Ratings and Reviews by ccpost

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1-10 of 10

Tavern Crawler, by Josh Labelle
Fun, accessible hypertext adventure, April 27, 2022
by ccpost (Greensboro, North Carolina)

I used to play a lot of RPG's for console systems (e.g. Final Fantasy and the like), though I fell off of them because they tend to be self-serious and require enormous commitments of time and energy. Tavern Crawler delivers an imaginative fantasy world, some meaningful character customization, and an engaging (slightly offbeat) story without the humdrum.

I was immediately quite drawn into the fantasy world. From the first scene, set in a bar, the player gleans details about the society/culture and political structures of the game world, all cleverly integrated into narrative events that move the story forward. Just bumping into a soldier at the bar sets off a chain of detailed interactions that situate the player in a fully realized and lived-in fantasy world. This continues throughout the game, and even though the game world open to the player is itself rather small, you gain a rather sweeping sense of the world of the game through these interactions.

There are some limited, but meaningful, ways to customize the character through decisions made throughout the game. Principally, the player can take actions that build up the players mage, tank, or rogue stats. Interactions with the non-player companions, Ford and Aurora, can negatively or positively affect the player's relationships with these characters. These decisions can impact the course of the game, but (in my playthrough) it was not difficult to advance to a satisfying conclusion to the game without maxing out any of these stats.

The story itself -- in brief, a quest to slay a dragon that goes wrong -- is well told as the player advances through the various quests. This is, of course, not a typical dragon slaying mission. While I'll refrain from any details that might spoil the story, the narrative opens up questions about the ethics of adventuring that are quite thought provoking.

All of this is done with a knowing sense of humor; while I often found myself smiling, this is not just a send-up of RPG's. The game exhibits an impressive emotional range, which especially comes out in the conversations you can have with Ford and Aurora along the journey. As you complete main quest objectives and side quests, the player can chat with both companions about what they've been experiencing. These side conversations provided some of the most engrossing bits of story and offered insight into both the non-player characters and the broader fictive universe in which the game takes place.

My only qualm with the game is also perhaps a strength -- that the main story itself can be accomplished fairly quickly. You can get in and out pretty quickly and still have a meaningful gameplay experience, but it would be nice to stretch out more in this intriguing game world. This is a fantastic short story length work, and I'd gladly take a fat novel.

The Road to Canterbury, by Kate Heartfield
Richly told story, but a departure from Chaucer, April 6, 2022
by ccpost (Greensboro, North Carolina)

The Canterbury Tales is one of my all-time favorite works of literature. I adore Chaucer's nuanced and varied sense of humor (from fart jokes to biting social satire) and his inventiveness with language. I was psyched to see a Choice of Games title adapting this classic and I was exceedingly curious to see how Kate Heartfield would leverage a choice-based game mechanic to recast what is a pretty linear story in the original. Well, really, there isn't much of a storyline at all in the original, as the meat of Chaucer's work is in the stories that the pilgrims tell along the way.

What The Road to Canterbury delivers is a richly told story set in Chaucer's universe but representing a pretty significant departure in mood, tone, and content from the original work. There's little in the way of humor (though Harry Bailey does pull off a pretty good fart joke early on), and a lot more in the way of political intrigue and detailed descriptions of medieval life. In the end, it's probably for the better that Heartfield struck out on a different path from Chaucer (few authors are going to win going head-to-head with Geoffrey...), but it wasn't what I was expecting and, ultimately, wasn't something I was terribly into.

That said, this is a solidly crafted work, and someone looking for a choice-based game full of medieval political drama will likely love this. The central mission of the game is to decide whether or not you want to convince an elite member of the court to move toward peace or continued war between France and England. That storyline is especially well developed, and the player can develop a pretty complex moral position toward the ongoing war and the combatants.

