February 7, 2017

What does it mean? (2017 edition)

[Author's note: this is a sequel of sorts to a 2011 post of the same name]

What is AIF?

For a long time, AIF was whatever was created by the AIF community and posted on the aifarchive Yahoo! group. Such games were mostly made with traditional text adventure systems, such as TADS, ADRIFT, and Inform, but not always. Even before Twine reached its current popularity, there was CYOA-style AIF, such as David Whyld’s Choices series, and the odd RAGS game.

That was a pretty ad hoc definition, and it had the effect of excluding a number of games based purely on where they were posted. It also depended on aifarchive remaining a thing, which it unfortunately hasn’t. For those reasons, I think it’s necessary to properly define what AIF is. Such a definition would be descriptive rather than prescriptive, since I can’t imagine any adult game being rejected by any AIF community. But for there to be any AIF community, there has to be some sort of agreement about what AIF is, which is why I’m making this post.

There are two things we can definitively state about AIF before we start getting into the nitty-gritty of subjective details. Firstly, it must be an electronic work, ie. something that you can play on your computer (or tablet or phone). Secondly, it must focus on adult (read pornographic) content with the intended purpose of arousing and/or titillating its audience.

The other thing we can say about AIF is that it must be interactive fiction. This is far less definitive because there does not seem to be any clear consensus on what interactive fiction is. If you Google “what is interactive fiction?” you get a lot of similar but different answers. Some contradict each other, some define IF by comparing it to other things. Some provide a definition that was useful when it was written, but has since been overtaken by history. Most lack the specificity that would allow you to compare the definition to a specific work and say “This is (or isn’t) IF”.

Let’s start by going back to the beginning. The term “interactive fiction” was popularised in the early 1980s by Infocom’s marketing department in an effort to distinguish that company’s text-based adventure games from the text-based adventure games produced by other companies. As such, there was a certain amount of marketing puffery to the term, but it also reflected the fact that Infocom’s games were more plot-oriented and literary in style than games such as Adventure. The term was adopted by two newsgroup communities (rec.games.int-fiction and rec.arts.int-fiction), which continued to discuss and produce such games after Infocom’s demise, and eventually became a general synonym for text adventure (ie. a text-based adventure game with a text parser).

If history had stopped there, our problems would be over because we could say that “IF = text adventure = text parser”. However, CYOA (choose-your-own-adventure) works, which had existed on the periphery of IF for a long time, eventually became far too popular to ignore (if you want a more detailed overview of the history of IF, I’d recommend Emily Short’s “Brief Bibliography about IF History”). Modern interactive fiction can thus be divided into parser-based and choice-based, but both are considered to be IF and therefore any definition must encompass both forms.

Since we can no longer point to the text parser as the defining feature of interactive fiction, let’s go back to first principles. If you knew nothing at all about computers, what would the term “interactive fiction” convey to you? If it means anything at all, it must refer to fiction (eg. a story) that is interactive (ie. can be affected by the choices of the reader/player). So already we can say two things about interactive fiction: there must be a story, or at least a narrative of some kind, and the reader/player must be able to affect that story in some way.

How does the player interact with the story? They could simply decide what happens next. For example, that the knight kills the dragon and rescues the beautiful damsel. The problem with that approach is that what the player decides could vary wildly. For instance, the player could decide that the dragon burns the knight to a crisp but the damsel escapes and decides to become a chartered accountant, ultimately being hired by the dragon to help him deal with an unexpected tax bill. It would be an impressive computer program that could simulate that possibility without constant human intervention. Therefore, for practical reasons, some limits must be placed on how much the player can affect the story. One way of doing that would be to limit the player to controlling the actions of one character, rather than the entire story. This works on a number of levels. Firstly, it emphasises the story element. Most works of fiction invite the reader to identify with the protagonist. This merely takes that one step further. Secondly, it limits the player’s range of action because, as a character within the story, they are forced to accept the story’s internal logic. They can’t suddenly decide that the knight has magic powers or owns a raygun that will turn the dragon into a pile of dust.

So, interactive fiction is an electronic story where the player takes on the role of a character within the story and directs their actions, which in turn drive and/or shape the story. That definition fits the works that the term “interactive fiction” has historically been applied to. Unfortunately, it also fits games that have never been considered interactive fiction. Why isn’t a point-and-click adventure IF? It’s more graphical than IF typically is, but novels don’t cease to be novels just because they’re illustrated, so it doesn’t seem to me that the presence or absence of graphics can be used to determine if something is interactive fiction. There might be a point where the amount of graphics becomes “too much”, but how would you ever measure that? Most point-and-click adventures are third person in the sense that the protagonist is a character who is seen onscreen by the player, but not all pieces of interactive fiction are in second person, so that’s no help either.

The only significant difference I can come up with is the form of the interaction. In a game with a text parser, the player types out what they want the protagonist to do. In the case of CYOA, the player chooses one of several discrete text options. The commonality is that what the player directs the protagonist to do is described in plain language (or as plain as the parser allows, anyway). By contrast, in a point-and-click adventure the player directs the protagonist by clicking icons on the menubar and then clicking objects visually depicted on the screen. Thus, I think we can use the fact that the words and actions the player chooses for the protagonist are described by onscreen text as a distinguishing feature of interactive fiction.

While we’ve determined how the interaction is described, we haven’t yet said anything about what is and isn’t interaction for the purposes of interactive fiction. In Greg Costikyan says the following about interaction in his essay “I Have No Words & I Must Design”:

A light switch is interactive. You flick it up, the light turns on. You flick it down, the light turns off. That's interaction. But it's not a lot of fun.
 interaction has no value in itself. Interaction must have purpose.
Suppose we have a product that's interactive. At some point, you are faced with a choice: You may choose to do A, or to do B.
But what makes A better than B? Or is B better than A at some times but not at others? What factors go into the decision? What resources are to be managed? What's the eventual goal?
Aha! Now we're not talking about "interaction." Now we're talking about decision making.

