Reviews by Andrew Schultz

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Escape From Summerland, by Joey Jones and Melvin Rangasamy

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
You'll like the emoticons here. No, really., September 11, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2012

I feel Escape from Summerland may be underrated because it didn't get the IFComp reception it could have -- the authors were in a time crunch, and some bugs slipped through. Which is sad for those who maybe played it and got frustrated. It still may be frustrating with the bug fixes--but it's also a lot of fun, with very clever viewpoint switching and a lot of quirky humor.

You start off as a ghost who sees someone trapped in a tent. Seeing who they are gives a realization--you may be able to figure it out. Once his initial duties are performed, you switch to his pet monkey, which has a ... rather less nuanced version of things. Then once the monkey leaves her cage, you're the ghost, making sure she's safe. That done, you switch viewpoint to a robot. Its descriptions are technical and tough to decipher. But here's the twist: the more you observe and look around as the other players, the more you figure what they mean. And different items are described differently by Amadan (the ghost,) Jacquotte the monkey and Shinobi the robot. Shinobi appears to be some sort of drone from an outer-space invasion, not really malevolent but just obeying orders.

And with the three players' combined abilities, you switch perspectives until Jacquotte gets out of the park. It's fun but very tough. I've come back to EfS several times, and without the clues, I get stuck somewhere else. The puzzles make sense, but they're very sticky. There's a part-broken lift to operate, and pushing a box out of the way takes a while. Shinobi has lost both arms and is badly malfunctioning (the temperature gauge goes from -80 to 80 Celsius). And it is low on power, which is probably why the invaders desert it. And for big events, the power drops 2%. You may see where this is going. Will Shinobi have enough power?

EfS rapidly becomes a buddy-comedy but without the backslapping. Amadon, the least powerful, most knows what's going on. Shinobi, for its technical knowledge, has no clue what things are for. Jacquotte can reach places. Amadon actually needs to provoke Shinobi into an action, where Shinobi senses his presence without being aware he's, well, dead. And Jacquotte has fun with the buttons on the lift, as one always wanted to when one was much younger. Contrasting her with Shinobi is amusing, as she often reverts to emote-speak with no qualitative description, and Shinobi's technical descriptions include "Organic Pest Must Be Jettisoned Before Further Ambulation." In actual English, that means Shinobi must DROP PEST if Jacquotte has climbed, before moving on.

EfS also has neat touches beyond just the three entities seeing the same item in drastically different ways. Trying to change them to themselves gets clever responses. We realize that the amusement park is a sad place, poorly kept up even if there was no alien invasion. And ... well, there are still bugs hidden in there, so you may want to save after each small victory. Which sort of adds to the slog as the three entities push through, leading Jacquotte from her cage to freedom. And, yes, there is some guess-the-verb, due to the nature of how the three entities see the world, but I actually rather like the included hints. They help me stumble through, along with the three heroes.

EfS is a rare combination of charming and clever, where it's fun to take a step back and see what everyone sees even if there are pitfalls in he puzzles and parser. Once you get in the flow, it's clear the authors really knew what they were doing and had a great plan. I know after EfS I hoped and expected something even bigger and more polished. Sub Rosa, for IFComp 2015, was that. And it brings up a tough dilemma: would I rather have, say, EfS and Calm, or one Sub Rosa? I'll cop out here on my own question and say I'm glad we have both, since they're each unique in the IFComp landscape. And to say: EfS is worth taking another shot at, if you trip up at first. Even completing it with its hints/feelies by your side is extremely rewarding.

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Changes, by David Given

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Great story, tough start, tough end, September 11, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2012

Changes may have the most creative story from IFComp 2012: you wake up in the body of a rabbit, but with the mind of a human. This isn't some "intelligent rabbit" or Watership Down thing, here. You're on a person-free planet called Elysia. And you observe how you became a rabbit: animals are putting other animals into the same sort of pod you came out of, and they are switching bodies. They know this instinctively. So your main task is: how do I find what happened to my body?

I remember almost giving up on Changes because the start was unclear and hostile and even random. You had a very diligent fox chasing you around, and being able to sense animal emotions around you only did so much--if the fox wanted to play prevent defense randomly, gosh darn it, it would, until you got impatient, and only trial and error showed where you were safe (Oddly, you could also run past the fox if, say, you were south of it, it chased, and you went north. Hooray for mimesis and feeling fear?) It wasn't really clear what animal you'd want to become, as everyone else was bigger than you. The solution wasn't that clear to me, though it seems hinted in retrospect. Along the way I found a ton of insta-deaths. There was one place where I fell into a lake and drowned, because rabbits couldn't swim.

This is the big clue here, because you need to become something that can swim, and there's only one real animal that can. I didn't find it at all obvious how to kill them, though in retrospect, it makes sense. I guess the solution felt like something you'd see in a cartoon, and not a serious sci-fi work. But once I took the new animal's body, I saw more of what to do.

I did not drown in the lake, but my predator did. Then I managed to annoy another animal and kill them. There were deer to manipulate and avoid. I noticed an abandoned shuttle which, well, looked familiar. I needed to become an animal that had something resembling fingers--all through the game, I spent time dragging the bodies of animals I'd killed by their teeth, into the cocoon and then out.

Opening the space shuttle is the big thing, and while actually moving a human body back to near the pod (there's no animal big enough to carry the body) again feels a bit cartoonish to envision, it's pretty much "do what you can to cause a disturbance."

Nevertheless it's all very clever to watch and see unfold, and each time you change animal skins, you get a flashback detailing more of the story. Perhaps you'll be able to guess it sooner than I did. But even escaping in human form doesn't change anything. There's a mythical feel to Changes, including the ending, which is far from "you board the shuttle and race home, vowing never to get near Elysia again." There's a tale of human tragedy and conflict to unravel, and the feeling I had that I was disturbing something perfect and special was, in fact, validated by the end.

Some parts of Changes do feel a bit loose, and they stop it from soaring. There seem to be more locations than necessary, and chasing certain enemy animals gets exhausting. But the payoff is legitimately rewarding, and with Andromeda Apocalypse won the IFComp that year, I can't help but thing Changes would've had a shot with a good deal more polish.

As-is, I remember the author had a bug tracker with a lot fixed, and there were obviously a lot of different moving parts with several animal NPCs. They all act pretty simply, with beavers hissing or deer fleeing, but they build a world remarkably quickly with little need for detailed scenery. As someone who is indulgent about using walkthroughs and giving the author a mulligan for a puzzle or two that may be a logical jump too far, I really enjoyed Changes, even though the random events and NPCs bouncing around made it hard to execute. Perhaps it added to the feel that I, as (initially) a human, had trespassed somewhere I should not have been, in the name of progress. It combines eerie naturalism with sci-fi horror in a way I don't recall any other IFComp games doing.

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The Purple Pearl, by Amanda Walker

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Teamwork in a fishbowl, September 11, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)

Milo van Mesdag opened the Pandora's Box of two-player interactive fiction. It explored themes of oppression and war, pitting two characters against each other, leaving the players to suss things out later. The Purple Pearl feels more in the text adventure tradition. Yes, a purple pearl has been stolen, but the other player in this case is someone you cooperate with. You're both cordoned off into small cells. There's a way to shuttle items between rooms, and useless items are rejected. The game has separate binaries for the player in each cell. You can pass items between cells, and once you do so successfully, a code to give to your cooperator drops it into their game.

The Purple Pearl is a good, successful experiment, but if you think too hard, it does feel a lot more like an experiment more than the author's other works. You know you have stuff to solve, and you know it's not the real puzzle, and your main goal is just to get out and start your main adventure. So it doesn't have the usual emotional depth of one of the author's games. But it's still unique and fun and well-executed, and the puzzles, while not profound (they feel as though they've been done before and some, you can use brute force) require some lateral thinking. Receiving the player code once your partner did something, though was a nice surprise gift, as usually you have to keep hacking away or examining everything until you find a clue. Now you hope your partner has, or that they missed something. There was a good deal of encouragement between me and my partner no matter who went first. We wanted to get out of our cells, but it was nice not to have death hanging over us.

And the gifts? Well, they felt like a white elephant party, except they were useful. In one-player games, discovering such things might've seemed too random. I found, first playing one side than the other, it was still a fun surprise to receive an item I'd given, and vice versa. And I was glad the person I played with didn't reveal too much when they were briefly stuck. Purple Pearl has hints--or, more precisely, you can ask for hints to send to your teammate, so you can't spoil anything on your own--but neither of us needed them. (I did poke through them later. They're cheery and fun and do well to steer you only into what you need, with some rhymes that don't spoil things until you know what item they're talking about!) Generally, the items that you didn't need any more conveniently crumbled, which didn't leave much room for confusion.

The Purple Pearl is definitely replayable to see the other side. It took us about forty minutes the first time, then less than twenty for the other. Of course you can play both sides on your own, but I found it a bit difficult to keep track of, even though many puzzles were similar (three switches with three settings, a dial with three digits.) The main moments were the mystery of what might be coming my way, as if waiting for a holiday gift, or asking my partner what we should be looking for--we were walking a fine line between getting through our half of the game and not spoiling the other half, and it was pretty clear we each wanted to see how the other half worked, especially for the bit when we'd escaped our cells and were in a corridor with just one more thing to do. I think that is the main, lasting draw of The Purple Pearl. And it will be unique, unless a MUD version of Inform 7 becomes active again, with its own puzzles.

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Bug Hunt On Menelaus, by Larry Horsfield

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A nice intro to the Horsfieldverse. Wish there were more!, September 11, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: ParserComp 2023

I confess I've never really gotten into Larry Horsfield's work. Based on this, perhaps I should, or at least try to chip away at one of his works for a few minutes each day. It's odd. I'd have been bummed about a work as short as this as a kid, even if I could solve it, but now, given all the games there are out there to play, I want more like this. (I can't complain, of course, having my own series of decidedly old-school parser games that do their own thing.) It feels like a good introduction, even if it is the fifth in the Mike Erlin series, so it may've been a wake-up call to say, yes, scaling back the difficulty would be worth it. I'm glad it snuck into ParserComp under the deadline.

You, as Captain Mike Erlin, have a group of five subordinates whom you have delegated to help track down Meneltra, which -- well, they need to be shot, because they're big long ugly bugs that shoot acid and terrorize the town. You are to shoot them down with minimal property damage, then BECOME the next person in Erlin's troop. You can play with timed turns or not. The timed turns are a very close shave indeed, at eighty moves total.

Your team splits up at the nexus of a road, going every which way. One Meneltra is easily findable, and another is disguising itself among zampfs, aquatic creatures which need air, while Meneltra don't. You as the captain have one of the toughest ones. There's also one Meneltra you can't shoot, and you need to use other weapons. Blow up six Meneltra, and, mission accomplished!

This is standard parser stuff, but it gives a good look-in to the universe. It's worth playing without the timer, then with it, to feel like you really understand what's going in.

The timed test is a bit confusing from a plot perspective: if you've split up, shouldn't the maximum time taken be what matters, not the total moves? Mike Erlin seems like a man of action and not one to stand around, but when you switch perspectives, the turn count goes up, and that's that. Still, it's a pretty tidy timing puzzle all told.

Still, I wound up coming back to this after ParserComp to play it again, because I appreciated it, and I hoped it would bring me closer to really appreciating the author's other works. So often I've spun out on them earlier, wondering if I should have tried harder to fight with the ADRIFT runner, and such. I've had such fun with short ADRIFT games in the past, and I feel sad I can't tackle bigger ones. Bug Hunt on Menelaus is a good place to start, though, it seems. It leaves me wanting to understand more about how the characters interact (they're all sent separate ways from the center.) It leaves me feeling I can tackle such a game, and all the non-obvious verbs can be quickly found. I'd like more of that!

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Paint!!!, by David Whyld

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Madcap humor, worth poking through if nothing else, September 11, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)

There are some jokes which are Not Your Thing but still give you a chuckle. David Whyld's games are like that for me. I prefer my humor with different misdirections. The humor in Paint!!! is, well, direct. You have three assistant painters who help you paint the office of a man with a very, very long Greek name. And you need to paint everything: the floor, the table, and so forth. But there are problems, like Thor appearing, and how your assistant Ted keeps stealing stuff. And the people who have kidnapped your sister, even though you don't have a sister. And the secretary who keeps bringing you refreshments you don't quite need.

This needs to be played through honestly several times before you have a clue what's really going on. But it's rather fun to muddle about. I wound up giving up, but fortunately, the game has a command called LET ME CHEAT. I did.

I am pretty sure Paint!!! violates all sorts of principles of game design theory. Nevertheless, I'm glad it popped up on recommended lists, and I was able to give it a try. It would probably be very frustrating without the walkthrough. It's a change of pace we need in small doses, when our subtle humor gets too subtle and doesn't seem to go anywhere.

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The Real Me (Neo-Twiny Jam 2023), by Ashes_and_Sand
Quick reflections on being oneself, September 11, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Neo Twiny Jam

The author wrote two vignettes for Neo Twiny Jam, and although A Crown of Ash was a more evocative title, The Real Me lasted with me a bit longer. It's a story of a fairy who's a trans man, but it cuts a bit more about that, to the general "being a bit different and people know it" to having even people who think they understand failing to understand. They see you as part of a block. This happens with any sort of nonconformism e.g. "I really respect nerds' work ethic. But maybe I could use their brains better!"

Having a fairy as the main character was interesting for me because, well, isn't it cool enough to be a fairy and have magic powers? You should be grateful for that. But of course that's not the whole story. The whole story can't and shouldn't be told in 500 words. But enough is captured of the whole "can you be less weird, please?" sentiment that rapidly spills over into scorn, or imagined scorn that nobody every really tried to curb, that the piece was successful for me.

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Molesworth, by Ian Aldridge

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Save the world, but not from the Mekon, September 10, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)

On reading that there was a text adventure called Molesworth I held out high hopes that it was about Nigel Molesworth, hero of Geoffrey Willans's The Compleet Molesworth. If you haven't read it, you should. In it, Nigel chronicles the horrible happenings at St. Custard's, his primary school and dreams of defeating the Mekon.

Here, though, it's a different story. In this game written in Quill, you're looking to disable a nuclear missile at Molesworth RAF. It's a long, wandering game, and it has its own retro charm, but all the same there are so many ways to get lost or killed or trapped with no way to win. There are plenty of rooms with no exit, where you're just dumped. Often the game tells you a joke in the process, but that's not quite enough. Also, you get randomly hungry, and if you haven't found the sandwiches yet, it insults you with "You should've listened to me." This is much funnier when you have a walkthrough handy.

And certainly many of the puzzles are arbitrary! There's a maze that's clued by a newspaper article, but I can't figure how. There's a pub where you trade a CAMRA pamphlet for a pair of wire cutters, and another one that won't let you in if you're wearing a CND badge. (I'd not have known what these had meant if I'd played when the game came out. Thanks, acronymfinder.com!) There's limited inventory and red herrings. Some are king of funny, like the French onions in the Peugeot. The best clues are that you get 5% more for finding certain items, so you know they must be useful!

I'm snarking on the mechanics, many of which are about odd item trades, but there are neat parts, where you need to wear disguises so the military base personnel don't wise up to you. With the limitations of the ZX Spectrum, too, there's only so much to be done. But the game does have a lot of filler rooms, and X is not a shortcut for EXAMINE, PAPER is separate from NEWSPAPER, and so forth. (At least you only need four letters per word.) There are plenty of instadeaths, including at the start when your car is low on petrol. And the narrative voice does mock you a bit for not picking up on some very thin hints.

That said, Molesworth has an innocent earnest retro charm, even though it violates the not-yet-created Player's Bill of Rights and you must do ridiculous things like pole-vault across a stream. It's hard not to laugh at the pronouncement at the end where THIS IS YOUR BIG CHANCE, DON'T BLOW IT. I sort of wanted to see what happened if I did, but I was having trouble with save states on the ZX Spectrum, so I was too much of a weedy wet to try.

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Solarium, by Anya Johanna DeNiro

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Nuclear holocaust with a side dose of spiritualism, September 10, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2013

Solarium struck me as immediately technically impressive when I saw it rolled out in IFComp. It presents itself as a sort of alchemy game, superficially: you have one element, and it's listed at the bottom, and you have a bunch of paths to choose. Technically, you just click through all the paths, and you amass ingredients until you have everything, though some passages are dead ends until you have certain ingredients. Text is color-coded. Simple and effective, with no multimedia. And as you find ingredients, the backstory fills in.

It's not some fantasy with wizards and mythical beasts. It's about the Cold War, and what might have happened with just a bit of supernatural nudging. Someone claims that, hey, we can use nuclear missiles without retribution from the Soviets if nothing happens! Because Communism's bad, right? And people get killed, but it's not as bad as the alternative! You, as part of a fictionalized version of President Eisenhower's Solarium project, are one of two dissenters in a 3-2 vote to launch the plan. The person who breaks the tie says "What the heck, let's bomb 'em." You-the-player learn quickly that your alchemical quest is about locating the other dissenter, with whom you felt a close spiritual bond, to gain closure.

So bombing occurs. It's rather more large-scale than the pre-emptive strike on Iraq, and the enemy is better equipped to counter. But things seem great at first, and there's one scene that reminded me of the picnics people had watching the first few Civil War battles, except in 1860, bystanders weren't going to get harmed. There's another scene where the entity who sold the nuclear attack has possessed the President himself, and you and your mate kill him. It's not even the grisliest.

All this is in service of relocating your friend, but more, who tried to stop the bombing. You both go in and out of bodies, only you do not have the same control over it that the archon (who possessed the President) did. But perhaps the right spell can bring them back one last time. You wrestle with whether you deserve to exist, and if so, how you can go about fixing things.

On rereading Solarium years later, I realize there's a lot of stuff I missed the first time through, but I still got a lot from it. There's a discussion of the overthrow of Iran's socialist regime, which of course had and still has its own side effects. The fervor and religious corruption are still strong. We've seen that you don't even need supernatural powers to manipulate large segments of a population. Simple slogans do the task. And if there is no archon to possess people, we've seen people sell their souls and dignity for power and attention, quickly leaving behind the people they suckered into voting a certain way. And we're not going to use nuclear missiles--but we have plenty of snake-oil salesmen saying that what we do to the environment can't really matter, right?

Solarium has two endings, and they both revolve around ultimate but painful recovery, one for the world, and one in your relationship. They're worth both checking, but I remember the ominous feeling as I clicked the back button (it's in TiddlyWiki format instead of standard Twine)--what if this wipes out my progress? And, of course, it can't change the holocaust that happened. It also establishes it's importance, without seeming to nod menacingly at you or tug on your sleeve to say, you know, you really should find me important or relevant. It has a self-assurance that's rare even among high-placing IFComp entries.

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King Arthur's Night Out, by Mikko Vuorinen
In which Arthur does not channel Sir Galahad, September 10, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)

Mikko Vuorinen's The Adventures of the President of the United States was about a president who just got bored of the responsibilities having power and went globe-trotting. I'd played it first and was amused to see King Arthur's Night Out which seemed to address similar things. The main difference is, the game itself doesn't make it out of the castle.

Guinivere, his wife (warning: I'm guessing this is a translation thing, but X QUEEN made me cringe), doesn't want him hanging around with "Lance and the boys." (Sir Lancelot, of course.) She is watching to make sure he doesn't go anywhere. But he has a plan to sneak out--or, rather, you do. You'll find one gauntlet, and then it's obvious you need to find another. You also have secret crannies where you hide gadgets from Guinivere. But what, ultimately, for?

This is all minorly silly and perfectly harmless. Arthur is shown to be a bit of a booby as he looks for a way to distract Guinivere. The puzzles are probably things you've seen before. Arthur's method of escape, though it's been done before, probably hasn't been done by a king.

The command above aside, KANO gave me a few good laughs. It's competently enough executed but never really fully soars. Nevertheless it's a nice distraction if you want to play something Arthurian but don't have the time and energy for an epic. I played it in my head a couple times after getting through it. As text adventures go, it's comfort food.

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The Chasing, by Anssi Räisänen
Show hidden virtues, find hidden horses, September 10, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)

The Chasing is remarkably low-key for a game with such a title--there's no way to lose the chase! And it's unusual without being weird. Sure, it has a few anachronisms, and a few of the horses you track down have odd names (Unhesitancy--it seems like an awkward English translation) but it finds a niche. It's well above a simple first work but shunned by people who want to make complex things. Not that either of those choices should be looked down on. But sometimes we jump from the first to "let's make something complex" and leave holes to be filled in.

The Chasing fills one of those holes in for me. It's a very welcoming game, like Anssi's others, both in the setting (you track down your horses who have run all over the valley, and you also visit fellow adventurers to give them invitations to a party) and in the non-crushing level of difficulty. The horses are all hidden, and you-the-player don't know their names. They're only revealed when you find them (the horses are all hidden--perhaps to avoid implementing them,) and they're named after various virtues you exhibit to remove the obstacle that was scaring them, or you, from doing what you want. Patience is found after waiting several turns in the right place. Courage is found after visiting a potentially high-risk area. And so forth.

It's a tough one for me whether the player should know their names beforehand--I kind of enjoyed the reveal, but on the other hand, it would be nice to have a general impression of which horses are still out there, and the horse names don't spoil anything. Perhaps an option to reveal this would be nice, although the puzzles aren't exactly crushing or unfair in any case. Sometimes people directly ask for help, and other times, it's a matter of noting what's in the description. Another puzzle rejects the right verb, saying, not now.

I think there's an art to gaining people's attention without holding it hostage, in conversation or in gaming, and Anssi Räisänen's games always do that. We only have so much attention to hand out each day. It may be a weakness that you sort of have to take a relatively simple backstory at its face value (your horses somehow all fled at once) or NPCs often seem to be there more in support of a puzzle, only to chat a bit and leave once you solve it. This works well in the context of removing red herrings, and I'm a lot more okay with that than most people, but I can see how others might want the feel of sociability. For me it's good to have social stuff and text adventures in separate chambers.

I'm also struck by how there are relatively little good didactic text adventures. Of course, there is Trinity, which discusses morals and a world-shaking event, and A Mind Forever Voyaging, which discusses ethics on a macro scale. But there is so much to fill in, games that might not catch fire or have a mass audience or crush you with their impressiveness or profundity, but you feel better for having gone through them. I did so more than once with The Chasing, which I found on a "favorite ALAN games" list and quickly said, yes, it belonged there.

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World Builder, by Paul Lee
Memories of ClubFloyd, but more, September 9, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)

From 2011 to 2012, I remember ClubFloyd being a very busy and welcoming place when I managed to visit. There were the Apollo games and the New Year's competitions and also replays of the very best IFComp games. I even entered something to a New Year's Speed-IF. Playing on ClubFloyd made it that much more fun.

World Builder was one of the games from the Hugo competition, and I forgot about it until years later. The Hugo games, by and large, angled for silly fun and jokes, which was welcoming, especially as I was still learning about game design, and I worried that the major parser programming languages were radically different. (Some let you do some things easier. But most cover the basic syntax.) You didn't have to have an overarching narrative or super puzzles to make an impression or provide entertainment. Also, the writing period for entries was about four days, so there wasn't going to be a lot of branching--perhaps it didn't help that one of the prompts was about world building, or something like it. Many of the entries had kind of big text dumps.

But World Builder tried for that narrative, where you were a Dr. Frankenstein type who created a sentient cyborg called Hugor. Hugor breaks free from your control, pulled into a vortex by an antagonist whose name is Minfor.

Given what Minfor anagrams to, it's clear bigger themes are at play, but I don't think it's "Inform vs Hugo, death match." It feels to me like Hugor may have real concerns of: can I offer anything Minfor doesn't? Should I try to offer everything it does? Why not just be subsumed into it? Anything I do, can't it do as well or better? So Hugor is fighting for identity, too. Or maybe I'm reading too much into it. At any rate, this is a real concern--what could a relatively new or unpopular/refurbished programming language bring to the parser game? World Builder left me with these thoughts, and it wasn't until years later with Adventuron that we discovered something--that less is more. Adventuron got rid of a grammar-style parser and went with two words and will comfortably escapt Minfor's maw.

There aren't any real puzzles, but I enjoyed the drama and misdirection near the end, where it looks like everything is going to fail, but it doesn't. And jogging through again, the descriptions are strong, the dialogue maybe less so, but enough to give us sympathy for AIs who maybe see things we don't. And if Hugo were sentient, perhaps it would feel inferior to Inform just on the basis of games written in it? Perhaps ripped off it hadn't got a fair shake?

Looking back I wasn't sure if it was the camaraderie of being able to play along, or not having to concentrate on every move yet be able to catch up, that left me with good memories. That was surely part of it. But on replay I forgot how World Builder got me to think of bigger issues, and perhaps it was what stirred me to get the idea for my 2012 IFComp game, one which relied on Inform being Inform to build a world all about anagrams. That's certainly a "enough of my thoughts, what about my deeds" way to look at someone else's creative work, but it made me take a step back then, and now.

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Zyll, by Marshal Linder and Scott Edwards (IBM)

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Not quite ex-Zyll-erating, September 9, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)

When I wrote guides at GameFAQs, I had this silly goal of writing one guide for each letter. Z was always going to be a toughie. I'd seen other Z games I liked (Hi, Zork,) but they had guides. But there was another four-letter game starting with Z that gradually pulled me over. But its map was huge! I got killed a lot! And the controls? Weird! I was used to parser games when everything was text. Zyll uses the F-keys, maybe being written in DOS. It all takes a bit of getting used to. Between that and the pauses as you walk between each room, I wound up putting Zyll off for a while. There were other Infocom text adventures to look through, and so forth.

Zyll's both very basic and very odd to me. It combines simple RPG and text adventure elements and does its own thing well without going breaking ground into either genre it flirts with. Modern players who pull this game down may find the most memorable feature to be the way the game makes them wait unnecessarily, but if there's someone else to play it with, whether cooperatively or in competition, it can be very entertaining. It's decidedly as ancient as its environs now, although at the time it was groundbreaking for its controls, the timed wait between rooms, and also for being on an IBM PC. Some of the ground wasn't worth breaking--to move, you push F1, then F2-8 for compass directions, F1 for up, and F7 for down. F10 works through minor commands like throwing or reading things. Fortunately all this is in a menu with ten items, and once you gain the spatial recognition to say, okay, F5 and F6 are in the third row and so forth, the awkwardness dissolves. It took me a few playthroughs, and it does take fewer keystrokes than typing. Zyll isn't as big on room or item descriptions as your average Infocom game, so you don't need to EXAMINE or whatever, and the only NPCs out there are for combat. Or fleeing. It's very mechanical.

And it's built so two people can share the keyboard to play competitively or cooperatively. Player 2 uses the numpad. This has its own traps, as 7 maps to F1, 8 to F2, and so forth. The rows don't quite line up. It feels like it should work somehow, but it doesn't. Zyll does its darndest to, though, highlighting commands you can use in green text. Maybe if there were more Zyll-likes, it would be more intuitive.

However, it's big enough so that walking around is intuitive well before the first time you get through. I spent quite a while writing out rough maps, wandering around as a Thief, whose main virtue was being able to flee. It turns out thieves are best by far for getting through Zyll, because combat is complex. I always meant to play as a warrior or wizard later, but I never did. Wizards have all sorts of neat spells which seem cool in theory, but being lazy, I didn't want one more command to remember. I was just glad to be able to bring the Orb of Zyll back to the Orb Room which, when you find three of the five big treasures, wins you the game. The Orb is super-heavy, so you can't carry any other items.

And that sort of makes thieves the dominant class--you can flee from anything, and if you're careful, you can pick off one item at a time. Slowly you tick off rooms that don't have them. But how many rooms are there? A lot! It took several play-throughs for me to discover ... yes, THAT room links THERE. Oh, I see how these rooms connect. It was a great a-ha moment for me when two big areas connected, something one wouldn't see in Infocom games, which tried to be economical with rooms and disk spaces. Zyll certainly isn't as vivid as a Zork. But it has all the elements of a fantasy adventure, without having to create a character party or deal with combats. There are boats for navigating underground caverns and random teleports, too, which play a certain role in two-player games. I had fun rolling the dice with them when still mapping out the full world.

Nonetheless the big drag for me was how you couldn't switch off the delay walking between rooms. In such a big game as Zyll, it added up, even when I cranked the DosBox speed up. (The timer is set to the system time.) It seems like there should be a secret code once you solve things, at least for single-player mode. After a few tries, I honed my strategy enough that I was able to win fairly quickly, maybe not getting all the treasures as a thief but enough to win. Zyll really only tracks points, but after a while, I didn't worry about maximizing that.

Zyll is an odd game, and I haven't found another like it, which is a shame, even if it's technical and dry. It develops a big expansive world, but by the time you're comfortable in it, and you know the rooms where the potions may randomly start, the delays are a bit tiring. It doesn't necessarily deserve immortality, but the process of discovery for me was quite fun. Just seeing a different layout of keys, from an age when one-key commands were random (remember Z for ZTATS in Ultima?) has a certain amount of appeal, and guess-the-verb is not a thing. However, the challenge and reward-for-time topped out quickly once I figured how to win as a thief. Warriors or Wizards just seemed too finicky. Nevertheless, I'm glad I pushed through to write a guide for it years ago, even if there is a better one now at CASA.

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Danger Mouse in the Black Forest Chateau, by Brian Belson, Edgar Belka, Kevin Buckner

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
"Jolly Good Show, DM." / "Actually, Colonel, it's a jolly good computer game.", September 9, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)

Danger Mouse was, and still is, a wonderfully spontaneous cartoon that can be appreciated by kids and adults alike. I always hoped one day to see all the episodes when I saw him on Nickelodeon, and it took a while. In the meantime I discovered this game and also a DVD of all the Bananaman episodes--Bananaman came on after Dangermouse, see. Dangermouse is not perfect and goes off on tangents, thus making it perfect for crazy text adventures written on 140K drives. Because if the authors get low on space, a deus ex machina will actually work! It wouldn't be true to the series if there wasn't one.

And even with many of the main elements of the show are left out(no escape of your oft-winged car from under the pillar box where DM lives and no Stiletto, Baron Greenbacks's right hand crow) it's a great example of what people managed to do back when they had to make do with very little memory. It even retains the sarcastic narrative voice in its room descriptions. One can almost picture Danger Mouse tapping his foot, waiting for the next part to load on the Commodore or whatever. (Still, thank goodness for emulator warp speeds!)

At the game's start, Colonel K calls in, and after bumbling over a few words, directs DM to find some terribly destructive weapon called a pi-beam hidden deep in the Black Forest Chateau. The beam is actually hidden in something else (hint: the show was always pun-heavy.) The game focuses on brief narrations to tell you what's going on, and it's choice- instead of parser-based. This saves memory for some neat little doodles floating about the screen giving a rough picture of what's going on. Good choice--Danger Mouse with a parser would be the wrong sort of sophistication.

