IFComp 2011: Four Games (Six, Andromeda Awakening, Tenth Plague, The Hours)

Unfortunately, due to a number of other activities, I’m running out of time in the Comp and I’m way short on games played. I’m going to move to shorter reviews in the hope of focusing the time I have on playing rather than writing. After the Comp is over I hope to revisit some of the more interesting titles and expand on them.

So here are shorter reviews of 4 games: Six, by Wade Clarke; Andromeda Awakening, by Marco Innocenti; Tenth Plague, by Lynnea Dally; and The Hours, by Robert Patten.  Spoilers abound.

Six: Wade Clarke’s first Comp appearance was last year, his debut the retrocoding triumph Leadlight. Wade got an incredible amount of mileage out of the venerable Eamon engine. Do his old-school coding chops translate to Inform? The answer is a resounding “yes!” Six, a game about two sisters playing hide and seek with their friends in the park, is, to my eyes, quite possibly the most polished Inform game ever produced.

It’s a game clearly aimed at kids who are novices to interactive fiction. It uses every trick in the book — parser augmentation, tutorials, colored text, and integrated sound effects and graphics — to produce a gaming experience that glows with polish and stability. The puzzles themselves are not particularly difficult, although I can see players — especially new players — getting stuck for a while on a few of them. Wade has made a risky decision to not include hints or a walkthrough, but I think he can get away with it at this level of difficulty. My only quibble with the puzzles was that in the Demi section, you ended up able to tag (sorry, “tip”) two of your friends using the same strategy.  But that is a very minor quibble.

You play as both of the sisters in turn, and Wade has made the entire perspective of the text change based on whichever one you’re playing as. It’s handled subtly and very effectively.  I’m sure some people will feel the game was too cutesy or too easy to solve, or will vote it down because it was pitched at kids. That’s kind of in my wheelhouse, though, and it didn’t bother me a bit. I could easily see this game becoming the canonical go-to game for introducing kids to the joys of interactive fiction; it clearly deserves such a position.

I had a huge grin on my face almost the whole way through Six. I’ll see that six and raise it four. Wade, tell Demi I’m awarding a full 10 points to Gryffindor.

Andromeda Awakening: This is high-concept science fiction, and I understand that the author is not a native English speaker. I think he does quite well regardless. AA is also a tough puzzle game that forced me to the walkthrough several times in order to get through it. There were certain actions required that I would probably never have taken without the prompting from the walkthrough, but it’s hard to say that the game was actually unfair; there were contextual clues for most things, even if some of them were pretty obscure.

The story starts you on a journey towards your superiors, carrying reports that contain data of apocalyptic importance. Unfortunately, you’re too late, and an earthquake destroys the transit system while you’re in it, causing your train to crash down into a strange subterranean area where enigmatic alien artifacts are being researched and crudely put to use.  Puzzles consist mainly of figuring out how to get access to different areas, and how to retrieve the alien disks and cylinders that serve as keys to the central enigma. As you progress, you learn more about the world you live in, and why it’s in such a precarious state.

Marco Innocenti does a great job with doling out the information at a slow drip, keeping you guessing as to what’s really going on. The writing can at times be overheated, and when you couple that with the fact that fairly obscure actions are required to solve puzzles — actions which are very picky about syntax and sometimes not properly understood and rejected when applied to incorrect items — you end up with a game that is very atmospheric and fun to read and play, but one that doesn’t inspire an awful lot of trust in the worldbuilding.

The ending makes this well worth playing, though, with a dizzying perspective on humanity’s place in the cosmos that evokes the best of Greg Egan. The ideas and vistas this game stirred up stayed swirling through my head for days afterward, like all great science fiction can do. It’s a contrast — I really like the story, but the gameplay was rougher than it needed to be, so I’m giving this a 7 for now.

Tenth Plague: Lynnea Dally returns after last year’s Divis Mortis with a different flavor of horror, casting you as (at least part of) the Angel of Death slaying the firstborn of Egypt during the eponymous event from the Book of Exodus. If it wasn’t clear immediately that this is being told from an overtly anti-religious perspective, she’s included a commentary mode where she walks through the design decisions and choices she made while writing the game.

And as a game, this is pretty short and thin; there is actually less challenge here than there is even in the extremely introductory-level Six. But it’s pretty clear that the gameplay isn’t the main point, here — the goal is to illustrate the horror that the Egyptians must have felt as the Tenth Plague claimed lives across the nation.  Lynnea does well here; there is no doubt that living through the plagues would have been terrifying, and she includes just enough different scenes to drive the point home without diluting the horror with tedium. There were a number of places where she could have jumped the shark and descended into moustache-twirling melodrama, but she mostly avoids this, to the piece’s benefit.

The construction is nice and solid as I expected from Lynnea (the commentary mode in particular is a nice touch), and I didn’t note any major issues. My problems with the piece are that although she sticks reasonably close to the source material of Exodus for the parts she uses (the parts that illustrate her points), other parts are missing or glossed over — there’s little social or historical context established, no mention made of the Egyptians slaughtering the firstborn of the Israelites under Pharaoh’s father, nor of the constant persecution of the Israelites that is made clear in previous chapters of Exodus. And Pharaoh’s ensorcellment at the end is very odd; an extremely literal reading of “heart-hardening” that has more in common with the rather bizarre, Harold T. Wilkins-esque literalist theories of Pharaonic arteriosclerosis than with the usual interpretations of Exodus.

So if Lynnea’s goal was to evoke horror out of a Bible story, she’s certainly succeeded. If her goal was to argue for the depravity or nonexistence of God in general, it’s much less of a success. There’s definitely some research and some good writing here — certainly better than many religious titles on the other side of the aisle like Jarod’s Journey or Out of Babylon — but about as little real philosophical heft as those same other titles.  That’s certainly not a killer for a game, but the limited scope of Tenth Plague makes me unwilling to rate it as high as something more ambitious like, say, Cursed, so I’m giving this a 6.

The Hours: I’m a sucker for time travel, so I was looking forward to this one quite a bit. Although it’s an Inform game, it doesn’t feel much like one; Robert Patten has made major changes to the standard expectations of how movement and conversation should occur, and some minor changes in formatting. The resultant feel is pretty alien.

You play as a newbie time traveler, trying to escape the Library of Alexandria with your partner after an acquisition run goes bad. Immediately you understand that things are not what they seem — steam-powered robots, quasi-mystical time travel, and inexplicable English messages carved onto ancient fountains that are clearly intended for you. But it gets way weirder.

The game jacks with the usual style of text output, printing a large but seemingly variable number of blank lines after every command, which is mildly disconcerting. You move from room to room by naming the room, rather than by using compass directions, and conversation uses a Mass Effect-style emotional selection rather than any of the more common modalities.  While I can see that this could work well in certain contexts, the combination of the minimalist characterization with some of these other design choices left me curiously disengaged from what could have been a pretty gripping story.

This is a linear title, with few puzzles beyond a couple of the “open the door” and “find the hidden trigger object” variety.  This isn’t necessarily bad, but if you’re going to take that tack, it helps if the story is written strongly and paced tightly.  Patten falls short on both counts, although the pacing is handled pretty well.  There are good ideas and a respectable attempt at a complete game here, and I certainly respect that, but the interface decisions turned me off and the gameplay just didn’t grab me very much.  I’m giving it a 5.

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