That seems to me to be a good starting point. In the case of interactive fiction, it is the story that provides the purpose, and the interactions occur as a result of the player’s decision making. Not every action available to the player will be the kind of interaction that defines interactive fiction. Examining an object that is mere set dressing isn’t a meaningful interaction, for example. However, if the description of the object provides the player with information that affects their subsequent decisions, and therefore helps them achieve whatever goals the story imposes, then it is a meaningful interaction. This is easy to apply to parser-based games, since the player always has to decide what to type into the parser (unless the game explicitly tells the player what to type), and therefore any action can be an interaction.

But what about choice-based games? In such games, the player isn’t deciding what to do. Instead they are deciding which of the options provided by the game is most preferable to them. If the player is only ever given one option, then they’re never making a choice, and the game is not interactive fiction. That much seems clear.

However, what if advancing the plot (after you’d chosen the single option available) was dependent on overcoming some obstacle, such as an abstract puzzle or an RPG-style combat? That would give the player decisions to make (unless the mechanics were totally random). However, those decisions are not directly connected to the narrative, so I don’t think they would turn a game into interactive fiction.

What if the player is given two options, but one of them obviously leads to immediate failure? That kind of Hobson’s choice situation doesn’t require any decision making and therefore doesn’t provide any interactivity, unless the player has some reason to find failure desirable (as is the case for some MC games).

What if the player is offered two seemingly different options, both of which lead to the same result? That provides the illusion of interactivity, but only until the player goes back and tests the other option. As such, I don’t think it counts as interactivity.

What if, even though both options led to the same result, one increased a points tally and the other didn’t? That introduces a very game-like element, but following the logic used above it wouldn’t be an interactive choice unless the number of points affected the narrative in some way.

However, what if the player’s choice was acknowledged, even though it didn’t affect the result? I’m still inclined to say that wouldn’t count as interactivity, but it would depend on the nature of the acknowledgement. If it was a single sentence, to the effect of “Ah, you chose X? How interesting,” before the narrative continued, then the answer would clearly be no.

But what if the other characters in the game reacted differently to the protagonist because of the player’s choices, without it affecting the overall narrative? This is very close to being interactive fiction, in that the player has to make non-obvious choices that affect the narrative (in the sense that each ‘playthrough’ could potentially be unique). However, I don’t think it quite clears the bar for interaction. The player’s decisions personalize the story, but they don’t drive or shape the plot (which progresses in the same way no matter what the player chooses). It would be more accurate to describe such a work as dynamic fiction. By the same token, a ‘game’ in which the player is only given one option (or where they’re told what to do) could be described as kinetic fiction. The player’s actions are driving the story, but they’re not making any decisions.

The upshot of all of the above is that I would define AIF as an electronic work that is Adult (ie. focused on pornographic content), Interactive (ie. containing meaningful interactions that are directed towards advancing and/or shaping the narrative, and described with text), and Fiction (ie. have a story of some kind, in which the player takes control of one or more characters).

This definition isn’t perfect but it’s good enough for us to make some predictions. For example, that it would be very difficult to make interactive fiction with RPGMaker because it depends on abstract keyboard commands (such as using the arrow buttons to move around, or a general ‘action’ key to do everything from opening doors to picking up objects) rather than specific actions described with text. It also means that HTML dating games and visual novels can be interactive fiction (although not all of them are).

The weakness of this definition is that it says nothing about how much of each characteristic must be present to make something AIF. For example, if an otherwise text-based game uses mouse gestures in one place to emulate the thrusting of a male PC, does that disqualify it as AIF? What about a game that only has one meaningful interaction that affects the direction of the narrative? Or a game that only has one sex scene, which is incidental to the story? Are they AIF? To be honest, I don’t have a good answer for those questions that doesn’t fall back on using weasel words like “primarily”. If you have a solution to this problem, or any other ideas on how the definition could be improved, I’d love to hear it!

January 10, 2017

That was... 2016

Depending on your level of pessimism, 2016 was either more of the same or the beginning of the end for AIF.

By my count there were six AIF games released in 2016 (plus two 'minicomp' games). In terms of overall numbers, that makes 2016 the worst year for AIF since 2003 (narrowly beating out 2013). However, if you only look at non-comp games the numbers are in line with what we've seen since 2007. That suggests that the AIF community is continuing to tread water. There weren't any 'big' releases (on the level of a Working Man or Emily: Sister Attraction), but that's balanced out by the number of new authors who made their debuts.

Unfortunately, some of the other indicators aren't as steady. In particular, the aifarchive Yahoo! group continued its death spiral as the number of posts dropped to a mere 305. That represents a 52% drop from the previous year, which represented a 46% drop from 2014, which represented a 48% drop from 2013. Obviously, that trend can't continue forever, but it's hard to see aifarchive returning to the activity levels of just a few years ago either. Overall, I'm ambivalent about that. On the one hand, the Yahoo! group is almost as much of an anachronism as alt.games.xtrek, not to mention that the security breaches revealed last year make me reluctant to trust Yahoo! with anything. On the other hand, it would be beneficial to have some sort of focal point for AIF, as the Hypnopics Collective and tfgamessite demonstrate.

More generally, the Minicomp was again conspicuous by its absence. Lost Trout stepped into the breach to run a Minifest, but despite heroic efforts it only got two entries (the same number as 2015's SNEEZE Comp, which was much less advertised). The AIF Central blog and subreddit are still hanging in there, but neither is showing any sign of approaching critical mass. Instead AIF-related activity is spread across numerous blogs and Patreon sites, which is good for the owners of those sites but not so good for AIF in general. Or for lazy people like me, who can't be bothered to search through multiple sites.

However, I think the bigger problem is that 'traditional' AIF games (ie. text-based games made with TADS, ADRIFT, etc) appear to be entering their own death spiral. The popularity of traditional AIF has always been limited by the text parser interface, which is a barrier to entry for anyone who started playing computer games after 1990. That was less of a problem when there weren't that many other adult games around, but 2016 was the year in which Patreon exploded, flooding the market with new adult games. Few of those games are very good in my opinion, but they're vastly more popular than text parser-based AIF. That means that new authors are less likely to choose TADS or ADRIFT to make their games, especially if they have one eye on Patreon (which most new authors seem to). Likewise, established AIF authors are going to make more graphical games if they're chasing those Patreon dollars.

