Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Brain Guzzlers from Beyond (review)

"Brain Guzzlers from Beyond" is a parser style interactive fiction written by Steph Cherrywell for the 2015 interactive fiction competition.  I chose to play this game because I so thoroughly enjoyed Cherrywell's 2014 entry "Jacqueline, Jungle Queen".  I was naturally eager to see what she had written this year.

In my formative years of playing the IF comp, roughly a decade ago, I had an elaborate algorithm for judging entries.  This required ranking games on multiple scales before calculating a rounded average.  I scored games on writing quality, story telling, novel programming tricks, simulation depth.... half a dozen scales in all.  But in the end, if I wasn't happy with a game's calculated score, I would throw away all those other numbers and assign whatever value I'd already decided in the category of "overall enjoyment".  That experience describes how I feel about "Brain Guzzlers from Beyond."  This game misses the "exceptional" mark on several of my fussy little metrics, but I had more FUN with this entry than anything else I've played this season.

More after the page break.

"Brain Guzzlers" is a smartly-written parody of a 1950's low budget horror film, set in small-town New Mexico during the annual Pine-nuts festival, just when the town is set upon by alien Brain Guzzlers.  There is a large cast of characters in this game, each with a lively and distinct personality.  Conversations are menu driven.  Navigation and inventory are managed through a primitive but functional parser.  Puzzles are simple and clever.  The game structure could be described (hopefully not too dismissively) as a "treasure hunt", the sort that was common in early commercial interactive fiction.

I said similar things last year about "Jungle Queen", with one key difference that makes "Brain Guzzlers" the better game.  From last year's review:
"Jaqueline, Jungle Queen" was simple, campy fun with a primitive, yet functional parser. It could have been a popular Infocom game. I was just disappointed it didn’t have more graphic art, like the blurb drawing."

Whether Cherrywell was responding to my feedback, or to others, or to her own artistic instincts, this year's entry (Brain Guzzlers) does have more graphic art embedded within the game.  Cherrywell's comic art style fits perfectly with her comic-book style of writing and story-telling.  She is one amazingly talented person to be able to write this well and program Inform and illustrate her own work in a stylistically consistent way.  Graphics may not be appropriate in every work of interactive fiction.  But "Brain Guzzlers" provides an example where graphics enhance the overall experience.

I mentioned before that conversations are menu driven.  Ten years ago I might have said that was lazy way to simulate conversation.  But with the increased popularity of Twine and hypertext, now entire games are menu driven.  And whereas the classic "Ask/Tell/Show" in parser-driven dialogue might theoretically simulate a real conversation, in practice it rarely ever does.  I think the conversation menus in this game were well done, and allowed the simulation of a world filled with real people, instead the barren moon-scapes or caves we've often come to expect from IF.  I enjoyed this games careful blend of menu driven conversation, with parser driven navigation and inventory management.  I hope to see more games like this in the future.

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