Ectocomp 2017 has just finished, but the games are still playable here. Ectocomp is one of my favorite IF competitions: something about the timing (during/after IF Comp) and the Halloween theme seem to encourage a number of innovative, experimental games. Le Petit Mort is the traditional category: all games in the category must be made within a 3 hour hard limit. I find it makes for interesting comparisons, since everyone is working with the same time constraints and with the same general but broad prompt. So I thought I’d write up my thoughts on this year’s batch of Le Petit Mort games, with some selections from The Grand Guignol (the longer portion of the comp) to come later. A note: I skipped “Civil Mimic” and “Uxmulbrufyuz”, and couldn’t get “Something in the Night” to run.
Chandler’s Ectocomp games are strange little kaleidoscopes into other worlds, almost like poems. This one in particular feels the most poem-like since “Skull-scraper”, and tells the story of a young girl–constantly called ‘little’ and demeaned by an abusive family–who snaps and murders them all. I quite liked the effect of the links being not differentiated from the text, so that you’re fumbling your way through this spare and chilling parable.
I don’t want to say more about it, because the experience of unraveling one of CMG’s small games is part of the process.
“Do It”, Santiago Eximeno
This short Twine game places you in the ostensible position of a serial killer, insisting the “you” of both character and player want to commit a brutal murder of a helpless woman, whose description is as trite and banal as it is weirdly suggestive.
Reader, I did not want to.
I quit this game about three or four choices in, since it failed to signal any interest in either inverting tropes of misogynistic violence or handling them with any sort of authorial deftness. Perhaps it does, but I wasn’t interested in sticking around to find out.
Still, I was interested in this as a craft failure: after all, I’m on record as defending the deliberate and often extreme discomfort of Taghairm, a stance which I still think is valid. And I like cats: I don’t think it’s the jump from animal to human torture that’s put me off. Especially since my exit from “Do It” was prompted by irritation and boredom, not discomfort.
What it comes down to is control. Chandler Groover has a tremendous control over how he manages player agency, from mechanics to prose, and I’d played both “creak, creek” and “Toby’s Nose” before Taghairm, so I had a reason to trust he wasn’t doing this as a gross-out game or troll entry. The prose in Taghairm is spare and gestures at a world different to ours: to continue the ritual offers the promise of knowledge otherwise unknowable. It offers the reader something tempting both tempting and taboo.
“Do It” has no such tension. It’s set in a world very close to ours, and as such I don’t feel a drive to know why the “you” of the game wants to note this woman’s beauty as he inventories her wounds and prepares to do more damage. (I am, I note, unable to see the “you” of this game as “me”; I am not given enough reason in the prose or pacing of choices to trust the author to offer a worthwhile character.) I’m instructed to stab her, or else taunted as a coward, but the game hasn’t established enough of a reason for me to care about that insult. The author attempts to assume a confluence between player and character, a willingness to follow the author down his path, but does not work to collapse that space or make the character’s goals conflate with the reader’s. It’s an assumption I’ve seen before in IF: that playing as a protagonist means my goals align with theirs. Some of the best work plays with this space. But here, it’s not signaled early enough–if at all–that the creator intends this.
I had the sense that this game is a very Bioshock “oh no you followed directions and Did A Bad”, but frankly that’s a trope that’s been addressed, and I’m not sure what’s left to explore. But I’m unsure of so many decisions here: who is addressing me in these exhortations? Who am I supposed to be, and why am I caught in these tropes? Why deploy a gaze that conjures sexualization of violence by explicitly–and clumsily–signaling “this is a different kind of desire”?
I said in my Taghairm review that quitting partway through represents a third ending, not built into the browser but afforded by the gameplay’s assumptions. If I’m told “I” wish to do something, then logically “I” can always wish to stop. And the moment of closing my browser on “Do It”, I admit, brought me my first moment of enjoyment all game.
“Who To Haunt”, Katie Benson
“Who To Haunt is a short, cute game about being a ghost and having the opportunity to revisit someone from your past. However, as a ghost, your ability is limited; the way you affect the world is often not how you mean to. If there’s an overall message, it’s that strong bonds and forgiveness mean more than what we might think of as more trivial concerns. Light and fluffy despite the Halloween theme.
At the end, the game signals that there are other, better or worse, endings, and thus shapes your sense of how well you did. It can be somewhat of a letdown to get a “good” ending and then feel like the narrative arc sags afterward–this is a pretty frequent problem with Sorting Hat stories–so I appreciate the author trying to signal this despite having only 3 hours.
