Ectocomp 2017: La Grand Guignol

La Grand Guignol is the section of Ectocomp in which games made in over 3 hours are entered: a whole meal of horror in contrast to the delicious morsels of La Petite Mort. After playing the games of La Petite Mort, I was even more excited to play these, and I was not disappointed: the bar for polish and art has really been raised, and all the games are well worth a look. (Beware: I had a nightmare after playing Going Down and The Elevator Game, two coincidentally lift-focused games in the comp.) Here are some thoughts on my favourites:

 

The Rats in the Bulkheads – Bruno Dias (Ink)

Something has gone terribly wrong on a derelict ship, and it’s up to you to uncover it via journal entries laden with hubris, and the abandoned, decaying environment. Between rats, gore, fear of death, and a visceral response to the Ship of Theseus thought experiment, it’s a very effective take on a familiar setup. Sounds and visuals work seamlessly together to create creeping, grimy dread.

On a sidenote, it’s fascinating to see more graphically ambitious work being produced in the IF sphere. Ink has had a strong influence in that respect, and I’m interested to see where the trends go in the future.

 

dripping with the waters of SHEOL – Isak Grozny (Ink)

In a second-world fantasy setting with a strongly Jewish feel, two lovers live in a cluttered but homely apartment. One night, one wakes to find a ghost nearby.

A beautifully produced and laid out work, the look of this reminds me of a fancy book frontispiece. Descriptions can be accessed through tooltips, neatly dealing with the perennial issue of not knowing whether a click will take the player away from the page.

Gentler in some ways than other Ectocomp entries – I didn’t come across death or gore – it nevertheless packs a punch when delving into the characters’ psychology. While the writing is rich and gorgeous, it is also an unflinching depiction of the effects of illness and trauma, and complicated feelings about the characters’ trans identities.

 

The Boot-Scraper – Caleb Wilson (as Lionel Schwob) (Inform 7)

The lone survivor of a shipwreck, Horatio Slyme, is stranded, injured and sick, on the shore of St. Stellio.

I hit a technical issue in this game early on, but having played and loved Lime ErgotThe Northnorth Passage, and Cannonfire Concerto, I asked around and persevered. And I’m glad I did.

The game works as a standalone, but it shines in tandem with Lime Ergot: the island of St. Stellio will be familiar to players of the earlier work, there are hallucinatory fruits that aren’t what they seem (more sinister than it sounds), and they share an overwhelming, inexorable claustrophobia. Trapped in his memories, all Horatio can do is go over and over the events leading him to this point.

Where The Boot-Scraper builds on Lime Ergot is in its sharper, more venomous depiction of the horror of colonialism and layers upon layers of exploitation. Horatio Slyme is a nasty piece of work, but as we discover more snippets about him … well, best to find that out for yourself. There’s none of the occasional whimsy found in Lime Ergot: instead we are faced with stark, sometimes grisly, beautifully-written ruin.

IF Comp 2016: Sigil Reader (Field)

When I woke, it was high noon, and the air was dead.

Sigil Reader (Field) is a fantasy exploration parser game made in Quixe. The PC is a woman called Priyanka Ramasamy who deals with sigils of protection, speed, silence, and more; she works in an institution whose role is to capture and log specimens and monsters. What exactly this involves is hidden at first.

Thrown into the events of the game, Priyanka has tattered memories of the catastrophe that has occurred, and the Station is deserted. It quickly becomes clear that while the Station is not working as it should, neither is Priyanka’s mind.

Something made me look down, and there was my ID card clipped to my belt. Had it always been there?

Although the descriptions of the station offices fall on the spartan side, it’s in the small details where the writing shines. Snippets about Priyanka’s colleagues and brief but intense sensory interactions are some of my favourite segments, revealing low-key but characterful information about Priyanka’s colleagues’ lives, and what Priyanka herself remembers and values.

The game moves forward steadily, with minor puzzles that serve to enhance the atmosphere rather than challenging the player for any great length of time. As it progresses, it becomes clearer that Priyanka is in an altered state of being, but Sigil Reader (Field) is not about enforcing the player’s will on the world: it’s more about savouring the story, the world, and Priyanka’s experience.

