Too Much Free Time

Discussion and reviews of games for NES, Intellivision, DOS, and others.

Archive for the ‘2014’ Category

IFComp 2014: One Night Stand

Posted by Tracy Poff on October 19, 2014

The third game I’ve played from the 2014 ifcomp is One Night Stand by Giannis G. Georgiou. You play Sandy, a woman who is trying to discover the name of the man she just spent the night with.

One pre-spoiler note: the download from the comp website just has an HTML file with a link to a web-based version of the game, but the story file can be downloaded, if you follow that link. You’ll need a Quest interpreter to play it.

(This post contains spoilers. Read at your own risk.)

First, a note about online play: the online interpreter was rather slow to react, occasionally taking many seconds to complete a command, and usually missing the first few characters of each command I typed, since it was still scrolling the response text. This was irritating, but it otherwise worked fine, and it was at least visually attractive. Not ideal, but better than nothing, given that I don’t actually have a Quest interpreter.

ONS is a short comedy game with one puzzle sequence. I spent about 35 minutes prodding everything in the game before I finished, but I imagine 10 minutes would more than suffice, if you just proceed toward the goal–and particularly if you aren’t using the rather slow web-based interpreter.

I appreciate the customized responses to trying to take various objects, and the randomly chosen sections of text (e.g. when knocking on Mara’s door) are a nice touch. The ending, though not entirely unexpected, is a good enough payoff for the few minutes the game takes to complete.

On the other hand, you don’t have any real options–either you proceed linearly through the story, or you don’t proceed at all. I wanted to try tricking the dude into saying his name. To break down in tears to avoid the situation. To call him Rumpelstiltskin, if his name is so important. Anything to have some choice–but I had none. More mundanely, there are few objects implemented, and no real, interactive NPCs. The parser is a little obtuse, too: you’ve got to knock door or use bottle on floor, which aren’t exactly the first commands that came to mind.

Overall, an average-quality game, which would probably be more at home in the first ifcomp than the twentieth.

Post-review pre-posting note: Okay, I think this review needs an addendum. Other reviewers seem to be unanimous in despising this game. It was my assumption throughout the game that it was a work of parody–the several-inches deep layer of grease on the kitchen floor not a greater exaggeration than the PC’s absurd internal monologue. Surely the game is so stupid exactly because it’s undermining its nominal position. Of course, while writing the review, I was under the impression that the author was a woman (Wrong! Giannis is a Greek name which is the masculine form Gianna. The more you know.), and that therefore the PC must be a parody of the ridiculous caricatures of women we see in games and other media (maybe not?).

It’s against my policy to change my judgment after reading other reviews, so I’ll let this review stand as-is. I’d rather be too generous in my assumptions about other people than too harsh. In retrospect, though, if you take seriously the bits that I assumed to be failed comedy, then the game really does become rather unpalatable… so take this review with a grain of salt.

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IFComp 2014: Raik

Posted by Tracy Poff on October 17, 2014

The second game I’m looking at this year is Raik by Harry Giles, which is written with Twine. According to the blurb, it is “A scots fantasia about anxiety. Battle kelpies, watch TV, avoid your emails and find the magical Staff of the Salmon.” Sounds amusing!

(This post contains spoilers. Read at your own risk.)

My spoiler warning above goes double for this game. Really definitely don’t read this without playing the game. I mean it.

When you start the game, you’re advised that you can “Learn about Scots and use a translator at“, and you are presented with a pair of links: gang and go. It looks from the outset as if the game is simply available in two languages–Scots and English–for flavor, and the “Translate to Scots” and “Translate to English” links that appear reinforce this. The text is even very similar in shape in each language. However, this is only a facade: there are two stories being told, and they are superficially unrelated.

In the Scots-language story, the PC struggles through the day, trying to fill time: “If ye can get tae hauf five, mebbe ye can get tae dinner, than mebbe ye can get tae bed.”

In the English-language story, the PC is on an epic quest: “You are searching for the Staff of the Salmon, whose magic alone will release your clan from the withering curse of Black Edward.”

At the bottom of each page of text is an option to ‘translate’ into the other language, which actually presents not a translation but the section of the story which is in the corresponding position in the other language: the stories are structurally the same. They are related in more ways that one: at the end of the English-language story, “You imagine another version of yourself, who stayed in bed that fateful day and even now lies frozen in time, unable to act, an endless scream seeking only relief.” In the most recent corresponding part of the Scots-language story, the PC is paralyzed by a panic attack.

