Jason McIntosh on Best Implementation 2012

Jason McIntosh writes on Counterfeit Monkey, Sunday Afternoon, Speculative Fiction and Andromeda Apocalypse.

Counterfeit Monkey, by Emily Short

This implementation-focused review is based on Release 4 of Counterfeit Monkey, dated January 9, 2013.

I have seen players compare Counterfeit Monkey to Portal, and they’re right on two levels. On the surface, both works focus on a neat gun that can modify the game world with a surprising degree of lattitude. Underneath that, both games draw the player’s focus on this ability and keep it there, building its story around that sole, novel mechanic. Monkey is a game that knows exactly why it exists, and displays a masterfully thorough implementation of its core conceit. Furthermore, once it establishes its intent to achieve something entirely unlikely, it almost rubs in how effortless it makes it all seem.

Uniquely, Counterfeit Monkey gives us two separate but intertwined world-spaces to explore. As expected with compass-navigable IF, the player will essentially tromp through the entire “physical” map, reading all the core descriptive text and interacting with all the major set-pieces and NPCs. The game cues the fact that discovering this level of game world is the lesser of its two exploratory layers, however, by devoting half of the play-window’s area to a map of the game’s entire physical space starting on the first turn. (I played the game in Zoom on Mac OS, and it handled the map admirably, including – once I realizd what I was looking at – a handy you-are-here marker. I appreciated that this marker relayers itself below the map’s text when you send the player-character underground.)

Left distinctly unmapped is the other space the game also hands the player from the get-go, and whose compass is the letter-removing magic wand. We learn how to use it through a two-stage prologue map, starting with a tutorial with a trivial target-practice puzzle, which even goes so far as the make the letter to remove a literal X for ease of aiming. Still, it teaches the player everything they need to know to get started exploring the game’s wordplay-space, and without having to spell things out (if you will). This includes the ability to further mutate the resulting CODE into an ODE, or a COD and then a CD. None of these created objects offer any practical use, but all offer reasonable levels of interactivity, hinting at the vastness of explorable word-space the game possesses.

Along with the map and the tutorial, Monkey offers multiple skill levels, an automatically updating list of current quest-goals, gaily titled achievements for doing unlikely things or exploring optional areas, and a Curses-style score manifest. This last detail hearkens back to classic IF while also feeling right at home among all these other details borrowed from more modern adventure games, and all of which work well together as an unobtrustive dashboard of meta-information that helps the player keep their attention comfortably on the world’s all-important words.

Monkey is unshy about the fact that the player will almost certainly not see a great deal of its explorable wordplay-space. Many puzzles (especially on the easier of the two skill levels) offer several solutions achievable through letter manipulation, and there are many, many fully described things you can conjure into the world that offer no purpose other than simple surprise and delight. I expect that this fact played into the author’s decison to make the game’s full source code public, the most delicious sections of which are the dizzyingly vast (and, naturally, alphabetically arranged) index of every player-creatable noun the game offers, each defined in Inform 7 syntax that makes for a delightful read unto itself.

The most subtle detail of Monkey’s masterwork-nature, for me, comes in the “illegal” features of the player’s trusty letter-zapping wand, the initial inability to create living things or abstract nouns. The first time I tried to change the TOMES into TOMS, and got the message about how such feline hijinx were forbidden due to some in-world rules and regulations, I nodded sympthetically: OK, here was the author winkingly lampshading the fact that they had to draw some limits around the explorable word-space. It felt just like a different version of the ways that all kinds of adventure games set in cities must wave away reasons the player can’t wander the streets or try every doorkob freely, and I appreciated it as such.

And then, of course, halfway through the game, all those locks pop open. What. My acquisition of these abilities occurred before it had a chance to appear among my goal-list, and probably well after I had started to take the genius/insanity of the letter-zapping power for granted. The unexpected gift blew open the game’s explorable space in ways literally opposite of my trained anticipation. In this way does Counterfeit Monkey cast the illusion that, at this moment, it accomplishes something impossible, and that is not something that this world-weary game-player states lightly.

The main hangups I found during gameplay involved details removed from the core wordplay mechanics. Some were programatical; during my playthrough, the rejuvenated Atlantida missed a cue, and remained lying on the dais, silent and motionless and alas unable to acknowledge my heroics. The guards the original Atlantida summoned during the final battle also seemed to cease their pursuit with no clear explanation. While this did free me up to have fun running around the little endgame-map as much as I liked, blasting away at everything with the anagramming gun (for which the game does not falter in providing many excellent results), it felt a bit off.

