A brief look at some interesting ideas

Each year, there is a competition for authors to write ‘short interactive fiction’ games. Far more information is available at http://ifcomp.org/ if you’re interested in what I’m talking about, but long story short is that it’s like a book where you are a character, in the very real interactive sense – you decide where you go in the world, what you take, what you do.

Much as conventional text fiction has few boundaries other than putting words to paper (or computer), interactive fiction has modest boundaries for realising all kinds of shenanigans, far fewer than you could ever do with using artwork in more ‘conventional’ games.

Now, the main problem is that in more recent years I just haven’t been able to really make the time to sit and play the inevitable raft of interesting games that emerge from this (and competitions like it), even with the rule introduced years back in this competition that each game had to be ‘winnable’ inside 2 hours, and any judging was to be done on the basis of the first two hours of play only.

As a consequence, I’m fairly sure I’ve missed most of the real gems going back to 2002 or so when I last really sat down to play, but this year I managed to squeeze in playing a couple of the entries, and I find that it wasn’t a bad decision to do so. There’s some real imagination right there.

The first game I tried out was The Elfen Maiden, by Adam Le Doux. In a manner reminiscent of Infocom’s 1985 classic, A Mind Forever Voyaging, the player is a computer. Figuratively, at least. The game still plays much like conventional IF gaming, you still go north/south/east/west, you still examine objects, but it’s wrapped up in a world that may not be particularly believable, though it seems consistent enough.

When you start out, you’re ‘on the deskop’, and can go ‘north’ to examine the webcam, ‘northeast’ to your owner’s email, or ‘above’ into the Ethernet port. As pure games go, it doesn’t seem that special, but the notion of being a computer is not done that often, and more importantly presenting the game with a familiar-to-genre-players manner, and using it in a new and interesting way is creative.

I’m not sure, in all honesty, that it works as well as it might, but certainly it’s intriguing nonetheless. I hope we’ll see more change-the-viewpoint experiments in the future.

OK, second up, PataNoir. Noir, to me, is a genre full of cliché and trite phrasing, almost that it’s hard to imagine anything genuinely new done with it. (Yes, I have seen some interesting noir, a few years back I participated in a group, collectively producing a noir novel. That was… interesting.)

Anyway. The introduction seems suitably noir styled, the environment full of cliche and the hard-boiled approach. But there’s one thing that catches my eye in this, and it’s one thing that saves me from just moving on.

It describes itself as a surreal noir game – if that’s not worth a look, I doubt I know what is. Noir isn’t surreal – that’s the point. It’s pretty solid, consistent and often predictable. So when you mix that up with surrealism, something strange is going to happen, and the mix that PataNoir takes is probably the most surreal I’ve seen yet. I would think it’s probably the closest I’ve seen to innovation in a little while.

You see, in this game, there are literal objects and figurative ones, and both are manipulatable. For example, the opening: “Shadows huddle in the corners, like dark pools of oil.” You can, like in any good text adventure, examine the shadows. You’ll get the same description, but it recognises the literal object reference. Then you try and take the dark pools of oil, being a figurative object.

And normally in such a game, you’d expect either some kind of kickback to something it doesn’t know (because most authors do not program in every little background detail as a ‘real’ object) or that it’ll tell you that it’s not an object to be taken. I was, then, quite surprised when it told me that instead, I just didn’t have a container.

Exploring the little office further, I find myself intrigued with this idea, that an object is an object, but that it sort of spawns a separate object just by being described. Like the old cigarette in the ashtray – it’s just an old cigarette. But it smolders “like the last embers from a dying camp fire” – and you can try and take those. Unsuccessfully, but that’s not the point.

I haven’t properly played through either game yet, or any of the rest of this year’s entrants, I just wanted to get the message out that I should have made more time – there’s a wealth of interesting ideas and emerging concepts, some that work better than others – to examine the games. Give it a go, if that sort of thing is your cup of tea, because odds are you’ll find something you’ve not seen before – I have…

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