My interpretation: the Scots-language story is ‘real’, and the English-language story is the PC’s way of dealing with life–or of not dealing with life, as the case may be.

The duality of the stories is very cool and well done. Though you could (mostly) play them separately, the English-language story serves as commentary on the Scots-language story. For example, when the PC of the Scots-language story is (figuratively) lost in a panic attack, the PC of the English-language story is (literally) lost in a maze. It’s an impressive way to use metaphor.

The individual stories are well-crafted, too. I particularly liked the use of links to pace the story. Early on, links interrupting the text make the story seem to move slower, but later they make the pacing seem more frantic–well done!

You’ll note that my praise is all for ‘meta’ aspects of the game–this is not an accident. The actual game isn’t all that interesting. The Scots-language story is dull (but it’s supposed to be, since it’s the ‘real-world’ part of the game) and the English-language story is far from engaging. However, the game is quite short (about fifteen minutes for a single playthrough), so this wasn’t a problem.

The language aspect could prove something of a problem. It’s easy enough to tell the general sense of the Scots-language story, but for most readers there will be many specific terms that require definition. It’s certainly the author’s intention to induce readers to learn more about Scots, which is fine, though I wonder how much effort the (non-comp-judging) general public will be willing to expend on comprehension. My own experience with Scots (other than Robert Burns) is limited to an encounter with the Scots Wikipedia, some years ago. At the time, I judged that the editors were treating Scots as a somewhat more dignified version of leet-speak, and put it from my mind. It seems to have done better since, though it still has very few editors.

According to the author, Raik was inspired by Depression Quest, which I have not yet played. I’d like to come back to this game after playing Depression Quest, to see how it affects my opinion. At any rate, I foresee myself continuing to revisit and think about this game in the future, which is about the highest praise that can be given to a ‘serious’ game like this.

Play time: about 40 minutes for several playthroughs.

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IFComp 2014: Hill 160

Posted by Tracy Poff on October 17, 2014

A new year brings a new ifcomp. The first game, this year, is Hill 160 by Mike Gerwat, billed as “A World War I Adventure in Terror”. This appears to be Gerwat’s first comp entry, though he has released another game, Genesis Quest, which is available on the ifarchive.

(This post contains spoilers. Read at your own risk.)

Sadly, this first game is one I couldn’t finish. The author indicates that this game has been made easier to comply with the comp rules (the two-hour rule, I suppose), but I sincerely doubt that anyone will finish the game, because the walkthrough is a bit over 700 commands long. To complete the game you’d need to execute one (correct!) command every ten seconds. Judging by the walkthrough, in 48 minutes I got through about a sixth of the game.

If the game were only too long, I would have continued to play for the full two hours games are allotted. Unfortunately, the game has three crippling flaws: first, it is tedious; second, it is unfriendly (more on this later); third, it is buggy.

The tedium is, I presume, intentional: it’s intended to reflect the tedium of war. To that end, the game involves plenty of actions that are boring, repetitive, or both. The walkthrough contains (from about 700 turns) 57 turns of waiting, 19 turns of sleeping, and 16 turns of ‘again’, which are mostly sleeping or waiting. When you are acting, you are often doing something like drop pants / crap in trench / pull up pants.

The unfriendliness is the main reason I gave up. Any little thing you do that isn’t according to script will generally end the game. Leave the latrine without using it? “You didn’t take your shite! GAME OVER MATEY!”. Walk onto the battlefield without cleaning your rifle? “You didn’t clean your rifle! GAME OVER MATEY!”. Try to take the supplies you’re after, rather than asking for them? “GAME OVER MATEY!”.

It’s not generally obvious what you’re meant to do until you’ve already failed. How was I to know I had to clean the rifle? Its description didn’t mention anything. For that matter, how was I to know I had to attach the bayonet myself? The game over message tells me that “Your rifle is missing a critical part.”, but attempting to examine it again gives me “You’ve already examined the rifle.”. The game won’t let you examine anything twice, or talk to anyone twice. If you don’t have a transcript, you’d better have remembered the names of the members of your platoon–you won’t be seeing them again!

It’s not always obvious how to accomplish things, either. When you’re sent for supplies, trying to simply take them from the supply party gets you killed, but talk to party gives “You can’t talk to the supply party.” In fact, you must ask party for supplies. But talk to grant worked, earlier. The requirements are inconsistent. Once, when talking to Grant, you must salute (or game over!), but later, saluting isn’t necessary.