You will get an extra option if you bring the right item to the right place such as a key to a room with a locked door, which drops the difficulty, which back in the days of slow loading times was a good thing. Solutions stick out like the sort of levers Penfold trips over to spring a trap. Making the wrong choice may provide useless entertainment but never kills you. It just knocks you back to a location that is not so far along in your quest. You'll also find some locations containing several items, of which you can only have one at a time. Here's the only weakness of the choice-based format: there's no inventory option. Usually you'll need two or three such items in a certain order and although you can sweep through all locations with every item pretty easily, the items' uses are relatively sensible even if the situations where you must use them are random as you'd expect.

Danger Mouse, alas, has no saved games. Not a huge problem in this day of emulator save states, but a hassle back them. Halfway through you're given a code number to access the second part. Fortunately these load times are the only really slow parts of the game, and the rest of the time you'll be occupied between finding the one-way access routes between important locations and working your way through some minor-nuisance mazes. The drawings along the way will keep you entertained. There's not a ton of color, but Penfold's iconic too-tight suit jacket shows(too bad the tie isn't in full splendor too,) and Danger Mouse finds many ways to look nonplussed. There are even cameos from Count Duckula and Baron Greenbacks. But a good deal of the scenery is recycled, which is not all a bad thing, because the show occasionally made fun of itself for the repeated backgrounds, and besides the Commodore had limited memory and disk space. The game gets a few of them and doesn't abuse them. Too much. There's also a motif of moving in even wider circles as the game goes on, which works well enough for such an absurdist cartoon. DM himself would frequently run into an obstacle or enemy several times before finding the right way through.

Danger Mouse, the show, worked well because it had many silly pictures to go with puns children might not understand. The game works much in the same way with quips as "the lone shark takes a great deal of interest" or the red herring you find, which by now feels overdone, but it deserves credit back in the 80s. DM and Penfold also stumble through the requisite trap doors and secret passageways with the help of goofy gadgets or common items used for extraordinary purposes, and so for a game with such simple controls (maximum five choices on any screen,) the clever narration and pluck make it a credit to the cartoon show that inspired it. Yes, a full-fledged Infocom-style adventure would have been ideal, and Danger Mouse in general seems to cry out for multiple point-and-click remakes, replete with a Bananaman sub-game for people who'd saved the world with Danger Mouse would have been a big hit. But I really can't complain. It was fun before I managed to get those Danger Mouse DVDs cheap on eBay and after.

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Tough Beans, by Sara Dee
"my lousy job, apartment, *and* relationship" ... is not lousy, September 9, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)

While I enjoyed the author's work Mite enough to wonder about her other works, the name Tough Beans made me cringe. It's not offensive or anything, of course. It's just, who says a phrase like that? Even ironically? It doesn't work! I remember someone in my college dorm who said Cool Beans, which was close enough to the borderline. (He also missed the point of Joe Pesci's "you think I'm funny?" rant in Goodfellas.) But eventually curiosity got the best of me. I didn't find out what the name meant for a while. It turns out it's the name of a coffee shop, the sort everyone goes to but nobody really admits they go to. It's there that the main drama takes place.

You start off late for work, at a job your father got for you, well sort of (he'd hoped to do better.) You've always felt a bit spoiled, and yet your family hasn't encouraged you into a career that really soars. You also have evidence your boyfriend Derek's been cheating on you, and there's also the matter of your dog having his jaws around one of your pairs of heels. So this feels like a "my bad job" sort of game, especially with your boss, Soren Pickleby, being--well, a real turnip. He's asked you to do some relatively simple stuff, but one quickly suspects he would enjoy saying "It's simple stuff, what's wrong with you?" more than actually having it done quickly. Oh, there's low-grade sexual harassment in there, too.

One of the things you must do, and do it now, is an errand to get coffee at Tough Beans, where you run into your cheating boyfriend Derek and the coworker who was supposed to help you sign off on one paper. The hijinks start piling up there--there's a vagrant who wants a cigarette, and there's a hipster with a cigarette behind their ear, and it's pretty clear what to do, there. (With appropriate "gee, does this guy really need a cigarette?" reflection.)

There's a certain amount of reflection throughout the game as to how you met Derek, what impressed you about him, why you're still together, and so forth, and he's revealed to be a bit of a slimeball. You go through a lot of denial about Derek's cheating, and there are endings where you realize it's over, and you don't. You do, however, have a moment of reckoning with your boss.

The puzzles (there are "do what your boss says" things which develop your character nicely but aren't really puzzle) aren't too tough. They can be solved nonviolently, but when you get to the end of the game, you may only have half of the full points. How you miss the points was interesting to me--the game doesn't display "your score went up by one point," and so I missed that calling the right person at the start got you a point. Which makes sense. We generally don't think of life in terms of scoring points. But the general idea with points is, there's standing up for yourself, and there's REALLY standing up for yourself and finding ways to. I enjoyed the mechanic, even if I didn't stand up for myself very well. And then there are the amusing actions that don't get points, like smacking Derek, who deserves it. You have a chance to destroy his car, which the game rejects, but it's fun to try. This sort of thing makes Tough Beans replayable, as you'll probably miss things, but on the other hand, you may argue you don't need to stand up for yourself perfectly, and looking back too much on that gets in the way if the next good experience.

There was a lot of light-hearted humor through Tough Beans underscoring your inability to stick up for yourself. This went beyond "poor me, the world is against me," and even though its main character was a completely different demographic from me, certain things resonated. It's an interesting meshing of "my lousy job/apartment/relationship" and does so without drowning in self-pity or hopelessness.

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Life of Puck, by alyshkalia

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
For those of us who'd never want a rat as a pet, September 9, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Neo Twiny Jam

Neo Twiny Jam was a good time to explore and try things quickly, without going into the weeds. And many authors did, often exploring different themes of identity when submitting more than one entry, or trying for different forms of drama.

But Life of Puck and What They Don't Know, may be the pair of entries by the same author that differs most. It's a tribute to the author's pet rat. Rats, like most pets, don't have too much to do, and the author mentions they wrote this to figure out Twine.

It seems like an excellent choice of a self-tutorial, and technically it covers all the bases. Presentation isn't something I generally care much about, but the soft colors and fonts give a homey feel and add to the fun. It reminded me of an idea I had for a Twine game, about two cats I had. (Maybe next year for Neo Twiny Jam.) I'm sure someone else has a dog story. I hope they share it, to help us through the more serious entries.

There are five total endings, though they're not endings in the normal sense. You just have a new day. There are just moments when you've realized you've exhausted one action more or less, and you don't find that there are five until you choose the "take a break" option. I'd found three by the time I had, and at that point, I was able to remember what I hadn't really tried.

You get no special alert when you hit all five, but then again, pet rats aren't particularly goal-oriented. And it doesn't really feel like lawnmowering, just exploring. Also, looping over the same options several times with the same text doesn't feel repetitive, because rats generally don't worry about that sort of thing (okay. They can memorize their ways through a maze. But that's different.)

I'd feel kind of worried if even a pet rat got loose. But here it's a nice game without any real stress. You get out of the cage that is your daily routine as a human, find the five endings, and go back in that cage yourself once you've had an adventure, so to speak.

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The Hunting Lodge, by Hulk Handsome
Lodge hunts you, sort of, September 9, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: EctoComp 2012

The Hunting Lodge was a shocking shift from the author's IFComp 2012 entry In a Manor of Speaking, submitted for EctoComp one month after. Both have unexpected deaths. This has fewer jokes--though they're there, in the descriptions, if you look. The author himself mentioned, when he re-released the game, that his post-comp fixes included some jokes, because he couldn't help himself. I think the changes are for the better.

The author describes it as partially influenced by Hunt the Wumpus, and it is, only the map is slightly imbalanced, and there are fewer rooms. You wouldn't know this at first, as you're driven to a barren hunting lodge where you haven't heard anything from your brother for a while. Then there's a moment when you know you're in trouble, because of something you did, which is rather good. Then the chase starts. There is a way to defeat the monster and exit.

The strategy here is tricky. The monster's roaring is louder the closer it gets, so you need to, whenever possible, avoid rooms with two exits. But of course one of the things you need is in such a room, and you must visit a dead end as well. So there's a chance you'll just get killed by the monster, and that's luck. But it adds to the fear, which makes it a good EctoComp entry. There's also a timed bit at the end, and you may be helplessly trapped by the monster as time runs out. More scary fun.

Given the author, I was sort of expecting a mounted moose head that gave you a raspberry or wet willy when you weren’t looking, or perhaps a Big Mouth Billy Bass gone bad. There is humor there (a note that breaks the fourth wall explains the rules) and some subtler hat-tips to authors the writer likes, but the main plot is dead serious. It's easy to forget those jokes.

Post-comp I think the author did a good job of fixing bugs and balancing gameplay. It's a quick tense effective experience. We should all try divergences like this from our main style. I know I haven't, and I'd like to.

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metastasis, by Playahead Games

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
No confetti or surprise party awaits., September 9, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Neo Twiny Jam

metastasis shows that retro or bare-bones feel, a fixed-width font as you describe things clinically, the cursor slowly moving left to right, dispersing scientific information. You're obviously in the sort of laboratory where emoticons are frowned on.

And once you see the choices available, well, there is nothing to smile at--if you read the first passage carefully, you'll note something disturbing at the end. The choices belie the sterility of the lab setting. Riots are mentioned. There's shelter for the lab.

COVID was "inspiration" for a lot of Twine efforts, most of which deal with social isolation head-on. It's a bit more subtle here, in the lab, trying things out, maybe making some progress. You hope. There are four endings, none directly stating what happens, with some easier to figure out than otheres. A couple, I had to repeat to fully get it, and they made more sense once I saw all four. There are not that many choices to make. I slowly pieced things together. Once I did, I realized maybe I could have guessed fully, from the title and the blurb. But watching things unfold would still have been effective.

Not that everything could unfold, with only 500 words to work with for Neo Twiny Jam. A lot of details are left unexplored, but that actually makes the horror greater. Sort of like how COVID was even scarier when we didn't know what it was about, and while we read about mutations and how it lingers, there's a feeling of "oh no I better not go out so much," but we aren't blindsided. Still, three years on, we feel lucky this didn't happen, and we remember it as a real possibility.

Further credit to the author for allowing us to press the space button to bypass the typed-text-on-screen effect, so we could experience the remaining paths at our own speed.

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Bored of the Rings, by Fergus McNeill
Not high art, despite chunks of drug humor, September 8, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)

The Commodore 64 text adventure Bored of the Rings (BotR) is an offshoot of Harvard Lampoon's great satire book of the same name. It includes most of the characters that go along with Frito but also manages to find goofy new names for each one of them. Frito's actually Fordo, for instance. The game even divides itself into three parts(passwords needed for the second two) and only marginally copies gags from the book. It does pretty well with the new sort of adventure; much of the game consists of picking up companions Traveling Ever Eastward before destroying the ring as in the trilogy. A serious game such as this, too devoted to the original material, would have been very dull. BotR, despite being a copy of a satire, manages to poke fun at its own genre and provide enough gratuitous stupidity and vulgarity to be memorable. Plus it doesn't take several whole days to finish unless you manage to get on the parser's bad side (it's a simple brute!)

Delta 4 Software cranked out a few goofy text adventures where it ignored words of longer than five letters and never was perfectly clear on what you had to type; as a whole they were worth it, but each game gives individual frustrations. In BotR, the worst is when you must GO LIFT and not ENTER LIFT. This non-satirical obtuseness, thankfully, is not pervasive.

You generally get points for clever actions and never just taking something or visiting a new room, and there are even optional puzzles, some involving guns. Something from Narnia will help in one of these. But the most challenging part of the game besides the puzzles and finding the right verbs (you must DESCEND TUNNEL and not enter it) is when you have silly locations that look like each other and need to navigate them. You can tell you've reached a new one when a new narrow picture pops up at the top.) The trial and error seems slightly pointless and is forgivable only because Fordo, your character, was established as a dupe early on by Grandalf and his uncle Bimbo.

There are shockingly few items to start out besides the hallucinatory beans from Tim Bumbadil, with emphasis on stumbling around bars successfully. You'll never have more than three items you can use at a juncture in such a linear game, and so it would be easy without the challenge of raking your mind for common verbs that have slipped your mind. Later on you'll find a swamp where the game doesn't bother to give you directions, and paths fork a bit. It's entirely possible you'll miss a direction to go from a location as well since the screen clears once you move away. There are also locations you'll run into and no matter what you do the next few moves your fate is sealed.

So the game's challenges are dominated by arbitrary concerns, but it gets the sort of things right that can help any piece of good satire stand out. The game is pretentious when you adjust your inventory and even invokes ancient prophecy to force you to sit through uncle Bimbo's party at the beginning, and all the people names and most of the player names work well. Aragorn's foil constantly discusses his family tree (more dialog would have been awesome) and is silenced by grumpy companions such as Legoland and Spam on the way to places like Isithard and Almanak. The events when you solve anything involve slapstick physical comedy and amusingly grave injustice, and you have all manner of degenerate forest spirits to creep you out and even break-dance, as well as a secret passage which doesn't help you one bit, and a signpost saying "Last Bridge 4 turns." You even get cool ways to die, which have the best pictures. And although the anti-computer jibes are the weakest (the ring you must destroy represents corporate computer interests,) the computer prison where people are forced to write budgeting software is a winner. Minor characters get unfair punishment, too, and the meeting with the Balhog is certainly not sappy.

Outside Infocom, BotR is really one of the better early ones I've uncovered. It would be disappointing if the game were fully faithful to either LotR or BotR, the books. It does well to drop in anachronisms instead of BotR (the book)'s fourth-wall deus ex machinas throughout. And given how early it is in the history of text adventures, and how badly other attempts I've seen fail, BotR does commendably well satirizing them. Yes, it's very on-the-nose and clearly below Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, where the puzzles really made you laugh and think. But I still snicker at the final command to destroy the ring. If you don't have the time to play, read a walkthrough, and that'll give enough laughs.

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Grue., by Charles Mangin
So that's how the other side feels!, September 8, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2017

You actually didn't kill too many grues in the Zork games. Maybe none. You just shone a light on them, and they scattered. Here, you are a hungry grue, tracking down adventurers before you starve. There's no standard map to this game. You need to use your senses. It's a timed game, as you starve if you wait too long, both overall and at the final conflict. But there is also nothing wild to do, or any intricate puzzle.

Sight is not one of them, of course. You start with your eyes closed, in your layer, and if you open your eyes, you lose your other senses: taste, feel, smell and hearing. All four of these are used as you stumble through caverns. There's some trial and error here, but the main thing is, if you use certain commands twice, the adventurer is alerted to your presence. They may flee or outright kill you.

It's a sparsely described game, with a tense if quick hunt. At the end, you corner the adventure, and this is where I hit a wall. Some deaths were expected--you didn't prep yourself enough, or you used the same sense twice. But the final one, I just assumed you used one verb first, and I kept trying to find ways to make it effective. (There is a preparatory verb. It makes sense.) I didn't think of skipping over a certain step. There's some cluing here, as the game asks you if you want to, before the adventurer kills you. If you manage to get to the point, though, you have a meal!

Grue is clearly well beyond Zork: a Troll's-Eye View in terms of realism and description and character development. It's fairly quick to go through. I suspect it slid down the rankings due to the guess-the-standard-verb frustration at the end, as well as some other things which seemed like beginner mistakes. However, I recognized the author's name from some Apple II programming groups, so he is no beginning programmer, and he was probably just blindesided by stuff he could fix easily once he knew about it. Inform can just be tricky that way. It's a good idea and worth playing, and it's quite surprising someone didn't do it sooner. It feels like it has some holes that could be fixed pretty quickly. But all the same, I'm very glad it's there. There are a lot of Zork tributes that rely on canon knowledge or are just another treasure hunt, and this is genuinely different.

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50 Shades of Jilting, by Rowan Lipkovits (as Lankly Lockers)
Wearying near the end, fun until then. Like the relationship!, September 7, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: ShuffleComp

Aisle clones have been done before, of course. I did one I'm glad I did, but I'm not going to show it to anyone as an example of my brilliance. They help the programmer explore, and they're perfect for game jams like ShuffleComp. Especially if the author draws 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover by Paul Simon.

In 50SL, you're in Tom's Diner (I got that reference!) with your lover, Sam. Soon to be your ex-lover. But what is the best way to leave?

The standard Inform commands fall quickly at first. Some two-word commands work, but all have a parallel one-word command. For instance, LOOK and X SAM do the same thing. Meta-commands work, too, in line with the "poke technically at stuff because this is a game jam" ethos. I had things fall in bunches as I realized what to do. One command forced me to hold down the space bar to see a few subsequent related commands.

This all was amusing until I realized that I had no way to track what I did. Also, the text was overwhelming after a bit. The jokes, for the most part, landed. And, also, I really enjoyed the reject responses if, say, you typed SCORE twice. They're much shorter and snappier. Brevity can be the soul of wit.

That said some of the verbs have to do with love or being dumped, and some are Zorkian in-jokes, and the final one may be a meta-command. I had to use a text dump to see the last few.

50SL does have a few rough edges, with one particular synonym missed as they hacked the parser. (Spoiler - click to show)Z is not a synonym for WAIT. But by and large, it hits the main commands. And I do enjoy the rejections for stuff I forgot I did. It's just that you'll probably leave the hard verbs for last, and that gets frustrating, to be so close. You don't really have any clues--perhaps alphabetical listing of what you got, with ?'s for what remains, would be useful. One word in particular ending in Y irked me, and there was another noun from Zork.

Nonetheless 50SL was memorable enough for me to poke at it years later. I was amused to see I'd already disassembled it during the ShuffleComp judging period, but there were still puzzles involved. I submitted a guide to CASA so you don't have to jump through all the hoops I did, and you can enjoy this game before it potentially exasperates you. In this case it's better to check the hints too soon than too late. It's a neat idea, and you might as well use resources to be able to walk away appreciating it the most you can.

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Frog, by MartynJBull

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
One way to keep under 500 words? Axe the dialogue!, September 7, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Neo Twiny Jam

Neo Twiny Jam inspired quite a few entries where protagonists interacted with pets, or where you were an animal. It's not hard to see why--you weren't going to get suckered by detail. It's excusable to use one word instead of a full sentence to describe what you want to do. Oh, and you probably get automatic "cute points." Even without the appealing cover art.

Frog feels like it doesn't rely on said "cute points," which is very good. It quite simply follows the progress of a frog from egg to maturity. There is confusion, and there are roadbumps. The ending was very nice, and you may say "oh, I've seen this before," but for me, it works. There are forces beyond your control that decide whether or not you make it to adulthood.

There are worries about forced charm in an entry like this once we see the picture. If there was any, which I doubt, I am glad I am suckered by it. It was all quite clean and fun and a reminder to be decent to those who are a bit confused.

This was a nice first effort and a reminder not to worry if something you want to write is maybe too light or silly a subject to work. It's yet another Neo Twiny Jam entry that might be trying too hard if it went over 500 words, but it sticks the landing at its current size.

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Impostor Syndrome, by Dietrich Squinkifer (Squinky)

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
These things happen, and we really can't just say "these things happen.", September 7, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2013

Reading this back in 2013, I felt this piece was a bit too rough or raw. But I couldn't put my finger on what I would do better. It feels too direct at some times, as if it doesn't give me room to breathe. Georgina feels like she is humblebragging to start out. Perhaps one may find her a cipher, or not likable enough, or whatever. But that may be part of the point. Targets of harassment are chosen because, well, they're putting themselves out there too much, or they're trying to hide from real judgment. They're acting too nice, or they're acting too brash. There's always something. So I think some melodrama can be the point, and whether or not we have a big or small win, there's always a worry that it's tripped up, or it's denigrated after the fact. And this is, indeed, not "all in our head." It's placed there by people who tell us we need to listen carefully to what they say, but all the same, their one offhand comment? Blowing off steam. As if you need to pay dues for basic human respect. That Georgina does not get it, both from clear louts and more sophisticated-seeming types, is the crux of Impostor Syndrome.

Because people can, indeed, be awful in many different ways. The place where Georgina feels the worst is a Ted-Talk style speech. There's a lot of anxiety. She aces the first slide, which has her name and experience. Everything else seems to be going okay, even as she remembers small things that went wrong with her process, nitpicks her boss found. Perhaps she should not even be here? Part of a minority quota? Ignoring, of course, the roadblocks that pop up for being a minority.

What strikes me about the dramatic moment is how crude and cruel it is, and how it is done by people surely nowhere near as smart as Georgina. She knows it's better not to look, and she knows it's not original, and she knows it's something she should be able to deflect, because it's been done before. She also knows it's aesthetically wrong. And we do, too, and it's not "freedom of speech" or anything like that, that people can do this with impunity. It's as if there's an unsaid voice saying "seen it before? You should deal with it. Not seen it before? Well, be lucky you haven't until now." (There's a parallel to "You never really listened to Trump" and "Trump lives rent-free in your head" taunts.)

Another thing that hit me--the same guys who micromanaged Georgina noting small things she did wrong (they probably let you know they don't suffer idiocy) do let the big stuff slip through at a talk she put effort into. It's a logical inconsistency and worse. I could picture them, after the presentation, say "Yeah, they were out of line, but you could respond better." Or suddenly forgetting talks they made about taking the initiative to build a positive culture, or whatever.

And Georgina has a chance to, near the end, to dare to get out of her lane and talk about non-technical stuff, but then she's worked so hard to focus and not waste people's time. This is the main choice in IS: you can skip it, or you can have a link-maze. If people are too critical of the aesthetics of a Twine link-maze, they are missing the big picture, but it is a relatively weak point. (I saved, but I still guessed the top five words most likely to do something, then looked at the source. It feels like link-mazes could have a way to be navigable, and I've seen Twine tricks where URLs turn into plain text, which I like a lot. Maybe that could happen here, blocking out similar words. But I sense I am turning into the same people who micromanaged Georgina.)

There are other things, too, placing harassment side-by-side with coworkers flat-out ignoring Georgina or uninviting her from important meetings and projects. Again, it's easy to imagine a voice saying "Oh, so you're mad when they bug you and mad when they don't. You seem to need things just so, don't you?" This is something I don't think I saw on the first reading, but it seems more natural now, and we really need more ways to bounce back quickly.

Working through IS I was reminded of a teacher or two who put me on the spot more than they should have. I think of how I was told others had it worse, just as Georgina was, and yet how I should be impressed by that teacher being so uncompromising! I'm older than they are now and have more access to information, so I can work through the past and know people who remind me of people like that are bad news. But they do seem to gain power.

Still, fight-back strategies are way more at our fingertips in 2023 and 2013. YouTube videos have discussions where even the most generic or overwrought descriptions of mistreatment bring people together. The techniques, short- and long-term, have lagged behind trolling techniques, because the second are much easier to develop. Looking back I'd be more interested in the small moments and victories and such--they are there in IS but intentionally muted.

The author said that this was intended to make people think, and I think it did, but it led me the wrong way at first. That's not malicious like the antagonists in the story leading Georgina the wrong way. But it is enough to say it is an opportunity missed. This should in no way preclude the author to keep fighting and tell stories that need to be told. It's been ten years. Sadly, there will have been more data to help hone said stories. But if we say IS is a bit too direct and the author has the talent to write something more powerful, one thing we can't credibly say any more is that the plot, or the narrator's feeling, are too exaggerated. It's not perfect, but it's very good it's there, as it addresses issues well beyond standard angst.

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Machine of Death, by Hulk Handsome

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
I wouldn't want to know. I think., September 7, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2013

We've all read a story about someone who was told how they were going to die, took steps to avoid it, and had it happen anyway. Or that someone they loved would die a certain way. Years ago Ryan North built on this to say, what if there was a machine that could tell anyone how they were going to die? It spawned a short-story collection I read and enjoyed. One I didn't find out about until I played Machine of Death. I don't remember any of the stories, but I remember MoD, maybe mostly because it was part of IFComp, and so naturally I read what others had to say about it, and I remembered details.

But I think MoD's interactivity allows us to remember certain things. Anyone who got a card from the machine would wonder about all the details and start what-iffing. It must feel awful to know the walls are closing in, and you aren't even near. So should you? Well, in MoD, you're hanging out near a machine, wondering just that. Or maybe you'll just engage in Deathspotting, a wonderfully evocative word MoD uses that I don't think I need to define. You even chat with someone who got a card. It all seems impossible, even in this enlightened day and age where we can evaluate risk factors for a certain sort of cancer or whatever. But the moral and emotional import is pretty clear. We'd change what we do and who we are. It would be on our mind. Knowledge would not bring power.

So yeah there's a way to sneak out of the mall and say "nope nope nope." You can still learn a lot in the process. You can waste your remaining $5 at a fast food restaurant that gives discounts to people with certain death cards. There's a story of a famous person who did well by embracing his cause of death and another who lied about theirs.

But what if you choose a card? Well, then, there are three scenarios. I don't want to spoil them, because they're quite different and worth seeing, and with something like your own cause of death, it's a surprise. The game lets you restart from the beginning of the death scenario, or you can go back to the machine, where you can loop to the next choice. It doesn't directly allow undos, which might feel artificial given the theme, but this feels about right, since we all do trace through the past and think "could I have done better" and sometimes even hope for verification we did as well as we seemed to.

Suffice it to say one is pedestrian, one is absurd, and one contains a corporate slogan of sorts that can mean anything. This variety allows MoD to poke at certain tropes or obvious considerations without beating on them too much. For instance, if you're in a normally life-threatening situation, you can be risky because, well, you can't die THAT way.

I found the absurdist one to be the least effective, though it gave me the most laughs on the surface. There's some celebrity doppelganger stuff in there, which only goes so far, and because the cause of death is so specific, you really do try to do everything you can to avoid it, which weirds some people out. But hey, it wouldn't be weird if they KNEW. Still, there are ways out.

The corporate slogan is a bit different--you have a boss at work who knows their cause of death, and they let you know "I know my cause of death and I'm not letting it stop me! So I don't want to hear any whining." It's like "there's no I in team," but far, far worse for underlings. One of the main dramas here is getting to work on time. The bad end is lampshaded quite effectively, but the good ending blindsided me a bit and yet still made sense. The author, of course, wrote a lot of stuff to just make people laugh, but I appreciated the twist here, after skewering awful corporate types, to take some sting out of them abusing a catch phrase.

The pedestrian scenario makes a few things obvious, but the thing is--you know you aren't going to die violently! At least you're pretty sure. So everything's okay, right? But then you have a chance to look at someone else's death card. There are some implications there of what you might have to do. But one neat bit is that if you think you can do or avoid something because you're invincible, you only sort of get away with it. You aren't told what state of mind you'll die in, and that's something you have control over, for better or worse, with certain drastic actions.

The author is good at stringing juvenile jokes together without being cruel, and here he's a bit more profound than in In a Manor of Speaking. I can't say which entry is better, but I appreciate them both a lot, and it's neat to see the author have two drastically different successes from one IFComp to the next. MoD contains a lot of deep thoughts and worries under the jokes. It'd be ideal if we didn't need that to explore serious matters, but we often do. Replaying MoD almost ten years after its original release, I felt relief I hadn't found any stupid ways to die. I remembered the ways I worried I might die, instilled by teachers or peers or whomever because I was too careless or conservative. But I do think MoD is one of those things that help you worry less about dying so that you can, you know, pack more life in. And the whole concept of the Machine of Death turns out to have been prescient--ten years ago, we knew that machines knew a lot about you, but with political campaigns and so forth, knowledge of microtargeting and such has expanded to where it seems like machines can figure everything except how we're going to die. MoD lets us join in the fight against that sort of fatalism, or at least imagine how to, which would be worthy even if it weren't well-written.

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A boat ride., by Unexpected_Dreams

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Ah, so THAT's what's REALLY funny about the whole situation..., September 7, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Neo Twiny Jam

At the start this just looks like another story about meeting a shade rowing a boat on a river. The river and the shade's identity will be obvious to anyone with a passing knowledge of mythology. Yes, it looks like you've died, and there's not much left, except the entrance/exit interview.

It's something the ferryman has clearly done a lot of, playing Death's good cop, letting you know your possessions don't really matter any more where you are going, and that's really okay. There are two pretty clear paths here. I found the path of resistance clever.

You see, you can keep asking "What?" This causes a number to go up on the screen. That number is, in fact, the ferryman's word count. He has a certain plan to small-talk you into submission, and it usually works, and in fact the direct "it can't be me, this can't be happening" approach is shut down quickly. There's the whole cliched bit about seeing the light, and so forth. It's been heard and done before.

But playing dumb and making him speak eventually makes him mad. You start with four candles, and each hundred words the ferryman speaks wipes one out. This plays along nicely with the concept of a 500-word jam, but it still falls within its bounds, since the conversation can cycle. (It's okay to reuse words/passages.)

The small talk on the boat reminded me of when I'd heard small talk that ostensibly was to put me at ease but really it was to stop me thinking, hey, wait, something's off here. And it is, if you pay attention and poke around. You may need several cycles through. The third solution, between meekly accepting your fate and getting zapped by the ferryman, is clever and satisfying.

It also raised a ton of questions for me. Was the ferryman just bored of their job? How did they feel about the people they helped across?
and how death is inevitable, etc. You don't seem to have much choice in the matter. Or do you? There are a couple of clues that may help you figure what is going on, or after a few times poking around randomly, you may figure out the mechanics. Either way, the third ending is rewarding, and you will feel accomplishment at finding it. I'm not spoiling it!

This was the sort of neat puzzle I'd originally hoped to see in Neo Twiny Jam. It took a while to uncover, and in the meantime there was other writing I found and enjoyed. It would be hard to recreate in a parser setting, which might give too many red herrings with standard verbs, and it also plays quite nicely on the jam's theme. So, well done to the author.

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the happiness jar, by cairirie

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
You can't bottle happiness, or can you?, September 7, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Neo Twiny Jam

THJ is a short reflection on what it means to be happy, or at least to try to be. Of course there are people who will pontificate "don't search for happiness, search for fulfillment/service/enlightenment, etc." These people are tiresome if they do it too often, especially when you are really asking for ways to help certain things make you feel less unhappy. But on the flip side, grabbing it doesn't work. I mean, we don't like it when other people are clingy around us. Not even if we're the mean sort of people who laugh at others for being too clingy. But all the same, we do want to go reach out and find it and save it when we can for a rainy day.

It's hard to capture how fleeting happiness can be, and in this, the two main characters place a happy thought in a jar a day, to take it out when necessary. But when is it necessary? When do we realize we were happy? I know too often I've been captivated by someone who is clever with dialogue, but they were just selling the sizzle and not the steak. And yet -- happiness is that undefinable sizzle. And this shows through in the writing, as small arguments become big ones. You click through to see more text, and it's never clear where the next thing to click will be. Again, chasing happiness, thinking you've pinned it down, and it changes. Until it doesn't and you realize there's no more happiness to chase.