All of the above creates something of an existential crisis for AIF. After all, what is AIF? For a long time, AIF was whatever was created by the AIF community and posted on aifarchive. What happens when that community no longer exists? Is the text parser still a defining feature of AIF? If not, what makes AIF distinct from adult games in general? Can AIF be made with RPGMaker? Unity? Those questions can certainly be answered, but the difficulty is building a consensus behind any particular answer.

Finally, I can't really talk about the AIF community's lack of activity without acknowledging my own. I managed a mere three posts in 2016, a drop of more than 75% from the previous year. That's down to a couple of factors. Firstly, I've already written about most of the aspects of AIF that interest me. Secondly, I've exhausted a lot of the enthusiasm I had for AIF. The only time I'm motivated to write these days is when I don't like something, which is why I've stopped posting reviews. I do have two or three non-review posts percolating in my brain at the moment, but none of them are about something that particularly annoys me, so I'm not sure if they'll see the light of day. I won't say this is the end of this blog, because in an infinite universe all things are possible, but I've no idea where I'm going next (if anywhere).

What reasons for optimism in 2016 did I miss? What's got you excited for 2017? What games do you think would inspire me to write something positive?

November 5, 2016

Whither Patreon?

In the world of adult games (if not traditional AIF) the big story of 2016 has been the number of authors that have decided to use Patreon. Some are earning a lot of money via the platform, while some aren’t. But either way, Patreon has led to a lot of new adult games being released, many of which could be described (or describe themselves) as AIF. All of which is a long-winded way of saying that today I’m going to inflict my opinions about Patreon on you.

In the unlikely event that you don’t already know, Patreon is a crowd-funding platform that allows ‘patrons’ to support artists via regular donations (either monthly, or whenever they create new works). It was originally designed with musicians and YouTube content creators in mind, but has also proved popular with writers, webcomic artists, podcasters, and now creators of adult games. I’m not a heavy user of Patreon myself (Kickstarter is better equipped to take advantage of my tendency for impulse purchases). I have backed (patronised?) a couple of podcasts, but I’ve never supported an adult game on Patreon and probably never will (for reasons that may become apparent). However, I’m tangentially involved in the development of one Patreon game, and have played the publicly available versions of a dozen or so other Patreon games (with more sitting on my hard drive, waiting for me to get around to them).

As a consumer, I think there are two ways to look at crowd-funding. The first is what might be described as the transactional view. You’re spending money in order to get something specific in return and don’t necessarily want any sort of long-term relationship with the creator. This is the model that Kickstarter operates on. There may be one or two ‘prestige’ tiers where the cost is much greater than the objective value of the reward and consequently there’s an element of charity (and prestige pricing) to backing at that level. But in general, you back a Kickstarter in order to get something you want at a good price (typically lower than the eventual retail price). Many Kickstarters encourage this way of thinking by offering stretch goals, which increase the sense that you’re getting a bargain by buying now, even though the project is still incomplete. However, the fact that Kickstarter requires cash up front and about 9% of all Kickstarters fail to deliver anything means that backers have good reason to be discriminating about how they spend their money (impulse purchases aside). Alternatively, you can look on crowd-funding as a form of charity. You’re spending money because you want to support the creator, and anything you get in return is a bonus. This requires some sort of relationship with the creator because you need to have confidence that your money is being put to good use.

Patreon straddles these two different kinds of crowd-funding, but I think the charity aspect is dominant when it comes to games produced via the platform. What I mean by that is that if you back an author at $5 a month, after a year you’ve spent the price of an AAA game. Given the likely difference in quality (and the strong possibility that the Patreon game won’t be completed in that time) there’s no way that could be described as a good deal. However, it makes sense if what you’re actually trying to do is help an author fulfil their potential and create a game that wouldn’t otherwise exist.

Given the importance of the charity aspect, it surprises me how many Patreons only make their games available to patrons (with the general public getting a demo, at best). Obviously, patrons deserve to get something in return for their support, but it doesn’t seem like a good idea to treat your creation as a commodity that’s only available to those who pay for it. Making your relationship with your backers so explicitly transactional increases the chances that they will assess it on those terms (and realise that it’s a bad deal). Additionally, in the case of less experienced authors, the early parts of the game (which are what the demo will be comprised of) are likely to be the weakest and least polished sections of the game and therefore the least likely to convince prospective patrons to part with their cash.

However, the biggest argument against treating Patreon as a business and only making your game available to paying customers is that it doesn’t work. We live in a world where copyright laws are more honoured in the breach than the observance when it comes to anything that can be electronically distributed. The result is that, even if a game is supposed to be patrons only, it will appear on file sharing sites within days, or even hours, of its release. My own work has been pirated pretty frequently, so I can imagine how much more discouraging it must be to have something you’ve spent possibly hundreds of hours working on taken away from you like that. However, we have to deal with the world as it is, so the only practical option is to swallow your possessiveness and find whatever silver linings you can. In this case, you can gain some comfort from the fact that having your work reposted without your permission means that it goes places you would never have thought of, increasing your exposure and therefore your pool of potential backers (although it would be wise to have a link to your Patreon embedded in the game so it doesn’t go ‘missing’ during the whole process).

More generally, Patreon isn’t a natural fit for the creation of games because it takes much longer to produce a complete game than it does to make a webcomic or a podcast. This creates some issues when it comes to how patrons are charged and what they get in return. Some creators adhere to the standard model of charging monthly and releasing the work when it is complete. This means that the final game won’t be buggy and unpolished, but it also means that the creator has to find some way of keeping their patrons happy until the game is released. This can take the form of patron-only content (such as pin-up shots of NPCs), giving patrons greater input into the game’s direction, and so on. However, this obviously reduces the amount of time that the creator can devote to the game itself, which pushes back the release date and means those patrons end up paying more. Alternatively, the game can be split up into individual episodes and patrons charged when each is released. This means that there is enough time for adequate testing (assuming the author takes advantage of it), so the game is polished, and patrons typically get a lot of content for each payment. The drawback is that the creator gets much less money than they would if they were charging monthly, despite doing the same amount of work.

However, the most common model (at least according to my unscientific sample) is to release a new version of the game every month. To me, this is something of a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it makes it look like you’re getting something for your money each month. On the other, that kind of schedule doesn’t allow for much (if any) testing, meaning that the game is likely to be buggy and unpolished. Moreover, because the emphasis is on adding new content each month to keep patrons happy, there is little motivation to fix any but the most obvious of bugs, meaning that what has been released will likely remain unpolished.

