To me, Tenebrae Semper was the horrible disappointment of Ectocomp 2010. This may seem like an outrageously unkind statement with which to open a review, but it comes from a place of love. The reason I was so disappointed is because I liked Seciden Mencarde's Forest House games, all of which were made in similarly constrained speed IF competition circumstances, and which managed to punch above those circumstances at least 70% of the time. However, it was obvious that the third Forest House game was starting to get too ambitious, and it came out buggy, holey and underimplemented. Tenebrae Semper falls further into the same pit by aiming far beyond what anyone could achieve in several hours of programming. The result is an incomplete and particularly frustrating demo for what obviously needs to be a much bigger game. It barely brings the promised horror, either.
The PC is a college student who wakes from a dream (?) of a girl screaming when the game begins. Now it's time to get out of bed and off to class. The player's room is jampacked with furniture, books, a bookshelf, a desk, an alarm clock etc. Anything that can have a drawer in it does, and there's stuff in the drawers as well. But every third item is painted on and every second item is improperly implemented. Try and go out the north door and you'll be informed, "You don’t have all your stuff yet, and you’d better not go to class unprepared." So your goal, should you choose to accept it, is to divine which items constitute all your stuff, locate them amongst the mess and then be holding them all when you try to go through the door. Plus you've got an inventory limit which fights you as soon as you start picking up heavy textbooks. This scene was probably intended to be a breezy, realistic start to the adventure, but comes on more like an agonising puzzle from Hitchhiker's Guide. Suffice to say, it is extremely difficult to leave the room.
If escape is achieved, further problems come thick and fast. It's usually unclear what you're meant to be doing. Characters don't express surprise at surprising stuff, like supernatural shenanigans or teleporting books. The exit lister is broken. Room descriptions don't seem to print automatically.
Ultimately the game doesn't go anywhere, and it has, for the time being, squandered the truly awesome title of Tenebrae Semper.
(I originally published this review on 10 October 2012 as part of my blog of IFComp 2012. This was the 13th of 26 games I reviewed and the game has been revised at least once since I wrote the review.)
In a competition close shave, I completed Irvine Quik & the Search for the Fish of Traglea in exactly two hours. This absurdist space adventure, whose title causes my mouth to do everything it doesn't want to do at once if I say it aloud, puts the player in the role of its eponymous goofball as he and the Interstellar League of Planetary Advocacy try to save an endangered fish in order to save an endangered planet in a universe mostly populated by cat people. With its distinct aesthetic of cute humour, diverse environments, a big roster of NPCs (including a fully staffed ship) and cat-fu karate sequences, this adventure is potentially one of my favourites this year, but I have to temper that statement with observations of its bugginess and the attendant difficulties. The only ADRIFT-based game I'd previously played with a bigger scope than this one was 2011's mighty Cursed, and perhaps in a similar manner to Cursed, it's the ambitiousness of Irvine Quik which opens it up to a greater range of bug possibilities. I played the game using the aging Mac Spatterlight interpreter, which I've noted is solid for ADRIFT 4 games (ADRIFT 4, Irvine's platform, is now a static development platform) but which was incapable of recording any transcripts in the case of this particular game.
IQ, as I'm now going to call it, makes a strong impression of novelty and helpfulness through its opening screens. Alliterative taglines that would work well on sci-fi B movie posters describe the options available. It is surprising to find that you can start playing from any one of the game's six chapters. If you admit that you don't know how to use a HiRBy (your floating, grabbing robot pal in IQ) the first chapter will begin to play itself, slowly typing out the introductory commands before your eyes to show you what to do. On the other hand, if you answer "No" to the broader "Have you played interactive fiction before?" question, you seem to get almost no additional tuition at all, but the game does offer a VERB command which will list a minimum set of commands needed in the current chapter.
The first significant puzzle, helping the captain land the ship, meow, has an impressive five possible solutions according to the nicely presented PDF walkthrough. At least one of those solutions is a mini game involving quick memorisation and typing of numbers. Offering this much variety is obviously a pretty industrial strength way to start the game. In fact, the presence of a whole explorable spaceship for the good guys to live in is a pretty industrial strength gesture, and could almost be regarded as strange, considering that this ship is not where the bulk of the action takes place – except that this gesture is (a) neat, and (b) will probably be of use for any sequels, EG the one promised by the game's outro.
IQ is written in the third person, an interesting choice which seems to amplify the clumsiness of the hero and of the game's humour in general, as if Irvine is being viewed omnisciently and pitilessly from a distance above. My own playing troubles really began in Chapter 3, in which Irvine explores the jungly planet of Tragear with the broad purpose of trying to solve the case of the missing fish. The puzzle involving the coat-stealing tree monkey had all kinds of bugs in it. (Spoiler - click to show)One time the solution didn't work, so I thought I was stuck. After restoring a game, the solution did work but I didn't know that it had because the game still said "The monkey refuses to give Irvine the tiger coat!" A fruit I had previously taken from the monkey was also capable of teleporting back into the monkey's hands. Before I broke out the walkthrough for the first time, and as I continued to wring my hands at my troubles, I went back to the ship to talk to other characters in hopes of getting some help from them. Here I found that the captain was still talking about my chance to pilot the ship, the story from the previous chapter. In summary, it's apparent that IQ has many different states and events whose interrelationships it needs to keep track of, but it currently isn't on top of a lot of them.
