IF Beginners Comp

I would be remiss if I did not mention the new IFBeginnersComp, organized by David Fisher and inspired by (and running parallel with) the Interactive Short Fiction Competition. The comp consists of games that are suitable for beginners to IF, which I think is a great idea for getting more people interested in IF.

There are five entries in the comp:

– Connect, by James Hudson
– Germania, by Vicente Munoz
– Limelight, by Justin Lowmaster
– Mrs. Pepper’s Nasty Secret, by Jim Aikin and Eric Eve
– The Sleeping Princess, by Molly, Alex, and Mark Engelberg

All were written in either TADS3 or Z-code, so they should run on most interpreters. I recommend Spatterlight for Mac users and Gargoyle for Windows/Linux users.

The public judging period goes until March 15th, and instructions for voting can be found here.

The important question, however, is whether the games succeed at their intended purpose. Below are some of my impressions (with some possible spoilers).

I gather the idea behind the IFBeginnersComp is to capture new players, turn them on to IF, and get them hooked and wanting to play more. How to determine if a game is “suitable for beginners to IF” is open to debate, but for me such a game would be brief, and it would include clear instructions (particularly for those new to IF), a small set of straightforward puzzles, and a variety of possible actions that would span a decent array of verbs. At least one or two engaging NPCs would be useful as well. But perhaps most importantly, the game would be well designed and tested to avoid ambiguous output and confusing parser issues. Because a common perception of IF is that it still suffers from illogical puzzles and frustrating parsers, IF games made to attract new players should, I imagine, do their best to avoid these shortcomings.

At least one of the games, Limelight, does not do this well. Instead of being a game suitable for beginners to IF, Limelight comes across more as a beginner’s attempt at writing IF. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, if that’s the case. But my guess is that players who are new to IF would likely find the mechanics of this piece frustrating, confusing, and inconsistent at times, and it probably would not inspire new players to try other works. The most obvious criticism is that it would have benefitted from more careful testing, to correct typos, inconsistent plural forms, and more appropriate responses to what I imagine are valid but unsupported commands. Room exit lists are occasionally incomplete (at one point the player is told “You can go north” when there are clearly exits both north and west), and some solutions (such as the HIDE/UNHIDE commands) are not necessarily intuitive. The most glaring problem, however, is the final chase scene. Although it is very forgiving for new players, the implementation is strange and messy. In addition to making the player move (by running) without specifying so, the descriptions are sloppy (“You see a Nasty thug, Mean thug, yourself, and thugs”…yikes) and inconsistent (“The thugs quickly move the crate and cart out of the way”, when there is only one thug, and the current location no longer has a crate or cart). The game is not difficult, and most players should be able to complete it without too much effort, but the sparse instructions and messy technical problems make it tough to envision this as an appropriate game for beginning IF players.

The Sleeping Princess is a game that I think would fare better with beginning IF players. It is very short and has only a handful of fairly well-conceived puzzles which require the player to perform a small variety of actions, including speaking with an NPC. I did not come across any inconsistencies or errors except, unfortunately, for my first command of the game (EXAMINE PORTRAIT gave no response at all), and some minor contextual issues while speaking with Willy. I think some beginners might be slightly frustrated by having to completely drop every item before descending through the trap door — is it really necessary to drop a key, for instance? — but overall it’s a minor issue. The instructions (which I believe are the default for TADS3) are incredibly lengthy and I can’t imagine beginners not being intimidated by them, but they do give a very good overview of IF. It also uses the nice stepwise and context-sensitive HINT system, which is good for new players. Although the game itself is not terribly engaging, it does a reasonaly good job introducing new players to IF, and may induce some to try other games.

I thought Mrs. Pepper’s Nasty Secret, on the other hand, is a very good introduction to IF for new players. Although it also includes the same impressively lengthy default TADS3 instructions as The Sleeping Princess, it does contain very good game-specific instructions, a stepwise and context-sensitive HINT system, and the option to include extra hints that can help new players to understand game mechanics as they play. I found the latter to be very effective. This game is longer than the others, and makes use of a variety of classic puzzles, most of which I found intuitive and not very difficult; the in-game text did an effective job pointing the player in the right direction. The content kept my interest throughout, especially the use of magic spells and the way they were implemented. The game is very polished, well-tested, and forgiving — I would expect as much from the authors, and they delivered. In all, I think it would be a nice game for new IF players.

I haven’t yet played the others, but I think the IFBG has already succeeded in one respect: it has recognized the importance of having well-written, tested, and forgiving games with which to introduce new players to IF, and has induced authors to write them. I think prospective players are too easily turned off these days by poorly written or tested games, or games that are too large or complex. Having short, simple games that enable new players to become comfortable with IF game mechanics is one key to expanding the audience for IF, and there is at least one entry that I believe does this well.

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