Archive for October 2017

IFComp 2017: The Wand   3 comments

By Arthur DiBianca. Played to completion on desktop.

Arthur DiBianca has, for multiple years running, entered IFComp with puzzle games that use a reduced parser. That is, a parser that only understands a small subset of possible verbs; for example, in 2014’s Excelsior, it was direction commands, examining, and the USE verb.

The Wand starts off with a similar set, but very quickly changes things up to disable USE entirely. (Even though this happens early on, I don’t want to spoil what happens – let’s just say I went from apathetic to very interested in a short time.) All interaction is done via a wand, that can be set to different spells using a three-color system.

You can SET a sequence of three colors on the wand like this: SET RED GREEN BLUE.

To save typing, you can abbreviate using one letter for each color like this: SET RGB. To make it even shorter, you can just type the three letters: RGB.

There are ten colors. In reverse alphabetical order they are yellow (Y), white (W), red (R), purple (P), orange (O), green (G), gray (A), brown (N), blue (B), and black (K). (Note that gray, brown, and black do not go by their first letter.)

As one might expect with a wand, this is generic fantasy: you’re supposed to make your way through obstacles in a castle and gather enough new spells (things like “levitate” and “fire”) to escape. In a way, the presence of spells makes this the most expansive verb list Arthur DiBianca has ever used, since each spell is a verb of sorts. The lack of ability to TAKE things means even the simplest of activities gets turned into a spell-related puzzle.

This might be his peak in this style; every puzzle was reasonable to solve. The prose was nothing remarkable but it was clear and clean, and even with some complicated mechanics I found the entire game polished and bug-free.

I still say “peak” insofar as while I don’t think this sort of game can get much better, I felt like something was lacking. This is, after all, retro: come solve puzzles with essentially no plot or characters of interest whatsoever. There’s not even enough substance to call it setting-as-backstory. It’s possible there’s some essential mystery I missed (one about why this scenario is happening in the first place is vaguely hinted at) but even an after-story would be missing the point: I found myself craving something more during the game to grab onto.

Posted October 30, 2017 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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IFComp 2017: 10pm   1 comment

By litrouke. Played on desktop to completion.

10pm involves a short conversation between you, a 12 year old boy named Bird, and their “parental figure” named Ty.

Bird ostensibly does not speak. You communicate using icons.

The icons are metaphors for Bird “signing”. This slight remove from normal conversation is the most compelling part of this work. I felt the tingle of being inside someone else’s head. Multiple signs have particular meaning, so not only do you need to consider a response, but how to say it. While the prose of Ty’s responses isn’t impressive in any way, it does read like natural dialogue. (All apostrophes are omitted but that’s clearly a style choice; I admit one I never got used to.)

One extra element makes 10pm worth replay: the background and world setting are slowly hinted at as being abnormal. I’m going to avoid spoilers here, but deciphering how Bird got where he is and what he has to go through took me a couple tries (not onerous; it’s a short work, about 10 minutes).

Posted October 24, 2017 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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IFComp 2017: The Cube in the Cavern   8 comments

By Andrew Schultz. Finished on desktop using Gargoyle.

Andrew Schultz, as has been his tradition going since 2012, has entered a pure-puzzle parser game in the competition. To be clear, even though there is a bit of a setting, and even an established main character …

Why, you eschewed a lucrative career as a psychic for, just, well…knowledge. And when your dowsing instruments detected something odd in a cavern, you were curious indeed! A cube lay beyond a river, and you’re lucky you had your assistant to pull you back, because somehow, you felt pulled towards the center! Your assistant tied you down so you could explore briefly, and YOU WERE ABLE TO WALK UPSIDE-DOWN.

… it’s safe to say these details are essentially irrelevant. Unlike Andrew’s other entries going back to 2012, this isn’t a word-puzzle game. It isn’t even a math-puzzle game, really — more of a visual-spacial one. If you think that’s an odd choice for pure text, you’d be right.

You’re standing on a cube, where you can travel to any of the six sides, and gravity pulls you towards the center. Additionally, each side of the cube consists of a 3 by 3 region, with a beacon and 4 transponders on each side.

This boils down to basically two puzzles. I’m going to first discuss them in a non-spoiler sense, then switch to rot13 mode for some more specifics.

