IFComp 2014: Jacqueline, Jungle Queen!, by Steph Cherrywell

The 2014 Interactive Fiction Competition is on, at ifcomp.org. This is my sixth and probably last game this year.

Blurb: You are Jacqueline McBean, modern woman for the Thirties and intrepid international correspondent for the Fresno Bee. The good news is that you’re on your way to a plum assignment among the glitzy spires and glamorous nightclubs of beautiful Golanaland. The bad news is that the plane only makes it ninety-nine percent of the way to Gola City and that last one percent is a real doozy. Alone in the heart of the Golanese jungle and armed only with the powers granted by the ancient jungle shrines, can you learn the ways of the animals, wield torrential rains and searing heat, and become at last the mighty Jungle Queen?

Of course you can! You’re a modern woman for the Thirties!

There was a lot in here which actually worked out pretty well. It’s got a pretty well-constructed broad-farce style, with mostly pretty comprehensible puzzles and a handful or alternative solutions. It has a reasonable amount of gonzo style and I pretty much never felt at loose ends or confused. I also managed to not stumble across any bugs or mechanical errors. All in all, the basic design is promising.

However, I found a bit I was unhappy with. The blurb and opening actually led me to expect a certain pulpy style, and the content kind of didn’t deliver for the most part. It’s a bit hard to put my finger on just what didn’t gel for me, but too much of the time I didn’t really feel immersed in the time and place, and this totally deserved (and led me to believe it would get) a more highly defined sense of setting and character. The writing’s mostly mechanically descriptive rather than really milking this style.

The puzzles maybe were a mite on the easy side, but I can’t complain too much, other than about a guess-the-verb issue I encountered at the very end.

On a tangentially related note, I am pleasantly surprised to see how usable Quest has become. There was a bit of lag playing online, but the interface and parser are pretty good these days.

Rating: 7

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IFComp 2014: The Black Lily, by Hannes Schueller

The 2014 Interactive Fiction Competition is on; details at ifcomp.org. This is my fifth game. (Yay! I can vote!)

Blurb: If you think you are being watched while playing this game, keep telling yourself that it’s all in your mind.

I get this in the opening text:

The delicate fingers pressing against the indestructible window pane which was supposed to keep evil out. The superior attitude suddenly giving way to despair. The widening eyes in the moment of cognition.

My pretention-dar is pinging. I hope to God this overwriting is either not representative of the work as a whole or is going to be brutally taken down. Certainly the narrator comes across as intolerably smug, but that may be the point. There is a pretty heavy veneer of too-awesome-for-you in the protagonist’s vignettes, as they stroll around a dance floor and dance better than everyone, or go to a boutique and buy the most expensive and exceptionally tailored pants on the floor. So I’m not sure what I’m really supposed to think of the protagonist, as regards his character: clearly by the end I am no longer supposed to regard him as a good person (although it’s very easy to miss an awful lot of details), but is his impeccable tailoring and trim body and flash style supposed to be enviable or flagged up as being as pretentious as it looks?

One problem is that we never actually get a real feel for what makes our protagonist tick other than smug self-satisfaction. By the end we’ve learned a major character trait and have absolutely no idea what motivates it. That’s kind of frustrating.

The text is littered with modest grammatical and stylistic errors. None of them impede comprehension, but particularly in a text trying so hard for a proper and correct voice like this, it’s irksome. Also, evidence of insufficient beta.

Rating: 5

IFComp 2014: Ugly Oafs, by Perry Creel

The 2014 Interactive Fiction Competition is on! Details at ifcomp.org. This is the fourth game I’m judging. Yeah, I’m not getting through the whole thing this year. Shit, if I’m lucky I’ll judge enough to have my votes counted.

Blurb: Push back the Wrath Pulse–or find the Fry Gun to destroy it for good!
A wordplay game with several ways to lose deliberately. Source code included.

OK. Apparently it’s a wordplay game. But there’s not a whole hell of a lot of context to figure out the nature of the wordplay: tons of phrases but absolutely no hinting as to what to _do_ with the damn phrases. I tried to do anagrams but came up short. Have I mentioned I’m not very good at these things? I feel like I’m back in the Mystery Hunt. I’ve figured out that the map is symmetric under rotation and that the numbers are from northwest to southeast in a pretty straightforward way. This is surprisingly unhelpful.