I found this quite an effective way of grasping something that seems obvious when you're five but is confusing now. It's clearly much sadder than SpongeBob trying to explain fun to Plankton, but it does search for things and acknowledge others do, too. And it highlights pitfalls to happiness without pointing the finger at you for falling into ones you should have avoided. It reminded me of the times I wrote something down and was thrilled to, then I worried it might lose excitement to read it too soon, or too late. Nevertheless, the arguments the characters had reminded me of times I was happier than I thought I was and times I convinced myself I was happy when I wasn't. I enjoyed the perspective.

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Yak Shaving for Kicks and Giggles!, by J. J. Guest

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Not a Ren and Stimpy tribute, but plenty absurd, September 6, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)

I'd have played Yak Shaving sooner, but for whatever reason, I fixated on that Ren and Stimpy episode I remembered that wasn't one of my favorites. I did not need to read that in text form.

What I didn't realize was that yak shaving had become a general term for the distracting stuff you need to do just to get through life that gets in the way of the big stuff you want to do. And the author relied more on that, and it's more a satire of, well, all sorts of things. There's a yeti and a yak and a corrupt Dada Lama. With a description like "A more or less matching pair of yak's wool socks, size 90," it's pretty clear things aren't at any great risk of going basso-profundo.

YS has two versions, Adrift and Inform, and I preferred the Inform version, being bigger, though it clocked in only at eight rooms. The author had promised some new locations, but some entirely different ones popped up instead. This only adds to the surrealism, of course.

It starts as a tongue-in-cheek quest for enlightenment. An acolyte tells you you can't see the Dada Lama while carrying any possessions. You, in a way, pass the Lama's "knowledge" to the acolyte. Helping the yak helps you unfreeze a yeti. Some items have the sort of uses you'd expect in a silly game. The end is of the "I learned I learned nothing at all, and nobody can" variety. Though it was surprisingly uplifting. Along the way, of course, you bash some zen tropes that have been done to death, but they're rather fun to kick a bit further.

For some reason I built YS up to be more than it was, even though the author generally goes in for shorter stuff (Excalibur excepted.) So it was nice to get around to it. Ironically I may have done a lot of yak-shaving (to use a new term I was enlightened with) instead of playing YSKG, and what's more, I recognized YSKG as a sort of yak-shaving for my own goals of writing text adventures, which have become yak-shaving for writing actual literature. This made me feel dumb and small until I looked through the jokes again. Then I felt better.

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HOLY ROBOT EMPIRE, by Caleb Wilson (as Ralph Gide)
My favorite title from Shufflecomp 1, September 6, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: ShuffleComp

ALL CAPS titles usually raise my blood pressure slightly. The writing contained under them often tries too hard. I know what I'm supposed to feel, but I feel forced to, and that ruins the effect. It's like someone using too many meaningful pauses or voice inflections. Even if I get it, I may just want to pretend I don't get it out of spite. Yes, yes, you're very avant-garde, that's very nice.

But I quickly forgave HRE. It doesn't force anything on you, although it does lay things out so you can't miss some very clever jokes. The flip side is that you are probably so involved you missed a few. There's no shortage of games that poke religious fanaticism as well as those who poke the sterility of a robotic approach to the world, and HRE somehow pokes both without seeming like yet another South Park episode that needs to make sure it's tried to annoy everyone. I'm amused to say that, here in a dystopia where robot popes now control the levers of religious power, the solution to missing anything is to do a good old-fashioned text dump.

So who are you, and what's your goal? Well, Morgan Santemore, instructor in robot decorum at the Mathedral of the Heavenly Code High School. Oh, and a deputy Robot Inquisitor. And with Pope Fortran in town, your goal is to kiss his ring. Everyone wants to, though.

And as the absurdity quickly hits you, the puns and incogruence come flying. Of course, there is winning the game, but if you're like me, you'll want to know the words to the DOSology and Ave Machina. You'll groan at entering the crypt ("you have been encrypted!") or wonder if the 9 in Saint Number 9 means anything, or if the fuse from a saint is more a votive candle or piece of their heart. The puzzles are silly in their own way, too--the final one requires placing a brain in the Robot Pope's guardian, after which they gratefully let you by.

The puzzles, thankfully, require no great robotic calculation. They really do feel classic, the first point coming from more or less following instructions to process a student's test. While some might object to the hygiene and ethics in some of the puzzles, that can be hand-waved away by saying "well, you're a Deputy Inquisitor. You get to do what you want!" You wind up exchanging a lot of dollars with a hermit for a lot of items that seem useless. They give a full refund for slightly-used stuff. This may not make perfect sense, but it's worth a try. Perhaps the implication is that humans can be suckered around.

Oh, there's a chronological list of robot popes, too. It's well worth reading, as many of them are named after languages. Their rule started in 1 ARA (after Robot ascendancy? The mystery is interesting--perhaps we humans are meant to feel silly we can't figure it out) and it's one of those small shaggy dog stories where you don't have to understand the languages to get most of the laughs.

Amusingly, in this well-implemented game, one item that isn't described is a fiction paperback--and the joke works well. There's also a discussion with your supervisor about their job, which ... well, turns into a disturbing inquisition. We've all had power struggles at the office, or stuff we need to say to the boss to make them feel great, but this, oh man. There are a lot of these conversations, which are to the point about what to do (after all, robots don't care about frippery, and anyway you should be smart enough to figure it out, right?) but they do leave me feeling quite hopeless for the main character. This is the neat stuff on the side, besides the puzzles and jokes you must see to get through the game. So you may walk away worried you missed a bit.

HRE does feel intimidatingly smart, and it's very well put together. Coming back to it after a few years, I remembered it as being much bigger than it was. It uses big words like Narthex, which intimidated me (but when Cragne Manor came around years later, I was PREPARED.) It may intimidate you with just how smart it is. It certainly blew me away with "you'll love this or hate this" vibes early on, but after reading the descriptions in the first two rooms, I knew which side I was on. It's really extremely clever, and perhaps my main gripe with it is that I couldn't think of all the thematic puns and such. They populate the game, and they're what you'll notice most, but there's also an undercurrent of dissatisfaction and authoritarianism and idees fixes through the laughter. Sometimes that is the only way to approach such issues.

Oh, also, there are some Tom Swifties once you win, as a bonus.

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Friar Bacon's Secret, by Carl Muckenhoupt
Oh, man. What would Miles think of a full-fledged microwave? Or computer?, September 6, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)

FBS was written for ToasterComp, where the rules were: implement a toaster, and don't call it that. This opens the door for, well, the narrator not knowing what a toaster is. Enter you as Miles, a servant to Friar Bacon, in some unspecified Medieval year. Friar Bungay, an officious chap, tells you to fetch him.

But where is Friar Bacon? Perhaps that's the wrong question. You-the-player, armed with standard text-adventuring knowledge, will probably find the first clue of where he went. He's not in his office.

To find Friar Bacon, you/Miles will navigate a series of anachronisms, involving electric devices we take for granted. This has been done to death in stories or whatever, but it's still pleasing to figure out what is what. The most obvious candidates are electric light and, given the title of the comp, a toaster. Having a simple peasant find electricity the work of the Devil has been done before, too, but having do so from their perspective as the story deadpans away (Miles is very educated compared to his friend and understands the concept of "letters") reminded me how my five-year-old self might've had my mind blown by stuff that people find natural today. I probably wouldn't find it Satanic (well, maybe AutoTune. I did grow up in the rural US, which was big on that whole scare) but certainly a lot would be hard to describe.

Finding Friar Bacon is different from giving a successful ending (there's another funny one where you just flee,) but it really rounds out the story nicely. He and Friar Bungay come across as nasty people, but all the same, I wonder how I would act in their situation, knowing the existence of technology.

FBS was one of those games always on my radar, but I didn't look at it until I replayed My Evil Twin. It has source code included, which ironically was a look into the past from Inform 7 to Inform 6. And it taught me a lot about I6 that I didn't learn, and how simple it was, and if I didn't quite feel like Miles seeing the papers and knowing what writing was, FBS must have put me that much more in the right frame of mind to learn. This probably wasn't the author's explicit intent, but obviously I'm glad it happened, and to drag out an old cliche, the really good games are about more than winning them. (Another well-worn point: this was speed-IF, so there were typos. The author was obviously smart enough to sort them out if he had time, but I'm glad he spent his time actually pumping up the story and game mechanics and allowing interesting alternate paths through. It reminds me not to worry much about the little things, at least starting out.)

The whole experience leaves me wondering what other neat stuff is just out of my reach. It's very good for Speed-IF, with a well-constructed plot and backstory.

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My Evil Twin, by Carl Muckenhoupt
"I look exactly like myself.", September 6, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)

The review title is the response to X ME in My Evil Twin. But it also clues a roadblock later in the game. Because of your evil twin, it matters that you look more like yourself your twin, who exists in a world on the flip-side of a Vinculum Gate. And as you look around, you find evidence your evil twin is up to no good. How to stop them?

The game logic takes you to odd places, even though it's not big. In your world, there's a photo booth, but in your twin's, the location is walled off because it's a mind-control ray. Your neighbor's lawn in your world is a weapons shop in your twin's. (I won't spoil the theme of the weapons. It's pretty funny.) Navigating things so you can enter your evil twin's apartment is the main thrust of the game. The main mechanic is that not only does every room have a twin across the gate, but every object does, too. So if you drop something in Hyde Park and cycle through the gate, it'll be something else when you come back to Jekyll Park.

MET is filled with funny jokes and odd items that tie into the theme, from the statue of Grover Cleveland to a game of hangman. They'll slip if you don't notice them, and playing MET for the first time in over a decade, I got to see them afresh and definitely wanted to examine anything. And while I'd forgotten the precise walkthrough, MET clued the puzzles well, so it was a neat experience of rediscovery both of the world and solution and the conspiracy theories that make total sense in-game. It even gets a small bonus for even using XYZZY practically! XYZZY acts as a way to flip between your world and your twin's, if you're able to, which is handy to save a few keystrokes but obviously not critical to completing the game.

I'm not sure why I didn't review MET when it came out. Maybe I had nothing to say about it beyond "I hope to write something as cool and compact as this one day." Over ten years on, now's a good time. It takes you somewhere neat and new and dazzling so you can get lost a bit, and the fun wastes your time so efficiently. Due to the economy with which it uses the twin mechanic and throws out sly jokes, I think it's my favorite of all the Apollo 18/20 games.

It feels like a much bigger game could be made with MET's mechanic. But I am a bit greedy. I just remember thinking "oh, man, I wish I'd written something this good" on playing the pre-release version. Years later, I don't know if I have, but playing it certainly reminds me that there must be relatively simple ideas that can open up something like this. I'd be glad to uncover just one.

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Look Around the Corner, by Doug Orleans (as Robert Whitlock)

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
It's escape the room but actually there are 2 rooms, September 6, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: ShuffleComp

Look Around the Corner has one gimmick, but it's an effective one, because it helps open up a bit more story. You get up from your bed, go into the hallway and ... well, you get overwhelmed by eternity. In several different ways. Whether or not you look around the corner!

This creates an interesting set of perspectives and feeling of being overwhelmed. It's not laugh-out-loud funny, but it sort of captured the general feeling of waking up when you weren't really ready.

Hidden in these ways you are hit with eternity is the solution. If you are a smart-aleck kitchen-sink tester, you may stumble on the solution without realizing how or why you were supposed to. Indeed, back during ShuffleComp, I did so (I think I was in tester mode from testing other entries,) and then I figured how I was supposed to be reasoning, and the contrast was pleasing. When I replayed just now, years later, I was not in tester mode. I'm glad I didn't remember the solution, or the reasoning behind it, and I got to work it out again.

It would be neat to be able to chain a bunch of very small, focused efforts like this into a row of puzzles. I'd guess something like this would be a good break if you are stuck on a bigger game and need a legitimate reason to feel clever again. We all need the perspective this brings.

Oh, and contemplating eternity is good, too, in moderation.

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Conduit of the Crypt, by Grim Baccaris

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
"Better luck next century." = better than any timed text., September 5, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Neo Twiny Jam

CotC dropped very late in Neo Twiny Jam. On the heels of One Word Warlock and Curse of the Bat's Tomb and Tiny Barbarian's Big Adventure, I wondered just how complex the maze would be! Would there be RPG stats, even?

I'd guessed wrong, though. CotC is certainly sophisticated, but it's more about nuance and emotion and fear and need to escape than anything else. You are, in fact, a sword. You have some sort of sentience. You need to find the right person who will wield you to get out or, as the tagline says, ... better luck next century.

You have some control of the human that takes you, and apparently there's some luck defeating the guard(s) involved. The text is more focused on you worries about getting out and building tension than the directions.

The big question is what happens once you're free from your pedestal. The game's mood quickly establishes there is no easy happy ending. Well, for the character. As a player, it was satisfying, but I don't want to spoil it. Even if you're able to guess, it's worth playing through. The author clearly spent a lot of time on high production values, which paid off. This left it more memorable and worth a replay than a lot of the mood pieces I looked at and, yes, enjoyed as well.

I'm probably never going to have anything I waited a century for. But I know what it's like to wait for something and maybe grab it too quickly. Heck, I remember that one year I forgot about free Slurpees on July 11th until July 12th! (I got them next year.) I took time to think of all this and more, after I failed a few times. Then, I succeeded.

One might even picture the author thinking something similar about creating their game for Neo Twiny Jam. Was this a good idea? The last NTJ was eight years ago. Is there enough here to make a splash? Am I taking on too much? I don't want to have to wait eight more years. (Yes, the jam coordinators want to make this a yearly thing. Yes, that'd still be a while to wait, though I hope people who just missed the deadline are ready ASAP if/when it starts next year.) I'm glad they got it right in one try. Or maybe they tried once a week to write something until they finally got something good, and it slipped in under the wire.

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Puddles on the Path, by Anssi Räisänen
It's the journey that matters. Are we on the same page?, September 5, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Spring Thing

Anssi Räisänen's games together really mark out a lot of territory. No one is particularly big, but they range from fantasy to realism, and they all have that very classic feel to them without flaunting their old-school credentials too intimidatingly. Puddles on the Path is distinctive among his works for the mechanic to solve major puzzles: many powerful spells are, in fact, common sayings. It's always good to breathe new life (ahem) into cliches, and this brief romp does that.

It's just good fun, as Anssi's works tend to be. You're a wizard's apprentice who can't help but be curious--you find a golden egg and try to get it, guards capture you, and then you must escape. Even though it's a null-sum game in this respect it's a lot of fun to find a magic sword and so forth and actually use the spells. Yes, I enjoy the odd syntax of ancient tongues, but it's also nice to breathe life into more well-worn words.

The game ended a bit soon for me, as I'd sort of hoped to use more than half of the proverbs you had in your spellbook to start. That would leave the door open for a sequel, much like Anssi wrote Ted Strikes Back in 2017 to extend his Ted Paladin game from IFComp 2011, which was the first of his works I tried. I remember hoping for a sequel to the original Ted Paladin game, but I didn't realize Anssi had sort of written one. Given it's 2023 and there was, alas, no Ted Paladin sequel within six years this time, it was neat to uncover Puddles on the Path.

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Moquette, by Alex Warren
People-watching and self-reflection on public transport, September 5, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2013

Just looking at a map of the London Underground leaves me a bit dizzy. All those colors, all those loops, all those stations! Chicago is a lot more linear, but then again, part of that is due to just not having as much public transport. I remember a family trip to London where I diligently tried to memorize all the stations and hoped maybe we could visit them all. Of course, I wanted to visit all the tourist sites too. I vowed to be back one day, but of course, Life Happened. I don't think I've even gotten to all the Chicago L stations. Some are not in great areas, and I drove by them on the freeway, and that's enough.

Moquette, a Quest game with JavaScript effects (the best by far to me is how the text whooshes off to the left like a train starting off away from a terminal) helped fill in part of my desire to visit the London Underground without having to buy a plane ticket, as it's a faithful replication of, well, the central area. It starts you off at Balham station in the southwestern area. Balham is part of the Northern Line, which made it confusing when I was trying to get my bearings to start! Perhaps I should not have. The game describes your general path to your job: ten stops to Bank, change to the Central line, one stop to Liverpool Street.

And so you take the Northern Line to work. There's a constant intimation you, Zoran, might want to do something else than go to your vague tech job today. Eventually the game pushes you out at London Bridge, one stop short of Bank. It's actually possible to get to Liverpool Street, where there's no way to get to leave the Underground and go to your job. But all the same, you can't go further. You want freedom, but you don't want to end up in the middle of nowhere. (One wonders what people on the north side think of Balham. Perhaps it isn't the middle of nowhere, but on the other hand, it's impossible to visit the Highbury or Upton Park stations in Moquette.)

This isn't just arbitrary by the game. Part of what makes the London Underground so interesting to me is all the loops and runarounds and interchanges, and if the station names far out seem interesting, it does get linear. So it seeks to maximize the confusion and looping. Without a map I was baffled to see myself winding up at that same place I hit about eight moves ago.

There's not much, strictly speaking, to DO in Moquette. You look at people, think about their histories and what they want to do, and ponder changing. You leave the train if you feel it may wind up in the middle of nowhere. Some people may quit before this, and it's a satisfactory experience. Eventually you stumble on a girl named Heather, whom you sort of liked. This all is a bit awkward, but there's more of a point than just emo stuff. You fail to converse adequately with her, or you think you do, even if you remember stuff she liked.

Fortunately, an unrequited crush is not the main thrust of Moquette. It goes a bit further than that, and if I didn't particularly like the end, which felt too swervy and too on-the-nose at once, I do recommend the journey. First through without the map, then trying to hit specific places. The people-watching bit is well done.

My own experience with public transport is spoiler-tagged, as it rambles a bit, much like Moquette does, but I've rather enjoyed myself more than Zoran, just reading a book and occasionally people-watching. (Spoiler - click to show)It has revolved largely around getting near tricky-to-find places. There are city and suburban buses to go with the Chicago L. I remember one library in the northwest suburbs that had the only copy of a book I wanted to read, and I took three buses there. I enjoyed planning the bus trips. Then one day I realized it wasn't hard to transfer my city card to work in suburban cards, and if they weren't too far away, I could place holds. I sort of missed the adventure, but I'd done things once. And that library? It's gobbled up into the consortium which means a Chicago resident can just sneak north to Evanston, place a hold, and not have to go through some mazy public transport. I sort of miss the adventure. And sometimes even on Chicago's grid, you realize you've been going west and then south to somewhere, and you've never gone south and then west. It's weird seeing a place you remember, thinking you took a route you never saw.

That's enough adventure for me. It feels like there should be more, and you can't get it just by public transport, but it's often a good start to make you want more. Moquette did that for me, even if I felt its ending didn't stick the landing.

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More, by Jason Dyer (as Erin Canterbury)

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A mattress landscape would've been too on-the-nose., September 5, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: ShuffleComp

This feels like it might be a mood piece at first. You wade through a few rooms of dead household appliances, repeating a story about a heist you performed with a friend. Eventually this story trails off, and your inner monologue stops. There's nothing to do but find the treasure.

You have a shovel and a napkin, and on that napkin is written a clue where you should dig. There are a few approaches to finding the right place to dig. One I tried that failed was to (Spoiler - click to show)turn the flashlight off and look again, which didn't work. Depending on how observant and/or lucky you are, it should turn up. There's no super-hidden item, but on the other hand, you can't just go spamming words you see in the description. DIGging in the wrong place just seems too much.

The household appliances are an interesting choice of scenery. They are useless now, a perfect place to hide a stash, yet at the same time appliances could be a great target for burglars. They're also a sort of crime against the environment, whether from individual homeowners, or from corporation or governments who don't put enough money and effort into the science of recycling. Or perhaps the appliances are a symbol of a stable home that non-criminals take for granted but criminals never can, especially the air conditioner in the final room to the south. One suspects the narrator would do anything, with all their money, to have air conditioner repair bills to pay. They also reminded me of game shows where I never understood people were so happy to win a new dishwasher.

Or, you know, it's just amusing descriptions of a forbidding surreal landscape as a sad story unfolds, even if the main actors are criminals.

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Dead Man's Party, by Royce Odle (as Morrissey)
A Pratchetty vignette about tying up details of an untimely death, September 5, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: ShuffleComp

DMP was the author's first full-length game (he had written two Speed-IFs before, one for Pax East 2010, where, if memory serves, the Infocom Implementors talked about their experiences in detail, figuring that was probably the best time to do so.) And I tested it, and while I usually don't review things I tested, this is different. First, nine years later, it has no reviews ... and second, I was looking forward to the author writing something new. They were longtime IFMud regulars, and like all regulars who just liked to play text adventures, they eventually considered stepping into writing one. Some went on to make it a habit.

I think IFMud must've had a testing exchange program, but however we got in contact, I enjoyed working slowly through more of the game. It's not a huge one, but there's enough in there that things can go wrong without testing, and they did. I bugged Royce a lot. I worried I bugged him too much. I worried I missed stuff. I hope I told him he wrote something well worth writing and playing. I certainly enjoyed it nine years later.

The title clues what DMP is about: namely, someone has died at a party. You've already done the whole dying thing. Maybe not at a party, but still, you're glad you got called in to be a junior Reaper. Hey, it beat sitting in a grave for all eternity! And this is your first solo trip. Nail it, and you may become a full reaper!

Now your character knows what to do to prepare, though you-the-player doesn't. This is handled by a checklist which mentions you have a gauntlet that makes most things easy. This is nice for the game but disturbing as to the actual ramifications--even low-level supernatural beings can change things at will if need be, and even if it doesn't change the world at large, there's a sense that death is extra inevitable.

Following instructions gets you most of what you need, but there's still the matter of the finicky scythe dispenser machine. It's not VERY hard to figure out, but it's enough of a puzzle. Then it's off to Mr. James Phillips's house. Poor chap just took a lightning bolt to the chest, and time's frozen there, but you can communicate with him. It seems like it should be in and out. Use your tools to put him in the spirit jar, and off you go! With everyone frozen in time as you do the honors, it seems there's not much to do.

But wait! James has two small last requests: put his ring and will out on the dresser, to make things easier for his wife. All spirits get the courtesy of last wishes to put certain small things in order. Of course, his wife could find that stuff eventually, but really, he had a pretty unexpected death. So it's the least you can do.

Neither puzzle is especially tricky, though one thing in the note makes amusing sense: you have a lock to open, but it repels your glove, and you may be able to guess why before you open it.

Replaying DMP, it felt very smooth. I enjoyed the jokes along the way, and when I got to the end, I noted in the AMUSING section there were other things I could have done with the glove. DMP was short enough I was glad to go back through and play it. I like it a lot, and I'd like to think it just missed the "commended" level for ShuffleComp, although the vote totals were anonymized. I don't know which it would have replaced. And yet looking back, the author's game writing career seems to have ended as suddenly as poor James Phillips's life. But who knows? He might be back. I hope so.

One other thing: I remember a Grim Fandango CD I bought and never played. From what I understand, this game wasn't just Pratchett-y, but it also owed a small creative debt to Grim Fandango. Somehow, I couldn't find that CD after playing. Maybe I will find it one day.

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Light My Way Home, by Caelyn Sandel (as Venus Hart)
One of the highlights of ShuffleComp 1, September 4, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: ShuffleComp

As LMWH starts off, you don't know what to do, and you don't know who or what you are. But this isn't an amnesia game, far from it. It's a tightly contained game where you, quite simply, have to help someone find their way. You are some sort of ethereal spirit, and you have the ability to give an electric charge to one item at a time. The goal, as stated in the story, is to bring someone home--figuratively or literally.

This person is the most beautiful person you've ever seen, with no direct description why. The story implies it strongly, and it's not hard to figure out, but of course it works better than if you'd been told directly.

Objectively, the person you guide seems a bit stupid as they bump around oddly, but it's not hard to care for them in the game, because of who you guess they might be, and what they need to do, and how powering certain things up makes them move around.

There are only a few things you need to power up or down, but that is enough for a satisfying story. Too much, and the person might seem clueless indeed.

The author seems particularly good at making these nice short stories that provide a quick burst, both as a player and as someone who'd like to make a few more good short games or scenes. Replaying this years after it came out for ShuffleComp, the combination of what I remembered and what I forgot felt about right.

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The Cave of Montauk, by MarWinStudios
Straightforward but pleasing, September 4, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Adventuron Treasure Hunt Jam

The Cave of Montauk seemed simple the first time, and indeed, the solution is not hard, but I wound up coming back for the graphics a lot. As part of the Adventuron Cave Jam it's about finding treasure in a cave, guarded by a troll. Getting in is not too bad--you have to figure how to get an apple from some high-up trees, and once inside, you need a light source. These puzzles string together well.

Inside there's some guesswork as to which item a statue wants, but since CoM is not a huge game, a bit of trial and error is more than okay. In fact it shows off some more nice graphics for the side rooms that ultimately don't matter.

CoM is a very safe game, and if it is not terribly ambitious, it's aesthetically pleasing and welcoming, which I think was the thrust of the Adventuron Cave Jam. Though there's no risk getting lost, I still do wish there was a bit more and that the author tackles a bigger project in the future.

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Bloodless on the Orient Express, by Hannes Schueller
Impressive Speed-IF, sending up Agatha Christie and vampires, September 4, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: EctoComp

There's a lot packed into BOE--although it took 3 hours to code (since it is SpeedIF,) the author obviously did a lot of planning in his head to give a very complete experience.

The story is this: you are a vampire, and you need blood. You've already been without it for a bit, and X ME describes you as taller than you should be, but hunched over. Worse, the current train is snowbound, and there's been a murder!

The whodunit is of little to no concern for you. You have your own survival at stake, and the body may give you a lifeline, because the humans traveling all manage to be protected, enough, against you. Nuns wear crucifixes, and so forth.

And there are a few bad endings as you go through the train. There is another vampire you must outwit, and you can also unleash a horrible monster or carelessly expose yourself as a vampire. None of these are the recommended fourth "winning" entry where, it must be said, you show yourself as totally amoral, where you manage to do something awful in plain sight. (Not that the game's explicit about this.)

The highlight of BOE to me is a cooking puzzle that is funny once you see one of the ingredients. Perhaps you can guess it. There are only three ingredients, but as a vampire, you have logistical problems. There are also amusing encounters with other train riders and terse descriptions, especially of anti-vampire items. There is a pet that you will find useful. And in the final scene, you may walk away making quite a good impression.

The author has always been one to go his own way and challenge the status quo. Mister P and his Paul Allen Panks tribute game, The Idol, are examples. BOE deals with more conventional tropes that make us laugh, but it mucks them about cleverly. I enjoyed EctoComp 2011 but would've been surprised if this hadn't won, and years later I'm still impressed with the design and touches of humor.

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Mite, by Sara Dee
I remember this as the "X ME" game, September 4, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2010

I first stumbled on the community in 2010, when I beta tested Leadlight, and -- well, conventions had sprung up. And new programming languages. There was a lot to catch up on! Back then, ABOUT and CREDITS were strongly recommended, and too few people went along with that. And there was the Player's Bill of Rights, as well as other basic stuff parser games should implement.

I think it's no great spoiler to say that Mite requires you to X ME to make a certain puzzle at the end solvable. I got stuck there, despite the nice in-game hints. But even if I'd spun out there, it would have been an enjoyable time.

Mite takes place in some fairy realm where you are a pixy who can jump on mushrooms and flowers and such, and you'll need to. You've found a lost jewel belonging to the prince, and this coupled with your own basic decency and a sense that Things Are Generally Getting Worse lead you to return the jewel. But there are obstacles.

There's a neat puzzle where you must keep track of the wind, another where you must kill a predatory spider, and then there's an invisible bridge you must find and reveal somehow. None of the solutions are mind-blowing, but they are all extremely pleasing to me. And there are all manner of magic creatures and talking animals and such.

When this sort of game is done right you don't really notice the effort and love that must have been put into it. But on taking a step back you soon realize a lot of care into making things work. There certainly was enough care put into this so that I remember it years later. Oh, and also, I think back to it whenever X ME gives me something particularly salient. As X MEs go, it's still one of the best I've read.

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The Sacred Shovel of Athenia, by Andy Galilee
New cat game! Aww, don't turn that needy face down!, September 4, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2023

It's hard to hate a competently written game that's written around a pet. I dare you! The Big Blue Ball last year was about a dog as the main character, and this is about a cat you wish to befriend. I'm more a cat person than a dog person, but I found both worked well for me. You know what to do, more or less. You have a likable protagonist or NPC. Things can't get too simple, because it would confuse said cat or dog.

SSoA and BBB were first efforts, and they were strong ones. I could play games like this a lot, though I'm sort of hoping for the occasional gerbil or hamster game. Perhaps it has a low ceiling compared to more serious or profound subject matter. But said ceiling is more than high enough, and SSoA is closer to that ceiling. It has all the basic elements of an adventure game and does not feel too basic, and at seven rooms it doesn't try to do too much. So it is closer to the ceiling.

I've had experience making friends with a cat, myself. I have some experience with this. My first ever cat was from a barn in Iowa. He seemed like he really wanted an owner, but the people most likely to adopt him had another cat, and he didn't get along with them. But he got along with people. Well, not me for the first day. When I brought him back home in his cat carrier, he immediately slipped behind the toilet and stayed there. He didn't seem to want to be petted. He wasn't growing or anything. He had just been moved around a whole lot in the past week, and he needed space. So I laid out a litter box, some food, and some water. I think I put some toys out, too. Within 24 hours, I remember playing Pooyan on MAME and I think he liked the music, because he walked in and just jumped on my lap and then on top of the hard drive. He was at home! (I still remember switching from a CRT monitor to a flat-panel one. I felt sort of guilty, giving my cats one less place to sit.)

I wound up having to do nothing, really, to befriend a cat, and SSoA has you do a few things, but with some surreal adventure-game wrinkles. You own a catometer, which is just a fancy name for a bracelet telling you how friendly the cat is at the moment. It starts at red and goes to green, through the rainbow. It's a neat variation on scoring with points, because in relationships, keeping score leads to lots of suspicion. Perhaps even among animals who don't care much about arithmetic. They understand emotions! Also, "0 out of 4" makes the game feel a bit small and technical, which SSoA, in the spirit of adventuring, wishes to avoid, and does! It also says you don't have to do too much to gain the cat's trust without leaving you feeling "there's not much to this game."

The puzzles are not too hard, and they're not meant to be, because this was sort of written for the author's son, about a real-life new cat. There's a key on the other side of a keyhole, with a different solution than us adventure game-playing adults who love Zork would expect. Looking through other reviews, I think others found the potential game-breaking bug which was intentional on the author's part–here, though, it seems like they have a neat loophole which could make sense out of things.

