Reviews by Andrew Schultz

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Inside, by Ira Vlasenko

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Spells make the magician: what you know vs. what you use, January 16, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

This review is currently based on what I saw from playing and how I peeked ahead at the source code, so it isn't really based on a full experience. This is more due to my own bad time management than any huge bugs on the writer's part.

In this Ink game, you play as an accused witch–or is it an advisor to an accused witch, or a friendly spirit, or a familiar? It wasn't clear to me what you were, and I think that fits in with the general tone Inside wants to achieve. But the action is fast, right away. You must flee. And you do, to an underground lair with many terrors. I particularly enjoyed the encounter with the giant, where I wound up stuffing it to death with random foods.

That was quality enough that I felt bad getting tripped up at the next part. There were four doors to get through, but for one, potions were to be mixed, and it took a while to find the ingredients and recipe books. Then I had a choice between grating and slicing and chopping. For whatever reason, my mind snapped a fuse. It felt a bit too fiddly, even though with Ink, you can scroll up and see what you needed. This was almost certainly due to my general procrastination and not wanting to get stuck. It's weird–give me a walkthrough and I'll eat it up, but the same information in-game that I have to scroll back for is too much for me. Or maybe it was just that I didn't really get to explore to find all the ingredients, as I might have in Lazy Wizard's Guide, and the mixing interface wasn't as smooth as Thick Table Tavern.

So I will have to give myself an incomplete on this, but I recognize there's enough quality and touches to make for an interesting story. I read through the source, and I enjoyed piecing together your final dash to freedom and what that meant for the village. What most intrigued me was that, based on your actions, the backstory filled in a bit, suggesting you (Spoiler - click to show)deserved your persecutions, or didn't. This alone is very clever and obviously gives a game replayability beyond the usual "let's see all the endings" or "there are consequences for your actions, you know." Different spells work in different ways. I'm frustrated when this happens, when something with clear quality trips me up of my own volition, first near the end of the IFComp deadline, then when I procrastinate migrating it to IFDB. Because the parts I played were well-paced and involving.

Arborea, by richard develyn
A magical time-traveling forest, with wrongs to be righted, January 16, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

In his forum new-author introduction, the author mentioned he was a recently retired software engineer. If so, Arborea's one heck of a going away gift to give yourself, and at the risk of sounding corny, it's a gift for us too. Even if it didn't work out, it would still be a reminder of all the things we want to do and how we shouldn't let everyday life get in the way if we can help it. But it's better than that. And it's interesting to see how some people are coming back to a hobby they've had for a while, or that they meant to, because of the old Infocom adventures of the 80s, and they're finding their own ways to give us something neat.

It's presented as a computer simulation of many different eras and continents, and I was worried it was going to have a wishy-washy/overbearing "appreciate biodiversity and love our trees and respect Mother Nature and all that sort of thing because this is the only planet we've got" message, but thankfully that's not the case. There's all sorts of jokes in here, from physical comedy to well-timed puns. Some are even objectively bad, but they provide relief. For instance, there's a (charge) card once you've tamed a rhinoceros: "How do you stop a rhino charging? Take away his card." This bombs if you're over eight, but an allusion to it in a game works nicely. And that's what I found with Arborea's organization. It could easily be a mishmosh that doesn't quite work, but overall, it does, and when you combine eight hubs together with interlocking puzzles, that's not hard. Oh yes. You have a few funny deaths too. They're lampshaded well and pretty obvious. Enough was there, I was slightly disappointed there was no AMUSING section at the end for what I missed! Nitpicks.

As the title might suggest, a forest is the centerpiece of the game. It's where you start, with I actually had some problem guessing the first verb that helps you leave, mainly because I didn't read the help carefully enough, and also I didn't consider the most obvious thing to do if you are in a forest. One other thing you need to do is look at a gourd you've been given. Later, it tracks how much you've completed, but to start, it has some information on the different kinds of trees out there, and your initial job is to find those trees in the distance, and each one leads to a new area. It has an introductory-quiz feel, making me wonder if there's be one those choice-based flipbooks "if the bark is smooth, turn to page 8. Shaggy, page 13." But that's all there is for pedagogy. The rest is imagination.

