Saturday, 11 October 2014

Hiatus, which may be indefinite

An opportunity for me to have a genuine holiday suddenly came up, and because I need it, I'm taking it. I will go offline for more than a week, and for that reason I'm just going to down tools on my reviewing efforts this year.

I confess I haven't been crazy about what I've done so far, but I've been having trouble with depression, and that impedes my ability to judge things anyway. I mean both judging others' work, and also judging whether or not I've been doing a decent job. But certainly my patience has been down on what I think is optimal for judging IFComp games. The good news is that I promised very little this year, and certainly volume-wise, that's what I've delivered!

So I hope you players and authors and other readers have a good experience. It's unlikely I'll return to the reviewing this year, but I never rule things out 100%.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Milk Party Palace by Alon Karmi & Glenn Parker

Milk Party Palace is a brief CYOA comedy in which you play a slack hotel employee who needs to round up six gallons of milk to appease visiting celebrity Alec Baldwin. Your eye is also on the twin goals of attending Baldwin’s "Milk Party” and finding out what a milk party even is. With the tone of the game being a bit juvo-Hollywood-teen-comedy wack, I wondered if a milk party might turn out to be a celebration vaguely along the lines of a lemon party, but I will not spoil such a revelation in this review without warning. Nor will I even let you know, without warning, whether such a revelation occurs. Nor will I even let you know, without warning, whether such a revelation is even relevant.

Milk Party was made in Unity, a rarity for a text game. The Cabrera brothers made their sci-fi IF game 'Cypher' with Unity, though that game’s parser was not highly rated, but Milk Party Palace is not a parser piece and it demonstrates a clean and efficient link’n’click style.

I completed Milk Party to reach one of the three advertising endings, and that was enough for me. Obtaining the gallons of milk involves cajoling or harassing various hotel guests by negotiating some absurd scenarios in their respective rooms. Absurd comedy seems to be Milk Party’s main purpose, and that comedy was pretty hit and miss. I confess that I quickly fell offside with the game, and that this caused me to click away impatiently at each encounter in an effort to hurry through it. I felt critical of my unreceptive state afterwards and tried to work out what I hadn’t liked.

It could be as simple a factor as that it all started off with the anticipation of a very short game involving a celebrity, a description which made me interest-weary. Then came the business of chasing up the milk itself, which was almost hard slog. The guests are understandably wary of your bugging each of them for milk, and the encounters are structured around the pains of you trying to extricate the needed gallons in the face of absurd verbal and physical hurdles. These hurdles somehow reminded me in nature of the kind of conversations I’d expect to have to suffer in hell, were I to end up there, albeit shorter in length. It's testament to some kind of effectiveness of what the game is doing along these lines that I did feel aggravated by the hurdles, even though they are less "real" than they might be in a parser-based game, where you could become physically or literally stuck against a puzzle. That basically can't happen to you in Milk Party, but I was still a bit teeth-gnashy throughout the experiences described in the prose.

So even though Milk Party was not all that long, it felt strenuous. Its brand of absurd thwarting is legitimate comedy fodder – and I found some of it funny – but that wasn't enough to drive me to want to engage with its stuff. Deep down in my heart of hearts, I did not feel motivated to care about getting milk for Alec Baldwin, as fine an actor as he is, and thus I did not get into the shenanigans involved in doing so.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Zest by Fear Of Twine

This isn't much of a review of Zest because I found myself sufficiently uninterested in it that I didn't play a whole game. I am a person who wills himself to become bored when negotiating recreational drugtaking in fiction, and I draw a similar blank on religion – and Zest might be about some kind of binary between these two things. So I brought little to this game and I took little.

Zest is a click’n’text Twine game in which you play a guy lying on a couch who variously goes to work, takes showers, gets high or goes to church. Each day follows a similar routine and you just click the option you want.

The retro-res graphic of your avatar lying on the couch is the centrepiece of the game. I found the head of the couch-dwelling character to be visually uninterpretable. It looks like someone shotgunned his head off and that we're beholding the gory aftermath. But his chest is moving! – so I know that can't be right. Though I swear that it looks exactly as I just described.

The character’s physical excursions prompt various sprays of stream of consciousness and dialogue, sometimes coming from the character, sometimes from folks he bumps into. A drunk, workmates, his dealer, etc. Without any additional prose to further contextualise or illustrate what's going on, novel visual effects and dynamics are applied to the text to suggest the quality or source of each encounter.

Just trying to place who might be saying or thinking each thing was the element of Zest I liked the most, but overall I felt these exchanges were floating in a non-sequiturial vacuum where I couldn’t care about them. I found no interest in my own character. Events didn't seem to develop from day-to-day. I mostly went cold turkey on the drugs due to my personal feelings of boredom on that subject (by clicking on other options, I hoped I could skip reading about me getting high or taking dope or whatever) so if that's where more interesting content lay, I didn't see it and mea culpa. But after watching the shower animation and reading the unchanged shower message for the umpteenth time, I didn’t feel confident that I or the game were going anywhere that would interest me, so I quit.

