Fun To Dip Into and Immersive While It Lasts

The Sinking City, developed by Ukrainian outfit Frogwares, casts the player as troubled private eye Charles Reed. After a poorly-remembered encounter with (maybe) Cthulhu during his Naval service in World War I, Reed has had certain abilities which aid him in his investigative work, but also suffers from nightmarish visions which have sapped his sanity – to the point where be spent a chunk of time after the War confined to an asylum.

Now it’s the mid-1930s, and Reed has not only discovered the existence of other people suffering from the same visions as him, but he’s also found a strange link between them – they’ve all gone missing in the general vicinity of Oakmont, a Massachusetts city which has curiously managed to avoid being put on many maps. Oakmont is an insular, xenophobic town where lower is held in the hands of a few great families who conduct themselves as little more than gangsters. It’s also faced various upheavals in recent years. First, there was the influx of refugees from Innsmouth, fleeing the Federal raid on that town; then there was the utter disaster of the Flood, which even years later has left significant areas of the poorer section of the city waterlogged. The richer districts are not immune from the Flood’s effects either, especially when those consequences include roving monsters which seem drawn to sites of atrocity or extreme negative emotion.

Soon after Reed arrives he becomes embroiled in the affair of the Throgmorton expedition – a jaunt to the bottom of the sea near Oakmont which, in its search for the causes of the Flood, has stumbled across something appalling. Is there some connection between the Flood, the expedition’s shocking discoveries, and Reed’s visions? And if there is, is there anything Reed can do to resist this terrible confluence of forces?

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Kickstopper: The Gamer Who Would Be King

Among the gaming subgenres which have enjoyed a little renaissance thanks to Kickstarter are CRPGs of a certain vintage. Whilst producing something as lavish as, say, one of the more recent Witcher or Mass Effect games can involve a massive AAA budget and be a decidedly difficult product to handle on a Kickstarter budget, a top-down isometric-style RPG of the sort made popular by the first two Fallout games, Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment is a much more modest affair; Shadowrun Returns and its Hong Kong-based sequel are good examples of CRPGs in this style which came about via Kickstarter.

What happens, though, when this sort of game tries to offer more than a mere RPG experience? We’re going to find out with Pathfinder: Kingmaker, an attempt to add a kingdom management layer on top of a CRPG foundation.

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GOGathon: Third Time’s the Charm… Or Seven Years’ Bad Luck?

Fans of the Black Mirror series of point-and-click adventures (not to be confused with Charlie Brooker’s “Oh no, technology!“-themed Twilight Zone knockoff) had to settle in for a long wait between the first two episodes of the series; the original The Black Mirror was released by Czech developers Future Games in 2003, but it wouldn’t be until 2009 that German outfit Cranberry Production served up Black Mirror II. Fans did not have long to wait after that for Black Mirror III, however, with the final game in the original trilogy coming out in 2011, also through Cranberry.

The signs that we should expect another sequel were right there: the previous game ended on a bit of a rushed cliffhanger. The action here picks up in the immediate aftermath of that. Darren is the prime suspect in the grim events that concluded the last game, and the police have little patience for his story; however, they don’t quite have the evidence they’d need to bring him to trial. After three weeks cooling his heels in a cell in the local police station, Darren has his bail paid by a mysterious benefactor. He’s warned not to leave the Willow Creek area, and he’s feeling the occult consequences of the end of the previous game; if he’s to rid himself both of his legal troubles and the Gordon curse once and for all, he needs to resume his investigations of the area.

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GOGathon: A Second Reflection

It’s the mid-1990s – 12 years after the nightmarish events surrounding Samuel Gordon’s return to Black Mirror Castle shocked the world. Across the Atlantic, Darren Michaels is spending his break from college visiting his mother, who has recently moved to the sleepy seaside town of Biddeford in Maine. Darren earning a bit of extra money by working in the town’s photography shop, run by the boorish Fuller; in the course of this Darren meets and feels an instant attraction to Angelina, a charming British tourist who seems to reciprocate this attraction.

