Friday, October 24, 2014

Windhammer 2014 - Archipelago of Omens

Richard Penwarden's Archipelago of Omens is stupid ambitious. It crams pages and pages of rules before you get any sort of setting, character, or purpose. The character sheet is a jigsaw puzzle of stats and attributes. Specialized terms, each marked with unique punctuation, abound and confound the eye. It would be too much for a full-length book. It really shouldn't work.

But it does. It's damn fun too.

Archipelago is the type of adventure I tend to think of as a "simulation." These type of games craft their rules to simulate real-world experiences.Weight tables, damage charts, etc. They tend to focus on the implementation of these rules than exploring a narrative. In Archipelago you play as one of three characters who are traveling through a grouping of mysterious, mist shrouded islands. You've got to manage health and armor levels, item and time limits, three different essential stats and weapon usage related to them. But while it's a lot to take in at first, each piece is simple on its own and easy to grasp (with maybe the exception of armor, which is a tad over-worked and unclear). All the small pieces come together to create a rich and fun tapestry. What's more, the three different characters not only have their own specialized rules and limitations, but they are from three wildly different historical eras, giving each one their own unique experience. That Penwarden was able to fit all this into Windhammer's limitations is an achievement, that he was able to make it all work so well might be a winning move.

The core mechanic revolves around three attributes: Arms, Eyes, and Lungs. You test against each one for appropriate actions: Arms when climbing a cliff, Lungs when attacking with a blowgun, and so on. The rank you have in an attribute determines how many coin flips (or other 50/50 equivalent random generator: dice, cards, whatever) you get to make during a test. If you get the required number of successes you pass. You also have a "Spirit" stat than you can spend to turn a flip from a failure to a success. Or you can save up Spirit to spend on permanently increasing you rank in an Attribute. It's a simple and elegant system that utilizes both chance and choice in an engaging way.

I especially liked the system because it gave me an excuse to use's oft-ignored coin flipping function. I chose the East Caribbean dollar for thematic consistency.

There's a lot more going on here, so I'm going to summarize what else I liked and disliked in a quick list.

* Item and weapon use was very well designed. I always felt that I was ahead of the game when it came to weapon and item choice (find the Well of Worlds early helped). Likewise, choosing what to give up when limits were reached was always an interesting dilemma.
*Combat, despite the complexity of weapon ranges, was always fun. Mostly because it still used the core flipping mechanic.
*The three character's special rules were all fun, but I got the most enjoyment out of the Perl Diver's ability to scavenge and craft. It really brought the setting alive for me, and I loved that you could find different items on the different types of island.
*Really, the three character thing works really well. Especially considering the constraints. The core story remains the same across the three characters, but there's enough difference to make three different experiences. Lots of replay in these hundred sections.
*I usually dislike time limits in gamebooks, but here it's a variable. You can both lose and gain time, which makes for a satisfying reward when succeeding.
*The endgame resolves around a high requirement test which can be made easier by collecting "Omens" throughout the game. This is a hard test and would turn what is an otherwise open-ended game into a Truth Path challenge, if not for the Spirit mechanic. In each of my playthroughs I was always able to use Spirit to get enough successes to pass, but only just barely. This made for a dynamic and dramatic climax. If Spirit wasn't as plentiful it wouldn't have worked, but I feel Penwarden got it right.

-The game's a bit of a mess. With so much rule-oriented detail things can get bogged down in specifics. I'm not sure that can be helped. However, I'm not sure using punctuation to differentiate aspects of rules did anything but make things messier.
-The organization and explanation of the rules could certainly be cleaned up.With so many they need to be as clear and concise as possible. Using Appendixes was a good idea, but I feel they could have been implemented better.
-While the encounters on islands generally consisted of meaningful choices, traveling between them was always an arbitrary decision. In all three of my playthroughs I never felt like I was doing anything than randomly picking my way through the islands. There's enough of them, with the content spaced out between them, that your path through them isn't extremely important. Still, navigating takes up a large chunk of the play and it really shouldn't have been so arbitrary.
-Encounters are written well, but the story bits at the beginning and the end were full of clunky sentences and could have used more polish. This isn't a game about story though, so this element doesn't weigh as heavily as it would in a more narrative focused game.

As a whole, Archipelago is big success. While rule-heavy, it will appeal to the type of table-top player I imagine gravitates towards gamebooks (and will be voting in this contest). I'll be shocked if it doesn't place in the top three.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

IFComp 2014 - The Contortionist

The Contortionist by Nicholas Stillman is... wait. Nicholas Stillman? That's got to be a coincidence, right? That's a common enough name. On the other hand, there's some aspects of The Contortionist's setting that would fit right in with Gunlaw's bizarre pre-apocolapse future. I may be wrong but I suspect it's the game guy. After I had just finished flushing the garbage from Why Don't They Leave the House out of my head, the last thing I wanted was to play another Stillman game. Thankfully, while The Contortionist does have some gross-out moments, there's nothing outrageously offensive on display.

