IF Comp 2019 Mini Reviews Part 2

Short reviews of Roads Not Taken, Planet C, TruckQuest, Slugocalpyse, Meeting Robb Sherwin, and Enceladus.

Roads Not Taken

I feel like there are a weirdly high number of IF works, as opposed to any other kind of interactive media, that intentionally bore the player in order to simulate an experience that is boring for the player character. I’ve never been a fan of this. I have no doubt that the tedium and frustration of Roads Not Taken are an accurate reflection of what it’s like to be in grad school, but that didn’t do much to convince me to play through more than once in order to see the other endings.

The flashbacks to the narrator’s childhood are well written, with a level of specificity and detail that makes them feel autobiographical even though they’re not. It’s still not really a kind of fiction I’m all that interested in, but it’s well done, and I can also imagine it’s more engrossing if you relate to it more closely than I do. But my position on deliberately boring your audience the way Roads does in the grad school sections has long been that it’s rarely if ever worth it, and Roads didn’t change my mind.

Planet C

Planet C‘s description seems to be framing it as a management sim, but despite the giant wall of colony stats that you can look at, it’s really pretty light on that aspect. You don’t have fine-grained control over all those stats, you just pick what upgrade you want the next ship to bring you, and it’s hard to screw it up without making choices that are obviously stupid (“Earth, in this game, is borderline uninhabitable because of pollution, but let’s have our new space colony rely on fossil fuels, what could go wrong?”).

The main point of the game is instead the relationship between the player character (the leader of the space colony) and his family back on Earth, as conveyed by letters between him and his wife. The letters are often touching, and the strength of the PC’s devotion to his family and how much he and his wife miss each other shine through in each one. However, there was something missing for me here–some tension, I suppose. Their reunion seemed too easy and never enough in doubt. There was one point at which the wife, Layla, sent back a blank message, implying, I thought, that something had happened to her while she was trying to write, but things were back to normal immediately afterward, leaving me to wonder if that had even been intentional or just a technical hiccup. Perhaps the tension was meant to be provided by the gameplay–I’m pretty sure it’s possible to mess things up such that they don’t reunite–but since, again, it is so easy to get a “good ending,” that doesn’t quite work for me. If you don’t do things that are obviously bad ideas, then there’s really no emotional arc; everything just kind of stays at the same level the whole time.

Maybe I’m thinking of it too much like a game, where getting the optimal outcome is the goal; maybe it’s not meant to be looked at in terms of success or failure, good endings or bad endings. But even then, I do think there’s a problem with one set of choices leading to a narrative that’s, well, not really much of a narrative. If there’s only one story you really want to tell, why make a work with choices and multiple endings? Why not just write your tragedy of humanity failing to learn from its mistakes in a form that isn’t influenced by player input in this way? It’s even possible to do this and have it still be IF, although I think the concept would have to be heavily reworked to make that satisfying rather than it being one of those works that tells you that you can make meaningful choices and then wags its finger at you for thinking that you could make meaningful choices. (Though, hey, some people like that kind of thing.)

I do really wish Planet C had a save function. I had to refresh the page a few times because the links to continue the story didn’t always show up; since no one else has complained about this, I assume it was just something up with my browser (maybe the ad blocker) and not the game’s fault, but the lack of ability to save meant that I had to start from the beginning every time this happened.

TruckQuest

TruckQuest combines truck-driving simulation with fairly broad social satire. The writing is funny and charming the first few times you see any given bit of text, but there aren’t that many variations on the descriptions of your repetitive errands, and in the end I felt they’d worn out their welcome. The game feels far too long for the number of unique descriptions that it has. Unlike Roads Not Taken, I don’t get the impression that TruckQuest was trying to bore me; it seemed to be trying to keep things fresh but not quite succeeding. If it had been about half as long, I might have enjoyed it a lot. As it was, though, I was unfortunately pretty tired of it by the end.

Slugocalypse

Slugocalpyse has very charming art, but the writing appealed to me less. It tends toward short, simple, repetitively-structured sentences that make it feel a little like it’s aimed at children even though it’s clearly not. The concept is funny and I enjoyed riding on a giant duck, but there’s not that much to it overall.

Meeting Robb Sherwin

This autobiographical piece is probably mostly of interest if you know the people involved. There’s definitely some comedic potential in the situation, but the way it’s written doesn’t really feel aimed at people outside the in-group–it’s like overhearing someone you don’t know relating an anecdote to their friend. (It may be that the population of IFComp judges was once almost entirely made up of the in-group, but that’s certainly not the case anymore.) The interactivity is also minimal. The game gives you the specific commands you need to advance the story and pretty much nothing else is implemented except examining things. When it doesn’t give you specific commands, that’s usually because the story will advance itself in a couple turns without you doing anything (except waiting/looking/examining etc. in order to make the turn counter advance). All in all, I didn’t feel like there was much for me here.

Enceladus

Yes, my personal shuffle gave me the Robb Sherwin game right after the game about Robb Sherwin. Anyway, Enceladus is about 99% wacky humor, but late in the game it tried to have some serious and emotional moments that felt pretty left-field considering the determinedly zany tone of everything before that. It ends on the PC thinking that although the crew of his spaceship has been through some terrible stuff, at least they’re together, which is where they belong, which seemed like it was also meant to be serious, but also didn’t land for me. No one in this game consistently feels like a real person with understandable and believable motivations, which is fine if you just want the game to be silly, but if you want me to feel sad about the captain losing her husband and warm and fuzzy about the found-family stuff, the characters need to feel more human than Enceladus‘s cast did to me.

The game also has a tendency to dump giant blocks of text on you, sometimes more than would fit on the screen even with the Hugor window maximized, and the scrollback option didn’t always work on the most recent text shown, so that was mildly annoying. Otherwise, it plays pretty smoothly. The puzzles are simple, which, when combined with the walls of text about other people doing things, sometimes made me feel like I was just kind of along for the ride, but there’s something to be said for not being frustrating. If nothing else, I really liked the totally radical ’80s-style soundtrack.

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