Thursday, May 13, 2021

2021 IGF nominees: exploding with delight

And so we come to the end of another review post run. I have naturally saved my favorites for last.
As I said up top, this year was about delightful games. And that's a personal reaction! This post is not about flawless games, or universally loved games. It's about games that I played through with a big goofy grin on my face because they made me happy. You may feel differently. You may say "But that game utterly failed to do what I want!" That's fine. Just recognize that it did something, and it did it with a whole and joyful heart.
(Okay, A Monster's Expedition is flawless and universally loved. I don't make the rules, nor the exceptions that prove them.)
  • Lost Words: Beyond the Page
  • Blaseball
  • Genesis Noir
  • Umurangi Generation
And while I'm here, a few titles that I already wrote up. But this is the exploding-with-delight post, by gum, and I can't not mention these:
  • A Monster's Expedition
  • Cloudpunk
  • NUTS
  • Paradise Killer
And thus I close. Plenty of games I haven't talked about. Spiritfarer, OMORI, There Is No Game, Signs of the Sojourner are obvious omissions -- sorry! I have not yet played Chicory, Teardown, Bugsnax, Welcome to Elk, or many others. Ynglet and Moncage look like they'll be awesome when they're out. Jeez, I didn't even mention Kristallijn.
Plus, I just got my second Pfizer dose. I should probably get this posted before the fever comes on.
Here's hoping for a better summer and fall. Yow -- if things go well, IGF 2022 judging could start again this October! I better rest up.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

2021 IGF nominees: tiny adventures

A bit of a mix here. These aren't classic adventure games, but they're not the abstracted explorations that I call "story devices" either. I'd say the common strain is the old Flash adventure genre -- the weird little narrative worlds like Submachine. Of course there are plenty of other influences too. That's just the fuzzy center that I gathered this group around.
  • The Flower Collectors
  • HoloVista
  • The White Door
  • When the Past Was Around
  • Mirages of Winter
  • In Other Waters
(Note: I was on the narrative jury and played a free review copy of Mirages of Winter. I bought the others myself -- mostly last fall.)

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

2021 IGF nominees: puzzle time

Puzzle games and narrative games have a natural tendency to collide. I mean, yes, all genres want to hybridize these days, but the original "adventure game" was puzzle-narrative before anybody thought to disentangle the two. Besides, your narrative wants pacing -- that's puzzles -- and your puzzle game wants some kind of push-pull beyond "see the next room".
All of which is just to say that even though these are narrative game reviews, I also play a lot of puzzle games. I'll list some notable ones here. Not gonna be long reviews, and anyhow I've written some of these up before.
  • A Monster's Expedition
  • A Fold Apart
  • Carto
  • Shady Part of Me
  • Creaks
  • Lightmatter
(Note: I was on the narrative jury. I bought and played all of these games before IGF judging started, though.)

Monday, May 10, 2021

2021 IGF nominees: story devices

Sometimes I say "interactive storybook"; sometimes I say "story device". Usually textual (except when it's wordless). No model world or explorable map. Focus is on direct interactions with the text, or the story, or an abstract puzzly interface that makes no sense (until it does). What can I say, it's a "know it when I see it" category.
My comments in this post came out pretty mixed; I wasn't entirely into this year's story devices. This doesn't mean I was unhappy to see them, though! This is a relatively fluid sub-genre. There's more scope for exploration of form than there is in, say, parser IF. So it's always fun to see what people are going to do with it.
  • unmemory
  • Utility for the Soul
  • Arrog
  • Stilstand
  • LOVE - A Puzzle Box Filled with Stories
(Note: I was on the narrative jury and played free review copies of these games.)