And you get to go all over the place: Elizabethan England, Missouri in the 19th century, Indonesia, the Amazon rain forest, medieval Scandinavia, and Africa. There are some direct historical figures (Sir Francis Drake) and some more general ones. Missouri features a particular class of people. How much you do in each area feels well-weighted, and the puzzles have strong variety. With your gourd as a guide (it changes appearance each time you visit all the locations of one hub,) it combines because-it-is-there with fixing injustices. They're pretty obvious ones, but all the same, it feels good. There's supernatural stuff, too, from the just-sort-of-mystic-babble to the "oops, badly reincarnated, sport!"

I really enjoyed how to eventually destroy the gourd and get to near the end of the simulation, though near the end I was a bit exhausted. This may be an unfortunate side effect of trying to blitz through all the IFComp entries. Overall, there's some good wacky humor in there, and it lasted longer than most games did, but the end felt like it over-did that whole angle. I can't offer better advice. There should have been a denouement. Some jokes clearly hit, but for whatever reason, the self-contained end part didn't flow as well as the bigger whole game itself. That's a minor concern.

I'm not surprised Arborea placed high. It checks all the boxes without feeling like it tried to for a high placing. I felt guilty pointing out small bugs I stumbled on to the author, but that'll happen in lively worlds people create without, you know, being paid or having a team to check off on bugs. The anachronisms and time-shifting and such are pushed into the realm of creativity without being warped too far beyond belief. And I think in IFComp 2022, the reviewers tried to emphasize longer games, and if it gets more people to look at Arborea, even with a walkthrough, that's a good thing. It offers a lot to learn in terms of game design, and I'm quite glad I didn't put off reviewing and playing until the end of IFComp. My impatience would definitely have made me miss several details I enjoyed.

Campus Invaders, by Marco Vallarino

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Pleasant hijinks and light academia/alien invasion satire, January 16, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

Marco Vallarino is one of several IFComp authors whose works I always meant to look at more in-depth. And here "more in-depth," means, sadly, "at all." I mean we've been in IFComp together but somehow I missed the chance to look at his two Darkiss games. CI is motivation beyond "gee, both Darkisses placed well" to fix that. It's unashamedly old-school and not a profound game, but it doesn't have to be. You are just some AFGNCAAPy schlep working at the university, trying to get a computer simulation/program working to zap aliens who've attacked.

And there are laughs along the way. There are joke names, and they're not side-splitters, but they made me smile. More creatively, you're given a long, weird password early. "Suddenly you realize that if you can remember this password by heart, you can do anything in life." Oh, and your first puzzle is to help a professor out of the vending machine they stuffed themselves into, to avoid getting killed or, at least, getting killed first. You rescue them in the way one would expect, with a coin you find lying around. There's another fetch quest or two to warm things up, and then the actual thinking begins. There's nothing too deep. Once you meet a robot with a laser, if you look around, you can guess what item might help you not get killed, and how you can get that item. There's also an overhead projector that's too heavy to carry. I don't know how much they're used these days, but I appreciate that sort of thing for nostalgia's sake. I mean, lots of games have flashlights and such, but I haven't used an overhead projector since Akkoteaque, which is nice even if unfinished.

The final puzzle is also very pleasing. CI is not the first game to feature you having to screw in batteries, but the twist at the end to get the computers running is clever and sensible and I'm glad it didn't get too absurdist. There's a lot of funny stuff in here, and it pays off relatively quickly, with a bit of drama even though it's pretty clear the aliens can and should meet a bad end. Even a stupid death at the beginning is a clue. You also have to sort-of disguise yourself. This brought back memories of a tough Infocom puzzle, but fortunately there's a lot less calculation here.

