(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my blog during IFComp 2016.)
Snake's Game is an exotic, pretty inscrutable prose'n'clickable choices piece in which a man walks into an eatery when some manifestation of existential evil – Snake, aka The Vermin – visits his brain and starts having a natter with him about a not-forecasting-the-future game they could play. If they do, the resulting conversations lead to the 'several psychedelic experiences… with demons, monsters, and some more!' promised by the blurb.
The inklewriter engine presents Snake's prose handsomely, and aesthetically it's very good prose, sometimes ripe, only wavering in a bit of proofreading and a rare mistake of the kind that makes me think English is not the author's first language. For other reasons, it is not easy or transparent writing. Not just because of its poetic leanings, but because I don't claim to really know what it was going on about half the time.
The game actively requests replays, encouraging you to build up a bigger picture of something, plus it thanks you every time you reach an ending. (I was thanked five times. That's a fair bit of thanking.) I almost quit after my first play because that first path I happened down was short and, in retrospect, still one of the least scrutable I ever read within the game, and not even in an abstract way. It was just like reading the middle few pages of a wacky book. So I was unlucky in that sense. I tried again, grew more interested, tried again, tried again. Ultimately I played one more time than I thought I would (and for about twenty minutes overall) feeling that I was building up some enjoyment, but there still seemed to be a cap on things making much sense, which is why I didn't continue on to try all the endings.
If you like, or think you might like, any of these things – existential psychedelia, flying into the sky suddenly with a cat, vivid visions of gore, celestial types chatting like they're in the pub, religious-leaning imagery – you might like Snake's Game. I can as easily imagine people hating it pretty quickly. I admired it but in the end I like written fiction to make more coherent sense. I can say that Snake's Game shifted my perception of it significantly on each iteration, and that's something of a feat in a pretty abstract work.
(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my 2013 IFComp blog.)
Reels is a hypertext game posing 8 mathematical and trivia-based questions. Get them right and perhaps a gang of thieves will return the precious archival reel-to-reel tapes (!) they stole. At least they didn't also steal the ovens we'll need in the future to bake the decaying tapes before making crappy second generation copies of them in order to vaguely preserve the sweet knowledge contained therein.
I bailed out on this quest, without too much regret, after verifying that it didn't function properly in either Chrome or Firefox on my OS X Mac. Those are the two browsers the game's "how to play Reels" file recommends for those without access to Microsoft Internet Explorer.
Before I ran into the technical wall, my instinctive response to the game's proposition was: "Game, you're asking me to do stuff too closely resembling work." The tasks ahead, the first one involving base 36, looked unappealing and potentially trollish, but my bloody-mindedness kicked in and so I broke out a piece of paper and a calculator, and got solving. This in spite of the base 36 question being worded pretty badly, and the explanation of it in the how-to-play (when I checked in there later) being awful.
So, when I typed in my first answer to Reels's first question and found it apparently rejected – and when I say rejected, I mean that I clicked a button labelled "Check the number" and that nothing happened – I had a read of the how-to-play file. I decided I had indeed been doing what the game wanted me to do but had simply made a couple of mistakes in my working. After another pass, I entered what I believed to be the correct answer more confidently, only to find it rejected/ignored again.
This was the moment when I became suspicious as to whether the game was really checking my answer. So using TextEdit, I just opened up the html file (follow.html) which delivers the first challenge and looked at the code. The correct answer was sitting right there, unhidden from the eye, and it was what I had typed, and therefore I concluded that the game was not running correctly in Chrome. I tried playing in Firefox with the same result.
The Binary is a browser based text'n'click game involving looping time travel. To describe it as a CYOA doesn't feel right, as the game keeps track of what you've done and also allows you to revisit locations, though the circumstances of the revisitings are unusual. In common with Operation Extraction, also from IFComp 2011, the timing of your actions is important in this timey game. I found the whole thing somewhat baffling to begin with, with a barrier to play in the form of potential initial uninterest. I think I'd rather The Binary had just told me what my goal was instead of making me work it out myself. Constant forward movement, albeit in a loop, can be mildly aggravating when you don't know what's going on yet and have no hook of intentionality to arouse your interest.
Once you do know what the story is about, it turns out to be as exciting as other stories of its kind often are - that kind being (Spoiler - click to show)stories about people trying to stop an assassination by locating snipers at the last minute. In the role of one of the guys I'm going to call Time Cops, you loop through the same few moments repeatedly, trying to string together the circumstances to bring about change. This scenario also brings about an eagerness to quickly return to the spot where you think you might next be able to best change things up, which is why the cutaway scenes which occur every time the repeating sequence ends are a distraction. They open a window onto a broader mythology, but not one that's too useful for the workings of this small game space. Once you've done some things over and over, it's frustrating to have to pass through the cutscene again, or just to have to wait before you're able to access certain links anew.