In the comp version there was some suspension of disbelief in the store, from being kicked out when the cat is following you (here it seems like the nice old lady proprietor could/should reject you a lot more softly) to, well, kind of stealing for the correct solution. The author worked to fix that and keep the good absurd bits and provided an alternate solution, which is commendable. The drama at the end when you actually get the shovel involves a fight that does make me smile how it is a wink-wink-nudge-nudge substitute for, say, Excalibur.

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Stygian Dreams, by Giorgos Menelaou

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
AI (partially) rewriting ancient myths. I'm worried it worked so well., September 4, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2023

This was in the Spring Thing back garden, but I think it would have been at home in the main festival! It's experimental, with AI-generated text, and it's much better than what I've previously seen of AI. There is more discussion of what I felt on and after playing than of the work itself. But I think that's because, if you're as lucky as I was, SD will remind you of things, so to speak. I also found it to be better fleshed out than The Fortuna, which appeared in ParserComp a few months later and also used AI.

This is going to get a bit political, but – well, in this case, I recall reading two very bad AI-generated poems praising Elon Musk and Donald Trump. They had minimal value for ironic humor, at least. But I was able to forget the words and not that, well, AI-generated art or stories can be mind-numbingly painful and little more than a checklist of details. (I couldn't tell if any text was strictly AI-generated, which is a good thing. I suspect the author had a go-through and punched it up.)

And there's another angle. Right-wing trolls' mantra is "Donald Trump is in your head, and you can't get him out of it." But we'd like to, because it would clear things up for what we want to do. (Never mind that certain people are certainly in Trump's head without trying to get there!) How do we get Trump, or anyone, out of our heads? And how can we be sure that if we do, we're not just cutting out legitimate opposing views, period?

SD is not specifically about this, but it helps address these questions. And it's a nice change of pace from works over the years where you have a long quest to enlightenment. Now, many are very worthy indeed. There are some where you decide your eternal fate, such as Michael Hilborn's The Life and Deaths of Dr. M. And there are some where you try to get someone out of your life. And there are others with a big, horrible realization at the end. Sometimes I'm not ready for that. But I can get a lot of mileage out of them, too. See AmandaW's What Heart Heard of, Ghost Guessed. And, of course, there is the whole "you have amnesia" subgenre. Pieces fit together, and actions you made or things you saw or thought that didn't make sense, do. Some stories work well, and some don't. And, in Spring Thing this year, we also have Repeat the Ending, which deals more directly with emotional issues and drowning in one's thoughts.

But this is the first I'm aware of where forgetting is a quest! At the end, after meeting some other spirits, you drink from Lethe. This is a gross oversimplification, and SD provides no outright solutions, but it's a short mythological story that brought up questions I had and gave me enough partial answers to old questions I had. It reminded me briefly of things I let weigh me down, of things I hadn't quite let go of, and of things I let go of enough that when they popped up, I was able to push them back off the front burner. There were even a few people I remembered who couldn't let go of things they should've, people who seemed very with-it and attuned to society's faults big and small, and the semi-tortured souls you got to talk to near the end reminded me of them, and I saw some of those real-life people were just babbling. So that was big for me. I tend to place very high value on "what does this entry do for me," and with SD, this worked. But it can't be too forcing!

And I'm glad, for instance, the souls in the underworld have no grand description. Dante's Inferno–well, I loved it, but I'm just not up to that sort of thing right now. And the souls are simply a former warrior, etc., and they will tell you about themselves, and they ramble on, but not too much. The contrast of "don't you know who I am" versus "I was nobody and didn't really even try" (which to me implied "I don't deserve to try until I square away X") struck me as very important indeed. Both parties deserved to forget who they were or what they did, at least partially–the one, to become better people, and the other, to reach their potential. Although the powerful types reminded me of people who told me I'd better remember or forget. Perhaps they told me I was forgettable, and I shouldn't forget why. (Spoiler: these people probably don't remember me and have probably done this to others, sadly.)

SD is not a huge game, and if it were, that might deflect from its central element. You have an ethereal guide. You meet people who can't forget bad and good things. You learn about yourself a bit, but then you see you get to forget, and you can forget at your own pace, and though there's no Lethe in the physical world, you can go on quests to help you forget things. Said quests are best achieved with more than "PUT THE PAST BEHIND YOU! TODAY IS A NEW DAY!" or "THINK POSITIVE OR YOU'RE SCREWED" books and mantras that tell you, the heck with any awful things you did, live in the now! I've long since seen their faults, even if they accidentally helped me in some ways. And I've searched for better, and things like SD generally help.

I could ramble on a bit about what SD helped me remember for quite a while. Those times I didn't realize I'd been a place before right away, and if I had, I'd have remembered some unfortunate idees fixes. Maybe it was something as simple as approaching a park from the west instead of the north, as I did ten years ago. SD reminded me, too, forgetfulness comes in layers–you realize you took longer between sessions when something awful hammered you. And it made me ask, what else did I put aside, or work to put aside? Perhaps it was a high school classroom where I did not enjoy myself. I took pictures of how different it looked and deleted them from my phone mistakenly. Then it occurred to me I didn't really want or need to keep the pictures. And I remembered how I had some memories in place trying to neutralize other bad memories, but the defensive memories weren't even that good.

We mortals don't have a magic bullet to forget things. At least, not without potentially proving our mortality. So we have to make do. We find something that lets us back-bench the worst of our thoughts, and if we don't forget them, we put them where they can be recalled instead of forcibly remembered. We can say, okay, I've accounted for enough, I can put that aside.

The cheap jokes just write themselves. They'd obviously be unfair, but somehow they helped with putting things in perspective. "I had something brilliant but I forgot it." "This game is about forgetting, and it's true to its colors by being forgettable." "I forget the most relevant detail, but in the spirit of the game I don't want to go back and read it and remember something long-term." None of these zingers are fair, emotionally or logically, but they were fun thought experiments and got me wondering what I felt I had to remember or wanted to. I felt okay quickly remembering and forgetting some bad things from my life, and I felt confident others would not stay. And i have to admit, I forget some parts of SD already! And I know sometimes certain writings can stir up personality-cult-like "oh, this is what life is about." But I believe SD stirred up things legitimately worth writing about for (looks at word count) 1000-2000 words.

So: forgetfulness is a complex thing. It's scary, because you know forgetting certain things would diminish yourself. But using it to lessen emotional baggage can be a way to grow. And SD reminded me of that. But perhaps it's better to riff on two lines from the Eagles' Hotel California, with its own dreamlike qualities:

* "Some dance to remember, some dance to forget" Playing SD, I realized things I wanted to remember and forget, and I picked and chose according to my own arbitrary standards.
* "You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave." In SD, though, you can check out from memories, AND you can leave them behind.

Or to mention a more technical, practical example. We all have our "Hello World" lessons for coding. And we learn stuff and forget it. I've felt guilty having to look up something that seems simple twice, or something I learned early that helped stuff click, as if that proves I don't have real mastery. But the truth is–I'm making a calculated decision to say, I believe I can put X aside to learn Y, which will have greater long-term impact. And holding onto the trivial knowledge for X gets in the way. It's different from, say, ditching friends who helped you when you hit rock bottom now you're successful.

I got a lot out of SD, enough that I planned to write a review before Spring Thing ended, and two days later I finally sat down once my thoughts settled. And it was almost scary to have someone pop up on another forum who hadn't posted for 13 years. I had forgotten them, but then I remembered (positive) stuff they said in a different context. Perhaps this is a crazy coincidence or, perhaps, I can say without getting too swell a head–if you ask questions and look for answers enough, and stumble across enough good works like SD, things are bound to happen together, and it feels like lightning struck, but really, it's just a form of the birthday paradox, where two neat things will be unexpectedly close, and you can learn a lot from that, and you don't have to worry why it happened.

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Mushroom Hunt, by Polyducks
No, you don't die from the poisonous ones, September 3, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Adventuron Treasure Hunt Jam

Mushroom Hunt is a very well-done game for the Adventuron Cave Jam. It's might be the least cave-y entry, with the cave being tough to find and not even necessary to, well, make a good version of mushroom stew. You see, Granny has entrusted you with looking for mushrooms, and there's even a book on which are poisonous and which aren't. It's a bit surreal, as I don't know many blue or red mushrooms, and you wind up picking a polkadot mushroom, but it's rather a relief you don't need any detailed taxonomy, here.

The presentation is very attractive, with colorful ASCII art for the room graphics, and the game's nicely set out in a square (with the cave off to the side)--Granny's house is in the center, and you walk around and examine the scenery. Unlike most Adventuron games, critical stuff isn't highlighted, because mushroom hunts are meant to be a search. It's not a standard adventure, and there's a nice sense of surprise when something does turn up.

As Brian Rushton mentioned in his review, I too found a bottleneck with one item that opens up a whole bunch of other areas. I had a feeling there was an unusual lot of scenery I could cut away, and this proved right--my first story ended in just picking three mushrooms and making a soup that left Granny and me sick all night. So there's some "you need to look at A so that B reveals C." But it makes sense--it's a relatively commonplace item, but it's hinted at, and it's something you as a kid might be intimidated to have to handle. Once I got through it, though, it opened up a lot. Having that mystery fit in well with the game story, where you had a grandmother you maybe didn't know well.

There are ten total mushrooms out there, and five are safe. (That's a 1/12 chance of winning by accident if you found all the mushrooms.) The game offers no hints of if you have put the right mushroom in the pot, leading to some anxiety even if you're pretty sure you read the book carefully. I sort of wish I'd saved before giving the mushrooms so I could see if there was a particularly horrible end for the maximum toxicity (the author assures you you won't die) but I was surprised how well the ending worked when I just stopped by having gotten three mushrooms, not caring if they were poisoned, just wanting to see the end. It certainly captured some of my fear and excitement of seeing mushrooms in the forest and knowing my own great-grandmother knew which ones to pick, but I had no clue.

The attractive graphics are hardly the only nice bit about Mushroom Hunt. The descriptions make it interesting to sort out what you need to look for, but it's not so confusing you throw your hands up at looking around. And while it is, to some degree, "just keep examining until you get to the end of the road," it's a well-chosen subject, well-executed, and I'm not surprised it had broad appeal.

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Escape the Cave of Magic, by Sleuthgames

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Fun, despite the instadeaths, September 2, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Adventuron Treasure Hunt Jam

Escape the Cave of Magic is a fairly straightforward and fun game written for the Adventuron Cave Jam. The title is a misnomer, as not only do you escape the cave but the planet it's on. You've just found the crystals that will provide energy for your spaceship to leave, and now you just have to get back. This is not so easy. My nitpicking self wondered why didn't these barriers stop me from getting to the cave, where I wound up in the bottom.

But nevertheless, I enjoyed slugging past a troll and a dark knight, finding that certain treasure was worthwhile and other stuff wasn't. There were some fights with the parser (ROW BOAT versus ROW) and odd error messages, and for another critical item, I used the wrong verb, (Spoiler - click to show)CLIMB TREES instead of (Spoiler - click to show)X TREES. But the game is simple enough you don't have to sweat that too often, and the variety in graphics gives it a nice Sierra-like retro feel.

Looking back, there were definite inconsistencies and holes in the storyline (an early instadeath is clued, but something should have been mentioned in the introduction,) and the parser was finicky. But it's a fun jaunt through a bunch of landscapes, and there's a neat non-mapping solution to a maze, which has a nonreciprocal direction, but fortunately it's only 8 rooms.

This game felt middle of the pack more than top 3 and I suspect the neat graphics and relatively easy puzzles (once you bounce off the parser, it's clear what to do) swung in its favor. I'm being a bit harsh here, especially since it seems English is not the author's first language (which accounts for some wonky phrasing,) but nonetheless, if you want something quick to play, there's some fun interaction with NPCs neutral, opposed and friendly.

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A Troll's Revenge, by Gareth Pitchford
Ahh, the adventurers had it coming. Maybe they'll learn., September 2, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Adventuron Treasure Hunt Jam

Having enjoyed the bottom half of the 2019 Adventuron Treasure Jam, I had high hopes for the top half. And I quickly saw why A Troll's Revenge belonged there. It's in the same vein as Wongalot's Dungeon Detective series: the world of everyday mythical beings trying to clean up the mess made by adventurers after gold and experience points. I enjoyed them and hoped for more. Of course there's always a worry that this humor is overdone or too meta or whatever. But when it works, it works, and in A Troll's Revenge, it does. The revenge itself is pretty PG-13. The puzzles are clever. I felt sympathy for the trolls--for all their being, well, bigger than humans, they're the little guys when it comes to wins and losses, aren't they?

It's the humans that strike first, though. Your older brother, who is bigger but not as smart as you, was suckered by an apple that put himself to sleep. When you wake him up (this is a fun introductory puzzle in itself, suggesting you get some righteous revenge for various sibling fights) you remember how dad said, never take gifts from strangers. But now's not the time to point fingers! If you don't get the gold your brother guarded back, there'll be a very, very mad wizard, and not the "create small three-headed beasts for the fun of it" kind.

There's some tutorial work here telling you to look and search everywhere, which isn't too taxing, because there aren't many locations. You must visit the apple tree that put your brother to sleep, and what you use an apple for is kind of ingenious. Well, to me. There's no violence perpetrated on the other adventurers, save for the one who gets greedy and walks into a trap that knocks him out for a bit. Mo' knockouts, mo' recovered treasure. The innkeeper, despite being human, turns a deliberate blind eye to your acts, remarking the adventurers were kind of obnoxious anyway.

But then there's a problem once you have all the treasure! You can't carry it all at once from the inn, and if you take too long, the adventurers will be on your tail. Just being able to schlep stuff back home would be too tedious, and then there's the worry about puzzles for puzzling's sake, but the final puzzle hit the spot for me.

There's a lot of "hooray for the underdog" stuff here, from the trolls the adventurers robbed to you against your older brother. It nicely subverts the whole "TROLLS HAVE LOW INTELLIGENCE AND HIGH STRENGTH" line your average RPG helpfully offers when you are going to create a party. And the adventurers, maybe, learn a lesson. If they want to. The revenge isn't especially cruel. And, oh yeah, the graphics are pretty good too.

This game has no reviews yet, and while it's done well with average stars, I'd like to do what I can to encourage people to play it. Maybe Adventuron got overlooked when it was starting out, but the more I see, the clearer it is that it was just what some people were waiting for, to write that neat small game people could enjoy down the line. I did, four years later.

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A Figure Met in a Shaded Wood, by Michael Thomét

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
"Come, sit here, click through a while and learn something of yourself.", September 2, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2015

The House at the End of Rosewood Street seemed to hit many of the right "how not to do things and get away with it" buttons for me. It had a dreamy mythic quality despite the realism. This offering by the author has its similarities and differences. It feels more like an experiment on the player than one with it. And it's probably been done in other contexts before. But it's thought-provoking enough. My main beef is that it provokes thoughts I've already thought about, not quite as exciting the second time through. Since it is shorter than THERS, though, it's more replayable and won't leave you hanging as long as to what it is, or what it does. (Also, you can look at the source code. I did.)

You are a vagabond, looking for passage to the city of Clarence. Along the way, you eat an apple, run into a caged pheasant, and eventually meet someone else who asks you to keep them company. It's not clear what the "best" way through is. Do you plant the apple? Do you release the pheasant? How much do you share with your new companion? And when the fellow traveler gives you your fortune, how do you cut the cards?

The looping that likely follows has you asking, did I do the right thing? What could I have done differently? And so forth. It leaves open the question of if there is a right way through. You have a few extra chances to ruminate.

The scenario is as surreal as THERS, but with significantly less guidance as to what to do. I ran through a few times until I got impatient, when I saw (Spoiler - click to show)my choices didn't matter except to have one section where you reflect on them say "But I did things differently" or "But I did them the same. So you can really only dream ever of reaching Clarence. It's something I think we've all thought of, and as a journey with tarot cards and the fellow traveler making vague proclamations, I realized I sort of heard what I wanted to hear on each trip through. Because, well, it was roughly the same.

It's not the first work I've played through that uses this gimmick, but it felt like there could have been more. Perhaps I should've suspected the thrust, given the tarot cards I always received. But I felt a bit ripped off even as I thought back to times when I realized I worried too much about what might or would have happened.

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The House at the End of Rosewood Street, by Michael Thomét

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Fooled me, I missed the "good" ending first time through, September 2, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2013

The House at the End of Rosewood Street stuck with me over the years, not due to any hugely lush detail, or due to being one of the most impressive entries in IFComp 2013, but due to its oddness. You play as a handyman who helps with odd jobs and drops off newspapers for your neighbors in a neighborhood not very conducive to easy text adventure navigation. Your main job, in fact, will be giving newspapers. It's a bit of a fishbowl, but nobody's leaning over you.

This is all pretty easy, what with a well-organized street, though it's a bit odd to have left- and right-hand sides implemented. Fortunately it's a minimalist game, and it's orderly, and using the up-arrow helps speed through the repetitive tasks.

Then there is that weird mansion at the north edge. For whatever reason, you need to go north twice there, too, after visiting Janice or Glenn -- and going east or west brings you back to them. Glenn's a bit of a grouch who says "Don't trample my grass." In fact everyone is painted relatively quickly. Lottie confuses a toaster with a stove. If you give the wrong person an item they wanted fixed (a toaster, a kettle) the responses are rather funny. And of course it's fun to ask people about specific neighbors.

There is some pain with the parser, as after each knock you need to type in a new key for conversation. This all feels like routine, though, fixing whatever one of your neighbors asks you to end the day, until there are ten newspapers in the stack instead of nine. There is a definite mystery here!

The characters remind me of Di Bianca NPCs (though his first IFComp entry came a year after,) albeit with far far fewer abstract puzzles. The parser errors, too, have that something. "What would the neighbors think?" It might be annoying in a more complex and realistic game, but it's a bit charming here. There's also an odd bug--I suppose a well-crafted game can get away with one such bug that make things more topsy-turvy. Each game gets one, and here, if you walk away from a house and come back after talking to someone, that's when the owner waves and goes back inside. Unintentional, unless I am really missing something. But it adds to the atmosphere.

The only reason I came back to THERS instead of other IFComp 2013 entries that placed higher was, well, I didn't solve it, after getting the ending where you loop around back to Monday. So people looking for history or value may be better served by playing Olly Olly Oxen Free or Robin and Orchid first. Nevertheless there's something special about sort-of recovering something, an alternate ending you never quite saw but hoped for, even if it wasn't quite clued enough. (It wasn't. No big deal.)

And even with those top placers, the thing is, I remember them better, their flow and so forth, and it would be like visiting an old friend. They follow all the good rules of strong game design and break certain too-stiff ones to give them originality. THERS is more that odd cafe nearby that left me both worried and intrigued, or maybe it is that friend that occasionally pissed you off but had some legitimately good points and you wish you'd been able to listen to them a bit more. It has a weird chaotic energy buried in its minimalism, one that encourages me to maybe do things wrong, maybe not on purpose, but to have faith that looking around these odd corners may turn up something interesting and valuable. I'm quite glad I revisited it. But all the same I hope to write a walkthrough so the next person who's curious doesn't have to stumble through that much. I hope they're out there.

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The Body, by Sean Barrett
Down out by the river, WAY down WAY out by the river, September 2, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: SpeedIF Jacket

This Speed-IF jacket game certainly got a few odd assignments--it goes from being "west of house" to meeting Norse deities and even roughly corresponds to a Stephen King novel which was made into a movie of a different title (Stand By Me). There's some tongue-in-cheek conformism with some of the odder jacket blurbs, with NPCs called D'Teddy and E'Vern, and there's a "bad" ending before the good one, which is decidedly antisocial and again clued by the credits.

The oddness of the map helps with the tension, as you walk away from your house to find something very extraordinary indeed. There's a surprise twist at the end, too, beyond the expected one to defeat the bad guys who are much, much bigger than you could ever hope to be. I found it funny. For two hours' worth of programming, it's quite good.

The SpeedIF Jacket 2003 works were all relatively entertaining, and if they aren't necessarily lasting, it's fun to see odd creative jolts can and do work, and The Body feels like a good example of it. Perhaps it won't last in my memory. Perhaps the author half-forgot they wrote it, too. But it's a reminder to stick two ideas together and go with them, why not?

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The House on Sycamore Lane, by Paul Michael Winters

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Great story, lacks technical polish, September 2, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2019

I remember testing the Author's 2020 IFComp entry, Alone. It did a lot right. I forget if the author told me they had entered in 2019 (COVID was weird) but I did feel like they knew what they were doing, and the stuff I found was easily fixable, and the overall story was strong. Later I wasn't surprised to see they wrote other stuff people liked.

However, I was surprised to see an entry of theirs in 2019 IFComp, when I didn't really pay attention to the other entries. (I should have. I'm still catching up. There were some good ones!) It's a classic story of a haunted house, and it starts as a bully and his Rottweiler waylay you, then chase you once you give them the slip. All this feels very real for a ten-year-old, and then as you hide out in the abandoned house, the bully puts a rock against the door. So you're stuck.

And it's not just a matter of getting out. Yes, you need to get out, but there's a mystery that unfolds along the way. Finding certain items gives you brief visions of why the house is haunted. The reason is violent and standard. You find various items (a useful bottle of poison) with chests to open, and there is a journal describing certain events. There's a fire, too, which you need to douse.

I found the end escape sequence once you find the secret nice and dramatic. It's very indulgent in terms of giving you time to get out, but I found it quite satisfying to perform certain actions before I fled, and yes, there's a neat creepy ending if you just wait around.

So the story is very good indeed, but there are a lot of the sorts of beginner mistakes that judges may frown on. For instance, there's a journal under a bed, and there's still something under the bed after you take it. Something's in the journal, and if you read the journal twice, it's blank. Some verbs need exact input. All this seems fixable, but it can blindside an author working alone, and it did, and it seems the only reason something like this would've placed so low. It appealed to me, maybe mostly because of the "kid chased into haunted house" angle, and I'm not really a horror fan.

I'd love to see the author clean up a few things and make a post-comp release. I bet it would be easy for them to do so, especially with a few transcripts. Their comments in Brian Rushton's review suggested they just weren't aware of certain things like getting more testing, etc., and for all that's lacking, I'm still impressed. The author got the hard parts right. But with 77 games, it's easy to get impatient and give something like this a low score.

David Welbourn has a walkthrough out now, and that ameliorates any fears people may have of poking at it. It's a well-conceived story with a lot of tension and spooky items to find and a mystery that slowly opens. Perhaps this ruins the puzzling aspect of it a bit, but I was able to enjoy the design without too many struggles with the parser. (Small voice) I actually liked the story better than the author's 2020 entry Alone--probably that's just because it was my style. And I also recommend The Lookout. This is quite good, too, with bumpers in place.

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Mental Entertainment, by Thomas Hvizdos

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Oh look! AI is even more worrying in 2023 than 2019!, September 1, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2019

Mental Entertainment doesn't present you with lush backgrounds or anything like that. Object descriptions are cursory. Your ultimate decisions don't matter, and in fact, you come to them quickly. But ME is more about painting a mood and bringing up some really tough dilemmas it's hard to shake. You sort of hope they will be abstract for a while. But progress has other views, it seems. It deals with addiction, a common theme with many twine games, which are generally more about unhealthy relationships.

Here, society is messed up, and it's spawning addictions. You are a case worker who must check on whether people who show patterns of addiction to virtual reality actually are addicted, and if it is dangerous. One is a police officer who spends time as a Sheriff in the old west. One is a woman who is on UBI (universal basic income) which, it turns out, hasn't even close to solved all our problems, but at least it prevented stuff from getting worse, as you learn if you chat around. She just wants some park that reminds us of nature as it was, and she can't help notice that AI makes giraffes purple, and so forth. A third is someone who is disillusioned with academia.

Talking to them gives an idea of how we got here, and they make compelling cases both for the sanity of losing oneself in Virtual Reality and for how society as-is is built to, well, drive most people crazy. This sort of thing could easily be melodramatic, but the author foregoes twisty prose. The simple descriptions maybe indicate that AI only sees stuff on the surface, as expected. The cop relates how his wife continually gets promoted at the drug company (Irony here! There's no good way to know if AIs determine getting people addicted to drugs is worth a tradeoff!) The woman at the nature park knows soy is no replacement for real food and worries what other nutrients scientists will find we're missing. The academic realizes how easy it can be to make money with no conscience, both in the tech sector and the "public service" sector. (There's an interesting backstory about public and private police forces.)

This is one of those entries that place in the bottom half of IFComp that really do turn out to be quite good. There seem to be several every year. Playing something like this I worry about the other stuff I may have missed. Perhaps it placed so low because it didn't just ask unsettling questions, but it asked ones that would leave us unsettled and not immediately say "Hey! It's cool to ask unsettling questions!" Without any bold massive "Oh it's so ahead of our time" assertions, the author has shown a lot of foresight, and he's painted some quick and deft pictures of existential problems that exist and are only going to get worse. This left me relieved I 1) was not the only person scared of progress and 2) wasn't the only one pretending to be scared of it for a quick buck. It's not the first entry to pretty much say, okay, here things are, it's what you make of it, read as little or as much of it as you want. But I was pulled in, almost glad someone else had considered disturbing angles I hadn't. And, well, I was glad there were text adventures to help alert us to the dangers of AI, and to remind us we don't need that complicated stuff.

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The Best Man, by Stephen Bond

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful:
Emotionally brutal on many levels but (for me) ultimately rewarding, September 1, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

With Rameses and The Cabal and now The Best Man, Stephen Bond is now a resounding three-for-three in the "be very, very harsh on the player character" department. It's not slapstick stuff, no physical wounds or financial ruin. Just brutal existential despair and failure and helpless and pointing out how the main character misses the point. The Best Man helped me revisit certain unfortunate relationships with better perspective, but on the other hand, I'm sort of glad I don't know Stephen Bond very well/at all, because I'd be absolutely frightened of any character portrait he might make of me.

You see, I really wanted to believe Aiden, the main character, sees a way through the abuse he received by the end, that his final statement he's put stuff behind him is true. I hoped and believed, and in my mind, it was so. I didn't want to reread _The Best Man_ to disprove this. Once I did, though, I had to change my opinion. I'd simply blocked out the worst parts, because I wasn't in the mood to cringe at the time. Surely Aiden had learned from these experiences? I'd had a few, wher I idealized people and I realized they weren't so great. And to me, Aiden was not as outwardly horrible as the social circle he was sucked into. But that's not much. He's the nicest guy around, and the nicest guy he knows, and it's good enough for him, and it isn't. I felt icky saying "boy, I sort of identify with Aiden there" or "I've seen that/been there before." It was a rough experience. It left me feeling I wished I'd stood up to a few people who were as outwardly respectable as Aiden's clique, people long gone. But it also made me realize how hard that sort of thing is. Dryly speaking, we're all prone to a sunk-cost fallacy. Most of us stop sinking, though. With Aiden, though, I wondered if perhaps he were a bit autistic--I'm not a doctor, but his treatment at the hands of his acquaintances reminded me of seeing some other people on a long-ago message board "just teasing" someone who was. So perhaps this story could be read not about Aiden but about human cruelty. It's important to recognize that Aiden is a very flawed individual, but the author does make it pretty clear that his so-called friends are worse, just more polished.

And he appears to have nailed things down, starting with the cover art. A white suit is unusual for a best man, and along with the title, it immediately brought to mind Philip Larkin's "Sympathy in White Major." This poem calls into question what selflessness and likability really are. The critical line is (Spoiler - click to show)"Here's to the whitest man I know, though white is not my favorite color." And, in fact, white isn't Aiden's favorite color, deep down, but he has no choice. I wondered if this would be another story about a repressed good-guy, or someone trying to be a good guy. It is, and the only question is if he breaks away from that. We've all done good deeds and not puffed our chest out. We've all felt a bit self-righteous at times. We've all been pinned down by compliments and unable to say "Not this time" and made unreasonable requests of our own, or we've had to pick and choose our fights. But Aiden seems in an active cycle of doing the technically right thing and feeling more miserable. He's unable to walk away, until he has to run way.

Aiden certainly has his fantasies about people realizing what a good guy he is. He's not even the first choice for best man at the wedding of Laura, a girl he had a crush on, a girl who likely used him as a social crutch and yes-man until she found someone she could live with. The groom-to-be is John, who, as we read more of the story, is really a male version of Laura. Aiden doesn't see this, and it didn't really hit me until later. Of course what Aiden sees as bad in John, he sees as joie de vivre in Laura. And on re-reading I think John and Laura kept Aiden in reserve for the sort of drudgeworthy tasks a hungover best man would not want to perform. Aiden wears white to be "on team Laura," as if weddings are competitive. And he's foolish enough to think he's running these errands just for Laura.

But it turns out Colm, John's main best man, has worse than a hangover. He suffered a very avoidable accident after Aiden left the stag party early. It was Colm's fault, and perhaps the best man also has a few last-minute errands to run, but hey, John and Laura were thinking of Aiden! They go looking to Aiden for aidin', we begin the flashbacks. Aiden meets Laura in college, waiting for a bus. She tries to "get him to live," as she "gently" reminded him of the ways he may be a bit silly. (Note: getting him to live didn't mean helping him live as he wanted, or well, just bringing excitement.) One of Aiden's attempts at spontaneity results in a pathetic act of littering. His choices of dialogue range from passive-aggressive to snarky, but the results are the same. Aiden's certainly self-absorbed, and he looks up to self-absorbed people like Laura who seem more absorbed than he is. John swoops by two years later, and he's a better match for Laura. She respects him a lot more. Perhaps she's been able to use Aiden. She knows that small things like a touch matter a lot to him--too much, perhaps. She gets him to like a teal-colored scarf. But a man like that won't stay interesting.

And Aiden also ascribes virtues to her that aren't there. At one point there's a buildup to "she gave me my agency," which, nuh-uh. None of his choices matter. And her laughing at him? Well, it feels nice, because it feels nicer than when guys do. It feels like life. "She created this world of ours, this was her world, and she chose not to live in it," Aiden says, unaware of how easy it was to create such a world and how empty it was and even how she tried to expand it, but he said no. Aiden seems in love with the idea of love. Later when Laura suggests he get to know Ash, a girl in her circle, better, Aiden says, well, he couldn't love Ash as well as he loved Laura. Truth, of a sort. So another member of the bachelor party, Nick, winds up dating her. It didn't work out, but Nick does seem better adjusted. Aiden's "Before I learned — before she forced me to learn — what it is to care about another human being" rings hollow because, well, you can't force someone to learn that sort of thing. And indeed, it's not clear what Aiden's learned, and in the scene Nick narrates, Nick picks things apart more meaningfully than Aiden does. He's cynical (weddings are a racket so stock up on "free" food, the stag party bored him) but sees Aiden as better than the lackeys and with some hope, because the difference between errand-boy and "person reciprocally actively encouraging bad behavior" is significant.

