Cook-Off! (S. Miracle)

Cook-Off! is a very brief game riffing on cooking game shows: you have half an hour (notionally) to prepare a three-course meal for a panel of four judges. For each course, you are allowed to pick a main recipe (salad? soup? chowder?) and a seasoning, such as sugar, salt, soy sauce, etc. The main dish and seasoning combine into a new final product: eggs plus sugar to make a sweet omelet, for instance. Meanwhile, an AI also prepares three courses (more or less at random, as far as I could tell), and at the end of the round, the judges taste the dishes and your scores are compared.

The judges also have their own preferences, hinted at during the opening of each round, and this allows the player to target specific tastes. Sam Ashwell’s review on IFDB suggests that these judges are drawn from a particular JRPG. I’m not familiar with them myself, but there was just enough detail here to suggest a very quirky judging panel indeed, including warriors and magic-users who have come in for a bite to eat.

I really like to see IF pieces that branch out and explore genres and styles that aren’t heavily featured already, and the Japanese cooking game-show certainly qualifies. I especially enjoyed the text produced by the game’s commentator, which created food-specific remarks on what you were supposedly cooking during your frenzied half hour of prep time. The gameplay was distinctive, very much unlike most IF puzzles: the game appealed to the part of my brain that enjoys casual cooking games and puzzles of aesthetics; I have a soft spot for mechanics where you combine X and Y to make a slightly surprising object Z. And because winning or losing is iterative and is determined by your score relative to the score of the AI chef, you’re not so much seeking one right answer at a time as you are gradually getting a feel for the system.

Cook-Off! is the first experience I’ve had playing with TADS 3’s online capabilities, and that worked extremely smoothly. When I clicked through from IFDB to play online, I was offered the option to let other players join my play session — not something I did on this occasion, but it’s a possibility I would like to explore sometime. I hope more authors will take that TADS functionality for a spin.

Speculative Fiction (Diane Christoforo and Thomas Mack)

Speculative Fiction is a lighthearted fantasy game that debuted as an Introcomp participant. But then, unlike many Introcomp authors, Christoforo and Mack came back and finished it, presenting a complete game, map, and supporting walkthrough.

The game’s concept is that you play W.D., the familiar of an incompetent and currently imprisoned wizard, who has set out to rescue your master from the tower cell in which he currently resides. Doing that requires raising money; raising money is going to involve a range of unethical actions, from bank robbery to stealing from a blind beggar. The game is gleeful about the amoral nature of its protagonist, and resoundingly silly. My favorite solutions involved elaborate ways of deceiving other characters, from playing on momentary inattention to setting up the NPCs for complex misapprehensions: the puzzle designs use the NPCs in ways that go well beyond executing standard fetch-quests or dispatching hostile guards.

The game design is very wide open — most puzzles are available simultaneously, and the player does not need to complete all of them in order to win. This design decision helps offset some of the game’s potential difficulty.

The walkthrough also deserves mention. Far from a bare list of commands, it’s a detailed, chatty, explanatory walkthrough that contributes its own jokes to the playthrough experience, and clarifies which elements of gameplay are optional or necessary.

David Welbourn’s Walkthroughs

For years and years now, David Welbourn has hosted a set of the best walkthroughs I’ve seen in IF-land. They’re generally well laid out and divided into handy sections so that you can instantly find the part of the game you need to look at. Sometimes, he adds commentary explaining the concept of a difficult puzzle, or putting together the pieces of a plot; in several, he distinguishes between commands that you need to follow in order to understand the game completely and a minimal walkthrough that will get you through to the end quickly. Quite a few of the walkthroughs also feature maps.

For an example of the level of detail he lavishes on a complex piece, check out his handling of Andrew Plotkin’s The Dreamhold.

The other awesome thing about this walkthrough set is its diversity. A lot of favorites and well-known games appear, but Welbourn’s extensive catalog also includes a healthy array of Speed-IF, minicomp entrants, and games that otherwise might be very hard to figure out on your own.

I think he’s been focusing on some other areas more recently, as the walkthrough set doesn’t cover very recent years. But it remains a significant resource, especially for older games where it might be hard to find anyone on the forums who remembers a given game well enough to offer hints. And it’s also a great place to look for people who are interested in making friendlier, more followable walkthrough formats.

(Edited to add: at first posting I had linked accidentally to an older version of this site; the current link is better. Sorry about that!)

Murphy’s Law

The desire to create a painstaking simulacrum of reality is a common pitfall for beginning authors, whether writing interactive fiction or not, with the resulting work running the risk of all too well recreating every day tedium. Murphy’s Law takes on this cliche head on with a twisted and satisfying depiction of the banality of paying one’s bills. Sprinkled through out the game are clues to the PC’s back story and personality, and these details pull the player into the mind state of the unfortunate PC. One puzzle had me stumped for a moment until I realized that I was approaching it from the way that I personally would take on the situation. When I tried approaching the puzzle from the perspective of the PC,  it not only made perfect sense but provided that a-ha moment that makes interactive fiction so wonderful. While I enjoy experimental IF, Murphy’s Law is more like a good pop song: concise, cohesive, and fun.

