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 clichéd 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* Jessika 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 never explained) 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 now 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.

July 9, 2015

Review: Dreaming with Elsa by Tlaero and Mortze

I must admit to having mixed feelings about Tlaero's past games. The original Keeley game was ground-breaking when it was released, combining the 'virtual date' format with the idea of forming an actual relationship between the two principals. It got a spin-off in the form of Daydreaming with Keeley, an 'imaginary story' where the characters enjoyed what is still the most intricate sex scene in any HTML dating game. That was followed by Getting To Know Christine, which combined a series of sexy scenarios with a memorable female lead. However, I was disappointed with Life With Keeley, the next game, because of its reluctance to allow its female protagonist either sexual desires or any sort of agency. Then came Coffee For Keisha, with its preachy tone, unlikeable female lead, and (again) lack of player agency. Since then there's only been a mash up of the first two Keeley games, which I don't think improved either. But now we have Dreaming with Elsa, which pairs Tlaero with a new collaborator in Mortze, who contributed the art and the sex scenes. How does it measure up?

Like most of Tlaero’s previous games, Dreaming with Elsa (or DwE, as I'm going to refer to it) has a plot that extends beyond boy dates girl. The player is Jason, a glorified deliveryman whose job brings him into contact with introverted bookshop owner Elsa (although why a bookshop with only two employees needs such frequent deliveries from a single publisher is never explained). The two form a connection when they realise that they have somehow been appearing in each other's dreams.

While this concept provides a memorable hook, I can't honestly say that it translated into a good plot. It feels like once they'd come up with the idea, the authors either didn't know what to do with it or weren't sure how to integrate it into an adult game. So they just shoved it to one side and said that a dread tome holds all the answers but Elsa can't read it because of reasons, so in the meantime she and Jason might as well use this amazing power to go on dates.

The dread tome in question is called Morpheus, although none of the supposedly literate characters note that that's the name of the Greek god of sleep (and a character from the Matrix movies) rather than a title that would make sense for a book. The author seems to be going for something in a Lovecraftian vein, with the references to the book's age, the dark lore it contains, and other copies being destroyed under strange circumstances. Unfortunately, the end result is more MacGuffin than Unaussprechlichen Kulten. At the appropriate juncture, Elsa simply decides to read it (offscreen and without consulting the PC) and, far from it being dangerous or even difficult to do so, it gives her the power to neatly wrap everything up in an Elsa ex machina. Thus, the ostensible plot of the game is in practice merely a device to get Elsa and Jason into each other's dreams.

Disappointingly, those dreams turn out to be a little bland. Despite all the weird and wonderful things that could potentially happen in dreams, for their all-important first date Jason and Elsa choose either the park or the beach, two locations that were used for dates in the original Keeley game (and several other games by the same author). No riding a gondola in Venice or having a picnic on the moon. The second dream is a little more unusual, but the strangeness is merely window dressing. It doesn't help that Conner and Chloe (Jason and Elsa's respective best friends) blithely accept that the two of them are dating in their dreams, rather than treating that fact with any sort of surprise or wonder (there is actually a reason for this, but neither of the main characters pick up on it).

Elsa herself is something of an atypical character for the author (her name doesn't begin with a 'k' sound for a start). While the female NPC leads from the previous games have all been confident (to a fault in some cases), Elsa is an introvert who seldom leaves her own shop. In fact, it could be argued that the game is really about Elsa overcoming her introversion. Unfortunately, it's never explained why Elsa has such a crippling fear of the outside world. There are references to her having had a sheltered childhood, but it's also stated that she's been to college and had a boyfriend. Likewise, she works successfully in a customer-facing job, so she can't suffer from that much social anxiety. It seems as though the actual purpose of Elsa's fear is to provide an obstacle to her relationship with Jason. However, it's more of a theoretical obstacle than a practical one as it never causes Elsa real problems. In fact, she rather abruptly starts bossing the PC about ("Make it 30") in the manner of a Keisha or Christine. What saves her is the fact that having and admitting a weakness allows her to remain a sympathetic character and makes it believable that she needs Jason (although in practice she never actually does).

Chloe could be a far more interesting character than she is, but there's too much that the player isn't told about her. Given the measures she takes, she must be desperate to get her hands on the aforementioned dread tome. But why she wants it (the key to a good villain) remains a mystery. The details of her plan are fairly hazy as well. Why does she think Jason is such a good match for Elsa that she's willing to kill someone to get them together? Why does she need to kill someone to bring Jason into Elsa’s life when she can apparently change his job assignment at a moment's notice? How does she know to be on hand at Jason's apartment building to wake him up? What was she planning on doing about Elsa's safe if Jason wasn't conveniently willing to give up the combination? As it is, once Elsa effortlessly bests her (without any input from Jason or the player, naturally), Chloe meekly shuffles off stage and is never heard from again (at least in this game).