I’m not a huge fan of playing buggy, unfinished games even when I’m not paying for the privilege, so the predominance of the above model is one of the major reasons why I’ve never supported an adult game on Patreon. To be fair, there are games that manage to combine a monthly release schedule with a reasonably polished product, Newlife for example. Not uncoincidentally, Newlife is the one Patreon game I’ve been seriously tempted to support, largely on the back of its excellent writing. However, it highlights another potential Patreon problem, that of incomplete games. Newlife is something of an outlier in that as an open-ended sandbox game it might be impossible for it to ever have ‘enough’ content to be considered complete. But more generally, I struggle to think of many Patreon games that have been completed. That’s mostly due to the fact that most Patreons have been going for a year or less, but it raises the question of whether Patreon encourages creators to finish games or not, since if the game is finished the creator has to come up with a new idea or the money stops flowing in. In a similar vein, there are creators that have multiple games on the go, which delays the completion of any of them. In both cases, the creator is effectively demanding a much more open-ended commitment from their patrons, which is a reason for greater wariness. At the other end of the spectrum, there’s the risk that the creator will decide to quit, leaving their game(s) forever unfinished. Hopefully, they tell their patrons about their decision, rather than let them work it out for themselves over the ensuing months of silence.

The current situation with Patreon and adult games reminds me of the ‘Golden Age’ of AIF. There are a lot of games being produced, but for the most part enthusiasm outstrips quality. In particular, there seems to be an epidemic of games made with RPGMaker even though they’re not party-based RPGs, featuring writing that’s indifferent at best (and incoherent at worst), a clich├ęd plot (such as the PC suddenly deciding that he’s going to have sex with all the female members of his immediate family), gameplay that seldom rises above going where you’re told, and a dependence on graphics to do most of the storytelling. There are plenty of exceptions to that sweeping generalisation, and I’ve even encountered a couple of RPGMaker games that actually played to that system’s strengths. But where that description is true (as it was of a game I played last night), it’s usually because it represents the author’s first attempt at an adult game.

Why have so many authors decided to start their careers on Patreon? It’s hard to escape the conclusion that they saw how much the likes of Fenoxo were making (over $25k/month when I last checked) and decided that they had to get in on that action. I realise that’s pretty uncharitable of me, but expecting other people to subsidise you while you learn how to make a game isn’t exactly a selfless action either. It also represents a risk in another sense, in that the dream of most creators on Patreon is that eventually they’ll be earning so much that they can quit whatever day job they have and devote themselves to doing what they love full-time. If you’ve never made a game before, is that going to be your dream as well? Or is spending all of your free time working on the game, knowing that if you dare take any time off your patrons might leave and never come back, going to make you feel trapped?

As you might have gathered, I don’t think Patreon is the ideal platform for adult game creators, and certainly not for adult game consumers. However, I do think that it is currently the best way for creators of adult games to gain financial recompense for their hard work. My suspicion/hope is that the number of completely new authors appearing on Patreon will decline over time as either competition causes quality to increase or the presence of one or two undeniably excellent games raises audience expectations (which is what happened with traditional AIF). The reason I hope for this outcome is that it means there will still be a niche for hobbyist-level AIF as a place for aspiring authors to serve their ‘apprenticeship’. However, that doesn’t bode well for traditional text-parser based games, which haven’t been commercially viable for almost thirty years. I’d expect them to become even more niche than they already are, while Ren’Py and Twine become the order of the day (I’m a little bit shocked that Twine isn’t already a major AIF platform, given how accessible it is). But, whatever happens I’m sure that, as with every other period of human history, pornography will prevail.

February 14, 2016

Review: Redemption for Jessika by Tlaero and Mortze

Redemption for Jessika is the second game from the team of Tlaero and Mortze, and is billed as a continuation of the storyline that was begun in their first game, Dreaming with Elsa.

What this means in practice is that both games have very similar plots. The PC is a man whose job brings him into contact with the girl of his dreams (figuratively this time). Said girl has a problem (in this case guilt over a riot she may or may not have caused) that she overcomes with the encouragement of the PC. She also has magic powers that are pretty much ignored until the climax of the game.

I felt that certain aspects of this plot were handled better in Redemption for Jessika than they were in its predecessor. For example, the fact that Jess's problems have a concrete cause and are consistently portrayed makes them much more believable. She does stop being a guilt-ridden alcoholic awfully quickly (she's not even hungover the next morning, despite what Sarah says), but the PC still has to help her overcome her anxiety about performing. Because of all this groundwork, the fact that the plot resolves itself without any input from the PC or the player didn't bother me that much (not as much as the ending seemingly only happening due to blind chance, that is) because it's still clear that Jessika's ‘redemption’ wouldn't have happened if it weren't for the PC.

Marc, the PC in question, appears to suffer from low self-esteem. He describes himself as a middle-aged court scribe, or "boring court guy". The latter is only one of many self-deprecating (or outright disparaging) comments he makes about himself during the game. He's also weirdly deferential to both Sarah and Jess, showering them with compliments and referring to them by their stage names (even in his head) until they explicitly give him permission to use their real names. Combined with the fact that we’re never told anything else about Marc’s life (except that he plays adult games), this makes it seem as though he’s obsessed with Jessika and her band to the exclusion of all else.

We do learn more about Jess, who is the story's de facto protagonist and a successful musician. An implausibly successful musician in fact, given that she can somehow afford a refurbished warehouse apartment with its own private recording studio despite Mayhem being a local band that's only played 23 concerts. She shares that apartment with Sarah, who she's known since at least sixth grade. Until recently she also had a boyfriend, but we've no idea why they were together (the little description Charles gets makes him sound like someone you'd be glad not to be in a relationship with). He dumped Jess out of the blue, kicking off the events of the game and conveniently making her available for Marc to date.

