July 19, 2014

AIF Minicomp 2014 - The morning after

I've had some time to think about my doings, so today you'll be getting some more considered comments rather than the stream of consciousness that you had to endure yesterday.

One thing that's struck me is how many of this year's entries are either incomplete or obviously untested. In past years one or all of Fucking Monster Bash, Lark Rise, and Slim Spady Detective wouldn't have been entered, as the author would have just accepted that they'd missed the deadline.

The other noticeable thing is that half of the entries are Twine games. I don't want to knock Twine as an authoring system, but it's obvious that the Minicomp rules weren't written with CYOA games in mind. On top of that, they require less work from the author than a traditional text parser-based system, meaning that four Twine games being entered isn't quite as impressive as four TADS games, for example.

The end result is that I find it hard to think of this year's Minicomp as a triumph in terms of participation, as the entries aren't comparable with previous years. I also believe that once this Minicomp finishes there needs to be a long hard look taken at the rules to see if the restrictions should be relaxed or tightened to improve the chances of authors completing the games they plan (announcing the Minicomp sooner might help with this as well). The rules also need to be changed to better accommodate CYOA games, since all the signs are that we're going to be seeing more of them.

Putting all of that to one side, once you remove the obviously untested/incomplete games from the equation, the quality of this year's field is actually pretty damn good. In the last five years, I'd say that only the 2011 Minicomp was better. So at least that's one sign that things are moving in the right direction.

Anyhow, for today's riveting instalment I'm going to start taking an in-depth look at each of the entries, starting with...

One Last Pay Day by Louys Bilitis

In terms of its design, OLDB is what I think of as a 'good' Minicomp game. It makes efficient use of the available resources (characters and locations) to tell a complete story without having to resort to anything devious. However, while the underlying structure is very solid, my first impression was that it was covered by a plot of action movie clich├ęs. The protagonist is a grizzled veteran who is contemplating retirement because he is "getting too old for this shit". Shockingly, his 'last' mission goes wrong and he has to rescue his best friend from certain death. His sidekick in all this is an improbably hot chick in implausibly revealing 'armour'.

Those elements could have made a good starting point, but there's no real attempt to flesh them out, or add depth or originality to the world. For example, it's not explained who the mercenaries are working for, who they're fighting, or what the PC is planning to do with his last payday. The aliens don't even get described. The latter is perhaps intentional, to emphasise that the mercenaries are only it for the money and don't care why they're fighting. However, the general lack of specific detail made it difficult for me to suspend my disbelief, and as a result I had trouble getting into this game.

The characters fare a little better, with most of them getting moments that lift them above being mere stereotypes. Jacob gets a heroic speech when he's sent to his death, which works well as a display of raw emotion. Keira is an amoral psychopath, which is atypical for a love interest. The climax of the game forces the player to choose which of them is going to be sacrificed to save the others. It's supposed to be a dramatic moment, tinged with tragedy. The problem is that it's difficult in such a short game to get the player invested in the characters to the extent that one of them dying actually means something. That's not helped by the decision to use 'talk to' rather than 'ask about', which makes the characters feel less dynamic and 'alive'. As it was, Keira was my first choice for the chopping block since she's portrayed as such an unlikeable person.

Obviously, I then reloaded to try out the sex scene. Mechanically speaking it's good. There are a couple of non-standard bodyparts to interact with, which makes a nice change, and the player is able to choose when (and therefore where) the PC orgasms. The latter is something I found much more satisfying than the standard arousal system. The writing is also of good quality. The only problem is that, as mentioned above, Keira is an amoral psychopath who is only having sex with the PC for what she can get out of it (and the PC looks like an idiot for thinking that they're going to live happily ever after). Again, that is perhaps the point, especially as it's implied that Keira is going to kill Schwartz and/or the PC in order to get her hands on as much of the money as possible. But it also means that it's not a scene that's going to live long in the memory.

My subjective impressions aside, it's only fair to say that OLDB is one of, if not the, most polished games in this year's Minicomp. There's nothing of impressive complexity, but the entire game runs very smoothly. There are no gaps in implementation, no having to guess the right verb. The closest thing to a bug I encountered was a small continuity error. That's pretty impressive, especially in the context of this Minicomp. Overall, and despite the fact that I personally didn't enjoy it that much, I'd be astounded if OLPD doesn't at least end up in the top three.