Generally, the main issue for me was: a.) visualizing the thing and b.) navigating the thing. I never could get the hang of cube navigation (see the “cube compass” above) and even near the end I just guessed the correct command and used UNDO if I guessed wrong.

Visualizing was also fairly critical, and it wasn’t until I drew a fully-labeled 3D cube on paper that I understood what was going on. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but prepared if you play this to spend the first half of your game just making a thorough map. (The materials come with one, but I found looking at it confusing and even if you use it you’ll need to add labels to many of the rooms.)

Some more spoiler-laden observations in ROT13:

Gur svefg chmmyr unf lbh zngpuvat genafcbaqre pbybef gb fvqrf. Guvf nfcrpg jnf snveyl fgenvtugsbjneq rkprcg gung fbzr bs gur genafcbaqref qba’g jbex. V arire jnf noyr gb svther bhg n cnggrea gb guvf, ohg V jnf noyr gb trg nyy gur pbybef naljnl. Guvf jnf qvfnccbvagvat va gung V gubhtug gur aba-jbexvat genafcbaqref jnf gur vagrerfgvat cneg gb gur chmmyr.

Gur frpbaq chmmyr unf lbh gvr n ebcr naq yvax vg guebhtu ghaaryf va gur pragre. Guvf cneg sryg cerggl hazbgvingrq, nygubhtu vg jnfa’g hafbyinoyr, naq V sbhaq univat gb qrny jvgu gur culfvpf bs gur ebcr vagrerfgvat. Ubjrire, gur tnzr-raqvat qvq srry zber yvxr zntvp guna gur erfhyg bs zl uneq jbex.

Posted October 23, 2017 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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IFComp 2017: TextCraft: Alpha Island   1 comment

By Fabrizio Polo. Played on desktop. Not finished.

There ought to be a compact word for “I did something that checks off the things I’m really interested in theoretically, but turns out to have major issues which I found intractable in practice so now I am sad”.

TextCraft: Alpha Island is a parser game written in Java. The main character is fulfilling a bet that they can survive alone on an island for 7 days. The game is simulationist (tracking hunger, thirst, and sleep), in real time, and includes a crafting system.

I did not have a good time. This excerpt of me trying to set my shorts on fire gives a fair mental impression:

The issues:

1. The parser is highly restricted. I know “limited vocabulary” parsers are all the rage but that only works if your set of verbs is small and sensible. This game isn’t that: it has a medium-sized list of verbs, but no synonyms. The result (for instance) is I made a lean-to shelter, but then spent 10 minutes trying to enter it. I had to look up spoilers (it’s GO IN SHELTER).

2. Related to issue #1, I found a water bottle I wanted to fill with the falling rain from the first day. I never did figure out the syntax to do this. I consequently died several days later. Note this isn’t an instant-loss either — it’s a protracted death by dehydration, where you start to get exhausted and need to sleep every few turns.

I don’t know if saying I’m energized three times in a row is a bug, or intentionally indicating I got some sort of super-sleep. Four moves after this I had to sleep again.

3. There’s no regular save, only auto-save after the conclusion after every day. Died late in the first day? Start over. Stuck in a “dead man walking scenario” like in point #2? Start the game over.

4. The example things that you can craft are a sandwich, shelter, and hat. This does not give an intuitive direction as to what’s on the available list — it’s pretty limited and you can go through many, many unrecognized words before finding one the game likes. Even given that, you’ll probably miss something essential, like I did with “trap” …

>craft trap

If you want to craft a conical basket fish trap you will need something you can weave.

… and no, the first thing that occurs to me with the word “trap” is not “conical basket fish trap”, which I never even knew was a thing. Also the game doesn’t give any indication there is any animal life on the island; in fact, the only way to see a fish I could find was to catch one.

That’s not even getting into the fact the craft system syntax is highly finicky when it doesn’t need to be. You have to put items in the exact order the game wants. If you get a single preposition off the game won’t accept it. This is the sort of behavior I’d expect from an early 80s parser, not a modern one.

5. There’s a plot which includes the main character remembering things about his/her friends as time passes. They are giant walls of text, but time passes while you’re trying to read them; the best option is to PAUSE after every long chunk of text. I didn’t get that far in the plot (kept dying) but what I did see was so tangential and irrelevant to the idea of island survival I found it a distraction.