But that didn't stop me from thinking, geez, Aiden's really a sucker, isn't he? "I had to find that love within me. I had to find the energy to be there for you ... even at my own cost." But did it really cost him if his main goal was to be around Laura? I remembered people I looked up to or had crushes on, but I wasn't that bad, right? Stephen Bond is more eloquent. But there are passages interspersed, of the people Aiden meets. The people preparing the organ music for the wedding see him wandering around. Their lives may not be full, and they have faults, but they are self-aware. The couple selling the roses grumbles about things, but they at least account for others' behavior (each alternately forgives and lambastes the bad behavior of various wedding parties) and try to respond to each other's complaints. There's no hierarchy.

But Aiden still sees one: "Our group of friends, now pruned down to the classic 'gang of five' (the two of us, Aisling, Deirdre and Orla), held court every night in a different venue; we pronounced on topics far and wide; we praised the worthy and dealt justice to the deserving." One wonders how much pronouncing Aiden did, and how much he was there just to be someone to talk at. One even wonders how much he listened to said topics. Just before the wedding, he thinks "Orla, but sometimes you can go too far, sometimes you can be hurtful. Laura somehow is able to temper your worst excesses." Laura, who encouraged him to "live" and be snarky. As he himself says, bouncing from nostalgia to bitterness: "You started hanging out together once and you hang out together now and maybe later you'll hang out again and that's it. That's your story." He does a lot of that, based on his mood.

And he never admits that, well, he is at the bottom of the hierarchy. His neediness shows just before the wedding reception when he asks for a good-bye individually from each of the bridesmaids, which is maybe appropriate if you are twelve. He also has two tasks before the wedding, and he checks off with Laura to say he's got the first part of her requests done, and she blows him off beyond what he deserves for rambling on a bit. You suspect she'd have said "Oh, I was WORRIED about you, it was so senseless not to check in" if he hadn't called. And John gets in on the act, too. Colm returns miraculously (?) for a speech and a roast of John, but next it's Aiden who's roasted for his white suit. His speech as Best Man is, on the surface, decent, though it does contain a passive-aggressive slap at Nick, who deserves it the least. It gets scattered applause, where Colm gets roaring laughter. And this is tricky: you want to do the right thing, despite it all, but with Aiden, perhaps the right thing is to recognize when your good efforts aren't making anyone happy and say "enough." And he never can.

Aiden doesn't realize the no-win situations he's in. There's one brief scene where he calls Laura to say, yes, I got the flowers and I'm going to get the ring, and she lets him know she's busy and he'd better not call unless he has to and that's awkward, and my immediate reaction was, if he didn't, Laura would tell him it was awkward not to check up briefly. Then you/Aiden hang on for a bit for some empty chatter, to drive home Aiden's need for approval. He's pushed around by John's creepy cousin who hits on someone well below his age. The bridesmaids chide him for eating desserts left for the guests, then finish what he took a bite of. John gets gum on his expensive shoes and somehow still manages to embarrass Aiden a bit. Neither set of parents even recognized Aiden--no, Laura either didn't have a picture of him or take time to show one or even mention the white suit.

Even Laura and John's wedding march, Deep Blue Something's "Breakfast at Tiffany's," may be a joke at Aiden's expense. The church staff mention it is an inside joke, but it's never explained.

And I said, "What about Breakfast at Tiffany's?" / She said, "I think I remember the film" / And as I recall I think we both kind of liked it / And I said, "Well, that's the one thing we've got"

Aiden is saying this in his mind to Laura, even as they have drifted apart. And yet, Laura may be leaving him hanging, and perhaps she enjoys it, and she can use it to get him to do something. She knows she can point to the one thing they've got, in order to get him to do something. (Note: I still hate the song, even after I see its purpose here, because it's always felt too whiny. It's very apt here, though. Especially when the characters confuse it with other 90s songs I realize could be confused together. It's as if he could easily write something uplifting and lighthearted, but why bother?)

But the greatest humiliation may be internal. Aiden, of course, would love to blow up the wedding, and he has many choices at the moment where he hands over the rings, but each way he's foiled, often by someone different, and people forget about it. If you try to pocket the rings, someone grabs them effortlessly. If you wear John's ring, for instance, it's way too big for you and falls off, and to me that captured how John was just more imposing, physically and mentally, than Aiden. The worst you get is a sardonic "he had one job," which reminds me of how the Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy changed its entry on Earth from "Harmless" to "Mostly Harmless." The least awful option is just to seethe and hand over the rings.

I'm not sure which hurts worse, being blown off or actively mocked, but Aiden certainly gets both. And I know I have. The first time I realized it was when someone younger than me in high school had the temerity to do so. There were episodes like where people told me I needed to swear more and not be a prude, and then I did and they laughed and they said I didn't do it right. But I recognized this--I think. I found ways forward, things to study, and so forth, so my time focusing on myself wasn't focusing on the approval of someone louder. Aiden doesn't seem to have that. He simply can't bring himself to say: these people are at fault, full stop. He'll kvetch about how they bug people, but he never says, "well, here's what I can do better." His looks inward are about him and Laura and climax with a scene in the bookstore five years later--no, he says, two--and which go off the rails as he nails down how best to imagine a meeting with Laura, now divorced from John. While the marriage doesn't seem like it will be happy, because Laura and John are fundamentally unhappy people, Aiden's constant revisions make it pretty clear he's going beyond the occasional daydreams about someone that got away. This registered with me the first time through, but I didn't process how bad it was. Perhaps it's because I've dealt with people like Aiden and learned to zone them out for survival's sake. It wasn't until I reread the game and noticed how Aiden would adjust and edit text that already appeared, that I saw -- this isn't a daydream, it's meant to be a habit. And the proofreading he does is never "well, I might not be making sense here." It's florid stuff like "(Reifying the symbolism of the incident with the crisp bag.)"

I didn't see a lot of this the first time through. Then, when I re-read, I realized how grateful I was for the non-Aiden scenes. With the excitement of initial discovery gone, I found Aiden's constant choices between passive-aggression and aggression exhausting. I sort of assumed "Oh, Aiden meant to say that but just forgot. He was too busy at the time. There was a wedding, and so forth." But all the same, we are getting Aiden's story, and that's what he chose to discuss, and when he digressed, it wasn't about what he learned, it was just about his next immediate problem. And his ruminations are "I will find the right words to make everything okay"--common magical thinking in many unhealthy relationships and, of course, in The Best Man, none of Aiden's choices turn out to be the right words to make anything okay.

The Best Man was a difficult read for me, but a good one. It can be hard to deal with times you thought were good and now realize weren't. Or times you thought you were being the best you could, but you really needed to stop pouring emotional energy down a drain. Or to have friends/acquaintances who tell you you'd better not embarrass anyone, because you're sort of prone to that, and then have these people embarrass you, because just being decent is boring. Or to see that people who were "just joking" were really being kind of mean and, more importantly, to find a way to deal with it.

Aiden does so with platitudes. Some are pretty black-and-white, such as when he talks about "the good guys." Others feel transparent, talking about faith or "I had to find that love within me." Or he talks about having to do good deeds and bury it -- but boy, does he remind you how you buried it! Since Aiden has an engaging sort of self-absorption, it's possible he has indeed, as he said at the end, done some good, more good for people than, say, if they'd made friends with John. Ameliorating nastiness isn't great, but it's better than nothing. People who don't know him very well might actually learn something, in the same way a fortune teller can accidentally remind you of something you want to do. But I can't see this as a basis for a healthy relationship. It may be a long relationship, if the recipient is as naive as Aiden, but not healthy. And it's sad that this is the best some people can do or be.

The ending, where Aiden talks about darkness, reminded me of friends, or nominal friends, who treated me as a second option, yet I still enjoyed how they were "opening me up to life" until I realized the truth later. Then I realized they were sort of mean, and much later I realized I hadn't thought about them for a few years and I was over them, though they were good "don't fall into that trap again" reference points. Man, high school sucked. Aiden, however, is a college graduate.

And I certainly think that believing others can improve, even if it isn't likely, helps me improve. But Aiden the unreliable narrator, looking to change his story beyond the standard "Oops, I meant..." seems to hide actively from changing himself. Perhaps, with the social circle he claims at the end, he has taken over John's role despite saying "that darkness is behind me now." Or perhaps he is not quite as insufferable as John, but he can buttonhole you for ten minutes. Maybe he's easier to blow off or admit you're tired of him. I'd like to believe he's become a better person, but I suspect on meeting Aiden I'd be very interested at first, and then things would fall off quickly and I'd look for any excuse to duck further conversation.

All the same, though, I'm left feeling how tragic it is Aiden found people who gave him bad life advice, not out of evil, but out of their own selfishness, a more exciting self-absorption than his, and he tried to learn from that. How much that leaves him off the hook for his long-term cluelessness, I can't answer. I do know Aiden failed to strike a balance between lashing out when someone goes overboard and soft-pedaling the "hey, ease up there, huh?" He certainly chooses his battles wrong. And so do I. I've had my share of Walter Mitty fantasies about standing up to people or maybe telling them, I saw what you did twenty years ago. The Best Man brought a lot of that back. But I also think they prepared me to actually stand up, and my fantasies of "what I really want to say" have a lot less anger. Whether or not Aiden became a good person, I see his potential pitfalls as my own, and I certainly want to make sure I didn't react or dwell as badly as Aiden did.

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Limerick Quest, by Pace Smith

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
In 2019, IFComp / Had one game that promised this romp *, September 1, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

The third Pace Smith game to entail
All limericks: pass, or a fail?
Though Limerick Heist
Quite greatly enticed
Such rhyming can quickly go stale.

Rejoice! There is no need for bile.
On playing there is no denial
The meter is sharp
And no one could carp
About lack of humor or style.

Two characters drawn from part one
Seek further enrichment and fun
So Russia's the place
Where they soon embrace
A dangerous underground run

Some bits in fact you may find neater.
So practical, too, for the reader:
The list of stuff carried
Throughout is quite varied
But it always goes with the meter.

There's puzzles where you will be spurred
To fill in the right-sounding word.
At first they seem clear
But later oh dear
they're tricky, but never absurd.

The best one to mess with your head:
A tomb, with a hundred count thread
Which number to pick?
The reasoning's slick.
You'll need to yoink three from the dead.

Your treasure, alas, can get crushed.
Choose wrong nearby, your fortune's flushed.
Each way your escape
Is a narrow scrape:
Timed finish-the-poem, not too rushed.

If this leaves you feeling disturbed
"A choice game left me guess-the-verbed"
Some letters get filled
While precious time's killed
And thus extreme tension is curbed.

To recap the things I just said, it's
Quite clearly in no need of edits.
The meta-text, too
Will make you go "ooh:"
Slick endings list, options and credits.

* the title box bars
stuff past 80 chars.
I feel so repressed now, womp womp.

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Into That Good Night, by Iain Merrick

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Wish I'd seen this back in 2001, but there's really no bad time to, September 1, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: SpeedIF DNA Tribute

When Douglas Adams died, I remember the printed tributes, of course. I forget if I found out on the front page of GameFAQs or on Yahoo! Mail at first (I had an sbcglobal address) but the news hit hard. I re-read his stuff and played through H2G2 again and even looked for copies of the binaries of Inform titles I hadn't played, because mourning is a great excuse to break copyright laws that protect ... the profits of a defunct, well-loved company who wanted their work to live on. I think I went and bought Starship Titanic, too. And I heard tell of a story Adams wrote that might be floating around the Internet, called Young Zaphod Plays it Safe. I tracked it down, eventually! It was neat to have more Adams. Up until then I'd really only been tipped off to Last Chance to See and enjoyed it--it made me realize, contrary to what Very Serious Adults said, you could care deeply about humanity and be frustrated and still have a good laugh, e.g. not in the "everyone's an idiot but me" sense.

I didn't know much about the post-Infocom community for text games beyond, well, there were languages like Alan and Inform 6 I didn't have the stamina to learn. But I felt there should be more tributes than "The Hitch-Hiker's Guide trilogy was really great!!!" Or even, among the people I knew, the consensus that H2G2 clearly beat out most computer games these days. But it seemed like the whole community was well beyond me, and I stayed away for a long while. Which was a mistake.

Fast-forward past a movie and Eoin Colfer writing a new book in the series and a Dirk Gently television series and so forth, and me discovering the text adventure community and realizing ... hey, these things still exist! I was bound, eventually, to stumble on the SpeedIF collection of Douglas Adams tributes. And I think this is the best of them. Perhaps the only reason I discovered them was that I randomly searched for Milliways after someone mentioned they'd made their own game.

There's no bad tribute to Douglas Adams, of course. Many of the games are faithful to the subject matter of H2G2 or Dirk Gently, focusing on one scene where you know what to do and need moderate imagination. They bring back good laughs and sad memories, and none of them are too obscure. They remind me of the laughs I had, when I heard that there were really smarter or more important or hefty books out there, when I as a kid just knew the Trilogy made me laugh more than sitcoms ever could, and I was still probably missing stuff. (Nobody told me Douglas Adams went to Cambridge or was the Sixth Python.)

ITGN focuses on Dirk Gently. More specifically, Dirk Gently has turned up in the afterlife on what may be his final case. There's someone he owes money to that he must avoid. It's all a bit tricky, especially with a cell phone that may go off at an inopportune moment. The descriptions are droll, mentioning that you have no cigarettes, and there's an anchovy to eat, if you want, and of course if you've ascertained it has no effect on the fundamental interconnectedness of all things.

The funniest part for me was at the end, where a clerk asks people their religious beliefs and they say "free-market capitalism" (we joke to deal with obvious reality sometimes) or other not-quite-religions. It's well worth it to wait around and not do the obvious thing that moves the story forward, for all the possibilities. You want to linger there, just as you wish DNA would have hung around a bit longer. But of course you can't. There's a sort of choice at the end, which has an Adams-esque twist. It addresses something Adams never discussed in his books but surely thought about deeply.

ITGN is pretty compact and sensible without a lot of distractions, and when I read in the author notes that the game took too long for a speed-IF (it, like Douglas Adams, blew past the original deadline) I'm glad it was included, because it felt like the very best of the tributes. Years later it doesn't feel like cheating to have given the author the extra time, and after all, it wasn't really a competition. They did have a lot to say!

It's rare to me to see a tribute that goes beyond the source material or compiling it into something new. Perhaps I am just not as familiar with the Dirk Gently books as H2G2 (certainly, rereading Dirk years later, I understood a lot more, while I missed far less in H2G2 as a teen,) so I missed some obvious parallels. But if so I'm glad I did. It gave me a bit more Adams years later, and of course I felt frustrated I hadn't joined the community sooner, but at the same time, well--something like this is a great look back, once H2G2 the game has been dissected, or the unfinished Milliways source code was published, and so forth. It's a reminder I was right to wish for more. There may be other tributes that are longer and more detailed, but this tribute would feel fresh even if it wasn't written just after DNA left us.

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A Night at Milliways, by Graeme Pletscher

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
I wanted to eat at the Restaurant as a kid, too, September 1, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: SpeedIF DNA Tribute

ANaM is one of the text-adventure tributes to Douglas Adams collected on the wake of his death in 2001, and while I haven't reviewed them all, that's more because some are very short indeed and I can't write a full review of them. It's more just, yeah, I remember that, too. It and Into That Good Night and How Many Roads Must a Man Walk Down? are the three most evocative entries. This one features popular NPCs and well-known items that even casual H2G2 fans will know what to do with. (Spoiler - click to show)It's a lot easier to get a Babel Fish in this game than H2G2! It's not surprising someone went the "story of the end of the universe in one of the author's books" route for a tribute.

There are really only two puzzles, and neither is particularly difficult. You must get into the restaurant, only to find you have a third-class seat, which doesn't give you a very good view. So you need to find a way to finagle ID that will get you to the first-class lounge.

This final puzzle isn't very tricky, and anyone who has read the books will figure what to do, but it is something poor confused Arthur Dent never quite managed to do. (I won't spoil it!) Reaching the first-class lounge gives a gratifying ending as well. I don't know how much the author wondered their work would last, but it's still moving to me, all these years later.

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How Many Roads Must a Man Walk Down?, by Tom Waddington

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
His name is not John Watson, September 1, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: SpeedIF DNA Tribute

I felt slightly guilty I didn't really get So Long and Thanks for All the Fish as a kid. I do remember Douglas Adams taking forever to release it and wondering what the holdup was. He had high standards, of course, and the H2G2 trilogy was hard to live up to. I figured once you wrote something like H2G2, the floodgates just opened and you kept getting cool cosmic ideas. Of course, it doesn't work like that. Which is sort of a relief, because if it did, the rest of us would have nothing new to write about.

That said, SLaTfAtF grew on me. And reading a tribute about it instead of stuff in the H2G2 game canon or three main books reminded me, yet again, there was so much more to Adams than his jokes that challenged basic perceptions or clever wordplay.

The scene roughly replicates when Arthur goes to visit Wonko the Sane outside the Asylum, except you are not Arthur, and the person inside is a very tall man. He has a card you must trade for. It's not a very hard puzzle.

The ending has a finality about it that almost seems unfair. Most of the time, a game ending so abruptly wouldn't work, because it should last longer. (We could argue all good games end too soon, which is better than too late, but this ends way too soon!) Here, though, it works, because Adams indeed left us way too soon. The calculated silliness of the final scene mitigates the sense of loss a bit. But I found it a neat way to say good-bye, even though Adams has been gone over twenty years.

This and Into That Good Night and A Night at Milliways may be the most robust of all the DNA tributes, but all are worth your time. They capture the sadness beneath the big laughs Adams gave us and how we wish he'd given us more of both.

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Being the Little Guy, by Adam Biltcliffe

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
SpeedIF where you can win with 0 out of 40 points!, August 31, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: SpeedIF Jacket

The SpeedIF Jacket competitions weren't supposed to be very high art, and this certainly isn't. But it is entertaining! It has throwbacks to Infocom games with the footnotes (with the appropriate meta-humor, of course,) and it has a relatively nonsensical point-scoring system that gives points for, as far as I can see, paying attention to the quotes given to inspire the game.

As it's Speed-IF, it has a relatively quick solution, and in this case it's rather sensible if you think about it, though you may have to see what a few items do and get killed a few times, as you look to kill the Ogre King who assigns you a quest to kill some other people who don't seem too evil. There's also a unicorn friend who deserts you early on.

I generally like games that do odd things with scoring and weird meta-humor, and while it might feel forced in a longer more serious work, it works pretty well here. There's a bad guy you can kill, anchronisms, checks to make sure you read the instructions, and even a way to make a hash of everything.

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The President, The Democrats, and Smelly Pete, by David Cornelson
Nice quick entertainment, given the prompts the author was given, August 31, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: SpeedIF Jacket

I don't think anyone would or could have made a game like this on their own. This was part of Speed-IF 2, which had a bunch of blurbs you had to write a story around. Whether authors got to draft them like fantasy football, I don't know. But I imagine the ones at the bottom were, in fact, very tough to work around indeed. And once we know that there were these constraints, the whole bit becomes a lot funnier. It goes from "maybe the author was trying too hard" to "wow, I wouldn't have tried that hard to get things working as well as they did."

You play as George W. Bush ("I started out disliking the PC, but then I grew more sympathetic as I found out what it's really like to *be* that character." -- this part aged well considering the years 2017-2020) and in a forest maze ("When I started in a maze, I quit. Once I forced myself to try it again, though, I realized that [the author] had really produced a novel solution to that old problem.") near the beltway. The solution is rather interesting. You must interact with a rat named Rat Rat, eat some food in the kitchen, and then face Smelly Pete ("I'm definitely not looking forward to the sequel--one game revolving around the
exploits of "Smelly Pete" is one game too many.") and a bunch of Democrats, delightfully described on the author's own admission as "They're just a gang of shoddily dressed democrats milling around." Indeed.

You can spend a lot of time asking the various NPCs about each other but there is only one action that matters. The denouement is slightly on the tasteless side but I still laughed even though I'd heard that sort of joke before and, besides, the author did a good job of fitting everything into the SpeedIF Jacket constraints, which included a ludicrous conspiracy theory. It's been 20+ years, but I saw what the author did there, and it made me smile.

I suppose it's easy to overdose on this sort of thing, but given that I saw this name, remembered it and saw it again and said "this time I'm playing it," it provided good entertainment value for the time spent.

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Sweetpea, by Sophia de Augustine

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
A rich look at waiting with fear, paced well, August 31, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Neo Twiny Jam

I still have a pile of the author's games from recent Twine jams to look through and hopefully review if I have anything constructive to say about them. It's one of those things--I'm worried about just being a bad matchup as a reader, and yet, I also know that the potentially bad matchups that work out are what really help flip a switch to say aha, I see this or that, now.

The core of Sweetpea for me was waiting for an unreliable parent and also finding creative ways to avoid tackling problems head-on, because some are tough to face as a kid (or as an adult.) You should just go down to the door and let your father in, but you emotionally can't. You're distracted by other stuff.

There's also more than a suggestion of alcoholism, but there are no waving bottles of booze, and it's likely better that way. And the waiting is quite tense and good, looking around your mansion for good memories from your young life with your father. Everything seems off. Even trying to open the window is a chore. Along the way, someone or something called Michael is described. They are important.

I found myself doubting whether or not the father would actually improve. What is clear is that he means to, and it is not trivial. And it reminded me of adults who failed to improve, with various degrees of ability or motivation to, and I remember feeling like Sweetpea, that they would figure this adult stuff out, even if they were not extra-super-brilliant. They don't. Well, we don't.

I found the imaginary-friend bits quite emotionally realistic as even though I'm too old for imaginary friends, I still picture someone faceless dishing out general guidelines on how Things Must Be, or what would writer X or Y that I like say about the situation? Oh, of course they can't help me, and they don't know, but the distraction helps me cope.

I had some small issues at first with what seemed like a loop, but I assume that's just to capture a child's hesitancy to go forward with what really matters and instead latch on to a safe choice that might avoid conflict, so that worked. The key is to note that you'll have a choice if there is a horizontal-rule break.

I've read through twice and noticed a lot of clues I missed the first time through. I'm still not quite sure how much of the end is Sweetpea's imagination. Sadly, even after something like the end, some people who mean to do better can't keep it up. But I enjoyed the descriptions of waiting and delay and procrastination that were well above "life sucks, why do anything." A few of them hit home for me, ones probably much happier for Sweetpea than her father, who probably didn't know how much certain small things had done for her, who may not have been trying to do anything nice, but it left a small memory for her. We should all strive to capitalize on memories like this, and in this case, it's not clear how happy the memories really are for Sweetpea as she searches through the mansion to do anything but face her father, but they are better than what she has.

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Collision, by manonamora

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Once there was this player who got into an accident, August 31, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Neo Twiny Jam

This is one of those "something's up" games. I hope to avoid spoilers in the review proper, but you are in a car, and there is, as the title suggests, a collision up ahead. You have many things to try, but not much works in six turns. Still, you get to restart pretty easily. So it is just a matter of lawnmowering, right? There are only so many options!

The descriptions are purposefully odd, with two-word sentences that work well for who you are and the constraints of Neo Twiny Jam. There are optional sound effects and, rather neatly, options for French or English text. While the last may not strictly speaking add value, it could be a useful learning tool that's far more interesting than, say, asking Arnaud or Francois where the bathrooms are or what time it is.

It's not the first helplessness simulator and won't be the last, but it's unique. Some not-quite-full spoilers ahead: (Spoiler - click to show)the cover art is a big clue, and it may've helped me guess what was going on in-game, though it (rightly) didn't clue the way through.

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The Unseemly Virus, by cpollett
Two full games in one, in under 500 words, August 31, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Neo Twiny Jam

Of course, viruses have been a big thing since 2020, what with COVID. It almost made us forget those other viruses that sprang up back in 2000--computer viruses! I guess the term malware is used now, as a more overarching term for "bad stuff people can do to your computer without you knowing it."

But virus is still a term. And here the author plays on it. You, as Dr. Sam Cure (unless you want to change your name, which is a nice touch,) have a choice between defusing a biological and computer virus. The original Twiny Jam had a 300 word limit, so I guess both of these games would've fit in there.

There are a few branches, and if you pick the wrong one you get gaffled by the FBI or IRS (the computer virus is a tax-fraud scheme,) or worse. There were some sudden deaths and all, but this being a 500-word jam, there wasn't much to recover, and we couldn't expect a detailed response.

Besides, the cheery colorful cartoon pictures (even the one where law enforcement is frowning) make up for it immediately. I didn't notice this right away, because my internet was slow, but once they started popping up, I tracked back around to the insta-deaths to see them all. You can do this with no problem in a short game!

There is one puzzle, figuring out the password for the computer, because computer conspiracies and passwords of course go together. It's of the "it's in the game text somewhere, and all the other words aren't particularly highlighted" type. But that is okay. Not every Neo Twiny Jam entry provides deep social commentary here. In fact, it might become exhausting. TUV advertises a good time, and it gives one.

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You Could Stay Here Forever, by KnightAnNi

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Malls had a mystique once. They still do., August 31, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Neo Twiny Jam

This is a story about the last night of a closed mall before it is demolished. You sneak in, hoping to find memories. It’s well done, with the sound manipulated at a critical point.

I haven’t visited a mall in ages but I am sad to read of ones I liked closing down. I remember thinking when I grew up I would go to one of those big malls and eventually buy one item from each store, except maybe the jewelry and such. But when I grew up I generally had favorite bargain outlets or waited for the day after Thanksgiving or Christmas to pick up sales.

Adults would moan how malls got rid of forests or parks or whatever when I was young, and these days I'm sort of mourning the loss of malls and food courts and such, even though I never spent much there and appreciate when bike paths or nature areas are set aside. Malls seem so impractical, but of course we can't drown in those memories.

YCSHF captures that and in a different way from Jim Aikin’s super-long The Only Possible Prom Dress, which also takes place after-hours in a mall, but it celebrates the oddities of malls with all sorts of odd stores with jokes. Here the limited word count here leaves plenty of mystery and reminds me of how malls got smaller, or they started having empty storefronts. And yet I'd still love to explore more of this abandoned mall. Both works got me to thinking of franchises I saw in all sorts of malls and went bankrupt. I finally Googled a few of them.

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Scale, by lavieenmeow

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Have goldfish thoughts, do goldfish things, August 30, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Neo Twiny Jam

The Neo Twiny Jam and its word limit were good for mood pieces where, dang it, you don't have to explain yourself, and it would feel wrong to, and it'd go over the word count anyway. So it provoked a number of fun entries where, well, a variety of main characters couldn't explain themselves!

In the case of Scale, you're a fish in a tank which isn’t very big. Not much happens, allegedly. But it’s surprisingly absorbing. There are the typical things you find in a tank, like a rock, or bubbles, and you get fed every night, with seasons turning at an alarming rate. There’s also a chest you may be lucky enough to see open. It took me a while, and I’m not sure if it was out of skill or luck or just persistence.

There’s some nice humor in here. It’s slightly surreal and yet feels like you expect a goldfish-pet’s life would feel. I was sort of worried I would die, so I kept playing, and it says something that I kept playing for a while that I looked at the source. It's one of those works you remember with a smile. The lack of (meaningful) agency charmed me and never felt oppressive.

It was disturbing to take a step back and realize my own leisure could be described similarly: "you go to the library/athletic center/store/tinker around at your computer." But I still enjoyed the experience.

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A/The Gift, by b_splendens

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Any gift is better than no gift, right? Right?, August 30, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Neo Twiny Jam

This is a short Twine about someone who receives what feels (to me) like an inappropriate, random gift and being quite confused about it.

I think a lot is left to the reader’s interpretation, because the choices you took the first time are crossed out, which I realize is nontrivial Twine coding, whether branches at any one page lead to the same next page or somewhere different. And different information is given on different passages through.

I think we've all gotten gifts in the mail we find hard to throw out. We understand it's a business and a bunch of emotional manipulation going on. But there's something odd when it comes from a person--especially a person whom we didn't like much. If it's appropriate--well, how did they know so much about us? If it's inappropriate--well, can't we give them credit for trying? The whole thing reminds me of the South Park episode where the food pantry gets a lot of creamed corn from donors. A fancy watch is, of course, more valuable than creamed corn, but -- it's not exactly uplifting, is it? In fact, it would stand out next to cheap clothes and maybe even be an easy target for thieves.

I’ve certainly been suspicious of people who’ve given me gifts for no reason before after some bad history. I’ve had people suddenly be nice to me for a bit, often with ulterior motives. Perhaps in this case the (very) wealthy benefactor feels they’ve washed away some sin. Maybe they feel guilty they got out of the town they hated, or maybe they remember doing something bad to the narrator. But there is no indication their act would be a net positive.

This seems deliberate on the author's part. The title of A/The suggests the giver has given out other gifts like this before. So there's an odd spooky feeling This one is odd and spooky without anything supernatural. Just maybe someone trying to whitewash something in the past. At least that's what I got from it. Given this is Neo Twiny Jam and the author said you can fill in details, there's enough flexibility in the story, you may find your own interpretation.

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Sprinklepills!, by Lance Cirone

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
It's all fun and games until YOU have to make a cold call in real life!, August 30, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Neo Twiny Jam

I remember the author's name looking familiar, and then I realized they'd written a lot of IFDB reviews. I hadn't recalled them writing any works that could be reviewable on IFDB, so I was glad to see Neo Twiny Jam gave them an opportunity to be on the other side.

This is a short conversation where you head to a doomed sales pitch, which is doomed because of your social awkwardness and the uselessness of what you’re selling. It’s benevolent towards the poor confused protagonist (punching down would be easy but wrong) who may have visions of being someone who repurposes or synergizes (obligatory buzzword) two ideas that, well, are less than the sum of their parts. They think they have found something new. Perhaps the only reason it is or seems new is that everyone else who thought of it ignored it.

I may be reading too much into this, but the night before playing, I was reading yet another article about how everyone in America is fed that you need to be an entrepeneur to really make it, or entrepeneurs deserve a lot more than work drones, or do you really just want to be in a cubicle all your life without being able to order people around? Or wave stuff in front of people’s faces saying "You don’t know you want this, but really, you do," and then they fawn and say "Oh my goodness yes we always wanted this but never realized it?" You should have ambition! It keeps the economy running, and stuff!

The poor main character in this piece has ambition and persistence. It’s easy to poke holes in what they do. But I think of all the times I tried to combine two unrelated things together and failed, and I felt I deserved to make that connection, and I was pretty sure I had something new. I was never brave enough to go to a bunch of CEOs with my ideas. Maybe that was for the better.

