Sean M. Shore on Best Implementation 2012

Sean M. Shore writes on Andromeda ApocalypseCounterfeit MonkeySpeculative Fiction and Sunday Afternoon.

Andromeda Apocalypse, by Marco Innocenti

Two aspects of Andromeda Apocalypse‘s very smooth implementation stand out. The first is the list of Achievements. There was a time in the IF world when having a score seemed a little déclassé; so much so that, for example, Paul O’Brian came up with the “hand transformation” scheme in Wearing the Claw to replace it. I suppose the idea was that a numeric score was too gamist a construct, and didn’t fit with the new school goals of greater immersion and richer storytelling. Nowadays, I don’t see a lot of hesitance about using a score or a similar mechanism, and at least for certain games, it’s nice to have them back. Andromeda Apocalypse combines the best of both approaches: the achievements are a clear and obvious indicator of progress, but they are couched in narrative terms, and have catchy titles (although I would have expected the achievement for tricking the monster to be Ellen Ripley, not Hellen Ripley, unless there’s a joke I’m not getting).

The other noteworthy bit is LOGAN, the computer that Ektor reactivates about midway through the game. He’s more an omnipresent NPC than a device. His conversation responses include highlighted keywords to prompt the player for followup queries. I am very grateful that these queries are handled via a dialogue-type interface rather than a typical IF book or computer interface: that is to say, with LOGAN, KEYWORD, and not the exceedingly tedious LOOK UP THING IN OTHER THING. (And I think I like LOGAN, KEYWORD better than just plain old KEYWORD, for reasons I can’t fully explain). LOGAN also deftly handles a lot of exposition and technical mumbo-jumbo, keeping the player from having to reassemble pieces of an inexplicably scattered diary. His omnipresence but lack of physical form is coded well; the illusion was maintained no matter what I tried.

The rest of the player experience in Andromeda Apocalypse is really quite smooth. The game is pure craftsmanship: I don’t think there are even any nonstandard verbs needed to complete it, the LOGAN keywords aside. But the polish really shows. I finished the game in pretty much exactly two hours, with no hints, no verb guessing, and no frustration (or only the pleasant kind, where you are temporarily stymied and then get to pat yourself on the back for solving the problem). All the objects that need to be implemented are implemented, the exits are clearly marked, there’s a fine hint system, and the responses you receive while poking at a puzzle nudge you along helpfully. If anything, LOGAN is a little too helpful, giving hints before they’re needed and short-circuiting some of the action. This is nonetheless much better than the alternative. And on top of all this, there’s a nicely atmospheric opening theme, courtesy of Wade Clarke.

My complaints are very minor. The geography of the station is large enough that it would have been nice to have some sort of GO TO-type command, especially if it took care of the “ENTER WAGON. PRESS RED BUTTON. G. EXIT” sequence that you end up typing a few times. Also, opening a container (like the silver cylinder) doesn’t automatically reveal its contents, and forces the player to LOOK IN the object. But these are pretty trivial. Overall, Andromeda Apocalypse is polished and a joy to play.

Counterfeit Monkey, by Emily Short

Assessing Counterfeit Monkey‘s implementation is a bit like being a judge in Olympic ice skating: you really have to factor in degree of difficulty. It’s one thing if the skater performs a safe routine that dutifully checks off all the compulsory elements. It’s another if he or she almost flawlessly executes a quadruple lutz and triple toe loop. This is essentially what Emily Short does here.

The central bit, obviously, is the word manipulation, which involves removing letters from words, and later on, adding them or rearranging them. Leather Goddesses of Phobos pioneered this, but only with a single letter, and only for a small bit of the game, as I recall (it’s been years since I’ve looked at it). The challenges in implementing Counterfeit Monkey are exponentially greater, and I mean that quite literally. Not only is there the effort of coding the remover and the inserter (see the work involved here), but also the combing through the text to make sure that all, or nearly all results are accounted for. Short saves herself a bit of trouble from time to time by tightly binding adjectives to their nouns, so you can’t simply turn that white rabbit into a rabbi; it would have to be a whie rabbi, which doesn’t work. Still, the range of possibilities is awesome, and nearly everything has been anticipated. (When I played release 1, I was disappointed that I couldn’t point my r-remover at a tear. This seemed wrong for a game which explicitly tips its virtual cap to Steve Meretzky; no tea, indeed. I’m glad to see with release 4 that it’s been rectified.)