I had more of an issue with the conversation system, which seemed a bit hinky throughout my play. For all its magic, Monkey doesn’t satisfyingly solve this perennial pain-point of parser IF. I definitely appreciated Alex’s explicit cues about what he wished to ask or tell the current interlocutor, and I expect that casual players do just fine sticking with those, treating them as a long-form conversation menu-tree. Unfortunately, the freeform ASK or TELL verbs, when used as the game’s built-in instructions direct, often gave me the response “That noun did not make sense in this context,” even when I was referring to nouns very much in scope (e.g. ASK ABOUT ME). Shifting to Inform’s built-in conversational syntax (ASK BROCK ABOUT ME) would almost always result in a disappointing default response that the named character “thinks for a moment, then apparently decides not to answer.”

I sometimes ended up in conversations that meshed badly with multi-turn scripted events, with NPCs briefly described in two places or moods at once. Given my problems with the interface, I also had trouble approaching the puzzle involving the professor obsessed with double entrendres, since the answer involved bringing his attention to items that the conversational cue-system wasn’t about to simply up and suggest for you (as that would rather defeat the point of the puzzle). I eventually got to a point where the professor focused on the clock I carried, though I hadn’t intended that, and I shouldered my way through the puzzle that way.

When I pushed against the system a bit and typed TOPICS, I would often be bowled over by a screen-filling list of trivial icebreakers. (I tried TOPICS shortly after reviving Brock, the man Andra daydreamed of every time Alex saw a bed or anything bed-like, and half the suggestions would have her greet the source of all her heartache by asking where one could get internet service.) To be fair, the game’s instructions don’t suggest the TOPICS command, which I knew about from previous recent IF works (including projects by Short) that have experimented with various conversation systems, so this may have been my just deserts for wandering off-script as a player.

I predict a long life for Counterfeit Monkey, especially if the author returns to address some of these snags for the sake of increased accessibility. The game is destined to sit beside Anchorhead on most any parser-IF aficionado’s shortlist of canonical long-form works. Just as Gentry’s game epitomized adventure game themes and techniques up through the latter 1990s, Monkey succeeds in synthesizing adventure-game developments from diverse sources with the unique powers of text into an ever-surprising and truly unforgettable work.

Sunday Afternoon, by Christopher Huang

The following implementation-focused review is based on Release 3 of this game.

Sunday Afternoon earns its best-implementation nomination through its thorough and multileveled description-coverage of its little world. Most everything that should have its own description has one, and these have sub-parts attached that reward the player’s deeper examinations in a number of ways.

Sometimes the scenic descriptions themselves wink at the player, such as with the beguiling decorations around a fancy bowl that shift between flowers and owls each time they are EXAMINEd. This feels like a knowing acknowledgment from the game that the player chose to look closer at a potentially interesting detail mentioned in the bowl’s basic description, far more satisfying to encounter than a repeat of the bowl’s own description (or, worse, “You can’t see any such thing”).

The author complements this wide coverage by using no more words than necessary: I laughed with delight the first time the game responded to EXAMINE SUN with “Why are you still indoors? Why?” The player won’t EXAMINE SUN before they LOOK OUTSIDE or EXAMINE WINDOW, and by this point they’re quite well acquainted with the overtly described reason for poor Hector’s restlessness. Responding to the player’s request for fine detail with an appropriately specific response, versus a wordy and general one, shows a level of wise restraint other authors can learn from.

The game makes use of Inform’s built-in (and easily abused) facility for displaying pull-quotes as inset blocks. To avoid their popping up like confusing tooltips as the player initially explores the world, the author attached their display-triggers to the second time the player examines certain objects, or repeats other simple actions that otherwise lack a world-changing effect. I certainly can’t claim that Sunday Afternoon’s the first Inform-based game to make use of this technique, but it’s the first time I’ve noticed it, and its use meshes pleasingly with the game’s continuous desire to acknowledge the player’s curiosity – “Sorry, that action didn’t do anything new, so here’s something new.”

There are a few gaps, for all that: the player-character complains from the outset about his starched and restricting Sunday-best clothes, but EXAMINE CLOTHES results in a miss. I also wish that the author had papered over more of the library defaults. Messages like “That’s not a verb I recognize” clash with the rest of the game’s language, especially given the revealed framing device of entrenched soldiers passing the time with a story-game, suggesting that a human narrator is literally speaking even these meta-utterances. (I suppose we could imagine the speaker as ingeniously foreseeing the computer games of the distant future as well as the ACTION CASTLE! parodies of them, but I do not take this as the author’s intent.) But these are certainly the exceptions to an otherwise seamlessly described space.

