some sort. Every time you start, you have ten points. Doing any action seems to cost ten points. I had wondered if doing big actions cost ten, but if you wait to do smaller actions they cost less — that doesn’t seem to be the case. And I didn’t see any way to for the malevolent spirit to gain points. I even tried playing without using any of my powers a few times in a row to see if I could accumulate points over a series of games — that didn’t work either. So, with that set up, it seems you can only do one thing per game, hence four outcomes.

If this someone points out how to get past that, I’d be happy to play the game again and see the other endings. This game also used teletype printing, but since there are some interface controls, it can be set to so fast a speed as to not be an issue. My main criticism of this game is that I wish there were more of it: the other endings, more development of the two students, more voice for the player character.

La fée des rêves

by Eve C.

Eve C. submitted two entries this year, this one and “Si j’avais su…“. Both made good use of twine to delivery entertaining games in fantasy settings. Most of the other games in the comp did not put a lot of effort into graphics, but both of Eve C’s games have attractive cover art and make use of embedded pictures during game play.

In this first game, the player character is plagued by racing thoughts at night and suffers from insomnia. A sleep fairy guides the player to various experts that do their best to find a solution — basically to cure the player of overthinking everything.

There are plenty of choices to make, but the overall trajectory is fairly fixed; quite a few side paths lead in short order to death, often without much warning. However, the consequences are not dire and replay is easy, so no real points off for that.

Sétanta – Au Cœur Du Labyrinthe

by Luigi June

The game blurb promises three tropes that would normally cause me to steer clear: 1) the player starts with amnesia; 2) underground setting; 3) a maze. That said, I have been guilty of tapping (sparingly) into the same tropes, but it is best done without a lot of warning.

This seems to be very much a classical dungeon crawl. For motivation, there is some backstory about being a warrior who has come to prove himself in the trial of Lia Fal. That turned out to not be enough for me to slog through the twisty passages, all of them too much alike for my taste, often while being chased by monsters.

There wasn’t enough story up front for me to latch onto, and I found myself entirely disoriented in terms of navigation. Maybe if I had made diagrams… but I was sacked out on the couch while playing this, and just couldn’t work up the energy.

Most of the works in the competition were well proofread, but this one has a lot of the sort of spelling errors that would have been picked up by a pass through a spellcheck. The pacing would also have benefitted from some beta-tester feedback.

UNE AFFAIRE RONDEMENT MENÉE

by Dunin

First of all, I appreciate the title and byline. This is a murder mystery by “done-in” — get it? As for the title, “rondemont” literally means “roundly”, but in this phrase I think it conveys the sense of “soundly”, i.e., An affair competently conducted. But it also retains the circular sense because this murder investigation goes round and round.

I think it was in playing this game that I remembered that the French Language IF Comp always has a theme, and I put two and two together to deduce the theme: cycles or loops. That’s a good sign: without knowing the theme in advance, the games made it evident.

This setting for this game is immediately recognizable, if worn a bit thin in recent IFComps: a murder has taken place in the manor. The player is not the famous detective, but the slower witted inspector. You play Lestrade to the game’s more or less omniscient Holmes, who leads you through a series of deductions about whom could have offed the Count.

Every deduction points the finger towards the next suspect: was it the Countess? The maid? The gardener? The Count’s elderly mother? The tap dancer instructor? The scheming fiancé? All seem plausible at first, but the Detective gleefully points out how your every suggestion is self-defeating, and you are led by the nose through the list of suspects until you come full circle… and start again.

Obviously, this gets you nowhere, and there must be a trick to it all or you would spend eternity going round and round with the Great Detective. All I will say is that there is a solution, it is present in game, and it is fair. I recognized the hand at work here and kept (literally) poking away at this game until I arrived at a solution. You’re on your own to find it.

This was, in my opinion the best game: good writing, solid programming and a clever puzzle. Overall, I rated it second to Pensées Profondes in terms of overall works in this year’s comp because I thought the writing quality and amount of work that went into Pensées Profondes put it in another class, but I don’t want to undersell the writing in this game deftly evoked period and genre-specific atmosphere.

A final word on mechanics: every game this year had a web-interface, and most were twine-based, but I suspect that there is a parser lurking below the surface of this one.

Karma Manager v1.2

Jérémie P.

For me, this game fell into the same category as La malédiction dont vous êtes le héros: a super idea, but not implemented deeply enough.

For parser-based games, deep implementation is the unobtainable goal of being able to do anything to any object. For a game with CYOA format, it is a question of the number of places in the story that offer a choice and how varied that choice is.

The premise of this work is that it is an app to optimize the path through reincarnation by keeping track of karma collected over multiple lives. The layout is game-like, with text on the left and stats on the right. You begin by choosing a family to be born into and then make a series of choices throughout life.

Unfortunately, there is not much variability in the text. Only a limited number of situations occur in each life, and you tend to see them again and again. The game would have benefited from more variety such that each life really felt like a new opportunity.

Playing over several lives, I got the general idea of how to maximize karma, but I would not say that there is a foolproof method, so there is limited player autonomy to steer the character towards nirvana. I was surprised that there were no negative consequences to choices: you can gain but not lose karma. That makes sense in terms of compelling the game towards a definitive end in a reasonable amount of time, but I don’t think that is really how karma works.

I did enjoy the overall packaging of this as a metaphysical “app” down to the victory text which reads (paraphrasing) “Don’t hesistate to share your experience with Karma Manager v1.2 on social networks, and, for your new state of existence, we recommend you use the Nirvana Manager v2.3 app”.

Héméra

by Narkhos

This game is off to a quick “Open up in the name of the law!” banging at the door sort of start. You have from dawn to dusk to use your potion-brewing skills to figure your way out of your predicament.

Don’t worry: there’s no Hadean Lands complexity to creating potions — there are only two of them — but it’s also a matter of how you use them. I thought the puzzle here was both good and fair.

Unfortunately, that’s more or less it. It is a short tale with a central puzzle. Like several of the games in this year’s comp, I enjoyed the setting and core mechanic, but wished there was more.

On a technical note: I noticed that this game was written with Ink.

Si j’avais su…

by Eve C.

This is more or less a princess simulator: you are presented with a series of challenging situations requiring executive decision making, and the success of your kingdom, your reign, and indeed how long you live, is determined by how well those choices play out.

My choices were rarely well considered; clearly, I am not princess material because I died a lot — mostly at the hands of my subjects, sometimes of my enemies. One notable feature of this game is that you do not play a single character, but as many monarchs as are required in succession to reach the end of the game.

The game does not take itself too seriously and there are some silly bits, but there is a consistent, fun voice and I enjoyed this one.

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