Beyond the impressive central mechanic, there’s the player experience, which is (at least with the current release) polished to a fine glow. The opening sequence is a textbook example of how to introduce the player to new tools and actions: in this case, the letter remover. After this, the game provides a number of clever affordances. The most useful of these is the dynamic naming of the letter remover, which allows setting and pointing in a single action. Counterfeit Monkey also verbs some oft-repeated actions like GEL, which is quite handy (PASTE would have been good too, but alas, not implemented). Having a GOALS command is immensely helpful, especially in a game where the PC knows quite a bit more than the player. There’s a very lovely and dynamic map which tracks Alexandra’s movement around town, and a GO TO command which executes that movement. There’s LOOK CAREFULLY to highlight interesting objects. And there are a number of great responses as well. Certainly my favorite is this:

> rub gel on cock
We squeeze out a pea-sized quantity of gel and rub it gently onto -

No, let me rephrase. We clinically and distantly apply some of the restoration gel to an innocent portion of the object in question. With an audible SPLORT, the cock becomes a clock.

Unsurprisingly, the conversation interface in Counterfeit Monkey is polished, allowing the player go a bit beyond the usual IF caveman-speak: ASK WHAT IS WORTH SEEING, for example. That said, the conversations are somewhat railroaded, with most paths ending up in about the same place, and with about the same impact on the game world. There’s little room for idle chat about even seemingly relevant topics. The focus in Counterfeit Monkey clearly is on the wordplay, not on the conversation.

A long line of dusty tomes are lined up on one of the shelves, marked “free for taking.” None are missing.

> ask man about tomes
We frame up a vague question about nothing.

There are a few other minor hiccups. The interactions with the wig and the bandana can be a bit painful to work through. If you’re not wearing the wig, then you can wear the bandana wherever you like. If you’re wearing the wig, though, adding the bandana apparently counts as donning a disguise, which necessitates schlepping back to the bathroom for a quick change. Also confusing is that WEAR BANDANA serves to blindfold you only at Tall Street. Elsewhere, the command simply puts it on.

Unfortunately, there’s no hint system or walkthrough included with the game. A thread on intfiction.org helped me get through a couple of really tough spots, but just reading the thread was a little more spoilery than I would have preferred. Finally — and this is exceedingly nitpicky — there’s a room where an exit is described, but doesn’t actually exist as far as I can tell (the Equipment Archive, for those keeping score at home).

In all, though, Counterfeit Monkey is incredibly ambitious and brilliantly realized.

Speculative Fiction, by Diane Christoforo and Thomas Mack

Speculative Fiction gets a nod here for its many funny responses and for the clever way it handles the famous triangle of identities: player, protagonist, and narrator/parser. The protagonist is a disembodied larcenous wizard. Said wizard has been imprisoned for looting the kingdom’s treasury and replacing the gold therein with an illusion (presumably the fantasy equivalent of credit default swaps). In an attempt to escape his prison and replenish the treasury through yet more fraud and crime, he’s placed his mind in the body of his raven familiar, W.D. He shares space there with the raven’s own very active mind.

This arrangement provides a tidy in-game rationale for the traditional IF player-parser relationship. Unlike the nameless and basically inexplicable narrator of Adventure, W.D. really is your hands and eyes. He describes the world to you/the wizard as best he can (or as much as he feels like doing), given his raven-ish limitations and general disinterest in humans except as sources of food:

> x man
He looks like any other human, I guess. He’s wearing grey pants, a grey fedora, and a grey shirt, and he has a wispy, pathetic moustache. He’s cursing under his breath as he tries to fill out paperwork.

Hey, he looks vaguely like Two-Handed Bart from the poster. They both have noses, for example.

And, as W.D.’s ostensible master living inside his body, you give him directives, and he executes them, not necessarily to the best of his ability. Hilarity then ensues. I mean that sincerely.

> x merchants
Which do you mean, the merchant, the merchant, the merchant, the merchant, the merchant, the merchant, the merchant, or the merchant?

…This clearly isn’t working. To disambiguate the merchants, I’m going to give them human names. Let’s see. I’m going to name that one Hortensia, and that one Percival, that one Rupertina, that one Elspeth, F’nyrx, Professor Demonspoon, Rombert, and Sunshine Gristlesplat.

