Monday, April 16, 2018

Spring Thing 2017 - A somewhat chilly first dip into the games.

Spring is here! Warm sun! Flowering trees! Green grass and--I just went out to move my car and there are snow flurries. I know other regions are getting actual piling snow still, so while it might not feel like a Spring Thing, a new crop of games is here! I often get wrapped up creating my own IF bidness and don't play new releases as much as I should, but since we can't really mow and plant yet, let's take shelter in the gazebo where a bumper crop of 20 entries are festivalling. I don't guarantee I will be able to chip the frost off of all of these hopeful, budding shrubs, but here's a first foray into what will hopefully soon yield thriving IF greenery:

Best Gopher Ever, Arthur DiBianca (Parser Inform/Z) - I had to resist adding an exclamation point at the end of this title. "Help the unfortunate residents of Fairview! (Who are all animals, by the way.)" This is billed as a light puzzle game for all ages and delivers on that. DiBianca has a knack for pruning the command set of parser games down to a necessary few, but I found despite this I kept reflexively trying to EXAMINE everything. This is a game of intertwined fetch-quests, and you, the title "go-fer" ostensibly, run errands for an impressive list of three-letter named animals. After I rolled my eyes, I enjoyed the busy-work, almost IF Sudoku vibe of this. The STATUS command is helpful as a quest-log, and was it not for an extremely helpful graphical MAP, I might not have seen this through to the end. The downside to this is after getting into the groove and navigating 80wpm through the map, I stopped paying attention to idle messages and got stuck on the last minor puzzle. I also secretly hoped there might be a hidden meta-game, but didn't run across one in my play.

A Bunch of Keys, Mike Gerwat (with coding by Al Golden) (Parser Inform-Glulx) - This sounds like it should be my jam: "A time travel story of a real-life piano tuner and repairman who just happens to be blind." This piece is semi auto-biographical - the protagonist shares the author's last name, and I only say "semi" due to the time-travel element unless there's something I'm unaware of. There's a read-me-first text file which gets a bit over-explanatory...the protagonist is blind and partially deaf with cochlear implants - fair enough. Great setup for an IF. Time travel, limited-specialized interaction...I'm all in. Teach me stuff about how you experience the world. Genesis (the band) is name-dropped in the when-play-begins... Good good...the banner pre-warns me I need to read the help menu and the walkthroughs and "not complain" if I can't finish the game otherwise...uh-

EXAMINING a thing is actually touching it, but EXAMINING a person is actually examining since this isn't one of those games... I can make the mental translation that the descriptions are based on touch and other senses besides sight. The description of the shirt the player is wearing is surprisingly visual, but I suppose the PC knows he's wearing his Stones concert tee and has memorized a verbal description of the logo...fair enough. Wow. The text help menu is extensive. I imagine I'll want to read all the background info and resources about visual and hearing impairment afterward as kind of a "DVD extras" for the game...
4. For the snowflakes out there. There is a bit of grow-up material in this game and fifty years ago we didn't have any political correctness...
Okay, sure? There's a lot of this pre-defensive disclamatory talk. The game is created hard on purpose and I'm supposed to learn that. I get it, people are rude and I'm certain this author is heading off people 'splaining his own disability to him. I don't expect to feel "welcomed" in a game which purports to let me experience perception and persona different than I'm used to and I want to play, but...enough of this. I'm probably dipping into the help material way too early.
....There's a diploma in a perspex frame on the wall here. It's hanging on a hook and can be removed easily from the wall. A coffee table and a very old comfortable couch are here as well. The Kitchen is to the west and the Bathroom is to the east. The Bedroom is north of here.

: x frame
Your Piano Tuning/Repair Diploma from 1968 is in the frame.

: take frame
For some reason you can't remove the frame from the wall.

: take diploma
For some reason you can't remove it from the wall.
Huh? Okay, it's hard like this. Not hard, but basically unfair. It's one thing to simulate challenges of experience with the parser, it's another for the game to just lie about the environment. I try going west but the game stops me when my hand encounters a key and an envelope which contains an invitation.
: x envelope
This an envelope that from the college you went to has sent you. You were told by your care person Maz that you would be getting one.

: w
You decide to read the contents of the envelope first.

: read envelope
You can't read the envelope.

: read invitation
The invitation is typewritten and you'll have to call your care person Maz to come and read it to you. You replace it in the envelope.
: w
You decide to read the contents of the envelope first.

: read key
Since you're blind, that's not possible, but you scan it and hear what's on the fob.

: w
You decide to read the contents of the envelope first.