For being a z5 game, CI contains an impressive amount of fun. A university setting is one that could easily bloat, but this doesn't, and it seems to hit all the tropes without overplayingthem. Perhaps the author specifically set themselves to creating a z5 game and nothing bigger. I for my part was pleased to fit my own effort into the Z8 format, which allows double the size/memory, and while it's neat to see Inform's new features, I enjoy seeing the sort of economy exercised by PunyInform authors or, well, this game. They can fit a lot in.

One of many fourth-wall jokes hints at Campus Invaders 2.0. I'm looking forward to that, after this experience. I suspect CI placed a bit low because people relate more to Vampires and Zombies and not due to quality issues. I don't much care for vampires or zombies, but the Darkiss games will be nice while I'm waiting for CI2.

Under the Bridge, by Samantha Khan

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
So, how much sympathy do you think you deserve?, January 16, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

The description left me worried Under the Bridge might be an exercise in a monster finding different ways to maul people. Thankfully, I was wrong. You get to maul people if you want. You even have to, at the start. But there is real humanity in the decisions you make, with enough tension in your choices to make it feel like you're not just overturning rocks to see what all happens (Note: allowing undo was a VERY good choice in this work. The introduction that sets the mood is effective enough but takes nontrivial time.)

Yes, you're a deformed monster under the bridge. But you have excuses, even reasons, for being as you are. There's a new bridge, one which leaves your forest even more populated by humans. Being able to hide under it is scant relief. Humans pass back and forth, and in the first encounter at night, two of them meet on the bridge. One threatens another. You have a choice to kill one or both. Your moral sense is not fully developed beyond knowing your territory has been invaded, but you can smell fear regularly.

More humans pass in the day. A woman with her child and, if you are very aggressive, an army of humans. But there are also ways out. Two good endings may not feel totally satisfactory, as they leave the door open for people impinging on your territory later, but they're very different in how you wind up, what you fear, and whom you trust.

The sound effects and graphics (black with white lines) are effective, and there's even a bit of upside-down text signifying you looking into the river and thinking of things. This isn't the first work to use upside-down text, and it's more serious than Elizabeth Smyth's LIDO, written for EctoComp. I'm reminded how Twitter had upside-down text that was a fad for a while. Here perhaps the text is overused a bit, but it adds to the story overall.

UTB is in a tricky spot. There can only be so many choices, because the main character doesn't and can't think deeply. It doesn't recognize that humans may fear predators beyond it, too, and it's genuinely surprised at the alliance ending. There's some fear in the other good ending, too, as you find an entity you can't quite trust, and you're also surprised a bit by humans in the worst ending. UTB branches economically, which seems right, because too much would belie that you are, well, a simple beast. I think it had more emotional impact that Grue from a few IFComps back. I liked Grue, which sort of relied on the Zork canon, and one suspects a Grue doesn't really have the intelligence for parser-style commands. There your goal was to escape, and that was it. Here the main character here has more dimensions that go beyond "animals have feelings too," so UTB is great value for the time spent to reach all the endings. It's not intended to be cheery, of course, but it never dumps angst and violence and gore on you, and I appreciated the restraint along with the possibility of not-fully-happy endings.

CHASE THE SUN, by Frankie Kavakich
Apocalypse in several flavors, January 16, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

Ah, the end of the world. I've had nightmares about it. About what I'd do at the end. A feeling of helplessness, a sudden hope there is afterlife. I can't tell if they're worse than the public humiliation nightmares, because with the public humiliation nightmares, you can cope, or even isolate certain incidents that almost could happen in real life, so you can stand up to certain types of people, or certain lines of attack. But the end of the world? Not so much. Nature doesn't care, whether it's the natural death of the sun or something horrible and man-made. Certainly the threat of nuclear war back in February 2022, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, brought back a lot of these worries and thoughts. I hadn't had them since the glorious days of Duck and Cover.

Here you're driving west in a truck that is close to empty, and you have to assume gas stations aren't open, or if they are, they're gouging prices. A truck can go 60 MPH. The sun? Well, you have to go 1000 MPH to keep up with it. So, yeah, here it's pretty obvious you're going to fail, just by the title alone, but the only question is: how?

