These reviews are for the two entries in the 2009 EnvComp, La Seine by Derek Sutcliffe and Dead Like Ants by C. E. J. Pacian. The games may be downloaded from the IF Archive.
La Seine (4)
"La Seine," by Derek Sutcliffe, is set in a location which the author says he didn't want to be immediately familiar, but I recognized it instantly, as will any art buff or Stephen Sondheim fan. The basic idea is to explore a French park until you discover the truth about where you are. This premise was interesting enough, but I found the gameplay disappointing. The characters were uninteractive; there is an annoying "guess the verb" puzzle; and in general I didn't think the game showed a level of effort that lived up to its artistic premise. Maybe some might find it a good first effort, but I was unimpressed.
Dead Like Ants (8)
"Dead Like Ants," by C.E.J. Pacian, did a good job of fulfilling the expectations of EnvComp, with its unusual setting of a tree inhabited by ants. As a veteran IF player who tends to think visually, I spent the first portion of my play time mapping out the game's locations, which are linked together with unusual directions such as "sunwise" and "widdershins." (I had never heard the word "widdershins" before, but now I see that it means counterclockwise in Lowland Scots, with "sunwise" meaning the opposite.) After gaining a grasp of the terrain, I proceeded to solve the game's puzzles, which were quite easy. In spite of this, I still appreciated the game's hints, which are more than adequate for anyone who gets stumped or impatient. The game is short and is recommended to anybody who is intrigued by its unusual setting (an eerily hard-to-navigate tree), its characters (ants, spiders, etc.), or its generally unusual point of view.
EnvComp is reminiscent of the IF Art Show, in that its focus is on one aspect of interactive fiction. EnvComp games were to explore setting, especially unusual ones. Of the two entered games, Dead Like Ants does a better job of it than La Seine.
La Seine (3)
La Seine is the weaker of the two games both in setting and in gameplay. Part of La Seine's problem is that its structure pulls your attention away from the setting and onto the game's overarching puzzle: what, exactly, is going on? It takes a while to realize that you're inside Seurat's famous painting, and once you do recognize that, your goal is to escape. Because of the choice to hide information about the setting, La Seine can't play with what it would be like to be in a static pointillistic world. La Seine also has some unfortunate guess-the-verb moments.
Dead Like Ants (7)
Dead Like Ants gives a human slant to an ant colony in a tree. It's filled with anthropomorphic insects and animals, and its prose gives the game the feel of a Victorian tale for children, minus the one use of "holy shit". You're encouraged to explore, and you have to interact with your surroundings to proceed. I found the symmetry of the game wore on me after a while, and it felt too neat and tidy given the prose's hinted grotesqueries, but overall its strong voice makes the game a winner.
La Seine (5)
La Seine is a short piece in which the player explores a simple environment with a couple of simple interactions to make. For the most part, it's nicely described if somewhat static, and one can hit the boundaries a little too easily in terms of what objects and actions are implemented. In the author's notes it describes itself as a first game, and that shows—something has been put together here, and the next step is to try to bring it to life (and to add had depth to the cracks). Still, the writing was pleasant enough (and then some elements jarred...)—and although the game's resolution left me unsurprised, it did nicely finish up what had come before. All in all, snack-sized and inoffensive, with all the good things—and the bad—that such a description entails.
Dead Like Ants (9)
A much more polished game (and no surprise, perhaps, from the author of Gun Mute). The player is an ant, set forth on a quest by her beloved Queen. Along the way she meets five mysterious gothic figures—a widow, an artist. The experience is simple, fluid, elegant and creepy. There are no puzzles or choices, just a series of short scenes.
The writing is lovely, fitting the setting perfectly. Smooth, polished, simply jointed; above all, alien. It's creepy in the way a great ghost story can be: darkness, without unpleasantness, and an envious lack of exposition.
I could happily fill the rest of this review by quoting great lines: the widow's description of her husband, the artist's apology for his inspiration, the Queen's farewell to "her favourite daughter". But that wouldn't be right: instead, if you like great writing you should simply explore the game for a while.
Implementationwise things are simple and smooth—I didn't hit any major boundaries, there are conveniences such as topic reminders and exit lists. Text is kept to a graceful minimum. Descriptions change from the first time they appear to the next. Dialogue options are presented as links, to encourage you to read more.
