The Egg and the Newbie
The Rocket Man from the Sea The White Bull
Sleuth, Scott Greig, Quest|
Sleuth is a game with extremely old-school sensibilities: terse, sparsely-implemented and reticent about explaining itself (after the manner of games from an era where every bit of data counted) pointlessly obstructive, and with no aspirations to artistic merit. This is not to my taste, but a game can be all this and still exhibit strong, competent design; this is not, however, remotely true of Sleuth. From the outset it displays shaky implementation:
The author was obviously conscious of the possibility of a one-word entry: but rather than returning a 'try again' message or, y'know, just accepting one-word names, the bug's just been left in there. There's no command I can find that will display version info, or credits, or even the author's name. I assume it's untested, but who knows?
That was the opening text. Normally I'm pretty tough on opening text — it's the single most important piece of writing in your game — but this isn't a failure so much as an abdication. It's a straightforward declaration that the standards this game has set for itself would have been modest thirty years ago.
I'm offered no clue about who I am or what I'm meant to be doing. I clumsily gather that it's some kind of Clue-derived drawing-room murder mystery, and I'm looking for the murder weapon, and possibly I need a magnifying glass to be able to identify the murder weapon from the scattering of unlikely objects. (I have no idea who was murdered, or why, or why I should care.) The few scenery objects mentioned in room descriptions are all unimplemented. After a while the game starts declaring, every freakin' turn, that the murderer is stalking me. I pray for the sweet finality of death, yet it does not come.
After far too long, I found the magnifying glass (why that step was necessary I have no idea) and discovered the murder weapon (a jar of preserves, now stained with blood). The characters and possible murder weapons are randomised, which is a reasonable choice but hardly a striking one. The next logical step in Clue-derived things should be to accuse someone, but, since all the NPCs appeared to be carved out of wood and gender-switched pronouns, I couldn't work out what to do. I quit. Later, when I came back to it, I found an instructions menu at startup (it's not available during the game proper), and discovered that the correct thing was ASK PERSON ABOUT ALIBI. Ugh. Do not use ASK ABOUT if you're only going to implement a single topic. Use TALK TO if that's what you want. Also, if you're going to use ASK ABOUT ALIBI rather than SPEAK TO, then you need to take SPEAK TO out of the suggested-actions menu and put ASK ABOUT ALIBI in.
Anyway, while looking at the instructions I discovered this:
Entering unfinished games into comps is poor form. But this game would require more than a few extra features to salvage it.
It's not a bad-faith entry, though, and it mostly does what it sets out to do, however ill-advised that is; that saves it from a 1.
The Egg and the Newbie, Robert DeFord, Glulx|
The Egg and the Newbie is clearly inspired by that school of casual games, like Diner Dash, Farm Frenzy or The Facebook Game That Shall Not Be Named, in which the aim is to build your small business up into something massively profitable. You're presented with a small chicken farm and have to maintain it and sell eggs. This is oddly juxtaposed with a sort of alt-history Edisonade style and some hints at layers-of-reality.
Like DeFord's previous game, Negotis: Book 1, this is a work heavily concerned with making money. I am a lot less interested in money as a game element than the author plainly is. I tend to think of economics and finance as rather like sewer engineering and maintenance: essential for the smooth functioning of modern society, but inherently pretty unpleasant. When money-making shows up in a game, I expect it to serve as a means to an end: you trade goods so that you can buy a cooler spaceship, or hire a tougher sidekick, or get into nicer parties. DeFord seems to be interested in money as a game element that's an end in itself; whether money lets you buy cool stuff is a secondary concern.
In general, I'm very interested in IF works that attempt to reframe other kinds of game in an IF idiom. Too often, however, these games spend all their effort on recreating the basic elements of the non-IF style, spend too little effort on the things that IF is good at (narrative, prose, hand-crafted content), do a crappy job of making the non-IF interaction work smoothly with a parser, and don't provide a broad enough variety of content to make the non-IF gameplay compelling. The best example of How To Do It Properly is Textfire Golf, which plays smoothly and also does lots of good stuff with character, narrative and prose, which renders moot the fact that it's not the most magnificent golf game. Kerkerkruip is another work that does a fine job on the interface, although it isn't very compelling as fiction and probably suffers a bit from heavily generalised design. The important thing is to have the two styles of game working in synergy; with Egg I found that they mostly got in the way of each other.
