IFC10 Review – Gris et Jaune

This is a review of a Comp game, and as often happens in reviews of Comp games, I will be Saying Things about this game.

Gris et Jaune (“Gray and Yellow”), by Steve van Gaal, is an ambitious game, and it has the strengths and weaknesses that ambitious games tend to have.  Overall, it reminds me of a quasi-Cthulhu escape-the-haunted-house video game I played in college called Alone In the Dark, but GeJ leans less toward horror cheese and more toward a literary form.

GeJ is powerfully-imagined.  It’s far, far longer than I thought it would be.  I spent two hours at it, and thought I was nearly done.  I hit the hint file and made some progress, but got stuck again.  The hint file didn’t cover something (a red herring), so I hit the walkthough — and discovered I was through less than half the game.

Less than a third, even.  After two hours.

As the game goes on, it gets less polished and less clear what you’re supposed to be doing.  You play a PC who doesn’t entirely have his wits about him, but the follow-through on this is uneven. “You can’t do that” messages are sometimes over-helpful, giving the ludic voice of the game a smarts that is conspicuously lacking during the game proper.

This unevenness is deeply built in to the game, as you find when you uncover the background theory to the story.  (You’re a zombie who supposedly has only its animal soul left, and yet can speak and reason…)  But as I say, it’s an ambitious project that tries to depict a PC with a very alien frame of mind.  And like other works that try to do this — I’m thinking of Memento, or the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time — the character subtly slips into normal patterns of thought; but the exploration is still interesting.

The game’s background theory is Voodoo, and it’s more-or-less authentic; as authentic as the Catholicism you find in movies about the apocalypse.  It’s set in Great Depression era America, on the Mississippi, presumably in or around New Orleans.

It’s a real interesting game.  Let’s talk about the problems.

The player isn’t given enough direction.  After the introduction (which I naively thought was half the game), I knew what I didn’t want to do, but I didn’t know what I was supposed to do.  Worse, I had access to almost the whole map, and the author hadn’t restricted the puzzles’ logical dependencies enough–

As most games do, GeJ moves its plot along with puzzles.  They’re gates.  IMHO, game writers should create a ‘gate’ mechanism — a scene manager; I’m told Inform 7 has one built in — and move the plot along strictly by means of this manager.

In my playthrough of GeJ, I solved a late puzzle earlier than many of the early ones, which allowed me to leap ahead of the plot.  I had NPCs showing up who had no function programmed in, and stood around looking inappropriately bored.  And so on. 

It jazzed everything up — not too badly, but enough that I was now trying to operate a buggy program rather than playing a game.  Shortly after this I resorted to the walkthrough, and some of the things it told me to do (like messing with the punch) couldn’t be done because the game was in the wrong state.  It was winnable; things just got weird for a while.

So:  compartmentalize your game plot with scenes.  Use puzzle solutions (or timers, conversations, or whatever devices you like) to finish one scene and begin the next; and likewise use scenes to selectively make active and available what puzzles the player can interact with, and the state of the game generally.  I know, IF platforms aren’t entirely convenient about setting (or monitoring) the world state; but control of the game state, and synchronizing it with the narrative state, is the programming-side of the game-design skill.

–But Inform 7 has a scene manager available:  why didn’t van Gaal use it?

Probably because most of the game happens all in one physical location.  Because the author didn’t need to switch to a different setting, he didn’t much avail himself of the scene manager, and the huge many-puzzled scene got away from him.  It does what it’s supposed to; but it doesn’t entirely fail to do what it’s not supposed to.

update:  I’m told this was written in Inform 6, which does not have a built-in scene manager…

This is the old-style, Zorklike way of creating IF games:  you have one big virtual environment peppered with plot-moving-forward-a-little puzzles.  If you do it that way, you must ensure that the player is prevented from opening the later gates before the earlier gates, or ensure that the plot logic — the NPCs’ reactivity, the cut scene description, and so on — can accomodate such skipping around.

I suspect it’s better to use the scene manager even when you don’t change physical settings.

Anyway, in GeJ these problems didn’t make the game unwinnable or terrible, but they seriously interrupted the delivery of the story.

Another problem that I had with the game — your milage may vary — was that I simply would not have figured out how to recruit all the help I was supposed to recruit.  Especially, I wouldn’t have figured out how to do the ceremonies.  And in some cases it’s not clear to me (admittedly, I hit the walkthrough) how anyone could know the solution to some of the puzzles.

This is part and parcel of the game not directing the player strongly enough.  The player needs to know three things:  his goal; a strategy; and tactics for implementing that strategy.

The player’s goal is not the same as his motivation.  His motivation might be, “to prevent the evil overlord from starting an intergalatic war.”  The question is, what does that mean in game terms?  The player needs some concrete notion of the game-state he’s driving toward, and he generally needs it prior to his exploration.  If he’s supposed to go to the tower and do personal battle with the evil overlord, then that’s a different deal than fomenting a revolution, which is again different than a wizard battle, etc.

This goal might not be what happens.  The player might update it halfway through.  But the player should have something as a kind of magnetic north to guide his exploration.  It makes it easier for you as a game author to steer the player and give him meaningful choices.

The strategy also might change, or the player might have some decision to make about it.  There might be a plot twist that shows the PC has been playing for the wrong team.  But the question is, what is the player’s supposed most likely path to the desired game state?  If you know what back chaining is, this is basically that.  What goals does the desired end state suggest, and what are the likely paths to those goals?

Tactics are forward chaining.  The player needs to be able to move from resources to goals.  Classically, you should put these three things into the player’s mind in this order:  first the goal, then the strategy, and finally the resources.  Show the player the locked door before you give him the key.

