A Rope of Chalk by Ryan Veeder (2020)

The Little Ugly, Evil Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:

Ryan Veeder? More like Ryan WEEDER if you ask me. Get it? Haha. Yeah, I get that Ryan is actually more into the harder stuff, but I couldn’t find a way to make Ryan CRACKER not sound racist.

The Little Nice, Handsome Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:

Drug use should never be trivialized. Some of the best people I’ve ever known took trips on episcophacetin and never returned home again.

My Verdict:

To play this game is to step into another, very strange world. I think I finally understand now what Ricky Martin was talking about when he sang about livin’ la Veeder loca.

Game Information

Game Type: Inform (Glulx)

Author Info: Ryan Veeder is one of the best and most intriguing IF writers to emerge on the scene over the past decade. He’s prolific, he has a website, he tweets, and people give him money every month on Patreon just for existing. I assume all the hot AIF action is only accessible to his OnlyFans subscribers which is in my opinion one of the greatest injustices ever perpetrated by capitalism.

Download Link: http://ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/competition2020/Games/A%20Rope%20of%20Chalk/chalk.gblorb

Other Games By This Author: Taco Fiction, Ryan Veeder’s Authentic Fly Fishing, Reference and Representation: An Approach to First-Order Semantics, and many more!

A Rope of Chalk is a mess, a glorious, chaotic, and entertaining mess. It is a wild, topsy-turvy ride that takes you from the banality of a college art competition to the furthest reaches of the center of the mind. Like a babe in the dark woods who is cruelly plucked from the protection of the crib and abandoned to the whims of the ravenous wolves, the player can do little but react helplessly to the swirling environment that surrounds him or her. The wolves happen to be baby wolves so there’s no real danger, but it’s all pretty goddamn confusing nonetheless. It’s worth diving blindly into the maelstrom primarily because our guide through the pandemonium happens to be one of the best young writers of interactive fiction we have.

This may not be a particularly useful comparison, but I tend to think of Ryan Veeder as being the most Adam Cadre-like of his generation of IF writers. The games aren’t particularly similar, but both fellows tend to do interesting, unique work that challenges our preconceptions of what IF is and should be. They push boundaries, innovate, and take bold risks. Furthermore, they’re both excellent writers who are adept at creating vibrant, complex worlds and vivid, complex characters. They’re two of the funniest guys around when they want to be, too. Perhaps the most infuriating quality that they have in common is that even when their games annoy me I have to temper my criticism with thoughts like, “But that was interesting. That was unique. That made me think. That made me feel. That kept my attention and made me keep playing.” I hate that. If you’re going to be annoying, just be annoying. “Annoying good” and “annoying fascinating” aren’t valid alignments except in highly specialized D&D campaigns.

Ryan Veeder games often start out one way and then twist, turn, and ultimately reveal themselves to be something else or at least something more. So it is with A Rope of Chalk. Even though the game starts out in a very ordinary way and places you in the very ordinary role of a college student who is judging a chalk art competition at her school, there’s a sense that not everything is as it should be. Weird things keep happening. People seem a little off. As you wander the competition, study the chalk art, converse with the artists, and try to settle a dispute between two of the competitors, you’re also waiting for the shoe to drop. The dynamic tension that Charles Atlas once utilized to make himself unreasonably ripped now feels like it is in the air, supercharging the atmosphere and creating an uneasy aura of anticipation. Something is coming. Something is going to happen. You just don’t know what. Yet.

If ARoC was less Veedery, it could very well have been a perfectly reasonable if unremarkable addition to the slice of life genre. I wouldn’t like it nearly as well if it harbored no mystery, but exploring the art show isn’t unpleasant. Thanks to the game’s first unexpected change in perspective, you get to view the event from two different and distinct vantage points as Lane, a judge at the show, and then as Alec, another student who is helping organize and judge the competition. The perspective changes and arty setting make it a little reminiscent of Exhibition, but this game is less dramatic and brooding than Ian Finley’s old chestnut. In both games, the skillful characterizations are the highlight. The brief conversations you have with the artists make you feel like you are really getting to know them, and in so doing you get to know the characters you control as well. My first frustration with this game was the extent to which I found myself locked to the personality of the player characters. You can’t really change their attitudes towards the other characters or the art. For example, there’s one artist that Lane and Alec seem to share a visceral dislike for. Those feelings don’t seem completely unreasonable under the circumstances, but all your interactions with this artist are predetermined by Lane and Alec’s preexisting opinions. The dialogue options you are presented seem to offer ways for Lane to be friendly and Alec to be flirty, but these are phantom choices that the PCs will actually ignore if selected.