Perhaps the game is a trifle long. Once the structure has been established... maybe I began to hurry through to the end, or wanted a little more in the way of artifice and subtlety in what occurred. I wanted to play the gothic heroine and walk into traps with vigour and effort, and with the best of intentions.
La Seine (6.5)
Am I being picky? Perhaps. But one of the primary merits on which I'm supposed to judge this game is "How interesting is the setting, and how well does the author make use of it?" Definitions of 'interesting' will no doubt vary from judge to judge. For me, interesting means I'll feel compelled to explore the setting a great deal. Setting, when done well—particularly when it's the focus of a game—should be immersive.
If a man is carrying a riding crop, I should be able to >X CROP and get a response (which I didn't). If all that works is >X RIDING CROP, it shouldn't merely say, "The guy looks really stuck-up" (i.e. the same response produced when you examining the man who holds the riding crop in question). A game written with the express intent of creating a good setting should allow you to lose yourself within its world.
If a character in the game seems interesting in some way, whether it be that she's wearing a bustle or that she's in possession of a monkey on a leash, let me at least try to strike up a conversation with her. "There is no reply" is a very disheartening response in this regard. I thought maybe it was that I was trying to speak to the Parisian characters in English; sadly, >FEMME, BONJOUR didn't work, either. Perhaps the author thought that conversation didn't fall under the heading of "setting," but I would put forth that if you put people into a game they then become part of the landscape to be explored, and (at least in a non-AIF game) exploring a person is generally done through conversation.
This game directs you in a not-so-gentle way. There are people to the north, and you feel like joining them. There's a dog here that needs to be taught a lesson and you are conveniently in possession of a newspaper. Things of that nature. While this less-than-subtle direction was ubiquitous enough so as to draw my attention, it didn't actually bother me, per se. After all, the point of the game was setting, not puzzles, and any puzzles I might have had trouble solving would probably have been a distraction from the task at hand.
And walk into the river? ...No. Your clothes are fine dry. And don't try taking them off.
You can't see any such thing.
There's that implementation thing again. However, more to the point, that little exchange gives me a good segue to discuss the use of humor in the game, which often worked for me, but not always. I smiled ear to ear when reading the newspaper ("...you can tell there are articles on neo-impressionism, champagne, and optometry. Unfortunately, your grammar doesn't match your stunning ability to recognize simple cognates, so you're unable to read the articles themselves."). Admittedly, I probably found that far more amusing than the non-linguaphiles in the audience.
At other times, however, I found the writing not only terse but sometimes overly course given the otherwise genteel setting:
She has a parasol and a pet monkey on a leash. Also, she has a big, round butt. It can't be real. She must be using... Uh, what's it called... A bustle? Anyway, her dress has wiring in it that makes her butt look huge.
I suppose the response to the woman's bustle fits in the same character voice as the attempt at reading the newspaper, but being told that I can't go in a particular direction because 'that crappy bugler will probably deafen' me? Well, I just found those sorts of replies rather jarring, and they popped up with enough frequency to merit mention in this review.
In rereading what I've written thus far, I think that I sound overly down on this piece of IF. So I must highlight two extra points I'd like to give to "M. Seurat." First, I'm a fan of exploring famous art through interactive fiction (those of you who are familiar with my own work realize this, and yes, I seriously haven't given up on Waterhouse yet). I've always loved Un dimanche aprs-midi l'le de la Grande Jatte, and I spent a lot of time as a child creating my own works of art employing pointillism, so it was fun to visualize this world in a new way. Furthermore, utilizing French in the titles of locations was a very lovely touch, and one of my favorite things about the game that truly helped set the scene; it made the setting feel authentically French in a way that I don't think would have otherwise been achieved.
On a final note, after having written all of that, I finally read Seurat's—um, I mean, Derek's—ABOUT text, and learned that he coded and tested the entire piece within the one week extension given for the competition. That having been said, nicely done, given the time allowed. Then I went ahead and finished the game, at which point I learned that it was also Derek's first attempt at interactive fiction. Looking forward to more, Derek ...