I think it’s possible to make a good game with this system, but this one isn’t it. In order to fix it: First, the parser needs to be a full parser. Highly limited works as a parser, but this isn’t that, nor would this game in particular work with that. Second, although it’s possible the plot came together somewhere, it needs to be something more relevant to the actions of the character. I really don’t care about some friend’s computer company when I’m dying of thirst. Third, there needs to be a lot more “teaching the system” going on with what works in crafting. It shouldn’t be necessary to check the game’s wiki to find out what’s possible to make.

Posted October 20, 2017 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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IFComp 2017: Haunted P   4 comments

By Chad Rocketman. Finished (?) on desktop using Gargoyle.

I’m not sure what the intent is with entries like this.

> x me
youre a cool enby and you got a great hat and a subpar tie and some good sunglasses. dont ever take them off because then something terrible will probably happen

> i
You are carrying:
PlayerChefHat (being worn)
PlayerMirrorShades (being worn)
PlayerCurvasiousRedAndBlackTie (being worn)

> talk to bilbert
PLAYER….. a terible fate hath befallen me… a fate of SCIENCE. and MAGICK. talk to me again to get more info
> talk to bilbert
You must go inside me to heal me of my affliction. talk to me again to get more info
> talk to bilbert
don’t talk to me again or i’ll die
> talk to bilbert
oh noooooooooooooooooooo
> talk to bilbert
bilbert is dead you fool. you killed him. he’ll never come back no matter what you do

I mean, it’s funny / weird enough for the 4 minutes it lasts, I guess, and I think I reached the ending which involved entering one of Bilbert’s kidneys and doing some sort of science/magic in the secret place and healing him. And then afterwards I talked to him again and killed him again.

Questions for Discussion:

1. What is a “cool enby”?

2. You can, in fact, take off the hat, shades, and tie, and nothing terrible at all will happen. What does this mean?

3. You enter Bilbert in a “cool invincible science ship”. Is this ship, in fact, invinicible? If an invincible ship collided with another invicible ship, what would happen? Discuss.

4. Both the left and right kidneys contain the “secret place”. Does that mean the innards of Bilbert represent some sort of quantum waveform? Compare and contrast the two kidneys.

5. After healing Bilbert, you can go in and repeat the process as many times as you like; the game will not end. You can also kill Bilbert and keep repeating the process; he talks to you even though he is still dead. Does this hold special meaning?

Posted October 19, 2017 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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IFComp 2017: The Fifth Sunday   1 comment

By Tom Broccoli. Played to completion on desktop using Chrome.

Three of the entries from IFComp are from Chinese authors off of the Qiaobooks group. I haven’t tried the others yet but it seems to be a binary-choice system.

In The Fifth Sudnay, a murder happens …

Sister Yang was dead.

… and you control the actions of Lin Guangrong, who realizes he is a prime suspect. You can, straight from the opening text, try to finger the murderer right away. This is in fact what I did, and I apparently got lucky with my clicks and won in 30 seconds flat.

OK, not the intended route. I restarted and picked “I can’t judge yet” to keep the case going. The structure seems to be: play the binary choices to an ending, get some clues, and then restart enough times that the murder is solved. The end state when the murder goes unsolved comes off as a little bizarre: you get specific facts like in a game of Clue, and “The End” just happens, there’s no real happy or unhappy conclusion.

Here’s a sample excerpt from mid-game:

“What…What happened?

The pungent smell of blood made Mr. J pale. He turned his head away from the cold body, but looked at Lin Guangrong.

“I don’ t know”

His answer left Mr. J at a loss…More precisely; there was a trace of anger in his loss.

“You don’ t know?”

(The space after the ‘ mark happens every time — I assume this is a coding error and not the fault of the text.)

Consider the structure of the penultimate line. The ordering is strange — we first have to parse Mr. J as being “at a loss” (whatever that means, I’m not sure in this context) then modify this emotion with “a trace of anger”, and then apply those emotions to the line “You don’t know?” which immediately follows. A more straightforward version of the line might be “Mr. J said, with a trace of anger, ‘You don’t know?'” It’s possible in Chinese the structure of “general emotion -> tinge to emotion -> line said with previous mentioned emotions” might make more sense, but in English it comes across a slippery and uneven.

