IF Comp 2017: Transient Skies (dgtziea)

Transient Skies is a Twine game of space and planet exploration involving stat-tracking, some evidently procedural elements, and what looks like a number of endings. You travel from planet to planet, gathering resources and scanning the wildlife to add to the galactic federation’s database, every so often encountering something that needs to be killed or harvested, and going back to trade hubs to sell your wares and refuel–and, every so often, something goes awry and throws you off your routine entirely. It’s a straightforward enough premise, with a fun amount of variation–overall, I had a grand old time living out the fantasy of exploring the stars.


And she sweeps her hand outwards, at the glittering stars and the expanse of neon-green sky in front of the both of you. “What matters is out there; out there is where we would’ve belonged, if things had been different. There is nothing for us down here, least of all each other. We band together to survive, but our true purpose is to expand outwards.”

Her tone grows stern. “You know this. It is why everything is the way it is, now. We are too restless a people for too small a planet.”

It’s almost harder to write a review for a good, solidly engaging game than a mediocre one, particularly when it’s hard to explain what makes it fun. Transient Skies captures some of the intrinsic joy of Star Trek and other spacefaring fantasies, the fantasy of discovery and exploration. The game presents a more planet-to-planet-focused milieu than the surreal fantastical one of, say, Hoist Sail for the Heliopause and Home; but the writing doesn’t shine so much in the moment-to-moment planetary encounters (which seem, as mentioned, somewhat procedurally generated) or in the somewhat theme-heavy opening text as it does in the moments in between, and as a whole: when the player character reflects on their motivations for spacefaring and when small moments of wonder overtake the story. I took a path that ended in crashlanding on a planet and having to scavenge to survive and explore the newfound world; the experience felt so genuinely open-ended and foreign that discovering and communicating with and working together with intelligent life filled me with a sense of delight. I was never entirely sure I was going to survive the story, or make it to the center of the galaxy–and in fact I didn’t manage the latter–but neither was I in such constant peril that I felt too stressed to enjoy the sensation of finding new things, or the lonesome poignancy of traveling alone.

You: “(Accepting) I am happy to learn of this. (Query) Does the council continue to doubt my loyalty?”

Fletke: “(Composed) They accept you are loyal to the mission of the galactic spacefarers, and not to your origin planet.”

You: “(Accepting) Yes, I am loyal to all the stars in the sky.”

Fletke: “(Confused) I do not understand. Rephrase?”

You: (Apologetic). (Clarifying) I am loyal to the grander purpose of spacefaring.”

Playing Transient Skies, you do really feel “loyal to all the stars in the sky”–the game encourages an innocent sense of the marvelous. It’s hampered by a few SPAG errors scattered throughout, such as missing quotation marks and miscapitalized dialogue; it wasn’t enough to damage my enjoyment, but it was a little distracting at times.

Design: The main choices in the game center around some resource-based tradeoffs–whether you choose to purchase heat shields or weaponry or try to save up, for instance–and I haven’t played through every possible outcome. Aside from this, the game is relatively linear, and the choices you make about characterization are–at least at first–mostly aesthetic, rather than impactful to the course of the storyline. Altogether, Transient Skies seems to be designed to be low-stress and thoughtful–it’s not that easy to stumble into a “bad” or unsatisfying early ending. The text effects and formatting are no-frills, but I’m not sure they needed to be anything else; the only things that feel unprofessional about the author’s choices are the aforementioned SPAG difficulties.

Overall, a delightful and almost nostalgic romp through fantastical space.

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IF Comp 2017: The Unofficial Sea-Monkey(R) Simulation (B.J. Best)

The Unofficial Sea-Monkey(R) Simulation is a short replayable Twine game that’s maybe 20% raising sim, 80% chronicle of depressing home life. Perhaps that’s a miscategorization–the mechanics of the game are pretty much 100% raising sim, providing the player with a few options (feed, stir, add water, leave alone) when taking care of their Sea Monkeys while the story of their parents’ unhappy marriage and how it affects them plays out in bursts in between.