Dead Like Ants (8)
Death is enticing and seductive in this simple but elegant game by C.E.J. Pacian, set in a world we see every day yet herein crafted on a new scale, from a new point of view, with endearing anthropomorphic touches. The game is not difficult, not epic, but beautifully described in succinct yet very illustrative ways.
"How interesting is the setting, and how well does the author make use of it?" Setting is, quite obviously, the point of the game (says she, Master of the Obvious, given that she's judging the game as an entry in EnvComp):
Setting isn't the game's only forte, however. The characterization, plot, and movement have similarly received careful thought, and Pacian also added some nice touches in terms of game movement that worked particularly well once I got the hang of them: >IN and >OUT for negotiating what portion of the tree branch you're on, for instance, and >SUNWISE and >WIDDERSHINS for >CLOCKWISE and >COUNTERCLOCKWISE for working your way up and down the tree. Once you get past the fact that the cardinal directions have been thrown out and that >W no longer stands for >WEST, it turns out to be a great system for navigating your way 'round a tree.
I found few faults with Dead Like Ants, which is set in small vignettes.
Like the other piece in this competition, there was humor that fell flat or detracted from the overall mood here and there (the use of profanity at a couple of points during the game, while not overly offensive, nevertheless seemed rather out of place).
However, aside from the (very) occasional (but nonetheless) jarring text, the only real complaint I had was that after the player gets on their feet and recognizes the goal, the game becomes a touch—nay, very—predictable, but with variations on the theme that permit us to forgive the inevitability of what's to come. I suppose I wish this piece had been longer, but given the predictability factor, lengthening the game to any great degree would probably have detracted from its elegance and led us down a road of When Will it End. Consequently, short and sweet and leaving us wishing it hadn't ended so soon is better territory in which to strand the player at the end of the day.
There's a final aspect that I'm tempted to discuss, but in the interest of allowing the reader to discover their own sense of the game as it unfolds, I shall refrain from spoiling. To sum up, I enjoyed Pacian's exploration of a natural setting from a new angle, done in a way that reminded me of Alice in Wonderland, albeit with a dark twist reminiscent of American McGee.
La Seine (6)
The thing that makes this entry's setting unusual isn't meant to be obvious until you reach the surprise ending, so it's hard to talk about that without getting into spoilers.
What I can say is that the central premise—the subject of the surprise ending—could be better integrated. For a surprise ending to really work, I think, it has to resolve an obvious and substantial tension that's present throughout the story, and resolve it in a surprising way. The lack here is of that obvious tension to resolve. The story actually does drop a few hints about the surprise, enough that I correctly guessed the ending near the start, but hints aren't enough; the story has to actively create that dissonance in the player's mind that motivates you to discover the secret.
The author mentions in an afterword that this is his first IF effort, and it's definitely a decent showing for a first game. Technically the entry works well; it has a few rough spots in terms of unimplemented objects, and the room descriptions could be a little clearer about navigation, but overall it's fairly polished. The game has a few simple puzzles, and for the most part they're reasonably well motivated and clued.
Dead Like Ants (8)
Everything in fiction is refracted through a viewpoint. In most stories the viewpoint is so "ordinary"—so similar to our own real-life experience of the world—that we hardly notice. But sometimes the point of view can make us see things in new ways, and turn the mundane into the exotic.
Dead Like Ants takes it one step further, using viewpoint to turn something that we'd normally see as a thing into a setting. The setting here is a tree, as seen by an ant. The tree is a whole self-contained world to the ant.
It makes a certain kind of sense that the ant sees the world in polar coordinates: everything is arranged radially around the tree trunk, which is at the center of the world. For my own sense of spatial reasoning, this was a bit confusing—I had to work a little harder than in most IF at visualizing how the overall map fits together. Even so, the map is small enough and regular enough that navigation isn't particularly hard as a practical matter. And the unusual coordinate system does reinforce the non-human point of view.
The protagonist's viewpoint is also decidedly storybookish, so the tree-world has the flavor of a fairy tale setting. The way the story maps the insect world to storybook tropes is fairly clever—although, strangely, I think this aspect reduces the exoticness of the setting by casting it in familiar, human terms. The more effective passages, to me, are where the story portrays the ant's perceptions in visceral terms, trying to imagine how the ant (even if it's an anthropomorphized ant) perceives the world without a human point of reference.