Sunday, May 9, 2021

2021 IGF nominees: visual-novel-like-likes

And now some games in the visual novel orbit. Or outside it.
  • Neo Cab
  • Across the Grooves
  • Haven
  • Pendragon
I think "visual novel" is going down the same road that "interactive fiction" and "roguelike" have travelled over the past several years. On the one hand, they're enormously influential genres. On the other hand, that influence plays out in a lot of ways; maybe not ways that old-school VN fans would consider important.
Are we talking about visual novels as design tropes? (Dialogue-centric, no map or model world.) Or UI elements? (Talking heads over that dialogue.) What about themes? (Character-heavy with romance.) Art style? (Anime.) What about when those elements get hybridized into other genres? (Everyone talks about Hades, but is Disco Elysium also VN-inspired?) (Some recently asked me if Disco Elysium was an example of "choice-based interactive fiction", to which I had to say yes, pretty much...)
It's the same situation that led to the hairsplitting of "roguelike", "roguelite", "roguelike-like"... not that that clarified much. Ultimately it's up to the fans to decide where the center of gravity lies. Visual novels aren't my home turf, so I'll just throw some titles into this blog post and hope.
(Note: I was on the narrative jury and played free review copies of Across the Grooves and Haven. I bought Pendragon and Neo Cab myself.)

Saturday, May 8, 2021

2021 IGF nominees: cosmic horror and not-horror

Today's batch of games are Lovecraftian horror. Or games which are reacting to Lovecraftian horror. Or games which are Lovecraftian, but not horror. Or vice versa. Turns out there's a lot more room for experimentation than ol' HPL ever considered.
  • Call of the Sea
  • Transient
  • Paradise Killer
Also, it turns out I already wrote this post! I bought and played all of these games over the winter.
Read reviews here: Four (or five) recent Lovecraftians (January 2021)
(That post also covers Old Gods Rising and Moons of Madness, which were not IGF entrants.)
Don't worry, I'll be back with new reviews tomorrow.

Friday, May 7, 2021

2021 IGF nominees: stunning environments

The IGF finalists have just been announced. Usually this happens in January, so that the winners can be revealed at GDC. Guess what, this year is different! Again! But here we are.
Last year, I wrote:
2019 was a heck of a game year, folks. There were so many brilliant narrative games rolling around jostling for attention like fuzzy puppies in a sandbox.
You know what? Even more this year.
They're not easy to talk about, though. Not like last year. What happened in narrative gaming in 2019? Heaven's Vault, that's what happened. State of the art: vaporized.
2020 wasn't about new frontiers in narrative technology. It was about games that were delightful. In lots of ways. Often in flawed ways! You're going to see a lot of comments about "what's wrong with this game" or "why I had trouble with that game". Or even "this game wasn't for me." But the theme of 2020 was, a game can be janky or fiddly or underimplemented or frustrating -- and still be a delight to play. If the creator wanted to do something and did the hell out of it, that shines through.
As usual, I'm going to group these games in rough categories. I'm not ordering them from best to worst (or vice versa) -- it's just games that seem to go together. Also, despite the post titles, I'm not limiting myself to nominees and honorable mentions! Any IGF entry is fair game.
(Necessary footnote: I was on the narrative jury and played free review copies of Beyond Blue, Nuts, and Mundaun. I bought Cloudpunk last year. I played South of the Circle in a free trial month of Apple Arcade.) (My second free trial month; I dunno how that works.)

In this first post: a batch of games whose environments just blew me away. They don't necessarily have the most intricate gameplay -- although some of them pull some fascinating tricks! But if the ambience pulls me in, I'm sold.
  • Beyond Blue
  • Cloudpunk
  • NUTS
  • Mundaun
  • South of the Circle