Another Inform built-in that Sunday Afternoon utilizes is classic, Infocom-style ASK / TELL – based conversation syntax. I must admit found it oddly refreshing to slip into this familiar territory after the heavily customized conversational machinery that other XYZZY nominees like Counterfeit Monkey run on.

Really, I like the built-in conversation system, which essentially boils town to putting the onus of digging up topical keywords entirely on the player. With a work rich in object descriptions, cuing the player to try ASK EMMA ABOUT UNICORN isn’t really much different than setting up EXAMINE UNICORN HORN, perhaps. In both cases, it means making it clear to the player that an examined object has something about it worth exploring further; in the former case, the exploration involves bringing the object to the attention of a nearby NPC, rather than directly examining or manipulating the object itself further.

By presenting a physically small world centered on its colorful and accessible human characters, Sunday Afternoon makes the invitation to try speaking to them implicit from the outset, and makes sure to reward the player’s initial attempts by way of the same breadth of topical coverage that it gives to the physical scenery. It runs deep, too – I truly started to feel like I was playing the game properly when I received a satisfying response to ASK EMMA ABOUT WAR, arrived at naturally by asking her about the cool stuff on her mantlepiece, and then grilling her about the names and places she mentioned when talking about those. “War” then remains a topic that you can ask Uncle Stephen about, a little later, and the game rewards this reapplication of the topic by displaying a contrast of characterization between Stephen and Emma that the player would not have seen otherwise.

(While working on this review, I discovered that TALK TO EMMA does in fact reveals a list of suggested conversational topics. However, during my actual playthrough, I never found myself missing such a thing, and so never tried it.)

Sunday Afternoon presents a story (within a story) about a bored and anxious little boy searching desperately for a way to escape his confinement – and, failing that, anything to escape the stultifying boredom of grown-ups. It implements it with a small world containing relatively few objects and people, but all of which still manage to sketch out a much larger story by dint of simply being described with sufficient layers to reward the rambunctious curiosity that the player-character encourages the player to practice. A fine lesson in both economy and thoroughness of implementation.

Speculative Fiction, Diane Christoforo and Thomas Mack

The following implementation-focused review is based on Release 2 of this game.

I confess a desire to engage in a bit of speculation of my own as to how the entertaining but flawed puzzler Speculative Fiction ended up with a Best Implementation nomination. It did score a richly deserved Best Individual NPC nom, but didn’t manage to gain any of the Best Puzzle slots it clearly aimed for. Instead, I find myself in the awkward position of writing an implementation-focused review of a game whose strong suit just isn’t implementation.

Perhaps nominating voters were charmed by the beguiling question of whether the cunning W.D., under the player’s direct control but vehemently not identifying with the player, qualifies as an NPC or a PC? Maybe they appreciated the game’s open-world structure, allowing players to identify and attack the puzzles in any order they wished? Or, perhaps, the voting community just wished to show appreciation for the successful graduation of a well-received IntroComp entry into a full-sized work, always a welcome sight.

Regardless, I found the Best Implementation nomination ultimately an odd assignment in this game’s case, since the interfacing between W.D.’s delightful banter and the puzzles that he must peck his way through struck me as rather rough, sometimes rough enough to significantly detract from the gameplay experience.

The game starts out with a well-crafted one-room prologue. It subtly communicates to the player, over the first several moves, the unusual relationship between the narrating character and the character the player represents. The authors wisely choose to let players piece this together for themselves by giving that initial room a lot of well-described stuff to play with – including a mirror, and the wizard’s own unconscious body. The realization that the PC is that wizard and the narrator (and co-PC?) is their raven familiar is a delight to discover, and leads naturally into the Photopia-nod of a midgame-gateway, flapping ourselves out the tower’s high window.

That room also contains at least one harbinger of problems to come, though. We are from the outset given access to an explosive device – the faery coins that the wizard’s wand can create – and told that between our master’s body and freedom is a heavy door. I don’t imagine that I was the only player to try PUT COIN UNDER DOOR, with the I-dare-say quite reasonable intent to blow it off its hinges. Alas, all we get from this is I didn’t understand that sentence. A more complete implementation would recognize this attempt and wave it away, perhaps pointing out that the coins aren’t that explosive, or observing the difficulty in pulling off a jailbreak when the one breaking out is out cold.

Once we get out into the world, we repeatedly encounter unimplemented scenery, the sorts of mistakes that Aaron Reed developed the “BENT method” to guard against. (To be fair to Speculative Fiction, Bracketing Every Notable Thing isn’t really an option in Inform 6 programming.) This is probably the most egregious example, just by the happenstance of W.D.’s word choice:

> put salt on coin

All right.