The snippets of information we get whet the appetite for more. As Christopher Huang notes: “It feels like there’s a lot of detail in this setup that’s just a little bit beyond the frame.”

Though Sigil Reader (Field) is successful as is, I wonder where it would have gone with a longer deadline. More than that, though, I’d love to see more in this setting … and more non-Euro/US settings generally, more Malay SFF in the IF world, and more Singlish. The dreamy atmosphere and lightly-creeping dread of this game means I’m looking forward to playing more of verityvirtue’s work in Ectocomp 2017.

Ectocomp 2017: La Petite Mort

Ectocomp, the annual horror-focused interactive fiction contest, has arrived! La Petite Mort is the speed-writing section of Ectocomp, in which games are created in 3 hours or under. Here are some thoughts on my current three favourites.

 

Bloody Raoul – Ian Cowsbell (Inform 7)

An interactive grotesque about a “knife punk”, one of a subculture of criminals existing with little identity but for the knives they carry. The setting is rich, with weird and intriguing details about deities, bodies, and weapons, painting the picture of a sinister fantasy city full of desperate individuals running and fighting for the sake of it. All of which is to say: this is my jam.

Although some of Bloody Raoul‘s implementation is sparse, the atmosphere is suitably sinister and imaginative that I didn’t much mind. There are a number of ways to die, but the game is brief enough that this is less of a barrier to enjoyment and more of a curiosity. For the PC, it’s all part of their nasty, brutish and short everyday life.

 

little – Chandler Groover (Twine)

A tiny yarn about a creepy girl, needles, bodies, and an even creepier narrator. Chandler Groover is excellent at creating grotesque fairytales and disconcerting narrative voices, and this piece is no exception. Its barebones narration and interface works well to create the atmosphere, allowing the player to fill in the gaps – inevitably with more horrible images than could be depicted. One section reminded me of the party garden sequence from howling dogs, though rather than decadence overload, it gives the piece an added inexorable chill.

 

make build –deity – Josh Giesbrecht (Twine)

A series of iterations of an AI deity being built. Rather than violence and creepy imagery, this game concerns itself more with existential dread.

You awaken, with eyes everywhere, ears that hear all.

It is time for you to make the world right.

I’m hesitant to say much more about it – I think it works best going in without much prior knowledge – but the look of the game is pleasingly console-screen-style, and along with the ambient soundscape, the whole thing provokes a sense of heavy, dreamlike melancholy.

Update, and Spring Thing preview

There’s been a whole lot going on and not a lot of time to post about it (not to mention that I wanted to review more IF Comp games than ended up happening – that’ll teach me not to bite off more than I can chew), so have some IF related cliffnotes:

  • I spoke on a panel at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas about interactive fiction where we discussed audience complicity, combining interactive and static literature, and the longevity of digital literature. It was very well-attended and it was great to meet and chat with my co-panellists Saci Lloyd and Kate Pullinger as well as the Creative Writing Anglia Ruskin University lecturers, who were the kinds of lecturers I would have loved to have when I was doing my degree!
  • I did a talk at WordPlay London discussing Sam Kabo Ashwell’s Standard Patterns in Choice-Based Games, and moderated a panel on worldbuilding. The British Library was a great space, the conference was super busy, and I got to listen to some great talks and hang out with a bunch of online IF friends who I hadn’t met in person before. All in all a wonderful (though exhausting) day. Fingers crossed that WordPlay comes to London again!
  • I switched from working 9-5 five days a week to four which, although not a magic bullet, has done good things for my health as well as for my writing work.
  • Recently I started a contracted IF project which I’m over the moon about! More on that in future.
  • Aforementioned project is taking up most of my writing time, which means that I most likely won’t be able to enter IF Comp 2017 as I’d hoped – however, the annual IF festival Spring Thing 2017 is nearly upon us and I’ve entered for the first time! My entry is made in Texture, and is a short scifi noir game about a cop whose torch singer informant (and illicit girlfriend) is in trouble. It’s inspired by several Dessa songs, notably Dixon’s Girl and Alibi, as well as, loosely, LA Noire. Below is a little teaser, in the form of the cover art by Irina Goodwin. Keep an eye out for the festival entries when they’re released around the 6th April – it’s set to be the biggest Spring Thing yet!

cover_small