From the start, Egg has focus problems. It spends a great deal of effort on explaining its strange alternate-history setting, and very little on introducing the player to its unusual modes of interaction. This is precisely the wrong way around: the alternate-history stuff is not immediately important, and could have been revealed more gradually without any loss. On the other hand, you need to start looking after your chickens right away. (One of those places where a mismatch in player and PC knowledge is an straightforwardly good thing; the PC would obviously know the basic facts about their world, and very little about chicken management, but this is not the right balance for game purposes.)
Very quickly after I started playing, all my chickens had died of thirst and hunger and coyotes were shredding my fence into tiny pieces. For a while I assumed that this was some sort of cunning meta-thing and this was meant to happen, since the game didn't end. Eventually, as my chickens continued to be dead and I kept getting messages that assumed that the game was continuing, I changed my mind back to thinking that this was a farm-management sim with a steep learning curve. I had a strong feeling that this was a More Than It Seems setup, but it also appeared that in order to find out more I'd need to progress in the core game. I tried again, and got three of the four chickens fed and watered before they expired. Then the ghost coyote killed them all in front of my eyes. I began to feel that the game wanted and expected me to fail. The chickens had laid some eggs, but I wasn't allowed to gather them without a basket. There was a door that I clearly needed to get through eventually, and a hint that the key was hidden somewhere, but I couldn't find the damn thing for Far Too Long. (It's not extremely well-hidden, but nor is it prominent; and I had the sense that I needed to get the farm under control before poking around for secret rooms.)
Things become more clear once you get past the steel door; you can buy more chickens and equipment, sell eggs, and dispose of dead chickens at a loss (for some reason the coyote doesn't bother eating them). You can also sell your red herrings for a goodly sum of cash, which doesn't make a whole lot of sense if Tesla Corporation is the one sending them to you in the first place, but presumably this is how the game balances itself out and avoids becoming unwinnable. I still had no idea how to protect chickens from the constant depredations of ghost coyotes, and by this point I was rather wearied by the whole exercise. The decision to make game-essential elements initially-unavailable is kind of mystifying: I really can't see any good reason why you'd do something like this.
The implementation does not fill one with confidence. You cannot do anything to chickens — including EXAMINE — unless you're holding them. This is not, in general, a game with many player conveniences. It frequently makes the ill-advised decision to separate >EXAMINE and >READ for things like signs and booklets, and ignores a number of shortcuts (RECYCLE something you're holding, as opposed to putting it in the cage first) that seem obvious. Individually, none of this is lethal, but it adds up to some pretty heavy drag on the gameplay. This is not to say that convenience has been totally neglected; there's an object that allows you to teleport around the map, but this is mostly just a way to compensate for the rapid pace.
A few days after I first played, a walkthrough came out; on perusal, it seems as if there's not really any cunning meta-thing going on with the plot, at least not one that ever gets addressed: the point of the game really is to make a bunch of money by farming chickens. This is weird; the Tesla stuff has a lot of prose dedicated to it, and a lot of the sort of wide-grin propaganda that you only really get with dystopias. (Egg is presented as the first part of a series, so perhaps this will be resolved later.) And this makes it even more strange that the background information was front-loaded so strongly. If it never becomes important during the game, it would make more sense to safely tuck it away at the end or off in an optional corner somewhere. (Personally, I really dislike the F/SF tendency to vaguely hint at mysterious things happening off in the background, then leave them hanging for the next five books. Shit or get off the pot.) The background is obviously something that the author has put a lot of thought into developing, but it's very unclear how it matches up with the game proper: why is a high-tech corporation with a virtual monopoly over the economy of the United States willing to lavish so much technology and attention on a backyard chicken farm of a dozen or so animals? What's the deal with the ghost coyotes and reality fluctuations? The background feels arbitrary and disunified, and never really moves towards coherence.