Jason himself suffers from the fact that DwE uses the same underlying mechanics as Coffee for Keisha. His dialogue options thus come in two radically different 'flavours', termed "sexual" and "romantic" in the game. The fact that he can veer back and forth between these two extremes contradicts the little characterisation he does receive and it never feels like he has a personality of his own. It doesn't help that the majority of the "sexual" answers make Jason sound like a lazy caricature of a sexist male, unimaginatively calling every female character "babe" and describing them as "hot". There's nothing seductive about it at all, and it's astounding that it's effective with any woman, let alone the introverted Elsa. Indeed, Jason *is* astounded when Conner successfully uses similar lines on Chloe. The "romantic" lines aren't a great deal better, mostly consisting of Jason being blandly polite, but at least it's somewhat plausible that Elsa would find them appealing. These duelling dialogue options become less common in the second half of the game, but are replaced by Jason constantly admiring and complimenting Elsa. That gets repetitive, and is even lampshaded as such by one of the achievements. There are a handful of good character moments (notably Jason and Elsa's interactions at the restaurant), but they're few and far between.

As with Coffee For Keisha, the other effect of these mechanics is to prevent the player from having any direct influence on the plot. How the story plays out depends solely on which style of dialogue the player picks, and there are few other choices to make. The biggest difference between the two paths is the location of the first two dream dates. Otherwise the effects are largely cosmetic, and the player will likely miss most of them unless they're really paying attention. As if to emphasise the player's inability to affect anything, the game indulges in a bait and switch, offering the player the choice of where to take Elsa on their first date only for her to veto that decision if it's not the one they're supposed to pick. With no real decisions to make, the gameplay is limited to picking out the appropriate dialogue from the two or three options provided. Unfortunately, that's not much of a challenge because of how different they are.

One of the big positives for DwE is Mortze's art, which I found to be a breath of fresh air. My abiding memory of Coffee For Keisha is the scowl frozen on to Keisha's face (which occasionally melted just enough to produce a half smile without any other alteration in her features). There's none of that here and Mortze's characters are much more expressive. He also uses a wider variety of viewing angles and avoids the predictable layouts (one or two characters standing superimposed on a static background) of most HTML dating games. The design of the female characters is another plus. Chloe may be a bland villain, but she's memorable because of her distinctive appearance. The overall result is a game that's very interesting to look at.

While none of the sex scenes stand out in my memory, I enjoyed almost all of them. It helped that both characters demonstrably lusted after each other. It's to be expected that Jason wants Elsa, but having the lust flowing in the other direction as well gives the scenes a charge of passion and emotion that makes them more believable and therefore more enjoyable. It also makes a pleasant change from married Keeley being unable to admit to having any sexual desires of her own, or Keisha's icy self-control bleeding every ounce of passion from her scenes with Sam. The only real dud is the dream scene with Chloe, since it's blatantly obvious that Chloe is only doing it to get the book (emphasised by the fact that she's already had sex with Jensen and Conner for the same purpose). I found it unbelievable that Jason would be willing to betray Elsa just to get his rocks off, especially since it was Chloe who spoiled his chances with Elsa.

In technical terms, DwE meets the standards you would expect from the author. Everything works smoothly, and there are no obvious bugs or broken links. As always happens, a handful of spelling mistakes and typos have crept through, as has the author's unfortunate habit of erroneously capitalising certain words. Aside from some problems with the two extremes of Jason's dialogue, the writing is solid and the characters feel fresh and new. The one notable exception is the bonus scene with Theresa, who feels like a throwback to the earlier games, right down to her overuse of the word "Dear".

I'm hesitant to describe DwE as a return to form after the missteps of Life With Keeley and Coffee For Keisha (modestly described as a "classic" when Jason plays it in-game) because in many ways it's the same game. The author is still either unable or unwilling to allow the player to drive the plot or otherwise be the protagonist of the story. But it was ever thus. As much as I like Getting to Know Christine, it sidelines the PC (and therefore the player) in the same way as the games that came after it. The difference is that Adrian was written in a way that made that plausible, and the lack of player agency was made more palatable by the number of inventive and memorable scenes. Thankfully, and despite its similarities to Coffee For Keisha, DwE manages something similar. Most importantly, Elsa is a sympathetic character. She's likeable, and traverses something like a character arc over the course of the game. The shared dreams concept gives the game a memorable hook, even if it's not used to its full potential. Finally, the sex scenes are enjoyable and seemingly fun for the characters, with none of the ambivalence of the previous two games, which is a big plus for me. When you add in the strength of Mortze’s graphics on top of that, Dreaming with Elsa edges ahead of Getting To Know Christine to become my favourite Tlaero game so far.