The Snowstorm by Anne Nee Moss

Unlike some of the Twine games in this year’s Minicomp, there’s no question of The Snowstorm violating the size restrictions, since there’s only one NPC and everything takes place in a single room. The setup is that the PC is trapped in a snowbound cabin with a girl he's just met, and they decide to pass the time with a game of truth or dare. As concepts go, that’s very well suited to the Minicomp. Maximum gameplay with minimal locations used. However, the characters go from being complete strangers to playing truth or dare in the space of a single cut scene, which was far too quick for my tastes. I would have found the whole situation more believable if Emily and the PC had interacted more before they started asking each other intimate questions.

The truth or dare game itself is kind of tricky to play. There’s no obvious reason why Emily would find being asked if she owns any sex toys more personal than discussing how she lost her virginity, but she does. It’s also not immediately obvious that some of the truths revealed open up extra options during the sex scene. For example, discovering that the PC has seen a girl ejaculate somehow gives Emily the capability to do the same. Finding out those sorts of things requires either a lot of trial and error (which stops being fun quite quickly), or looking at the source code (which is what I did). Another minor problem is that some of the dares involve Emily removing articles of clothing, but because that isn’t tracked at the end of every turn she is magically fully dressed again.

Given the nature of truth or dare, the player learns a lot about Emily. However, because the dares and questions can be asked in any order, and because the amount of detail Emily provides depends on how much influence the player has previously built up with her, the characterisation feels a bit piecemeal and incoherent. Additionally, the view the player gets of Emily is very much focused on her sex life. So, although I know how she lost her virginity, and that she carries a collection of sex toys with her, I’m not sure I could sum up what she’s like as a person.

The writing is wee bit shaky in places. It’s by no means the worst in the Minicomp, but it does have its share of typos and errors. I also get the impression that the author ran out of time as the vanilla sex actions have pretty minimalist descriptions, especially compared to the set pieces such as the buttplug.

Overall, I enjoyed The Snowstorm, but it was one of the games that was obviously the product of a first-time author. The concept was a good one, but it lacked the polish to really pull it off. Still an honourable effort though.

Friday Afternoon by Shannon O'Donnelly

Of all the games in this year’s Minicomp, I think Friday Afternoon comes the closest to breaking the rules in terms of the number of rooms, and perhaps characters. Given how Twine works you could argue that it just sneaks under the bar, but that might not have been the case if it had been written with another system.

The gameplay consists of being repeatedly presented with three options, all of which lead to the same (or at least a very similar) destination. What you won’t be able to work out until you’ve read the spoilers at the end of the game, is that each option is supposed to reflect a certain kind of behaviour (casual, flippant, wild), and that partially determines what happens in the sex scene. The problem is that it’s often not very clear which is supposed to be which, meaning that the gameplay can seem very random. That's especially true for the major branching point (is going to the sauna flippant or wild?). The lack of a bookmark function makes experimentation more difficult, so the most efficient way to deal with that problem is to look at the source code. Obviously, that is less than ideal.

The major strength of Friday Afternoon is its writing. There are a few places where it gets a little tangled or attempts one simile too many, but in general it’s some of the best in this year’s Minicomp. In particular, it does a good job of bringing the minor characters to life in the limited space they're allowed. Unfortunately, the major characters don't fare quite as well.

The PC is probably the weakest character, as he’s the kind of horny teenage boy that we’ve seen a dozen times before, with nothing to give him any depth or originality. He does have a big cock though, which is the only explanation provided for why Stephanie (the lust interest) is interested in him. Supposedly the feeling isn't mutual, but once Stephanie and the PC finally meet up they go into the sex scene almost immediately. Depending on which options were previously chosen, that scene can potentially end very abruptly, leaving the player wondering what the Hell happened. I think these problems are a symptom of the fact that this is a truncated version of what is intended to be a larger game, where Stephanie will presumably be developed more fully. That's fine in principle but what it means in practice is that we don’t get a complete story here.

I generally enjoyed Friday Afternoon, mainly because of the writing (and because I cheated). But while it’s an effective teaser for the promised larger story, I don’t think it works quite so well as a standalone Minicomp game.

Lark Rise by Dr Realgood

Through no real fault of the author's, Lark Rise suffers from a number of problems:
a) it didn’t receive any testing because of the deadline
b) the author had to rewrite the game at the last minute due to misreading the rules
c) it’s part of what was intended to be a much larger game

With all that going against it, it’s not very surprising that Lark Rise is one of the weakest games in this year’s Minicomp (not *the* weakest though, that ‘honour’ goes to someone else). Keeping that in mind, I’m going to try and focus on the things I liked about the game rather than the problems.