All the text is like this. I felt like I had to read out of order. Unfortunately I have trouble enough solving mysteries in games with strong interactivity and prose; with this game I found getting traction nearly impossible.

Posted October 19, 2017 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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IFComp 2017: A Beauty Cold and Austere   3 comments

By Mike Spivey. Finished on desktop using Gargoyle.

I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite like this in IFComp. We’ve had math-related parser games before going all the way back to the first one (1995!) with The Magic Toyshop by Gareth Rees, but this is straight-up educational — it’s fairly clear the author’s intent was to present a journey and teach some math at the same time.

It begins with the player character’s attempt at cramming a “survey course in conceptual mathematics”. A helpful roommate has provided a mysterious pill that’s “perfectly safe, all-natural, and organic”. Shortly after taking it the player falls asleep and essentially enters the dreamworld of Math, a place haunted by both abstract mathematical objects and a plethora of famous mathematicians.

You find yourself in a deep dark blue – almost black – expanse of space that extends as far as you can see in all three dimensions. The only thing that breaks up this space is the white disk floating in mid-air that you are standing on. While the disk doesn’t appear to be supported by anything, there is a hole in the middle of it.

The style includes some self-contained-minigame-type puzzles. Let me give an example:

On the wall are carved numbers from 1 to 100, in ten rows of ten each. It looks like you could push any of the numbers. Next to the numbers is a switch, with two settings: “Remove Number,” and “Remove Larger Multiples of the Number.” The switch is currently set to “Remove Number,” although you could easily move it to the other setting by flipping the switch. … At the bottom is a challenge from the librarian: “To access the map room, leave just the primes between 1 and 100 by pushing only five numbers.”

So far, so straightforward. However, there’s also many “world integrated” puzzles, include a “square root” device which can be used to EXTRACT roots of numbers and a curious roller coaster which traces the path of functions.

The game requires wading through serious infodumps. Sometimes in just puzzle presentation …

> x bronze
(the bronze balance scale)
This is a double-pan balance scale made of bronze. The left pan contains two brown x blocks and two tan pebbles; the right pan contains twelve sepia pebbles.

> x silver
(the silver balance scale)
This is a double-pan balance scale made of silver. The left pan contains three gray y blocks and six ash pebbles; the right pan contains a gray x block and ten slate pebbles.

> x gold
(the gold balance scale)
This is a double-pan balance scale made of gold. The left pan contains a yellow x block, a yellow z block, and four sand pebbles; the right pan contains a yellow y block and eight maize pebbles.

… and sometimes in long and technical dialogue segments.

You give Euclid a nod, as if to say that there’s no need to apologize. He interprets it as interest.

“I was just thinking about the postulates in my Elements. These are what I call the basic truths on which I build all of my geometric arguments. I’m happy with the first four, but the fifth one is too… I don’t know… wordy?

“It’s basically equivalent to saying this: Given any straight line and a point not on that line, there exists exactly one other straight line that passes through the point and never intersects the first line. This is true no matter how far you extend the two lines. So there’s exactly one other line that’s parallel to the first line and that goes through the point.

“I’m trying to figure out how to derive this one from the first four so that I don’t have to claim it as a postulate. But I can’t seem to do it.

I’m actually pretty forgiving of walls of text, but walls of text plus technical language make for a hard read. They also make the characters feel very artificial and dehumanized. While there are some funny moments (I liked Pascal’s betting style in poker and Hypatia fielding calls on her cell phone) the character aspects tend to be in-jokey enough I’m not sure if anyone who doesn’t already have a strong knowledge of math history will grok them.

> read fifth page
The matrix

1 1 0
0 1 0
0 0 1

keeps the y and z coordinates the same from the original object to the transformed object. However, to create the x coordinates of the transformed object, it adds the x and y coordinates of the original object. A cube, for example, would be transformed into an object that looks like a box that has been partially crushed so that its sides are at an angle. (Technically the transformed object is a parallelpiped, a three-dimensional version of a parallelogram.) This kind of transformation is known as a shear transformation.