There are several ways in CtS, and none of them are particularly appealing, but on the other hand, there's a lack of melodrama. I went unconscious in my truck, got lost in a forest, and wound up fleeing people who actually welcomed the rapture. The choices sprawl, for such a small work, but they don't feel totally random. A lot of early choice-based works had branches all over the place, often for humor (EctoComp Petite Mort is good at this, and Ruderbanger Doppleganger's Last Minute is an extreme example,) other times just to get something in before the comp deadline.

Each end seems to denote futility in different ways. They all worked for me. There's no melodrama, just an inability on the author's end to accept that the world's coming to an end, whether or not they saw the disaster in advance. I thought the strongest ending was with the people who said "oh come on think positive you have nothing to worry about if you've been good." This sort of "embrace the inevitability, it can't be that bad" is annoying even for far smaller things, such as a favorite restaurant or pub closing, or even trying to type in that last bit on a library computer when I had a bunch of writing notes and couldn't quite concentrate at home. (The time constraints actually helped me get a lot done.)

Perhaps CtS would not have been as effective if I'd played it earlier in the IFComp cycle. With a bunch of games to go, and not being sure if I could make it, it worked very well, but I think it would've done so anyway. We all have those deadlines, or we should. We've all seen things die and had people say "oh don't worry, there'll be something else. Enjoy the ride." And there will be something else, and we can enjoy the ride, but we really don't want to hear these people anyway. They're not helpful.

I think CtS did a very good job of projecting controlled emotions. It reminded me of times I'd gotten close to freaking out when I shouldn't be, which put me dangerously close to "why am I freaking out over something not worth freaking out over" territory. I was pretty sure I didn't need a stark reminder of mortality when I started, but once done, it seemed appropriate and good.

I spent time making sure I'd hit the main branches, because I wanted to draw out the CtS experience a bit more, but not too much. I knew I was sort of staving off the inevitable, and I felt slightly bummed it ended so soon, which is better than things ending too late. This is in contrast to the actual end of the world, most of us would probably want to drag it out, even if there was just woe and pain left, and there probably wouldn't be much time or energy reserved for making sure you've seen what you want to. After seeing what the author had to say, I guess I was, well, ready for the end of it all, and not in the "geez I hope this ends" sort of way.

Blood Island, by Billy Krolick
Hate all the characters, like most everything else, January 16, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

A confession: I don't like slasher movies, and I don't like reality TV/unscripted drama. Whichever you call it. I find it cynical and exploitative and it can sucker us into wasting our emotions on people who don't deserve it. Though I have another small confession. I enjoyed the first season of The Apprentice, mainly because Carolyn and George actually gave helpful advice, before they were fired and replaced with the, um, star's children. So it did unravel! And there were two other series: one got canceled halfway through the first season, and the other dropped off quickly in the second.

Details on what I liked, hidden as a possible tangent and not really a spoiler: (Spoiler - click to show)The first was My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss, which took The Apprentice to extremes. The host, Mr. N. Paul Todd--note the anagram-–seemed impossibly sleazy by the innocent standards of 2005 or so, with the tasks such as selling "The Windy City Blows" mugs in Chicago that were stupid and nearly impossible. The firings were random. I missed the first few episodes, it was canceled before the end, and I was thrilled to find the missing videos a couple years later. It was beautiful satire, especially when Todd explained he trusted his supervisors so much because he didn't trust him at all. Then the actor playing him said "I don't know what I was saying, but whatever it was, I started to believe it." The second was a show called average Joe, where men of average attractiveness tried to buy for a woman's romantic attention. What I liked about the second was that the men involved decided to just have a good time, for the most part, and the guy who actually competed was a real jerk and got kicked off. Of course, they ran the formula into the ground, and it quickly became unwatchable, as the producers focused on what seemed to make it profitable and kept trying to turn the volume to 11. The only reason I watch these shows is because they were on the televisions where I worked out. But I was well aware of how addictive they could be.