Before Darren can get time off to get to know Angelina better, however, he has a range of errands to perform – and in the course of this, he becomes aware that there’s a shifty individual apparently stalking Angelina. Or is Darren himself the target of this snooping figure’s attention? Darren’s worries only become more acute when his mother suffers a fall at home which leaves her in a coma… a fall in suspicious enough circumstances to make Darren think she was pushed. Resolving to investigate, Darren uncovers evidence of a wider conspiracy – a conspiracy that’s somehow connected to the English village of Willow Creek, from which his mother’s been receiving mysterious payments.

How was his mother involved in all this? Who in Willow Creek has been paying her? And what does this have to do with Willow Creek’s main claim to fame… the mysterious Black Mirror Castle, and its former resident Samuel Gordon?

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A (Moon)Missed Opportunity

In the pantheon of game developers specialising in text adventures back in the golden age of the genre, Infocom’s name looms large, and with good reason. By heavily pushing the line that their products are “Interactive Fiction” – and going out of their way to cover a range of genres from classic videogame fare like SF/fantasy to less traditional subject matter for games, they not only presented their products as refined pursuits for elite gamers who are too good for games which involve hand/eye co-ordination or actual game mechanics, but they arguably also set the tone for the IF fan community who beaver away producing new games to this day.

The “Interactive Fiction” label is still used by those who want to hype up the artistic potential of the medium or who otherwise find “text adventure” to be an embarrassing term – something which rather bugs me, since I think the more effort you put in to make the things you like seem less embarrassing to others, the more obvious it is that you are a bit embarrassed of them, and therefore the more embarrassing it seems. (To take an example from a very different field, the famed Gimp Man of Essex seems to be mostly regarded as a national treasure rather than a weird pervert, largely because he’s very casual about it and doesn’t go out of his way to make it weird; if he acted all embarrassed about his activities then I think he’d have a much more negative reception.)

Another beef I have with the term “Interactive Fiction” is that it’s horribly imprecise. Any videogame with a plot is interactive fiction. A gamebook is interactive fiction. A pantomime is arguably interactive fiction, at least in the sense that the characters acknowledge the audience and respond to their calls. Lots of stuff is a) clearly presenting fiction and b) clearly offering interactivity of some form. “Text adventure” pins down the medium far more precisely, and if it’s got some embarrassing and unfortunate associations you do the work to decouple it from those associations and promote text adventures which don’t go there, you don’t make up a new word for the stuff you are doing to try and set up some sort of elite divide between the text adventures you approve of and the ones you disapprove of.

More positively, the Inform family of languages, which are probably the most common ones used in the field, were developed to let home coders produce games that would run on Infocom’s Z-machine – a virtual machine which lets Infocom games be played on any computer system with a suitable interpreter.

Infocom’s development of the Z-machine is a happy historical accident which has been a real boon to the modern-day text adventure community. Infocom, it should be remembered, were operating at a time before personal computer architectures and operating systems had ossified into the major standards we have these days. By writing their games for the Z-machine, Infocom effectively only had to write each game once – then all they had to do was make a Z-machine interpreter for whichever computer platform they wanted to publish for, and then they could put out all of their games on that platform, which is obviously massively cheaper than having to rewrite each game for each operating system you want to adapt it to. (It even led to major price savings when it came to the packaging – Infocom games of the classic era came out in the same box with the same handouts and inserts for all platforms, and they’d just stick the appropriate disk or cassette tape in the box and put a sticker on the front specifying which operating system the contents worked on.)

This, of course, has also been very helpful when it comes to running classic Infocom text adventures and brand new Inform-based homebrews on modern computers, because the exact same task applies: simply write a Z-machine interpreter for whatever new platform comes out, and then once you have that working everything written in Inform or by Infocom can be played on that platform.

The fan community has also followed Infocom’s lead in recognising that there’s two things which are really key to a good text adventure: an interpreter which is easy to engage with and can understand a broad range of commands, and really solid writing. (After all, if the sole means a game has of delivering content consists of text, it may as well be really nicely polished text that is a pleasure to read.)

