Guttersnipe: Carnival of Regrets

2017-04-09

“Times are hard all over, but, for a street urchin like yourself, this is a meal fit for a king. It’s a good thing you grabbed this delicacy off the trash heap before any of the other street urchins found it! Granted, it’s not as good as a shiny red apple snatched from an unsuspecting fruitmonger’s cart or a cooling pie left unattended on a windowsill, but your stomach won’t feel the difference once it’s filled.”

“And who could have pulled off such a daring heist, raiding the trashcans outside John D. Rockefeller’s mansion for edible consumptibles? No one other than you, Lil’ Ragamuffin — — the roughest, toughest urchin to ever scuttle the backalleys and gutters of Garbagetown DC and the best apple snatcher east of the Allegheny Plateau! No wonder you’re considered Public Enemy Number Two by the Office of the Urchinfinder General. (Though, you think bitterly, you really should be Public Enemy Number ONE…)”

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“Ringmaster? Carnival? Is you some kind of circus man?”

“Not just SOME kind of circus man!” says T.I. Urge. “The Carnival of Regrets is only the greatest traveling show on earth, with thrills to chill you and chills to thrill you! Sights that will amaze even the most jaded urchin, yes, even you, my dear girl! And best of all, the Carnival of Regrets is always recruiting new talent.”

With my golden ticket in hand, I emerge into the circus, musically accompanied by a drunken calliope playing Entry of the Gladiators (a little bit of google and youtube-searching revealed what that classic circus music actually is). Other bits of contemporary reference fill out game background: it is November 13th 1929 (unlucky for some… well, this is the time of the Great Depression) and Herbert Hoover is president.

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Bitter Karella aka Mike Rosen won the alumni choice ribbon in the 2017 Spring Thing Festival of Interactive Fiction for this game, and with its sequel an entrant in the IF-COMP 2017, I thought it an apt time to play it. Rosen is actually a graphic novelist, and Guttersnipe is originally a webcomic: the only one on the Internet made in an authentic 1920s newspaper comic style: which means they use 100% orphan labor in printing, distribution, and clean up, apparently. Orphan custodians mop up spilled isopropanol, and orphan pinkertons break up strikes by orphan labourers.

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With the circus music still playing in the background via youtube, how did the actual game measure up?

Well, presentation-wise it looks very neat. A handy map appears in the top-half of the screen as you progress, and you can left-click action words rather than using pure text entry. This is somewhat handy, considering the text entry is occasionally a tad inadequate.

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Guttersnipe does a reasonable job of conjuring the atmosphere; there is plenty of circus fare to get your teeth into, from dodgems to popcorn to the homicidal communist vampire devilbeast… At times though some of the character or animal descriptions seem like they would have translated better to a point-and-click adventure; and it could do with driving through the action a little slower. As such, it feels a bit like you’re just ticking off a puzzle checklist. A positive thing about this game though, is that, despite the user-friendly interface, it does not hold your hand at all.

There are awkward moments too. GIVE TICKET – to who – TO MAN. You can’t. But you can GIVE TICKET TO MAN. A character is called ABRACADABRAGAIL, and you can’t TALK TO ABRA or TALK TO GAIL, to save my fingers, though at least you can TALK TO GIRL. Response time can be a bit slow at times (it’s hosted at textadventures.co.uk but I would suggest downloading), and the poster text dumps, despite being relevant enough are generic enough to jump past without really reading.

Ultimately, the puzzles feel a bit arbitrary, and not quite engaging enough to spur you on. But the very fact that we have an indie comic transplanted into a game is just great.

2016-04-21

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The Owl Consults… (IF Comp 2017)

“Hey, it’s Amelia Derringer calling, cat-burglar supreme. I’m a bit 57 snoods to the brazenbushel and need your supervillain advisory counsel, prrrrr. I’m being lowered into a tepid tank with an octopuss. No, no shark or piranhas. Hurry, I’m not pussyfooting around…”

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Sometimes even supervillains need a bit of assistance, and that’s where you come in, hotphone in hand, ready to help unstick them from any messy jams. This is a sort of homage to the superhero entrapment scenarios we saw the likes of in the campy Batman series of the ’80s, but with position of hero and villain reversed. As you progress with your clients, you can switch to LINE 2, to assist a different arch-villain. DIAGNOSE tells you the villain’s condition, and you can also HANG UP, instead of the usual QUIT. This was a great idea for a game. The chance to get back to basics and simply solve puzzles was most welcome. The episodic, linear nature of this game was a common criticism of the point & clicks of the 90s. A little unduly, I feel. I thought this game had great promise, especially as too many games are under-representing that staple of adventure games: actual puzzles. Unfortunately, however the actual rendering of the idea doesn’t really measure up.