I appreciated the effort made to make the PC a specific character. It would have been very easy just to make him a horny teenage boy in a house with two beautiful women and let nature take its course. It’s true that none of the background detail really plays a part in the story as it currently stands, but it’s the thought that counts. Being of a certain age, I also liked the fact that the game was set in the 1980s. Bonus points for having the PC in a Frankie Goes To Hollywood shirt.

I thought the sex scene was surprisingly good, which probably sounds like damning with faint praise. Obviously the setup could have been better and it would have benefitted from more testing, but there were multiple responses to each action and their level of detail was much better than some of the other games.

While the writing wasn’t very good, it seemed to me that most of the problems were mechanical in nature. Things like spelling mistakes, misused punctuation, lack of paragraph breaks, and the odd run-on sentence. Those are the kinds of issues that can be fixed by working with a good proof-reader. If that happened I think the text would be more than acceptable, as what the author is trying to say seems solid enough.

Overall, while Lark Rise isn’t a good game at the moment, it is a game with potential. Hopefully it will receive the time and testing required to realise that potential.

Fucking Monster Bash by Hanon Ondricek

FMB is the most unfinished game in this year’s Minicomp, and was only submitted in case there was a game shortage. As it turned out, there were quite a healthy number of games so perhaps it should have been left out. C’est la vie.

The basic plot is that the PC is trying to get into a Halloween party, and that’s it. Once he gets inside there’s not really much to do except wander about and maybe dance. There is a sex scene, but it’s entirely unconnected to anything else that’s going on.

Despite those problems, the quality of the writing carries the game and amuses the player, even if they’ll probably be left unsatisfied in other respects. Oddly, it’s also the most technically sophisticated of this year’s games, incorporating layered clothing and a multi-stage puzzle. The one piece of technical implementation that falls flat is the conversation system, which I think would have worked better if it was menu-based.

I would definitely like to see a full-length game from Hanon Ondricek. Not necessarily this one, as I’m ambivalent about comedic AIF, but his writing is very good and his coding skills seem solid.

Dinner Plans by A One Hit Wonder

Full disclosure: I was one of the playtesters for Dinner Plans.

Obviously I'm not entirely impartial because of that, but I don't think there's much doubt that Dinner Plans is the best game in this year's Minicomp. OLPD is its closest competition, but that's more of an IF with (optional) sex. By contrast, in Dinner Plans the sex is the plot, making it true AIF game. Specifically, Jon (the PC) is attempting, with the encouragement and assistance of his friend Anna, to romance pizza delivery person Emily.

The way the plot plays out is very linear. The PC meets Emily, then talks to Anna, then meets Emily again, then talks to Anna again, and repeat until the game ends. It's an efficient use of the resources allowed by the Minicomp rules, but it also has the effect of slowing the pacing of the game to a crawl. That was my chief complaint during playtesting, but between time constraints and the restrictions of the minicomp it wasn't possible to do anything about it in the competition version.

None of the game's puzzles are very complex. The solutions mainly involve exploring the environment, and perhaps moving an object to a different room. Additionally, Anna tells the PC what to do about half the time. Unfortunately, most of the PC's actions feel friendly rather than romantic. It's good that they have a basis for a long-term relationship, but I would have appreciated the PC taking the initiative (actually asking Emily out, for example), or at least flirting with her. As it is, he's the perfect gentleman and it's Emily that has to make the first move. There's just enough interaction that it feels like the player did something to achieve that outcome, but it's a close run thing.

The end result is that Emily and the PC finally hook up in one of the two best sex scenes in this year's Minicomp. I think OLPD has the edge, mechanically speaking, but Dinner Plans was the one I enjoyed more because of the greater buildup and the fact that Emily is a more attractive and likeable character.

I'm in two minds about the ending, where it's revealed that Anna has been trying to push Emily and the PC together for her own reasons. On the one hand, it demonstrates that the NPCs have goals and motivations of their own, which contributes positively to their characterisation. On the other, it comes at the price of some of the player's agency. That wouldn't matter quite so much in a larger game where there would be more for the player to do, but in a game like this it does detract from my enjoyment a little. Despite that, Dinner Plans was still the game I enjoyed the most.

Amy the Slut by Lost Trout
Slim Spady Detective by nowherecity24

I haven't fully played either of these games and probably won't, so it would be unfair for me to write reviews of them.