To a large extent, you don’t really control Lane or Alec or any of the other characters in whose shoes you will walk. You can’t change them. They are what they are. When their minds are made up about something, you can’t do anything about it even though you’re the one typing and nominally the one guiding the action. There’s good and bad aspects to this. The best thing is that each character is distinct and well-developed, including both the NPCs and the PCs. There’s no character here who is as nebulous and plastic as Shepard from Mass Effect who can to a certain extent be whoever the player wants them to be. These are characters with prior attitudes, personalities, relationships, and life experiences that shape who they are. That can become annoying when you don’t see things quite the same as your characters. In retrospect, I certainly shouldn’t have spent as much time as I did trying to hook Alec up with the badass snake lady or the badass tattoo lady when I knew his heart was already set on another, considerably less badass lady. Screw me for trying to broaden a guy’s horizons and inject some excitement into his life. Was it so wrong to want him to see the possibility that there might be someone out there he could meet who would actually be sure if she liked him or not? That’s a potential drawback to great characterizations, I suppose…Veeder did such a great job developing the characters that I started genuinely caring about them and wanting to run their lives for them. It turns out I would totally play the hell out of a Ryan Veeder college dating sim which gave me some meaningful agency. Maybe next year?

The boldest game design decision in A Rope of Chalk was undoubtedly to make the final sections of the game largely take place in the drug-addled minds of characters exposed to a dangerous hallucinogen. The Veed manages to pull it off without it seeming too ridiculous or disrupting the narrative of the game. That’s no mean feat. One of the game’s main characters, Hina, really only comes to life when we confront the angels and demons that lurk in her mind as she’s tripping balls. The amount of character development and quality writing Veeder manages to stick into a series of hallucinations is nothing short of remarkable. The depiction of drug use in the game is largely playful, but there are unpleasant aspects to the hallucinations as well. The fictional drug in the game, episcophacetin, seems to have insight-yielding qualities similar to LSD, but Hina’s hellish experiences in Cealdhame would likely deter all but the most hardcore of addicts from partaking. There was something about the combination of a pseudo-maze with garbled generic fantasy writing that I found deeply unsettling. Luckily, you don’t need to stay in that fiendish realm for very long.

While the writing and the characterizations in A Rope of Chalk are top-notch, I found the playing experience to be a little too passive for my taste overall. You aren’t given enough freedom to influence the story, and there isn’t enough to do to make you feel like you’re driving the story forward through your own actions. It’s not a completely puzzleless game, but you’re only called on to perform a few basic actions from time to time. As such, it’s easy to feel like an observer watching the story unfold from afar rather than an active participant who is interacting with the story and making things happen. Although this is undoubtedly a good game and one of the best entrants in the 2020 comp, the passivity and limited interactivity keeps it from achieving great game or classic status in my mind.

One interesting thing Ryan Veeder does with some of his games is give them elaborate back stories that seem highly unlikely to be true. For example, A Rope of Chalk is presented as a true recounting of actual events, and there is even a closing section that lets you study documentary material ostensibly collected from the actual participants of the art show that gives you additional information about the events and updates on what the group is up to now. I still don’t really think this game was really based on a true story, but I think this might be the method Ryan uses to make his characters seem more real to him. It’s like an author imagining herself having a conversation with her characters so she can understand them better or Sean Penn literally becoming Spicoli to fully immerse himself in the role. Then again, maybe I’m wrong and it really is all true. Even Nega-Hina. And hey. maybe this review isn’t really even happening at all and we’re both just super high on episcophacetin right now. What up, Skellington?

Simple Rating: 7/10

Complicated Rating: 31/50

Story: 7/10

Writing: 8/10

Playability: 7/10

Puzzle Quality: 3/10

Parser Responsiveness: 6/10 (The parser is somewhat mediocre by design because there are so few actions allowed by the game. Veeder did do a nice job of providing numerous descriptions throughout, including some you might not expect — take a good look at Faye’s tattoos, for instance. I know Lane sure did!)

Special Ratings For This Game:

Characterizations: 8/10

My First Stupid Game by Dan McPherson (1996)

The Little Ugly, Evil Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:

I genuinely thought that this game was set at my old college right up until I realized you couldn’t piss on the Sammy Hagar poster. That’s definitely not the Pelling way!

The Little Nice, Handsome Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:

I gave this one a ‘1’ in competition voting. There’s no place for such crudeness and vulgarity in interactive fiction.

My Verdict:

Dan McPherson has shown us authoritatively that college games don’t have to be a series of inside jokes. There’s also the urination option!