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So how to go about escaping that aforementioned cephalopod. KICK TENTACLES. ‘That’s not a verb I recognise’. Which generated another criticism: would Amelia really respond with that over the phone? What’s the problem with Inform authors taking the time to make their own generic messages? Meanwhile, the cage was descending. SHAKE CAGE? Not a verb I know. THROW TRANSMITTER AT BUTTON. ‘Good idea, but I missed.’ The fact that I was still engaged upon the call, despite having thrown the transmitter away was a cause for concern. SHOUT HELP > ‘I can’t see any such thing.’ REMOVE CAMEO > The cage is in the way (even though you’re wearing it). And so on.

The dialogue is generally a bit awkward, as if the author is trying too hard to impress. Which was perhaps also the aim of the T.S. Eliot quote at the beginning, which seemed to have absolutely no relevance to the game itself. Putting no blame on the author here, as this seems to have been the “in” thing to do on Inform for a long time; but it’s become a cliche now. The cover image was equally irrelevant, and some sort of superhero image would have been more apt.

Assisting my new client, Dirk Radon, the Unirradiatable Man, with his runaway punch card-operated automatons, I was beset by the same types of parser issues. FIRE JETPACK > ‘I fire a few laser shots at the jetpack!’ LAUNCH IT > ‘What do you want to launch it at?’ FLY TO GANGWAY > ‘That’s not a verb I recognize.’ SHOOT DECK . ‘I can’t see any such thing.’

This game has a lot of promise, but the puzzles are unsatisfying, and the ability to switch between characters is too limited. We also have reviewers saying that the game must have went through heavy playtesting, which frankly doesn’t seem to be the case. One of the worst progressions was that at one point you were suddenly able to GO EAST without there being any discernible reason behind it.

6th place at the IF Comp is a little undeserved.

Ultimate Escape Room: IF City (IF-Comp 2017)

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Back in the late 80s, Tartan Software released a compilation of adventures
which seemed designed to help users get to grips with playing adventures. One
of these games was Red Door, and was published after its initial release as a
cover-mounted cassette in the magazine Your Sinclair. Another Tartan game,
Escape, was released about the same time by rival magazine Sincair User. Both
of these games had a simple gameplay, perfect for new users, Escape perhaps the
more so of the two. The author of Tartan games was a one-man-band Tom Frost,
who incidentally was also the first player to complete the infamous Mountains
of Ket series, winning himself a video cassette recorder in the process. As most of the locations in Escape are corners of the same room, Tom Frost has a case for his game being the first ever room escape.

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Here with Ultimate Escape Room: IF City, we have a game that fits exactly into
that niche. The author has us imagine that we are actually playing a real-life
escape room game. Was the author inspired by an actual real-life room escape?
If so, we have, as another reviewer Jason Dyer points out, “an electronic game
inspired by a physical game inspired by an electronic game”. Well, actually it
goes even further than that as the (typically) Flash games which inspired
real-life room escape were inspired by point-and-click adventure games, which
were inspired in turn by text adventures…

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This is not author Mark Stahl’s first game, he also wrote something called
Questor’s Quest a couple of years back, though I have yet to play it. This offering is quite welcome, as it removes the typical inane text dump and artsy-fartsy stuff, in order to just get back to basics. There are some minor issues: you can’t examine some things you can see, like paint or walls, and there could by more synonyms for nouns, but it is an overall enjoyable experience, even if it is only a few rooms long, each room basically a colour. Does what it says on the tin, although “IF City” is stretching things a bit.

Measuring the Measureless (IF-Comp ’17)

Flying home from Cairo, danger awaits, but the world has not reckoned with your Grandfather and the mysterious secret his enigmatic tome holds. Your clothes are rumpled, and eyebrow makeup ruined, but at least you have an apple and the inflight magazine for company.