The other thing is that the game seems to become very easy once you work out where everything is and what things do what. This is in no sense a strategy game: there are things you need to do, and you need to do them as efficiently as possible. This makes it very like Diner Dash and its farming-themed cousins, with a bit more deliberation involved because it's turn-based. There is very little strategy in Farm Frenzy or Diner Dash; you know pretty much what your priorities are, it's just that you have to execute them under the pressure of time limits. None of the challenge in those casual games is about working out what you need to do; it's all about executing it quickly enough. By contrast, most of the challenge in The Egg and the Newbie is about working out where all your tools are. Once you've discovered all the elements of the interface, the game has little challenge remaining; you need to play in a disciplined manner, avoiding distractions, but that's about it.
A very standard element of time-management games is elaboration. Once you've grasped the basic commands, new elements are gradually introduced to vary gameplay and keep you interested. This is important because their core gameplay is kind of boring: they're prettied-up representations of jobs that, in the real world, are tedious, repetitive and badly paid. Egg doesn't introduce any new elements in this way: once you've acquired the basic tools, you've seen everything that the game's going to offer, and what remains is crunching back and forth making money. To me, one of the biggest advantages of implementing games in the strategy/time-management style in IF is how well-suited it is to building in hand-crafted events, variations on core play, that sort of thing, so this seems like a missed opportunity.
It's probable that the author, who would have known precisely how to go about finding everything, underestimated how annoying the early game becomes if you don't find the key immediately. I'm not sure what motivated the rather bland gameplay beyond that point: yes, it's similar to a time-management game, but those rely on being twitch games. There's not a whole lot of interesting decision-making, you just have to click on a bunch of stuff in fairly quick sequence. Without the twitch element, and without a drip of new content to maintain interest, this becomes wearying mechanical play.
Much of what this boils down to is rewarding the player. Many of the game's frustrations could have been forgiven if there was more Good Stuff to offset it. Players are willing to extend authors a great deal of credit as long as they're offered something in return, but there's a limit on how long they're willing to wait for it. Rewards can be immediate (strong writing), medium-range (upgrades and stuff to save up for, new content and abilities) or long-term (providing a strong fictional motivation to work towards some final goal). Egg doesn't all that interested in providing any of these. The writing's not awful, but nor is it good enough to consitute a reward. Apart from the jump that changes the game from "utterly unplayable" to "playable", the mechanics don't develop. The stakes are vague, and the ending doesn't really clarify them.
The Rocket Man from the Sea, Janos Honkonen, Glulx|
A short SF story with a child protagonist, set on a small island. Very little about its immediate world is SF-ish; the island itself has no SF contents except those provided by the PC's imagination. But across the water it overlooks Astro City, and the PC's fantasies are based on a real war with Mars. The author credits Ray Bradbury as his primary inspiration: there's a conscious feel of 1950s or 60s SF, and the general shape of the story is one that feels as if its real setting is the Second World War. As science fiction IF goes, it's uncommonly good because it has its feet planted on the ground, because it grasps and is concerned about the flight-of-fancy aspect of the genre.
There's a feeling for detail here, a concrete, distinctive sense of the world. At the same time, it could use some love from an editor: most obviously, there's a missing comma after speech, an inconsistency about which quote marks are being used, some sentences that could be more attractively constructed. "Effortlessly" is a big clunker of a word to drop in for the sake of a minor detail, that repeated 'back' is inelegant. The phrase 'leans back pressing her palms against the small of her back' doesn't quite convey the motion unless you act it out: it's meant to be a stretch, but 'leans back' makes it sound as if she's relaxing. There's also a tendency to say two things where one would do the same job better, and to try to cram too many elements into one sentence. There are fewer contractions in speech than is natural, which is a common issue for second-language writers. But these are matters of writing discipline, which is straightforward to learn.