: scan key
Unitl you find your scanner, that's not happening.
And ragequit. When I replayed the game just now to capture the text for this, I went west immediately, and here's what happened:
: w
As you head to your kitchen you hear the frame fall from the wall. You pick it up and and place it on the coffee table for the time being.

: x frame
Your Piano Tuning/Repair Diploma from 1968 is in the frame.

: feel frame
Your Piano Tuning/Repair Diploma from 1968 is in the frame.
Where's the key? Where's the envelope? The diploma was waiting to fall if I didn't examine it? I mean, maybe this might be part of the upcoming time-travel hijinks to be experienced later in the game, but I guess the takeaway is that I wouldn't last five seconds in the author's shoes. I think I finally figured out I'm supposed to use FEEL [OBJECT] as a more reliable EXAMINE. That said, forcing the player to do things in a specific order "You decide to read the contents first." "You can't read that, you're blind..." with this much confusion (at least right at the beginning after being somewhat grouchily advised to RTFM and the extensive supplementary material) is less-than-stellar game design, and I'm gonna need to return to this again later to see if I can make more headway.

Confessions of an NPC, Charles Hans Huang (Twine) - Again, this should be my jam - a meta-exploration of the heretofore unrealized motivations and emotions of usually-peripheral trope characters in an adventure game. Sounds fun! Turns out, Confessions is heady and thought-provoking, and I suppose I shouldn't expect escapist fun from all my games. I kind of feel like a tourist in NYC looking to take in a Broadway show but since that flashy musical everyone's talking about is sold out, I instead end up in a critically-praised but very serious Pinter play which is a cycle of five monologues by characters in a medieval fantasy world (Holograms! That's fun!) but who are actually modern people in these costumes monologuing about very up-to-the-minute problems of modern society. It's good, and very topical, but not at all what I was expecting.

I have mixed feelings. This is a message piece masquerading as satire - which is nothing more than a quick coat of glittery fantasy-trope paint that really doesn't lend any deeper irony to what's going on except that this audience probably has played games. I suppose it's a spoonful of sugar for the "medicine" to come? I appreciate what this is doing. It's an exploration of hot topics - Mother is exploring the psychology of guilt being a relative of a school shooter; Princess is a prisoner who doesn't want to shrug off the yoke of her pampered existence because she's safe with the evil she knows and ends up doing bad things in hopes to make a similarly bad situation less bad for others. Moneymaker is in the business of basically pimping out the Princess to make the game fun for oblivious Heroes in kind of a Westworld situation...

These stories are the kinds of revelations that are usually justified in turning us on our head after sucking the player into a "fun" fantasy world a-la Doki Doki Literature Club or Undertale where we already have formed a worldview and have a basis of uninformed choices to build upon - but here it feels we've skipped the revelatory turn business: (No! This fantasy world is ACTUALLY our own!!!...!) Confessions expects us to know that part already and the game just handwaves it. To continue the nerdish Broadway metaphor: This is like arriving at Into the Woods at intermission and going "Why is everyone singing slow ballads about loss? Where's the fantasy fairy tale fun I came for? Did I miss something? What's all this deconstruction? (Don't you hate theatergoers who skip Act One and then ask a bunch of questions?)

The player is frequently pressed to answer whether they'd make the same choice as the character. The answers don't really matter, but then at the end of each encounter, you're called to make a choice and compelled to type the justification for it into a text entry field in your own words. (Nrrrgh...essay questions...) The game does a good job of disclaiming your answers aren't being saved and reviewed by a shadowy government bureau, and all the sensitive scenes are politely preceded by potential trigger warnings (however, you can't reach the self-discovery essay finale scene unless you complete them all.)

I understand the need for this and this is a great use of interactive fiction. Perhaps this is such a RIGHT NOW piece deconstructing RIGHT NOW social politics RIGHT NOW while we're all neck-deep in social change it comes off more heavy-handed and "preaching to the choir" than it would at another time. I feel the people who would benefit most from this experience aren't people who would normally play IF. Maybe this will become a classic in the future that answers the question "What did 2018 feel like?" I was still holding out hope the entire time that at some point the witch would burst out and get hoisted on a broom while singing loud high notes.
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BONUS - Recursion, Adrian Belmes - Not part of Spring Thing, but I got a random Twitter notification and played this. Perhaps I'm in a fragile state having attended a funeral this weekend and was in the right frame of mind for sad piano music and maudlin Twinery, but this is done with such care and restraint and evoked such shockingly warm feelings of bittersweetness (over and over) I had to shout it out.
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(No, that's not me you hear warbling "Defying Gravity" in the corner. Seriously.)

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