It’s fair to say, then, that whilst the homebrew adventure game scene has made some very important contributions to the genre – making a range of interpreters for running new and old text adventures on modern computers, smartphones, and more or less anything with a computer chip in it, as well as expanding the versatility and hence the user-friendliness of interpreters by widely expanding the range of verbs understood – they’re very much standing on the shoulders of giants, and Infocom is by far the largest giant. Usually, I would say that this position is well-earned; of the 1980s-era text adventures I have played, Infocom ones have almost always had the richest and most flavourful prose, the most forgiving and user-friendly parsers, and the most interesting stories and puzzles.

There are, of course, exceptions…

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All The World’s a Text Adventure, and All the Men and Women Merely Players…

It’s January 1603, and it’s a Plague year in London. You are struggling printer Richard Fletcher, and you receive an invitation to dinner with an old friend of yours, John Croft. After you arrive at Croft’s home, however, you find all is not well – and it stems from Croft’s relationship with Christopher Marlowe and a curious unfinished Marlowe play that Croft had been trying to complete with help from William Shakespeare, entitled The King In Yellowe

Adapted by Jimmy Maher from a Call of Cthulhu tabletop RPG scenario by Justin Tynes (the original adventure was published in Strange Aeons, a set of scenarios set in time periods not typically addressed by the game), The King of Shreds and Patches is a remarkably accomplished text adventure, with several important strengths. The first is the extremely high standard of writing; the descriptions are vivid but also to-the-point, and usually succeed at making sure that important matters are highlighted. More or less anything which the text draws your attention to in the area descriptions is something that can be usefully examined, for instance, and each and every description contributes something to the atmosphere.

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Mini-Review: Hotline Miami

Steeped in the 80s-retro aesthetic of its soundtrack (including synthwave leading light Perturbator), Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and other manifestations of 80s nostalgia (there’s even cathode ray interference lines over all the graphics), Hotline Miami is a viscerally enjoyable and infuriating slaughter simulator that takes fairly simple principles of play and comes up with a delightful range of challenges based around them. You play an anonymous schlub in a Drive-esque Letterman jacket who gets mysterious phone calls euphemistically instructing them to go to a designated location and murder everyone there – but you’re just as fragile as the various gangsters you fight, so one hit will kill you. Stealth, speed and strategy are therefore your friends; guns are handy but are loud and will bring enemies running and have limited ammunition, whilst melee weapons tend to require you to take the risk of getting up close and personal (though nicely you can throw them too, leaving yourself unarmed) but are nice and quiet.

With a simple top-down presentation and controls (mouse does attacks and facing, arrow keys move), the game is nice and easy to get into but quickly reveals hidden depths. On your crime sprees you wear various animal masks which each have their distinct powers, and selecting the right mask for a job can be a significant tactical choice. The masks also seem to have a bit of a life of their own, confronting the anonymous protagonist in dream sequences between parts of the game, and then there’s the question of who’s setting all of this up in the first place, which is explored down two different timelines…

That said, the game isn’t without issues. The depiction of women is glibly fetishistic, with the protagonist getting an implied lover as a prize on one level and then her getting fridged later on for a cheap extra twist of the knife. There’s also a rather simplistic and cartoonish take on race, where for much of the game the only significant people of colour represented are “big black bruiser” archetypes. It is, in short, about as problematic and glib as much of its source material, which at best amounts to putting fidelity to that above the obligation to improve on one’s inspirations.

In addition, the comparative lack of a conventional mid-level saving process can make the game frustrating at points – though on the other hand this does tend to encourage you to experiment a bit with your tactics rather than constantly trying to get one fiddly bit just right, so I’m hesitant about declaring that an outright flaw. Overall, Hotline Miami is a charming, brief little piece which doesn’t outstay its welcome and offers ample replay value in terms of trying different ways of gruesomely murdering dozens of people.