Finally, the game is buggy. If you talk to Grant in the Main Trench before going out on the recon mission, he gives the speech that he gave earlier about you needing to go pick up supplies. Waiting repeatedly will repeatedly give the text about Grant arriving. Sometimes waiting will just do nothing with no message at all. And it’s not strictly a bug, but take all should not open up every container and fill my inventory with several screens worth of cigarettes and grenades and things. It should just pick up the items I dropped. Very irritating!

All that said, the game does have its good points. The author indicates that it’s intended to be fairly realistic, based on his over 40 years of study, and there are plenty of interesting details. There are some detailed descriptions of certain items, and the language and situation are (apparently–the first World War is not my forte) also intended to be realistic. For my part, I’d enjoy it more simply exploring the environment than having the game nag at me about every minor detail (and the author promises that “When it goes up on the archive, it will be much harder with Release 2.” Not necessary!).

Hill 160 has potential, but I won’t be returning to the current release.

Play time: 48 minutes.

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Shufflecomp: Sparkle

Posted by Tracy Poff on May 19, 2014

Sparkle by Karly Di Caprio is an entry in Shufflecomp 2014. If you’re planning on playing and voting for games in this competition, you should probably stop reading now. And I should say that I intend to mention some serious spoilers, even more than usual, so be warned.

Compared to Nova Heart, the last game I played, Sparkle is a much more traditional piece of interactive fiction. Not merely because it’s parser-based and written in Inform–it has very much the traditional feel of interactive fiction. The introduction ends with “The road ends here at an abandoned cable car platform. The cableway leads directly to my destination. I must get it running, somehow.”, and inspecting the cable car reveals that it is locked to the platform with an iron bar, which is attached to the platform with bolts. I will need a wrench!

With this as motivation, I explored the surroundings, coming to a gate guarded by a dog. Then the game instructed me to “Find a quiet place to MEDITATE.” I’d just seen such a place, so I did as instructed, and the game revealed a piece of information–“dog equals flute”–and a new mechanic: “With this information I can CHANGE things INTO their counterpart identities. I can also THINK to recall previously learned information.”

I was fairly excited by the possibilities, at this point, but I’m afraid that Sparkle didn’t quite live up to my expectations. The rest of the game involves solving some pretty standard puzzles with the aid of the new mechanic. That’s all pretty solid, but the only way to learn which objects can be changed into which others is to inspect some objects, and then meditate. Some of the objects you’ve examined may work with the new command. Or maybe not.

My biggest disappointment with this game is that the changing-things-into-things mechanic turns out not to actually be a puzzle. The game tells you, of this mechanic, that “the key to true enlightenment is to observe the Pattern and to understand it,” but that’s a red herring. The pattern is that there is no pattern–according to the game, anything can be changed into anything. That’s not actually true, though: objects can only actually be turned into the counterparts the game specifies, and only after the game tells you that you can, too–nothing clever happens on repeated playthroughs.

Despite my disappointment with the game’s unique mechanic, Sparkle does have a few things to recommend it. There are a number of optional puzzles, listed by the game as achievements. I didn’t get all of them, but they seem to be well-integrated into the game. For example, during one event, you’re told that your clothes get wet, and later you discover an umbrella–the obvious thing is to (on a subsequent playthrough) get the umbrella first, and protect your clothes. And, indeed, this yields an achievement–nice. The achievement system does seem to be a little buggy, though–I got some achievements that I didn’t actually complete, and I think it didn’t always notify me when I got one.

Also, Sparkle is written in first person, but can optionally be put into second person, which is a neat gimmick.

Overall, I’m pretty pleased with this game. If it gets a post-comp release fixing the trouble with the achievements system, I might like to go back and try to complete some of the optional puzzles.

Play time: about 45 minutes.

Posted in 2014, Freeware, Full Review, Good, Interactive Fiction, Platform Independent | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Shufflecomp: Nova Heart: Don’t Be Standing Around While the Earth Dies Screaming, or: Who Is To Blame When the Owls Leave Candy Jail?

Posted by Tracy Poff on May 18, 2014

Nova Heart: Don’t Be Standing Around While the Earth Dies Screaming, or: Who Is To Blame When the Owls Leave Candy Jail? by Zenith J Clangor is an entry in Shufflecomp 2014. If you’re planning on playing and voting for games in this competition, you should probably stop reading now.

A bit of background: for Shufflecomp, prospective authors submitted a list of songs, which the organizer shuffled and sent back out. Authors were then to write a game inspired by (at least) one of the songs they were assigned (details). Nova Heart is inspired by seven songs.