One major aspect of the game that I did feel could be objectively improved was the tale telling "mini game" couched in the bigger story. Just like Chaucer's work, the pilgrims spin tales as part of a contest initiated by the host, Harry Bailey. While there's an effort to make both hearing others' tales and telling your own an interactive experience, I felt that this was pretty flat. There are points in listening to others' tales where you can interject and influence the tale, and these decisions just never felt all that meaningful. When you finally tell your own tale, it's kind of nifty to string choices together to craft a story, but this could have been built out even further and made more a central part of the game.

As it is, the tale telling feels like something of an afterthought and the main focus is on what happens on the pilgrimage itself. This, of course, is the mirror opposite of The Canterbury Tales, in which we learn very little about the journey and almost exclusively hear the pilgrim's stories. Again, this fits what Heartfield seems to be out to do with this work -- which is decidedly not to retell Chaucer's original work but rather use this as a jumping off point into Chaucer's world.

Shade, by Andrew Plotkin
Tight, well-crafted piece of short IF, November 8, 2021
by ccpost (Greensboro, North Carolina)

Playing through Shade felt like reading a finely-crafted short story. The game environment is small, though precisely described so that each detail is striking and rich with information -- nothing extraneous. The work is focused in on a particular theme, and develops this theme deliberately and effectively. The imagery is evocative, though narrowly centering on a particular motif (Spoiler - click to show)(sand! and more sand!!). Like the best works of short fiction, Shade can be experienced in a relatively brief session, though it leaves a powerful impression that stays in the reader's head long afterward.

Shade presents a strange, disquieting kernel that the reader can contemplate beyond the bounds of the text itself. I won't delve into the content of that kernel in this review since, as mentioned, the work is easy enough to engage with quickly and a new reader does really benefit from going into the work with minimal foreknowledge.

While I absolutely loved the work, I had some minor issues with the mechanics of how a reader progresses through the narrative. It seems as though there's essentially one narrative trajectory through the game, with the player progressing as they accomplish tasks in preparation for an upcoming trip. None of these tasks are particularly difficult to figure out, and at it's best, the progression of the narrative felt like it was happening all of its own accord (Spoiler - click to show)with more and more sand filling the apartment, and the environment slowly transforming into a desert hell-scape.

However, there were a couple times when I got stuck looking for just the right object in the environment that I needed to interact with in just the right way to keep the narrative moving. These times took me out of the otherwise absolutely engrossing experience of the game.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams and Steve Meretzky

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Engaging Balance of the 'Interactive' and the 'Fiction', September 7, 2021
by ccpost (Greensboro, North Carolina)

I'm not a huge Hitchhiker's fan, but I still thoroughly enjoyed Douglas Adams' characteristically witty, sardonic prose. Though the game has a (deserved) reputation for being difficult and at-times cruel in its design, the world-class satirical writing and absurdly fun sci-fi narrative are more than enough to motivate the player to meet these challenges.

The first half or so of the game largely follows the plot of the first Hitchhiker's novel, and occasionally draws verbatim from the novel, though with enough wrinkles, puzzles, and knowing tricks thrown in to make it more than a straight adaptation. A working knowledge of the novel will certainly help a player of the game, though having read the book does not at all make this first portion of the game redundant. Adams (apparently a huge fan of IF) and Infocom veteran Steve Meretzky build in lots of charming, self-aware details like warning players to don 'peril-sensitive sunglasses' before viewing a low score after they've died, or a death sequence where the story continues following the deceased Arthur Dent in the ambulance and scolding the player to stay out of it. There's just a lot of learning by death in this game, but it's usually fun if infuriating!

The second part of the game diverges quite a bit in its design, moving from the more or less linear plot following that of the novel to a non-linear episodic design where the player departs from a central map to points across time and space. I really, really liked this except for some major details regarding the mechanics of this episodic structure that are not divulged to the player. It takes quite a bit of finagling (or consulting a walkthrough) to understand how to (Spoiler - click to show)handle the Infinity Drive and get in and out of the darkness, none of which is explained to the player. For many of the episodes, it's also not very clear what the objective is or what the player needs to do to make sure they don't end up in an unwinnable state. Nor is it clear how many episodes the player needs to go through before advancing to the concluding sequence of the game.