Fwoooom! The faery coin explodes! Sparks everywhere!

I think the hay is on fire. Yep, it’s kind of smoking. Oooh, I see flame!

> x flame

I can’t see any such thing.

Normally this isn’t an unforgivable sin; at worst, this is the sort of oversight that can drop an A-grade game to a B, especially if it can make up for it in other areas. Speculative Fiction sets up particular trouble for itself, however, by the fact that several puzzles depend upon closer examination of objects, but this need only arises after the game has, intentionally or not, trained the player to not worry too much about any text beyond the surface.

For example, in the very first room, this occurs with a prominently described prop:

> x mirror

It’s an oval mirror with a steel frame bolted to the wall. The frame has little diamond-shaped cutouts in it. The mirror itself is
about as big as I am. It’s got a big dent in it, but it still works as a reflective surface.

> x cutouts

I can’t see any such thing.

> x dent

I can’t see any such thing.

Very well, thinks the player, this just isn’t that sort of game. And indeed, I genuinely enjoyed the next two hours of play, which included exploring the map, getting the plot underway, and solving the marvelous Two-Handed Bart puzzle (itself worth the price of admission, if you ask me). But when I started to feel at a loss for how to proceed and read some IFDB reviews of the game, I learned about this exchange, performable in the guard barracks:

> x guard

He looks wiped out. His tunic is rumpled. He’s dully applying a squiggly signature to the pile of forms with an oversized stamp.

> x signature

I can’t see any such thing.

> x tunic

All the guards have green tunics with a stylized unicorn on the front. This guard also has a leather pouch on his belt.

The sleepy guardsman takes the top page off the stack, gives it a cursory glance, stamps it, and sets it aside.

> x pouch

It’s a little leather bag. It’s about the size of my Bag of Holding. It probably isn’t magical, though.

The leather pouch is open and contains a florin.

This, not the game’s only instance of requiring a deep look, illustrates Speculative Fiction’s weakest point. By implementing only those bits of scenery or parts-of-objects which happen to lie directly on puzzle-solution pathways, the game does far worse for itself than if it simply eschewed scenery altogether. By the time the player encounters them, they’ve likely already concluded – by the prologue’s mirror, and other early set-dressing – that any attempt to work with objects beyond those overtly mentioned in top-level descriptive or reactive text will only result in fruitless library responses.

The unexpected presence of counterexamples feels, then, like a mid-game rule-change about how this world works. And once armed with this knowledge, the player then faces the rather wearying prospect of reading many more leaden I can’t see any such thing replies to perfectly valid-seeming inputs while searching for clues. This creates a very unfortunate and entirely unintentional contrast against the chatty and colorful tone set by W.D.’s narration.

In the inverse, the game also supplies the sort of red herrings that emerge from implementation oddities rather than deviously intentional misdirection. The cottage, for example, holds farming tools and a wooden table as non-scenery objects, such that the game prominently lists them in their own paragraphs whenever you enter that room. You can carry the tools around, if you wish. But neither of these has any game or narrative use that I could find. Instead, a puzzle solution involves examining the chimney mentioned in the cottage’s room description. Examining the fireplace doesn’t help, where it might have been nice to nudge the player’s attention up to the chimney.

This points to Fiction’s general lack of acknowledgement when the player explores a valid but incorrect solution path, as seen with the coin-and-door (non-)interaction at the start. One of the more obvious puzzles involves the blind beggar, whose cup contains a rare and valuable coin. After W.D. obtained that florin from the sleepy guard’s pouch, I immediately wished to attempt an Indy Jones-style switcheroo. I find it perfectly fair that this won’t work – the beggar’s hearing is too keen, and the intended solution involves making a noisy distraction, instead. But PUT FLORIN IN CUP results in both the beggar and W.D. reacting as if player asked to steal the beggar’s own coin, with no acknowledgement of the player’s clear attempt an oblique (and even generous) tactic. Similarly, the beggar has no reaction to popping the balloon in front of him, even though that presents the perfect opportunity for the game to acknowledge that the player’s on the right track, but needs a much more significant source of noise to deafen the beggar to W.D.’s grabby talons.

So, alas, that’s how I must end this review. I rather wish I was instead tasked with writing about Speculative Fiction’s puzzles, the best of which are absolutely worth playing through, and all of which invite a separate critical look unto themselves. I enjoyed playing through this game, and I sincerely hope that many others will as well. But from the perspective of implementation, for all the game’s memorably opinionated ravens and singing hedgehogs, it still needs more work to become the sparkly shiny thing it aspires to be.