Some 60 odd years in the future society has invented an odd system where 2% of the population are selected at random to work in production camps creating the products that the rest of the world grows fat on. You've been selected as one of these workers, but thanks to a genetic anomaly that lets you constrict your bones far beyond the normal limit you have an unique opportunity to escape.

The Contortionist is a choice based game made with Twine. However, instead of the normal changing options at the end of each section, The Contortionist gives you the same thirteen actions regardless of the context. It's reminiscent of LucasArt's SCUMM system. The breadth of action is so wide that it nearly feels on the same level as a parser game. One thing the game lacks that a parser would provide is a save option. After several failed attempts it was annoying to have to repeat the same actions just to get back to where I was.

Escaping the prison is a satisfying puzzle. Emphasis is on conducting the right actions more than calculating what to do. One aspect I enjoyed was the time limit you have to explore and impliment your plants. You have to be in your cell when the guards make their checks, or it's game over. The time limit is a generous one and unless you're really pushing things it's unlikely you'll be caught, but what it does is create a tense atmosphere that fits both with the setting and the character's mental state. I don't know how many turns I wasted checking my watch even when I knew there was plenty of time before the next round of checks.

The writing isn't as flashy or as strong as in Gunlaw but there is a very pleasant economy of words. And there are those same sort of moments of quiet revelation that make you stop and consider the implications of the setting. There were a couple moments of word choice or awkward phrasing that I felt could have used some revision. A borderline use of "retarded" being first among them.

Likewise, I encountered a few bugs. Looking in the mirror would remove the menu of choices. (Unless that was intended to be an ending, but then, why?) And once or twice I would select an action only for no text to appear. For the most part things ran smoothly, but it seems one more pass on both writing and code would have polished the game to a shine.

The Contortionist was compelling enough to throw myself at it the half-dozen attempts it took to solve. The setting's interesting and not over worked. The contortion ability and the time limit are fun gimmicks. Overall, a very pleasant experience, especially when I was fearing another Why Don't They Leave.

If this was written by a different Nicholas Stillman, I apologize for unfairly comparing the game to another author's just because of shared a name, but I really don't think I'm off the mark here.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Windhammer 2014 - Why Don't They Leave the House?

Why Don't They Leave the House? by Nicholas Stillman is a nasty piece of work. It warns on the title page that it contains strong horror themes that might be disturbing. This disclaimer is not nearly strong enough. Stillman describes some absolutely brutal scenarios that vault far over the boundaries of good taste. Most of the stuff in here is so over the top disgusting that I found it almost comical. Grotesque buffoonery on a grand scale. But then a image or idea would bring me up short, lodge itself in my brain, and rob me of sleep. Why Don't They Leave is gross and unpleasant and seems designed only to offend. That's not to say Stillman isn't doing some interesting things, but you've got to have a strong constitution to get through this one.

You play one of eight bus passengers who have banded together after their driver abandons them in a blizzard. You take refuge in an old farmhouse where the passengers start mysteriously dying, one an hour on the hour. Why Don't They Leave isn't particularity scary. There's nothing that threatens the player, physically at least. There's no clear antagonist, and beyond the drive to solve the mystery, not much conflict either. Despite the heavy use of figurative language, the game isn't very atmospheric either. There's a lot of description of the snow and the emancipated look of the group, but it doesn't amount to much. The farmhouse never solidifies into a distinct setting with a character and presence of its own. Instead the book almost entirely relies on it's extremeness for support.

In your attempts to solve the mystery you get entangled in more and more morally compromising positions, starting with riffling in the pockets of a corpse and skyrocketing from there. The book makes it clear that you are supposed to imagine yourself in this scenario and that you aren't playing a character. At it's core, it seems to be a comment on the YOU in the famous Fighting Fantasy slogan "in which YOU are the hero!" Why Don't They Leave asks you to imagine yourself in more and more extreme situations. It would almost feel like a test of morality except that 1. you're encouraged to jump in and get your hands dirty. By embracing the vile things the book asks you're rewarded with Clues towards the book's hidden good ending. And 2. most times you end up in an ever worse or more extreme situation if you balk at or try to avoid the nastiness. The book encourages you to compromise your morality and punishes you if you don't. Perhaps I'm off the mark here, but maybe the only way to escape unscathed is to simple stop reading. But that feels like a lame meta cop-out to me. (Not that I would disparage anyone who did stop, because yeesh.)

