J. Robinson Wheeler on Best Supplemental Materials 2012

J. Robinson Wheeler writes on the feelies for Muggle Studies, Marco Innocenti’s cover art for all the Andromeda games, the CYPHER website and other materials, and the covers for Cover Stories.

Whenever a new IF game comes with feelies, which thankfully many still do these days, they are naturally the first things I look at, before I even load the game. Feelies can start to put you into the world of the game, into that special headspace that a player is about to share with the author for a few hours. This is the first place the general tone of the adventure can be set up, lightly comic, tongue-in-cheek, serious, mysterious, what have you.

Feelies used to serve another purpose, password-protection and the like, so that you would have to drag them out and fiddle with them during the game just to keep playing, something that fortunately doesn’t happen any more. There is still the mid-game use of them as something to fiddle with and glance through again when one is stuck looking for what do to next, or mentally knotted up over a puzzle. Usually, I find that feelies don’t actually contain any helpful hints, by design — they’re designed to start things off, not spoil what is actually going to happen. Often, too, they are, as this category suggests by its name, supplements only. A bit of extra creativity on the side, not really part of the gameexperience but perhaps part of the game-world.

In any event, I can’t judge these supplements on how they fare as something to review during the course of the game, because my job is only to review the supplements only, and the assignment came in rather at the last minute, too late to play all of the games in question (in one case, an absurd task, as it comprises multiple adventures).

The feelies for Muggle Studies, by Flourish Klink

The feelies for Muggle Studies are sort of the classic Infocom package: a manual and two extra bits, in this case a handwritten letter and a brochure, both of which factor into the story and, in the case of the brochure, make an appearance as an examinable object within the game itself, in the first scene. The manual introduces the game a bit, and then contains a primer on how to play IF, concluding with a sample transcript. It’s as standard as an IF game’s manual gets, in terms of format. One wonders when we can finally stop writing the “how to play IF” section of these things, now that people have been playing them since 1979. We still need to explain this? (This is not a dig at the Muggle Studies manual, just sort of a lament to the heavens.)

I looked at the McGonagall letter.jpg first. It’s a simple jpeg, a grayscale scan of a handwritten letter on “Hogwarts College” letterhead. The question that floats over my head upon seeing that (“College?”) is answered fairly quickly within the game. So, in a way, it’s doing its job as a feelie by making me think about this. The handwriting is done freehand in cursive, and so the writing wobbles up and down on each line. I have this image that Minvera McGonagall would have fastidious handwriting that, even without visible rules, would stay true horizontal on the page. That’s just my impression, though. It qualifies as a nit I’m picking, though.

The other extra is a charming little faux brochure advertising the Hogwarts school to prospective parents of magical children. Crowded with trivia from the books and stills from the films, it’s tastefully done, and serves to remind one that yes, this is definitely the world we’re going to be playing around in. One detail of note is a specific mention in British pounds the tuition at Hogwarts — nearly 10,000 — and in 1990’s currency values, not adjusted for inflation. And that’s without buying an owl, a broom, a wand, a cauldron, and textbooks!

The manual is thorough, as I mentioned, and features several nice black and white illustrations. On the second page, below the table of contents, there’s the image of a young woman seated at a computer, chin in hand, thoughtfully pondering, perhaps, what to do next in the IF game she’s engaged in playing. Reminds me of a drawing I made once, of a young woman seated at a computer, chin in hand, thoughtfully pondering, perhaps, what to do next in the IF game she’s engaged in playing. Just saying.

Flipping through the feelies for Muggle Studies made me want to give the game some more play than I did upon its first release. I got cheesed off that my very first command, “TAKE ALL”, was rejected by the game. However, if I had read the feelies through thoroughly at the time, as I did today, I would have noted before loading the game that the manual specifically states (even while listing >TAKE ALL as a standard IF sample command) that the game does not accept “ALL” as a command-word. That might have saved me some disgruntled feelings as a player. See how important it is to actually read the feelies you get?

Cover art for the Andromeda series, by Marco Innocenti

These actually make a beautiful, tasteful set of science fiction story covers, thematically linked by design elements and suggesting stories in the same series and same universe. The one I like the most, apart for one element of typography, is the Andromeda Dreaming image. A skillfully done, artfully chosen image of a woman’s head, angled downward so that her dreams float up from her mind — with a nebula as an idea-cloud within her mind — I really think this is a great cover image. The highlight-glow along the curve of her neck, with shadows fading to the starlight behind, is just smack in my appreciation zone for how to blend this photographic image into the whole panel. The neon-cursive of the word “dreaming” sticks out for me, slightly sorely to the eye, but in a smaller thumbnail and maybe at a second glance it’s not too bad. It does not distract enough to make me fail to appreciate the rest of the composition and list this as my favorite.

I also like the Tree and Star image, for the stark beauty of the blue-white snow leaves of the tree and its trunk’s alignment with the glow of the star overhead, in alignment with the linking imagery in all four covers, of the set of three red glowing orbs aligned to a central vertical.

The downside to the Andromeda Apocalypse art is that it looks like an earlier version of Andromeda Dreaming that’s not finished yet, because it features the same nebula. The downside to the fourth, Andromeda Awakening, which has a really nifty steely-orb planet-like addition, is that its image on IFDB is really small compared to the others, which have more full-sized uploads that you can really take a look at, like LP album art reduced to CD size.

All four covers also share a starfield background, looking Hubble-like as a source. High resolution and high quality, looking at the four covers makes me curious to delve into the world of these interactive stories, even though I’d never heard of them before. If I saw four books lined up on a store shelf with these covers, I’d be equally tempted to browse them, flip through a few pages, and consider taking one of them home with an option to buy all four.