The prose generally looks kind of like this:

Tonight, your mother is out. You’re not quite clear where. Your father has tried to make dinner, some form of burned spaghetti. Earlier you showed him an art project you had done at school, a crazy rainbowed forest in watercolors, and you love it. But as you wince at the first bite, choke it down, then reach for your milk, he stands up. He moves to the refrigerator where you carefully hung your painting with magnets at the corners. He pulls it off so hard the magnets fly. “This? You’re proud of this?” he says, and you don’t know what’s happening but can already feel the tears welling. “This is the worst artwork I’ve ever seen,” he says, holds it by the top two corners, and slowly, slowly rips it down the middle. “It’s absolutely terrible,” he says lowly, and stares. And stares. You try to stare back, but instead run to your room, slam the door, and try to shove your dresser as much as you can in front of it. Many half-breaths and hours later, you fall asleep underneath your bed, covered entirely by blankets.

Story: The story of The Unofficial Sea-Monkey(R) Simulation was pretty much exactly what I expected it to be based on the title, design, and description–which isn’t to say it’s bad, or badly done. But I can’t deny that I glanced at it and went “oh, this is going to be about the heartbreaking ephemerality of pets/trying to take illusory control over a situation a child has no control over/projecting one’s feelings onto personalityless animals/the ways we try to cope when our parents are dysfunctional and abusive.” And that’s… precisely what the game was about, for the most part. It’s possible that it owes too much to too many other Twine games–I felt heavy shades of Horse Master and my father’s long, long legs and innumerable games where the player is tasked to perform thankless, repetitive tasks that numb them and seem to have little positive effect on their environment as a metaphor for their emotional state–and it’s possible that I’m just jaded to stories about bad parenting where the characters seem like placeholders for bad parenting moreso than individual bad parents. (I will say as a disclaimer that I grew up in a household like this and also happened to keep Sea Monkeys at one point, which met a tragic end when my mom spilled them, so I don’t know if this had a positive or negative effect on the game’s emotional impact!)

The prose is all right–it’s not bad, it’s not vastly evocative, it’s all right. The characterization suffers from the everychild, everyhousehold problem that I mentioned with the parents: which might be on purpose rather than a problem, I can’t entirely tell. But it didn’t quite work for me; I felt I was told-not-shown of a lot of the protagonist’s feelings and that I was playing through a story designed for general identification and not a specific portrait of a specific person’s life. I’ve had this issue with a number of Twine games, though, so it may be a genre convention.

Design: The text effects are a simple delight–I think anything more elaborate would’ve gotten in the way, but I enjoyed the formatting and the colors a great deal, and the slight meta-humor in choices like (O)kay? really worked. I’ll reserve judgment on the way the branching works in the storytelling, since I think it hearkens back to a lot of other Twine games, like I said: but for what it’s worth, I don’t think the design gets in the way of the story at all, and the tedious and repetitive aspects of the gameplay feel entirely intentional.

Overall, a solid but typical psychological Twine piece.

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2016 in Review

2016 has been a pretty calamitous year for a lot of people and arguably the world–personally, it’s been an eventful one for me. Not good, not bad. Just eventful. I relocated temporarily to the opposite coast, among other things, and am currently enjoying mild rain and overcast skies on New Year’s Eve and getting to consider that inclement weather. I’ve spent more time with my family in the past five months than I have in about six years; I’ve undergone a harrowing move and a very stressful foster cat re-homing (with a happy ending!), I’ve changed jobs and insurance plans twice. I’m hoping 2017 will be a little more placid, for the sake of making headway on creative projects and other things, but that’s not entirely up to me! Either way, I’ve emerged from 2016 with a little less money and a few more life skills. But my family and I are in good health, my cat is happy, my life while not in order is at least stable, and I will be eating tteokguk tomorrow and reflecting on how much worse it could have gone.