So you can see that what I like generally subverts expectations or is different from what the average viewer likes. Also, ChoiceScript isn't my favorite platform, since I prefer to use a desktop–though I have definitely enjoyed such games–and from my experience, the statistics taken didn't really add much to the game. Maybe they blocked out some options at the end.

So on paper, I should not have liked BI. But I remembered the author from last year, and they had a very strong first entry called The Waiting Room. And it touches on why the shows I liked fell off--they got too self-aware, or aware of profit, among other things. And BI provides distance from the whole rubbernecking-at-an-accident views that sucker so many people into reality TV, along with reasons why it happens. And while the Big Reveal may not be as surprising as a movie it reminded me of (spoilers later,) it's still satisfying. But I can confidently say I hope to see the author back, but not with a BI sequel. Once is enough, and not in the "THAT'S ENOUGH, ALREADY" sense.

But how do we get to The Big Reveal? Well, you're a contestant on Passion in Paradise, the reality dating show that had a hiccup: a slasher with a Barbie mask ruined the (relative) peace of the dating and backstabbing that kept people's eyeballs glued to the show. Though, of course, a clip of it somehow racked up a crazy level of views. You've added to said number, and Chloe, the producer, assures you nothing will happen again. She asks some introductory questions about your personality, and then you have the obligatory introduce-yourself-to-the-audience interview. It's possible to try to subvert the whole show, but Chloe always seems to have a cheery response, and I enjoyed seeing how the character got boxed in by praise they didn't want until Chloe decided to get on with things. With what I know of reality TV, which is comparatively little, there is certainly a lot of the contestants being goaded into doing things, all the while seeming like they are free spirits and nobody can tell them what to do, and that's part of what makes them so exciting. So the lack of agency here seems very appropriate. Also, Chloe's "isn't this disgusting?" reminded me of teenage classmates who talked of certain, um, impure acts. And I realized how badly they were covering up their own questions or secret actions or desires, in the same way Chloe was hinting that you should be looking for something darker.

I had trouble telling a lot of the prospective dates apart at first. There are a lot of them! Maybe that's part of the point, that they all sort of run together and they're generically physically attractive and they aren't really going to offend anybody, and people can like them or hate them as need to be. It sort of underscored how awful I would feel being on one of those shows. But get a date I did, and I made small talk and so forth. And I felt a certain tension when the first scare came! No, I wasn't surprised Knife Barbie reappeared, and yes, the fear went beyond "oh no I don't want to have to reload and do this."

And fellow contestants started dropping. More than knives were employed–nothing like guns, that'd be too corny. Of course, confederates were suspected, and sometimes BI suggested who it might be, and sometimes it didn't. There's drama at a hospital and many other places that, well, help give a show variety. It seems no matter what you do, the producers like you, and I even got called back for a "where are they now" moment–properly compensated, of course, but I needed to pay my hospital bills some way or other.

As I replayed to see what would change if I behaved differently or, indeed, if the randomizer chose a new knife-wielder or confederate, it struck me. I was, to some degree, like the people who would watch such a show for ironic value and then get swept up in it, and then maybe swear that, oh, they're only watching it for the laughs, but they do get emotionally involved. No, really! But they Wouldn't want their friends to miss out on all the excitement, so they bring their friends over, and eventually they have a party. Perhaps it's a good thing that I didn't have a huge group of friends to call over to play this, and hopefully my checking the source after replaying showed that I wasn't emotionally connected with any of the characters. This isn't to rag on the author failing to give us relatable characters but rather to say, well, the focus is on making such a morally and aesthetically reprehensible show plausible. And BI did. I found a far different ending the second time I played through. And it struck me: Chloe had been chatty and encouraging and all the first time through, and so I thought that was a relatively good end. But I got a lot more praise, in quality and quantity, for behaving badly. It brought back memories of people who were telling me I was nice and all, and of people saying "that's too scary for you, right?" and I figured I had to say yes and they wanted me to say no, and they probably looked down on me for that.