A little walkthrough-reading gives me the Big Reveal. And, well, now it feels like so much busywork. I dunno, I like my crosswords leavened with a bit more of the narrative, and I spent enough mental energy trying to figure out the conceit that I don’t have much energy left to take it to its conclusion. In honesty, the clues totally were there, but as I said, I’m not actually good at this sort of thing, and I felt like there may have been too much information and not enough focus, maybe.

There are a couple of bugs around the punctuation. That might be the fault of the screenreader-friendliness coding, but still, it’s the sort of thing I expect to be purged in beta.

This is an interesting idea. It might be fun for a certain type of reader, but it is Not My Thing. I concede this may be my fault and my problem.

Rating: 6

IFComp 2014: Raik, by Harry Giles

The 2014 Interactive Fiction Competition is on! Get your judge on for yourself over at ifcomp.org. This is the third game I’m judging in the competition.

Blurb: A scots fantasia about anxiety. Battle kelpies, watch TV, avoid your emails and find the magical Staff of the Salmon.

OK. I’ve read But n Ben a Go-Go. I can do this. I think.

Near as I can tell, the same decision tree (in a Twine adventure, which is basically hypertext), has been laid on two completely different texts: a story about a highly anxious woman trying to get through her day, and a story of a Scots warrior questing to save his clan. More notably, the first story is in Scots and the second in standard English.

There are some interesting bits and a deeply confusing maze, and some places where the story jumps between the two parallel strands unasked. The overall plan isn’t clear to me though—it’s not wholly rocket science to map two different stories onto the same structure, and the parallelism is not always clear. It’d be nice to be able to say I learned a valuable lesson about anxiety, but the presentation is a bit murky at times. Switching between the storylines was a somewhat useful mechanism: when a wise choice wasn’t obvious in one story, the other story was often illminating.

It’s an intriguing experiment, although I’d hesitate to call it fully successful. It certainly set a very distinctive tone, and I imagine it’ll be polarizing, although probably for the wrong reasons (the Scots dialect, rather than the parallel gameplay).

Rating: 7

IFComp 2014: Enigma, by Simon Deimel

The 2014 Interactive Fiction Competition is on! Get your judge on for yourself over at ifcomp.org. This is the second game I’m judging in the competition. Why, yes, I am way behind.

Blurb: Eyes can see, and a mind can think. Insanity is just one step away. You are in a room. That’s where you are, and you know exactly what is going on. But the truth is hard to take.

This game is an interesting experiment, but somehow it fell flat for me. Some of it might be pacing, with the elements coming out in what feels like the wrong order. I mean, fine, I figure out early that I’m pointing a gun at my best friend. That’s pretty obviously a bad situation. And I’m only about 4 steps down the daisy-chain before I (as the reader) have figured out that he did something horrible to my sister. Smart money on rape, decent odds on murder. It would be interesting if it weren’t any sort of violation at all and that I was actually the bad guy but I’m not really counting on that. By the time I actually examine and think about exactly the right objects to notice her dead body, it kind of feels anticlimactic. And if discoveriing your sister’s corpse is anticlimactic, then you may be doing tension wrong.

Besides pacing issues, there’s a level-of-abstraction problem. I got hung up on “think about doubts”, because those weren’t exactly obvious the way physical objects and the more concrete ideas (like the relationship and the phone call) were. The writing is awfully affectless, and I can’t tell if that’s intentional. The PC comes across as stiff and mechanical, but it’s not clear whether that’s his character, a moment of shock, or just poor writing. Certainly the other two figures in the story don’t come out any less mechanical: Tim’s only utterances are glazed-eyes happy craziness, and Gina seems to have absolutely no character other than being angelic. We don’t even know what they like/don’t like about each other, or why Tim is sounding like a suicide-cult member.

So, while there are some interesting ways of conveying a state of mind in this story, they ultimately needed to be in service of something less generic and better paced.

Rating: 6