In full disclosure, I made heavy use of a walkthrough to get over these difficulties. Even still, I greatly enjoyed this game, and found its design inventive and its writing winning. I feel like a bit more direction about how to navigate through the episodes in the second part of the game would have added to the player experience without necessarily sacrificing any difficulty of the game. As it is, it feels like parts of the game design are cruel just for the sake of being cruel. Regardless, I highly recommend playing this -- and no shame for using a walkthrough at some key points.

Photopia, by Adam Cadre

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Powerful, Affecting, August 29, 2021
by ccpost (Greensboro, North Carolina)

I don't know that there's much I can add to the numerous reviews, but I played this for the first time recently and I wanted to register the incredibly moving experience that this game delivered for me. I'm still fairly new to IF, though I've had thought-provoking experiences with several works that have quickly demonstrated the artistic potential of the form to me. Photopia, though, is the first IF work that I've encountered that has moved me at a deep, soul-searching level. From start to finish, Photopia is a fine crafted, emotionally-wrenching experience.

I went into the game with only the barest information about it -- that it has been considered incredibly influential and that it experiments with the interactive fiction form. As much as probably any IF work, this one really benefits from going in with as few (or none!) spoilers as possible. I won't delve into any of the specifics, but I will discuss one especially affecting scene behind the spoiler tags below.

(Spoiler - click to show)The scene that especially got me was early-ish in the work, when you play as a father whose task is to go outside and retrieve his daughter (who we learn is Alley, the focus of the work overall) for bedtime. You can choose a number of options, either telling her to come inside right off the bat, or prolonging the conversation, discussing some of the finer details of astrophysics. As a father of a young daughter myself, this scene absolutely devastated me. By this point, the astute player can start to see that something ominous is heading for Alley, and so this time is all the more precious for the father. I wanted to keep the conversation going indefinitely, though the astute player also can see that there's really only one outcome for this scene -- bedtime will have to come at some point. By the end of this scene, I was not only in tears, but knew that I was in the midst of a truly special work of IF.

If you haven't played this game, stop reading these reviews and play it! Like a tightly written short story, you can engage with Photopia in a brief span of time, though it will stick with you long, long after.

Nord and Bert Couldn't Make Head or Tail of It, by Jeff O'Neill

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Some Fantastic Highlights and Regrettable Lowlights, August 20, 2021
by ccpost (Greensboro, North Carolina)

I desperately want to love this game, but sadly I can only sort of like it. I'm obsessed with words, odd phrases, and idioms, so I went into this game with quite high hopes. Broken up into a series of 'interactive short stories,' a few of the stories are fantastically fun and pull off the wordplay game mechanic marvelously. A few of the stories are confusing and confounding to the point of being unplayable.

The stories that really shine -- "Shake a Tree," "Buy the Farm," "Shopping Bizarre" being the main highlights -- integrate wordplay like spoonerisms and taking idioms literally in truly inventive ways. As your playing with words often alters the game world, there are many opportunities for surreal, odd, and plain funny happenstances (Spoiler - click to show)like when some locks on a door become smoked salmon lox...that need to be 'unloxed' . O'Neill's writing in these sections is superb, conveying the strangeness of some surreal transformation caused by you invoking a bit of word play.

If this had been sustained for a full game (a la Counterfeit Monkey), I would easily give this game a 5 star review. However, the short stories that fall flat fall very, very flat. At least two of the stories almost certainly necessitate using the (fortunately built-in) hints, as the 'puzzles' involve guessing at some joke or bit of cleverness that you have only some vague idea of. This is essentially the same driving mechanic in the stories that work well -- except you are able to arrive at the right conclusions by playing around with the words in the text. For stories like "Manor of Speaking" and "Act the Part," there is very little actual wordplay involved, and few other clues in the text as to how to make progress.

