Turn-Based Combat

'Mid the Sagebrush and the Cactus

Not quite Orestes

Type:
Interactive Fiction
Developer:
Victor Gijsbers

'Mid the Sagebrush and the Cactus is the latest IF game by Victor Gijsbers, author of The Baron and Fate. Gijsbers is interested in the problem of violence -- when and how it might be justified, and how games can explore what a player is willing to have a character do.

Sagebrush is about a situation where the violence has already begun: your character has killed a man, and his son David has come around for revenge. You can fight the son, or explain yourself to him, and you will need to do some of each if you want to survive.

The structure, unusually for IF, is built around a partially randomized combat system. These have gotten a pretty poor reputation: IF players tend to be frustrated by situations where randomness rather than clever thinking determines outcome, and in any case a turn-based engine where it's possible to undo a move means that it's easy to step back any time a roll comes out badly. Authors have the option of turning off the UNDO command (which only works on some interpreters anyway) and frustrating their players, or else coming up with non-random, puzzle-like ways to present combat. There have been some cool experiments in the latter mode -- C. E. J. Pacian's Gun Mute is an excellent example, and √ėyvind Thorsby's Attack of the Yeti Robot Zombies also has many things to recommend it. (Seriousness of premise is not one of the things.)

Gijsbers, however, trained on RPGs and intensely interested in more quantitative presentations of combat, has created a whole new library for IF combat, called ATTACK. While it includes a random component, ATTACK also tracks weapons statistics, attack and defense advantages, distinct ACT and REACT stages, and an ongoing tension level, which helps to guarantee that something dramatic will happen sooner or later. (The longer the tension has been allowed to build, the more likely that an attack attempt will succeed, as I understand it.) ATTACK also implements some AI for non-player characters to help them choose sensible behaviors.

ATTACK is different enough from conventional IF combat that players will require some new vocabulary. Gijsbers makes it a bit easier to get into, however, by listing all the possible combat actions in the status bar each turn. This is a good decision, and one I'd encourage other authors to consider if they use the ATTACK library; in the past when I've tried demos using it, I've found the learning curve for the system a bit overwhelming, and had a hard time seeing the effects of my tactical choices. Good feedback is extremely important. With the status line to help, even players who are unfamiliar with IF should find they don't get stuck for things to do next.

Gijsbers does shut off the ability to UNDO turns in this game, but because the game is short, there's very little progress to lose; besides, each thing that happens feels like the result of the whole series of choices up to that point, not just a bad move at the wrong moment. Because the sense of losing arbitrarily is gone, it's less frustrating to be unable to UNDO a step.

The resulting gameplay feels more tactical than almost any other IF combat I've encountered. Because it matters not only what you do but when you do it, there are often times where it's a good idea to stall -- and this dovetails with the game's conversation system, so that there are times when it's a good idea to explain yourself to David, and times when it's best to arm yourself instead. During the first playthrough, I found myself alert to nuances of David's behavior and to the clues in the status line, trying to work out whether I could afford to put him off a moment longer or whether he had become truly dangerous. This is an experience I've not exactly had before in IF, and I found it compelling.

I'm less persuaded by Sagebrush as a story. To discuss this fully, I'll need to include some spoilers, so be warned; you may want to stop reading here until you've tried the game.


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Sonny 2

Polished FF-like with Zombies -- in Flash

Type:
Flash
Developer:
Krin Juangbhanich

Sonny 2 is in many ways an impressive game -- but I have to note for the sake of fairness that it's also a game of a type I do not particularly like. Others clearly do -- almost 7.5m plays on Armor Games, and over 1m on Kongregate.


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