IFComp reviews are now over here.
The Paper Bag Princess is a nice little well-made fairy-tail traditional parser game (my how the times have changed that I’ve got to make that distinction). You play a princess on her wedding day. Just before the climatic kiss a dragon swoops in, burns the castle, and steals your almost-husband. What follows is a brief journey to get him back or something. Despite its shortness, I found Paper Bag Princess enjoyable mostly because its just well crafted. There were no bugs or odd phrasings. Every noun was implemented, and off-beat verbs were accounted for. The few puzzles weren’t hard, and yet satisfying to solve. They could have been horrible if they weren’t so well clued (getting past the dragon in particular). I felt like I was gently led down the right path, while still having enough agency to feel like I was in control.
The ending was rather abrupt. That final confrontation could have tied up the theme more satisfactorily if there had been more to it. Aside from this stumble, Paper Bag Princess is an amusing little amuse bouche. I hope the author enters again next year. I’d like to see what she could do with something a little more meaty.
Oh hey, we’ve got a for real CYOA here. It’s made in Twine, but doesn’t take advantage of in-text hyperlinks or dynamic text or anything. Just simple straightforward links to new paragraphs. There’s some fancy amenities like new paragraphs fading in when a choice is selected, or the option to save your current place, but Blood on the Heather could be published in a real-life book and I’m appreciative of that.
As for the story, well… it’s not bad. It has actual characters and plot, which is more than I can say for the previous two entries. The construction is clumsy though, on both the sentence level and in the overall structure. Awkward phrasing abounds, there’s frequent tense changes, there’s lots of “wacky” humor that comes off as hackneyed, and several times new paragraphs assumed I had learned information that I had not previously been presented with. If you’re writing a CYOA you’ve got to make sure that each path plays out logically. This entry is more focused on story than a typical piece of Interactive Fiction, and so the story needs to be strong enough to carry the load. It’s almost there (personal opinions on urban vampire fantasy aside) but it needs at least another revision to polish the text, and the various paths through the story need careful attention to ensure they all flow cleanly.
The story is long and the different paths through the book are divergent enough to justify being a CYOA. I’m all for innovation in the Comp but it’s nice to play something so old-school. And after the previous entries it’s nice to play something with some meat on its bones. It just needed to stew a little longer.
Going from its description, I thought Vulse would be a mystery game:
A dead body floats down a river into the heart of an infuriating small town. As the locals grapple with the murder, they must also contend with the breakdown of cause-and-effect and the realization that the world is not for them anymore.
But no, instead it’s a tone piece of the sort that seems to excel in Twine (at least, in my limited experience with the platform). I can’t say I quite penetrated what was going on. There might have been a body in a river, though I can’t say for sure. I have no idea what “the breakdown of cause-and-effect” is referring to other than existential vagueness. Plenty of that to go around. Still, the writing is good: moody and full compelling imagery. The game was captivating in the playing and there are some neat little moments, like the description of the radio updating in real time, or fast-forwarding through the mix-tape. However I’m in no hurry to dive back in to search for hidden meanings or even to suss out a plot. Vulse is entertaining in the moment but lacks staying power.
An inauspicious start to the nineteenth annual Interactive Fiction Competition. N.C. Hunter Hayden says that A Wind Blown from Paradise is his first game, and judging from the criteria it could be worse. But what we’ve got here is slight and unpolished. In the game you wander nearly identical subways either dwelling on or turning away from images of a beach vacation. In doing so, Hayden claims to explore the ramifications of dwelling on the past rather than being present in the moment. It’s all a bit too on the nose and lacking in depth. I feel like the idea would have sat better within the framework of a larger narrative. Being plopped right into and asked to consider the ramifications is just to obvious to be affecting. The overwrought prose doesn’t help either, though I did like the description of sand as a million hot suns.
While the theme is too obvious the necessary actions are anything but. I had to look up the in-game hints before I realized that “dwell” and “turn away” were performable actions, let alone the crux of the game. And then I was under the impression you had to turn away from a vision to return to the subway. When that didn’t work I assumed the game was bugged. It wasn’t until I consulted the walk-through that things became clear. These kind actions should be implied. As it stands the game is just too cryptic, despite its simplicity.
Sorry, N.C., I have a heart, I do. But this game just isn’t up to competition standards. A little more polish and a lot more playtesting could have made it more viable. Also, exchanges like
>get on trainThe train isn’t here, idiot.
Time to give those Harpoon Flies another shot… 5. Dead again. Okaaaaay, roll again… 2. There. Now we may proceed. If we had rolled a 3 or a 4 we would have survived as well, although with a loss of 6 Stamina and 2 to our Skill (!) AND we would be forced to drink one of our doses of healing potion (and be denied it’s Stamina restoring effects). As it stands, we only lose 4 Stamina and the dose of potion.