After Irvine acquires karate in a sensei sequence he can bust it out as required. It's a fun system combining a bit of random damage with the not overtly stressful demand that you learn which of the moves particular opponents are immune to. Chapter 5 is a 100% combat chapter set in a tunnel, and pretty exciting for it, though I swear there was a moment when I was reduced to 0 hit points but still alive and kicking. Also, (Spoiler - click to show) regarding the passcode which got me through the locked door into this area in the first place, I don't know where that number actually occurs in the game. After I learned of it from the walkthrough, I went looking for it but failed to find it. Running out of time to clear this game in under two hours, I caved in and just typed in the code which-I-still-don't-know-where-it-came-from. This typing wasn't easy, either. I accept in retrospect that the game did define the PRESS command for pressing buttons, but none of PRESS KEYPAD, UNLOCK KEYPAD, (the number itself) or PRESS NUMBERS worked.
In spite of all its bumps, which kept making me worse and worse at the game as I approached its finale, what IQ possesses is a very charming and coherent aesthetic which seems to extend beyond the already decent chunk of universe presented in this game. Even though communication with the other characters could be better programmed, each character seems to have his or her own concerns and purpose, and there are a good number of characters. And while the cat people are highly capable in their roles, it is left to the human outsider, Irvine, to falteringly observe the silliness of this world which is invisible to them. That the highly sought after fish is asleep nearly all of the time, that the characters who claim to be giving instruction barely give any, or that the villain's rant explaining his motivations doesn't make a lot of sense.
I found the funniest and cutest scene to be the one where Irvine helps a kitten which is fishing(!) in a brook. Given the general absurdity of this game, I really thought that the fish I was looking for might turn out to be the one in the water here, since its description said it was. But it turned out to be a Red Herring instead. This moment sums up the feel of the game for me.
In some ways Irvine is my favourite game so far at the halfway point of the comp, but its bugs did slow me up and hamper my experience of it. A lot of me struggling to finish this in under two hours was due to me rewinding to earlier points because of uncertainty about the game state. But the world of this game is a wonderful creation, and I will line up for a more polished version of this game or a sequel.
David Whyld's The Cellar was part of the H.P. Lovecraft-themed Commonplace Book Project of 2007 organised by Peter Nepstad. This was a remarkable project whose IF angle I knew nothing about prior to researching it in relation to The Cellar. I had known what Lovecraft's Commonplace Book was: the place where the author used to jot down unused story ideas. While the Book's contents have been used as a launching point for IF games or IF competitions on more than one occasion, what was neat about the 2007 project was that the six games which participated were set up for play as part of an exhibition in Switzerland's Maison d'Ailleurs, aka The Museum of Science Fiction and Utopias. Further details are available in Peter Nepstad's article about the project in SPAG#50.
Concerning The Cellar, it is no spoiler to reveal which idea from the Commonplace Book the game is based on, as it is displayed on startup:
“Man’s body dies - but corpse retains life. Stalks about - tries to conceal odour of decay - detained somewhere - hideous climax.”
The game is written from the point of view of a character initially standing outside of its unsettling events: the boy Nevare, whose father made him promise not to go into the cellar after returning from a trip to Africa. When the game begins, you (Nevare) find yourself alone in the house one day, consumed by curiosity and with an opportunity to at last search for the key to the forbidden room.
The prose of The Cellar is quite good, and the game's revelations fall comfortably (or should that be uncomfortably?) into the Lovecraft mould, as do its methods of writing, perhaps. One character emerges to tell the game's backstory at great expositional length. It is the quality of this story that is the soul and effect of this game, but the linearity of the whole piece and its broad sidelining of interactivity are very apparent. The choice moment of being a child in a room and having to look around for an object from the world of adults is repeated a few times, and it's well done, but these are the only moments in which you get to really do something other than listen to another's story. Of course, it isn't literally "another's"; being a tale of family, this story involves Nevare indirectly, which turns out to be a salient point for the denouement of The Cellar. However, I imagine many regular IF players would simply wish they could do more in this game. I wished that, but I still enjoyed the story. I can also imagine a game depicting some of the told material in interactive fashion, though this isn't a case where speculating on a significantly different game that isn't will pay dividends. The Cellar's linearity might also have made it more accessible to random passers by in an exhibition. Either way, its story is a good realisation of Lovecraft's jotted idea.