The first of those dates is a moonlight walk along the canal, and is mainly focused on talking about Jess and her issues. The second sees them (briefly) attend a concert, and is basically setup for the sex scene that happens immediately afterwards. Neither date spends much time trying to establish a meaningful relationship between the two principals. Without that kind of development I found it difficult to believe that Marc and Jess were going to live happily ever after. At the beginning of the game, Marc's feelings for Jess are explicitly described as infatuation and they never seem to progress beyond this. He's always the obsessed fan who can't quite believe that the lead singer of Mayhem is interested in a mere mortal like him. It doesn't help that the game contains echoes of both Coffee for Keisha ("rocker chick" and the focus on music generally) and Getting to Know Christine (Marc trying to 'keep up' with Jess, and the disparity in their careers), as both of those games placed the PC in a similarly subservient role.

I'm not certain what Jess sees in Marc either. Yes, she's at a point in her life where the unconditional support he offers is very attractive, but that's not going to be true forever (and she has plenty of friends who could provide the same thing). Not to mention that Marc's constant stream of compliments quickly becomes meaningless (and wearying) through repetition. The fact that Marc is 'immune' to Jess's powers (for reasons that are not explained in this game) is supposed to be his unique selling point, as she can thus be certain that his feelings are genuine. However, if you think about it, that doesn't make a lot of sense. After all, it's not like the people Jess inadvertently caused to riot stayed angry, or were angry at her specifically. Also, Marc is literally not unique, as the very next scene establishes Sarah as someone else who’s not affected by Jess’s powers. At best Marc's immunity gives him an 'in', but it's not enough to sustain a long-term relationship on its own. He and Jess do share an interest in music, but that's coloured by Marc's overall obsession with Jessika (and his consequent inferiority to her) and is no marriage of true minds. That said, I still found their relationship more convincing than Sarah and Sylvia’s, who have just as little in common with the added problem that Sylvia isn't interested enough in Sarah's life to remember the name of either her band or her roommate.

Whatever the weaknesses of Marc and Jess's relationship, one thing it does have going for it is that the sex is good. The scene where Jess performs a striptease for Marc and then treats him to a blowjob is my personal favourite due to the presence of branching, which is otherwise rare in this game. Their 'ride' in the elevator is a close second due to the way it was built up, both via their previous trips in the elevator and the rising tempo of their date. The bonus scene smacked too much of wish fulfilment (two characters ignore their orientation) for me to treat it as 'canon', but it was still fun. I also enjoyed the consolation scene between Marc and Chloe. Although a bit too long and linear, it provides a much more sympathetic portrait of Chloe than she received in Dreaming with Elsa, as well as belatedly giving her a motivation (although not a very good one). The threesome with Gary and Cynthia was fun, but suffers from Marc being more of a prop than a participant.

The one scene I disliked was the very first, where Marc watches Sarah and Sylvia. I’m tempted to describe it as the archetypal Tlaero scene in terms of her attitude to player agency, as the PC's role is to passively watch as other people do things. Marc does get the opportunity to act, but the successful path is to just sit there and do nothing. I also didn't appreciate Sarah's attitude towards both Sylvia and the PC. Sylvia is clearly reluctant to 'perform' for Marc, not least because of the complications it could create since they work together. Despite this, Sarah ignores her feelings and pressures her into it (Sylvia ends up loving it, but this is porn). Sarah shows even less consideration for Marc, treating him like a mere prop in her fantasy. The static POV reinforces the fact that the player is separated from the action, as well as making the scene less visually interesting.

Although Mortze's graphics improve the sex scenes (and the game) overall, I don't think they’re quite as good as they were in either Dreaming with Elsa or his own game, Pandora. As I've already alluded to, there was more static POV than I would have liked. More importantly, I wasn't a huge fan of most of the character designs. Jess seems to have a chronically goofy expression on her face, even when she's not drunk, which I think is a function of the size of her eyes and mouth. Sylvia has a similar problem, which results in her looking anxious most of the time. Meanwhile, Sarah seems to be physically incapable of smiling. I know that's part of her character, but even when the narration states that she's giving Marc a genuine smile the best she can manage is the expression of someone who's just wet themselves. Finally, shots of an obviously European city (Bruges to be exact) are used as the background for the town scenes, despite all the other available evidence suggesting that the game is set in an English-speaking country. To be fair, the same backgrounds were used in Dreaming with Elsa, but they’re far more prominent here and had a greater effect on my suspension of disbelief.

Unfortunately, my suspension of disbelief had already suffered significant collateral damage from all the times the fourth wall was broken. For example, there's a poster advertising Meeting Keeley in the bar, Marc references Getting to Know Christine in conversation (and Jess recognises the reference), and Marc visits The Shark's Lagoon on his work computer (which seems like a good way to get fired). Given the generally serious tone of this game they seemed out of place, and I found the self-congratulatory tone grating.

Less annoying, but still just as immersion breaking, are the asides required to explain the various technical innovations that are included in Redemption for Jessika. These include the panorama effect used when Marc first visits Jess's apartment, and the increased use of the mouse during the final sex scene between them. It's impressive that it was possible to implement this kind of functionality, but it didn't add anything to my enjoyment of the game.

One plus for Redemption for Jessika is that Marc doesn't suffer from the split personality that afflicted Jason and Sam (in Dreaming with Elsa and Coffee for Keisha respectively). The gameplay mechanics in those games forced the player to choose between two extremes of behaviour for the PC if they wanted to succeed. You couldn't be sometimes sweet and sometimes flirtatious because Elsa/Keisha weren't interested in a man with more than one dimension. Redemption for Jessika takes the exact opposite approach by dividing the point-scoring options into seven different categories and linking success to not focusing on one type of response to the exclusion of the others. This gives the player greater flexibility in how they play Marc, but it does create some new problems of its own. For example, what is the difference between 'nice' and 'sweet'? How do you know if Marc is being 'empathic' or just 'supportive'? Getting an even mix of the different types of response is required for the bonus scene, but I don't see how the player is expected to achieve that unless they cheat (as I certainly did).

However, the bigger problem is that most of the point-scoring options are compliments, as opposed to the PC actually doing something or making a decision. Thus, in order to be successful, Marc has to spend the game kissing the metaphorical ass of any female character that comes within range, which doesn't exactly make him seem like a strong character (especially when combined with his fondness for self-deprecation). Additionally, in the vast majority of cases, choosing one option over another has no visible effect on the game. One of the few exceptions is the PC’s decision to go looking for a book to replace the one Charles stole from Jess, which in terms of points is the most important single action in the game. Even so, in the context of the story it's nothing more than a nice gesture and after Marc gives the book to Jess it's never mentioned again. You don't even discover why Charles stole the book, or why he then decided to sell it to Elsa (although a cynic might suggest that the reason for the latter was so that Elsa could have a cameo in this game).

