Archive for October 2017

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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IFComp 2017: Ultimate Escape Room: IF City   1 comment

By Mark Stahl. Completed on desktop using Gargoyle.

Escape rooms — the real life physical spaces where the players try to solve puzzles to escape — were inspired mostly by the genre of Flash game that popped up in the early 2000s.

The premise of this game is that you’re in a real-life escape room, so what we have is a electronic game inspired by a physical game inspired by an electronic game. Whoa.

This is a meme from a community group about a game named after the meme.

Ever since visiting that escape room in the Tampa area, you’ve become obsessed with real life “escape the room” games. Normally, you would have brought as many friends with you as possible, but no one was available today so you’re going it alone. And now your task begins; to find your way out of “The Wizard’s Rainbow”, as it’s called. Looking at your surroundings, the first thing that you notice is that…

White Room
Everything appears white; the floor, the ceiling, and the walls. There do not appear to be any exits, but you’re not so sure.

You can see a white chair here.

The rooms are roughly as minimalist as the ones in The Richard Mines, but with the important exceptions that

a.) in the fiction of the world — a multi-room “escape room” — the minimalism makes sense

and

b.) the world is still “dense” and each room serves a purpose.

The premise makes the random room layout feel reasonable, and also gives an excuse for the author to pull out the old SEARCH / LOOK UNDER / LOOK BEHIND style verbs. Not everything is coded as solidly as it could be — for instance, I softlocked the game once by putting a blank paper on a table, at which point it existed and didn’t exist at the same time — but I was still able to get to the end without too much trouble.

The ending is a bit of a gag, which suggests to me there wasn’t enough meat to the plot to begin with. You do the escape room alone: a far more compelling game might have had people with you. I realize this makes for a much trickier coding proposition.

Posted October 2, 2017 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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IFComp 2017: The Richard Mines   5 comments

By Evan C. Wright. Played to completion on desktop using Windows Frotz.

There was a time when computer games needed to give most of their context outside their game, because there just wasn’t enough space on the computers at the time. Games like Temple of Asphai (1979) even included a great deal of the text from the game itself in the manual, again for technical space reasons.

Such technical excuses no longer exist. This is how The Richard Mines starts:

Forest
This is a dense forest which extends in all directions. To the north the trees appear to thin.

Now, this isn’t a game where things get slowly revealed – that is all the context you get. If it wasn’t for the blurb, it’d be unclear where the game is even set:

Czechoslovakia, 1949. Though World War Two has been over for several years, rumors of underground German factories still persist. No one has found found yet, until now…

“Exploring an abandoned German factory” isn’t bad as far as premises go, but pulling it off requires some killer atmosphere. This game has minimalist room descriptions, and as far as I can tell there are very few verbs outside the ones needed to solve puzzles that work.

Engine Works
This is a huge chamber carved out of the native limestone. Rusting engine blocks in various states of completion, sit on test stands. The cavern continues north and there is an exit to the south.

>x blocks
You can’t see any such thing.

>x stands
The engines are large, twelve cylinder motors, probably intended for use in armored vehicles.

>n
Repair Stations
This end of the north end of a cavernous undergroud chamber. There are several work benches here.

>get all
There are none at all available!

>search benches
You find nothing of interest.

The “undergroud” typo is in the game. There’s also some comma abuse elsewhere (“A rusting, barbed wire fence, blocks the way north” should only have the first comma) but I want to focus the rest of my time here on one of the puzzles. This will enter spoiler territory.

Image here for spoiler space. This is a picture of one of the Richard mines, via Wikimapia.

Here’s a long clip:

>sw

Radio Works
This is a large chamber, formerly dedicated to the production of radio tubes. The only exit is to the northeast.

A small, wooden crate occupies the center of the chamber.

>x crate
Stenciling on the side reads: “Inhalt: Schatz. Nicht fallen lassen.”

>push crate
Nothing obvious happens.

>pull crate
Nothing obvious happens.

>break crate
Temper, temper.

>i
You are carrying:
a cigarette lighter
a paperclip
a wrench
a pair of gloves (being worn)
a pile of leaves
a discarded flashlight (providing light)

>open crate with wrench
That doesn’t seem to be something you can unlock.

>pry crate with wrench
That’s not a verb I recognise.

>hit crate with wrench
I only understood you as far as wanting to hit the wooden crate.

>open crate
It is firmly nailed shut.

>get nails
You can’t see any such thing.

>get nail
You can’t see any such thing.

>pry crate
That’s not a verb I recognise.

Grr, no! All of these actions are totally reasonable to try. There might be some sort of rejection why they don’t work, but this kind of parser responsiveness just doesn’t work in a 2017 game. If any action might plausibly be tried to attempt a puzzle, it should give a message.

In any case, “nicht fallen lassen” means “do not drop” so the appopriate action is to take the crate to the top of a tall ladder and drop it.

>drop crate
The crate falls to bottom of the shaft, with a loud splintering sound.

This is overall a good concept! But the execution is as important as the idea, and the player should be able to get a hint from other acts stronger than a message (that they might not be able to read without outside help) in German. I should add there is a problem in all this of scale – the crate gives the impression of being largish, so how does one climb a ladder while holding it?