La Seine (6.5)
Normally I am not big on "my first IF game" but this is pretty good-hearted and was apparently written partly to ensure there were at least two entries in EnvComp, so I can't really dislike it. On the other hand, I do feel like the game's a little undeveloped, even for its small size. It's got an interesting premise (which isn't obvious at first, although you will probably figure it out before the game tells you), but the author doesn't really do much with it—none of the puzzles except the last depend on it, for instance. So overall, good choice of setting, but for a comp like this I was hoping the author would do more with it.
Dead Like Ants (8.0)
I think of C. E. J. Pacian as specializing in casual IF games, and this is no exception; previously we've seen a casual conversation game and a casual puzzle game, and here we have a casual exploration game, the sort of thing you could play in twenty minutes (plus another few minutes after reading the AMUSING). It looks like a puzzle game at first glance but it's not really—the puzzles are trivial enough that clearly they're there to guide your exploration rather than be the point of the game. I wouldn't have minded the game being longer, but there's enough here to be satisfying. From the comp perspective it's a good setting and we get to explore it a bit, so I think it's a win there too. Really, the only thing I don't get is the title—isn't it waving the flag too blatantly?
Note: I gave these games a numerical score, vaguely calibrated to my recollection of what scores I gave comp games in the past, not having judged the last several. So take them as you will; my more relevant thoughts on the games are the actual reviews.
La Seine (7)
If I were Ebert, I would probably give this game two and a half stars, meaning, "if you like this sort of thing, you'll probably like this," or perhaps, "this basically accomplishes what it sets out to accomplish." Its reach is unambitious, but that gives it an attainable goal which it mostly achieves. The puzzles are easy but intuitive, if somewhat shallowly implemented. The twist was handled perfectly, and made me chuckle at the realization. The denouement, for me, was way too short—I stumbled on an explicit clue exactly one move after the twist, so the author's goal of having me work for the final solution was lost. Ah, the curse of Interactive Fiction. A worthy first attempt—my advice for the author's next game would simply be to be more ambitious!
Dead Like Ants (9)
Pleasant to play; well implemented; solid all the way through. So solid, in fact, that when talking about it, you want to skip to the story, which is always a good sign. The NPCs were all interesting and mostly interestingly different. The puzzles were all straightforward, but reasonably satisfying. Likewise, the conversation system wasn't huge, but let you know exactly where the borders were: you only got responses to highlighted keywords, and nothing else was rewarded, so the net result was limited, complete scope. In fact, the one time I got stuck was the one puzzle where interpersonal character action was required that was not part of the keyword system.
The story itself hit a very nice balance between being cruel, amusing, and wistful. It helped to be able to add what I knew about insects to the story—it established the milieu much faster than a short story about a completely alien culture would have been able to do. And yet, the story took my knowledge and applied it in a way I wouldn't have thought of.
My only complaint might be that three of the five hazards in the game were a bit too similar in approach, or, in how they viewed the PC. The widow was unique, as was the artist (and the latter was crucial to the story, and best encountered last, as I did—in fact, a Photopia-esque rearrangement might be in order here, should there be a second release). But the other three sort of blur together in my memory. The descriptions and inherent personalities were indeed distinct, but if a new view of the protagonist could have been found, I think it would have enriched the game.
But that's a pretty minor complaint about an excellent game. Bravo!
La Seine (7)
Note: there are no spoilers in this review.
When I read Derek Sutcliffe's note that La Seine was created in a week — so that there would be more than one entry in EnvComp — I sighed. This wasn't Speed EnvComp, after all.
With that expectation, I fired up Derek's game. After the initial text, I found myself in a park, a discarded newspaper at my feet. I couldn't read or open it and the game didn't recognize fold. A few locations later, I was having trouble interacting with more scenery and characters. You can only implement so much in a week, I mumbled.
Nonetheless, I gave it my full attention and after a short period of time, I finished it.
There are only a handful of locations, so getting around is pretty easy. The room locations are in French but luckily for non-speaking French players, the descriptions are in English. For what it's worth, the babel fish translations were spot on so the French locations were no problem at all.
There are several NPCs, but they're pretty lifeless. Most serve only one purpose — a tool to advance the game. The game responds to most first level nouns, but only with the basic of commands. I never got frustrated as the game did give me enough hints to move on.