Following Me by Tia Orisney

In most circumstances it is likely to be lazy of a reviewer to summarise the content of a game they are about to review by reprinting its blurb, but I think the blurb for Tia Orisney’s Following Me already does the best possible job for the purposes of this review, and handily has built into it the limits of advance information the author would like players to know about the game:

"Two women take a wrong turn in the woods and make a gruesome discovery. They seek help from a mysterious stranger and are dragged into a vicious trap that they will be lucky to survive.

Intended for mature audiences, contains violence and language."

The story is delivered in a CYOA format characterised by long, unbroken passages of text studded with infrequent moments of choice and ‘Continue’ buttons, and it’s a substantial read. Tia’s long format prose within the context of this kind of game was on display in two entries into last year’s IFComp, of which I fully played one, “Blood on the Heather", a wacky Buffy The Vampire Slayer style adventure which wavered for me between being compelling and tiring. I remember the drive of much of the prose though, about which I wrote:

“I wouldn't underestimate the feat of achieving consistent propulsion of a story this big, which BOTH's writing pulls off comfortably, but it is the length of the thing which also throws the jumpy proofreading into relief.”

This year's Following Me is a serious snowbound thriller which threatens to get very heavy, and it’s a stronger piece. There's still the distraction of some loose proofreading dragging on the author's obvious storytelling skills, but the plot is tight, the whole thing is quite tense and the construction dense enough to push through problems. Psychologically it stays truthful to the headspace of Kat, the protagonist, and her moment to moment bursts of thought. This kind of thing also happens to be the area of writing I'm most interested in in fiction. Occasionally I felt it was a spot off here – it's not that people don't have the odd bizarre and ostensibly comical thought during times of real peril, but I don't believe they narrate it to themselves at the time using the language they’d use to narrate it to someone else later. IE They have no time for a longer or circumspect view because they’re in immediate peril. Kat did this a bit too often for my taste. This is not a big nitpick in a piece which is psychologically on target most of the time.

The physical manifestation of the bad guys is finally handled, too, the way Kat observes their little tics and physical dynamics. How they say things, where they look when they are delivering particular threats, how they handle their rifles and how the older man handles his cane – the details accumulate to vividly convey the repugnance of their characters, and the experience of being a woman who has become their prisoner.

(There are spoilers in this last paragraph.) People in interactive fiction theory are always on about ‘reflective choices’ these days, but at such times they are usually talking about games offering a far greater roster of choices to the player than Following Me does. And there is a danger that I, in using a term like ‘far greater’, am connoting that the choices in this game are not great. Actually, they both are and aren’t. The choices offered always read as weighty alternatives: For instance, you're in immediate danger of being shot you've only two escape routes to choose from. Or, you gain the upper hand for a moment – are you prepared to kill? Such choices caused me a lot of player deliberation. But the ultimate construction of the game is such that most roads eventually lead to Rome. The choices create different vectors to get there, shepherding the prose in a broad way that reflects a choice you probably made heavily, and so whose outcome you are predisposed to invest in. Because Following Me is a thriller with life-and-death stakes for the characters, I think this scheme worked well for this game.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Sigmund's Quest by Gregor Holtz

Sigmund's Quest is the visually colourful point-and-click introduction to an incomplete CYOA style adventure based on a tale from Norse mythology. It runs in a web browser, and its deliberately magnified, pixelated colour graphics fill the screen. Unfortunately this introduction is way too short (I reached the end in about five minutes) to sell or indicate much about the game-to-be except that it will have charming graphics.

The blurb mentions werewolves and incest; none of either were in evidence in my playthrough. The tip of the story didn't hook me, as the content demonstrated up until the endpoint was too generic a tale of medieval royalty. The prose is simple and a bit workmanlike, with an earnestness which does little to riff off the playfulness that the graphics suggest as an aesthetic possibility.

The author cites the inspiration of King's Quest. This is writ large in the visuals, but the aggressive attitude of the King's Quest games (which I really, really don't miss - both the games and the attitude) is not. Yet I feel there needs to be some kind of attitude here to something. That's what's missing.

There is still no IFComp rule against entering incomplete works, but historically they've faired poorly. The context is 99% of the reason why. If I'm given scores of games to play, why would I want to play one which isn't finished? Or in this case, barely begun? The space for reception of this kind of demo can become dangerously unreceptive upon the mere apprehension of the fact that it is a demo. In another context I can see the author using this as a fully functional and technically successful demonstration of how the game will operate – just looking at it over someone's shoulder, you'd probably say 'Wow, cool!' – but that's not how players approach IFComp games.

From a reviewer's perspective (which is one which shouldn’t be considered in advance) there is also the feeling that I don't want to end up beta-testing a game I'm meant to be reviewing.

