The following was originally posted on the private IFComp 2019 authors’ forum on intfiction.org. It’s partially a review of Arthur DiBianca’s game Skies Above (which placed 10th overall and 3rd in Miss Congeniality in IFComp 2019) and partially some thoughts on Arthur’s games in general.
The last few IFComps we’ve been treated to a collection of excellent limited-parser puzzlers from Arthur DiBianca. They tend to feature a single puzzle mechanic used in increasingly complex ways: from movement in Inside the Facility to color combinations in The Wand to placement of figurines in The Temple of Shorgil. This kind of puzzle design gives Arthur’s games a unified feel while still providing a variety of interesting challenges for the player. He also writes in a whimsical style that’s appealing to all ages. And there’s his choice to limit his games’ verb sets, which places focus on the puzzle solving and, I would argue, reduces the frustration of wrestling with the parser that a lot of new players experience.
Skies Above is a different sort of game. Yes, there are still puzzles. Yes, it’s still limited-parser. And, yes, there’s still that whimsical style. However, in terms of the gaming experience, Skies Above reminds me more of Superluminal Vagrant Twin than it does Arthur’s last three IFComp entries. Both games, for example, feature movement based not on compass directions (as is standard in parser IF) but simply allow you to travel by typing in the name of your destination. In SVT your goal is to earn enough credits to buy back your twin. There are lots of ways to acquire these credits, ways that we might call minigames. Skies Above is similar, but it has actually upped SVT: There is not just money you need to acquire; you also need fuel to raise your airship higher and higher. Plus there are even more minigames than in SVT.
A particularly notable feature of Skies Above that is different from Arthur’s other games that I’ve played is that you can’t ever really get stuck. If you need more fuel or cash, you can continue to play the minigames until you’ve earned enough. However, Skies Above features increasing marginal costs (dramatically in the case of fuel), and so the puzzles are really about how to generate fuel and cash more efficiently. The technique you used to earn 100 units of fuel, for example, doesn’t work anymore when you need 600,000 units to advance to the next stage. As someone who works with numbers professionally, I appreciate the design that went into creating this system.
I’m now going to make an out-on-a-limb conjecture: Despite the differences between Skies Above and Arthur’s last three IFComp games, in an important sense I don’t think Arthur actually is departing from his usual kind of game. I think one of Arthur’s overarching goals as an IF author is reducing the unfriendliness of the parser. We’re all aware of this problem, of course. To take an example, Mathbrush has said to me that over 50% of a typical parser game’s responses are error messages or “You can’t do that”-types of messages. By explicitly limiting the parser Arthur is actually making his games more player-friendly. And he’s not the only one: The Wizard Sniffer, Eat Me, and Absence of Law, for instance, all feature a limited parser. Other authors are also addressing the unfriendly parser problem: Robin Johnson, for example, with his Versificator engine, is writing parser-type games with a much friendlier interface. It’s less obvious with my work, but one of the design goals of both Junior Arithmancer and Sugarlawn was the creation of a parser game that, while not explicitly limiting the player’s verb set, still trains the player to use only (or mostly) a small set of commands. With Skies Above we see, once again, a limited-parser game from Arthur. But we’re also seeing a game in which the player can never truly get stuck. I’m going to say that again, as I think that’s really key here: The player can never truly get stuck. You can’t get much friendlier than that. Add that to the DiBianca whimsical writing style, Arthur’s assertion that the game is unlosable (present in every game of his that I can remember, not just this one), and the limited parser, and I think we’re starting to see that much of Arthur’s MO as an author is tackling the problem of how off-putting the parser can be to new players.
I am not a new parser player; I played Zork I for the first time back in 1984 or so. Yet I have still greatly enjoyed Arthur’s puzzle-heavy games, and The Wand remains my favorite IF puzzler of all time. Skies Above I enjoyed as well. However, the balance of reward vs. minigame repetition wasn’t quite right for me: The game leans a little too heavy on the latter for my taste, and I felt like I was spending too much time typing the same keystrokes over and over. Arthur does ameliorate this repetition by allowing us to type just the first letter of the command or answer during a minigame, but it was still a little too much for me. Other players may have different tastes, but I prefer spending more of my time thinking about the challenge I’m currently facing. Again, I did enjoy Skies Above, but this is my major critique of it.
I do wonder how the following design change would affect the experience of playing Skies Above: If the player demonstrates that they know how to solve optimally one of the minigames, maybe the game could have them automatically solve the minigame the next time they try it? This might not work for some of the minigames, but it would definitely have reduced, for me, the repetitive experience of the factory and possibly the orchard.