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IF Comp ’09 Super Sexy Black Tie Awards Wrap Up!

November 5, 2009

Instead of writing this up, I’ve been watching Riff play Uncharted 2, which is a lot like watching an action movie, if the main character in an action movie were psychologically incapable of doing anything until he’d completely searched the surrounding area for treasure.  “Drake!  Get out of there!  It’s gonna blow!”  “I’ll get out of here in a minute, goddammit, I’m looking for shinies.”  And then, because there’s a small part of Uncharted 2 that wants to be an exploration game instead of a narrative-driven on-rails climby-shooter (which it is, and is very good at being), he will in fact find a statue of Ganesh or something in a corner of the imminently-exploding train car and his neurosis will be rewarded, even as the climby-shooter part of the game yells at him and asks if he wants a hint.  Here’s a hint, designers:  it’s weird to both yell at people and reward them for the same behavior.  If you did that to a kid, you’d have a fucked-up kid.  If you did that to a hamburger, you’d have a fucked up hamburger.  In terms of potatoes, that’s bad parenting.

This post isn’t about Uncharted 2, though, it’s about the 2009 Interactive Fiction Competition.  I haven’t forgotten.

[spoilers for every game in the comp and also last year’s Riverside and incidentally 2006’s Another Goddamn Escape the Locked Room Game given free rein after the jump]

This year I think I’m starting with the made-up awards, instead of having to come up with some for every single game, which is exhausting and takes up time I could have spent playing Bejeweled on Facebook.  I also think I’m going to sum up each individual game in terms of Very Valuable Lessons It Has To Teach Us.  On sort of another note, I haven’t been doing this nearly long enough to have an opinion on whether this was a good year’s comp or a bad year’s comp, but you know what I sort of missed this time around?  Troll entries.  Oh, sure, we had the infamous Richard Bos rant, but that’s not really… oh, man, know what would have made Eruption totally kickass?  A Riverside ending.

u get on the raft but the volcano asplode!!!1!1twelve!*!  raep gets in ur nOsE!!#!  YOU ARE DOOM!

That would have cracked me up.  But anyway, let’s get to the awards bit, before this post gains any more unnecessary length.  Go put on some formal wear right now!  I’ll wait!

In no particular order:

Most Personality:  Broken Legs.
Most Congenial:  The Ascot.
Most German:  Trap Cave.
Most Flawed:  The Hangover.
Most Disturbing:  Condemned.
Best Writing:  Broken Legs.
Best Bad Writing:  Condemned.
Best Story:  The Duel in the Snow.
Best Gameplay:  The Duel That Spanned the Ages.

Funniest:  Earl Grey, Rover’s Day Out, Broken Legs (I can’t decide!)
Best Gimmick:  Earl Grey (wordplay).
Worst Gimmick:  Yon Astounding Castle! of some sort (dear God the ye thing).
Least Fairly Judged, At Least By Me:  Star Hunter.
Best Individual Puzzle:  GATOR-ON, Friend to Wetlands! (getting the keys)
Most Superfluous Rooms I Have Ever Seen In Anything Ever:  GATOR-ON, Friend to Wetlands!
Best Name:  GATOR-ON, Friend to Wetlands!
I Just Want To Say “GATOR-ON, Friend to Wetlands!” One More Time:  GATOR-ON, Friend to Wetlands!
Least Clued Puzzles:  Broken Legs.
Individual Puzzle That Pissed Me Off the Most:  The Grand Quest (fucking coins!)
Worst Invisible Dude Ever:  The dude in The Believable Adventures of an Invisible Man.
Least Likable Protagonist in a Bad Way:  The dude in The Believable Adventures of an Invisible Man.
Least Likable Protagonist in a Good Way:  Lottie Plum in Broken Legs.
Most Likable Protagonist in a Sad Way:  Victor Pavlovich in The Duel in the Snow.
Best NPC:  Kropkin in The Duel in the Snow.
Personal Favorite:  Earl Grey.
Close Runners-Up:  Rover’s Day Out, Broken Legs.

And now, Valuable Lesson Time by game:

The Ascot (6):  On the one hand, it’s good to use the strengths of your chosen format to their fullest.  On the other hand, using the limitations of a format to keep things tight and tidy is actually sort of brilliant.  This game failed to do what choose-your-own-adventure games are best at, but it also failed to do what traditional IF is worst at.  Also it was charming and likable, which doesn’t hurt.

