If you’re an IF-community regular, the next two paragraphs are not for you. See you a little further down the page, okay?
If you’ve come to this blog through its recent exposure on places like Boing Boing and O’Reilly Radar, you might not know that there is an active community making interactive fiction in the tradition of Infocom — only, well, better, at least in the case of our very best work. Lately much of the community’s activity has tended to coalesce around three annual competitions. One of these is the Spring Thing, a contest held every spring (natch) for longer-form (think novella- or even novel-length) IF. Another is what we call simply the Competition (or “the big one”), held every fall for shorter works of IF playable in a couple of hours or so.
And then there’s our subject of today, the IntroComp, in which authors submit short previews of potential long-form works. We in the community then give each of these some feedback and a score of from 1 to 10. Armed with this data, each of the authors can decide whether and how to pursue the epic effort that goes into creating a full-fledged work of long-form IF that will pass muster with the pretty exacting standards we tend to have around these parts. This year the IntroComp has a bumper crop of 13 entrants. What follows are capsule reviews of the first four of those that I played, with the others to follow in later installments.
Bender is a Heroes-esque tale of very ordinary people who have been gifted with supernatural powers. It takes place in two stages. In the first, which is by far the more unusual, you play a teenage boy with the ability to manipulate the landscape around you under certain circumstances. You must negotiate your way through a labyrinthine geography (echoes of the Royal Puzzle from Zork III) using this power. In doing so you must make use of an elaborate but confusing onscreen map made up of Unicode symbols and color variations, which is probably going to break in one way or another on about 50% of Z-Code interpreters. I actually assumed at first that this would make up the whole of the game, and was ready to ask whether IF was really the right vehicle for this sort of thing, when I suddenly found myself in the much more conventional second section, in which you continue the story as a different person with apparently somewhat different powers.
Do I want more? No… at least not without some major reworking and rethinking. The spatial movement puzzle is an interesting idea, and I’m sure represents quite a clever bit of Inform 7 programming, but this implementation of it just didn’t work for me. Even when the display appears correctly, something that (depending on interpreter choice) is by no means guaranteed, it is way too cluttered and confusing to read. If the author wants to continue down this road, I’d suggest he switch to Glulx and perhaps the Glimmrr package, which based on the demos Erik Temple has released seems almost tailor-made for a display like this. The game as a whole, meanwhile, suffers from somewhat bland writing and sketchy implementation, and is in dire need of a reality check or two. For starters, a seriously injured boy who throws himself out of a car traveling at highway speed is not going to just dust himself off and climb back in.
Oddly enough, this game can also be divided into two stages, the first once again featuring a rather unusual approach and the second being more conventional. This time the first stage is built around the “psychological mechanism known as chunking.” You are given an inventory (“memventory”) of memories and concepts, which you can “chunk” together to build up more elaborate ideas and hypotheses.
Do I want more? No, not in this form. Chunking is an interesting idea, and I certainly applaud any attempt to deal with such abstracts in IF in lieu of its usual physical-world-focused approach to storytelling… but, once again, it just didn’t work for me. It’s very difficult to know what things can be chunked together, leading the whole exercise to quickly devolve into a random guessing game. Throw in the avowed ability to mis-chunk things, and I see lots of frustration on the horizon. The story that binds all this together, meanwhile, is bland and rather timid, seemingly unable to decide whether it wants to be a noirish mystery or a collection of silly gags. Gags are okay, I suppose, but when your “satire” only rises to an out-of-context regurgitation of a McDonald’s theme song, your wit is in urgent need of a whetstone. Piles of anachronistic pop-culture references shoehorned in wherever they will fit do not by themselves create hilarity; you have to do something interesting with them.
The Despondency Index
This game casts you as a police detective on the trail of an apparent serial killer. Both the plot and the protagonist, a dedicated but rather self-destructive loner at constant odds with his superiors, are the stuff of a thousand television police procedurals. Yet what might feel stale on Law and Investigation: Utica Petty Crimes and Vice Division hasn’t really been done much if at all in the context of IF, and so feels pretty fresh and interesting here. Perhaps some of that is down to the writing, which much more than in the previous two games seems to know what it’s doing and what mood it wants to create.
Do I want more? Yes, I think so. However, I have concerns even after seeing only this very brief introduction. Once again we need some reality checks: would even a rebel loner cop really drink someone else’s cold and stale cup of coffee? And more abstractly, I’m concerned that the game will devolve into solving a series of inane text-adventure puzzles like that business with the coffee, for which the author rewards us by solving the crime for us piece by piece. If you want me to play a detective, for God’s sake let me be a detective, and solve the crime for myself by piecing together the clues and, you know, detecting. If you can find a way to do that, you could just have gold here.
An ambitious menu-driven fantasy tale written using the ChoiceScript system. (It’s one of five such in this competition.) You play an amnesiac wanderer who carries on an intermittent dialog with a tattoo of a skull on your forearm. The premise strongly reminded me of Planescape: Torment; I’d be shocked if the author isn’t a fan. Still, this is better than that description makes it sound, with solid writing and an apparently well-thought-out setting and plot arc.
Do I want more? Meh… I don’t know. I’ve been trying really hard to keep an open mind about this CYOA thing, but I can’t say that I find too many of them really satisfying. I just don’t like only being able to choose from lists of arbitrary choices at pre-selected points, particularly when I’m not really sure what those choices actually mean. At the beginning of this story, for instance, I am wandering lost and apparently exhausted in the desert, and am given the choice to either “keep walking” or “stop.” Yet I have no context for these choices, nor do I know what they really entail. Does “stopping” mean to give up and wait to die, or does it mean to take a little break, or to try to get my bearings and consider what my best prospects for rescue might be? Conventional IF is not immune to similar complaints at times, but the CYOA format just seems to breed them. Further, I get a strong feeling that this story mostly funnels me down a set path, rendering my individual choices moot in the big picture and leaving me wondering what it gains from the interactive component at all. Again, one can sometimes raise similar charges against conventional IF, but the range of options and paths through the story are so much greater even in a notoriously linear IF like Photopia that the process just feels infinitely more immersive to me. Here I never feel one with the story and my avowed avatar, but always that I am manipulating them from a distance, and often doing so arbitrarily based on incomplete information. (There’s a valid place for that too, of course, but that’s not the impression a genre work like this one is trying to create.) All that said, I’m not really the biggest fan of this kind of humorlessly Portentious and Epic Fantasy. So, while this is not badly done, it’s a not-badly-done piece in a genre I don’t really care for. (I didn’t even like Planescape: Torment as much as everyone told me I should.) I’ll be interested to see if any of the other ChoiceScript stories can win me over to the CYOA form through a more personally appealing premise.