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About the Story
Part 1: The Beginning of the End
It's another humdrum day as the weekend winds to its inevitable end. The pandemic has stretched on for a decade now. A new serial killer stalks the streets. A ghost haunts your dreams. And your polo club is waiting. Exactly as expected.
Just ignore the sounds in your living room. Just ignore that shadow scuttling across the floor. Just ignore the lies of the 'friend' whose known you for years. He's lying. She's lying. That stranger on the street is lying. And the voices whispering in your mind are definitely lying. Even this blurb is lying.
But that's fine...
Y̸̷̶̷̸̷̷̷̥͑̅̌̔̉ͯo̼̩̖̓ͪ̽͢ǔ̢͢͏̫͕͋'͎̬́͐ͥ᷇͢r̉͏͍̾᷉̓̓e͓͕ͦ̿᷅͆͠ l̜̻̈̅̃͢͞y̡̬͙̪̦̦ͧi̘᷅̓͒̐̍͑n̰͈᷅ͯͥͨ͜g̯᷾̒̑᷄̕͟ t̶̙͍̏͊᷈͠o̙̟ͦ̏̄ͭ͂ő̶͎̘̝̂
Content warning: Violence, Language, Mature Themes, Body Horror, Mind Control
41st Place - tie - 29th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2023)
Number of Reviews: 4
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(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2023's IFComp).
One Knight Stand reminds me of a peacock. This hefty ChoiceScript game is impressive but also absurd, hyperspecialized after taking evolutionary logic way past its logical endpoint. I know, for example, that the Choice of Games audience tends to really like player-customization options, but when it took me four separate choices to establish the length, texture, and color of my characterís hair, I thought something had gone awry; when, five minutes later, I picked out the color of my favorite mug and laid out my habits when shopping for a cell phone, I half suspected this thing was actually a parody or maybe a marketing survey in disguise. Similarly, CoG games tend to use length as a selling point, but having slogged through what Iím pretty sure was a short novelís worth of prose to get through just four simple scenes and introduce only two significant characters, I can only imagine the fortitude needed to persist through the Middle of the End and the End of the End. There are some promising modern fantasy flourishes here, and I canít fault the authorís work ethic, but sadly this is one of those games that I suspect will elate its intended audience while leaving those outside that group bewildered.
In its outlines, the story here is pretty solid. The main character lives in an alternate future where COVID gave way to a series of other plagues and pandemics, though as the game opens theyíre more focused on practice with their surprisingly-intense polo club. But the cityís been threatened by a series of gruesome murders, and after seeing some strange things around your apartment, you get swept up in a supernatural world that involves demons, reformed incubi, the reincarnations of the Arthurian Knights, and a best friend whoís harboring some kind of secretÖ
Itís all fun enough Ė I could see the setting being a lost World of Darkness RPG from the late 90s Ė and the bits involving the polo team have some zip to them (I wouldnít be surprised if the author has a bunch of real-life experience with horses), but the gameís glacial pacing does it no favors. I had to get through half a dozen see-something-weird-out-of-the-corner-of-your-eye-but-thereís-nothing-there-when-you-check ďscaresĒ before the first sequence was over, so that the creepiness had long since worn off, and the gameís written in an incredibly granular style that completely undermines any sense of pacing; I was similarly bored of most the action scenes by the time I was two-thirds done with them because they just took too long. And the transitional sequences are just as bad, as youíre forced to play through the dull bits between the set pieces at a similarly high level of detail; itís like reading the first draft of someoneís first novel, before theyíve figured out how to move characters around in time and space.
The other element undermining what could be a fun pop-fantasy romp is the tonal whiplash. While the world is generally fairly grounded, and the gameís blurb says its genre is ďdark urban fantasyĒ, a large portion of the gameís choices have some ZaNy options. Like, here are the playerís choices in one of the action scenes:
-Here goes nothing.
-Easier said than done.
-I donít get paid enough for this.
-Da da da da daÖ Batmaaaaaaan!