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If you care, here is how I ranked the games (top 5 only):

Best concept
1. The Snowstorm
2. One Last Pay Day
3. Dinner Plans
4. Lark Rise
5. Amy the Slut

Best writing
1. Fucking Monster Bash
2. Friday Afternoon
3. Dinner Plans
4. One Last Pay Day
5. Amy the Slut

Best characters
1. Dinner Plans
2. Fucking Monster Bash
3. The Snowstorm
4. One Last Pay Day
5. Friday Afternoon

Best sex
1. Dinner Plans
2. One Last Pay Day
3. Lark Rise
4. The Snowstorm
5. Friday Afternoon

Best technical
1. Fucking Monster Bash
2. One Last Pay Day
3. Dinner Plans
4. Friday Afternoon
5. Amy the Slut

Best enjoyment
1. Dinner Plans
2. Friday Afternoon
3. Fucking Monster Bash
4. The Snowstorm
5. Lark Rise

Overall
1. Dinner Plans
2. One Last Pay Day
3. Friday Afternoon
4. The Snowstorm
5. Lark Rise

16 comments:

  1. A One Hit WonderJuly 22, 2014 at 2:59 AM

    Author of Dinner Plans here. Thanks for your thoughtful feedback - and I'd like to note for any readers that a similar critique was also kindly provided during your beta comments, much of which, due to time constraints, I was unable to address in the finished version of the game, as I was scrambling to complete unfinished sections!

    Without getting too spoilery, I did want to note that something I wanted to do in this game was provide the NPCs with (the illusion of) agency, which, as you note, had the effect of reducing a feeling of agency in the role of the PC. I like the idea, though, of the female NPCs as individuals in their own rights, with their own goals and motivations, which is very often reduced or absent in AIF. It's almost completely a genre of male fantasy, of course, but as a feminist, I wanted to write a story that subverts the sense of the NPC as nothing more than a passive sex object. As a first-time author (and, as my nom de porn suggests, probably a last-time author), I'm sure that I didn't do this as neatly and effectively as possible, but it was one of my primary goals in writing the game.

    On a game level, in retrospect, I probably should have had less signposting on the puzzles. I didn't want them to be too frustrating, but I think I clearly erred far on the side of caution here!

    And on the sex scene, while there was more I would have liked to do on a technical level there (as a peek under the hood with the Adrift developer will show), to be frank, I got very tired of writing it. Turns out that I much prefer conceptualizing and implementing the game-y aspects of the game, rather than the porn-y ones. I'm glad that it came across well, though, and certainly have a new level of appreciation for games like The Magician's Nephew!

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    1. "I'd like to note for any readers that a similar critique was also kindly provided during your beta comments, much of which, due to time constraints, I was unable to address in the finished version of the game"

      I've updated the disclosure statement to that effect. I didn't mention it initially because the readme says the same thing (although how many people read readmes?).

      Delete
  2. Thanks for the Reviews. But I'm Kind of stuck in "Dinner Plans". I can't seem to get the sex Scene. I played the right Music (I think) and I played the guitar and let her Play it. After that I gave her a generous tip. Her car broke down so I push in the Garage and fix it with her and not alone. But after that she just drives away and nothing happens. Anna even tells that I missed my shot. So did I Forget something or did I do something wrong? On the sports day I did both things, i.e. skates and tv, so I don't think that's the Problem. I always gave her a generous tip, because a huge tip seemed to creep her out. I would appreciate a hint or solution.

    Thanks in advnce and Keep up the good work.

    Cheers

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    1. Has the game finished? If not, keep going.

      Delete
    2. Unfortunately the game finished because I got the text that I lost. Can you do anything in the bar or after the bar to call Emily or something?

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    3. Can you still leave the bar on day3?

      What should happen if you've done enough things right is that on day 4 Emily comes to visit you. If you haven't you'll get a short scene with Emily delivering you pizza but refusing to call you by your first name. If you get neither of those things and the game ends on day 3, you've encountered a bug.

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    4. Than I didn't do enough things right, because I could leave the bar and Emily came to my house but refused to call me by name.

      Although I don't really know what I have done wrong. I turned on the tv to watched the match and put the skates on the floor. I think I also exausted all of the talking subjects with those two things.

      On the second day I put on the right music and put the guitar in the stand and the following actions. I also think that I exausted all talking topics on that day. But I will try again later.

      Maybe I did something wrong on the first encounter? But nothing springs to mind right now. I always gave her a generous tip because the other two seemed wrong.

