IFComp 2015 review: Seeking Ataraxia

Seeking Ataraxia cover Seeking Ataraxia is a choice-based game that describes a couple of ordinary days in the life of a university student who suffers from OCD and anxiety.

The game is a bit buggy and inconsistent in some details, for example the protagonist's apartment keeps reverting overnight from cleaner than it has ever been to total mess, the text talks about an alarm clock's digital display but the illustration shows an old mechanical wind-up clock, and so on. Nothing that couldn't be easily fixed afterwards.

There isn't any mentionable gameplay or plot, but the main goal of these slice-of-life games that describe mental health issues usually differs from other games. Instead of going for entertainment values or explosive action, the goal is often to provide peer support to others diagnosed with the same issues, personal therapy, raising awareness about the symptoms and consequences of mental illnesses, or any combination of them.

Seeking Ataraxia doesn't explicitly tell what its goals are. It's billed only as "a game about anxiety" but it seems to work quite effectively as public education. I certainly learned some things that I didn't previously know about e.g. how OCD can manifest itself. It describes the symptoms personally but neutrally, without preaching or overexplaining. It lets the readers come to their own conclusions about what kind of effect mental health issues have on the protagonist's life.

All passages are illustrated. Art style is consistent throughout.

All passages are illustrated. Art style is consistent throughout.

One problem with mental health issues is that it is often hard to realize that the symptoms might be due to illnesses instead of external causes or personal characteristics. The public service provided by games and other media that accurately represent mental health issues is that they can make people recognize the same symptoms in themselves and seek a diagnose.

It would be interesting to find some data on how effective games like Seeking Ataraxia and Depression Quest are in finding the audience that isn't already aware of the issues they're trying to raise. When a game is purely about the thing it advocates there's risk that it ends up preaching to the choir.

In the best case scenario there's a hook that makes the game attractive to the general audience even when the player don't necessarily actively want to learn about the subject matter. Coming up with such a hook is the hard part though: once you do play the game the effectiveness comes from the relatable everyday setting that would be lost if the plot involved some grand adventure. It might be exciting to play but the credibility of the message would be diminished the farther the plot would deviate from the audience's personal experiences.

IFComp 2015 mini-reviews

by Brendan Patrick Hennessy

Birdland is choice-based young adult fiction about a 14-year-old who, while attending a summer camp, sees strange dreams about birds. Soon the dreams and real world start to converge.

The game has many elements that I generally don't find very appealing, including teenage protagonists, dream sequences, summer camp setting, and almost purely metaphorical/surreal scenes. In less capable hands the outcome could have been disastrous but thanks to above-average writing and skillful game design the overall result manages to avoid most of the pitfalls. Anyone whose personal preferences do match the aforementioned elements should find this one a real treat.

by Moe Zilla

Forever Meow starts as a typical slice-of-cat-life simulator but quickly introduces a twist that averts the common trope. It's not purely the kind of feelgood game the genre dictates because there's a "serious" plot that involves real life-threatening stakes, but once the threat is resolved the ending has again a positive, even euphoric, tone. The story is well worth the 15 minutes it takes to play.

The interaction is slightly more fiddly than it should be. Nodes that advance without choice wait for a keypress but nodes with choices require choosing with mouse click. In practice playing requires having one hand on the keyboard and one hand on the mouse. It also effectively (and unnecessarily) prevents mobile play because there's no way to bring up the virtual keyboard.

by Andrew Schultz

Andrew is known for wordplay based games, but The Problems Compound is only pun-themed. The gameplay is mostly traditional parser IF puzzle solving.

Even though the plot is somewhat random and surreal, the wordplay theme serves as a common thread that gives justification to the otherwise seemingly disconnected elements. The story, characters and geography serve only as excuses to introduce the puns to the game. While the game isn't breaking any new ground, it's solid entertainment for the parser playing masses.

Disclosure: I beta-tested the game.

by Chandler Groover

This is not a review but rather a warning to other unsuspecting players: near the beginning of the game there is a scene that involves extreme animal cruelty, and the choice leading to it doesn't make the fact explicit. If you find the idea uncomfortable it's best to give this one a miss.

IFComp 2015 review: Capsule II – The 11th Sandman

Capsule II cover Science fiction doesn't generally need to explain why its setting includes extraordinary technological advancements. Strong artificial intelligence? Sure. Interstellar travel? Naturally. Telepathy? Why not. The audience doesn't need convincing that such things exist. Science fiction's entire genre premise is imagining futuristic technology and its repercussions.