The monster youíre trying to run away from here is actually kind of creepy, but this kind of thing drastically undercuts any sense of realism or fear the game is trying to convey. And Iíve picked a mild example; there are lots of pop culture quotes and bewilderingly over-the-top choices that seem to show up more and more as time goes on (though even the first sequence suffers from a news broadcast where April OíNeil and Peter Parker are highlighted as featured reporters).
One Knight Stand also gets way too dark sometimes given its omnipresent refusal to take itself seriously. You (of course) have a tragic backstory, and without thinking too much about it I went for the one where my family died in a car-crash (the others are comparably bleak). I was not prepared for how this was narrated (putting the details behind a spoiler-block; CW for violence and just general terrible things):
(Spoiler - click to show)Your father had turned the car at the last moment so that the driverís seat took the full brunt of the crash. Heíd been killed instantly. At the trial that followed, lawyers had argued that the people in the backseats ó your brother, your sister, your mother ó could have survived if the carís side airbags had deployed as they were supposed to.
In the end, both your siblings had died before rescuers could prise them out of the wreckage of the car. You know your little sister, at least, had been alive directly after the crash. She had cried, gurgled, and half-screamed for several minutes afterwards. Your mother in the seat directly behind you had lingered the longest. She never regained consciousness in those last few days and finally passed on after a bloody miscarriage.
What the fuck, game.
Iíve said before that to my mind, the one thing that most amateur IF needs to feel professional is an editor, and I donít think Iíve ever seen a more glaring proof of that. If someone had helped the author smooth out the drastic tonal shifts, cut down 2/3 of the word count to focus on the engaging parts, and highlight places where going deeper really would be helpful (the main romance interest is so bland that even after three and a half hours of gameplay, I couldnít tell you the first thing about his personality), this could be really promising. As it is, while I suspect the hardcore CoG-heads will lap this up, I didnít get much enjoyment out of One Knight Stand. Which is a shame: peacock feathers may only turn on peahens, but at least theyíre still pretty to the rest of us.
This is the first chapter of a large Choicescript game. I played past two hours on my phone, saving occasionally, but I lost about 30 minutes of progress near the end by forgetting to save (I got to the point where you can pack your suitcase). I think I got pretty close to the end, from what other reviews have said.
The scope of this game is large. The current largest Choice of Games title is 1.2 million words (while some Hosted games are larger), so one chapter of 400K is quite big. Production seems to have taken a long time, as there is a lot of reference to face masks and social distancing.
The overall concept of this game is that King Arthur and his court were real and still exist in a certain way (revealed later on) in the modern world. Simultaneously, demonic forces are trying to start the apocalypse, and you can help stop it.
There were two main romantic options I saw, a man and a woman. There are tons of different chance to declare your affection, so many so that I felt I had to constantly be turning down the people I wasnít interested in.
The game has lots of action scenes which I thought were full of descriptive language and feeling like stakes were real. I died in one! (to see what would happen). A lot of times it was over the top (lots of Zalgo text for horror and tons of quip/pun options for humor).
The game is so large, I feel, because all the normal Choicescript stuff is amplified. Usually you can pick a few features of your appearance; here you can pick if you have hair, what length is your hair, what color is your hair, what shade is your hair. Instead of five to ten options, there are 15 to 20. Instead of choosing conversation topics from a repeating list that gets narrowed down, you pick from a list of conversation topics that each open up to their own list of conversation topics and so on.
This provides for a lot of customization but it can kind of interrupt game flow sometimes. I felt a bit of decision paralysis from time to time. Itís kind of the opposite of the problem a lot of games have, where all of the cool branching and decision making is hidden and players think the game is small/short because they donít realize the choices they could have made.
In contrast, here everything is put on display constantly, revealing the massive amount of possible choices. And some donít even seem implemented yet, like the fencing club (unless there is a way to get into there!).