Also, this game blew well past the 2 hour limit — it took me roughly 6 hours to finish, and this is with a strong mathematical background. I expect 10-12 hours would not be unusual. There are a some very neat puzzles nestled throughout the game and the atmosphere is fairly unique, but I can’t help wondering if there is some friendlier approach that would work for the presentation.

Posted October 19, 2017 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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IFComp 2017: Black Marker   4 comments

By Michael Kielstra. Played twice to completion on desktop using Chrome.

This is an appropriately paranoid place to pick up reviewing IFComp games again after Unit 322.

The premise: you work for an unnamed government agency. Your job is to censor documents. Censor too much, and it looks like the agency has something to hide; miss censoring an important piece of information, and the agency could be hurt or tactics that are used to root out terrorists could be exposed.

The censorship works by just clicking. For example, you have the option to censor the red portion of the email about; click it and it turns into CENSORED.

Given (with some rare exceptions) the only act you can do is censorship, it becomes an action verb like jumping in Mario or exploring in an adventure game. The game tries to “train you in the system” by giving some “easy documents” first. (Note you can decide right away to start rebelling if you like. It’s as if Mario was intended to jump over the first pipe but glitches into the credits screen instead.)

Unfortunately, even with this relatively simple interface there are major flaws. Sometimes clicking to censor picks up more than one chunk (in a way it’s not obvious when it will happen). Relatedly, you can’t “de-censor” if you mis-click or just change your mind on censoring a particular text. You can undo to the previous page, but that resets the text entirely. Additionally, requiring hard-undo for a major interface element encourages this behavior if the censorship wasn’t up to agency standards (or if a player was aiming for it, the opposite). Maybe this was intentional, but the it greatly reduced for me the feel of moral quandary.

Curiously (and unlike every other game of this sort I can think of) censorship isn’t portrayed as inherently immoral. As mentioned in the About text:

I’ve tried to portray censorship in an ambiguous, if not positive, light. I would agree that it is often a danger and that citizens in general should know more about the workings of their governments than they do, but full transparency would ruin a state. Winning wars is impossible if the enemy can file a Freedom of Information Act request for your latest tactics.

If that was this message, this game needed more content to get there. Somehow after a handful of documents I was trusted enough to handle a very important one, and then the game was over; all it said was “Your superiors are pleased with your work.” There wasn’t any impression of story arc, nor of consequence of actions beyond the player’s immediate career status. (I suspect I missed an ending where a news expose might have been the result, but since I couldn’t find such an ending, I can’t review it.)

Posted October 17, 2017 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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Quick general update   4 comments

Just as a heads up, I will be on vacation next week. I will resume IFComp reviews after then.

Posted October 7, 2017 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

IFComp 2017: Unit 322 (Disambiguation)   10 comments

By Jonny Muir. Played to completion on iPhone.

Here are some facts about this game:

  • It advertises itself as “A mystery told entirely through the pages of an online encyclopedia.”
  • That’s not entirely truthful. There’s something else going on here.
  • You start on a mock-Wikipedia launch screen, as shown above. The links only go a couple deep, but the important thing to note is the pages are not always the same.
  • The writing is skillful and the majority has Wikipedia’s “even-handed neutral” tone which makes creepy events sound creepier. It’s akin to someone playing the “straight man” in comedy.
  • Subjects were administered psychedelic drugs (such as LSD) to place them in a receptive mental state. They would then be subjected to various combinations of sound and imagery containing subliminal messages intended to directly target and stimulate parts of the brains repsonsible for various motor functions. These might often be no more than repeated 30 second loops of music or imagery.

  • The themes of the game are desperation, unethical experimentation, and mind control.
  • None of the characters felt cardboard, exactly, but perhaps a little too much detail about motivation was elided. I’m not sure if there’s a way to remedy this but maintain the same format; it might just be one of those necessary flaws.
  • Why do people do the things that they do not want to do? How can you push a man to act against his own best interests? This has been a fundamental enquiry in our research, and has been the focus of many of our experiments. Fortunately, our circumstances afford us as many test subjects as we need.

  • The arc ends up being perhaps a little too familiar, but even if you see the ending coming (as I did) it’s still enjoyable to see the payoff.

Posted October 4, 2017 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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