By using W.D. as the narrator and voice of the parser, Christoforo and Mack also give themselves license to be snarky without being insulting to the player, which is what often happens with snarky parsers.

I can see a tapestry, a bed, a vase, a mirror, and an annoying git in a dress here.

> x annoying git
You’re a mediocre wizard. No, no, boss, don’t look sad! Wait for me to finish! You’re a great inventor! See, there was a compliment coming.

At a few points, the authors allow Graham Nelson’s voice to sneak into the responses, where I was hoping for a more completely W.D.-mediated experience. (Not that there’s anything wrong with Graham Nelson’s voice, of course; it’s just not W.D.’s). On the plus side, they handle all the pronoun and perspective changes impeccably. This is something which seems to trip up a great many games which deviate from the second person default. After the IntroComp release, they also included an EXITS command, for which I am grateful, and an interesting ABOUT HINTS command, which does not actually dispense hints. Rather, it lists out all the puzzles, some of which are not obvious.

I want to make special mention of the walkthrough, which I’m going to consider part of the implementation, even though it’s not baked into the game. There are far too many walkthroughs out there which look like this: “n.n.e.get wombat.s.ask salesman for donut.e.s.,” only fifty times longer. They’re eyesores, for one thing. It’s also impossible to avoid spoiling yourself when reading them, and it’s extremely easy to lose your place and find yourself in the wrong room when you’re trying to get that wombat. Speculative Fiction‘s walkthrough is a lengthy, annotated conversation, broken into useful subsections. It’s funny and thorough and helpful and you should read it even if you don’t need it (after finishing, of course).

Sunday Afternoon, by Christopher Huang

Sunday Afternoon is a solidly-built game with a lot of charming, low-key humor. I don’t think it makes any great strides with the parser, but it implements its world lovingly, and it’s got an interesting little “hidden level” that’s surprisingly easy to miss, given its importance to the overall experience of the game.

The key theme of the game, or one of the themes, is repetition. Uncle Stephen’s sermon is somehow based on nothing more than a long series of begats from 1 Chronicles; the mantel in the Parlour is a veritable clown car of knickknacks, with a new item emerging every time the mantel is examined; the items themselves have associated quotes which are revealed through repeated examination; escape from your chair is possible only when repeatedly prodding Aunt Emma on the same subject; and repeated actions also might lead the PC to the Great War for a spell.

This design places an unusual burden on the player. Although stuck players sometimes find themselves trying the same actions over and over for lack of ideas, for the most part, we’re trained to quit in the face of the first unproductive response. But Huang’s choice to drastically limit the scope of your PC’s actions mitigates this to an extent. Conversation with Aunt Emma is deliberately flat and limited; movement at first is impossible; nothing is takeable. This focuses the player on the task at hand (not quite enough in my case; I had to hit the hints early. Fortunately, the hints are well-done and useful).

Arguably the most interesting part of the game is essentially optional; and in the first release of the game, it was pretty easy — too easy, I think — to miss it entirely. I’m talking about the Flanders vignettes, of course, where the game flash-forwards to the trenches in 1916. The PC and his mates verbally “play out” the events of that afternoon in 1892 as if they were actually an adventure game:

“We need a better strategy,” Hardy muses, drawing the other men to him. “Look, we’ve got only so long before she stops mooning over ancient history, and I’m pretty sure the major doesn’t mean for the trick to happen more than once. What can we do with those few minutes?”

Macdougal says, “there’s bound to be something in one of the other rooms that will convince her to leave us alone.”

“It can’t be that simple,” snorts Anderson in reply.

“Anyway we can just keep trying until we get it right, right?” Hardy looks around the table, and the others nod. “So, let’s get on with this.”

On first play, I never saw any of this. I was caught twice by Aunt Emma, and realized that I needed to get the sermon folder to avoid being sent back to my chair. This I did, and then proceeded to finish the game without ever being aware of this hidden “level” until I began reading reviews. The Flanders stuff adds quite a lot to the experience of playing the game, and I wish that the design in the first release permitted easier access to it. The current release addresses this, as now the XYZZY command, which I think many of us type reflexively right after X ME and I, will get you there.

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