I liked the Merlin character, and saw them as a fun RO/mysterious person. The overall magic system seems thought out and coherent, and the worldbuilding feels like itís on an epic and grand scale. While I did find the large amount of choices overwhelming at time, it seems reasonable given the overall scope. I could definitely see it being popular when it comes out.
Sitting at over 400k total words, One Knight Stand is quite a sizeable game, with extensive branching. It also is a demo (prologue + 1st chapter), meant to be part of a longer series. Characterised as a mashup between Among Us and Arthurian lore, the story will twist and turn at every corner. I found one Dead End.
The game is very much anchored in the ChoiceofGame style of interactive fiction, with its extensive, almost overwhelming, character creation, lengthy playthroughs, and variation galore. Replay value seems to be an important part of this entry, due to the many many choices available (some are even locked depending on previous choices).
While the amount of available content is impressive (400k for a single chapter is massive), the pace of the story is at times painfully slow. In part due to the extensive nature of the character creation. From requiring you to confirm every single character-building choice, to going into details about some trivial options (like the shade of your favourite colour has a dozen of option per hue), it often felt unnecessary and tiresome (be prepared for choice-fatigue here...).
The entry starts pretty intriguing, with a spooky nightmare set in an Arthurian setting, with a bone-chilling feeling that continues to follow you throughout the rest of the chapter (with creepy voices and creepy feelings)*. To balance it out, the prose strive to add humour when it can, from mentions of or punny winks about mainstream media (Knights of Our Lives, lol), to taking an almost sarcastic or parody approach to some situations**. The balance was not quite there, however, making me question whether the story was supposed to be primarily comedy or horror.
*I had a bit checked-out by the time the horror started to pick up.
** It's kinda funny a fast-food server can be part of a Polo club...
While I was not particularly fan of the pronoun switch between the main text (you) and the choice list (I), as it sometimes broke the flow of reading, [NOTE:this is the ChoiceofGame style] the formatting of the more horror-y beats (especially the ones with creepy sounds or anxious feelings) helped keeping things fresh.
Another thing I hope will be used further into the game was the phone element, specifically the texting side-"game". The options of sending back messages were pretty funny (yay for creepypasta).
For a ChoiceofGame style game, it has a pretty solid base and I suspect it could become quite popular with CoG fans. But I don't think it's my kind of game (I was almost relieved when I reached the end, even if it wasn't a "good" one).
I'm calling it now: you are the long lost child of the Phone Company CEO.
Adapted from an IFCOMP23 Review
It occurs to me that due to some accident of providence over the last year I have seen very few ChoiceScript games. The ones I have seen have had respectable polish, so Iím starting to think of it as the luxury car of IF authoring brands. OKS makes a case for itself here early. The graphical components utilize a crisp iconography that quickly establishes a visual identity. There are some very nifty tricks with font (I particularly liked what I called ďarcane crossword puzzle fontĒ) to build atmosphere.
There is even a generous dose of sound and music, albeit somewhat less successful. The pages of text tended to be long. Not a problem, the work had a lot to say. When the sound mapped to top-of-the-page text it was pretty ok - the sound punctuated the text you were reading. When the sound was relevant to a passage halfway down the page it created incongruity. At the top of the page, you got an irrelevant noise that only made sense a few seconds further down. Notwithstanding that artifact, the presentation overall made for an ambitious package.
The ambition seemed to be promised in gameplay as well - a pregame peek at the status screen showed an RPG-like character page full of intriguing stats, customizable descriptions and character background.
Youíve set quite the expectations here, game!
The setup is an encroaching Arthurian Apocalypse with only polo players to save us! THE HORSE KIND OF POLO!! This work inaugurates a Heroic Polo genre!! I mean, huge points for innovation there.