The Believable Adventures of an Invisible Man (4):  Lot to learn from this one.  Unless you’re doing something sandboxy, you should generally provide your players with a more-than-nebulously-defined goal, for starters.  (You can get away with less if your puzzles are clued well enough so that people know what to do even if they don’t know why they’re doing it, but I, personally, would rather you didn’t.)  Also, when you have a cool premise like an invisible PC, the focus should be on what awesome shit the player can do because they’re invisible, before you start getting into the limitations.  It’s no fun to play someone whose superpower is not being able to carry any objects into a room.

Beta Tester (5):  Everybody has to start somewhere.  We all have little fuck-around projects to see what we can do, and we all learn the rhythm of comedy before we learn the melody.  (Have you noticed that people will laugh at anything if you say it like it’s a joke?  Seriously, try it on the next cashier you talk to, unless your social anxiety disorder prevents you from talking to cashiers, in which case you probably shouldn’t try it at all.  It does not work on cats.  No matter what you do, cats will never think you’re funny.)  The trick is, after you start wherever you start, don’t stop.

Broken Legs (8):  Infusing every aspect of your game with personality is good.  Rewriting default messages is good.  Cluing your goddamn puzzles, Miss Sarah Morayati, is good.  Cue Meatloaf reference.

Byzantine Perspective (7):  A cute gimmick is always good, but ideally it should be a nutritious part of a complete game.

Condemned (6):  Turns out picking the plot of your game off my own personal phobias list is a good way to get me to hate it.  Next time do one where you’re buried alive, upside down, under the corpse of your dead mother.  (Please don’t actually do that, or, if you do, warn me first.  Actually maybe someone else’s personal phobias list can have a turn.)  Other than that, watch out for text dump – hitting G more than a few times in a row makes people wonder why you didn’t just write your game as static fiction.  I liked the timing on the jump cuts, though, and a good “what the hell is going on here?” hook rarely fails.

The Duel in the Snow (8):  Scroll back up and read Broken Legs again, except for the third sentence substitute “Also, if you have a puzzle that must be solved to get rid of a repeating status message, clue that puzzle goddamn well.”  (The failure message made me think I’d finished the soda along with the whiskey.)

The Duel That Spanned the Ages (8):  Adaptations of gameplay from outside IF make a nice change from puzzles and find-the-object, if you can pull them off.  (Some things are just too visual or too fiddly for the format – like, imagine IF Tetris.)  The stealthy and shooty bits of this game were not radical departures from standard IF, but they were fun, and made the game sort of stand out.

Another thing to take from this one:  your intro is sort of like an MC, getting the crowd in the mood for your game, which is the main act.  This doesn’t mean it has to be super short – an MC can go on and tell an entertaining anecdote about the headliner, or do a few minutes of his own material – but at some point he’s gotta get the fuck off the stage.  If you have a huge giant backstory, consider making it playable, or breaking some of it up and sticking it in item descriptions, or adding a REMEMBER function.  (The latter two don’t much apply in this particular case, since the backstory hasn’t happened yet, but you know, for later.)

Earl Grey (10):  If, to advance the plot, the PC has to do something the player would not do themselves and does not want to make the PC do… well, it’s probably better just to avoid this situation, but if you insist on it, back the PC into a corner narratively. The player should be saying “well, shit, this is my only option in these circumstances,” not “well, shit, the game won’t let me do anything else, how stupid is that.”

The only reason this game still has a ten from me, despite this and other flaws, is that it took me somewhere new and gave me something clever and different to do, with a cute internal monologue gimmick.  Also, it was imaginative, and most of all funny.

Eruption (4):  I could talk about settling for mediocrity or phrasing rants so you come off as less of a douchebag (assuming that is even something I know anything about, which, man, doubtful), but both of those take a backseat to not fucking with the players’ compass directions. Curved path or straight path, these directions are all we have to get our bearings in your world, and it’s horrible to suddenly realize that our internal – or worse, our actual on-paper – map is wrong.  Yes, NSEW is a terribly unnatural and inorganic convention, and adhering to it stifles you and dehumanizes the player.  I don’t fucking care. Until you or someone else comes up with an alternate system that works just as well, use fucking NSEW and don’t get cute with it.