The trick to writing credible scifi is justifying the things it lacks. Take for example Dune: several thousand years into the future, humanity has regressed into a feudal society with relatively primitive technology. This is explained by the aftermath of a war against intelligent machines that caused a ban on artificial intelligence and advanced computing. They prefer melee weapons because shooting the ubiquitous energy shields will kill the shooter as well. Everything that doesn't fit the expectations of future technology has an explanation.

Capsule II is a choice-based story about someone who wakes up in a giant starship that is transporting half a billion humans in suspended animation from dying Earth to a new planet. The journey takes more than a hundred years and the ship wakes a single person at a time for 8 year shifts to handle unexpected issues.

The setting raises more questions than it answers, and not in a good way. If they knew eight years of solitude has a high chance of driving people crazy, why are the maintenance shifts that long? Why not wake up a team of people for a year at a time? How is it possible that they provided only a year's worth of entertainment when even a single modern iPad can hold more data than that, especially if they were concerned about people losing their minds to boredom? Why would cryogenically frozen people need nutrients? Why does this immensely big starship that must be as big as a city carry so little water and food that the only person consuming them has to ration? Why does the person literally responsible for the entire human race act like the only training they've got for the job was a weekend long crash course? Things like these need some kind of in-universe explanation. Cryosleep and starships transporting millions of people are still within genre expectations, but unexplained organizational problems are not.

The other issue is the humor. Not that the jokes themselves would be bad, but they're just so out of place and incredibly tacked-on in the otherwise dark tone the prose is going for. There's nothing that breaks immersion faster than a random throwaway joke. For example, when the protagonist switches on the ship computer it responds with a surfer dude personality. After this brief initial interaction the personality is discarded, never mentioned again, and from then on the computer displays a neutral voice. So what was the point?

That said, on the whole these are still minor quibbles. Capsule II closely resembles Moon both in style and content; I would be very surprised if it wasn't used as an insipration. The story has a certain vibe to it that compares favorably to classical 50s/60s scifi literature and space travel aesthetics brought on by Alien. The graphical design is spot on and the text effects, graphics and layout fit together perfectly.

Occasionally the story evokes vivid imagery of solitude-induced dementia. During the endgame the viewpoint switches rapidly between two characters, which underlines the chaotic situation the protagonist is in. The author has succeeded in one of the hardest design challenges of choice-based fiction: pacing the story so that it keeps moving forward without the whole or any individual part feeling too short or too long.

Being brutally honest

I was writing a comment to The Many Authors of IFComp over at Sibyl Moon Games, but it became so long and slightly tangential that it's better to post a proper article instead.

Historically there have been several parser IF writing communities with partially overlapping members. The "main" community, originating from rec.arts.int-fiction newsgroups before largely migrating to the intfiction.org web forum, makes up for the bulk of the high-profile activity and covers the most diverse collection of authoring tools. Smaller communities are usually focused around individual authoring systems (ADRIFT, Quest).

The approach these communities take to providing feedback to authors varies greatly. The main community used to be on the far end of the scale: "brutally honest" would probably describe it best. The community expects and rewards quality, and things that don't work are meticulously brought out in reviews.

On the other side of the scale there are communities that reward effort. No matter how bad the game is, you get cheers and pats on the back just for releasing it. Feedback, if any, is overwhelmingly positive. The community doesn't necessarily even expect that published games would be open for criticism.

The games produced by these two extremes are also very different. Communities that only reward effort produce a lot of games that are almost without exception, to be brutally honest, utter crap. This is because of two main reasons: Firstly, there is no incentive to spend time designing, polishing and testing your game because you'll still get the same reward in positive responses no matter what the quality of the result is. Secondly there is no peer pressure: when no-one expects high-quality games, there's no outside push to aim there.

The brutally honest camp produces less games but they're generally of better quality. There's a sieve that the authors are pushed through: all work undergoes close scrutiny. Authors who can't handle the criticism will drop out, but those who stay are less likely to repeat their mistakes and more likely learn from the feedback and keep improving. The peer expectation of game quality is generally high and the authors aim higher in the first place.

The downside of unchecked criticism is that, from the point of view of an individual author, the feedback can feel unnecessarily harsh. A novice author can easily give up if the feedback is crushing, which is understandable; when you do things as a hobby, you want to have a positive experience or you go do something else.

The challenge is to combine the better parts of the two extremes. How to not punish anyone for producing creative work but at the same time encourage high quality?