As a skewering of bankrupt values in "unscripted dramas" BI works very well. Such skewering is not strictly needed, and it can be overdone, but if it's done well, it does have more to say than "reality TV is very cynical." It's about what you need to do to get and stay popular, and how encouragement from people who seem to be your friend, or who are letting you be their friend on a trial basis if you are exciting and acceptable enough to them, can really backfire. It's about being pulled into something and knowing you should escape, but you can't. Certainly there are ways to try to escape in BI, but you're both physically and emotionally manipulated into staying. The final moment of both the relatively normal and more exaggerated ending reminded me of Network, and I had a hard time pulling myself away. I was glad I got to see the wizard behind the curtain with the source code. And I think bi wound up appealing to me as someone who might have run screaming from the blurb had I not played it in IFComp. Perhaps fans of the genres will feel differently, because they understand more nuances, and what are revelations to me are it's-been-done fodder to them. Perhaps it overemphasizes things people already know, or should know. Sometimes the fourth wall revelations strained a bit. But in that case, I enjoyed what I saw.

The Tin Mug, by Alice E. Wells, Sia See and Jkj Yuio

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
A moment of silence for Young Me's favorite cup, bowl, pen and ball..., January 15, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

I've had people tell me I should drop acid, or that I'm missing something by not doing so. Oh, the things you'll think! Oh, the walls you'll taste! Alas, the potential downsides seem too great a risk. My stodgy, boring self settles for ... well, stuff like The Tin Mug, which makes me laugh and contemplate things well enough that acid seems that much more foolish a risk. Perhaps I am unforgivably g-rated, but yes, I'm too old to worry about much any more. TTM-type stuff also leaves me less worried about things afterwards and less sad about old toys or utensils that did their jobs. It's not a huge risk, or revolutionary, and it won't blow your world away. But my personality is, I'm very okay with thinking about this rather than, well ... why i am missing out by not having a sports car, or not having cable so I can watch the latest hot show (never mind that I have a huge backlog already!) It's comfortable without being a rut.

And that's more than good enough for me. The plot here is simple enough. You are a tin mug, and it's your birthday. You don't quite belong with the fancier china (the cook removes you to a lesser cupboard quickly,) and even some of the tin cookware looks down their noses at you. You're not really expecting something, but gosh, it might still be nice if you got recognition. This is, of course, a concern for many people, too, especially as they get older. And, well, there are whispers the tin mug is past its prime. Not that the tin mug is terribly mature! It causes trouble for another poor cup. But it, along with a spoon, will be part of family drama. Two kids come over. One's very nice, and the other ... isn't. Awkwardness is navigated. At the end we learn the significance of the tin mug, and the story is tied up neatly. Even the mug's early indiscretions are fixed. We learn that more than just the cookware is sentient. It's charming without being twee.

I replayed through immediately to see the other choices. There were few differences, but I found details I'd missed when plowing through. The other cookware has concerns, too, and even the furniture works together to lessen the impact of Kevin, the bratty boy. Nothing major changes, but I didn't need any sprawling choices, and the whole work might have felt a bit odd with them. You are, after all, only a cup. There's only so much you can do. But the authors have found enough for an enjoyable story.

I guess we've all worried if our favorite cup will break, or we'll feel bad our long-time favorite towel is too worn, or we realize that pen that served us so well for so long and wrote all those good ideas is almost out, so we leave it at an angle so plenty of ink is always near the tip. It's not something we can really do with bigger appliances. One doesn't exactly kiss a fridge or oven or give the thermostat an affectionate pat. But we all have our weird hang-ups and superstitions, some practical, some no longer practical.