One could be more of an art critic here than I’m being, perhaps saying that there’s not much new here, that it’s fairly standard Photoshop work, lens flares over a background plate and some other element layers superimposed, but they’re neither overdone nor underdone. I guess that’s why I said tasteful right up front, they’re a simple idea done simply, with a good eye for what doesn’t need to be there as well as what does, if this is what you’re going for.

Website and other materials for CYPHER, by the Cabrera Brothers

I started with the cover art as shown on IFDB: and it’s good, movie-like. Actually, videogame-like, where the videogame wants to suggest a suspense-and-action-filled cyberpunk type movie that you’d watch on a Saturday night. (That’s the night to watch this kind of movie, it always seems like. Like I’m going to watch, say, Resident Evil: Apocalypse on a Sunday afternoon? Come on.)

On to the website. And, okay, wow. It’s a long scroll, this website. It’s actually about 14 web pages strung together vertically, each with a different advertising-copy and buy-itnow-enticement per slice, like a scrolling billboard. Having traversed it, I can say that, while it’s a bit on the busy side, they had a lot they wanted to say, and if they’d made it 14 individual pages, I wouldn’t have even scanned all of it. But, like they thought, I was willing to scroll down and pick and choose, and then, if further interested, scroll some more and read some more.

The first thing I stopped on was a YouTube trailer. Being a movie guy, I thought, ok, let’s see what kind of video they have. I was actually pretty impressed by it, after a slightly shaky start. What came across was a notion they were selling, not just about the cyber-world of the game, but that anyone who hooks into playing it (or jacks in, I suppose I might say), anyone getting into the whole interactive-fiction-with-extrazazz type of game experience these days, is sort of the same type of character as those inhabiting the fictional world of the game they’re selling. IE, you’re part of the whole cyber world if you’re into this game. The video shows a guy booting into the game and starting to play it. And then getting more and more into it, as he keeps unlocking things: a key opens a suitcase that unlocks a plasma gun that you can grab onto and then … who knows what happens after that. In essence, this video provides the same sort of IF tutorial (what’s it like to actually play this, how do you play it, what kind of commands are you likely to enter) demo that the Muggle Studies booklet provides, except — and I know this is a dreadful cliché, but it shows it rather than telling it. It edits together hyped-up canted-angled fast-closeup-cut images of someone entering commands to play an IF game, and does it pretty efficiently with a lot of snazz.

Ultimately, I was fairly impressed by that, enough to keep scrolling. The video also demonstrated the existence of feelies, lots of them, that includes a chart of “hand-gesture” commands to be used in the game, typed inside brackets at the standard command prompt. I scrolled down and read a whole section on feelies, titled “Feelies Are Back!” And showing that the Deluxe edition of the game comes with a whole bunch of stuff to browse through, look at, and refer to before and during play. Also, that nobody is left behind, you can download it with digital copies that you print and trim yourself with scissors, so that everybody gets feelies. Which, yes, good idea, well done.

I also noticed that the art in the game — or rather, in the video of the game, and on the website itself — was pretty good. Scrolling further, there’s a short whimsical bio of the two Cabrera brothers, one of whom is apparently a professional illustrator and game artist, the other of whom is apparently a professional web designer. Together, they create websites that sell games where there’s cyber crime, which presumably you fight. But they’re not messing around, they do have chops.

I’m thinking, as I look at the dedication that went into all this, that maybe it’s over-busy or a little on the too side of too-too, but that it’s well done, and that geez, anyone who goes this far should get some kind of award. No apologies to Muggle Studies, which won the XYZZY in this category, although I wonder if more people ordered the CYPHER game and got the feelies, either pre-made (I think maybe that was the deluxe option?) or print-and-cut-your-own, whether more voters might have thought, ok, yeah, these guys really did go all-out on the feelies and they’re kind of cool.

I guess the IF world now has its own version of the Wachowskis. The website kind of visually overflows like the Speed Racer movie did on the mostly empty screens it played to. I wonder if someday we’ll get some IF Coen or Duplass or Farrelly brothers to go along with them.

I’m glad they got nominated.

The covers for Cover Stories, by various

It’s difficult to review the collective cover art for the Cover Stories minicomp/game jam, because what do I really say about a collection of images that just plain did the trick, did what they were supposed to do: inspire authors to write games based on seeing a single image that captured their imagination and spun a game out of it?

I could almost recuse myself because I almost wrote a game for this comp. I found an image I really liked, and wrote a short game that had a central puzzle based around it, but I didn’t finish anything except a rough prototype that a few testers had a quick look at, and then I realized it wasn’t living up to my ambition. Certainly not living up to the image that inspired me, but it was still good to have done.

Despondent over my own lack of sticktuitiveness, I didn’t play any of the dozen finished games that were released, so I can’t assess how well the imagery inspired each artist or to what extent. I can’t even comment, art-critic-wise, about any individual piece of cover art (making me nigh-useless in this capacity as a reviewer), because it only matters how well the art inspired the author, and, as I just said, I can’t speak to that.

The only comment I can make, like a total buffoon, is to wonder aloud that the art for IFDB Spelunking (image by Sam Kabo Ashwell) looks like a mirror-image of the art for Monkey Business (image selected by Rowan Lipkovits, presumably altered by author Benjamin Sokal). Presumably this is just a coincidence, but it’s the only cogent thing I can remark on, just to kind of point and say, “Hey, did you notice this?”

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