I found Nova Heart‘s story to have a disjointed feel. There are sudden transitions and shifts in perspective, and the whole thing is rather bizarre. Intentionally, I assume.

Interesting language and vivid imagery are Nova Heart‘s strongest points.

You are in a woman’s clean white utopic apartment, one hundred floors above the city.

The wailing sirens of the deathpaddywagons are drawing closer. You have to run.

Run now.

There’s something forceful and immediate about this that I like. Between each paragraph, the game pauses, requiring a click (or press of the enter key) to proceed. I was more impressed by this before I saw the next line: “To run, type ‘run’ in the command box.” Indeed, typing ‘run’ is the only way to proceed from that point.

Nova Heart uses (what seems to me to be) a purpose-built javascript engine, and is played using a web browser (NB: the accompanying music doesn’t seem to play unless the game is played online). This engine allows the game to use both a text parser and mouse-based interaction. This would seem to allow for some very interesting modes of interaction, and the game does have a fairly nice bit where the PC is editing a news story, but that’s the high point.

The interactivity in Nova Heart is, for the most part, false. In the situation I described above, only typing ‘run’ allows the game to proceed, and no other command has any effect. This is generally true: at each moment, if any command is possible, only one command is possible. Nova Heart does not simulate a world; it just uses customized ‘continue’ commands. There are a couple of times in the game when the player may input a command sooner or later to get slightly different text, but the only real choice in the game is at the very end. There are, I think, six possible endings, though each is only a few paragraphs of text.

I think I’d like to play a game that has something of the style of Nova Heart, but more developed. Nova Heart is interesting as an experiment, but I wouldn’t generally recommend it as a game.

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Spring Thing 2014: The Adventures of a Hexagon

Posted by Tracy Poff on April 15, 2014

The Adventures of a Hexagon by Tyler Zahnke is an entry in the Spring Thing 2014. If you’re planning on playing and voting for games in this competition, you should probably stop reading now.

The Adventures of a Hexagon is a CYOA-style story, implemented as a set of HTML files, about a day in the life of a hexagon. Geometrical shapes, we learn, can escape from textbooks when no one is looking and go off to have their own adventures.

Hexagon is very short. There are only 38 pages, each containing at most a few short paragraphs of text, some of which are extremely similar. I completed every path in about five minutes.

The story is also extremely lacking. Essentially, the PC, a hexagon, can choose to go to either the Museum of Geometry or the Polygon Village, either with his friends, Pentagon, Heptagon, and Octagon, or, in the latter case, alone. Ultimately, if you choose any option other than joining with a group of other hexagons, the PC is killed. If you try visiting the village with your friends, the only path to a good ending is for the PC to abandon his friends to the tender mercies of a gang of polygons, and find a group of other hexagons to join with. If there is a theme to this story, it is that one must seek out others like oneself–that those who are different are not to be trusted, and one cannot be happy among them.

But I fear I’m giving the game too much credit, saying that. A sample of the game’s text should illustrate it better. If the PC goes to the museum and, through a series of pages which basically amount to ‘specify your path’, chooses to look at the triangle exhibit, you are presented with:

You take a closer look, and you realize that the triangle has a little needle point sticking out of it. But it’s too late! BLZZZT! It sticks the needle in you, leaving a great big hole in you. Game over! I guess you can never trust a triangle!

That’s it. The end. Pick the pentagon exhibit, and you get:

You get your six sides together and hop up on the ledge. The five pentagons say, “You have one side more than all of us! Har, har, har!” You hear a sound like that of a broken record as you are dragged to the wave-pool. Broken record sounds are always a bad sign in a dramatic scene. You are now being dragged underwater by the fierce five-siders. You have been drowned by the pentagons!

Other choices end with the hexagon killed similarly suddenly. Only choosing to view the hexagon exhibit doesn’t end in the PC’s death:

You approach the hexagons, and they all say, “Hello, Sixling!” The other five hexagons then open the door, and you enter the building just as they do. A late 1990s dance song starts to play as the hexagons hit the dance floor. You join them in a disco-style up-beat dance.
Congratulations! You got to dance with some polygons! You finally found a path that wouldn’t get you smashed to pieces by other polygons! You won!

The other ‘good’ endings are almost exactly the same, having the PC dancing with other hexagons.

The whole game is just a set of menus leading to the PC either being killed or joining other hexagons and dancing. It’s a story, generously speaking, but the non-ending parts of the story would probably fill less than half a page.