In books, I probably did the least reading in 2016 that I’ve done in ages: no more than about 30 books, not counting partial rereads and the like. I “discovered” Frances Hardinge and fell in love in late 2015 and early 2016, particularly with Fly by Night and The Lie Tree; she was my favorite YA/kids’ lit venture of 2016, though I also had a reasonably good time with Leigh Bardugo and Six of Crows, and was massively let down by Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven King. I went on a bit of a Star Wars nostalgia-cheese kick with Jude Watson’s Jedi Apprentice novels, which are great if they are exactly what you are looking for. I read some romance novels–m/m (Aleksandr Voinov) and m/f (Tracey Garvis-Graves)–which were what they were, more or less, and I dipped into memoir with Rebecca Solnit (The Faraway Nearby) and Lidia Yuknavitch (The Chronology of Water). I also read a few famous things for the first time–The Daughter of Time comes to mind–and reread a few for the nth time, like Lolita and Northanger Abbey.

My favorite book of 2016 was Alexander Chee’s The Queen of the Night: a sumptuous, ridiculous, epic, no-holds-barred kind of book that delivers exactly what you want it to. Sometimes you just want to read a book like that. It’s grand in scope and lovely in the particulars. I really can’t wait for the disappointing but richly appointed movie adaptation.

2015 was the first year in a while I played almost none of the IF Comp entries, so 2016 was pretty light on IF in general–I played and reviewed a few Twine games, and team-played a few classic old parser games with my best friend (puzzle-solving with a friend is really a treat). I discovered the pleasure of room escape, which I’ve been dedicating a fair number of my weekends to ever since.

As for personal projects, I keep hacking away at my novel and my hopeful Spring Thing entry for 2017, as well as a few shorts. More about all of those as more is established!

Happy New Year and all the tteokguk you could wish for.

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Niccolò Rising and Rogue One

I’m not going to bother to try and draw thin thematic parallels between Dorothy Dunnett’s Niccolò Rising and the movie Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, except that they’re both media I consumed (or finished consuming, in the case of the Dunnett book) this past weekend and, I guess, are both prequels to series I’m reluctantly invested in. Or just invested in, to be honest. The reluctance phase has passed. I like Lymond and I like Star Wars, so I was predisposed to like both of these things. And I did! I did. Just… in different proportions.

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Romancing the Twine

So I’ve been plinking along at a Twine game (which we shall call The General’s Bride), as a break from the Big Intended-For-Spring-Thing Inform 7 Project (which we shall call Maupertuis). I haven’t actually played around with Twine since Twine1 and SugarCube were the default format, so getting used to Harlowe has been an adventure. I must say the information out there is not really the most organized, so I’ve been relying on haphazard Google searches and forum browsing to learn the ropes. It’s been interesting. Full disclosure: I started this project when I was sick and the idea of one-sentence hyperlinks seemed accessible to my needs at the time. This has, of course, gotten completely out of hand in the meantime.


The General’s Bride–as the name might indicate–is a romance game: something similar to a four-route visual novel making limited use of variable tracking in order to produce four endings through three choices. I’m trying to keep it short and manageable, for purposes of learning Twine through a beginner’s project. That’s… uhh…


… that’s going.

Anyway, writing something in the romance genre with Twine is interesting because I haven’t actually seen many multi-route romances in this format before: even though it really does resemble Ren’Py in a lot of respects in execution. I’ve seen a lot of artsy psychological explorations of a single relationship, or of a relationship with oneself, or both, but almost never the kind of date-your-way-through-a-decision-tree you commonly see in ChoiceScript games. So here is my visual novel without the visuals, coming soon! A short dating sim without the dating. It involves muslin, pelisses, and military rule.

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Sub-Q: The Tunnel; Teeth and Ice

A short review post! Sub-Q is a really interesting venue that I haven’t been keeping up with nearly as much as I should be. I’ve really enjoyed some of their reprints, like Lime Ergot (which I also never got around to playing the first time around!) and The Space Under the Window (which I did, but still relished the chance to replay). I did, however, play two of their more recent horror games–Natalia Theodoridou’s The Tunnel and Hannah Powell-Smith’s Teeth and Ice.

They’re both short pieces, in Sub-Q style; they’re both hyperlink-based, more or less; they’re both creepy and suspenseful, though in very different settings and with very different overall vibes; and they both deal with a central relationship which the horror sort of crystallizes around. Beyond that there’s not too much comparison–they’re very different games, and good examples of the different things that can be done with small-scale interactive fiction.