During the play through, I had this feeling that I was missing the big picture — it was staring me in the face but I failed to recognize it. There was a point to the scenery, the characters, the atmosphere I just couldn't put it together. La Seine was trying to tell me something, I just wasn't listening.
As I continued to contemplate the meaning of La Seine, the "aha" moment happened. Unfortunately, the text dump was a bit too much. I would have preferred to have received it in chunks, as part of a dialog, for instance. Maybe this was a limitation of the deadline. If it was, too bad.
Nonetheless, it all clicked. I thought back to what I had seen, what I had experienced — or not experienced — and it made sense. I understood the characters and the scenery the purpose.
Well, once the game grabbed me by the ears and sent me in the right direction, it was only a matter of time to get to the end game. It was pretty straightforward and all the loose ends were tied up nicely, especially after I did a quick Google search on the subject matter.
After I had digested it, I quite liked it. This reminds me of my reaction to Shade. I finished that game during the competition but it was a few days later that I realized I really liked it. It grew on me.
La Seine has grown on me. I haven't played anything similar to it (that I can remember) so it was unique. In my opinion, La Seine could possibly be one of those short, memorable games that would find itself on many recommended lists. Before that can happen though, Derek needs to do at least two things. Spend more time implementing game world objects, including giving a bit of life to some of the NPCs and for those of us that didn't get the connection during the game play, don't force feed the player.
With all that said, it was a good job considering the schedule and timeline of La Seine. Look for a post-comp release, you won't be disappointed.
Dead Like Ants (7.5)
Note: there are no spoilers in this review.
I haven't played any of C.E.J. Pacian's other games, but after completing Dead Like Ants, I think I will. Overall, the game was well constructed and entertaining — two major factors in describing a good game. It fit in well as an entry into EnvComp 2009.
You are an ant, or more to the point, the daughter of the Queen Ant who's been chosen to do some good for the ant kingdom. You set out on your journey, not knowing how to accomplish this good—which is key to the game play.
Along the way, you meet unique characters to the environment, setting the stage for the puzzle aspect of the game. Several are done quite well, though I would have liked for the characters to be a bit more animated.
There is a common theme in your journey which is not obvious at first. You will reach a point where you'll pause and re-read some text and then possibly wonder if the game bugged out on you—no pun intended. Hang in there, though, Dead Like Ants will eventually reward you.
The game is well implemented and I didn't encounter any parser issues. Most actions were handled well and there were plenty of scenery and first level nouns to investigate. It was very easy to play.
As for the environment, more work could have been done with it. I just felt that some things were missing. The Meta location (tree) wasn't alive enough for me where was the wind, the birds & bees, creaking of the tree, etc.... Normally, I would certainly overlook something as trivial as this, but since its the EnvComp, it was anticipating full compliance. Or something like that.
That minor quibble aside, Dead Like Ants was an enjoyable game. It should be played in less than an hou'rs time and it's very forgiving.
If a post-comp release is in the works, I recommend that the author add a bit more ambiance around the tree location and possibly revisit some of the NPCs — additional responses and idle time actions would be good. If there is no post-comp release, you should still play Dead Like Ants; you may never get another chance to live the glorious life of an Ant.
La Seine (3)
La Seine transports you into the world of Georges Seurat's La Grande Jatte, but, sadly, not very far into that world. You interact in some fairly superficial ways with the characters in the painting, you're told where you are, and you leave. What's here is fine, but both art lovers and IF fans are likely to want more.
Specifically, you encounter three of the characters and solve some minor problems, then meet a fourth character and recognize that the character is painted. A game of guess-the-verb then ensues—at least, it did for me—as you try to figure out how to get out of the painting. Attempts to mine the setting for more depth are mostly unsuccessful, and indeed no further interaction with any part of the scene is possible, as far as I can tell. It's a shame because this is a painting that—in my view—offers plenty of depth for imaginative expansion; the characters must have backstories, and discovering those backstories could have been fun. Sadly, this game is not pitched at that level.
An ending note from the author suggests that the game is set up to suggest to the player that he or she leave the painting's world without interacting with the painting at all. I missed those hints and solved the puzzles, such as they were, before realizing that the idea was to get out of there—but that seems like the wrong instinct for an IF game, and particularly for an IF game where the setting is supposed to be the premise. More and more detailed interaction with the surrounding is supposed to be encouraged here, not less.