Ultimately The Binary is clever and becomes fun, and it's a smoother ride than its cousin (of sorts) Operation Extraction, but it could stand to be sharper.
A Colder Light is set on plains of winter ice under a sky filled with significantly named stars. This world could be an alternate North Pole, or perhaps just the North Pole of another past time, but the game is described as fantasy and the geography is not specified. This is an atmospheric adventure with a very satisfying design, a good puzzle system, an attractive web browser presentation and a haunting feel.
The setup is that you live out in this frozen wilderness with your father, who has been teaching you survival skills and respect for the power of nature. One day he does not come home, and you must draw on your ingenuity and on the spiritual magic of stars and runestones to find out what has happened to him. Determining how and when to call the game's various spirit entities is the primary ongoing puzzle.
A Colder Light is driven by a combination of keyword hyperlinks in the prose and mini-menus of useful actions which pop up at the bottom of the screen, a combination well-suited to this game. The roster of locations is small, though dense with spirit puzzle action, and your runes need to be tested out in permutations, something I imagine could be a bit of a chore to carry out via typing. It's also impossible to waste time trying actions that have no bearing on the proceedings as they simply aren't available in the first place.
The game is designed in such a way that you still have to make some logical imaginative leaps yourself (which to me is the key attraction of parser driven games) based on your observations of which stars are visible in different locations and your ideas about which runes might do what. There is also a sense of bleak urgency which seeps through the modest but poetic-leaning prose of the narrator, and the strength and resolve of the character you're playing come through clearly in that voice.
The aesthetic design of the game screen sets the mood perfectly, with a semitransparent text window floating before a far view of the cold and dark horizon. There are, however, a couple of shortcomings in the delivery system. The first is the slowness of the hybrid Inform 7 / Quixe / hyperlinks game engine; it can take between 1/4 second to 1 second to process each action. This adds up over time and is especially felt on a repeat play. The second shortcoming is mostly a problem because of the first: there is no save capability. While the game can be considered short by most standards, and not too hard, the time it takes to play is longer than such assessments would suggest. So for now, if you want to take a break, it's important not to close the game window. Breaking off completely will necessitate a restart next time.
While the game engine may be an iteration of a work in progress, the game itself is definitely no experiment – A Colder Light is a very fine, compactly designed and enjoyable adventure whose contents play to this new delivery format while also bringing across some of the particular strengths of parser based games.
I had a peek at the original parser-with-keywords version of Starborn when it was released, but I did not complete it – which was a bit silly of me, given the very small size of the game.
Starborn now returns in a high budget Undum+Vorple form that fills your web browser screen with an atmospheric and clickable map graphic and your ears with a couple of spacey pieces of ambient electronic music. The keywords of the original version have become clickable hyperlinks.
The game content remains unaltered, and is a brief evocation of the life of a human born in space in the future who is contemplating what it might be like to return to the old homeworld, gravity and air and all. The writing does a good job of placing you "outside of the Earth" in a short space of time, but short is the defining word for the experience. There's just not that much to do or see or read, and it's all over in a few minutes, making it a tiny mood piece.
Having played both versions of the game, and at the risk of stating the obvious, I found that the new one certainly demonstrates that graphics change the effect of a piece, and so does sound. The aesthetic of the screen colours and sounds was actually quite unlike whatever I had made up in my head the first time I played the game, which was mildly jarring. The more high-tech delivery generated a sense of what might be described as high production values, which the simple text only original did not connote at all. By the same token, the game hasn't gotten any bigger, so the relatively lavish new delivery feels a bit overkilly after the fact.
However, that the game might come across a little weirdly to a person who played the old version first is not really the point. This new version is more effective to me as a demonstration of how a game like Starborn can be implemented by Undum & Vorple, and also shows that this implementation is very appropriate. Given that the game is mostly a CYOA, was originally driven by keywords, has movement around a map and also low interactivity (one gettable item) I found I did prefer playing it in its new format than the old. When the parser is unnecessary and you can click keywords rather than type them, why not do so? I found this design and the attractiveness of the interface appealing, though there was one thing I missed: the ability to undo. Not because of any difficulty in the gameplay, but because more than once I found myself interested in wanting to isolate what performing certain actions would do to different parts of the interface, and there was no way to undo then redo to test such actions.
I think Starborn itself is a little small for the new format, but its basic nature is well suited to the format, and playing it this way got me thinking about the possibilities.