…that rant was not so much directed at Eruption actually.  To be honest, I was mostly thinking of Blue Lacuna, especially that one bit of the forest where Aaron Reed went “I thought it would be fun to stick a little maze in because not enough people hate me.”  As far as Eruption goes, I suppose you could use it as an example of acceptable minimum technical standards, but if you do, make sure to flesh an actual game out over the acceptable technical framework.  Don’t settle for an empty can of chili just because there aren’t any rat droppings in it.

GATOR-ON, Friend to Wetlands! (5):  Use only as many rooms as you need.  Corollary:  you don’t need as many rooms as you think.  Spaciousness is something that can be feigned or implied, and I can’t think of a situation where denser isn’t better.  (There’s got to be at least one, though, right?  Let me know when you find it!)

Two things this game got right, though, were the action sequence at the end – if you’re going to do something, you might as well do something fucking awesome – and the corn chips puzzle (well, except you couldn’t get more corn chips and there was no guarantee you’d ever find your hideout again, but other than that), which was well-clued, logical, and made me feel clever for figuring it out.

Oh, and there’s nothing wrong with showing off a really obscure verb option in your walkthrough, but you might be better off putting it in parentheses after a more sensical one.  (So many people were pissed off by UNBITE, not knowing that OPEN JAWS was a perfectly cromulent alternative.)

Gleaming the Verb (4):  Ideally, an IF game should have some reason to be an IF game, as opposed to a novel, or a Flash game, or a Paleolithic cave painting.  There is a thin line between a game consisting primarily of a single word puzzle and a single word puzzle with a parser thrown on, and I think this game could have been on that line’s good side with a fleshier setting and story.  I want to know why I’m naked in a room being tested by a cube, dude.  If you set up the bowling pins of mystery, it’s kind of cruel not to knock them down.

The Grand Quest (4):  Quite a few things to say about this one.  I think I went off sufficiently in the review about hint systems and people popping their walkthrough cherries, but seriously, a good hint system in a game is like good sex in a relationship, in that it makes people more willing to overlook problems elsewhere.  Earl Grey, I believe, did not have a hint system, and everyone who reviewed it seemed to enjoy it in inverse proportion to the time they spent with the walkthrough.  Walkthroughs are like kidneys, in that you’re better off if no one ever looks at them.  Whoo nelly, I am just on fire with these analogies today.  Somebody put me out.

I know I went off on the coin puzzle, too, but bear with me:  the way the coins were hidden sent a false negative to anyone making a reasonable effort to look for spare coins.  Now, this may or may not make us the players huge giant pussies (sorry if you get here googling “huge giant pussies”), but we expect to be able to trust our negative feedback.  (For an example of exactly what not to do, please consult the aspirin bottle in Another Goddamn Escape the Locked Room Game by this Riff Conner character, who is a complete asshole.  Actually, I’m spoiling it – you are supposed to eat, like, a hundred aspirin for no apparent reason, and several aspirin in, you get the message “Maybe you shouldn’t eat any more of these aspirin.”  That is an incredibly dick move, and should be avoided unless you don’t mind being an absolute fuckwad.)

Mainly, though, The Grand Quest has two big flaws:  the story around the puzzles is generic and uninteresting, and the puzzles come off as though the author has nothing but contempt for the player.  If I were to do a rewrite, I would ameliorate both those problems by making the PC more like Drake in the Uncharted series.  Let me explain that.

Drake is the kind of protagonist I normally can’t stand.  He’s your typical straight guy fantasy, an action hero wet dream, all shooting and punching and getting the girl.  What makes him likable is that his reactions to things are those of an actual person (“Jesus Christ, who’s shooting at me now?”) and his external monologue often mirrors the player’s internal monologue (“I am so fucking sick of climbing things.”)  Someone like this as the star of The Grand Quest would not only help players identify (and thus be more involved), they’d help plant the crown of assholicism squarely on the evil character Labra’s head, instead of the author’s.  (“Aw, no way, this is a keyhole puzzle?  I totally fell for it!  You’re such a dick, Labra!”)

Anyway.

Grounded in Space (6):  This game’s main puzzle is a perfect example of something that is both too visual and too fiddly to work well in IF.  You might be better off just replacing a puzzle like this – simple on paper, but with a lot of super bonus artificial difficulty because of the format – with one that translates better and is genuinely trickier.