For better or for worse Redemption for Jessika is a Tlaero game. What I mean by that is that Tlaero is an author with certain strengths (storytelling, overall polish) and weaknesses (player agency). Over the course of her career she's established a set of elements (themes, character types, etc) that she likes to use in her games, and she seldom strays far from that. This means that if you've played any of her previous games you'll already have a good idea of what this one is going to be about and whether or not you’ll enjoy it.

Given the objective quality of Tlaero's games, I don't doubt that a lot of people will enjoy Redemption for Jessika. Personally, I think that in some respects it's a better game than Dreaming with Elsa, but having already played that game (and possessing a modicum of genre savvy) I found Redemption for Jessika to be far too predictable to get much enjoyment from its story. On top of that, Marc wasn't someone I was interested in being as a player. That left the sex scenes to carry the game, which they did that well enough for me to give Redemption for Jessika a passing grade.

Redemption for Jessika can be downloaded here.

A walkthrough can be found here.

January 11, 2016

That was... 2015

Ten games were released in 2015, two of them minicomp entries.
This time last year, I cautiously described 2014 as being a 'good' year for AIF (at least compared to the low point that was 2013) due to signs of improvement in several areas. That caution turned out to be well founded, as 2015 has failed to build on any of those improvements and the problems continue unabated.
The good news is that the number of full size games being released held steady at eight, and their quality was fairly comparable to the previous year. That suggests that the 'improvement' of 2014 was simply regression to the mean (as I speculated at the time). But having eight games a year (with two or three of them being very good) as the new normal is hardly a disaster.
A new development has been the number of AIF authors using Patreon. Off the top of my head, Palmer, BBBen, Palaverous, Splendid Ostrich, Wolfschadowe, Mortze, and Tlaero have all set up Patreon pages in the last year, and some of them have received considerable support. I'm somewhat ambivalent about Patreon as it applies to AIF, not least because it solidifies the supremacy of graphical games, but that's a discussion for another time (if I finally get around to writing about it). In any case, to what extent Patreon will bear fruit still remains to be seen.
The bad news largely relates to the decline of the traditional AIF 'community'. The most obvious sign of this is that no Minicomp was held in 2015. It's too soon to say whether the Minicomp is gone for good, as Purple Dragon never officially announced that he wasn't going to organise it, and as a result no one else stepped forward to take his place. Kudos to Another Wannabe, who organised SNEEZE Comp late in the year. Unfortunately it didn't get the advertising blitz it really needed and only received two entries.
Elsewhere, the aifarchive Yahoo! group's slide into irrelevance accelerated. As in 2014, the number of posts dropped by almost fifty percent compared to the previous year, reaching a record low of 637. The aifarchive group is still useful as a means for authors to advertise their game releases or get coding help, but its days as the hub of the AIF community are surely over. I suspect that most game discussion has moved to authorial blogs (although a few of those have gone moribund this year as well). For the lazy (such as me) or anyone who's new to AIF, this kind of balkanisation is unhelpful.
Speaking of laziness, this blog isn't quite dead, but for the second year in a row I only managed slightly more than one post a month. That's mostly down to the fact that I ran out of things I wanted to write about some time ago, but it's also partly due to my waning enthusiasm for AIF in general (which probably also informs my pessimistic appraisal above).
That said, if history teaches us anything it's that porn always finds a way. Happy new year.
The Best
The Lost Hound by Palaverous - A fantasy epic and probably the best piece of purely textual AIF to be written for several years.
Working Man by Ice - The comparisons to GoblinBoy are overblown, but not by that much. An excellent first game from Ice.
Let Me In by BBBen - An ambitious experiment in bringing a natural language interface to AIF.
Full list of games
Coffee Date by Lamont Sanford
Condomocium by Octarine Flash
Enticing Ella - by BeanBean
Hail to the King - by Minterlint
Let Me In - by BBBen
Teacher's Pet by Dr Realgood
The Heir by Efon
The Lost Hound by Palaverous
Working Man by Ice
You've Got Mail by Brokenknight

October 27, 2015

Review: Pandora by Mortze

Pandora is an HTML dating game by Mortze that was released on 15 October 2015.

You might remember Mortze as one half of the team that produced Dreaming with Elsa earlier this year. Pandora is his first solo effort. It was intended to be a much larger game (and still might be), but was released early so that he could collect feedback. Pandora superficially resembles Brad's Erotic Week in that both games have plots that are far more ambitious than is typical of HTML dating games. Unfortunately, although Pandora has some goods points, this initial release also manages to hit nearly every pet peeve I have when it comes to AIF.

First and foremost, the text clearly wasn't proofread. There are no testers of any kind listed in the credits and, more obviously, there are errors on practically every page. These are mostly typos and spelling mistakes, but there are also instances of missing or incorrect punctuation, awkward sentence structure, and inappropriate word choice. I know I've already given this particular dead horse quite the beating over the years, but getting your text proofread is by far the easiest way to improve the objective quality of your game. Especially if you're writing an HTML dating game, as the text is so readily accessible. And even more especially if you're trying to persuade people to give you money for your work, as Mortze is with his Patreon. As it is, he's getting his audience (some of whom are giving him money) to do his testing for him. That's a practice I've been very critical of elsewhere, and I don't see any reason to make an exception here. On the plus side, I didn't encounter any actual bugs while playing the game (there is one thing that isn't working as intended, but it's invisible to the player).

Pandora puts the player in the role of Kean, a young marine engineer on the good ship Pandora. He's a stereotypical nerd: a socially awkward virgin who wears glasses and is a huge fan of both Star Wars and hentai, This made him a more interesting character to me than the typical AIF protagonist but, unfortunately, the stereotype verges on caricature when it comes to his interactions with women. The most obvious example is Kean fainting the first time he touches a woman’s breasts, but he also orgasms prematurely in almost every sexual encounter he has (and in the one exception he maintains control by thinking about Jabba the Hutt). There is an element of realism to the latter problem, but I’m not convinced that realism is something that AIF should be striving for.