Game Information

Game Type: AGT

Author Info: Dan McPherson wrote exactly one game in his interactive fiction career that we know of. It finished last in the 1996 Interactive Fiction Competition, as it seemed designed to do, and Dan proceeded to ride off into that good night. What a man, what a loss. I hope he knows that we as a community need him now more than ever.

Download Link: http://ifarchive.org/indexes/if-archive/games/competition96/first/

Excerpt from David Holstein’s Review in the AGT Times, October 13th, 1996:

College is as much a series of questions as it is a series of courses. Will I find out what I want to do with my life? Will I form a new crew and have tons of good times with them? Will I finally meet my one true love? Will I drop out after two months just like Uncle Charlie? In Dan McPherson’s amusing and nostalgic look back at university life, he suggests a few more questions undergraduates might ask if they attended the same institution he did: Where are all the toilets? What’s the deal with the talking bear? Will the best lineup of Van Halen ever reunite? Despite its self-effacing title, this is a quirky game well worth playing for adults, but it is inappropriate for the littlest adventurers due to some graphic toilet humor.

My First Stupid Game is designed to enrage a certain type of pearl clutcher who participates in the voting at the annual Interactive Fiction Competition every single year. These are the sort of people who demand IF creators take their competition entries seriously and frown on anyone who would dare call his first stupid adventure game My First Stupid Game. I think Dan McPherson knew exactly what he was doing here. He wanted to lower expectations with the title and then surprise people with the quality of his first stupid adventure game. Some competition voters — I’m looking at you, Davy Carmichael — automatically gave the game a ‘1’ because they judged it on the title alone in an extreme violation of the spirit of competition voting. McPherson’s next audacious move was to create his game using AGT. Bear in mind here the competition’s first incarnation in 1995 only welcomed Inform and TADS entries. Traditionally, authors submitting games written using less mainstream development systems to the competition have had a hard time of it, and Dan McPherson entered the lion’s den in its first year of truly open and desegregated competition. Thirdly and most importantly, My First Stupid Game is fundamentally about urination. You play this guy who needs to pee and can’t access a toilet and has scruples about pissing anywhere but in an appropriate urine receptacle. Considering that the median IF competition voter has neither urethra nor bladder, it is quite a lot to ask them to relate to basic human bodily functions. As a general rule, bathroom humor more often than not fails to connect with competition voters, likely because it is too sophisticated. Under these circumstances, it would essentially be impossible for an AGT game about urination called My First Stupid Game not to finish in last place in the competition in 1996 (or 2019), and the pearl clutchers did not fail to live up to expectations. In a just world, it wouldn’t have won but still would’ve finished higher. Let’s right a historical wrong right here and now.

For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to refer to My First Stupid Game as MFSG from this point forward. I realize this acronym makes it look like I’m referring to Motherfucking Sodium Glutamate, but the game title is fairly long. Something had to be done. As I mentioned before, MFSG is about one man’s quest to urinate. He seems to be living in a dorm type of environment, and theoretically does have access to a communal bathroom. The problem is the only toilet in the vicinity is locked with a padlock. Judging from the smell of the hovel, most dorm residents prior to the protagonist have handled the locked toilet problem by relieving themselves wherever they want to, but our protagonist won’t entertain that notion for a second. No, he has standards, and if he finds a locked toilet he’s going to unlock it or die trying. I’m not joking about the dying part as this game features an epic, masterfully written urination death scene if you somehow fail to unlock the toilet in time (you can also be killed by a bear). In fact, this game sets new standards for writing in urination adventure games. Take this description of an Alex Van Halen poster for example: “The poster shows Alex Van Halen playing the drums. There is a copy of Playboy propped open on his drum set, and he is staring intently into it as if he were an orchestral percussionist and it was the score of a Mozart operetta.” If you doubt for a moment that this is the real deal, check out the almost proper use of the subjunctive mood and everything. Paul O’Brien wrote a extremely negative review of this game but noted of the writing, “Remarkably, I noticed no errors.” I see that as Paul O’Brien’s way of acknowledging that nothing he ever writes will ever be on the level of an AGT game about peeing. I’m sympathetic because I’m in the exact same boat.