Reversing that to a key-first sequence requires (in order for it to be a puzzle) that you disguise the resources.  But you can’t disguise them too well.  In one critical puzzle (getting Mama John’s blood for a protection spell), GeJ required that I foresee a problem, apply the magic system to that problem, come up with a solution — which, ok, I’d seen done once already — and then search around for a wretchedly-unhinted item in a location that I couldn’t know to look for unless I supposed the item existed.  This is a problem of leading the player through the proper goal-strategy-tactics-(resources) thinking.

And there were a couple of problems like that.  In general the puzzles were well thought out, but they were all thrown together.  It generally wasn’t clear where the puzzles were.  This can be an effective technique, when it leads to an ‘aha!’ moment for the player.  But when the player never knows where the puzzles are, that’s a problem in communicating the game to him.

There were far too many items, some of which I never found any purpose for (like the derringer).  There was a great deal of backstory, but it seemed you were never meant to fit the PC’s own story into any of it, which was a felt lack.  And again, it could have been great dramatic material, if the game at some point acknowledged this as a lack:  Why did she give me that photo, of all photos?  Why didn’t I pursue the reference to my sister?  — but the game just dropped the ball on that one.

The story itself was well-told, but in its interactivity also had problems.  Following the walkthrough, I raised up a league of human and supernatural forces to do battle against Mama John — and then no battle happened.  I got a Mexican standoff and a face-to-face chat with Mama John.  With all those promises of chaos breaking out, at the end I was still waiting for the other shoe to drop

There were also a few error messages and glitches in the text.

In sum, the game had many problems, all of them characteristic of an inexperienced author who hasn’t mastered the form.  But, still, overall–

This is a good game.  It’s evocative, it’s powerfully imagined, and the idea is really cool.  If better players have my experience with it, it will have failed as a game — it will turn out to be unsolvable — but it does so much right narratively and in texturing the world that I enjoyed it anyway, and I suspect many others will, too.

Many thanks to Steve van Gaal for all the work he clearly put into this game.  I expect he has a good future in writing IF, if he cares to pursue it.

ps – Thinking further on this game, I’m struck by the inconsistency of the endings.  HEAVY SPOILERS.

If you kill or attack someone, the police come and arrest you in a cut scene.  And there is no escaping a cut scene.  While you’re locked up, you hear a ruckus in the police station and then, that’s it — lights out.  You never know what killed you.

If you make the mistake of going to Mama John, you similarly die without knowing what killed you.  Ok, fine.

If you talk to the Junior Mambo Lady who runs the store, when she realizes you’re a zombie she mutters, “I knew she was hungry, but she shouldn’t have done this.”  So it’s clearly implied that Mama John eats you if you get too close or fall into her power.

But then, once you get past that, there’s an entirely different story, about how she opened the gates to the afterlife and intends to ‘ride you through’ — presumably spiritually, in the way that Dr. Gris ends up ‘riding’ you, but with you fully under her power.  It’s never made clear.  But this is entirely antithetical to the ending where she eats you.

And both those endings are antithetical to the backstory that Mama John claims in the last, ‘good’ ending, where — and I’m spoiling this ending now–



–where Mama John claims to have created you out of a desire to have a family, or someone to love her, or for her to love.  This is all very confused — the narrative zips through the permutations too quickly, and doesn’t sell any of them.  And such an ending needs to be sold, as it contradicts both the other versions we’ve been given:

If she’s that in love with zombie-ol’-us, why does she eat us if we go on to her property unprotected?  For that matter, why does she eat us if she wants to ride us into heaven? — The plotline from any one playthrough will be internally consistent, but we shouldn’t have these kinds of plot contradictions in things like backstory and NPC motivation between playthroughs.

This reminds me of the 1946 Bogart and Bacall movie, the Big Sleep, which renders to screen a novel by Raymond Chandler.  The problem in adaptation was that the characters did things for such steamy reasons that Hollywood had to cut a lot of it out.  Then that left the story strangely lifeless, so they went back and shot a bunch of scenes with some appropriately PG hetero innuendo, to liven it up. 

But that made the film run too long, so they cut out the dull scenes, which were often the ones where the detective explained what was happening.  Add an incomplete adaptation, with characters still doing things from the novel that were no longer motivated, and, well…  you get an utterly incomprehensible film noir.

Still a great movie, though.

Published in: on October 8, 2010 at 12:52 pm  Comments (4)  
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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I do believe that the puzzles design strays too much towards the underclued, especially towards the end. But just to illustrate how hard it is to properly balance puzzles, let me tell you that as soon as I got on the “other side of the fence”, I started looking for a piece of clothing, and when I found it, I immediately understood (in general terms) what I was supposed to be doing with it. On the other, I never really understood what the brown fluid was supposed to do (until I spoiled myself), while I’m sure other people found _that_ easy to figure out.

    Did you reach an ending where the game no longer tells you that you feel like you lost? Because your description of the best ending sounds exactly like what I got, but the game still told me this.

  2. This?

    “There’s no score to keep. Life doesn’t work like that, but if you had to say, you’d say you’re losing.”

    That seems to be the text the game prints instead of printing a score. I played the game many times and got that text without variation.

    Therefore I consider (perhaps wrongly) the true report to be the one printed

    *** As A Special Headline ***

    and based my judgements on that.

  3. I assumed that what Mambo Felis meant by “hungry” was not literal physical hunger, but perhaps a hunger for power, or desire for something not-yet-named. So Mama John doesn’t “eat” you when she gets control of you; rather, she “consumes” you, which is not quite the same thing — a sort of spiritual consumption which begins the process by which she rides you into heaven.

  4. Interesting interpretation! Even so, that pattern of events *still* contradicts the emotional landscape of Mama John’s “real” motivations in the “good” ending.

    The emotions of the new ending could be sold, I think, but it would take a bit of work to do.

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