However, the bigger problem for me is how passive Kean is. He is presumably the protagonist of the game, but he spends a sizable chunk of his time just sitting around while the other characters say and do things. On those occasions when he does do something, it's usually because another character has told him to. This is another of my pet peeves, and it's affected more experienced authors than Mortze. I think the root cause is that it's much easier to tell a story when you don't have to accommodate the protagonist (and by extension the player) actually doing anything. Unfortunately, I don't find watching the story unfold around the PC to be as interesting or involving as being allowed to drive the progression of the plot through my decisions.

The other reason for Kean's passivity is because the plot of Pandora requires a great deal of exposition. Unfortunately, the HTML dating game format can only display a limited amount of text per page, so every time there's a cut scene the player has to click through a dozen or so pages, which slows the game's pacing to a crawl. The author has said that his intention was to write something more like a visual novel, and this kind of storytelling would have worked far better in that format (not least because the player could easily skip text they'd already read). Unfortunately, choosing the HTML dating game format means trying to force a round peg into a square hole.

Anyhow, the ostensible plot of the game is that the Pandora and everyone on it have been hired for an expedition to find Atlantis, which isn’t the most original idea ever. That's not to say that you can't make a good game out of it, but it needs either a fresh take to make it interesting, or good writing to sell it to the player. Sadly, what this release provides isn't too convincing. Supposedly the leaders of the expedition have new evidence for the location of Atlantis, but that evidence is never revealed. That's a rather serious omission given that there's no evidence for the *existence* of Atlantis other than a couple of allegorical essays by Plato, and consequently I needed something to help my suspension of disbelief. What we get instead is a retelling of the myth of Atlantis's destruction, along with the story of Pandora for good measure. The former differs from the traditional tale by introducing the idea that gods are dependent on the belief of their worshippers (a modern trope), and by making Hera the cause of Poseidon's wrath. I'm not sure what the point of the latter was, but blaming a woman for something bad happening dovetails nicely into the story of Pandora. This is told in more traditional fashion, although the fact that Aphrodite bestowing her gift of beauty is represented by Pandora's skin lightening is a rather unfortunate visual.

I describe the search for Atlantis as being the ostensible plot because very little happens to progress it. Instead, the bulk of this release is taken up by the two romantic subplots and the task of introducing the overlarge cast of characters. The major NPCs are Maggie (the shy virgin with a secret sorrow), Rita (the French tsundere with a secret sorrow), and Nikki (the organiser of the expedition… who has a secret sorrow). The supporting cast includes Roos (the flirty girl), her friend Kaori (the not-quite-as-flirty girl), Farik, Laura (the ship's doctor), Talia (the aggressive Israeli pilot), the Professor, his assistant Cassandra (which I hope isn't a case of meaningful name), Nate (the lone sceptic), the Captain, the Captain’s son Noah, and a couple of miscellaneous crew members. None of them are bad characters by any means, but because there are so many of them, most only get enough screentime for a basic introduction. That problem is exacerbated by the fact that very few of those introductions involve the player actually interacting with the NPC in question. Instead, most of the characterisation happens via NPCs talking to each other while the PC happens to be in the room (or spying on them through an unbelievably convenient hole), which is hardly the most interesting way of delivering that information.

In its present state, Pandora reads more like a linear story that's had little bits of gameplay added here and there. For example, there are a large number of screens (I'd estimate more than half) where there is only one clickable link. On those occasions when the player is offered a choice, it's often meaningless because the results are identical. Where there is a meaningful difference (eg. where one option provides points and the other doesn't), there's frequently no way of distinguishing between them. There is no visible score, and in many cases choosing a scoring option goes to the same screen (and therefore gets the same response) as a non-scoring option. This means that the player may have no idea that they've made a mistake until they unexpectedly run into a game over screen. Unless you're willing to cheat or consult a walkthrough, succeeding at this game requires a lot of trial and error, which is made even more tedious by the number of non-interactive screens that have to be clicked through each time you replay the game.

By this point you might well be wondering if there was anything about Pandora that I actually liked? Well, I thought the characters (with the exception of the PC) were more than acceptable. I especially appreciated that Farik's religiosity was positively portrayed. I do think there are far too many characters, but in general the NPCs are likeable (except for the ones who obviously aren't intended to be), and I'm interested in finding out what happens to them, so mission accomplished. The art is also very good, probably the game's saving grace at the moment, and supports the characterisation by making the NPCs visually distinct. I'm interested to see where the plot goes, but my future enjoyment very much depends on the PC (and thus the player) taking a more active role and being given choices that determine how the story plays out. This does happen during the two major sex scenes in this release. For example, the scene with Roos in the hot tub can play out in about half a dozen ways depending on what the player does. The scene with Maggie in the sub doesn't have as many different outcomes, but the player is still presented with meaningful choices (although not necessarily any means to distinguish between their options). This kind of gameplay is much more interesting to me, and I hope to see more of it.

The bottom line is that I think Pandora is a game with a number of promising elements, marred by poor execution. However, the majority of those problems are the result of the author's inexperience. Only the writing is objectively 'bad', and that could be remedied by a good editor. This first release doesn’t convince me to spend any money on Pandora, but underneath all the problems it's still promising enough that I'm interested in what happens next.

You can download Pandora here.

A walkthrough is available here.

August 8, 2015

Review: Working Man by Ice

Working Man by Ice was released on 3 August 2015. It was made with ADRIFT 5 and is the result of two years of work by its first-time author. So how did it turn out?

Despite the title, the PC actually has a lot of time for living. In fact, the scenes that occur at the PC's workplace are so brief that it's not even clear what his job is. Instead, the majority of the game takes place at the PC's house and focuses on his interactions with his family (wife, daughter, and sister-in-law). On the face of it, the PC's life seems pretty good. He works long hours, but his job doesn't seem stressful and it pays for a nice house. He and his gorgeous younger wife seem to get on well, and have a pretty active sex life given that she works even longer hours than he does. He clearly loves his daughter since he plays along with her games even though he secretly hates them. But despite all that, he's actively on the prowl for extra-curricular activity, and when the opportunity arises he pursues it without a moment's hesitation or guilt.