Again, I can't read a paragraph like this without itching to trim: that 'lone' is redundant, 'navigational' and 'other such hardy plants' could be taken as read.
The setting is described in rich, evocative terms: dark, restless seas, pollen-covered bumblebees digging through roses, surf surging against rocks; though largely barren, the island feels intensely alive. The author tells us that this is based on a real-world location that he's familiar with, which may explain it. My reaction, here, may be fairly personal: but there's an aspect of childhood idyll that is hard to match in any setting encountered as an adult.
The story is... all right. After the introduction, the game switches tone into a game of make-believe, in which the island is transformed into the stage for a pulp sci-fi adventure. The transformation of the world is carried out well enough, generally managing to avoid being too cutesy, and play flows pretty well here; my major beef with this part is that it feels too linear. Make-believe games are at their heart improvisational; they're the antithesis of linear narratives. Children's games rarely end in defeat; a narrative setback is almost always overcome by improvisation ("But then the slain hero's son went out to avenge his father and complete his mission..."), and, in general, victory is not in doubt; the interest is about what happens along the way. There are two ways to fail this section: metafictionally (the child's story is interrupted by things happening in the frame-story) and in-fiction (something happens in the child's story that entails defeat). The second of these seems wrong, somehow. If there's any situation where almost anything you try should lead to success, it's a make-believe game.
The next section is even more linear, and is quite predictable to boot. A rocket man is washed up on the island; he's really a Martian spy, but the boy's rose-tinted view of war makes him automatically assume that he's from Earth. The boy shelters and conceals him, which ultimately enables the spy to destroy a major Earth city with a suitcase nuke. The premise of children who unwittingly shelter a dangerous fugitive is familiar enough (my immediate association was Whistle Down the Wind) that it's immediately obvious what's going on. If the intention here was to deliver a sharp, Cadre-like twist, it's a thorough failure; if the idea was to confront the player with a massive, frustrating knowledge gap, I'm not quite sure to what purpose. I don't know that either of these was quite the intention, though; rather, there's a feeling of this-is-just-a-story.
Which would be a childhood's-end story. That trope has an arc, and Rocket Man gets two bits of this right: the rose-tinted overture, and the uncertainty and disquiet that disturbs it. But the denouement is missing something, I think. The nuclear destruction of a major city, or equivalent, should be a big fucking deal in a narrative. When it happens, it should invoke a bottomless dread in the audience, an involuntary reaction, tripes et boyaux goosebumps and desolation. In a visual medium, this is not all that difficult: a mushroom cloud on the horizon will do the job perfectly well, assuming you've got a somewhat-serious tone established. In text, it's trickier; you need more than a distant flash and rumble to deliver the appropriate level of horror. And the emotional arc of the story really relies on a final sense of immeasurable guilt, of being responsible for the death and suffering of millions: but the story doesn't really deliver this. Partly this is because you can't do anything to avoid catastrophe (well, you can protect the spy ineptly, but if you do then the story ends in failure), so the sense of guilt doesn't stretch across the player-PC gap; but partly it's just because the destruction's too abstract. It's seen in geopolitical terms, in retrospect, over the horizon; you don't have any corpses washing up on your island. The general idea of juxtaposing golden-age SF pulp adventure with Red Mars is a perfectly good one, but this feels as if it's pulling its punches.
There is a lot to like about The Rocket Man from the Sea; the problems I have with it are all fairly high-level ones, stuff that assumes the author has accomplished basic competence and is worth judging against the good stuff. As a first game, it's highly encouraging; this author has a solid handle on the basic skills, and is able to deliver some pretty good things.
The White Bull, Jim Aikin, TADS|
This can best be described as Indiana Jones as a spring-break horror movie. In theory, you're going on an archaeological expedition to an unaccountably remote (not to mention unregulated) Greek island; in practice, only one of the group is an archaeology grad student, one is providing the funding, and the remaining two are boyfriends and hangers-on. In the first section, you explore the island, encounter various Heavy Forebodings, and collect stuff that you'll need in the next section; in the second, mythic elements rise to the fore, and you have to traverse a fantastic landscape to rescue one of the party. It's the largest of this year's games, and probably the most difficult.