The Tunnel: The Tunnel is a game about the breakdown of a marriage backgrounded by a European passenger train that enters a very long tunnel. This is kind of a classic thriller setup–the claustrophobic setting, the differing motives of the passengers–but the end result is a bit more bleak and depressing and, in fact, creepy than it is thrilling. I don’t mean that negatively. The horror in The Tunnel is translucent metaphor: being trapped within an endless tunnel (which is not much of a spoiler), while indeed claustrophobic in a literal sense, also involves the claustrophobia of Katrina and Gregory’s relationship, and even more so, of being in Katrina’s head, the suffocating limitations of perspective.

She observes him as he converts the seats into beds and spreads the worn sheets. Suddenly he seems old, his back bent in a tired curve she’s never seen on him before. Something viscous and thick churns in her belly. Either pity or a special kind of loving aversion, but she doesn’t know which.

Overall the execution, particularly paired with the multimedia effects, of The Tunnel is very solid. Upon reaching an ending the text along with the entire user interface fades slowly into transparency, which is very unsettling in context. The claustrophobia works–I found myself well aware of where the story was going and grimacing as it slowly but surely ended up there, which is a position I shared with Katrina, I believe. If I had to name a weakness of the game, it might be archetypal predictability: there’s the kind of grinding inevitability I just named, which is a strength of the story, but there’s also the slightly wearying inevitability of meeting a couple on board a train trip and already knowing what kinds of litfic-esque problems they’re going to have. It’s a good, unnerving little story, though.

Teeth and Ice: Teeth and Ice is perhaps the only selkie story I’ve ever read that takes an entirely unfamiliar shape, which is very refreshing. It’s a very short action-suspense-horror game about reclaiming your skin from the house of your captor before he (or He) gets home. This all becomes quickly apparent in the course of a few “turns” of the game, but the real suspense and tension of the game is in scrabbling past your obstacles while the inevitable creeps ever closer. The stakes are extremely high and your desperation is palpable. The prose is short, direct, and effective under the circumstances.

I would be bold. I would be bold, and reclaim what had been mine since I was born, had been taken from me by this thing that could not be called a person. My movements were sure. Smooth. Fast, as if sliding swiftly through kelp.

Teeth and Ice makes excellent use of identification with its protagonist: they’re a selkie, they need their skin, they’re terrified of their keeper, and with that you’re already invested. It doesn’t tell you much about the situation–you’re not in a very reflective frame of mind–so it spares you the object psychometry or chronic remembrances of many IF games. The Raconteur framework might be a little overcomplicated for the game: it allows for the tracking of your few resources, but given that there are so few of them, I think it might have been more immersive to leave them to the player to remember. Overall, though, I was very impressed with Teeth and Ice in concept and execution, which is maybe why I don’t have that much to say about it–it’s a game about imprisonment and abuse and terror, but more pressingly, it’s a game about surviving. You have an incentive to try to win, more than once if you have to.

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Escaping Rooms

Let’s dust this thing off in the year 2016 and talk about please God not 2016 escape rooms! I’ve been up to a lot of things in the past while, and among them is escaping from a decent number of rooms–five so far, actually, which may be nothing to an escape room aficionado but seems to me like a fair amount of escape to have under my belt. For the uninitiated, escape rooms/room escapes are basically like a real-life point-and-click or IF game: a series of interlocking puzzles presented in a physical environment that you (and usually a team of other people, either friends or strangers or a mix) have to solve in order to “escape” the room within an hour.

My inaugural escape room was The Agency, courtesy of Escape the Room NYC: a room that’s since been rotated out, I think, and I’m glad I got the chance to do it (with three friends and a couple of strangers) while it was still in play. Even if we failed, miserably. We did not escape that room. The fact that I’ve been victorious at all the other escape rooms I’ve done has not lessened the sting of the one that got away, the great white whale of room escape. But let’s not dwell on victory or defeat–I’m really interested in what escape rooms mean for teamwork, group dynamics, and puzzle and entertainment design geared towards groups large and small, towards people who know each other and people who don’t. So I’m going to give my general thoughts on the matter and then evaluate each of the rooms I’ve done from the standpoint of the design-for-a-group, the team experience, and how this actually played out socially.