Still, I want to try piecing things together and making connections, in my writing, even if I fail as badly as the Sprinklepills salesperson. It really captured a lot of the fears I would feel if I were in a job where I had to make a lot of cold calls. It even got me out of my chair and in a good enough mood to take care of some things that made much more sense than selling Sprinklepills.

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The Paper Mache Puppet, by LoAvis

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
As the title says, you can find your own meaning, August 30, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Neo Twiny Jam

This was an entry in Neo Twiny Jam but would clearly also have fit in the Single Choice Jam conducted by the same organizers as well. It's pretty simple--you are a papier-mache puppet among a bunch of wooden ones. You fall apart more quickly, and while you'll be put back together after dancing like the wooden puppets, there's a worry your creator won't do this if you go your own way.

Given that PPP advertises itself as queer horror there are obvious parallels e.g. "come on, you have more rights than you would've had in the 60s. Turn that frown upside-down!" or some such nonsense. You're doing ... well enough, right? But you want more.

This is hardly a new theme but it's always nice to see it expressed in new ways, and here, it is.

Maybe it's that I don't like to talk about the same sorts of things most people do, or read the same things.​​ Or maybe it was in high school that I wasn't excited by fast cars, or I didn't crave a management position, or I (no, this doesn't make me a Marty Stu) wasn't as eager to bash people not in Honors courses. Or maybe I enjoyed certain odd math problems instead of the ones that made chemistry or physics clear to you. Or, like the puppet, I tended to have less endurance for conversations.

This sort of thing persisted into adulthood, with the constant "well, you can make compromises, can't you?" But of course the benevolent (as the author says) hand also restricts you. Perhaps you are in a company where the pay is good enough and it's not as conformist as the next place--really, you could do worse--but you want more, and you're not willing to go home and play MMORPGs with the same crowd you work with. Or you might find an Internet community where you fit pretty well but they can't satisfy a certain part of you, and perhaps you could be more convival or popular if you said certain things, but you couldn't and didn't. (I am thinking about past communities, maybe where others enjoyed retro games, but some people were just annoying. Not the current one! I mean, to the extent that no one community should be enough for us, yes. But this review isn't a manifesto.)

So this sort of thing is appreciated, and if people really shouldn't appropriate it all for ourselves, we can definitely go back to the well and get more inspiration from it. We should have many such sources, and they should go beyond arguments like "you're too good for those bums" or "you're not totally weird, so you deserve something, I guess."

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A Walk on the Beach, by Bruhstin

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
"Winning" is not the main thing here, August 29, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Neo Twiny Jam

Count me among the people who think Tarot cards are nonsense. Perhaps even having a game where you try and find meaning from them is nonsense. I remember storming through Fool's Errand blissfully unaware of what the Tarot was. That was enough for me -- bringing out all sorts of weird things to figure out and achieve.

And yet, if something doesn't try to suck you in too far to mysticism, it can work quite well. The 500 word limit for Neo Twiny Jam seems to work well, so an author doesn't try anything crazy. There are three cards to choose from, and you eventually choose all three. The order doesn't seem to matter. Each one sends you through a surreal adventure where the choice is to have fun, or give up and not have fun. You can guess which is right. This isn't to bash AWotB as "oh, a kid could figure it out," but it makes for easy replay to explore all the paths you want to. There's certainly a feeling of "oh, can I do anything weird and supernatural here?" And with each of the three choices, you do.

There are two endings, a wholly healing one and a reflecting one. It's a smooth experience, and the Unsplash photos add to the effect. I was left wanting more, all while well aware that when stuff like this gets too long, it may go in for mysticism.

AWotB also keeps your own life and worries, and why you went to a friend for a tarot reading, as a generality. Perhaps this was due to the word count, or perhaps it was a sly dig at how many people who dish out Tarot cards speak, themselves, in generalities. That said, given that I wasn't looking too hard for help, it was a neat journey, and after I played it, I felt up to doing some annoying tasks I'd been putting off. So it served its purpose, in its own way, perhaps because I wasn't looking too hard for anything. This may not be related to mysticism but more to just remembering to lett your mind wander a bit and not pressing too hard, or taking a break from Internet sites whose business model is wasting your time and draining your energy.

Whichever, it's quite nice.

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The Last Mountain, by Dee Cooke

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
ParserComp entry has choice-game feel, in a good way, August 28, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: ParserComp 2023

In The Last Mountain, you are on a multi-day mountain race with a friend, Susan, whom you've raced with before. You're doing pretty well. You might get a medal, which would be a first. But she's a bit exhausted midway through.

This immediately brings up a dilemma, as she says you should go on without her. But you can't. With the races you've run together before, it feels wrong. You can't read her mind, so you don't know what she really wants to do. And from here, there is a trade-off. She will slow you down. And some paths give adventures and realizations and accomplishments that others don't. (There's also a way to get lost!)

In essence, there are three main choices to make. This allows for eight endings. Some are similar, and some are different. I was aware of the walkthrough the author provided, and I planned to lawnmower through when I played it in-comp, but I didn't. It reminded me of other things, from a noncompetitive hike at summer camp where I and a friend started late but wound up getting to the destination first, to other challenges. This might be learning a programming language or getting through a computer game. Or, well, reviewing all the ParserComp games but getting distracted. Or maybe just reading a bunch of books in a short period of time, before they are due back at the library.

Or, one special in my case, writing X bytes a week to my weekly file. It's only a number, but all the same, it establishes something. That I've put in work and focus. And there's always the motivation to do more next week if I can, but that would break me, and I couldn't share my work or see what others are writing. It's a similar dilemma of "try for a medal or help a friend finish before the DNF (did not finish) cutoff." For me writing feels like something I can't give up, whether it's code for a new adventure or IFDB writing or maybe, one day, NaNoWriMo.

I got a lot out of the first endings, as I got the expected sliding scale from helping Susan versus achieving a personal goal. But as I played through them all, one noted that you gave up on racing for a while and came back to it. And it reminded me of other things I'd come back to, not needing to win it, and not needing to be super social. One of the big ones is/was chess, and hitting a certain rating. You want to do stuff by yourself, and you can probably hit a certain rating if you play a lot, but even if you get there, it might not feel good if you are playing to win. How you win matters. And breaking a new personal best rating feels much better if I win a good game instead of winning on time forfeit in a lost position. If I devoted myself too much to chess, I would ignore other things important to me, including sharing writing, even if it is not super-social. But TLM reminded me I still have goals to share, and they are worth sharing, even if I never reach the ratings stretch goals I once had.

Though the two entries that placed above it were deserving winners, TLM might be my favorite from the classic section of this comp, because it touches on issues of fulfillment in a subject and pastime I didn't know much about, but I can relate to it more.

The two above it were more swashbuckling and had flashier or cuter details, along with more humor, but TLM felt to me like it had more individuality, and it was the first of the three I replayed. It reminded me of the real-life adventures I wanted to take and maybe had given up on. It feels more like a choice-based or Twine game, with a relatively fixed plot and relatively few side rooms or things to examine. (You're tired. You don't have time for that!) And it could definitely be remade as one. But perhaps that wouldn't capture the essence of a mountain race as well, if you could just speed-click through. I mean, it doesn't slow you down with deliberate nuisances and annoyances, but the parser has a whole "don't sprint through this" feel which meshes clearly with what you're doing in the game.

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Clarence Street, 14., by manonamora

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Lost in the shuffle with all the Neo Twiny Jam late entries, August 28, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Neo Twiny Jam

Near the end of Neo Twiny Jam, a lot of people submitted games, and my goal of reviewing half the games before the end went kaput. On balance, this is a good thing. More to review later. But given my goals, it felt like I had something taken away from me, even though I really hoped to see as many entries as possible.

Clarence Street, 14 was one of those. In fact, it seems to be bit hard by coming in before the final wave, so if you look at games submitted by reverse date, it's not easy to see. But the title intrigued me.

You see, the title gives more mystery for an American reader, since we don't have very many addresses here under 100. The most notable exception I remember is in the Chicago Loop, at State and Madison, which is officially the zero north and west point. As you go further north, Lake Michigan moves west. Until then, posh stores give way to mansions, which give way to a park. And of course 10 Downing Street is a famous foreign address.

So the story had a good bit of mystery from me just reading the title. And it kept up through, for 500 words. What is it? What is the character doing there? And why? This is revealed at the end.

I liked how the tension built, and I liked how things seemed legitimately different after the reveal, which felt more than fair and logical. I saw the character in a different light, definitely. In fact I liked this better than Collision, which got a lot of deserved nice comments, because the surprise twist here felt a bit more real. They are both worth it. (The author had a third entry, too!) It certainly makes me want to work through other late entries to make sure I didn't miss anything else really good.

Semi-spoiler with meta-thoughts: (Spoiler - click to show)the character has gotten lost in the shuffle, like the game with all the other Neo Twiny entries. I won't say much more.

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vanitas, by sweetfish

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Of the bad old days, and bad current days, of social media, August 28, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Neo Twiny Jam

For me if something is going to be linear and use effects, it either needs a buildup or payoff. And in vanitas it has both.

You can see where it's going pretty quickly. Two friends more or less stay in touch as the dominant social platform changes. They discuss how nice things were, well sort of, while also realizing how bad it was. (False nostalgia is touched on quickly and effectively.) You may or may not recognize each individual site as you hit space and go through various conversations.

The ending, which is very much worth it, seems meant to be open for interpretation. It's creative and lampshaded a bit. It certainly made me think of how exciting it must have been for my parents or grandparents to be using the telephone more regularly, maybe complaining about how people can listen in, or how the phone monopolies are ruining everything. It reminded me of a whole bunch of nuisances, such as busy signals with no answering machines available. And that is the unemotional side.

vanitas is not a very tangly game. You can just hit space a bunch, then tab your way to open the next social media site. But it's effectively done, and the aesthetics are not there to show off, and the final two scenes are definitely worth your time. I recommend just poking around to bulldoze through rather than noting this spoiler, but since we only have so much time, (Spoiler - click to show)the final two scenes look into communication into the past and are deliberately obscure, as people's complaints about Zuckerberg or Musk may seem 100 years from now.

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Dimensions Guardians: The Typewriter, by Jackson The Bear

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Obsolescence doesn't make typewriters any less scary, August 28, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Neo Twiny Jam

This was a relatively quick Neo Twiny Jam entry without too many choices, but what were there were quite funny. A lot of details aren't filled in--you've warped to some odd reality to track down someone who's, well, been warping through realities too much. How strong their essence is, you don't know. They only give cursory excuses. It's unclear whether they're evil or ignorant.

That said, you have a job to do, and there's some mystery as to if anyone is at the typewriter.

The ends are abrupt, and that works for NTJ, because they needed to restrict the word count and also provide a few passages through, and because it's about the apocalypse. I also enjoyed the detail of a portal folding into your pocket--it's good surreal stuff presented quickly.

Despite giving relatively few branches, DGtT got me thinking of what its universe was, how it was built, and so forth. I enjoyed it on its own, and making up my own backstory, which seems to me proof the author used their words well. But I would still enjoy reading how the author themselves would've expounded on it.

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letters to a friend, by lazyguppy

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Taking out the trash, with a side-dish of hope, August 28, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Neo Twiny Jam

Bitsy has been a very valuable defense against having too much angst at once from a game. For me it reinforces that the game is not trying to crush you with detail. It says, I'm trying to paint with relatively broad strokes with these pixels, and you may fill the details in, if you wish. And so I do, much more than with much slicker productions. Perhaps it also says, to someone who remembers GameBoys and GameBoy Colors, that there was more than just basic shoot-em-ups available there, and we can still find them.

That's not to say it invokes nostalgia, but it reminds me that progress needn't be just about higher graphical detail or more color or whatever. It reminds me of stuff I always wanted to do, of my own basic programming efforts to move someone around with a cursor and arrows on the Apple. And yet at the still at the same time it can still give a complete and small world.

Even if the world is, technically, only two rooms large, as in Letters To a Friend. That's more than okay. And the whole "my apartment and I'm lonely and maybe it's COVID" thing. But the apartment itself is kind of cheery, with a wardrobe and such. As you bounce into scenery, you note things like you haven't really needed to buy any clothes, but you really should take the recycling out, because this sort of stuff does pile up.

And that's the main thrust of the game. You haven't checked your mail from a while, and there are letters from a friend. The catch is, it's someone you don't know. And you figure they must be regular. It reminded me of emails I forgot to send back and emails I didn't receive back, and I promptly went out and wrote them. It ends on a positive note. (Though I'd have liked an ending screen instead of scrolling back to the top.)

Elitists may claim this sort of thing doesn't wash in the long run, but seeing a regular drip of efforts like this certainly make me want to try something in Bitsy. It's versatile and lets you say what you mean to say, without feeling you have to oversell it, and that hits me as an author and reader/player. The one-bit graphics give a certain charm that say "You know, I'd like this character to live in more than two rooms, nice as it is," even as another part of your brain might be horrified at the thought of living in two rooms for so long.

Bitsy seems to have a certain baseline and shell against really rough stuff--it's hard to do anything to gross anyone out--and LtaF goes well above that. Maybe the novelty of Bitsy will wear off for me, but then, when I first saw it, I thought it would wear off quite fast. It hasn't, because of efforts like this.

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500 Word Hotel Escape, by Kobato Games

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Oversleeping's the worst, man, August 23, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Neo Twiny Jam

500 Word Hotel Escape is about what you'd expect. It's not a huge hotel. But you overslept on the final day of vacation, and now it's locked, and your room is isolated. No easy way out.

It's not hard to lawnmower through, just searching everywhere, as you discover a key or two, as thankfully it's not all about finding keys. There is variety!

5WHE flipped the fears from the times in hotels I hoped I hadn't misplaced my key on their head--the point being you are busting out instead of in, and I found the ending to be lampshaded more than well enough. So there were nice little subversions.

I'm slightly bummed the author didn't slip in the other stuff they meant to. It feels like the writing could have been tightened up slightly, but then again, I found it tough to cut down my word count below 500. Perhaps some simple graphics would've helped, as a lot of the writing specifies directions e.g. "the window is behind." But this is technical quibbling. I think I'd enjoy seeing 1000 Word Hotel Escape to see what the author couldn't quite slip in.

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Concerto of Life 3rd Mvt., by Alby

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Hi, Tie, Bye, August 23, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Neo Twiny Jam

Well, you got three 500-word entries in the Neo Twiny Jam, and the moderators gave the author their blessing to write entries as sequels of each other and I think the author made a good choice here. Perhaps if too many authors tried this, I'd say "hey, come on, write very different stories," but it acted as a relatively strong baseline, not trying to be to fancy or evoke too many emotions, and the 500-word limits provided balance. It was a good introduction to NTJ for me. But it definitely had its mystery!

You see, I managed to bungle things and read the second part first. As a result, I certainly was left wondering whether there was a breakup or whether someone was dying. I actually leaned towards the breakup and wondered if the third part had reconciliation! And of course I wondered how they met, and the first part probably hit harder than if I'd read them in order.

However, it is about death impending. It's very smooth, and while the interactivity isn’t huge beyond putting in names and choosing a few locations, that doesn’t affect much for me. It is about, well, people finding each other and living a life together, and their hopes for the beyond.

Re-reading it I was amused to note how it seemed to incorporate fantasy tropes (going out on adventures) as feeling like, maybe, a high-paying job in the real world that required a lot of travel. This was unexpected. I also enjoyed the brief discussion of their one kid much different than them. One generally doesn't think of such things, or you suspect character classes stay in the family, even if you need one of each class to go on a quest.

A longer word count might've caused it all to get too maudlin. I’m glad the author used these entries the way they did. I think the results were different than they would have been for, say, a 1500-word limit jam. It all felt well-paced and balanced. While the maximum interactivity may be picking the passages up after a week away and trying a different one first, I indeed did so. I enjoyed sketching the lives of the letter writer and receiver together in my mind, filling in the holes.

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Just a normal Human, by glucosify

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
"How do you do, fellow normal homo sapiens?", August 23, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Neo Twiny Jam

Ah, fitting in. All sorts of works can be written on it. How to do so. How fitting in may actually be bad. How it was nice, but you need time to yourself. JaNH looks at this--I read the author's blurb, but on replaying, I forgot it came about after research on autism. Of course it's awful to laugh at others' attempts to blend in if they just, well, want to blend in. But when they're trying to infiltrate a social order to disrupt it later, we should feel free to go ahead.

This is a brief humorous explanation of humanoids trying to fit in to human culture. But there are so many ways they fail, despite having done extensive research. The names don’t sound right. And ... well, no matter how much research they do on blinking, it fails.

Blinking is so natural to us, yet we can’t explain it. We don’t even know we do it, and it’s painful to keep our eyes open.

There’s a neat trick where you click on an eye and it opens up more text. It provided some much-needed color, though having a whole box of eyes blinking seemed like overkill. (Don’t click the big eye at the bottom.)

However, everything else was pretty effective. It’s easy for me to say “yeah yeah another game about fitting in,” but this offered genuine humor. There’s a chance to fail as well.

One thing about writing about fitting in, though, is it can be danged if you do or don't. If it fits in too much with the existing literature, it doesn’t push the envelope. And if it tries too hard to be its own thing, well, it isn't even TRYING to fit in, amirite? This is where individuality comes in, and while I think JaNH's text effects were a bit overdone, I found it fits well in the jam without surrendering what makes it itself, despite being about, well, not fitting in.

A side thought on playing through: some groups I felt obliged to fit in, not because I wanted to, I never realized that some people were, in fact, acting at “being themselves” but imitating their favorite comedians or celebrities or actors from a movie or even book characters. They seemed natural at the time. But they had done a research of sorts, too, like the aliens in this story, and of course they couldn’t tell me how to fit in, because it would blow their cover and show them as not original!

Over the years I've moved from "I guess I have to fit in here or somewhere" or "if I can't fit in here, where do I fit in?" to worrying less about this sort of thing. JaNH captured my former fears without, well, making me captive to them.

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Chinese Family Dinner Moment, by Kastel

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
A true-blue hard-core Single Choice Jam entrant, August 21, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: 2023 Single Choice Jam

The Single Choice Jam allowed for one actual choice of branches, with the rest being just pushing through with the equivalent of "next." That's not to say you had to put a choice of two or more paths in, though of course it'd be a risk to.

CFDM takes this risk and is, I think, successful. Perhaps you have little in common with the narrator. You're not a member of any group that's discriminated against. But it's still easy to understand their helplessness, as well as the final climax, which wasn't dramatic but I can see how it's something you might be dreading all evening.

The setting is a family dinner where banal things seem to be discussed. Except in context they are not banal and you have a right to feel very ugly listening to them. Family members are either negligent towards this or actively trying to make things more uncomfortable. It's not a very long dinner, thankfully for the reader, and it doesn't need to be to get the point across. The final bit hit home for me, as it forced the narrator to go along with the whole charade of normality one last time. I found it effective. I suspect most readers have been in the narrator's position before. The alternative seems to be that they have not, because they have created that sort of position for others, which is obviously worse.

This entry was written by someone looking to try Inform for the first time after showing they were handy with Twine and narrative things. It's neat to see this crossover on general principles, being someone who used these jams to look into Twine after learning Inform. And I think it adds a new perspective--based on other potential entrants' notes, I don't think the way through the game would've been something someone experienced with Inform would've gravitated to. It's relatively simple, but it hits a good spot between standard Inform verbs and what to do in this sort of situation.

Also, given the restrictions of the comp, it seemed like a great time to learn something new--"don't do too much," a general good idea for learning something new, is really baked into the comp rules. Plus you have a buffer or ready-made excuse if things don't work out. CFDM did not need one.

I've had a few painful family dinners of my own, with the whole "just sit through it" ethos. Sometimes it would be rehashed afterwards once guests left, with "perhaps you could have participated more, maybe next time, they'll think something is wrong." The author mentions they hadn't had such a dinner for three years due to COVID, which is a small mercy for all the bad things that happened, and I was grateful to be able to add their perspective at this sort of thing to my own. I can say "yikes" now without going into a tailspin, and I appreciated this from CFDM, and I hope the main character gets there sooner than I did.

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What They Don't Know, by alyshkalia

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Perspective gives enlightement, if not happiness, August 21, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: 2023 Single Choice Jam

What They Don't Know, as part of the Single Choice Jam, gives the player three options at the start: that of Lady Highchester, who controls the Highchester family fortune, or Chelle, her daughter, or Ara, daughter of the late vineyard keeper, recently brought in as an alternate heir. This bit is as ominous as it sounds: it all but says "I'm not saying you're not fully adequate, I'm just saying." The reader can see each of their stories and piece together what happens.

WTDK is a short, tidy piece, but it's rather discomfiting for all that, which given the content warnings seems like the intent. It's not overdone, though. You might say, who cares about rich people's struggles anyway? Usually not me. But we see nuances in the characters behavior. Shelly and Ara have grown to like each other, and they both wonder why Lady Highchester is doing this. Each would feel discomfort in leaving the other with less than she deserves.

I chose Lady Highchester's path last, and I think this would be the best way to get the most out of the story. She's the one with the power, after all, and I think it's most tense to see the reveal of what she is doing and why. There are unintended consequences.

On reading the three characters stories, it's pretty clear to me that Lady Highchester really had no chance of getting what she wanted, or seeing what she wanted, and her meddling was the sort of thing that messes up basic happiness for other people. Though she doesn't lash out, no response would really have been good enough for her. It reminded me of times I've been in friendships or in groups, where they might say, hey, this really is better than those old bums, right? Or even in an honors class where we don't associate with them there regular-class rabble. And I felt there was no good answer, or I would get nailed for being too enthusiastic or not enthusiastic enough. But of course nothing was ever enough.

That's a danger of having power and using it casually, of course. You use it, and any positive response you get, you don't know if people are really doing out of the goodness of the heart, even if you try to construct things that way is an experiment. Lady Highchester's power play is far more subtle than, say, the classic scene from Goodfellas where Joe Pesci's character says, "What, do you think I'm haha funny?" Or when Henry is applauded for not snitching, but of course there's still distrust throughout the crime syndicate. But it's tough to tell which hurts worse, if you're the target. Under-the-hood stuff leaves no immediate intense burn but lasts longer.

From the character sketches I suspected that Lady Highchester never really considered that her experiment might cause unwanted effects. And I think the author clearly showed this is not okay without moralizing. Or maybe I'm just glad to see the sort of thing that reminds me of unscrupulous people from my past who expected loyalty-just-because and had ways people could show it. I felt bad, being kind of a pushover and all, that I couldn't show said loyalty.

It's easy to reject or laugh at or be disgusted by loyalty oaths or hazing or whatever. The subtler things are, the trickier it is, because we all have moments where we want to test friends' loyalty, generally when we aren't at our best, and we can't isolate that variable, so to speak.

Of course, we similarly can't prove that this paradox is a thing, so when stories like this come by, it's as close as we can get, and it feels good enough. We see how and why Lady Highchester is wrong, and that helps us be okay with not liking our own Lady Highchesters as much as we should on paper.

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Zenith, by Hituro

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Grinding, accelerated, with story, August 19, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: 2023 Single Choice Jam

I have fond memories of grinding away in RPGs when I was much younger, but all the same, I don't want to do too much for that again. There are other goals. I'm no longer just grateful computer RPGs exist. Zenith is not a grinding RPG, or even close to one, but it brought back those memories. It helped remind me what I liked about them.

In Zenith, you simply climb up a mountain. The rooms you go through are designated at random, and sometimes in these rooms, you find special items. Then, at the top of the mountain, you have a chance to chase your real quest, to fly to the "real" tower. You can just take a cheap glider back down the mountain if you think you're not prepared enough, and the game gives you some idea of how far along you are. The penalty for failure is losing all your items. The more items you have, the better chances of success.

This usually takes several times, and at first, you're not sure how many items could be in the backpack. You only know how you feel based on the place where you're given a choice (fall or jump,) this being an entry in the Single Choice Jam. Eventually you'll get to where you're not getting new items. That's a clue jumping may be a good idea. It's not hard to go back up the tower, as you just mouse-wheel down and click the link at the bottom. I sped up, so things seemed to blend together for me, while I noticed the room descriptions themselves were generous, with the exits different. There's a paradox here, of course--you want to get back up the tower quickly, but go too quickly, and you have less hope of finding new items to help you make your jump!

So mechanically Zenith can be expressed as "just keep clicking until you have enough items," but that's really unfair. First, the writing is too good, and second, I became conscious of several things while playing, both related to play and not. One was that even during a short grind, my mind wandered a bit as I quickly said "hmm, give. Items. Now." But there were others, and you may think back to lyour own long-term can-I-or-can't-I because-it-is-there accomplishments you had.

My other goals were getting a certain rating on a chess website (did I study enough? Jumping might mean pulling an all-nighter and possibly failing and giving up on chess for two weeks.) There's more random stuff than you'd think there, based on opponents' relative strengths and openings and so forth.

There was also my city's bike-share program, where you can ride for free for 30 minutes between any two docking locations, but after that, you get a charge. So I had a goal of making it between two seemingly distant locations without having to dock and start another ride. I would get closer, and finally I could do it. There was that faith in the final leap, when I didn't need that alarm saying I'd been riding for 25 minutes, so I'd better dock soon..

I wound up playing Zenith a few times more than I anticipated, because first of all, there's a high score listed at the end, and I managed to mess things up and not put my name on. (I thought I had to hit enter, instead of ... as happened through the game ... clicking on "enter your name." The author kindly obliged me by adding a feature.) But even if they hadn't, I wouldn't have felt my time was wasted. Obviously you can overdo the description but it wasn't, here, and if the descriptions were dry, perhaps my mind would not have wandered so productively. Even if I didn't know the strategies and number-crunching, it still reminded me of other times I was pretty sure I got things right, and other times when I really should have been sure I got things right, but I didn't jump, because I was a bit scared of other things that didn't work out.

Zenith reminded me, too, oddly, of Dragon's Lair, where you had those three parallel trips through the castle before meeting the dragon. That was more deterministic, but the randomized bits still scrambled things well enough that replays were fun and surprising, and I felt like I was navigating the randomness, which I don't feel in real life sometimes. Or it could just be like building levels and items needed to win a boss fight, or even memorizing a poem ("Do I remember how all this links together?")

It's a tricky thing, writing something that efficiently condenses longer works without getting too brief, and everyone's sweet spot will vary. But it worked for me, and rather quickly. It's one of the few Single Choice games that used randomness, and I think it did so very effectively. It could be done in other contexts. For instance, you could have a "prepare for a marathon" game where all sorts of factors on the day of the race could affect things. But the choices would be hamstrung and maybe artificial. (Eat nutritious or not? Train too much, enough or too little? And so forth. How much are you willing to put work and social life aside? The choices feel artificial, stated so. You know what the game wants, so it feels like a loaded quiz.) Perhaps even having Zenith with "you can go left/right" would be artificial. The first time, after failing, it was neat to succeed. On replaying Zenith I had that faith the RNG would work out in my favor even after not getting items on an early trip through. And it reminded me of times I thought or hoped I'd tweaked life's RNG in my favor to get things done. But I also saw how, once I succeeded, I thought "I'd better not fail--I need X items!" (I encourage you to find what X is.) It was empowering and revealing in unexpected ways. I think this was probably the author's intent, since they avoided moralizing and such. It seems like it could help push you away from some mindless RPG-based game (say, on Facebook) to realize, no, THIS is what I really want, if I go look for it.

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Cat vs Villain, by Raccoon Raconteur

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Shockingly, you can't defeat the cat. You won't want to., August 17, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Neo Twiny Jam

Being a Cat Person, I'll play any game featuring a cat, especially if it's on the cover. And it's not just on the cover. It bounces around a bit in the game and on the screen, in line with how you the powerful villain just can't bring it to heel.

This one was submitted just before the deadline, and it's one of those very happy entries that feel more like the author spent a lot of time wondering if it was worth the bother, because maybe it was too silly, but perhaps all that time thinking pushed forth a few ideas that made something funny. Whatever the reason it snuck in, I'm glad it did!

I enjoyed the expressive white line drawings on black, too, which it reminded me of times cats were being slightly impossible and there was not much I could do about it, but of course there were good special memories and I was sort of bummed I didn't have a camera handy.

There are three endings and not many choices to get there, this being a Neo Twiny Jam submission. I enjoyed comparing them a lot, and I think you will, as well.

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My Name Is Soda, by Sarah Willson

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
For me, it was breakfast cereal, too, August 17, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: 2023 Single Choice Jam

If you got through the first pages of Recherche du Temps Perdu, you may remember Proust once talked about madeleine bringing back a bunch of memories. You may remember it even if you didn't. It's become one of those literary cliches.

Here it's root beer. Root beer, the poor neglected cousin of Coke and Pepsi, and I've always preferred it, too, and I suspect I have more brethern or sisters than could be polled. (I in fact made a far more flippant reference to it in Threediopolis. It made a tester laugh. I'm still proud of that.) But the root beer is sentient! It's hidden under a porch, and it'll bring back memories. Like the meat in Douglas Adams's Restaurant at the End of the Universe, it's okay with you digesting it. And yes, it's a bit unnerving, too, but it all makes sense. Sadly, this state will only last for twenty to forty minutes.

That's more than enough for a lot of memories for you-the-character, and it brought back memories for me as well. Memories of chugging one two-liter bottle too much while studying, or of a pop can with the Minnesota Golden Gophers logo and 1984 Big Ten schedule on it. Or maybe of leaving root beer so long in the fridge, proud of my restraint, it went flat. Memories of mixing root beer with different types of ice cream to make a root beer float. (Don't get me started on ice cream flavors. Seriously.) Heck, even Red Bull drunk once every two years brings back memories beyond "this is why I don't drink Red Bull."

The character has different memories, of course, combinations of happy and sad. Alcohol is briefly touched on without judgement from the root beer or narrator. As a teetotaler, I felt a bit superior, though.

I didn't once I had The Choice. What is it? Well, you can be selfish. I saved the game and took the selfish one first, then took the selfless one. I immediately rationalized that I could do what I knew from the selfless one once I went selfish, or it would have happened anyway. I'd like to think I would, in real life. But things probably don't quite work that way.

I think the final choice is strong and well-placed enough not to spoil here, and MNiS would have been well-done without it. I place a high value on games that let you think in your own way without being all "I'm making you think" or being too unstructured and general and MNiS hits that spot for me.

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Thicket, by Damon Stanley

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
When "it was all a dream" is not a cop-out, August 14, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: 2023 Single Choice Jam

Thicket certainly leaves an odd impression at first. There's a short sentence, where different fragments are underlined. You click on one, and then there's a "wake into the tower" link back. Clicking on enough (or the right ones) opens up more, until there's a full story on the hub page. Then you wake up for good, with a "wake into the tower" link on the main story page.