As with the average archaeology-adventure, the archaeology is largely an excuse to play pick-and-mix with history, myth and whole-cloth invention; don't expect much historical plausibility, or even a historically-implausible-but-internally-coherent worldview like, say, that of Mary Renault (which was more or less what I was expecting). There's a sibyl and a ingenue nymph and some kind of Pasiphae-related horniness magic in a Gorgon-related Minotaur conspiracy and then there's Icarus and after a while you stop trying to extract any kind of sense out of it. It's kind of in the IF tradition of the subterranean hell setting: a justification for a bunch of loosely themed set-pieces, jumbled together. The design is very like something from around 1995 or so; it's most definitely an adventure game first and a story second. Gameplay-wise, the first section is a mix of aimless poking around and doing precisely what you're told to do in order to advance the plot. The second section is more about traversing a sequence of rooms by solving the puzzles, most of which rely on basic familiarity with Greek myth. These vary from trivial (you have some coins, you pay Charon to get you across the river) to tough, tightly timed or arbitrary. It's technically Cruel, though usually not beyond the range of UNDO if you're paying close attention.
When we start out, we're immediately presented with a substantial cast of NPCs. None of them are charaterised very deeply, and the conversation system is basic and not extensive, so there's something of an alone-in-a-crowd feel about the game. Matt, the protagonist, seems to hold them all in thinly-veiled contempt, including his girlfriend Julia.
Brief aside: as a faux-archaeology thriller, there's one fairly important element missing: the Flimsy Justification. Normally Indy has to find an ancient inscription or something that suggests that the Kingdom of the Whatnots is to be found at site X; in order to have a compelling mystery, you need a line of suggestive clues, things that suggest hidden order before the denouement and make sense after it. Here all we're told is that Julia is sure about it.
"My theory is that humans evolved, not in Africa from primates as is usually assumed, but in East Finchley from the spotted partridge."
"Do you have anything to support this?"
"NO. IT IS A THEORY."
This suggests either that she's naive and feckless, or that Matt is so indifferent to the whole enterprise that he hasn't bothered to listen to her explanations. There's a general problem with the depiction of Julia: we're told that she's highly intelligent, but we don't really ever see her do smart things. She's not much for conversation, she doesn't respond helpfully to the plot-significant items you find, and she's prone to stupid, fatal blunders in the second section. This puts her firmly into the category of NPCs who are, first and foremost, a mechanical annoyance; this is precisely what you don't want an NPC love interest to be.
Matt is, as you may have gathered, not really a sympathetic figure. He's painfully ignorant of even extremely well-known myths, except when the plot requires him not to be. Matt doesn't seem to have a role on the expedition other than Team Leader's Boyfriend, but this may be because it isn't so much an archaeological expedition as a spring-break trip featuring one Arch & Anth postgrad. There are mixed signals about the relationship between Julia and Matt; at some points there are suggestions that Matt isn't meant to be a dick, but mostly he comes across as smug and mildly contemptuous, and Julia exists to facilitate his smugness.
That translucent skin that all women seem to have must be murder in the brilliant Greek sun. But seriously, there's a pretty high creep factor here, particularly as she's all "thank you, kind sir" and starts heavy breathing when you play the lyre. And particularly since all the women are stunningly beautiful and start heavy breathing at the drop of a hat. Oh, except for the hook-nosed crone. Now, all right, depicting a male PC's view of an attractive female character without coming across as leering is a delicate art; but this is not much in evidence here. And the problem is exacerbated by a certain stiff, awkward feel to the prose, leading to inelegant clangers like this:
That's almost Lyttle Lytton material. Now, okay, partly this is because of the structuring of character descriptions: physical description first, then explanation of personality and role. This is a standard IF ordering for descriptions generally, so it's probably not an intended effect, but it comes across as both leering and awkwardly pedantic. The combination is what's really fatal: the stiff formality makes it difficult to view the piece as a good-natured, wacky, pervy romp, because it wants to be taken seriously.