After playing, and replaying to touch up this review, I was surprised about the things I remembered: the rubber ball that fell apart, the greyish tennis ball that still bounced nicely, the Big Ten cups from when the Big Ten only had ten teams (Iowa's Hawkeye had ISU emblazoned on the front!) which I found on eBay, which was sort of charming, because apparently this story was originally written before the Internet age. A few, I didn't, such as the McDonald's promotional cup that celebrated interleague MLB play. It lasted a few years before cracking. No sturdy tin mug, but enough memories all the same, even half-forgotten.

Perhaps the only downside is that I'm going to feel slightly guilty about the next piece of junk mail I throw out when I'm really tired, or the next piece of scratch paper I barely use, even if I don't stick it in the shredder. But more likely, I'll find yet another old pen I appreciated (too few survived until they ran out of ink,) or I'll remember what's in that drawer I haven't pulled open for a while, and I'll have a few stories of my own. Nothing as engaging as this, but they'll be mine, and they'll be satisfying enough.

INK, by Sangita V Nuli

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
The opposite of blotting out grief, January 15, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

The author's two entries in IFComp are interesting bookends: in US Route 160, you're fleeing a dislikable fiance, and here, well, someone you like dies. I found US Route 160 to be the more evocative of the two. Perhaps it's my general dislike for Texture, even when using my finger on a phone. I seem to let the dialog box drop in just the wrong place, and it breaks immersion for me. So this may have colored things. More importantly, perhaps another reason INK didn't resonate as much with me was I never felt the lost of a fiancee, and my family's marriages aren't terribly happy. The closest I've got is losing longtime pets, and what happened to the protagonist reminded me of having my life dented for a while. But fortunately things snapped back. My experience was to have some cat beds lying around, so I could look at them a bit, or have a cupboard full of toys. I didn't work at the desk where one cat snuck behind one day and died for a while. So I spent time and emotion avoiding parts of my living area. In that respect, I was like the protagonist who saw ink in places where their fiancee had been. But I guess a cat only takes up so much of the bed. And also my cats were old. So I never had that sudden shock of loss.

And I may be stony about all of this. But I hope I appreciate the agent that spreads the ink: a letter from your fiancee, after she's died. It's not lost in a corner but found while walking around. It seems like it should be just the thing you need, an unexpected gift, something you should be very happy about. But it winds up driving you crazy. You can't even open it, until you do, and things get worse. Then people around you give you the standard advice, and there's always the overtone of "boy, you're going a bit crazier than you need, eh?" I see how this could parallel the anxiety of getting an email from a friend you've lost contact with, whether you still like them or not.

The image of ink spreading and making its own space is potentially powerful, but it seems IFComp has a few games about grief and loss, and I'm very worried that my opinion of them is based on whichever I play first, or what mood I'm in when I play. In this case, INK was one of the later entries I looked at. So it feels dismissive to say "yes yes I know already losing stuff sucks and I don't know how to get over that and you know I don't and I know you know I don't" and so forth" but I can't stop thinking it. Then it happens to me, and I'm on the other side, and of course people don't understand. I remember misplacing something. I realize I missed it and still do. I don't care that I managed to deal with it. But dealing sucked and sucked energy. And so I get all that (I think).

Still, games about general social isolation are more my jam. The frustration and deep thought feel more productive for me, and I recognize that bias, and while INK establishes grief makes it hard to be constructive, it hits a wall with me. It feels like it overplays its hand a bit by the end. I don't know what's missing. Perhaps the choices between giving in and not giving in feel too binary and abstract, given how the ink takes over. Or perhaps I (still) don't have the proper life experience to appreciate this, yet. But I do have a corner of my heart that fears being able to appreciate this a bit too fully, and maybe I'm deciding not to look at it, like the protagonist avoids looking at the letter, for a while.