Dreaming with Elsa by Tlaero and Mortze was released on 3 July 2015 and can be downloaded here.

April 25, 2015

Make love not war

War! What is it good for? That's a question I'll be trying to answer in today's look at combat and combat systems in AIF.

The number of AIF games that include combat systems of some kind seems to be on the rise. The most recent (and the proximate inspiration for this post) was The Lost Hound by Palaverous Minstrel. But prior to that there's been Pervert Action Future by BBBen, several of the Gifts of Phallius games, The Tesliss Equation, One Last Payday, Bodywerks, and probably others that I'm forgetting. So there's obviously a niche in AIF that can be filled by combat gameplay. However, I'm not entirely sure what that niche is since the bulk of the combat in those games is of the random encounter type. That is, there is no narrative reason for the PC to fight most of the battles in those games (other than simple survival). Winning doesn't lead to the plot being advanced or characterisation being revealed, it just means that you don't lose. So what is combat good for in AIF?

It's probably not an accident that nearly all of the examples I listed above fall into either the fantasy or science-fiction genres. Bodywerks, the odd one out, is a TF game but it features some sci-fi elements. That leads me to suspect that one of the main reasons that combat appears in AIF at all is to satisfy genre tropes. That idea gets some support from the fact that most combat systems in AIF seem to be inspired by old school Dungeons & Dragons. Each side takes turns trying to hit the other. Whether or not they hit and how much damage they do is at least somewhat random, although it can be affected by things like character skill or equipment. There might be additional complications such as spells and healing potions (or their equivalents), but overall there's nothing that I wouldn't recognise from my first game of D&D nearly thirty years ago. The thing is, role-playing games have moved on quite a bit since then. Many modern games de-emphasise combat in favour of investigation or social interaction. D&D itself has gone in the other direction by becoming more tactical, supporting the use of miniatures and combat maps (or at least that's the impression I get; I haven't played the last few editions). So why does that old fashioned style of combat still appear in AIF?

The most obvious answer is that it's relatively simple to implement, both in concept and in terms of programming (assuming you don't make things even easier by adapting what someone else has already created). So if you want combat in your game, that's how you'd do it. But why would you want a combat system at all? After all, the basic idea of AIF is to get the player (in the role of the PC) to want to have sex with the NPCs. Introducing combat scenes doesn't obviously achieve that. At best they can form an obstacle blocking the PC's path to sexual bliss, but for some reason there's seldom a direct connection made between winning a battle and winning the girl (or guy). Instead combats are used more as general obstacles, where winning allows the game to continue and perhaps gives the PC an item that will be useful later. In that sense combat scenes perform the same function as puzzles in traditional IF. Using a D&D-style combat system, with its random elements, also introduces drama and uncertainty, albeit of a very contrived sort. It's also ultimately meaningless since the player can simply save the game prior to the combat and replay it until they win (or just UNDO every time they miss or get hit). In the end, the only thing adding combat to AIF really achieves is to increase the amount of time the player has to spend fighting their way through the gameplay to get to the 'good stuff'.

That's not necessarily a problem if the combat itself is at least somewhat fun, but that's a tricky thing to achieve. In a tabletop role-playing game (such as D&D) the 'fun' of combat comes from the fact that you're interacting with your friends, the narration supplied by the GM and/or players, and the fact that there are no save points so there is real uncertainty about the outcome. Computer games can replicate D&D's basic mechanics, but not those other elements (except for the lack of save points, but that's highly annoying for other reasons). Most CRPGs therefore add additional elements such as tactical movement or abstracting the combat into some other form (card games seem to be popular) to make combat enjoyable. Unfortunately, those solutions are not possible with the commonly used AIF authoring systems. Additionally, the limitations of the text interface mean that the more complex the combat system becomes, the clunkier it is from the player's point of view.

So, if you're going to insert combat into your game, my preference would be that you didn't base it on D&D (or use any random elements at all for that matter). About the only time I'd make an exception is if it's possible to 'opt out' of the combat, by making it more of a puzzle than a lottery. The Lost Hound gestures in this direction by adding hit locations that the player can target to do greater damage. That's okay for individual combats, since finding the weak points engages the player and, all things being equal, the PC should win if they make use of that strategy. Unfortunately the frequency of the combats in The Lost Hound result in the PC getting worn down by the simple act of walking from A to B, meaning that frequent saves are a must if you want to avoid the frustration of having to replay large sections. Another possible solution is to only force the player to win the combat once, and let them bypass it on all subsequent playthroughs. Finally, you could make the combat a CYOA sequence or a series of possible actions, which would give the combat a more obvious narrative.