      Could maybe give me a hint about the talking options. Because on the first day I just talked about her job, pizza bello and pizza in general.

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    5. This is a long shot, but what version of ADRIFT are you using? Other people have reported problems with different versions of the interpreter not being compatible.

      Delete
    6. Brief walkthrough for Dinner Plans:

      Day 1
      Ask Emily about job (+1)
      Ask Emily about Pizza Bella (+1)
      Generous top (+1)
      Kiss Anna five times at bar to makeout with her

      Day 2
      Watch sports (+1)
      Drop hockey gear in living room (+3)
      Tell Emily about game (+1)
      Ask Emily about sports (+1)
      Generous top (+1)

      Day 3
      Put guitar on stand (+1) (NB. you need to plug it into the amp as well)
      Listen to indie music (+1)
      Ask Emily about band (+2)
      Ask Emily about bass (+1)
      Play guitar (when plugged in) (+2)
      Give guitar to Emily (+1)
      Let Emily play your guitar (when plugged in) (+4)
      Generous top (+1)
      Give manual to Emily (+3)
      Fix car with Emily (+2)

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    7. Thanks for that. Although looking at the solution I don't see a difference to what I have done. I used Adrift 5, but just to be sure I will uninstall it and install it again.

      Delete
    8. Well it worked. I don't know if in my initial save I forgot one of the things or it was a problem with adrift but none the less I got the best ending. Although I don't know if bringing Anna into in the end is really the "best" ending. I would have preferred just the two chars. But good game and I had fun.

      Cheers again

      Delete
  3. Hmm... I was really impressed by One Last Pay Day. I can see where you'd think that it has cliched characters, but that was not something I sensed at all. I thought the characters were pretty believable and well-realized. I actually found the final dilemma somewhat moving, although I'm pretty sentimental actually so that isn't a great feat. My issue with the game was that it wasn't terribly erotic for me. There was no sexual tension, and I didn't like Keira as a person, especially when it was revealed she was as evil as all hell.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm probably being a bit harsh on OLPD in that respect. It was very much my first impression that the setup was cliched, and that impression stuck with me and prevented me from really getting into the game.

      However, there are certainly moments where OLPD transcends that. For example, the scene where you sacrifice Jacob, which got across his relationship with the PC far better than the 'tough guy' dialogue they share during the rest of the game, and was actually kind of moving.

      The problem with that as a dramatic moment is, why would you pick Jacob? In any context other than an AIF game, picking Keira is an absolute no brainer (as the endings make even clearer). She's self-centred, amoral, and only in a relationship with the PC for what she can get out of it (which makes him look like an idiot for thinking they're going to live happily ever after). It's clearly a deliberate choice on the part of the author, and it would be interesting to know the reasons behind that.

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    2. Funny thing, I ended up picking Jacob, but I regretted it after Keira showed she was a total evil bitch. My reasoning was that Jacob was basically living off borrowed time anyway, so he had more of a life to give. But knowing that Keira would go on to kill that other guy and probably the PC means that I made the wrong choice.

      It's pretty rare that a game confronts you with something like that, so it stuck with me a bit. It's also rare that the main love interest is a straight up villain. I can't think of any other game where you can pursue someone who's just outright evil.

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    3. The only character I can think of who comes close is Willow from Halloween Tale, who is pretty unlikeable. Honorable mention to Melissa from the School Dreams series for her lack of empathy. Keira makes both of them look like saints though.

      What surprises me is how unambiguous it is. Keira is constantly telling you to ditch your best friend. Jacob straight out tells you that you can't trust her (although that doesn't stop him screwing her if the PC sacrifices himself). The computer logs don't paint a pretty picture of Keira either. I also have to wonder how the mercs took such heavy casualties before the start of the game, given that they don't have much problem with the aliens during the game, but it's probably a bit of a reach to blame that on Keira. Probably.

      My guess is that the whole thing is supposed to present the player with the quandry of choosing between a 'good' ending without sex, and a 'bad' ending with sex. It's interesting, but I think that would have worked better for me if Keira had been presented as attractive in some way other than merely physical.

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  4. I agree about the problems with the ending in Dinner Plans. Having it revealed that the PC was simply a tool in someone else's plan is something that can work if it's handled right (Meteor springs to mind, or the first Bioshock for a non-AIF example), but in something of this scale it basically makes a mockery of the player's efforts.

    ReplyDelete

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