Feathery Christmas, by OK Feather

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Makes you wonder why Santa didn't use pigeons in the first place, January 14, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Adventuron 2020 Christmas Comp

Feathery Christmas replaces Santa's sleigh and reindeer with, well, pigeons. It's a cute, small story, and the puzzles are mostly abstract. Larry, the pigeon leader, needs you to feed his flock, and then you need to find a secret code in a church to release them to deliver a package. It's a bit tenuous, as are many logic puzzles (truthteller/liar and a general logic grid to decide which pigeons haven't been fed,) but it also has easy and hard mode, where the puzzles vary. The replayability was welcome, especially when you needed to find the shortest way through a wind tunnel with houses on easy mode, then the longest on hard mode. It's not super-robust, but it's more than competent, and the pictures are, well, legitimately artistic.

Having played on both easy and hard mode, I noted that besides the abstract puzzles, the item-trading you needed to do to get a ticket to the church was identical, as was acquiring bread. You also had a book that translated to and from Korean, and again this was cheery, but given that I don't know the Korean alphabet, I didn't get the full effect. There's also a puzzle of how many times to ring the church bell--again, reading the books you trade back and forth will show you this.

That said I really enjoyed the final puzzle where you guided a bird east through the screen. There are wind gusts that push you east to speed you up, until you bump into a house. The quickest solution isn't immediately apparent, and the slowest one seems almost counterintuitive. It's a fun, original bit of calculation that never feels like busy work, and there's no pressure either. You just keep trying again. It's one of those moments that shows potential for a great deal more, and I wound up thinking more about this puzzle than the rest of the game. And, well, it fit perfectly in with the theme of pigeons flying, while the logic puzzles for feeding bread didn't quite mesh. It was a neat conclusion. If the author worried this might challenge the player too much, well, I for one would disagree and would hope to see more of this from them, as opposed to the vanilla book-swapping and logic-chopping.

I'd have seen FC favorably even without it, though. In the end I hoped for considerably more, always a good sign, and so I was glad I could replay quickly on hard mode.

SANTAPUNK 2076, by Gymcrash

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
What if Santa got twisted for corporate greed? Okay, even more twisted?, January 14, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Adventuron 2020 Christmas Comp

SANTAPUNK 2076 is a short, cute cyber-dystopian game with a few interesting puzzles. This seems like a contradiction, but it's handled well enough to make a nice short story. You are a deliveryperson for. There seem to be all sorts of references to things going wrong and persecution being a part of life, from "You are Number Five" (-The Prisoner) down to Amasoon Logistics, the Claus-Mishima Corporation and, of course, a gaudy job title: Executive Lead Fulfillment. It's a lofty way to say "you need to deliver a package," but they do keep getting loftier and loftier as the pay gets worse and worse. There are other dystopian touches, such as the McKingdy's fast food restaurant (Burger King and Wendy have been assimilated! However, I reserve hope that Arby's has held out.) I can't speak to the similarities to Cyberpunk 2077, but SANTAPUNK stood well on its own for me.

The graphics certainly reminded me of an upgrade over when I played Neuromancer, another dystopian game (it had message boards and email! Back around 1990!) on my old Apple II. And those felt so revolutionary, because they included yellow, and--well, these are better, and they're pretty much done by one person in not much time. So, very impressive! Hooray technology! Well, aside from the whole "accelerating dystopia" thing. And the puzzles are neat--hacking an interface and, in one case, discovering a really awful password. While this always feels slightly artificial, it's quite believable that people are still exasperated enough with password security that they write dumb ones, and the joke can work in many guises. It does here. You have to forge your identiy to enter an apartment. This opens up an even more worrying mystery beyond "oh no the computers have taken over, and worse, the people who crave power have taken over the computers, or vice versa."

Perhaps the whole message is a bit heavy, but I laughed for all that. The graphics helped soften the message. I wound up with a grade of A for my performance. I felt very proud of myself, despite the information I read that, in fact, the world was going further down the tubes. Well, until I considered the possibility that Amasoon Logistics may have given me the best grade for just shutting up and mindlessly what I was told and not considering the moral ramifications of my actions. (I was just plowing through.) This worried me. But the graphics and puzzles were cute! The game notes noted multiple paths through, and I'd found a quick one, and I wonder what others there might be, and what happens in the big picture if I somehow get a D.

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