As Emily Short points out in her post Learning About Multiplayer Puzzle Design From Escape Rooms, most IF and indeed most puzzle experiences are entirely single-player: if they become multiplayer, it’s through unintended teamwork and group brainstorming on the player’s end, not purposeful design on the game’s end, and ultimately they require one person to make final decisions and interact with the interface. Escape rooms, on the other hand, are pretty much universally built for teamwork–there’s even a strong element of corporate teambuilding exercise, since a lot of rooms are booked for that purpose, which is also interesting in terms of an unusual crossover of audience. They’re games or gamelike experiences that have a much broader consumer base than point-and-clicks or interactive fiction, partly by fiscal necessity; the majority of escape room customers aren’t dedicated gamers, they’re families or birthday parties or, as mentioned, workplaces. So you have an experience that’s intended for laypeople, not hobbyists, and in groups of (typically) 4-10, not solo, and that differentiates them a great deal from the games they superficially resemble.

My experiences with escape rooms have differed a lot not just based on the rooms themselves, but on the crowd I’ve been with when doing them. I’m really interested in them as a social experience, so I’m going to evaluate that aspect of each of the rooms I’ve done. (I’m excited that I’m going to get to do a sixth room on Sunday: Illuminati at Puzzle Workshop in Irvine, CA! We’ll see how it goes!)

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IF Comp 2015: Scarlet Sails (Felicity Banks)

Scarlet Sails is a charming Choicescript game by Felicity Banks. I’ll say here that the oversaturation of the pirate tradition always wars with its enduring romance for me–agh, the endless merchandising! But the maps! But the colonialism! But the outfits! But the existence of the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels! But the outfits!!! Ahem. What I mean to say here is that had this game included some kind of elaborate textual pirate dress-up feature, I would have been unhelpfully biased. As it is, Scarlet Sails was a good deal of fun. Continue reading

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IF Comp 2015: Untold Riches (Jason Ermer)

General: Untold Riches is a straightforward, by-the-numbers treasure hunt that knows what it is and knows what it isn’t.  You turn up stranded on a deserted island, missing the adventuring professor whose sidekick you are and whose hijinks have gotten you into this pickle in the first place, with nothing but your wits and a few glaringly placed crucial items that point towards hidden treasure on your new island abode.  Puzzle-solving awaits.  I’m definitely not the target audience for it–I didn’t know it was written for middle-schoolers when I started playing, but I’m certainly not surprised–but I enjoyed it well enough all the same. Continue reading

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IF Comp 2015: Midnight. Swordfight. (Chandler Groover)

Hello!  Dusting this thing off for some IF Comp 2015 reviews, starting with–

Midnight. Swordfight. is a parser-based story and puzzle game.  I should say right away that this is a game designed to cater to about 70% of my IF-playing whims–vaguely half-Renaissance half-Georgian setting, gender ambiguity, multiple endings meant for replay, surrealism, time–in a way that most games are not.  I love masques.  I love duels.  I love messing with reality.  Midnight. Swordfight. is necessarily my cup of tea.  The question is more whether the execution lives up to all the elements of the premise.

General: Midnight. Swordfight. is a short, light puzzle game from the perspective of a professional fool who is plunged into a duel to the death with a beautiful, dangerous countess with whom, they find, they are in love.  The duel, initially, is doomed.  Actions are limited by a short “playscript” that updates with every room and enumerates what verbs the player can use.  None of these things can avert the inevitable end of the midnight duel.  But the player quickly discovers that they can “wake up” into an entirely different world–the world before midnight.  By navigating both time and space in an absurdist series of Restoration-esque rooms populated by people (and un-people) both frozen and unfrozen in time, the player can choose to change their fate as well as the countess’s.  A mouthful!  Basically what this comes down to is: you rearrange things in the world outside the duel so that when you come back to it, things can go differently as you wish.
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