In short: intriguing idea, but too superficially done to be successful.
Dead Like Ants (8)
Point-of-view experiments in IF have a long and honorable history—dogs, cats, robots, teddy bears, and more—and Dead Like Ants is a short but worthy addition to the genre. Here, you're an ant, entrusted with carrying out a mission for your mother the Queen, and, in the best tradition of POV experiments, your experience of the world is fairly consistently antlike. (Though there are some glitches—TOUCH X often yields "You decide to keep your hands to yourself." Hands?) Your primary interaction with the world is through your antennae, and most library messages are suitably, and amusingly, changed. (JUMP: "It's the strangest thing, but neither you nor any of your sisters can get all your feet off the ground at the same time.")
As for the plot—it's brief, episodic, accurately captures the transitory nature of anthood, and it becomes obvious early on where things are going. More rewarding is the setting, which nicely captures the world through an ant's eyes:
The descriptions aren't lengthy, but they capture the detail of your surroundings nicely. Oddly, though, the author throws in fantastic bits that don't actually enhance the setting, so you encounter things like bookcases and bell-pulls along the way. Those touches aren't really necessary to bring the scene to life—the game was doing just fine with the naturalistic; it didn't need the surreal.
At any rate, it's the POV-experiment aspect of Dead Like Ants that I enjoyed the most. Without spoiling this ten-minute game, suffice it to say that there's a twist or three on the ant-POV premise, and the author begins to do some clever things with the notion of the IF protagonist as narrator and individualized character—but the brevity of the game is such that this aspect is more gestured at than fully realized. That's appropriate, I suppose, when the setting and not the plot is the purpose, but I'm hoping the author will flesh out these ideas into a more fully-realized game.
At any rate, Dead Like Ants has plenty of charm, and the AMUSING responses are a scream. Well worth a few minutes of your time.
La Seine (8)
I actually got the gimmick early on; on my second move, in fact, after reading the newspaper. If the goal was to be coy about the setting, the newspaper (which specifically mentioned impressionism) was way too broad a hint. I actually played the rest of the game with 'Sunday Afternoon...' open in a separate window, as a sort of map.
Moving beyond my premature (if it was premature) realization of the gimmick, the game is pretty well realized in many ways. The puzzles are straightforward, and the descriptions evocative. The authorial voice is a bit inconsistent—it's mostly neutral, which makes the occasional interjection of a strong tone when looking at the bustle or a faraway object a bit jarring. Mostly, however, the game hangs together well, and is a good imagining of the sort of unusual landscape exploration which, to the best of my knowledge, this comp is about.
As for the ending, well, I discovered the shocking twist early on and was OK with it. The idea that it was stunning and disturbing to my character was a bit alien to me: I didn't actually see what the problem was, as it were. But that might be fixable by playing a little closer to the chest with the grand reveal.
In conclusion, it's a solid game which accurately represents the purpose of this comp. It's thin in implementation and the rate at which information is revealed could be better handled, but all told it's quite good.
Dead Like Ants (7)
Implementationwise, this one is reasonably deep, featuring a number of fairly well-fleshed-out conversational interactions. But at the same time, it also felt rather flat. There's no way to do much of anything that's not on the proscribed path, even things which one might think would have an effect, such as visiting the site of a previous slaughter. I also think I maybe don't have the entomological savvy to really appreciate this one: the visitors you meet occupy a strange space between the literal and figurative interpretation of their roles which might garner better appreciation from those who are more familiar with these species (in particular, the painter baffled me).
As for its accomplishment of the function of this particular competition, I'm a bit torn. It plays much more with PC role than with setting. The setting itself is reasonably innovative but not extraordinarily unusual. The figurative roles of the other creatures adds a certain aspect of the surreal tot he setting but doesn't really make it transcend. So while I applaud the innovation which went into the conception of this game, I think it might be a bit wide of the mark for EnvComp.
It seems I've mostly been poking at this game's flaws, but really, it worked quite well. The implementation was deep enough to keep it interesting, and the tone was authentically chilling.
All reviews in this article copyright © 2009 by their respective authors.