The Hangover (2):  Everyone makes crap when they’re young.  Don’t worry about it, and don’t give up.  If you keep trying, you’ll get better.

Interface (7):  It’s never too late to finish a project, apparently, although Ben Vegiard might just be some sort of superhuman.  Good old Inky.

Resonance (9):  The trend towards kinder gentler more player-friendly games is fucking fantastic, and I would love to see innovations in this area become standard.  Most of us have doors at home that we can open, if we’re into that sort of thing, and do not need simulations.

Oh, and most people found the puzzles sort of jarring, since they were sphinx riddles grafted on to a sci-fi noir detective story and made absolutely no sense in their environment.  Personally, I kind of like bizarre surprises like that, but ideally a game’s puzzles are a natural extension of its setting.  I’m going to say that exact same thing later on about Snowquest.  I know this because I’ve already typed it.

Rover’s Day Out (9):  It’s always cool when things are taking place on two levels of reality at the same time.  It just is.  It’s a thing that is cool.  Also, something you want to watch out for in every game is the gap between player knowledge and what is expected of the PC.  In this case, instead of trying to teach the player complicated spaceship functions, they’ve turned them into a familiar morning routine, with rock-solid narrative justification.  This is fucking inspired.

Sadly, another thing to learn from this game is that people dislike going through the motions of repetitive tasks.  If you need repetition for the game to make sense (which I would argue Rover does), try to help the player out by making as many actions implicit as you can, or even reducing tasks to a single command (FRY EGG should definitely assume I want to put it in the pan first, and maybe even open the fridge and get one for me, if there’s one in there and I don’t already have one.)

Snowquest (8):  There’s something just… elegant about the puzzles in the first part of this game.  All of them require outside knowledge, but it’s the sort of outside knowledge every human learns as a kid, like “You can rub two sticks together to start a fire” and “Things fall when you drop them.”  They’re exactly the sort of puzzles that make sense in a world where all knowledge has been lost except for the very basics.  Ideally, a game’s puzzles are a natural extension of its setting, and Snowquest fucking nailed this.

On a bitchier note, it’s way aggravating when the refusal of the PC to do something the player wants to do is used as a plot bottleneck.  (A plottleneck.  Oh, that’s good; I think I’m keeping that one.)  If you’re not going for aggravating, come up with something external instead.

Spelunker’s Quest (6):  It’s probably really fun to write an old-school text adventure with no innovations or twists.  It’s not easy to get excited about playing one.

Star Hunter (3):  The denser your game is, the more better.  The more details you’ve implemented, the more better.  Star Hunter is a poster child for both these concepts, and a third, stranger-to-mention one:  the player does not know what’s going on if you don’t tell them.  Also, implementing something for the sole purpose of mocking your players when they try to interact with it is sort of extremely rude.

Trap Cave (no score):  Es ist vorzuziehend für die englische Version Ihres Spiels, mindestens hauptsächlich auf englisch zu sein.

Yon Astounding Castle! (7):  It’s not necessarily bad to have a gimmick, especially in a competition setting, where every game is going “Pick me!  I’m special!”   Ideally, though, you want a good gimmick.  You especially don’t want a gimmick that’s irritating enough to become a liability.  Tim Schafer has a bit in his 2004 GDC talk about being willing to throw out your first few dozen ideas, because they’re probably crap.

zork, buried chaos (3):  See The Hangover.  Oh my God we’re done!

3 comments

  1. except for the third sentence substitute “Also, if you have a puzzle that must be solved to get rid of a repeating status message, clue that puzzle goddamn well.”

    I feel that here an opportunity was missed to mention hats and jackhammers.


    • I was saving my rant up for the bottle of aspirin.


  2. You know, I’ve been thinking about this — and since I’m up at an hour I don’t want to be with an upset stomach, no one’s going to stop me from posting about it — but in Duel in the Snow, why can’t you just slake your thirst from the samovar? What kind of Russian household doesn’t have a goddamn samovar?

    I know! That’s the clue that this isn’t really Russia, but a virtual Russian environment IN SPACE. The soda syphon is your fuel tank, Kropkin is the emergency ignition system override, Gronovskij represents the robot zombie pirates, the coat etc. are your virtual space suit avec bunny ears, the owl is your teleportation gizmo, the windmill is the robot alligator, and in an amazing twist, you was a girl the whole time, Victor Pavlovich. Man, this game was subtle.



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