To put the Introcomp spin on what I’ve experienced of Sigmund's Quest, I wouldn't be interested in playing the rest of it if it were to continue in the fashion already demonstrated, and that’s primarily because I'm not trusting the prose or writing to become interesting if they continue in the fashion already demonstrated. Such a perception all comes down to the smallness of the sample space presented by this intro, one way or another.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Slasher Swamp by Robot

I don't know if other reviewers would admit to anything so petty, but the truth is it's fun to be the first person to review particular games. What if one could be the one to break the news about something awesome? I've done this a few times in the past. Mostly due to blind luck, of course.

My choice of first thing to play this year was easily made. Horror is important to me, and while great would be great, run-of-the-mill is OK, too. It is in this spirit of, ‘Well, that's not exactly a ringing endorsement,’ in which I bring you what I hope will be the first review of Slasher Swamp for IFComp 2014. Unless some other bastard writes a review really quickly while I'm dictating this into my computer.

As much as I hate having to use the word ‘tropes’, Slasher Swamp is an old school (i.e. all puzzling for puzzling sake, sparse prose, several schtick mazes, scores of instant deaths, no UNDO) adventure in which you find yourself a witness to a nonsensical mishmash of slasher film tropes after your truck breaks down in the middle of nowhere. It’s a Windows application with a parser of the author’s creation (I think?) which mimics a lot of modern parser styling and capabilities, though almost none are needed in this game. The author proffers a small command set which can be used to clear the whole thing. I mapped the game and played to completion in about an hour, but I have to admit I achieved this by brute-forcing the content of locations using a hole I found in the parser. And there are a lot of locations.

The prose is a mixture of the atmospheric, the overdone atmospheric, the jokey and the juvenile. It's a tone that will be recognised by anyone who’s played any old school games which indulged their authors. (P.S. I just described 80% of old school games.)

By the Vivienne Rule (when two years ago, I didn’t distinguish between my valuation of old schooler Castle Adventure and the fact that Vivienne, a visitor to my blog, commenter and civilised human being, didn’t like it, and was unlikely to have ever have liked it) I’ll say now in my capacity as consumer guide: I think I’m being realistic when I say that if anything that I wrote about this game during the preceding two paragraph sounds remotely unappealing to you, you won't like Slasher Swamp.

As for me, I mildly enjoyed ticking off the scores of discrete images and moments I recognised from horror films I’ve seen, but they're assembled in this game with no overriding design and no consequence, and thus to little effect. Most objects go unused, including conspicuously important-looking ones. The player has no direction or purpose other than to keep throwing themselves at everything until they can win by a kind of exhaustive attrition of props and puzzles, though there are few puzzles in light of the size of the map. The forest mazes are small but tedious, and the random deaths are numerous, and truly, deeply random. The worst symptom of the disabling of UNDO is that in the scores of rooms with teleport-like one-way exits, you can’t go back. I would often save the game just so that I could try each of the four exits from a room without having to circle the entire map after each teleport.

In the end, Slasher Swamp has all the shortcomings of both old school senselessness and aimless design. These puzzles have all been done before, better. The world is the base for something decent, but the hodge podge of slasher film tropes isn’t woven into any specific gameplay content. They’re just there, usually described to you and then gone again all in the space of one move, unrelated to each other, unrelated to progress in the game.

(I still got moderate amounts of fun out of throwing myself at this swamp for an hour, as is my wont.)

IFComp 2014 Reviews

IFComp 2014 has begun.

Hi. I'm Wade. If you don't know me from Shinola, I've written some of these games over the past few years and reviewed a lot of them.

As a reviewer, I demonstrated what I'd describe as 'stunning' levels of discipline over the past two IFComps. I reviewed all the entries of 2012 in sensible fashion, then I reviewed all I was able to review in 2013 while also dispensing a live IF glossary and helpful links for random passers-by, and while telling people which versions of which games I played and when. What other entity delivered all of those things at once in 2013? The entity of None, is what!

I seek to butter up your memories of my past actions for goodwill purposes, because this year I have only the time and sensibility for great undisciplinedness.

There is zero chance I will review all games. Not even half. I'll review some games that I feel like playing, and I expect that I will do so in an undisciplined fashion. IFCompos Mentos (the name of this blog for this year, and yes, it's meant to be spelled that way. It's two puns at once) could even become one of those stupidly disappointing IFComp blogs you'll keep checking for updates, and eventually grow weary of due to its lack of updates.

I never even wanted to have my reviews in blog form, but since I still haven't worked out what form would satisfy me instead, here I am just continuing on in the blog I created last year.

So, if you haven't already become aggravated by my rather pathetic complaining to you, the customer of this blog, about my lot, before I've even reviewed a single game of IFComp 2014, and after committing only to doing a job of great undisciplinedness, then gird your loins, because my bold new mission statement is: "I will be reviewing some games within an unspecified timeframe."

TO GAME AUTHORS: I know you're under the 'no talking in public' rule, and I've been there and know what that's like. So if you happen to want to contact me about something I say in a review (especially factual technical errors, which I like to correct pronto) please do so by clicking this link to my homepage, then hit the 'contact' button at the bottom of the page to email me. If you contact me by commenting on a review in public, you may break a rule and get in comp trouble.