Our protagonist is suffering some outreí incidents that quickly escalate. Actually, quickly is not the word I want to use there. The work does something I admire in theory: it attempts to have you define and customize your character via narrative. Theory. So that immense character sheet I mentioned earlier? You go through page after page of text and selections to fill out that sheet. Its not enough to know I have brown hair, I need to define the SHADE of brown. The process took 1/2 hour before I could leave my apartment. The whole time, I am given tantalizing hints of the drama to come, and presumably my reactions to it are helping frame characteristics, but it got chafing fast. Youíre telling me about all this cool stuff, but I canít engage that until my eye color is established?
Then finally, you are off to polo practice (I know! Such a WEIRD detail, I love it!) and introduced to some supporting cast, then more plot prologue. At this point I want to stop describing the details of the plot, though I will say I found the urban magic/horror aspects pretty effectively done. Instead, letís talk about pacing. ChoiceScript is, unsurprisingly built around choices. Each generous page of (pretty well-written) text ends with a series of possible choices. Select one and presumably some game effect will payoff down the road. These games live and die on the choices offered, and they are DEEP here! With every development you are given a broad array of nuanced (and often funny) responses to choose from, and your choices are acknowledged deftly on the next page! It really does feel like the narrative is listening to your choices, regardless of the stakes, and that is gratifying. But. Then you get the NEXT dense page of text with a deep array of choices. And the next. The effect of all those words, and evaluating and selecting among nuanced choices, is to slow things to a crawl.
As the prologue creeps forward, another curious narrative choice was made. Now, given the deep decision tree that got me there I canít be sure it wasnít my own choices that boxed me in, but when the action started in earnestÖ the game sidelined me. I was a spectator while NPCs did all the work. Sure, I still had lots of words to read, and decisions to make, but I couldnít DO anything. If I tried, the narrative quickly shut that down.
Part of it was a (Spoiler - click to show)mind-control attack of some kind. The mechanism for this was kind of cool: you are presented with a full slate of choices, but only able to SELECT what the bad guy (or circumstance) allows. I could SEE the other options but was powerless to choose them. The author was super clever with variations on this, sometimes for drama, sometimes for laughs. As GAMEPLAY, when I was struggling to do anything, it was taunting me.
This sidelining happened not just during real peril by the way. THE GAME DIDNíT EVEN LET ME PLAY POLO WITH MY TEAM.
There were some other odd choices: remember that character sheet? Yeah, you were still filling it out, even when the action got going. In particular, as you were fighting to get involved with the plot, suddenly you need to pause and choose a secret backstory. Boy did that chafe. Not just because the choice is completely orthogonal to the urgent action around you, but also because at this point you have painstakingly established a clearly defined character, and now you are asked to decide how that was partially a lie! You might imagine a narrative where that was a cool twist. Maybe if I felt any kind of agency, or if it was related to any action in progress to that point it might have.
So two hours in I had exhaustively established a character and some NPC relationships, been along for the ride in some actions sequences and got PARTWAY through an infodump background exposition. And never really saw those character sheet stats employed in a meaningful way. You ask too much of me game. I liked the writing, found the choice architecture often very clever, respected the graphical presentation, LOVED BEING A (what??) POLO PLAYER ((Spoiler - click to show)even though yeah, thatís just an excuse to get on a horse later, innit?) but eventually time and my patience ran out.
The game on display is so much bigger than the 2 hrs of IFCOMP. It is not well served by the judging limit. There were lots of in-the-moment sparks and a seamless implementation, but I am assessing a penalty point for infuriating slow-motion player impotence. If Iím honest, even if it turned out to be a 100hour game, 2 hours is just too long to get where I got. At least I made it to the (Spoiler - click to show)amazing pop culture Merlin list. I at least got that. But címon, you coulda let me play polo.
Playtime: 2hrs, infodump w/ (Spoiler - click to show)Merlin
Artistic/Technical ratings: Sparks of Joy, Seamless, penalty point for 2 hrs of escalating impotence
Would Play After Comp?: It is hard to imagine having that much free time.
Artistic scale: Bouncy, Mechanical, Sparks of Joy, Engaging, Transcendent
Technical scale: Unplayable, Intrusive, Notable (Bugginess), Mostly Seamless, Seamless