The trend is already moving in this direction: some reviewers (including me) post only reviews that are net positive and events like Spring Thing have non-judged categories. This is only a partial solution. Lack of feedback shields authors from negative feedback but also leaves them without means to improve.

It would be great to have some kind of mentoring system where experienced authors could help out newcomers to design and polish their games. The downside is that it's not mass-reproducible: it would require a lot of effort from the mentors and the ratio of newcomers to experts is too high for everyone to get a mentor.

IFComp 2009: Correlation between rating and the number of testers

Everybody's always talking about how important it is to have your game tested (or at least I'm always talking about it). But does it really matter? Surely if you have a great idea and enough enthusiasm you can do without?
Continue reading "IFComp 2009: Correlation between rating and the number of testers"

IFComp 2009 review: Earl Grey by Rob Dubbin and Adam Parrish

Here's a novel idea. The gist of Earl Grey is that you have a magic bag that can take letters from words or place them in other words, thus creating new words. The trick that makes this more than just a game of Scrabble is that when the words change, so does the world -- if you take the r from a horse, it actually turns into the garden tool. (Wouldn't it be great if, say, Wikipedia worked this way?)

Changing words and watching the world change with them is just as fun as you might imagine. (If you can't imagine how much fun it would be, this might not be the game for you.) What's also great is that the story has an actual structure: first you learn how to use your newfound skills, then you go about using them, and then there's the big confrontation and the finale.

There are two main flaws that I can see First, the masses of text are just too big to pick up the words to change, especially when there's practically no limitations to what the words you can manipulate are. You could change nouns, adjectives, verbs or anything else. You have to process each word you encounter. This is manageable at the beginning when you can only take away letters or add them, but when it gets to anagrams it became just too overwhelming for me.

The other main problem is that how the game reacts to player actions is fairly random. You can't foresee the situation after your move. This means that you can't devise a plan to solve the puzzles. All you do is scan the text for words that could be manipulated. There's no room for strategy, just tactics.

The word changing mechanics is fun and I would certainly want to play more. The ending is quite open so that leaves room for hopes that the authors are planning a sequel.

IFComp 2009 review: The Duel in the Snow by Utkonos

The Duel in the Snow is a story of a man whose life is not going that well. His wife has left him and he's about to leave for a duel with an able marksman.

In addition to the rather straightforward story of the eponymous duel, there are some extra layers hidden in the game. To find out what is really going on you have to do some extra work, which gives the game some replayability.

The different endings branch in a rather unconventional way. If you miss the action that leads to the "good" ending (which ends the game right there) you get the "losing" ending that has one extra scene. Apparently this losing branch gives clues to finding out all the nuances of the main story.

The game has some of the most suiting default responses in the comp and overall it's very well programmed. I didn't run into a single bug and I don't remember seeing any strange responses either.

I did have some slight confusion over my goals at the beginning. The game said I was thirsty and apparently there was no water in the entire house (when finding an everyday object is your goal in life but you can't find one anywhere, you know you're in an adventure game).

The best aspect of the game for me was the mood building that was supported by the solid implementation and responses suitable to the setting. Although the game is quite short it doesn't really matter because the story would not need any more. In fact, the "death scene" could also be cut or moved someplace else without much impact to the story.

IFComp 2009: Yon Astounding Castle, Broken Legs, The Hangover

A couple of games not rated or stopped playing after a while.

Yon Astounding Castle! of some sort by Tiberius Thingamus

Even though the puzzles and gameplay here weren't that bad, after a while I just couldn't go on because reading ye fauxe olde Englishe became too taxing. Thy Dungeonman did it well; Yon Astounding Castle overdid it.

Broken Legs by Sarah Morayati

Broken Legs presented an interesting dilemma. On the other hand, I did not personally enjoy the game very much. In essence it's an optimizing game: play, replay, do something different, see how the situation improves a tiny bit, replay, continue until you have the exact, complex solution. I don't care for this kind of games at all. It didn't help that Broken Legs had such a repulsive main character.

Then again it wouldn't feel right rating it purely based on personal enjoyment because it is polished, deep, and clever piece of work. The score that it objectively deserves is much higher than what the subjective score in my case would be. So finally after thinking about it for some time I decided to take the easy way out and just not rate it at all.

The Hangover by Red conine

The ADRIFT runner said that I had the wrong version and would have had to update the story file with some tool. Reading other people's reviews didn't exactly make me want to jump through hoops to get the game running so The Hangover will officially be the only game in this comp that I didn't play.