The Adventures of a Hexagon is not worth the few minutes it takes to complete.

Play time: about 5 minutes.

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Spring Thing 2014: The Price of Freedom: Innocence Lost

Posted by Tracy Poff on April 14, 2014

The Price of Freedom: Innocence Lost by Briar Rose is an entry in the Spring Thing 2014. If you’re planning on playing and voting for games in this competition, you should probably stop reading now.

Innocence Lost is the first part of the story of a Greek boy, Andreas, who, along with his brother, Alexius, is sold by his father to a Roman slaver. This part covers Andreas’s childhood, with later parts yet to be released.

The game is a browser-based CYOA-style story, hosted by ChooseYourStory, a site I was not previously familiar with. Three of the ten games in the Spring Thing use it, though, making it the single most popular ‘engine’–so I suppose it must be popular.

Here a brief digression: it troubles me to have games in competitions hosted externally and unavailable for download. When the host disappears–and it will, eventually–those games will simply be gone, unless the author has somehow archived them, or some enterprising player has done the same. This won’t affect my scoring of the games, but I hope that authors will keep this in mind when choosing a venue.

After the story begins, the plot proceeds in a frankly predictable fashion. The protagonist and his brother are put on a slave ship to be taken to Rome. There, they meet and befriend a young girl, Lula, who has been a slave for some time already. When they arrive in Rome, all three are purchased together, and it turns out that they are to be trained, along with other youths, as gladiators. The story briefly follows their training and culminates in a battle between six of them and six competing trainee gladiators.

The player’s choices throughout can impact Andreas’s strength, speed, or ‘approval’ with another character. The most substantial change the player can make is affecting which and how many (if any) of the children die in the battle at the end of the story, including possibly Andreas himself.

The mechanism of this change is the strength, speed, and approval scores mentioned earlier. During the battle, certain decisions will succeed or fail, based on Andreas’s strength or speed, and after the battle the other characters in the story will have (brief) conversations with Andreas that are impacted by his approval score with them.

When Andreas’s strength, speed, or approval score with another character changes, it’s displayed by the game in conspicuous colored text, inline with the story. This is a little distracting, but more importantly it had a strong influence on how I experienced the game. From the very beginning, because of these notifications, I was aware that the game was keeping tracking of the approval statistics, and I soon learned about strength and speed, so when making any choice, I could not help but think about how it might impact Andreas’s stats. It put me into a mindset to engage in metagaming, and made it more difficult to immerse myself in simply roleplaying as Andreas.

When first meeting Titus (the owner of the gladiatorial school) and Rhode (the trainer), for example, Andreas may either describe his education to Titus or attempt to bite Rhode’s finger. I, as the player, had a shrewd suspicion that doing this would impress Rhode with Andreas’s fierceness, but Andreas’s motivation wasn’t to impress her–he wanted to bite her because he disliked her. I’d have thought that, even without the approval scores being made explicit, but if they had any impact, it was only to widen the gap between player and player character.

This gap was especially noticeable on subsequent playthroughs. It became clear, at the end, that ‘winning’ the game meant keeping all six children alive through the final battle, and that doing this would involve having sufficiently high stats, so my replays quickly devolved into simply trying the different options to learn what impact they had on Andreas’s statistics, then finally going through the game making all of the ‘right’ choices, so as to preserve all of Andreas’s teammates. It took me an hour to play through the story once, but less than twenty minutes to play through it five more times, start to finish.

Innocence Lost‘s biggest weakness is its linearity. Your choices have literally no meaningful impact on anything but the final scene. Andreas can’t be bought by anyone other than Titus. He can’t be killed prior to the battle. Your choices incline the story in one direction for just a few paragraphs before it returns, unerringly, to the single path the author determined. This, combined with the very visible statistics, makes the game more about optimizing statistics than influencing a story.

The writing in Innocence Lost is reasonably solid, if unexceptional, and the characters are interesting enough for the brief time we know them. Unfortunately, Innocence Lost makes poor use of the medium. Of course, a degree of linearity is to be expected from a game that is the first part of a trilogy. Perhaps the later installments in the series will give the player more choice. If not, this story may be better suited to static fiction, abandoning the conceit of choice in favor of more strongly developed relationships between the characters.

I give The Price of Freedom: Innocence Lost a rating of 6/10. Fun enough to read, but unexceptional as a work of interactive fiction.

Play time: 1:16 for six complete playthroughs.

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