IFComp ’05 Impressions

The Plague, before it runs out of steam in the latter stages, starts off in a glorious frenzy:

Sirens wailed. Gunshots blasted. Helicopters circled. Women screamed. Men screamed. Children screamed. It was hopeless. It was nightmarish. It was surreal beyond the most horrific dreams.

Which is mostly how I felt about the rest of the entries.

Son of a... bills itself as a game about “what happens when everything goes wrong.” After the introduction, however, not all that much goes wrong. In some comedies, like last year’s Kurusu City, the funny bits are mostly eclipsed by frustrating puzzles. Here, the funny bits are the frustrating puzzles: when you finally find the key to the utility shed, it breaks off in the lock. I wanted more of that kind of setback, and less of the kind where you find out, via the walkthrough, that an important exit isn’t mentioned in one of the room descriptions.

Mortality is entertaining enough while it lasts. When murdering your lover’s mean-spirited husband fails to solve all your problems — or any of them, as he’s now harassing the both of you from beyond the grave — drama ensues. The conversations, in particular with the detective, are great; the player’s ignorance is mapped to his character’s nervousness, cf. Part 1 of The Act of Misdirection. Elsewhere the game isn’t as successful: the more traditional scenes are basically sleight of hand to make it seem larger than it really is. There is no real choice here, no potential, no chance for happy accidents — no reason to play again.

Snatches drops you into a succession of doomed characters. After you do the work of figuring out who you are and what you’re doing, your character is killed and it’s on to the next one. It’s interesting that each of these scenarios is a psychic attack by the shadow on your ultimate character, an attempt to make her (you) lose her (your) nerve and stop resisting (playing). If the player, not having fun working through them, types QUIT, the shadow has won — but for the author that’s a dubious victory.

In Mix Tape, your boyfriend determines all the songs: witness the scene in the record shop where he imprints his musical taste onto your ungrooved mind. Now he pronounces it necessary to tear up the scrapbook you labored over, while the CDs of his, that came between you on at least one occasion, remain safely unmentioned. If it were me, I would call the game Scrapbook, ditch the product-placement song titles, and have the boyfriend throw all of his creepily fetishized CDs over the cliff and down into the sea.

Neon Nirvana you won’t enjoy unless, like me, you find this funny:


“I love my car. I had to work at this club for hours to afford it. I park it in the alley next door. If anything were to happen to it, I would be at its side instantly. Nothing had better happen to my car.”

I was with The Colour Pink until the dream sequence. I can’t picture anyone making it that far into the game and then welcoming such a shift. All those items you found? All those plot threads you had almost tied together? Never mind!

And for what? Although certain aspects of the first act are refracted in the second, the parallels are superficial — e.g., you were trying to get a gold watch, so the princess has gold hair.

Play Ruins instead, and along the way learn Inform — taking notice, on page 363 of the Designer’s Manual, of Yellow Peril, a game where everything in the world becomes pink (er, yellow) — so you can write your own game that does not veer abruptly into a fantasy world.

The first part of Vendetta was sort of cool — you’re this bad-ass war hero, jaded in the face of opulence, numb to affection, making your way through a snowy cityscape full of revelers while having these weird flashbacks. Later the game runs aground in a massive research complex with far too many empty rooms. If you muddle through it and finish the game, there’s no payoff and the charged opening is forgotten.

My favorite game this year was Distress.

The setting: darkness; slavering monsters closing in on you; weird phantoms acting out events that have already happened.

The game: several ways to shut yourself out, none of which are terribly onerous considering the short time limit. Wrong moves are laced with clues to help you next time through. Items can be used again and again for different ends.

The implementation: limber. You can attempt to ROUSE Lieutenant Huchess; you can WRAP and TIE and PULL and HURL. You do have damage points, of a sort, but they’re gracefully, textually managed.

The author: forthcoming. As he describes early versions of the game, you really get a sense for how much beta testing helped. He admits that due to the game’s unforgiving nature, even in the final version, not everybody will take to it. Elsewhere he describes being disappointed when some players didn’t pick up on the subtleties in his last entry, and taking steps this time to make certain plot points more obvious, and now, having done so, wonders if he went too far. Personally I don’t think explaining things at the end is a mistake, except that the mystery isn’t even fully illumined until right before the explanation, so that the player doesn’t have much time to mull it over.

The sense of accomplishment, after refusing to look at the hints and dying several times, when you finally and miraculously make it to and through the game’s closing scenes: immense.