If you've read any of my other reviews you'll know how much importance I place on motivation, so this was a problem for me. Why does the PC choose to endanger his marriage with what is sometimes very risky behaviour? There's no hint that he's unhappy or unsatisfied. He's not doing it for a bet. He's not possessed by an alien. The only explanation I can come up with is that he's a character in an AIF game and he knows what's expected of him.

He's not the only one either. Despite the PC supposedly being out of shape and having a receding hairline, women throw themselves at him with little to no provocation. The most egregious example is the scene with Tiffany and Crystal. The pretext is that they want the PC to act as a sperm donor, despite the fact that they barely know him and realistically he wouldn't be a great donor due to both his age and his recent sexual activity. Of course, because this is AIF, and despite Crystal and Tiffany being both lesbians and in a committed relationship, they're happy to throw themselves into a threesome (up to and including anal) if the PC decides to make any sort of move.

I’d be happy with that kind of scene in a light-hearted romp, but that's not really the type of game that Working Man is. Tonally, it definitely isn't. The PC's actions have consequences, putting his marriage in genuine jeopardy and potentially leaving him broke and alone at the end of the game. But I get the sense that Working Man can't decide what it really wants to be. This is most obvious with some of the endings. For example, if the PC doesn't have sex with either Stephanie or Sharon, you get an ending where he's blissfully in love with his wife and they live happily ever after. Which is immediately followed by epilogues about all the sex the PC is still having with any of the secondary characters he might have slept with. To make things even more confusing, that happily ever after ending occurs even if the PC knows his wife was cheating on him (and is continuing to do so judging by all the little hints). The implication seems to be that the PC is a fool for not cheating on his wife, since she's cheating on him. Except that he did, just not with any of the characters who actually matter.

This reflects the schizophrenic nature of Working Man. On one side you have the characters like Anna and Maya, who are in the game only to provide the PC with an opportunity to have sex and don’t exist outside of their cut scenes. On the other are the characters the story is actually about, such as Stephanie or Sharon. The player is able to interact with them and they are outfitted with a broad range of conversation responses, which makes them much more lifelike. The development of the PC's relationships with these major characters happens in several stages and requires active intervention from the player, so it’s both believable and involving. Some implausibilities remain, but there is an effort to overcome them. For example, Stephanie has a boyfriend she's apparently crazy about, so it's a little odd that she would want to lose her virginity to the PC. However, her boyfriend is portrayed as being more sexually aggressive than she's comfortable with (he's kind of a douche actually), so the idea that she would choose a 'safer' option for her first time becomes more believable. The fact that this difficulty is acknowledged, rather than simply being ignored, makes it easier to swallow. While I have misgivings about the minor characters, I think that the major characters of Working Man are some of the best NPCs in recent memory.

Unfortunately, the game’s puzzles don’t live up to the same standard, particularly in terms of their believability. For example, the PC is meant to buy some extra time for his dalliance with Stephanie by locking the front door with the spare key that's kept under the doormat. The fact that in this day and age no sane person would use such an obvious hiding place is the least of the problems here. A much bigger issue is that the PC has to use the spare key because he doesn't have a key to his own house. In other words, the believable solution is arbitrarily rejected in order to make it more of a puzzle. As if to emphasise this, the PC's wife *does* have her own key. Moreover, she seems to magically know if the spare key is or isn't under the mat where it's supposed to be. But while she's vitally concerned that the spare key always be in place, she's somehow not worried about the front door being left wide open. So, while the basic idea of the puzzle is fine, the way it's implemented involves implausibility on top of implausibility.

The writing doesn't help matters a great deal either. Room descriptions seldom rise above an inventory of their contents, and object descriptions are even more basic. Important facts, such as the PC apparently having an ongoing affair with his daughter's ballet teacher, are never mentioned (I could be misreading that, but if so Anna's scene becomes even more implausible). The text also has an unfortunate tendency to contradict both the gameworld and itself. For example, the description of Laura's entrance into the house says that she opens the door (even if it's already open) and closes it behind her (which she doesn't). A painting is described as beautiful in the room description, but on closer inspection the PC hates it for unspecified reasons. And so on.

The upshot of all this is that I had difficulty suspending my disbelief for long enough to become truly invested in any of the sex scenes. That's a shame because objectively speaking they're very good. My only real criticism would be that certain actions are repeatable even when it would make no sense (Tiffany losing her anal virginity over and over, for example). That quibble aside, there's a lot to like. The author certainly seems more interested in writing about sex than he was in describing household objects, which translates to greater enjoyment for the reader. There's also much greater use of graphics, which I'm sure most people will appreciate. The character models are generally very good (Maya, Laura, and Tiffany being my personal favourites), although I can't help noting that the PC's six-pack and unruly mop of hair doesn't exactly match his description.

I've seen a lot of comments likening Ice to the second coming of GoblinBoy, which seems to be mainly based on Working Man being a large game with a lot of graphics. That's not to say that it isn't an impressive game, but despite its overall quality it’s still very much a *first* game, with the occasional lack of polish and questionable design decisions that that implies. For example, pretty much every object that could be openable is, even if it never serves any purpose in the game. This means that the player has to waste time opening and searching everything, on the off chance that something important might be concealed. Conversely, some things are left unimplemented, to the detriment of the player's experience. For example, if the PC tries to enter his house without opening the front door first, he will be bluntly told that there's nothing in that direction.

The game that Working Man actually reminds me of is Peril in Pleasantville. Working Man is obviously a *lot* better executed, but both are ambitious first-time games that offer a lot of content and make heavy use of graphics. More importantly, both demonstrate the risks of making such an ambitious project your first game (Pleasantville rather more effectively, it has to be said). Pretty much every problem I had with Working Man is the result of the author's inexperience rather than any lack of effort on his part. If this had been the author's second or third game (or if it had been released ten years ago), I think we’d be talking about it as one of best games of all time. The ambition and dedication is certainly there, as demonstrated by the size of the game and the amount of content concealed within it. Unfortunately, that extra level of quality that only comes with experience is not. Yet. Here’s hoping that Ice doesn’t decide to end his AIF career here.