I think of these kind of encounters as Gatekeepers. They lie along the One True Path and must be negotiated. The Harpoon Flies are a particularly egregious example. They present a significant chance at instant death (if we were playing fairly we would have had to roll three new characters in the space of about ten minutes), they hit our stats by a not insignificant amount even when the roll goes our way, and worst of all is that we have no agency when dealing with them. It’s entirely up to the luck of the roll. No choice or item or character stats has any bearing on the encounter. We’re not even given the satisfaction of resolving combat. If choice is the heart and soul of the gamebook experience then the Harpoon Flies are the ultimate sin. They disregard the core of the format in favor of a bit of randomness.
Of course we could chose to avoid the flies altogether (and considering that even the best outcome of the encounter results in a penalty, a ignorant player might deduce that doing so is the correct course of action), but that would just doom us later on. As we replayed and learned the shape of the book we would find that a meeting with the flies is inevitable.
Oh well, we’re past them now. Let’s continue.
I wrote I would post more about gamebooks, and then I didn’t. I’ve been playing through the Windhammer entries. There’s some good, some bad. I have lots of thoughts about them. But as a competitor I feel like I should wait until the competition has concluded before I start making my opinions public. If you are interested in criticism right now, Crumbly Head Games is doing daily reviews.
There’s a lot of gamebook playthrough blogs out there and they’re always fun to read. The seats on that bandwagon look mighty comfy, so I figured it might be fun to try one myself. And what better place to start than the infamously difficult Fighting Fantasy entry “Crypt of the Sorcerer?” Known as the most difficult Fighting Fantasy title, the last encounter has something like a 5.5% percent chance of success. And that’s not counting the punishingly narrow correct path, dozens of lucky rolls needed, and masses of unfair encounters en route to the end boss. Sounds like fun!
IF Comp’s coming up soon. Guess it’s time to blow the dust off the ol’ blog. Let’s see, what have I been playing lately? Mario & Luigi Dream Team: fun if samey. Writing isn’t as crisp as previous entries. NPC dialog is especially dire. SMT IV: was enjoying it a lot but lost interest when I got to Tokyo. I donno, I’ll come back to it soon. Presentation is out of this world, especially considering it’s all talking heads. The 3DS is turning into quite the little system, if you didn’t know. Great year for it. Luigi’s Mansion 2 was incredible. So full of personality and charm. It’s basically everything I ever want in a game. Dark Souls is eating up a lot of my mindspace. It also is everything I want: deep, subtle, engrossing. But I don’t play it much because it’s so intense. I literally walk away from play sessions shaking, so I tend to have month-long hiatuses between bouts of playing. I just got to Anor Londo this week and I’m having dreams of pristine empty corridors and metal giants. Maybe another hiatus is due.
Okay, enough of that. The real reason I’m resurrecting this blog is I want to talk about gamebooks. I’ve gotten into them in a big way this year. I would like to say “gotten back into them” but I never had a lot of experience with them as a youth. I played one of the Gray Star books and I’m pretty sure I had a copy of Cities of Gold and Glory (I vividly remember the cover, if none of the contents), but otherwise I didn’t know gamebooks were a thing. “Gamebooks?” you may be asking? “What are you going on about?” Well, my imaginary, ignorant friend, gamebooks are like Choose Your Own Adventure novels, but with stats and inventories and dice rolls. Lots and lots of dice rolls. They were big in the 80’s (especially in the UK and Australia), then faded away as video games became more sophisticated. But in the past couple of years they’ve seen a reemergence. Mobile OS platforms are a great fit for them, there have been several wildly successful Kickstarter campaigns for new books, and there’s even a small but passionate amateur community online.
I don’t know why I’m so attracted to gamebooks in this age of big production game experiences or deep play like in Dark Souls. The writing in them is almost uniformly terrible, and the “gameplay” aspect is riddled with problems. There’s just something about the combination of CYOA “you are in control of the action” decision making and stats-keeping pulls me in. I find even the worst gamebooks fascinating. There’s just something about them.
And so we enter the last days of the Competition, where I kick myself for ignoring it for the past few weeks and try to finish as many of the remaining games as possible. Spoilers follow.
Fish Bowl by Ethan and Joshua Rupp is a short and simple bit of horror. It’s about a destitute beach comber to whom weird, somewhat unnerving stuff happens. It’s not very long and the action is railroaded. This presents a problem as its not always clear on what action needs to be performed to move the story forward. I was a little miffed I had to turn to the walkthrough at one point. What I needed to do should have been obvious, so maybe I’m just an idiot. On the other hand, it wasn’t clued at all which is a big whiff in my book. The there’s a few standout bits of writing but for the most part its fairly awkward with clumsy lines both opening and closing the game. Implementation issues border the game on all sides. I especially liked
You are getting more exhausted.
You aren’t feeling especially drowsy.
There’s no ABOUT command so it’s unclear if Fish Bowl was beta tested. If it was it could have used a little more to help round out the experience. What’s here is okay but it’s pretty thin and there’s not much to see or do.
As for the story… eh. Weird stuff happens and then you find out why. I wasn’t particularly affected or creeped out, but as far as slightly unnerving weirdness goes it does establish a tone and feel. I just wish it had pulled me in more, spent more time establishing the mundane or character before letting the feeling that something was not right slowly seep in. Overall, not a waste of time, but doesn’t stand out in any way.