Although I absolutely love the parts of the game that work, the fact that I was forced to heavily rely on hints and walkthroughs for nearly half the game seriously soured my overall experience.

Crème de la Crème, by Hannah Powell-Smith

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
A Substantial Achievement, August 15, 2021
by ccpost (Greensboro, North Carolina)

I played this game several months ago, curious to try out Choice of Games for the first time. I fear this may have ruined other Choice of Games for me, though, because this one may be difficult to top. As I became familiar with the mechanics of the Choice of Game format (a story driven every few paragraphs by a set of multiple choices that impact the trajectory of the narrative and also affect various stats), I could see how masterfully Powell-Smith utilizes these features. Every choice feels meaningful, and the stats help you to see how you're making progress (or not) to a wide range of goals. I found myself truly strategizing as I made choices, checking my stats and considering how one choice over another may help lead me to a desired outcome.

In the game, you play as a character starting at a prestigious finishing school where your main goals include finding a suitable marriage and/or securing a social station that will help to clear your families troubled image. Though the genre of the game is not in my typical wheelhouse, I immediately became hooked.

What really makes the choices, stats, and achievements/goals feel meaningful is the enormous size and scope of the game. With 10 NPCs that you can develop relationships (both romantic and platonic) or rivalries with, along many other in-game achievements that can shape the plot in large or small ways, there really are an astounding number of ways to chart a course through the game. At over 440,000 words of game text, I only scratched the surface in my one playthrough. I believe I will feel compelled to play through again in the not-too-distant future.

More than just the scope of the game, though, is the craft behind the writing. Every scene is well written and richly descriptive. The NPCs have distinct personalities, lending real weight to the choice to develop relationships with one versus another. The setting is also rendered to great effect throughout the game -- by the end of the game, I felt like I knew Gallatin (the finishing school) even though you don't navigate through the world a la a text adventure.

The game is certainly an achievement, a wonderfully executed work in its own right, but also a testament to the possibilities of Choice of Games and the like. While CYOA-style works can be interesting, they typically feel like you're taking one of a handful of alternate paths through a set narrative. In Creme de la Creme, I really felt like I was moving through a fully realized game world and making impactful choices along the way. On top of that, the writing is sharp and the plot is full of intrigue. I understand that Powell-Smith is currently developing another Choice of Game set in the same world as Creme de la Creme, and I'll be playing that as soon as it comes out.

Wishbringer, by Brian Moriarty

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Good Game with a Major Flaw, August 14, 2021
by ccpost (Greensboro, North Carolina)

I'm a newcomer to IF, and so I've been working my way through some of the classics to get acclimated and learn a bit about the history of the form along the way. As a game consciously designed for and marketed to 'adult novices,' I thought this would be an ideal game to play early on in my IF career.

Wishbringer definitely fits the bill as a good game for beginners. The story is charming, the atmosphere is engaging, the puzzles are interesting but not difficult, and the game overall is quite forgiving. I appreciate how the narrator prompts the player to save at key times when an irreversible action is about to be taken, for instance.

The fairy tale tone and the at times whimsical to surreal atmosphere of the town was done to good effect. I also found the map to be perfectly sized, as I quickly internalized the town layout of Festeron. This works well since meat of the game is a non-linear treasure hunt/puzzle solving deal that involves exploring the mostly open map. Despite the relatively small map, there are really two Festeron's that you get to explore since the world goes topsy-turvy after the introductory section of the game. I may play through again just to explore some of daytime Festeron.

While I liked all of those aspects of the game, there's a major flaw (to my mind) in the game design that keeps this a merely good not great game. The game centers around a magic stone, the Wishbringer, that can grant 7 different wishes. However, Moriarty &co decided to make using the Wishbringer optional, a way to make puzzles easier to solve for newcomers and build in more challenging (and more rewarding) ways to solve puzzlers for advanced players. I was looking forward to the magic/wishing aspect of the game, though I never actually used the stone. Even as a newcomer, I was able to solve the game without using the stone. If the wishes had been actually integrated into the puzzles and story, rather than leaving them as an optional feature, I would have loved rather than just liked this game.