This seems relatively tidy, perhaps even pedestrian, but the links are to odd dreams, which frequently result in death, or in capitulating to dark forces. I found this effective, and it often reminded me of times I rolled over and kept having different dreams, or what seemed to be dreams within dreams, some of which I wanted to remember and some I didn't. Mine were about far mundaner things, but they still had the sense of dying just before I woke up, but -- well, describing my own here wouldn't be all that interesting. You know how it is.

The author tends to link up the sort of hot night where your air conditioner doesn't work with more fantastic settings, and if I didn't connect all the dots, I was at least able to flow with the writing, which I enjoyed. The stories are kept to a page in Twine Chapbook format, and they vary a lot.

A tip for lawnmowering through: as Thicket doesn't change the link colors once you visit them, you may wish to click on a link, then hit tab and enter once you're done reading, so you know the next link to click. The sentence fragments are somewhat related to the stories that launch, but the stories will be involving enough, you may forget where you were in the main sentence. Not that repeating any one passage is exactly punishment, but just a note for convenience.

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"I am inventing all this and it is about to disappear, but it does not”, by Dawn Sueoka

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
About thirst for more, like..., August 14, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: 2023 Single Choice Jam

"So, what is this work about?" is the first question people ask, if deciding to look at something. In the case of Iaia, well, I think the meaning is surreal and open to interpretation, not in the "the author was lazy and wanted to get something to the jam before the deadline" way (they made it by about a week) but in the "this is genuinely disturbing-in-a-good-way."

What happens is simply that you are walking along the street and reflecting on a very odd life and choices made. Which has been done before, but it pushed the Talking Heads' Once in a Lifetime into my head, and also, it had an epigraph from Leonora Carrington's The Hearing Trumpet, which I hadn't read, but based on what I saw here, I'm interested.

Given that this was for Single Choice Jam, there is a choice at the end, a surprisingly normal one, which makes sense. It's a good one to have after surreal reflection. I will keep it in spoiler tags, so if you want, you can have a quick play-through (there was some tension as to what the choice would be, and I don't want to ruin that,) but even the response is not what you'd expect.

Iaia has no back button, so you have a lot of text to re-scroll through first, but that's more than okay here (I just repeatedly hit tab and enter.) The first time through I wondered if some text was randomly generated, maybe because the author tried this trick before with Phenomena, and it worked well. But the images are deliberately chosen, and they feel well above "throw stuff at the wall."

So what is the choice? (Spoiler - click to show)You buy a drink at the vending machine. I like it a lot, because I think back to when I bought stuff at a vending machine, and I knew it was overpriced, but it looked very good. I was reminded of the vending machine in the high school social lounge, how I wanted to order one of each, and it would've been easy to do so if I planned things out, but I never did. The magic of vending machines died early for me, which is good for my pocketbook, I suppose, but I missed that. I was surprisingly disappointed on the first play through that (Spoiler - click to show)root beer was sold out, and it turns out it always was, but I still played through to buy root beer. It mattered to me much more than it should have, which on reflection was really, really neat.

Anyway, the next time I (Spoiler - click to show)drink root beer, I'll think of this game. Maybe I will even replay it at the same time. That'll, like, totally show it it can't stop me from doing what I want!

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Toast, by morgana

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
When the bread gets heated, it gets HEATED, August 13, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: 2023 Single Choice Jam

Toast is a funny little game in HTML5 (it has source code on GitHub, too, which I found educational) where, well, your choice is whether to make toast or not. It's quite attractive with its minimalism, which works well to assure you it doesn't expect you to find deep meaning.

You simply choose yes or no, and then you keep clicking. There's also the choice to click on the bread or the toaster, which gives you a funny little story that unwraps. It's all pretty surreal, of course, and I think it might be lesser if it were dragged out. It's the sort of effort that leaves you wanting more (in a good way,) because it's well done, but at the same time, you wouldn't see a way that *you* could extend the joke. Well, I couldn't. But I was glad to enjoy it and take it for what it was. It feels like something to replay between more serious entries.

I read this at a particularly odd time, having just made a lot of toast from bread that had been sitting out for a while. It provoked interesting thoughts in me, even though I knew it was deliberately surreal. You may or may not choose to eat toast before or after checking this out. Perhaps there would be a sequel where you eat toast at the computer, and weird things happen as crumbs get in the keyboard. Or maybe you drop the toast, and there is drama as you wonder if the buttered side will land up. I'd play either.

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Demon Hatching, by Mxelm

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Aggressive, neutral or passive, August 13, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: 2023 Single Choice Jam

Demon Hatching is a story-over-puzzle effort with three links in it at one critical point. You are, unsurprisingly, a demon who hatches in a forest, and you run up against a human much bigger than you are. You have three choices, to run away, to fight or to scream. Of course, there's a bit of buildup beforehand, describing what you are and what you are doing there, and at least part of what you want and fear and so forth.

The narrative breaks make it so that nothing is spoiled, and you get to see the story unfold at a good place. It's well worth it to cycle back and try in the other options to get a better character sketch of the main character and the human.

Ink games do seem to have that little something extra focused on the craft of writing, and that was evidenced here, and it certainly made me interested enough to try and follow the Tumblr snippet it mentioned it was based on. I can certainly see it evolving into something larger, and I'd be interested in that, too.

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If You Had One Shot, by Wade Clarke, Victor Gijsbers, Hanon Ondricek, Brian Rushton

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Really. You only have one shot. If you're honest!, August 13, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: 2023 Single Choice Jam

If You Had One Shot is an ideal entry in the Single Choice Jam. The jam allows for one actual choice but as many click-throughs as you want. It hoses all the parser commands, even EXAMINE-ing, for four directions. You are about to give a speech at your brother's wedding, and all four choices are drastically different.

But here's the problem: you pick one, and you try to restart, and you're not back at the wedding. Whichever direction you pick, you get an immediate story. Then on resetting, you look back at what you did after some time.

This is one of those efforts that definitely should be done, and of course it can't be done too much. It's an effective gimmick, and the writing is good, as you'd expect, since everyone writing has won or been nominated for an XYZZY award. Maybe multiple ones? But they're all well-known. I have my guesses, but I don't want to share them, because guessing is part of the fun, and I don't want to spoil my reasoning, right or wrong. Who wrote each piece is not obvious.

Yes, I did find a way around the "only one ending" bit, but it's an entertaining concept well-executed, one that might not have popped up so quickly without the jam. Each wrong way builds into a story as well.

As for how I got around? I won't spoil it. I think it's reasonable to expect the player who really wants to see them to do a bit of legwork. So it's neat to have something quick and satisfying like this that retains a bit of mystery.

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Four Days of Summer, by David Welbourn
A very seasonal good time, July 25, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)

Four Days of Summer is a funny little game. I'm glad David Welbourn wrote it and sorry I missed it earlier. It's not very big, and it has loads of meta-humor and hat-tips to other games, including Humbug by Graham Cluley, which I hadn't heard of yet. Humbug's a big enough game that this isn't really a spoiler. And it's very consistent that David's game would hat-tip other games, what with all the maps and walkthroughs he's written.

The first part whisks you through some surreal places where you just have to figure one semi-obvious thing. It's kind of hard to mess up, though there are some old reliable gags in there.

Your friend, David, is about as fourth-wallish as a narrator can get, as he provides you with weird items he inexplicably finds. They wind up being useful. It's all tied together with a potato peeler you find at the end. No, really!

I admit I was slightly misled by the cover, which left me scrambling and looking for a green item I didn't need. It is available, but it's a bit of an easter egg. (Also, I was hoping for some partial solutions with the flags. You could make (Spoiler - click to show)Canada's flag or, with the green, (Spoiler - click to show)Mexico's flag. But hey, it's Speed-IF!

And for Speed-IF it's extremely tidy and fulfilling and holds out the promise of a very interesting mechanic worth developing, whether in FDoS's world or, perhaps, another author's completely different one. If you're an author looking for an idea, once you see the idea, you'll realize there must certainly be many ways to riff on it or extend it.

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Between the Lines of Fire, by paravaariar

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Petty thievery, or is it?, July 24, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: ParserComp 2023

I wanted to try to avoid reviewing ParserComp games during the judging period, but I wanted to make exceptions for works people might miss out on and be sorry they did, due to the subject matter or an unfamiliar author.

In BtLoF's case, we have both, although I should note the author has written in non-English works that seem to have been well-received. (I onl researched this after playing through.) Nevertheless, I was sort of dreading looking into it, because it was about war, and I worried it might drag on, to show war drags on, and it might have more description than I wanted.

Well, I was totally wrong on both counts. It's a relatively short affair, and there are a lot of ways to get killed, and perhaps it would be better that way if you did. There certainly is something awful at the center of it. In the introduction, you know you're going to die. You're not sure how. BtLoF lets you know your protagonist's death is not very noble, and they're cowardly, too. He tries to get the bare minimum of bravery so he won't be found out. All this is done without pointing the finger.

Here's where things are tough for me as a reviewer. I don't want to spoil to much, but you steal something very particular, and it seems both very valuable and not valuable at all. It relates to some things I've seen. But it recalled upsetting moments for me, where I thought "Oh, I have no right to be THAT mad." But I did, because even if nobody stole my soul or wound up leaving me to die, they crossed some boundaries, under pretenses that Things Were Tough and There are Worse People Out There, You Know.

The final chapter is a fitting climax, as perhaps the narrator overestimates how much his fellow soldiers understand what he is trying to do, and it makes for a Tell-Tale Heart kind of moment.

I'll put why I found BtLoF powerful in a spoiler, and it's an oblique spoiler, too, just so if you read it, BtLoF should still have impact. It's not very long. You shouldn't have much problem with the four or five commands needed to pass each chapter. The story drew me in, allowing my character survival, wondering if he wasn't that bad, then slowly realizing that, yes, he was pretty bad indeed, or worse.

(Spoiler - click to show)it reminded me of people who told my story as if it was their own, maybe even interrupting mine to say "See? I told you so! That's what I've been talking about!" (Whom and what they told so is unclear.) Perhaps they even ascribe motives to me, or to antagonists or friends in my story, that weren't there, or deliberately emphasizing points I didn't care about. Perhaps those motives were flattering, or not. But it was my story, and someone corrupted it, by overplaying and underplaying certain aspects, and perhaps it was one I wasn't even ready to tell at all. It reminded me of people who told George Carlin jokes without noting, hey, this was by George Carlin, and they seemed much smarter than they were. There's a sort of spiritual robbery here, though in BtLoF, there's a bit of "what's the matter? They're dead anyway!" And I found myself trying to protest that and failing early on and even remembering when I'd warped others' stories, aloud or in my own mind.

BtLoF could have been done with a supernatural background, or as a slice-of-life game. Other works have done this, and successfully, in both long and short form. But it's a war story I hadn't read before, and I don't think that speaks to my blind spots. There are plenty of stories of ghosts on the battlefield, or of innocent people killed, in war. This is different. It was surprisingly personal to me without, well, being as invasive as the main character.

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Cheree: Remembering My Murder, by Robert Goodwin

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Help a 100-/16-year-old spirit find peace and closure, July 11, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: ParserComp 2023

Cheree: Remembering My Murder is definitely something I want to give a boost to during ParserComp. It's got AI-based dialogue, and the interface may scare some people away. And some may find it a bit long. I was able to get through it in one sitting, perhaps slightly guilty I'd dropped the ball on actually testing it when the author asked. (It wound up getting tested more than well enough!)

It feels like the sort of entry a lot of people want to play, but they never quite make time to, as there are risks it might be too unpleasant. But it navigates several flavors of unpleasantness well for me. I wound up playing it twice over one weekend. I'd like to explain fully why, but at the same time, I don't really want to spoil anything that might lessen the impact of the ending.

It's not the author's first try at this. It's similar to their first, Thanatophobia, where someone comes to you with a recurring image they just can't work out, and you talk it through. Here it seems more accidental and less clinical--you haven't met Cheree before, and she's actually trying to remember huge chunks she just forgot. And, oh yes, she's a ghost who was murdered in 1891, at the age of 16. But in each case, you talk with the AI to try to get to know them, as they look back and try to understand their life.

And before I go further, I want to offer a spoiler as to what CRMM is not, as certain possibilities may open up early on that stop people from playing: (Spoiler - click to show)there are no major crimes other than murder.

Cheree's rather more emotional than her predecessor--while you have the option to just hit return and plow all the way through, that changes her mood to misunderstood or neglected. So there's a bit of humoring her. Which is understandable, given you're talking to a 16-year-old. It was tough for me to make small talk, because I'm not good at that in real life, but it's kind of odd. Going through those motions, it was actually a boost to go and (re-)touch base with some other people, or just ask for things I hadn't. She has a lot of questions, which isn't really surprising for someone her age, but it is surprising that she wasn't able to answer them by, say, visiting her family. Of course, she can't, any more, and the more you learn about them, the more you see they were insular without being particularly close.

So how does this mix with the supernatural stuff? That's a rail I don't want to touch without spoiler tags, but it's pretty clear that being dead has given Cheree a certain amount of freedom. She is able to Astravel any place she wants, which simply means to teleport anywhere on Earth and give you an image of what is there. You can't touch anything, but you can and should ask questions. Ask the right one, and a trust bar on the right goes up. Ask enough, and in the right places, Cheree realizes a clue. It's actually a cipher, which might seem like busy work. But I found that busy work to be emotional relief and something easy to solve. The UI is neat--you can use arrows and just type the letter. And often you'll have recently been discussing one proper noun (a person or place name) or just a very long word, which gives you a great key to get started. These seem to get shorter with each clue, which makes for a difficulty curve. This is the sort of puzzle that's easy to find or generate now on the Internet, but it must have seemed very novel indeed back in 1890, so it makes sense Cheree is clueless about it. Also, she can't exactly use pen and paper!

There are four such clues to open up the main game, and they appear quickly, within the first ten locations or so. Then there are five more. They appear somewhere among forty more locations. You don't have to visit them all, and you may be able to guess which are most likely to have a clue. For instance, Cheree has never been to the Great Barrier Reef, so you can use process of elimination there. Sometimes she opens up a few new areas that don't give clues. But I think this is reasonable--often when I try to remember something, I can't work too hard at it, and I need to take a step back. But I don't know where. So I shuffle through some more pleasant memories and maybe even sleep on it. At one point on replay, I wound up hitting my head where I knew there was a clue--and taking my own break helped me. (I saw it quickly once I had Cheree astravel away and back, which reset the prompts she gave me. But, in a way, this dead-end sort of justified why Cheree took me all sorts of places and reminded me it can be futile to run into a wall trying to remember stuff.)

Cheree doesn't seem to have sleep. She's certainly trying hard to impress you, though. Nothing skeevy, just -- hey, would you like to see the Alps? The Rocky Mountains? A waterfall on the Argentina/Brazil border? So you have to filter through what she wants to see for its own sake and what might provide clues, and you need to humor her and her trivia questions and her small talk, and after a bit you gain her confidence. This sounds harsh on her, though to be fair, the scenarios are interesting and it fits her character well. She never got the chance to see much, and often when she brings up something from her past, there's a reason she does and doesn't want to be there. For instance, the place where she grew up is overrun with wildlife, now. Then you find where they left her body.

And seeing places from when she was alive, you realize her parents certainly never prepared her for anything approaching a normal life. Her mother was a medium, and she has the gift, too, maybe even stronger than her mother. Her father disapproved of that stuff, and he only beat Cheree when he was angry. (This was not a red flag in the nineteenth century.) There's one place in Wales where Cheree astravels, to see a well-known medium. She and her mother went there and quickly came back, and she'd have liked to enjoy it more. Cheree seems to have a lot of euphoric recall, which was probably needed to keep her sane. Her father neglected her at best, and her mother railroaded her into a life she maybe didn't want. And her two older siblings seem a bit jealous of the attention she gets, even though said attention is empty. They go on to live longer, less abnormal lives. You visit where she was buried, and a tombstone mentioned she was just the sweetest person ever, though nobody told her that in life. You'd expect there to be a clue for how she died, but no. And, well, the full explanation can't exactly fit on a tombstone.

The middlegame may feel like it's not going anywhere for a while, and I admit I cheated a bit with some of Cheree's trivia questions to gain her trust without having to engage in too much small talk. She does feel a bit clingy, but that makes sense, and not just because of her family. She later notes that most ghosts transcend from her state after a year or two, but she hasn't, and she needs to fix something out of balance. The question is, what? That fits into the story title, and at one point she notes, either people fix their balance or they become devils. So she has motivation to search high and low for clues. Plus she is just a genuinely curious sixteen-year-old whose parents didn't exactly let her see the world.

Fortunately moving between places is pretty easy. You have a pull-down map and can even type in numbers of locations, so I just had a post-it note where I wrote down new numbers and crossed them off. I used several such modern conveniences I took for granted to help the ghost from before 1900, and it made me chuckle. The first time you play, you may just need to run through them all, but the second time, when you're better at saying what she wants to hear, it goes more smoothly. (I made the choice to replay once I realized that some things she said early on were, in fact, clues as to what would happen. So I had to balance the mechanics of empathy with getting stuff done. It felt a bit cold. I never wanted to be the sort of adult who absent-mindedly says "yes I see" all while making clear I'd heard that stuff before, but for a couple hours, well, I was. I remembered adults both well-intentioned and not who said "Hmm, I see" in the process. I hope I fell in the first group.) I also was left feeling a bit of emotional blackmail, once I learned she found it hard to say no to her parents, and I in turn found it hard to turn her down. Who else would say yes to her? This went outside the context of, hey, let's just try to get through all the games for ParserComp!

So there's a good deal of translating what Sheree says about her parents, and more precisely, what she leaves out. A seance goes wrong, and it wasn't until I completed the game that I realized her mother had been horribly negligent both then and after. Cheree was her meal ticket--her mother rubbed elbows with the police and even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle! The Whitechapel murders are mentioned, but here, it's clear this is something different. And there's an argument between parents. The father, financially successful in business and detached and very religious (much like businesspeople who praise God more than you do, and that's why they're successful, right?) isn't home much, but that also feels like not much of a loss. The mother, who would prefer fame, and who even hangs around an initially charming police officer. And you suspect they frame the arguments not in terms of what Cheree wants and needs but in terms of what God says, or what each emotionally deserves. There's a theme of not being able to tell adults no. Cheree never explicitly says she was displeased with her gift, though she does mention friends who she grew away from because of it. So you sort of feel bad for her and play along with her games.

Oh, wait. I've left one person out. She has a friend, still alive, called Mel, who's a bit of a smart-aleck and the same age as her. How they tie together is interesting, but they both seem to find you very smart. The fawning's not too much and I never feel it is romantic (thank goodness) but it reminded me of people under eighteen who were quite impressed at what I had gotten used to doing. I remember on Roblox (Bee Swarm simulator) other players were quite sure I had a job. I must be OLD! Why, I might even be twenty-five! So I sort of felt that responsibility when people with less life experience placed trust in me. But Mel provides a foil to Cheree, as she's quite clearly pushed back more against her parents, and she also makes clever snarky comments about modern technology to confuse Cheree. (Heck, Wifi confused me when it came out!)

I blew off a lot of clues the first time through. But I had the chance to replay them with a clearer head, unlike Cheree. And it reminded me of how, well, in some situations where I was sixteen, I either put stuff off to the side, or just questioned if it really happened, or I just figured it was something natural. I even let people younger tell me it couldn't have happened like that! But I had people help me along the way, maybe someone who wrote a book, or even someone who made an off-hand comment or who pushed back on someone who was being a clever jerk. Or someone who fought for a social cause, especially/even if their personal lives were flawed.

CRMM reminds me a bit of GK Chesterton's story The Man Who Wasn't there. Certain parts of my life, I wondered about once, but then took for granted. Or I crossed some people off too quickly as potential bad actors. I never really noticed who was steering me towards a life. Not "drugs are cool, man," but over-caution or jealousy or whatever. I could picture them now, catching me playing something like CRMM, saying "What the hell are you doing with your life?" I've carried around a lot of their criticisms, ones they've forgotten about. Some have died. They're hardly evil incarnate, but it certainly hurts to remember one more thing they said which seems obviously wrong now that I assumed was true, especially if they quoted George Carlin's anti-authority rants. Even though I was smart back then, I let it slide. There was nothing illegal. Cheree, too, has taken certain things for granted, or feels they aren't worth mentioning, or she can't mention them. And so often like Cheree I had to go to some nice place and come back later. Mine are different than Cheree's. I'm fortunate to have a lot, and CRMM worked for me to revisit a few people. I realized I don't have 100 years to transcend and put them to the side, but I do have a lot of resources, and I hope I've used them.

There's a lot of spiritual stuff in CRMM, and you might wonder why it's there until you complete it. But I was able to relate a lot of the spiritual stuff to more concrete mundane things I'd seen in the world. I certainly had a lot of suspects by the end, and they weren't guilty, but they sure didn't help matters. It was far too easy for the antagonist to do what they did. I also thought about what my ghost might show people, where I'd go, where I'd like to astravel once money wasn't an issue. I remember feelings I didn't deserve to take a vacation to somewhere as dazzling as Cheree showed me, certainly not as much as certain people who were more gung-ho about life. But one of the big non-spoiler takeaways I have from CRMM is, there were people in CRMM who were not evil or close to it. But they sure as heck didn't stop it, and they didn't gain the self-awareness that they should, or could have, until it was too late.

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Steal 10 Treasures to Win This Game, by spaceflounder
Don't be fooled by the title. This has a lot new to show you!, July 10, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: ParserComp 2023

Self-aware games about looting castles and adventuring for its own sake and such are relatively common and generally do pretty well. Titles that pretend they didn't try, or at least you hope they are, but you're worried they actually didn't try. Some are forgotten, because they didn't try. Some, like Yet Another Game With a Dragon. Yon Astounding Castle (of Some Sort), obviously put effort into the title and wound up successful. Steal 10 Treasures quickly earned its way into their ranks, with the suggestion you're not a VERY heroic adventure, but it offers a new parser experience with the expected assortment of meta-humor and misdirections and efficient gags. My overall impression is that it should appeal to everyone: classic parser fans, people who don't like parsers, and people who are trying to learn parsers but don't want to have to memorize a bunch of commands.

S1T is the sort of game that puts its tongue in its cheek and keeps it there, all while being very intelligible. It's what I imagine the administrators of ParserComp hoped for 2023 when they created "freestyle" and "classic" divisions, and it paid off right away. I imagine the author felt very welcome to create this sort of work. Some of the one-letter commands step over themselves a bit, so there's a small learning curve, but the game's supposed to be a bit absurd, anyway, so it's easy to laugh off. For instance, P is push, but Y is pull, since P is taken and YANK works well enough. But then yell is B, for bawl. T is dedicated to turn, but the period sign is used for take, which I found really handy. C is climb, and V is conVerse. The arrow keys are used for compass directions (and there's a compass up top showing you which ways you can go,) since the letters need to be saved for other things, and it works terribly well, better than standard parsers where arrows are used to move around inside or between previous commands. Here, you don't need to tweak previous commands. There are even a few commands you pick up along the way once you found a few items. All are labeled in the help and thus eliminate guess-the-verb. So the parser organization feels like a huge success to me, with a small learning curve.

The plot is pretty self-explanatory. There is a castle (33 rooms, according to Trizbort) with 10 treasures. Some are hidden. Some are in plain sight, but you can't take them right away because you need a special tool. The first one I saw seemed way too heavy to carry, but the game's internal logic shortly rendered that worry moot. There are all the elements you'd expect for an adventure, with monsters and things that can kill you: a dragon, of course, and a griffin who gives you a trivial riddle you can't solve on your own, even though you've (quickly) tried all the reasonable guesses. Oh, there is a maze, too. Of course, this being the 2020s, you don't have to actually map it out. Once I saw the solution, I was surprised no other game had thought of it before. I was amused at the overconfidence the game makes you feel with the most direct try. Then it pulls the rug from under you. Then--oh, THAT's what you do.

But if S1T was just about meta jokes, it would just be a moderately fun corny time. The puzzles are legitimately interesting, where you have something in one room that affects another. And you have an NPC you must rescue who helps you later. It's pretty clear how, and even when he does, the conversation that ensues would actually be kind of annoying in real life. The author keeps that bit short, and it works.

Perhaps the most memorable bit for me is a puzzle that might feel like busy work, if it were thrown in with too many others, but because it is part of the game with a lot of quick jokes, it's a neat abstract exercise, and you feel smart doing it, even if you don't have to do any huge calculations. It reminds me of another Infocom classic game, but it's good enough that I don't want to spoil it. You'll know which one once you play it, and you find the treasure. It's technically impressive enough that we can picture the author thinking, hey, should I show off a bit like this, and the answer is, yes, they should have. The misdirection here is that the maze is quick to go through, but this is more involved. Yet at the same time, there's little or no painful trial and error.

Though some of the puzzles do force you to say, "can I really trust the author?" One such example is an NPC you can't defeat by yourself. At first I assumed I couldn't get past it, and attacking it meant death, so when I ran out of stuff to do, I thought "hmm, I'd like a funny instadeath." And I walked right past! Though actually there was nothing behind it, used to defeat it.

S1T also sands a lot of details down. I'd also like to give the author credit for what was a really nice soundtrack. I'm not a fan of soundtracks, usually, but the music was, well, sort of like elevator music wants to be. It changes up. It reminds you not to take things too seriously. And when I was stuck on a puzzle, at least I had the music to listen to. It also has a very nice hint system, where you can ask with just one key push, and it pops up, saying there's nothing more to do here. And the clues themselves don't completely spoil anything. And I also enjoyed how directions were implemented, even if you couldn't go a certain place. For instance, if you don't go north to the castle in the forest at the start, The Game says, oh, come on, there's treasure ahead, don't think out! This is something that I always bug writers about when I am testing, because I think it's a really easy way to round out the world and author has built without going into detail, and too often the restrictions on what we can do make you feel small. Here, it opens up possibilities, or it just has several variations on the quote hey, doofus, stop walking into walls. "

One thing I may remember most about this game, though, is that the blurb mentioned some rooms, and I missed one of them the first time through, and even though I saw the game, I wanted to see that special room. I wound up doing so, because originally I had just said, okay, I'll get through the maze.

I played S1t the same weekend I played Cheree: Remembering my Murderer. I wound up replaying them both in short order. They are the biggest successes for the new "freestyle" group. They're two totally different games but really show how we can do more with the parser than what Infocom or Scott Adams could, with their 64k limitations. S1T pays homage to the old games and seems to note their shortcomings. CRM tries for much more wide-open stuff, with a more serious plot, and contrasting them makes me feel the administrators' decisions were a success. They're not for every writer to do, or try. In fact, most of us will never get close, and some may find the classic parser better shows the world we've created. But seeing two radically different works that break the mold renews my faith in the community being able to find these new ideas consistently. There must be more.

The author has found an interesting way to give the parser experience without having to hit your head over a lot of weird and abstruse commands. Perhaps there is latitude for having, maybe, two letters for a command. And the parser can work that out. I don't think that would have worked here, because it would have interrupted the pace of the jokes, but for a more serious tone and bigger game, it would be neat to have that autofill so that people could plow through. So I think this was a success both technically and creatively. It reminds me of the best skits or movies of Cheech and Chong, which don't seem VERY clever, because it's just two idiots arguing, right? But they know what works, and they know why those idiots are funny and show us more than "geez, people are idiots sometimes." They want their absurdism to make sense and not have lots of levels of abstraction, and they know when to play dumb. So does S1T.

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(almost eleven), by spacedfoxes

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
We've all had relationships like this. Why can't we learn quicker?, July 8, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Neo Twiny Jam

Works that mention certain things almost always invoke certain reactions in me. In this case, it’s a relationship that went on too long, for 11 years. I was wondering briefly if it was someone who turned 11 and felt they were too big for certain things, or even friends who found each other when they were almost 11 and broke up in adulthood, but – well, it’s 11 years of sort-of stability. And of being in and out. As happens with friends, because life happens. The interactivity is based around rumination about things that could've been done differently, or things we didn't notice until too late--or things we didn't notice

I’ve been sucker punched by people who told me I was lucky to have them in my life, not I, like the narrator, was being used for someone to lean on and then run away. There were people I was just glad they didn’t point out how unexciting I was. Or if they did, they provided ways to become more exciting!

But they never really asked me what I cared about. They just assumed their needs and wants were more important than mine. But they did come with a few superlatives, which it felt rude to turn down–before the next long rut. I felt I was ripping them off, since I could not offer superlatives back.

I took a while to realize these quasi-friends were in the way of what I wanted long-term, which was different from what they were pretty sure I wanted or should want, because friends help friends find what we really want, right? And of course some of them let me know I interfered with their long-term goals. Perhaps they implied they no longer had enough time for me, and my response was to do a complete reflexive 180 and make time for them to live, as kids these days say, rent-free in myhead.

And it cut another way, too. Some people, I wanted to be better friends with, but suggesting I'd be interested seemed an implication they were not that exciting. There are also some people whose lives I went in and out of because I figured they had enough friends, and it never struck me until recently that they may've thought I thought I could do better than them or felt brushed off. Then there are the people I haven't seen for, say, eleven years, wondering if I should've done better, or trying to place down a detail that makes me feel better about not wanting to be around them.

It’s tough to remember these things, but not so tough as it used to be. I have my own examples that parallel this work, and I wrote down a few more after. Some featured periods longer than eleven years, some less. "I took notes on this" seems like backhanded praise for an emotional piece, but to me it says, I experienced more or better than just an emotional spike.

The language in almost eleven is straightforward, but meaningful. The lack of melodrama works well enough, I’m worried this review may be way more melodramatic than its topic. But I hope this review is somewhere around as illuminating as almost eleven was to me.

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Palazzo Heist, by Julien Z / smwhr

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
The first part is entering safely!, July 8, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Neo Twiny Jam

Some games in the Neo Twiny Jam seemed like they might have had to leave something out due to the word count, and the authors did a good job of packing the right stuff in.

Palazzo Heist does that and more. It works both as a standalone puzzle and something greater, and of all the entries I played so far, this is the one I most can see and, maybe, want to see expanded into something much bigger. You may guess that 500 words is too much to describe a full heist, and you'd be right. It takes a bit of time explaining what you want to steal and why (not just riches.) Then it simply has you try to enter the palazzo.

It's a neat puzzle, with all concrete details and no knowledge of Venice needed. But it has misdirection which adds to the atmosphere without being unfair, and everything you need to know is pretty much contained in the description. It has the feel of a parser game where you need to examine everything. And I mean everything!

There’s also a way to sort-of fail that I found amusing. I didn’t try it at first, because I was trying to get through, but I was glad to expand the author's world a bit.