Thursday, April 8, 2021

IF talks at Flights of Foundry

A quick notice that I'm part of the program of Flights of Foundry, a virtual SF conference on April 16-18.
There's quite a bit of IF-related content on the schedule, in fact. I'm on two panels, but look at this:
That is, mind you, just the narrative-related topics with names that I recognized. There are entire other tracks for SF/fantasy prose, art, poetry, comics, tabletop games, and more. The organizers have taken the idea of a virtual, distributed conference as a license to run the thing round the clock. There is, as people say, a lot.
The event is run by Dream Foundry, a new nonprofit supporting "professionals working in the field of speculative literature". This is adjacent to SFWA, the SF writers' association. Dream Foundry's idea (I gather) is to include artists, designers, translators, editors, and other such people. Of course SFWA is also trying to expand to more kinds of creators, so it will interesting to see if the two organizations develop different focuses.
The upshot is that Flights of Foundry is more professionally-focused than the fannish SF cons I usually attend, but hipper and more game-literate than, say, Readercon. Which is not to see you won't see some of the same people at all these events! But, again, different focus.
Hope to see you around that weekend.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Unwinnability and Wishbringer

Someone asked recently about a version of Zork modified to avoid all the classical Infocom annoyances. Expiring light sources, random combat, crucial items stolen by the thief... Zork comes from an era where all these were simply part of the fun. You saved a lot, optimized your run, and tried again if you failed. But the gaming world -- I include myself -- has largely decided over time that this isn't fun.
As far as I know, there is no such modified Zork. But it's an intriguing idea! In fact someone is working on a modified Planetfall in just this vein. A new MODERN command switches to a mode with no hunger timer and, ideally, no unwinnable situations.
When we talk about those early games, it's easy to fall into the trap of calling those unwinnable situations mistakes or design flaws. Once you do that, you're stuck searching for explanations of why the designers made those mistakes. Answers come in two flavors. Either (a) the state of the art was too primitive to understand that unwinnable situations were bad; or (b) the designers were padding out their games to a given level of difficulty or play time.
Speaking as one who played the games back in the day: this is just wrong.
This Giant Bomb article puts it well:
The early generations of text adventure games tended to have a lot of chances that could lead players to unwinnable states, as a way to make a game deeper and more challenging; this kind of game design was not yet considered unfair to players. It was usually considered a product of the game’s difficulty rather than poor design and encouraged (or, as its critics would say, forced) replayability.
The need for many failed run-throughs before one figures out the perfect approach was certainly an element of the challenge. But it was never padding. It was as much a part of the design as the treasures and the magic words.
There's a deeper confusion, though. The same article goes on to say:
Mike Dornbrook, Infocom's Head of Marketing, conducted a customer survey in late 1984 which showed a clear correlation between the Infocom games players considered their favourites and the games they had actually finished. This piece of marketing intelligence led to the more foolproof design of Wishbringer and later games.
-- ibid
Wishbringer was Infocom's second junior-level game. It is friendlier than earlier games, more forgiving, and more generous in its design. Most of the major puzzles have at least two solutions. But it's a misconception to say that Wishbringer avoids unwinnable situations, or that Infocom changed its design stance after 1984.
It's true that Wishbringer was immediately followed by A Mind Forever Voyaging, which was focused on narrative exploration rather than puzzles. But this was just halfway through Infocom's high season. Their later slate (Spellbreaker, Leather Goddesses, Trinity, Lurking Horror, ...) embraced the model of failable game design and refined it into some of their best-regarded work. With Journey, Infocom redesigned IF from the ground up (discarding the parser!) -- but doubled down on failable puzzles, structuring the game around a limited resource system which took much trial and error to solve.
To untangle this, we're going to have to dig into the ways in which games can become unwinnable. How does it happen and why?

Friday, February 12, 2021

A couple of Myst fandom notes

We're still waiting for the PC release of the new rebuilt Myst. But that doesn't mean that nothing's going on.