Plundered Hearts, by Amy Briggs

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
A Simply Fun Game with Remarkable Writing, August 14, 2021
by ccpost (Greensboro, North Carolina)

I had a blast playing this game. I'm not much for genre fiction of any kind (mysteries, romance, pirates, what have you), but Briggs uses genre fic tropes as tools to great effect without this being a straight up "romance" story. This is done in large and subtle ways -- from the Caribbean setting to details like using "aft" and "starboard" as commands to move around the ship. PH perfectly nails the atmosphere while creating an original story. Though not a simple game by any means, it is, simply, fun.

Several aspects of the game work really well to draw in players of all experience levels. I'm relatively new to IF and text adventures but was able to make good progress without making extensive use of walkthroughs hints. More than the relatively straightforward (I'd say 'fair' rather than 'easy')puzzles, though, the structure of the game is quite effective. Extensive descriptive and dialogue-driven scenes intersperse the sections of exploration and puzzle solving. This was done in a balanced way so that I never felt I was just slogging through treasure hunts to solve puzzles nor did I feel bogged down in scrolling through text.

In addition to the effective structure, the writing itself is outstanding. I was often struck by rich, evocative descriptive passages that just floored me. These are the types of lines I would put a star by in a paperback book...except I was playing this on a computer! Things like: "Rats’ scratchings counterpoint the lullaby of bilge water sloshing in the bulkheads, punctuated by footsteps slapping the deck overhead."

Others have made this point, but it's worth reiterating that this game perhaps most fully achieves Infocom's promise of interactive literature. Though made 30+ years ago, there are still lessons to be drawn from this one.

A Mind Forever Voyaging, by Steve Meretzky

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Great Introduction to IF, August 12, 2021
by ccpost (Greensboro, North Carolina)

As a recent convert to interactive fiction, I have been looking for good games to get started with. Although this is perhaps not a typical work, I was intrigued by the sci-fi dystopian premise and encouraged by the wealth of critical praise heaped upon AMFV. Rather than detailing specific aspects of the gameplay or plot that I found especially effective, I want to focus this review on the merits of AMFV as an introduction to IF.

In short: I found AMFV quite stunning in its own right and also an effective introduction to IF more broadly. The work opened my eyes to the artistic potential of IF as a form and delivered a playing experience that was easy and engaging for someone with only minimal prior exposure to IF.

A few more detailed points:

I appreciated the relative lack of puzzles. Though I'm not averse to puzzle-heavy IF, I wanted a work without punishing puzzles or cruel game design (e.g. unwinnable states, lots of learning by dying). I loved that the main mission of the game is to explore the simulated versions of Rockvil, which still requires some careful attention to the description of places and objects without the demands of a typical puzzle (e.g. finding just the right use of an object to get past an obstacle). AMFV helped to ease me into the playing mechanics of IF without suffering the pain of banging my head (literally or metaphorically) against some puzzle to make progress.

I also thought that AMFV did a great job of introducing the a novice player to the poetics of IF, that is, the joys (and challenges) of navigating a simulated world via a text interface. Cleverly, the simulated versions of Rockvil can be seen as sorts of IF worlds within the broader IF work -- Perry Simm is in the same role as the player. This effect was achieved quite well and not in an eye-winking kind of way.

Finally, this work is clearly significant in the broader history of IF, which is obvious even to a newcomer like myself. Playing it definitely helped me to better understand the historical foundation of where more recent IF works have come from, but the experience was not that of an 'eat your vegetables' history lesson. The work is still fresh and enjoyable on its own terms, and indeed the satirical thrust of the work is still very relevant (even if the political satire could be heavy-handed at times -- probably my only real complaint about AMFV).

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