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This is a Glulx’d game by Ivan R., though I’m not sure these smaller z-code games really need Glulxing, and it prevents it being migrated out to the older 8-bit platforms. Action begins with you gazing up within the black abyss and an infinite sky. I wasn’t sure if I was on the Jolly Roger or on a space odyssey, but it seemed a bit odd to me to find myself on a commercial airflight; it didn’t seem to quite marry up to me. The flight itself was a bit clunky: you can’t GO TOILET you can only GO LAVATORY, and you still have to GET UP before you can get in there. It was also a bit off-putting to have some semi-sacrilegious comments upon examining my cap. There is a distinction of course between player and character, but in adventure games this line is blurred, so it’s a bit unpleasant to hear the character I’m playing moaning about dumb rituals. I think this is something that media in general suffers from these days: cynical and complaining central characters are not really heroic. Worst of the worst was trying to get out of the toilet. LEAVE BATHROOM. Nope? LEAVE LAVATORY. Nada. OPEN DOOR. Nothing doing. Then came into my mind the escapade of a Spectrum game which Mike Gerrard was reviewing many moons ago. He tried multiple entries, until finally inspiration came. “O-U-T spells OUT”.

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We have some flashback goings on, and it’s all a bit plodding, with messages like “you can’t go that way”, even though it clearly stipulates that the road continues east. Equally GO HOUSE is “not something you could enter”. There are delicious smells, but you smell nothing unexpected, and so on. Typical entries like SHOUT, SCREAM or YELL are not included. EXAMINE ME during the opening seemed to imply I might be female, but a cursory examination seemed to imply I lacked the female appendages. But apparently I was wearing a disguise so that might explain it: but I wasn’t quite sure why. Conversation lacks a bit of finesse. With Grandpa I quickly felt like I’d exhausted the inane conversation thread. Grandpa’s patience was beginning to wear thin – and so was mine.

Now some of the best games I’ve played have incredible frustration involved, but this has it in the wrong places, and also a lack of coherence to motivate you to go on. I didn’t notice any bugs that were gamebreaking, but there are minor irritations. You can’t use the abbreviation MAG for MAGAZINE, when you try to THROW it, even though you’re carrying it (and light years away from the plane) you should “grab the one by your seat”. POKE SERPENT WITH PEN: “You can’t see any such thing”. And CUT APPLE WITH KNIFE, “You’re hesitant, both of violence and of breaking your weapon”. A personal irritation was that HELP directs you towards a walkthrough: those things seriously damage your adventuring health.

The serpent was where I found my interest had very much waned due to the lack of response to what seemed the more obvious input. For me there’s just an absence of the necessary connection between author and player that even the most simple of text adventures carry.

Reminiscences It Gave Me (which are much more appealing)

Operation Stealth, Leisure Suit Larry 3, Borderzone, The Last Express, WC Escape

 

And Mine a Sad One… (IF-Comp 2017)

The Richard Mines – Evan Wright (IF Comp entry 2017)

Into the historical Czech Republic, with not a lot to run the borders bar the clothes on your back and the will for freedom. What a concept for a new adventure game. Well, not quite. This game has more of the vibe of a museum tour. We take a look at Czechoslovakian past troubles (has Czechoslovakia ever been free of troubles ?), but unfortunately this only amounts to trawling a few caves with no attempt at drama.

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Though I like old 8-bit text Adventures even I found the descriptions a little sparse.
In some curious way it reminded me of the original Colossal Cave Adventure. Another reviewer commented that back in the latter days of the ’80s, having no instructions could be abided, as both computer memory space and packaging were limited; but that there is no excuse today. Funnily enough magazine reviewers often managed to grab as much as they could from the inlay and game itself, and then begin their reviews with a background story more cohesive than within the instructions. I could tolerate this absence in “The Richard Mines” if there was some exposé in the actual game, but alas, there is not. There were spelling errors as well, like “escarpment”, and worst is an object which is either not described very well or subverts the laws of physics a little during your “escape”, though it never feels like you’re escaping from anything. At best this could be a demo or neat easy intro into the genre.

