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.

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