The awkwardness of the prose isn't limited to the stuff about women, mind:
There are minor niggles here: a touch of adjectivitis, capitalisation after colon, and 'fur' seems a weird word to use about a cow's hair — even a Highland cow, which this clearly isn't. But the whole thing feels unbalanced, and that's mostly to do with the use of 'however'.
Okay, so one of the standard features of heroic Greek proportion is that dudes get a tiny little penis. If that's then heavily corroded, how do we get enough detail to make judgements about the dude's foreskin? And why do we care about this detail in the first place? I mean, the idea here is presumably a roundabout way of saying 'the statue has a penis', with a wink-wink-nudge-nudge that isn't quite a joke. That wink-wink nudge-nudge tone crops up a few times. Julia, from her initial description:
It's not sufficient to say that the PC has a smoking-hot girlfriend, we have to make it clear that they've fucked. A lot. Except by 'clear' I mean a wink-wink nudge-nudge half-euphemism. Also note the use of overprecise qualifiers that bog down the sentence: loose-fitting but tightly belted shorts. Continual overcorrection is bad style. The worst example I've seen was the work of the infinitely awful S.M. Stirling, who has this bit where he explains that the hero hits the gym a lot, but not one of those stinky ghetto gyms, or one of those gay gyms with potted plants and a latte bar, not that the hero is homophobic or anything, he just got tired of getting hit on all the time, not that he's sexually repressed, because he's checking out this chick, but not in a creepy way and anyway she's into it, and did we mention that even though he hits the gym a lot he's not, like, scary-cut, because you need a special diet for that and it's really unhealthy, he looks like a normal person who uses his body for practical things... until you get to the point where the hero isn't a character so much as a sort of negative image of all the things that the author wants him not to be. Which is to say, kind of a dick. This is nothing so egregious, but you can still see the thought process: She's dressed casually. Shit, but not, like, frumpy or anything, you can still totally see her waist. Which is narrow.
The game makes use of some short snippets of original music. I am not, in general, enormously sympathetic to music in IF — I think that to be effective it needs to work like, well, a soundtrack, rather than a bunch of isolated clips. The main function of backing music is to manage mood: this is difficult to do in a specific manner given the time-independent nature of IF (you can't have the crescendo naturally kick in just as the hero summits the mountain), and it's impossible to do more generally unless music is present through much of gameplay and comes in and out inobtrusively. My other thing — a prejudice that I expect many IF people are innocent of — is that I don't feel conspicuously electronic music is appropriate for stories not set in an electronic-music kind of genre. If you're Robb Sherwin and all your games have a grimy retro feel that suggests they resulted from a forbidden tryst between two arcade cabinets in a strip-mall, you can chiptune your heart out. If you're doing Greek myth, it's acoustic kithara or GTFO. Obviously, this kind of standard is totally unreasonable for a hobbyist game; and the music in The White Bull doesn't actively detract. But nor does it really do anything except to signal that what you've just done is important. Which you'd be able to work out anyway.
Implementation-wise, it's a mixed bag. There are a good number of conveniences: a useful hint system, etc. There are niggling inconsistencies in other respects: sometimes when you find an object by searching you automatically take it, but sometimes you don't. There's a canteen which cannot be filled from a number of water sources, but then turns out to have been full all along. For some reason, at one point the >X ME text is followed by 'You see a sword here.' But this kind of stuff isn't really a big issue; it's mostly executed to a competent standard. But this doesn't count for much given the core problem of the game: I can't really make out what the point of all this is, what we're meant to find compelling about the whole thing. A multitude of sins can be forgiven if a game really delivers some core experience, some justifying element that the audience can really relish. But The White Bull doesn't really have that, nor does it seem to have an idea of what that's meant to be. It's not really all that interested in its characters, or in its mythic subject-matter, in story, in plot or setting, in rich or striking interaction; these elements all seem regurgitated.