This week Cyan announced official support for the long-standing Myst fan wiki at guildofarchivists.org:
We are delighted to announce that as part of the Lore Project, Cyan Worlds, Inc. will be utilizing the Guild of Archivists website as the Official wiki for the Myst franchise!
The Lore Team knows how important the preservation of the franchise’s mythos and our community’s history is, and wants to ensure it can live on a continuing platform which is not filled with ads or subject to shutting down.
To that end, while Alahmnat will still remain the Guild’s Grand Master, today Cyan is formally committing to providing server space and our support to ensure the Archive and other Guild of Archivists resources will remain online, independent, and ad-free forever!
-- Cyan announcement, Feb 9 2021
The Guild of Archivists (according to its own about page!) has been running for twenty years. If you look back into my old Uru pages you'll find many links to D'niPedia, the wiki's original home at dpwr.net. It's one of those fan resources which has become invaluable to the original creator, and Cyan's offer of support reflects this.

I also caught scent of an online documentary series called Preserving Worlds. I'm not familiar with Means TV, the studio that created it -- they seem to cover political topics primarily -- but they seem to have taken a stab at videogame history. The show was created by Derek Murphy and Mitchell Zemil; it consists of six thirty-minute episodes covering ZZT, Second Life, Myst Online, and other multiplayer games of yore.
(Bonus points for the Chicago font styling!)
I just watched the Myst Online episode. It consists of an in-depth interview with Zib (Max Batchelder), a long-time fan -- I've seen him around the forums and conventions forever. He gives a good thumbnail overview of Uru's checkered history and its many fan incarnations, followed by a tour of several fan-created Ages.
The background footage of the show is clips from Uru Ages. Some are familiar areas from Cyan's original game, others are fan Ages; but the documentary presents them on an equal footing. There's no hierarchy of "canon versus fandom" -- they stand entirely on their own merits until Zib begins to introduce particulars. (And then there's a credits list at the end.) I thought that was a nice touch.
The interview was recorded last summer, before Cyan's surprise release of three fan Ages on the official Myst Online server. Each of those three appears in the show; so do several others that I'd only seen as static snapshots in a gallery. I appreciated the walking tour.

Friday, January 8, 2021

Four (or five) recent Lovecraftians

"Lovecraftian game" is an improbable label to begin with. We don't say "Conan-Doylian game" or "Gibsonian" or "George-Lucasian". Games have adapted stories by Poe and Verne and so on, but not enough to talk about them as a category. Tolkien adaptations are an industry in themselves, but you'd say "Middle Earth games" -- maybe -- certainly not "Tolkienian".
Lovecraft, as always, is weirdly liminal: a collection of tropes that can be, and arguably should be, detached from the stories themselves.
So. A game genre (subgenre) is a set of conventions about what you do. Except Lovecraftian-ness isn't defined by what you do; it's defined by what happens to you. You are shaken out of your mundane reality and forced to confront the cosmically terrifying. (Or cosmically astonishing, but we'll get there.) What you do in your mundane reality is an open question. The opening and closing of the story, before and after revelation, can go anywhere! It's not like a "Sherlock Holmes" game where you know exactly what's on the menu.
Of course, a game that leads up to cosmic discoveries may well start out with mundane discoveries. That's an obvious model; it's why the Call of Cthulhu RPG is canonically about investigators. I don't have hard stats, but I'd bet that the most common Lovecraftian crossover is the hard-headed private eye who's seen it all and is about to see a whole lot more.
Now look: I'm going to ignore the kind of game where phallic oozing horrors swarm at you and you mow them down with a shotgun. That's Lovecraftian only in the sense of H. R. Giger and the Aliens franchise -- the influence is unarguable, but anything you can blow up ain't cosmic. (Nor run over with a boat; really, don't get me started.)
(Yes, I'm handwaving a lot of ground here. The FPS Gigeresques led directly to survival horror by simply deleting the shotgun. Many undeniably Lovecraftian titles there. But "shooting" and "dodging" are the easy answers in game design, right? And even with those answers, players demand at least a little plot.)
A lot of Lovecraftian games start out with the general question: what's going on here? As these games indeed do. But that doesn't mean that you do the same stuff in them. Let's compare.
  • Moons of Madness
  • Transient
  • Old Gods Rising
  • Call of the Sea
  • Paradise Killer