“Your Party is Dead”, Naomi Norbez
Ectocomp Le Petit Mort games usually fit into one of two categories: ambitious and rushed, or tiny and polished. There’s room for both in the competition, and while I enjoy the craft of the latter, it would be a bit of a letdown if there weren’t ambitious games that feel too big for Le Petit Mort but maybe don’t have the time or scope to put more hours in for The Grand Guignol. All this is to say that this game feels like it’s trying to do too much at once, and suffers for it.
The party members, though they’re given details, are only fleshed out enough to feel that their presence is more sentimental than poignant. I’d like to hope this was addressed later in the game. But I’m afraid the font choice and the intense eye-strain it caused made me drop out of this one very early.
“Primer”, Christina Nordlander
Short and relatively linear, this game’s conceit is going further and further back in a complicated situation, leading up to the character shooting their father. Starting with an impactful moment (so to speak) is a strong way to build tension, but watching it over and over in an attempt to see if there’s another ending dulled its payoff somewhat. I know that it’s conjuring that sense of inevitability, but it didn’t necessarily feel well-enough balanced for me; more and more steps before the potential shooting take place and there are very few actions I can take, which makes me feel as though I’m waiting for the act to happen. This is the sort of game I’d love to see expanded out past a 3-hour game jam limit, playing around with the linear arcs of the narrative.
“Bloody Raoul”, Ian Cowsbell
Played to three endings. The setting is a street fight in a world very different than ours; think Clockwork Orange with sentient weapons. (At least, that’s what I think I got.) The most intriguing part was balancing my desire to learn more about the worldbuilding as the footsteps of people who wanted to do very not-fun things to me grew ever closer. I didn’t find anything I’d consider a “good” ending, but I got one that was satisfactory enough, and felt like it for what I’d learned about the world.
The prose is rough in spots and a little under-written, but for a 3-hour speed-IF parser game with multiple endings, I can’t be too critical.
“Corrupter of Dreams”, Robert Patten
Played to two endings. (I believe there are only two.) In this game, I am a nightmare, tasked with corrupting the sleep and memories of a young boy to save his life. “Unpleasant task for the greater good” is a fairly stock trope, but it’s one that gives good mileage. I ignored my task at first–though I wavered–and regretted it, so used an Undo.
The game does an excellent job of making your task uncomfortable: the scenery is spare but vividly drawn, and when you corrupt the place, that prose withers just as vibrantly, even sometimes more so than the original idyll of the garden. It also gestures at what fantasy does for us, as survival mechanism and creator of meaning, and how our fantasies can destroy us.
It’s a neat inversion of the “you are a monster” trope, and a good use or the 3 hour limit.
“make build –deity”, joshg
Played to ??? endings. This is an ambitious game, tackling really interesting material but suffering from some abstraction or excess in the writing. In this game, you coach a sentient AI as it comes online and tries to solve all of humanity’s problems. Unfortunately, a computer trained on humanity isn’t going to have all the answers .
I’m not sure if I hit a bug: I tried to unlock a root partition but subsequent playthroughs acted as though I never had, although the prose suggested next time would be different. Overall, the prose is a little too precise, or else there’s too much of it: it genuinely reads as “programming information in non-programmer language”, but the pacing of it drags too long for the information to be delivered. I want the sense of urgency that the story suggests to come through in the prose. As it is, I have to dig for it; there’s very little plot to words ratio, which is a shame because the story is interesting, and asks questions about what late capitalism has done.
Firstly, I am not downloading an entirely new engine to play a game, so it’s nice there was an alternative. The website provided suffers from some pretty noticeable design limitations (green text on orange, button/frame distribution, etc) and thus the text game engine isn’t much better. I found the split between examining, cardinal directed motion, and present objects to be clunkily presented. For example: the first page gives me “look”, my general action; followed by “out”, the direction I can go, and then “wedding ring” and “nightstand” beneath, all centered. Clicking on “nightstand” opens up a second category beneath that where I am told this is the nightstand, and then I can click a button to “examine”. This is far too much extraneous information, and was a clunky hindrance during later parts of the plot.
Second, my character kind of sucks. The plot suggests that it’s the first year anniversary of the death of my wife, and immediately goes for a rather crass joke about switching out handkerchiefs for crying with condoms for… and it trails off. The English is generally rough, and could benefit from localization or a proofreader. There are several moments on the first page alone that strike entirely the wrong tone for a story that’s supposed to, I assume, be sexy and sensual and mysterious. The plot points of the story feel similarly clunkily handled: there’s a fairly stock twist that I saw coming from the first screen. (But maybe I’m just a terrible cynic.) It’s impossible for me to tell how much is the engine, how much the pacing, and how much the prose, but it didn’t come together into a compelling story for me.
That’s all for now: I aim to have some selections from Le Grand Guignol up by the end of the weekend.