Note that this isn't always the case. On my initial playthrough I gleefully searched for drugs and hacked at a pantry in the dark, but I found myself drawing the line at torturing what I perceived as an innocent. While I did miss out on a Clue, I was denied a worse fate, and for that I'm grateful. Still, such mercies are rare, and there's no real right way to turn. You're going to be up to your neck in it, no matter what you choose.

On a game level, there's some nice mechanics here. The "you play as you" condition serves as a skill system of sorts. Based on your real-life experiences you'll notice or have insight into certain things that will provide hints on how to find Clues. It's a novel idea and works wonderfully, though the hints aren't always helpful. Also, the real ending is skilfully hidden, being neither obvious or beyond the realm of discovery. However, some of my friends who also played this had trouble differentiating the hints from the Clues, thus obscuring the ending perhaps beyond Stillman's intention. I found the ending satisfying to solve, but found the content of it disappointing. The solution to the mystery wasn't worth the hassle. Perhaps that's intentional.

As mentioned, Stillman writes with a lot of figurative language. Metaphorical invention abounds, but the book lacks the verve of Gunlaw. Far more often than not the language feels overwritten and phrases like "Marsha screams obscenities and throws her shoes like boomerangs" or "Family pictures, scores of them like Atari pixels, fall and smash with the thundering blows" are wildly out of place. According to Stillman, he wrote Why Don't They Leave for last year's competition but was worried it was inappropriate, and so entered Gunlaw instead. Why Don't They Leave lacks Gunlaw's delightful language and truly unique vision. In many ways it feels like an earlier work.

I can't in good conscience recommend Why Don't They Leave. None of its mechanics are clever enough to justify it's extreme vileness. When comparing notes with friends it was interesting to see that some bits that slid off my back utterly revolted them and vice versa.  Stillman has crafted such a diverse set of horrors there's sure to be something here to utterly wreck you. I'm still not sure what the point of the book is. If Stillman intended it as an examination of morality, and limits of player agency in gamebooks... well, it took me a long time to look past the theatrics and my own revulsion to get to the themes. And I'm not sure that they're successful. It's one thing to ask a player how far they'll go, but when you only have the choices the author has given you (implicit in the gamebook format) and they're all bad ones, it feels less like an honest examination and more like a sadistic puppeteer pulling on the strings. And if Stillman's intention was just to shock and offend? Mission accomplished, I guess.

Stillman writes in the afterword that every work should be a catharsis. I hope in writing Why Don't They Leave he found what he needed. I hope that this review will be a catharsis for me, so that I can finally get this book out of my head and move on to more pleasant entries.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

IFComp 2014 - Sigmund's Quest

Not much of a quest, I'm afraid. Sigmund's Quest by Gregor Holtz is short adventure made with the Dedalus CYOA-creation tool. It's based on the Volsunga Saga, and tries to replicate the look of early graphical adventures. Thing is, the pixel art isn't particularly appealing, looking more like childish drawings in Paint than the games it's trying to emulate, and the game ends abruptly with a note to watch for the next chapter on Holtz's website. There's little saga here.

Obviously a lot of work went into it's creation. I'm not familiar with Dedalus, but it appears the interface is custom made. It's quite fancy, sitting somewhere in-between a CYOA and a text adventure. You don't have the typical CYOA choices, instead you click on highlighted words to get a menu of contextual actions. While you don't have the range of options you would in a parser-based IF, a fully implemented game would be something worth exploring. Beyond the lack of content, there are some design issues. At points, interactive words would just stop working for me and I wouldn't be able to continue. That might be an issue with my browser though, and can be overlooked. The game presents a full window illustration with a diary that slides into view when clicked. This seems an odd choice to me. As the diary is where the game happens, and having to toggle it after every illustration change is invasive, especially on replays. 

Interface nit-picking aside, Sigmund's Quest just doesn't have the content to be a contending entry. That's unfortunate. There's a lot of potential here. But IFComp just isn't the place for a tech demo, no matter how much affection went into it's creation.

Interactive Fiction Competition 2014

Twenty years! I'm delighted that IFComp, and Interactive Fiction is still going strong after all this time. And I'm proud to have been a part of it for so long, if only in a limited judging capacity. I considered entering a gamebook, seeing as one made it in last year, but it feels against the spirit of the competition. One of these days I learn Twine or Inkle or something.

Forty Two entries this year, the most since 2006. The majority of them look very promising. I'm hoping the 20th anniversary brings out the best in everyone. I'm excited! Let's all get excited for Text Adventures!