The question that I've momentarily let go by the wayside is why would you insert combat into AIF at all? First and foremost it has to serve a worthwhile purpose in the context of the game and its narrative. Although I've maligned them, random encounters do signal to the player that the PC is in a life-threatening situation (or at least a situation where they may have to reload the game once or twice). The problem is that's it's difficult to maintain that level of tension indefinitely without the player becoming blasé. It also makes it more difficult to *raise* the tension level when the player finally reaches an encounter that's supposed to be dramatically important. So ultimately, I don't think that random encounters improve most interactive fiction.

The second half of Tesliss Equation provides a good example of what I'm talking about. The final battle against Groldar is intended to be climactic, and is certainly built up that way. Groldar has been harassing the PC throughout the game (albeit in a different form), and has gotten a few good 'kick the dog' moments along the way. Moreover, the player has discovered Groldar's plan to eradicate all life on the planet to increase his power, so his villainous bona fides are pretty well established. If ever a situation justified a big battle scene, this is it. But to get to that point the player has had to struggle through a half dozen or so encounters that are mechanically identical to fighting Groldar. Consequently, this climactic battle doesn't feel nearly as unique or important as it should. It doesn't help that the combat system in Tesliss Equation isn't very deep and consists of repeating the same command over and over while hoping for the best. But what's probably worse is the fact that (unlike the random encounters) it's impossible to lose this particular battle. If the PC is over-matched (and the way the battle is set up, he will be unless the player is willing to make liberal use of UNDO), an NPC sweeps in to save the day. So ultimately there's no real tension or uncertainty, and therefore no reason for there to be an interactive battle scene at all. I actually found the PC's first battle with Groldar to be a lot more interesting, even though the stakes aren't nearly as high. That was partly due to the combat system being both a little more involved and specifically tailored to the situation, and partly because the PC's motivations were a little more AIF-specific (ie. he was fighting partly to impress a pretty girl). By contrast, which girl(s) the PC ends up with (if any) is entirely unrelated to the defeat of Groldar, meaning that that battle isn't as significant in AIF terms as it is to the plot.

The Lost Hound proceeds along largely similar lines, right down to the PC needing to be saved by an NPC. However, there is much more combat than there is in The Tesliss Equation. More random encounters and more boss battles, so by the time I finally reached the Big Bad I felt rather exhausted. More importantly, few of the battles are personal in nature. You don't even find out who the Big Bad is until virtually the final act. The combats are just obstacles you have to pass in order to reach the next stage of the game. It's like being forced to solve the same puzzle over and over, except that you arbitrarily fail every so often and have to reload.

Of the examples I listed above, the combats in One Last Payday and Final Sacrifice are probably the best in a narrative sense, because the fact that they are happening is a key part of the plot and 'winning' is therefore important. Additionally, the fact that they're both small games means that the combat doesn't outstay its welcome. Pervert Action Future has by far the best combat system I've seen in IF, but the battles themselves don't feel very consequential, partly because the reason why they're happening isn't revealed until very late in the game, and partly because it doesn't appear to make any difference to the plot whether the PC wins or loses. PAF does at least directly link the PC's success in battle with their success in romance, albeit in a purely mechanical way. The best fight scene in AIF that I can think of is also one of the simplest. The PC's battle with the school bully in Peril in Pleasantville occurs for good (if clichéd) narrative reasons, and is interesting because of that. Winning the fight doesn't depend on luck at all, and both winning and losing lead to different AIF-relevant outcomes for the PC.

So after all that rambling, what are my conclusions? While I wouldn't say that (video game) war is good for absolutely nothing, I've yet to encounter a combat system that makes AIF better as AIF. Bashing any obstacles into submission isn't a very interesting way to win the girl or guy of your dreams, unless the bashing itself can be made entertaining. Unfortunately, that's difficult to do. I've seen some impressive things done with Ren'Py (probably because it supports Python), but text-based systems like Inform or ADRIFT have much greater limitations in terms of what they can display. On that basis I would say that if you're writing traditional AIF you should avoid combat scenes if at all possible. If you can't because your plot demands some sort of climactic battle (as in Tesliss Equation), then you might be justified in using some sort of combat system, although I think it would be preferable to find some other way of representing the combat. Either way, you should definitely resist the temptation to insert other, non-plot critical, combats into the game. Basically, just give peace a chance.