Not a week after playing Murphy’s Law, I had a very nasty paper cut at work. My boss was somewhat alarmed, and I was more than a little embarrassed, when they saw me digging through the first-aid kit. I explained: it’s just one of those days.

Andromeda Dreaming and the Andromeda sequence

Recently after I played Andromeda Apocalypse for IF Comp 2012, I went back to try Andromeda Dreaming, a game set in the same universe but written by a different author, Joey Jones. Wade Clarke had given it rave reviews, so I was interested to see what it was like. And the answer was that it felt very different from the two Andromeda games by Marco Innocenti: Marco’s two games in the series are puzzly and involve manipulating physical objects, especially technology with which the player character is initially unfamiliar.

Andromeda Dreaming by contrast is fairly linear, and is more about experiencing the protagonist’s story — a story of conspiracy and subconscious manipulation. Though the ending is not, as far as I could tell, fundamentally mutable, the player does get to choose an attitude (through conversation and guided dreams) towards certain key incidents in that tale. And this I thought was a rather cool effect.

Generally speaking when we have multiple games set in the same fictional universe, it’s because they’re written by the same person or people and they preserve some sort of continuity of gameplay style from one to the next: Infocom’s Enchanter and Zork serieses, Earth and Sky, the Frenetic Five, etc. But having a consistent gameplay style often means that games in a series explore just one aspect or type of story in their imagined world — “wacky adventures with spells,” say, or “what it’s like to have unusual superpowers.”

For those who really relish worldbuilding, though, there’s something to be said for approaching the same world from multiple angles, simulating different types of characters, different modalities of existing within that same world. There are an increasing number of projects like this in the commercial world: “transmedia storytelling” has become something of a buzzphrase in GDC talks, and those talks sometimes disappointingly boil down to a discussion of the marketing advantages of selling pieces of the same story in different mediums, or making the most of having a tie-in book or movie. But the non-cynical side of this is that it can be quite powerful to take a story that is already known to the player and re-present it from a new perspective, bringing different details to the fore.

And this is what Andromeda Dreaming does for the Andromeda universe. It takes place simultaneously with the events of Andromeda Awakening and suggests answers to some of the human questions that the other game does not directly address. Because it takes place in a social context, it also sketches in such elements as culture, educational styles, even types of slang, which are not covered in Andromeda Awakening. The cumulative result is that each story feels more meaningful because of the other. Throughout Andromeda Dreaming, if we’ve played Awakening, we may be aware of more about the protagonist’s situation than she herself understands; but adding new shades of humanity to Andromeda’s world also makes Awakening more affecting in retrospect. In a curious way when I finished I had enjoyed the Andromeda world even more than I enjoyed any of the individual games in which it is embodied.

I wanted to try Paul Lee’s Tree and Star, the final entry (so far) in this same story universe, but there doesn’t seem to be a link for it from IFDB.

Beythilda the Night Witch

Poetry is a hard, hard discipline, one that places an incredible number of demands on a relatively small volume of writing. Everything about every word counts, and small flaws are magnified; you have to be very, very good at poetry before you stop being bad at it. And poetry is a uniquely vulnerable form, blending the emotional directness of music without the cover of abstraction. (If a pianist slips up, their mistake looks like a mistake, nothing more. It doesn’t look as though they’re saying something that they didn’t mean.)

Conveying information to the player in an IF game is also a hard task for a writer. A lot of different functions have to be packed into a small space: the impression of a physical space needs to be generated and sustained, the significant particulars of that space have to be defined in a clear and memorable manner, likely modes of interaction need to be suggested but not shouted, the personality and immediate motivations of the protagonist should be conveyed, and every other demand normally imposed by good writing still needs to be satisfied.

And when IF and poetry are combined, things get more constrictive than either medium. Narrative poetry, for instance, can often afford to be long-winded; the poet has the freedom to leave the narrative aside to pursue some extended simile or draw a moral about a broader point, or otherwise spend a good pile of verses focused in on something of more importance to thematics than to the plot. There is not much room to do this in IF.

So choosing to write IF as poetry is a tremendously brave decision, particularly in a format where very little time is available for reworking. And it’s non-trivial that Beythilda is so functional at delivering core IF needs: I was never confused about the general situation of the character, the progression of the story or plausible things that I should be trying. I had a strong enough sense of my surroundings to feel grounded in a world.

Changes

There are several things I want to commend about this piece. One: it adopts a cool central puzzle mechanic, the idea of body-switching to new characters. I’ve ranted before about how I much I enjoy games where the author hasn’t just collected a grab bag of random standard tasks (hidden key here, dog that needs a bone there) but as thought through a consistent concept and then come up with a bunch of ways to use that.

Two: coding-wise, what it’s trying to do is non-trivial. There are lots of animal characters, and they’re running around all the time, reacting to the player and to one another. When the fox pursues the player character into rabbit territory (say), all the other rabbits react too. It feels like there’s an actual ecosystem here, a world that has some independent function and structure, existed before the player came along and will continue to exist after he leaves. That stuff is really not easy to do, and the author has not only done it, but made it puzzle-relevant.

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