I won’t pretend that Dan McPherson made no mistakes here. All have sinned and come short of the glory of Plotkin, after all. His biggest blunder was starting the game out in a room where five posters of Van Halen members are hanging on the wall, all of which are difficult to interact with. There is one poster which is absolutely essential for advancing the game which a clue will guide you to. The problem is the game expects you to first type “look poster” or “get poster” and hit ENTER and then answer the prompt to indicate whether it’s the David Lee Roth, Sammy Hagar, Eddie Van Halen, Alex Van Halen, or Michael Anthony poster you mean. If you type “get eddie van halen poster”, it simply won’t work; neither will “pour hot sauce on michael anthony poster” or “drive sammy hagar poster 55”. At one point, the game assumed I meant “hagar’ as a preposition. There are a lot of questionable prepositions in the English language, but hagar is the worst of the lot undoubtedly. Another issue is that sometimes you get warned about needing to piss twice after an action. This definitely heightens the tension, but might not have been quite what McPherson intended. There’s also the fact that every now and then you die rather suddenly from an exploding bladder before you’ve had a chance to really explore the game. I tend to forgive this to an extent because the death scene is so great that every player needs to encounter it at least once but preferably five times. When you do die, there is a room description that is displayed AFTER the death scene unfolds which is quite difficult to explain; perhaps it’s the proof of life after death mankind has sought fruitlessly over the millennia. I also feel like there could be a bit more description in places, particularly considering we’ve got a very good writer at our disposal here. On the other hand, “there is nothing particularly interesting about the Michael Anthony poster” is biting musical commentary at its best. Some of the hatred directed towards Barney seemed a little immature to me at first (especially considering the highbrow content of the rest of the game), but then I remembered I myself once downloaded a patch for Wolfenstein 3D back in the day that enabled me to take a break from killing Nazis and kill Barney, Beavis, and Butthead instead. College kids really did hate Barney, and so this game is a valuable historical record of a very special time in online history.

I think what makes MFSG work so well is that it absolutely knows what it is. It doesn’t want to do much more than make you laugh and be quirky, and there’s no point in the game where it ceases to be fun. Although the game never acknowledges that it takes place on a college campus directly, I feel like it’s a great addition to the college adventure canon. The bear in the hidden passage seems like an example of campus lore come to life, and the implied war between the Barney shrine builders and the Barney destroyers is every bit as compelling as your typical nerds vs jocks showdown. As a game designer, Dan McPherson’s strength lies in his anticipation of what the user will do next. Most authors doing a urination game wouldn’t bother coding a response for defecation commands, but McPherson refuses to participate in that old food fight. If you try to relieve your bowels in this game, you’re kindly told, “You don’t need to shit, you need to piss. Pay attention.” There are a number of unexpected responses to reasonable inputs in this game, and it makes you want to try different things to see what happens. No, it’s definitely not I/O, but McPherson obviously spent some time fleshing out the game. For an experienced adventurer, MFSG offers little challenge and the hints that pop up every now and then largely ensure that no one will be left behind, albeit in an amusing way. It’s an enjoyable ride in the country, not an obstacle course. All in all, I was extremely tempted to give this game a 7, but ultimately I decided the RANDOM DEATH TIMER was just a little too sadistic. Sometimes you’ll see a review that warns players that they need to finish this game in some arbitrary number of turns, like 79. That’s adorable. What this game really does is randomly explode your bladder whenever it damn well feels like it. I’ve died in this game on my first turn which is as hardcore as it gets. And, come to think of it, that does help explain the whole last place in the competition thing. I’d like to call this a bug, but every conversation I have with Dan McPherson in my head ends with him saying, “Yeah, well, I’m still keeping the random death timer.” Well fine then, your game is getting a 6 which is still the highest rating it has ever received from a publication not formally affiliated with an elementary school.

One side effect of playing this game is you’ll never, ever “hold it” again in your life. That’s the primary reason it receives the highest recommendation possible from the Society of Urologists Who Play Interactive Fiction — Zork is the only game that even comes close to MFSG in their rankings. Anyway, I’m now prepared to piss 24 hours a day regardless of circumstances. The first thing I do after getting dressed is fill every available pocket with guitar picks, just in case I need something to piss on later on. Only 90s kids who’ve played My First Stupid Game before would understand.

Simple Rating: 6/10

Complicated Rating: 30/50

Story: 5/10 (It’s not a particularly deep story, but if you’ve ever really, really needed to piss I think you’ll be able to relate.)

Writing: 8/10

Playability: 5/10

Puzzle Quality: 6/10 (The game is pretty easy, but getting the last point does require a little experimentation.)

Parser Responsiveness: 6/10

Special Ratings For This Game:

Dormicity: 7/10 (The only way this rating could have gone higher is if you had a few drunk buddies around who were buried underneath a pile of beer cans and were lying in a pool of both their own and unidentified urine. Just a suggestion for Dan’s next game.)