Just as an extra kick, the end of the game features some guessing of the verb.

>open bolts
It isn’t something you can open.

>unscrew bolts
It is fixed in place.

>turn bolts
It is fixed in place.

>wrench bolts
That’s not a verb I recognise.

>pry bolts
That’s not a verb I recognise.

>turn bolts
It is fixed in place.

>get bolts
That’s hardly portable.

More serious writing and a stronger sense of history might have made this game work; as is, it’s not recommended.

Posted October 2, 2017 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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IFComp 2017: Queer In Public: A Brief Essay   2 comments

By Naomi Norbez. Read on iPhone.

This is subtitled “A hypertext essay about the Christian & LGBT community”.

Entering a non-fiction essay into a fiction competition was probably not a good idea. Entering something with writing clearly targeted at Christians into a general international competition also will not have desired results. (The essay is pretty readable even for non-Christians, but there are some references that will likely be confusing. Just be warned the direct address at Christians also brings a vague undercurrent of proselytizing, even if it’s unintentional.)

I have enough religious studies chops I’ll go ahead and review this like it was an essay in an essay contest for Christians, although I’ll mention to the author to please don’t be surprised at potential low ratings and/or puzzled reviews.


Also, I’m probably not qualified to review an essay anyway; I’ve never done it before. To simplify matters, let me focus on: Would it be convincing for the target audience — Christians who are skeptical of modern gender/sex issues?

The essay begins with the author’s childhood descent into pathological lying, followed by finding God. How I Became a Christian is a common narrative to start with, because it builds empathy. The writing throughout is clear and never condescending. The basic point is phrased in a way that should resonate:

Fellow Christians, let that sink in: The church is starving people of God’s truth because of its discomfort. It’s no surprise people leave the church because of this. No one wants to be starving of hope. If the church won’t give them answers, they’ll find them somewhere else.

There’s also a basic point about “holy” just meaning “set aside for special purpose” and how single-ness should be considered just as fine as being married, although I feel like something got muddled here by seeming to imply all non-binary people will not get married. (I must have read that wrong, but if you imagine the reader from the perspective of doing everything possible to stick with their original beliefs, there’s too much of an “out” here to just assume trans and gay people will be celibate.)

I don’t think it quite does enough for skeptics in one important point: scripture citation. Most Christians that treat scripture loosely are already with the author’s side, so the audience here is really the ones who consider the Bible an unimpeachable holy book. The essay mentions biblical passages (Genesis 19, Leviticus 18:22, Leviticus 20:13, Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, and 1 Timothy 1:10) and hints at how people differ in interpretation, but never gets explicit, instead deferring to another writer. I think it’s safe to say your skeptics will not go out of their way to read a second essay on this sort of topic, so you should at least include a hook. Pick just one of the passages and go into detail like the other author does, enough to convey the impression that yes, things can be read differently, or least mention the hermeneutical question — that a law in the Bible does not necessarily apply to today, and there are many Old Testament laws that do not get followed even by strict biblical literalists.

Posted October 2, 2017 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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IFComp 2017: Harmonia   5 comments

By Liza Daly. Completed using iPhone. Played to one ending.

Harmonia is set in a small college in northeast Massachusetts, where the main character, Abby Fuller, is invited as a “substitute” for a missing professor. The professor’s disappearance turns out to be a deeper enigma than expected. I would call this an “academic thriller” halfway between a raid-the-classics mystery like The Dante Club and a conspiracy story like Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.

This is a “light interactive” style design where the only interaction is clicking underlined links. There are some definite decision points (including a major one near the end) but there’s a lot of straight reading in between. The text includes “footnotes” which pop up side text. There’s also lots of passages from journals and books. (The image below shows both; I had to click on “Looking Backwards” for the side text to appear.)

This was excellent! I enjoyed it nearly as much as the author’s prior work (Stone Harbor) although I felt like the characters were weaker in this one. The main character in Stone Harbor had layers of depth that fed into the plot, but Abby Fuller keeps the reader more at arm’s length — even though this story is written in the first-person. (Specific example: a character guesses where Abby’s from, and she responds it is something like that, but is clearly nervous to admit it. Nothing more comes of the interaction. There’s some general class-tension issues, but the idea never gets past “I had to work hard in state schools to get where I am”.) The side characters are also only vaguely sketched in, and one plot point (involving keys) made me go “wait, who is that?” on a character the game assumed I knew. The only thing I remember about the missing professor (the main McGuffin in all this) is that Abby thinks his gender views are slightly off.

One definite plus (for me, anyway) was the large number of 19th century authors quoted. If you can keep the fictional material separate, you can learn about late 19th century utopian movements and speculative fiction from playing this. The author estimated an hour of playtime but I actually took two because I spent my time poring over the historical excerpts.

A nitpick about the choice-points: because there’s quite a few footnotes and there’s no reason to avoid reading them all, it’s easy to blunder into a choice without realizing. It would be very helpful if there was some difference between the two kinds of click. It wouldn’t be too hard to make the footnotes single-underline and the choices double-underline, or something of that nature.

I am certain there are at least two endings, but I only played to one; this is the sort of story where I felt like I had to make my choice and stick with it no matter the consequences, as opposed to exploring the whole story tree.

Posted October 2, 2017 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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