Similar-themed games to try out on the old ZX Spectrum:
Castle Colditz, Colditz, Escape Colditz, The Colditz Story, The Great Escape.

Skill, Stamina and Luck

Source: Skill, Stamina and Luck, Posted on ,
Retroactive Fiction blog by A. Hopeful

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In February 2016, the BBC broadcast a radio documentary about interactive fiction called Skill, Stamina and Luck. It focused largely on gamebooks like Fighting Fantasy, Choose Your Own Adventure, and some interesting historical examples — but it also took in parser fiction (text adventure games) and Twine.

To accompany the programme, the BBC created an interesting “interactive audio history of interactive fiction” in the form of a Twine web app, which included a simulation of a play-by-telephone adaptation of a Fighting Fantasy book and many audio clips of interviews, some new and some from the archive, with people like Steve Jackson, Ian Livingstone, Andrea Phillips andEmily Short.

(The Twine also included the audio from this episode of Micro Live, in which the BBC visited the offices of Infocom.)

The Twine app had been taken down from the BBC website, but it’s now been made available again by Steve Alderton, Content Producer for the BBC Taster pilots.

Try it here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/taster/projects/skill-stamina-and-luck

Her Story…

Starting this game, I was hugely optimistic. After all it was up for eight (eight!) Golden Joystick awards, and has been hailed as something special all over the place. And beginning the game it was indeed hugely intriguing. Tasked with identifying the details behind a murder, you begin your investigations via the LOGIC database, which allows you to view short video clips of police interviews. The catch is that you can’t watch the whole video all at once: you must input the text of the unknown dialogue to discover clips. One keyword leads to another keyword and pretty soon you’re unravelling a mystifying fairy tale of a murder.

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This game is all about the marvellous acting of Viva Seifert. Truly, great actors can play a range of characters, and placed simply and brutally in a Truro council room, she really delivers the job. Creator Sam Barlow really did his research digging into police interviews and the set up is believable. It’s an innovative vision, but eventually it won only one Golden Joystick award, the panel nominated ‘Breakthrough Award’. I have mixed feelings about this one. It’s great for a text adventure game writer to gain fame for a title, hopefully leading to more gamers playing his 1999-title Aisle, and thereby introducing them to the world of ‘interactive fiction’.. but at the same time the game is a little minimal.

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It seemed a similar story with 80 Days. The style and execution were great but it lacked the complexity of a fully-fledged adventure. “I was becoming aware of how jealous I was of games like Simogo make and the stuff Inkle do now,” Barlow writes, but that is to think of 80 Days as a product which is a fully involved and detailed adventure world, which it isn’t. The concept of Her Story is electrifyingly brilliant, but I’m left feeling like it was rushed to a close instead of us being taken somewhere wonderful. It must have taken an unearthly time to hone and test the dialogue and story to ensure they work at a pace that reveals the story only in dribs and drabs, and yet the game could have left its own confines somewhat to give us more movement, at least in storyline.

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Also I was hoping the game would build up to a great conclusion, but it just petered away like water dripping down the sink. A huge criticism of this game is in relation to “double quotes”. The instructions tell you to use double quotes. In fact you need to use ‘single quotes’. You can use double quotes but only in the case where an entire clip consists of that word. For example, if I said “Hmmm”, and that was all I said. I can well understand that you need to use quotes for phrases, e.g. “her story”, but to unearth all of the clips there is a prerequisite to search for some one-word clips using double quotation marks… Why not just connect those one-word clips to other clips??? Really he should have stuck to  Google-style “double quotation marks”, methinks. But it does operate nicely like Google at the basic level, which is part of its attraction. Little niggles like the occasional lag and muted video are not really issues, as you just re-watch and the video sorts itself out.

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What is great about this game is how imaginative it is, and that Barlow has not allowed the publishers who killed his Legacy of Kain revival game to stop him pushing the envelope by going indie. I hope that other games writers run with this idea and push it to further frontiers. Barlow himself showed how it could have went further, for example, by incorporating codes, but ultimately there is no payoff for cracking codes in this game. It’s a decent experience but it leaves you wanting a bit more. Apparently Barlow is working on a sequel; I don’t know whether it involves the same named characters, but if it did continue the story in a powerful way, it would certainly increase the impact of this game.