Interactive Fiction Competition: Keepsake and Fog Convict

Here are my next two reviews of games from the 2011 IFComp: Savaric’s Keepsake and Andrew Metzger’s Fog Convict. Though I try not to reveal all the games’ secrets, there are spoilers, so I’ve hidden them below the fold.

Keepsake coverKeepsake, which describes itself as “an interactive act of vengeance”, is more of an experiment than a game. For me, it raised a lot of questions about how much agency the player should be allowed to have in a game. Obviously, all interactive fiction sometimes has to force you down certain paths or keep you from doing something completely out of character, but it should generally leave you free to make your own choices. In this case, Keepsake opens just as after character has murdered someone, and you are restricted to a very small range of choices even once the game is underway. If I was ever supposed to feel complicity in the murder or a connection to the protagonist, the game failed to accomplish that.

However, it soon becomes obvious that it has a different motive. It’s difficult to talk about without spoilers, but your actions are basically being used to construct the story of the murder that has already happened. It’s interesting, and so quick (about fifteen minutes, even if you take the time to explore and figure things out) that there’s no reason not to replay the game and experiment with the different possibilities that this opens up. In that sense, it’s meant more as a toy than a complete story.

However, it only takes a few playthroughs before it becomes obvious that there’s no deep meaning behind it. The game lets you change around some elements of the story, but it never elucidates who you or the victim are, or why you wanted to kill him. When the author reveals the secret behind the game (in the Hint system), it’s actually just a pop culture reference instead of something with greater purpose.

Keepsakeis a clever experiment, and the sort of thing that makes interactive fiction distinct from other computer game genres. Something like this would never appear in a profit-driven industry. (Experiments like this have started to appear in other games, now that there’s a market for short diversions, Flash, and mobile games, but interactive fiction has a head start of more than a decade.) However, its main strengths are that it uses the game engine in an interesting way and that it’s so short that there’s no reason not to experience it. Hopefully it will inspire someone else to take the ideas farther.

Grade: B-

Fog Convict coverOne rule of thumb that some people use to weed out the bad games in the IFComp is to avoid the ones that didn’t use any playtesters. It’s not a perfect system (Blind is a standout game this year despite not crediting any playtesters), but it certainly is the quickest way to pick out many broken games. Fog Convict is a perfect example of this.

I feel bad calling out problems in well-intentioned amateur games, but all entries in the IFComp should be treated equally. Taking place on LeTourneau University, it begins with the author’s own memories while building a more sinister story about mysterious fog and an escaped convict. The puzzles are very simple and a little sparse given the detail and size of the map, but fortunately it cuts off much of the campus by giving the player excuses not to travel too far. There’s a core of a good, introductory-level game here. The only fundamental issue is the pacing: I spent a lot more time exploring than thinking about puzzles, and it felt a little too slow. (Plus, there’s no sense of urgency. The game begins with your character in a burning building, but you can wander around indefinitely with no danger.)

However, the game is filled with issues that any playtester would have caught right away. It’s vital for an author to get other people’s perspectives, because not everyone is going to think exactly the same way about the puzzles and language in the game. For example, one of the earliest puzzles involves getting past a door that can’t be opened easily. Every piece of text I could find about it in the game described it as a locked door, but when I looked up the solution, I learned that it hadn’t actually been locked! It was difficult to open for a different reason, but nowhere in the game did it tell me that. Locked doors are common in text adventures, and anyone not reading the author’s mind would have been led to believe that the door wasn’t usable at that time.

Playtesters would also have come up with many things that the author never thought to account for (such as breaking a window when trapped in a burning building). Even more importantly, the game will often allow only a single solution for something that can be phrased in many ways. This exchange with the game is only one example:

> examine van

The mail van drives to the post office and back every day, delivering mail for students and faculty alike. It seems to be unlocked; you might be able to get in.

> enter it

I don’t know how to enter the mail van.

> get in van

I don’t know how to get on the mail van.

> go in van

I don’t know how to enter the mail van.

> open van

I don’t know how to open the mail van.

> open van door


> enter it

<At this point, the “enter” command succeeds even though the game had claimed not to know how.>

There are also a number of bugs. For example, I could convince the students to re-enter that burning building without extinguishing the fire. No one seemed to notice or care that I’d missed that step. Several room descriptions listed incorrect exits, and at least one exit actually jumped me to the wrong place on the map. There were also multiple problems with doors:

> west

You’ll have to open the fire door first.

> open fire door

The door is already open.

For all the game’s flaws, I wanted to give it some credit. A lot of work obviously went into this, and the basic game design is solid. Most puzzles are more firmly grounded in reality than a typical adventure game’s, and despite my concerns about pacing, the occasional creepy moments were effective. (I also note that important information was always tied to actions players needed to do to proceed, so there was no danger ofmissing plot points.) However, I was more bored than intrigued after my first hour. More importantly, a bug in the game made it impossible to finish. Even after restarting the game and checking my actions against the official walkthrough, I was blocked from going through a door I needed to use. Judging by my score and the walkthrough, at least half of the game was impossible to access.

Many IFComp games are updated once feedback begins to come in. It would take only a little effort to make Fog Convict playable, and with significant additional work the many sources of frustration could be addressed. However, as it stands now, it’s largely unplayable.

Grade: F

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