This comic horror mini-adventure was written in three hours for Ectocomp 2010, and fits a clever central conceit and a great 'Aha!' moment into a handful of locations.
The game begins with your head being sawed off by an evil bad guy and placed on a table. To speak more explicitly on the content in this review would, unfortunately, amount to game-wrecking, given the petite size of Headless, but what I do particularly like about this game is that it doesn't fall down that speed IF hole of being overreaching and underimplemented. Headless's design is totally amenable to the format's logistical restrictions, and the game has a good trick that's fun to work out. This is one "they done sawed my head off" game I am not shy about recommending to the non-squeamish and sundry.
I heard that one-room and escape-from-the-room text games went gangbusters somewhere between the 1990s and 2010. I learned this in 2010, the year I started playing any of the non-commercial IF that had been going on for the past couple of decades. And of the one-room games I have tried so far, Marika the Offering is easily the one what is most killing it in my fave charts.
Marika is a barricade-the-room game in which you play a 15-year-old beauty who has grown up in a ye olde town afflicted by the curse of a vampire. The fiend shows up once every 15 years to snack on a pretty virgin, and God help those who don't supply him with one!.. or at least that's what he says. It's not like the parties involved are talking to each other all the time.
You, Marika, are to be the latest offering to the villain, and find yourself locked in a tower bedroom at game start. The townsfolk expect you to lie back and think of England, but your mum has encouraged you to try to make the room impregnable before you fall asleep. And so begins an extremely exciting and suspenseful race against the clock of the sun.
The writing is lovely, with a bit of a romantic trill, and it also does its utmost to be clear about the potential usefulness of all the features and objects in the room, both before and after you have made your first interaction with each. Player knowledge is divorced from character knowledge, so that even if you've played before, you can't act on an idea that has not yet come to Marika through her actions as you have dictated them.
The game also removes the need to GET or DROP things. Once an object's practical usefulness is known to your character, you can always act as if you possess it, which makes good sense given that everything you can act upon must be in the room. Generally, issuing a LOOK will remind you of the status of most things you have previously messed with, given that they will all be visible from where you stand.
Another cool feature is that if you run out of moves, fall asleep and get attacked by the vampire (it's likely to happen to every player at least once, and probably more times before they solve all the puzzles) you will learn something, from the manner of your death, about what actions you still need to take to vampire-proof your tower.
The complete backstory to the game is presented as an optional read, presumably only because of its length. You will be better off reading it before getting into the game, and it seems plain to me that if you enjoy the writing in the game, you will enjoy the engaging backstory as well. Making it optional seems to have been the only hesitant design choice ("Will this deter players?", perhaps) in a game otherwise defined by clear design choices.
Ultimately, Marika the Offering is a very satisfying and tense time-limited puzzler with a Gothic thrillingness about it and involving writing.
The Sisters is a mystery-horror adventure set in an apparently deserted mansion in the wilds of Sussex. If you're into ghostly horror tales, you will have a lot of fun recalling all of the different stories and styles the game draws on or evokes; in books, Stephen King and James Herbert. In films, there's plenty from the "scary little girls" subgenre and even a touch of Don't Look Now. In gaming, the opening recalls Silent Hill, and The Sisters's method of revealing backstory through written materials like diaries and letters is typical of survival horror.
The game's story is considered, but the dynamic of how much you learn and when (Spoiler - click to show)(50% of the information is revealed as you explore 90% of the game, then everything else leaps out in the last five minutes) makes the outcome a little unsatisfying. The journey is what is important, because the mansion is big and absolutely crammed with examinable decor and objects, all of them contributing to the atmosphere, many of them filling in pieces of story. This is a great example of story being gleaned from the environment.
There is a catch: The repetitive nature of the locations makes it hard to stay vigilant in your searchings. You're in a multi-storey mansion of similarly laid out floors. There are many bedrooms, many tables, many desks, many wardrobes. Descriptions of even sparse locations can be 70 words long on average, and the average non-corridor room will have at least five things you can examine. This adds up to a tremendous amount of detail, but only a handful of objects you will find during your rummagings are needed to complete the game.
If you reach the end and discover that your score seems relatively poor – and you care about this kind of thing – you will need to do a reconnaissance replay in which you doublecheck every furnishing in the house, because particular objects lead into particular point-generating puzzles. But after your fourth bed, fifth table or sixth desk, you will realise how you managed to miss so many things in the first place.
The Sisters is at its best as a spooky and suspenseful exploration game. The mansion is a terrific setting, an integral part of the unfolding mystery and elaborate with atmospheric detail. But the score system and denouement are inevitably a bit disappointing. Too many of the points are attached to optional puzzles which are easy to miss, and the outcome is like a jack in the box opening in your face after the slow piecing together of the past that made up the bulk of the game. The parser has its bumpy moments and the fourth wall is broken unnecessarily a few times with jokes. The mansion is the star, though, and it is definitely worth visiting.