Andromeda Apocalypse, by Marco Innocenti

The following implementation-focused review is based on Release 2 of the “Extended Edition” of this game.

After several doubtful scenes, Andromeda Apocalypse really came together for me when the space whales waved back.

The space station the player explores floats in a universe defined by fast-and-loose concepts of how outer space works. Your entire galaxy, you learn, will collapse in a matter of hours due to the supernova that boiled away your homeworld. Those whales you briefly cross paths with can apparently swim fast enough through the interstellar void to escape it. There’s talk about terrifying cosmic entities that might be violently reshaping the whole universe to unknowable ends – and which are also little spaceships, somehow, that you twice fly around in during the game.

When I lay it out like this, the game sounds like a nonsensical cartoon. But the game instead plays it straight, and does so with enough confidence to succeed in bringing to my mind certain mid-century, non-Anglophone science fiction traditions I’ve enjoyed experiencing. There is more Solaris than Star Wars, here; more Planet of the Vampires than Alien (even with the straight-up Xenomorph encounter at the end). The game’s massive space station Arcadia shares its name with a megastructure from the lushy bizarre French SF cartoon Les Mondes Engloutis (a.k.a. Spartakus and the Sun Beneath the Sea), a favorite from my own youth.

So I had all these sources of stylish, mysterious European SF rolling around in my head as I played. And as such, I found myself not worrying too much about all the game’s protruding oddities of plot and purpose. Why does the station contain an empty dead-end corridor that the omnipotent computer shrugs off as “a bad mistake”? Why were the controls for a section of internal rail (halfway across the ship) and the observation dome (one room away) right next to one another? Why did I begin play carrying a battery that could power the station for a while – before I even crashed into the station? My character even expressed surprise about it, the first time I examined it in my inventory.

In fact, the PC overtly mumbles and mutters in wonder or confusion quite a bit as his explorations continue, so that the player never left alone to think that something seems a bit off-kilter. More importantly, most everything in the game world stands up to the player’s own scrutiny, with few disappointing library messages appearing as a result of deep examinations or interactions with the weird environment. Between the PC’s reactions and my own interactions, I found this sense of intentionality made the difference between surrendering myself to the game’s loopily lawbreaking cosmos, and dismissing it as sloppy nonsense. For all the game’s brevity and light grasp on reality, it still earned my trust that it had a place it wanted to take me, and knew how to take me there.

The pacing helps, too. The meeting with those casually FTL space whales makes for a lovely interactive cutscene, spread over several turns. The text left me entirely convinced that neither party expected to run into the other like this, as we gaped at each other wordlessly. I waved to the whales, and my character fancied that they might have waved back, and then they left, ending the scene. It didn’t feel forced in any way, for all its total implausibility, and provides a reassuring halfway-point beat before the player finishes exploring the ship.

I also quite enjoyed the reward for completing that exploration: an entirely unexpected Castlevania-style riff when the player accidentally awakens the computer named Logan only after exploring the entire map, perhaps just as they’re starting to feel some mastery over the world. After interrogating one another for a while, the player resumes their exploration, and immediately discovers that their new, chatty ally accompanies them around and offer commentary on all the strange stuff they’ve already seen. I found myself genuinely eager to retrace my steps and hear Logan’s exegesis, and if it only introduced more mysteries (Why did the crew choose to commit suicide rather than escape?) then it all really just fit right in.

Less effective are the flashbacks, all of which involve the PC recalling a conversation with one of his relatives or colleagues back home, before the unfortunate business with the supernova. I can appreciate the stylistic choice of keeping the conversation pre-determined – these are flashbacks, after all – but found it awkward to type TALK over and over just to nudge the scene forward. Better would have been to treat it more like the whale scene, letting the characters have their conversation on turn-timed autopilot, giving the player a few turns to examine, interact with, or ignore the scenery as they wished.

I racked up some smaller quibbles with the implementation as well. Early on, a potential instant-death situation stops you cold with an explicit “Are you sure(Y/N)?” prompt, which appears nowhere else in the game; several rooms later, another curiosity-driven action surprise-kills you three turns later with no such warning. These, combined with the initial TALK-driven opening scene, provided the wobbly start that meeting those whales helped overcome, for me. And while I played the game’s “Extended Edition”, promising a hard-to-reach alternate ending, I never could find it because the game’s adaptive hint system never offered to help me do so.

This is the only game in the Andromeda shared setting I’ve played, so I don’t know how it compares to the others in terms of tone. But it does choose to strike a very distinct one, and succeeds in providing a depth of implementation to match it.

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