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Dreamscape CYOA, by Cerfeuil

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Well, I'd take any one of DCYOA's gifts, really, July 6, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Neo Twiny Jam

Looking at the relative popularity of items in the jam, this one slid way behind the other's work, *Eviscerate This Girl*. DCYOA seems a lot more my speed, and I'd like to encourage others to give it some love or thought, too, if you haven't. You could simplify it down to just choosing 3 tarot cards from a pack. Instead of double-edged, murky, stuff like Death or The Wheel, though, it's odd gifts like a Celestial Pillow, which helps with Lucid Dreaming. Or you can visit a paradise resort, but you have to pay for a room. Nothing practical or earth-shattering, but always fun. You choose three, then at the bottom, you click at the end, and said three cards are together.

It's interesting to re-read through and see which is the best fit, but I was amused by how I quickly said some at the top were the best, or if I was offered them take-it-or-leave-it, I wouldn't wait for the next ones. They were too good.

But at the bottom is a choice that might expose my reflexive gratitude as selfish. It's a choice that allows gifts for others. You are less powerful. It's double the height and width of the other cards--whether the author just wanted to leave relatively little white (well, dark here) space or kind of unsubtly point out what they feel is the best gift here, I certainly had a moment of reflection. I'd been slightly enchanted by the possibilities and then felt like a bit of a bum, nothing to ruin my day, but I realized that even with gifts that seemed benign (as opposed to the ones from a Djinni that cause bad things to happen elsewhere) I hadn't thought much of ramifications, or What Was Really Important, or I assumed my gifts could cover WWRI later.

So whether or not it was intended to be a psychological experiment, I found it to be an effective one.

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Curse of the Bat's Tomb, by fsi

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Small well-constructed adventure with a bit of horror, July 6, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Neo Twiny Jam

Neo Twiny Jam had a surprisingly large (to me) ratio of fantasy-quest games by authors, all of whom really seemed to know what they were doing. There've been a lot of works with emotional impact, too.

But this one combines both, while sneaking in under the maximum word count. I wasn't expecting what the curse was, and you probably won't, either.

Of course, given that it has some narrative, the tomb is not VERY big, or the quest VERY long. There's really only one puzzle and a few things to observe. It's a puzzle you can maybe guess, but said puzzle also has under a hundred states, so figuring an efficient brute-force method is a neat puzzle on its own.

It's a very clean effort, without extra fanfare, and I'm left with a clear feeling the author could (and should!) create something much bigger if they wanted. I'd also like to praise the cover art, which drew me in without grabbing me.

Finally, thanks to the author for including the source, and for telling us to experience their game before looking at it. It's in chapbook, and I used sugarcube in the jam, but several things still made immediate sense to me.

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piele, by Kit Riemer

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
It's not in English, at first!, July 6, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Neo Twiny Jam

Piele is a work that probably isn't intended to make sense the first time through, but it was rewarding to make sense out of and figure what was going on. Even if I didn't already trust a work by Kit Reimer to Go Somewhere Interesting, it was pretty clear the confusion was 1) intentional and 2) added to the experience.

To overgeneralize, there's a small page text in a language you probably won't guess. I had fun doing so. It's not from a huge country, but not an obscure one either. The point is that you go through the process of deciphering stuff, not just translating, but understanding what the words mean. The writing is poetic in nature, with two poems of four lines each, and sometimes, when you click on it, the literal interpretations appear first before the translated ones do. So the meaning slowly pops up.

This feels like a work you should experience for yourself, as explanations or critiques on my part would either fall short or be just plain wrong. So I’m just going to mention that clicking on the ending twice kicks you to the end of the work, so avoid that if you want to see it all right away!

Hint for the language: (Spoiler - click to show)look at the accents. They are unique (AFAIK) to a reasonably-sized country. If you're stumped, (Spoiler - click to show)cut and paste and use Google Translate. I think it’s a good choice for what the author was (I think) trying to accomplish. And I think it was successful, and that’s why I’m only semi-revealing the spoilers.

One other thing that makes more sense after the first time through: (Spoiler - click to show)the cover art.

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Jacob's Body, by Carter X Gwertzman

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Upliftingly macabre, July 6, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Neo Twiny Jam

It's always good to see IFComp authors pop up somewhere else. Whether these people are publishing books or just clocking thousands of rep points on stack overflow, it's a reminder to me that while I enjoy having a corner of the internet, but I don't need to stay in a bubble. In fact, I should not.

The author wrote Flattened London for IFComp 2020 which was a combination of Flatland and Fallen London, and it was a pretty big and amusing parser game. Then for IFComp 2021, they wrote My Gender is a Fish in Twine. I thought it was an effective and succinct counter-measure to those who used gender pronouns as a joke, and it never got close to over-earnest crusading.

This is about a slightly supernatural cycle of life where someone's body is repurposed following death. It branches to three stories, then a conclusion. It has the odd effect of making, for a moment, (Spoiler - click to show)cannibalism seem almost natural, each small story in a way reminiscent of how I read Native Americans performed rituals after hunting certain animals for food and made sure not to waste as little as possible out of respect for the animal's life.

But in our brief glimpse into Jacob's world, even what is not used, is used. And what is not used to clear constructive purpose has its own use in a way. It makes a clear case for content warnings, but paradoxically, the stuff that causes them is potentially the most uplifting or hopeful.

I hope Carter Gwertzman is writing other stuff, too, outside of comps and jams. I'm pretty sure that is the case.

(Note: Manonamora's review mentions the first sentence, which left an impression on me, too. Maybe you as well.)

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alias, by nyassidy

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Drive-by harassment, high fantasy value, low ick quotiient, July 6, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Neo Twiny Jam

This is a short story that takes an idiom and turns it on its head effectively. That idiom is "may I have your name," except, well, it’s literal in this case. It’s hard not to feel a bit defensive about all this. You get some interesting deflecting responses. You shouldn’t have to say them.

I don’t think there's any way to do as the fairy asks. But it’s a really neat look at invasive, unwelcome questions and having one’s personal space breached in a way that doesn’t make me need to go wash my hands after.

They way it ended for me, I wondered if the fairy ever had any intentions of taking your name, or it just wanted to be annoying, like a low-key catcall. Maybe it had no power to do anything.

It’s an interesting clever twist on chance encounters where someone was rude to you for no reason at all and you are left wondering "what did I do" and wondering why you feel just a bit icky even if you can't put your finger on what the random passer-by did to annoy you.

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Please Don't Take This The Wrong Way, by Crosshollow

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A neat twisting of a potentially manipulative phrase, July 6, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Neo Twiny Jam

"Please don't take this the wrong way" can be said at least two ways: from a position of power, or not. It can act as a pre-emptive apology all polite listeners had better accept and, thus, let the speaker rattle on for longer than they really should. This sort of conversation is often laced with "no offense, but you know what your problem is?" or "I know I can be harsh sometimes, but people need to wake up and hear the TRUTH!" and other such gems. Or it can be legitimately confused, realizing you see something a certain way and don't want to look down on those who don't, and they don't even have to come over to your view.

The speaker in this interactive essay/poem is decidedly in the "not" category. They've probably heard the phrase a lot from more powerful and confident people, both those who want to help them, and those who don't. They have a pretty clear idea of what they want to say, but all the same, people do seem to take it the wrong way, or they offer pity or other things that don't help. Or they put more stock in certain actions than they should.

One of the key phrases revealed on clicking is "I just want people to listen sometimes." And this struck me: everyone wants someone to listen sometimes. For many non-autistic people, they know how to increase that sometimes until acquaintances find it hard to pull away, whether at the start of a conversation or after thirty minutes of yacking. Whil I can't speak for anyone autistic, they know they probably aren't good at it, and they see the facts, and that's all that needs to be said. But that makes people more squeamish than some narcissistic fool's endless blather about how they had to wait in line too long at the DMV, or something.

The essay itself has words or phrases you click, which let the user expound. If you're paying attention, you'll see roughly where it's going, that here is a person who just wants to be understood and really, clearly, does not deserve to have some "wise" adult pass off some rubbish like "to be understood, first you must seek to understand others" before, perhaps, saying they understand the speaker perfectly, and it ain't pretty.

I've met people who are able to laugh off self-destructive or self-impairing behaviors (a "happy drunk" is a relatively benign case here) and people who feel bad they can't fix things they want to. But there's also some unwritten rule many of us live by, in that if we see something wrong with ourselves or others, we should try and fix it. The narrator here has experienced do-gooders who followed that rule, in various degrees of good faith, and they don't help. Perhaps this can apply to those of us who are not very social but would like to be and fail, or even those who keep making the same programming mistakes over and over again. So I appreciate this work very much.

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One-Word Warlock, by Damon L. Wakes

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
The title has a *most* inapt acronym, July 5, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Neo Twiny Jam

So I'm the sort of person predisposed to like this author's sense of humor, kicking well-worn tropes when they're down in a sophisticated playing-dumb sort of way, but I think this will have mass appeal. It has pretty much everything needed to make you happy you (sort of) wasted time. Each passage and choice is, you see, one letter long. The actual quest (as I see it) mirrors a well-known fantasy book, but you get there your own way. There are lots of ways to fail. Of course, there is the "sleep in bed and do nothing" possibility. One of them has you marrying a dragon and having a kid. This might not work with long drawn-out passages, but it does here.

There are also audio clues of the “best” choice. Sometimes it's pretty obvious. The right choice is contained in what the voice (the author's, which is a nice touch) says. Other times you have to remember some tropes. But it's non-intrusive, and I very much enjoyed the reactions, especially to one that promoted inclusivity nicely without being preachy.

I'm one of those people who always felt bad that I didn't enjoy 500-page fantasy novels as much s I should have, what with everything to track and the descriptions of scenery which quite frankly got repetitive and tedious after a bit. That's not a problem here, with just 500 words. On the one hand, it's an exercise in efficiency, but on the other hand, it was oh so wonderful for the author to have packed in as many jokes as they did. I was just happy I got things under 500 words, and I was relieved to get rid of some of the more flabby sentences. The author did me one better.

I'll likely enjoy said novels even less now, maybe because OWW (which may be an inappropriate acronym, yet it could fit into a passage or a choice!) puts things to a much higher standard. I hope more people see and enjoy this. The author's work is always good and funny and enjoyable to me but this, to me, is a spike up from his usual high standards.

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the ride home, by cassian
A rite of passage that shouldn't be stressful but is, July 5, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Neo Twiny Jam

This one, I thought I'd written a review for during the jam! It was one I connected with, but it felt almost silly to write, or to remember fears from high school. And it suggests some fears are still very real, if not especially crippling. I knew what I wanted to say. But I did not. At least, for a while. I wasn't sure how much to share. But on replay, I had even more. So here goes.

You see, I went to a horrible four(?)-week driver's ed school the summer before my senior year. For many kids, learning to drive was exciting. But I had quite a lot of my mother saying how expensive insurance was, and how teen drivers had better shape up because they are careless, and so forth. It was a bit of a shock to me that some people enjoyed taking Drivers' Ed. That includes kids who would lower their grade-point, even with the easy A, because of the boost from honors and advanced placement classes! One other thing about Drivers' Ed: it was at the fourth floor in my high school. I never went up there as a student. So it held some mystery when I finally went back on an open house night, after having sold my own car because public transport was good enough. It wasn't that exciting when I got there, of course. But it was a reminder of other things I'd built up and not looked into.

My first instructor apparently spent a lot of time in nightclubs, and he'd yack on endlessly about it, so as not to put people on edge, apparently. The (very faulty) reasoning being that if we were being deluged by the subject of how interesting and outgoing he was, we couldn't feel fear!

This confused me, since drinking occurred a lot at nightclubs. And drinking and driving was bad. Suffice it to say that I did not need the negative reinforcements from certain driver's ed movies, the newspaper clippings on the wall of very sweet and lovable kids who screwed up, assuring me that I had better not drink and drive. All blissfully unaware I'd never even been to a party with alcohol at that point!

How does it relate to the work? Well, TRH's background music--well, it reminded me of those horrible driver's ed movies that tell you not to screw up or you'll endanger your lives and others. It establishes fear, but a totally different one than perhaps the drivers' ed movies want you to feel. It's a fear of understanding too well how you might screw up and not having the confidence to avoid that. It's a fear based in how you maybe aren't acclimated to how cars have safety feature, and the rules of the road--well, how to be a safe driver has a lot of precautions, and if you're paying enough attention, you'll catch things. Or you'll wind up getting close to a mistake, but not really, and if you're conscientious, you'll realize why people do certain things.

At some point, though, being over-cautious is too much. And I never had anyone address that until my nightclub-visiting instructor said "YOU ARE OBVIOUSLY TOO SCARED TO GO ANYWHERE WITH A HIGHER SPEED LIMIT." Between them and my parents--ouch.

And the parents in this reminded me of, well, my own. They know how to nitpick. They never suggest the simple truth, which is that you learn things fairly quickly if thrown into the melting pot. And ... well, having a kid drive at night for their second lesson is a really, really bad choice. There's more to remember, with turning on lights. It's harder to look for a stop sign, or for people not wearing reflective clothing or whatever. There is so much to process, but the parents failed to keep it simple.

So I see, intended by the author or not, two parents that threw the kid in the deep end and, conscious or not, had something prepared for the kid's inevitable failure, or almost-failure. And the kid certainly beats themselves up. There is more fear than there needs to be and a shocking lack of empathy from the parents, who don't outright tell the kid they're a flake but jump on small mistakes.

Oh, that combined with [spoiler]the kid realizing they could have hit two pedestrians not paying attention[/spoiler]. I empathize with the narrator, for being pushed into fear that drains them, trusting adults to plan and do things correctly, but the adults did not.

This is all very negative. My story had a happy ending--I had a second driving instructor later who said "just go ahead. I trust you." And it worked. The second instructor actually smoked in the car, and it did not bother me. I reacted favorably to his lack of "exciting" nightclub stories tinged with belief he should be an even bigger man when out on the town than he was. (Note: the first instructor did shut up, but I felt guilty that I was so distractable, he couldn't share the stories he wanted. Also, he is on Twitter now, and one of his most recent pictures features an odometer going up to 100 MPH, which is well over all speed limits.) I don't drive much now, but I feel confident I recall the basics quickly. It's the opposite of fear--competence without excitement.

This is a bit long-winded, but it's my own driver's ed story, so different from the average "I AM GETTING MY CAR!" But I hope it shows more growth and overcoming fear and how TRH brought that home but also reminded me I had progressed past certain fears. In a nutshell, what is a joyful rite of passage for most teens is extremely stressful, for the narrator. And they, unlike most "normal" kids, are unable to put small mistakes behind them, likely due to adults who needed to flex how with-it they were and others weren't. That's sad and terrible, even before the story's climax.

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Listen to the Phone Ring, by Rylie Eric

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Play the predecessor and it's very neat indeed, July 5, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Neo Twiny Jam

On its own, this is just a choice between whom to call, without a lot of data You have a conversation, then hang up. But paired together with a predecessor, a penny drops. It becomes more than a small vignette but a true story.

The predecessor is a cookie-clicker sort of game called Literally WatchPaint Dry. It's not the first boredom simulator and won't be the last. But it's a relatively quick one. And it uses the cookie clicker engine to relate a story with all the paint you watch dry. A friend turns away from you based on who you are, but another takes place. The implication is that there are some people you can watch paint dry with, and some people who were maybe exciting at first, or you did more exciting things with, but they were unfulfilling.

Perhaps this back-reference bends the rules of NTJ slightly. But I think this entry in Neo Twiny Jam can stand on its own. Pair it with LWPD, and you have something very nice indeed. It requires a certain confidence to call a game LWPD or, indeed, to refer back to it. That confidence is not arrogance, here.

I confess I used a keystroke-sender to get through LWPD. There is nothing beyond the first day and a half (129600 seconds to be precise) and it subverts the whole pointles clicking genre with something neat and emotionally rewarding. You see the backstory behind the friend who wants to be with you and the one who doesn't. You realize perhaps you were calling the old friend out of habit or misplaced loyalty.

It reminded me of a friend who I thought was okay watching paint dry with me. Then I figured I got too boring for him. But then I thought of what his ideas of excitement were, and I was glad I was boring that way.

LttPR lives up to its credo--it allows you to take it or leave it, even if it is different from the other entries in the jam (it is very plain, itself, but refers to previous non-text-based games, in this case one made from a graphic engine for a game originally meant to be mindless) or not being very interactive. It may, in fact, not be exciting. This is not because the author has a lack of creativity. But there are many efforts about far more oppressive circumstances that get the point across and may seem shinier and more praiseworthy. Many are. But LttPR focuses more on personal rejection and coping with it without drama and, in doing so, it is saying it's okay with what it is. This isn't a backhanded compliment, but I always enjoy works that don't have to be exciting to be creative or thought-provoking, especially if they help me recall certain negative things in a more constructive light. LttPR did that.

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Buck Rockford Heads West, by J. J. Guest

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Half existential longing, half gleefully abused Western tropes, June 29, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Neo Twiny Jam

If you worry Buck Rockford is too on-the-nose as a Western character name, fear not. This work is not fully in earnest. And Buck’s name works doubly for me. Why? Well, having lived in Chicago for a while, I know of a good-sized town about 90 miles west called ... Rockford! It is not a terribly romantic place to live, alas.

Buck Rockford Heads West (BRHW) is itself an effort written in Ink, where you, as Buck Rockford, have a choice of four professions to follow. Each is stereotypically Western, except for weird twists that happen once you start. In each profession, you may have a drastic life-or-death choice, except ... well, it only affects the story.

Each part of the story at first relies on standard Western tropes, and while Western tropes have been done and mocked enough to make me scream, this is different. There is no "howdy pardner" or long description of scenery. There is simply doing stuff wrong on purpose, which turns out to be way more interesting than doing it right. Here the enforced word count works well. Twists and turns are packed in nicely.

Eventually, Buck finds his destiny, which is sort of unexpected, but it makes sense given the surreal logic of the story. Strangely enough, I found it related to (Spoiler - click to show)Mr. Seguin's Goat, which I'd played a few weeks ago in ParserComp 2023, because of (Spoiler - click to show)the themes of having too much freedom not being so great. In fact, because of the nature of the story where one adventure does not help Buck on any of the others, we can either note that he is going around in circles with his four choices, or he does in fact find worse luck somewhere along the way. (It's possible there is a hidden ending for doing things the "right way." But BRHW doesn't feel like it wants to force to you. I played through several times to check.)

I was surprised how much I thought of it afterwards as more than just a bunch of clever jokes and misdirections. It reminded me of back when the World Wide Web was more volatile, and I thought I'd find a webpage where I'd stay longer than I did, or a community that should've worked, didn't. Some webpages seemed terribly avant-garde or clever, but they were just flashy, and once I heard the same old snark a few times, I moved on. Then on stumbling over a website from over a decade ago, it seemed old-hat, the "insightful" humor too cruel.

Similar things happen with art, of course--people loved Sasha Baron Cohen's Borat for different reasons. The parts that got the loudest laughs didn't seem to age well, and the odder parts, to me, showed profound insights. And Cohen himself keeps needing to try new characters or environs. Once his current alter-ego gets too popular, he needs to move on.

Neo Twiny Jam has its share of downright depressing works where someone is stuck. BRHW is about being stuck in its own way, but it has more a sense of melancholy, of searching for more. Perhaps not of discontent but of knowing you will kind of shrivel up and growing if you stay certain places too long. But it's told to you not by a self-help guru worth tens of millions of dollars, or even a teacher in high school who said you should be more interested in their subject than you were, because that's the way to a good job. But it's about looking into things you always meant to, a reminder of longing without saying, gee, pal, you wasted your life.

Well, that's what it was for me. You may find your own interpretation, and it would not be wrong. I have already yammered on so that this review eclipses the Neo Twiny Jam word limit. I think that says a lot.

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Midsummer's Eve, by Tristin Grizel Dean

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A chance to win a fun scavenger hunt if your 13 year old self never did, June 19, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: TALP 2023

I remember the author's Sentient Beings as one of the highlights of the first TALP jam. It's quite good, and if you're having withdrawal after finsihing this year's entries, you might want to go back and look at it. It's a scavenger hunt, like Midsummer's Eve, but there are fewer things to collect and more abstract puzzles. With SB, there's no doubt you'll get things done. You have 24 total specimens to find and can only carry 6 jars, so you can go back and forth a bit. There are a few verbs to guess, but they're hinted directly elsewhere. It's fun and cute and well done.

Midsummer's Eve is a lot less solitary, and you are a kid who vows to win your town's treasure hunt this year in a town full of magic. The treasure hunt features 12 clues, nicely laid out so that kids hunting for clues can find them and put them back or, in the case of one gift item, everyone gets one, because it's the sort of item kids like. The clues aren't strictly ordered, but you need tone to get another, sometimes. Clues 1-7 build to finding clues 8-12, each of which gives a piece of a passcode you tell to win. There are even other kids walking around, but you're way faster than they are. Still, you can ask them for clues! In fact they're cute in a clueless sort of way saying "I think you have to (X)." One was still struggling on solving zero clues when I had ten. I kind of felt mean pumping them repeatedly for clues, or maybe I was chuckling a bit inside at them, once again in touch with my inner ten-year-old. (For silly features, I think it would be cute to have a no-badgering difficulty level where you can't ask for too many hints at once!)

ME uses the Adventuron parser in interesting ways. You have to order specific food in some cases e.g. ORDER HAMBURGER WITH MUSTARD. The garnishes matter to find a few clues. There's not a lot you have to intuit, which is not surprising, because really abstract puzzles would be mean to thirteen year olds who just wanted a fun treasure hunt. And while some of this is, for the reductionist, just following instructions, it's all tied up in things like climbing mushrooms or interacting with a mythical beast. But there are also commoner pleasures such as riding a Ferris wheel or playing carnival games. These don't interest me-the-adult, but I really enjoyed being able to play along as a kid who thought they were wonderful or mysterious or whatever. Also, in a thoughtful fun twist, the specific food you order? Well, you can only carry one at a time, but you can just eat it and order something else. Everything is free. Yay! You literally have an excuse to eat until you're sick, or until you can't avoid being sick tomorrow. That's what festivals are for.

The graphics are all very good and add to the mystic feel. I read on the Adventuron server they were AI generated but given my attempts to create cover art with AI, it's a lot trickier than saying "Okay, draw a big picture with this that and the other." In fact I had a weird bit of discovery where one location appeared to be plain, but lo and behold, on revisiting it, the graphic actually loaded this time. It added to the whole magic feel. I usually knew to wait for Adventuron graphics to load, but my eagerness to explore and beat the other kids out betrayed me for a bit.

There's also a mystery intertwined into all this. I wound up restarting in order to actually get a transcript, and I solved the side quest (or a chunk of it) before finding the final clue I hadn't. But I had fun rolling through things and forgot to check off on the secret items. This speaks to replayability. And the layout is very nice beyond the graphics. You can either click on CLUES (to see the clues–as an adult, 12 clues is a lot to juggle) or MAP or just type those commands. You forget this sort of thing once you get used to it. I was also surprised you could mouse-click on the help menu. This isn't cutting-edge GUI for AAA game studios, but it's so welcome for independent games.

I really enjoyed my experience with ME and I suspect you will too. There are a lot of things that just felt right, such as a grouchy man distracting me from taking an item I needed, and I missed the obvious way to get around that for a bit. It has a good economy and balance for its rooms, too. By that, I mean that there's usually only one thing to do per room, so even if that last clue evades you, you can focus on rooms where you've done nothing yet and potentially even cross off ones where you have, and with the rooms mostly in a figure-eight, you never have to backtrack too far. The descriptions are robust enough that this process of elimination works and you shouldn't get bogged down, wherever you might get stuck. Also, the clues are ranked by ease of discovery, which is a nice gesture for both 13 year old kids and whoever is playing this game.

So it's a well-balanced game, and you need/get to do a lot of neat things to find all twelve clues. Oh, and you can't cheat and tell the answer right away, even if you know four of the pass-phrase's words and can guess the fifth.

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The Mystery of Winchester High, by Garry Francis
Risk expulsion, find school-saving treasure, June 19, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: TALP 2023

I've played a lot of Garry Francis's games and enjoyed them. They always seem to have a general crowd appeal to them, relying more on the interesting puzzles than the characters. For instance, Kenny Koala is a fun game worth checking out if you haven't, and all the animals you talk with are fun and add to the environment, but you don't do much with them besides give them items to make them happy. MoWH seems to pay a lot more attention to the characters. They go places or restrict you. Maybe he's done this and I forgot, because he's written a lot. But I think the whole conceit of MoWH is very appealing: you are Ian McKenzie, and you get kicked out of class, as 13-year-old boys do, and lo and behold! You have the school to yourself. A perfect time to find missing treasure that will make it financially stable. Especially since this time, your stunt might get you expelled, unless you have evidence of good behavior elsewhere.

I was a bit worried when I read MoWH's summary, because if there is a lot of treasure, then perhaps the school is necessarily very, very big. Which means the game might be exhausting. Maybe you are worried, too. But thankfully, in the spirit of TALP, it's under control. I lost track between 15 and 20 rooms, because I was able to hold it in my head, and it was pretty clear some rooms weren't useful. (That, and I checked with HINT, which is handy for making sure you're done somewhere. Perhaps for future authors, another command that tells only if you're done here would be even nicer. Cragne Manor had its coffee cup. But for a z5 game, this is great.) It still feels big enough to be a school, though. Just stuff like having one hundred lockers in a locker room and needing to find the right one (twice) and some general hallways and a service elevator makes enough to hack through for a satisfying adventure, but you're not going to get stuck anywhere.

And I really like that you spend more time with an NPC than usual in one of Garry's games–here a janitor moves around impressively for a PunyInform-sized game and gets a lot of attention without seeming too wise-old-father-figure. There's a small part where you have to go back to ask him for more help, and he gives it, and it was surprisingly hard for me, not because one shouldn't repeat things in adventure games or be expected to, but because Ian generally has caused trouble and doesn't need to bug the janitor, and there's another adult besides his teacher who impedes you slightly. The 13-year-old awkwardness comes through!

The puzzles? Well, they seem more straightforward than usual in Garry's games, and that's appropriate given this is a TALP entry. There are a lot of tropes. There are locked doors and drawers and an apparent dead end in a basement, with a secret passage behind a secret passage. In a way, it's been done. There's a safe, too, and finding the combination is strongly hinted. Amusingly, it's one piece of information you do remember from class, so it all makes sense. You won't have to break your brain.

I think MoWH did a good job of establishing tension despite a generous helping of tutorials and hints if you want them. And one thing it reminds me of, too: a lot of Garry's games rely on puzzles that experienced adventures may be acquainted with, and yet at the same time I haven't noticed a lot of repetition or overlap between games, which is impressive in a general sense.

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Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich: The Text Adventure, by Rex Mundane

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
After all that, don't forget the glass of milk to go with it!, June 19, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: TALP 2023

With an author name like Rex Mundane, and a well-worn situation such as making a sandwich, there are always a few worries. Has it been done before? Is it trying to be too wild and silly? Is it trying to be too "ha ha I wrote this in under 2 days so go easy on me there, pal?" There are all sorts of pitfalls, and so I walked into PJTA thinking, okay, maybe this will be straightforward. Or maybe it will go off on a tangent.

Or worse, it could be the sort of game that picks you apart for performing Every! Single! Step! to make a sandwich. I had this in sixth grade. There was stuff like taking off the lid and so forth and putting the knife in the peanut butter, and the teachers did all they could to show you it wasn't quite like that, or you missed a step. It was painful. Even though I enjoy proofreading and (on a good day) finding bugs in my own tricky code, this annoyed me terribly.

Thankfully it avoids the long list of instructions approach (yay!) and manages to combine straightforwardness and odd tangents well. It's a good fit for the Text Adventure Literacy Jam, because it combines the two well enough to make me laugh. It's not a huge game, and it's not super-ambitious, but I had forgotten I'd set my phone's alarm an hour before looking at it. It was for a cool-down timer for another Internet game I wanted to chip away at. When the alarm went off, I was most of the way through, and my reaction was "silly phone, I don't need to do that right now."

So I was engaged. PJTA hits the usual riffs on adventure games, but they're varied enough, and deep puzzles or plot aren't the main focus. It is a text adventure tutorial, and not just the one that tells you in detail how we wrangle parsers around here, then forces you to wrangle with said parser to gain street cred. It tells you more or less what you need to know, and when, except for a couple verbs you need to guess. Then, it gives more than adequate hints, including one with an NPC who yells at you irascibly until you get it. That was an unexpected humorous twist.

So you may guess making a sandwich isn't all there is to the game. I don't want to spoil it, not because it has a profound moment you'll be mad was spoiled, but because the author organized it with enough care that we could be surprised and laugh as we follow the shaggy-dog story. It's bigger than it seems, as you get out of your kitchen, and you visit your living quarters and beyond. Well beyond. There are many other elements you wouldn't expect, and maybe they are generic elements for fantasy adventures, but they're thrown together for comedic effect.

This is not the first text adventure to get all meta with relatively pleasant and silly jokes, and it won't be the last. In IFComp, people might be tired of this straightforward approach, or it might need a more detailed payoffs. But one pops up every few years. The last one that comes to mind is Mike Gillis's This Won't Make You Happy from IFComp 2020. The same level of meta-humor and story length but definitely very different stories! Also, I like how PJTA gives you a different item to find depending on which part of the sandwich you look for first. The puzzles seem the same, but it's a nice touch nonetheless.

It's pretty clear PJTA is winking at you to join in the joke and see where it goes. There's nothing profound, but TALJ 2023 would be lesser without it, and given that it was the first game I played, it was very welcoming indeed. And while on the one hand a story with emotional depth will almost certainly beat it for first place, it feels very much at home in TALJ.

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Priceless Vase Adventure, by Robert Szacki
ADL game with the usual amenities, June 19, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: TALP 2023

Priceless Vase Adventure (TALP), by Robert Szacki

This is a small ten-room game where the object is, well, to find a priceless vase inside a hotel. There's no huge storyline here, beyond that you are named Anthony Smith and are in need of money. You have a coin to start.

The puzzles to get through are, for the most part, trading. The trading doesn't make ultra-rigorous sense if you put your critic hat on (I still maintain that most people would rather eat a sandwich before playing sports than soup,) but if something is listed separate from the room description, it's important. There is even one dark room and one dark item. You can quickly figure they're related and you can use a light source–and that doesn't involve taking the lamps that are scenery.

You wind up having to guess two verbs along the way, which are not hard, though in one case, I tried to play it safe by adding a noun, e.g. EAT FROG instead of EAT, and the parser rejected it. Which was inconsistent with before when USE X didn't work, but USE X ON Y did. That said, the puzzles were fair.

ADL is a bit ancient, and as such, it doesn't naturally understand stuff like implicit nouns, like Inform dies. The confusion wasn't game-breaking, but this was frustrating in particular at the end, where I was in a slight "did I do this/try all possible combos of the command?" fog. In fact, at the end, I needed to spell something out, and I got pinged at first for not doing so, but then I remembered how to use the parser–because I'd seen it before. I don't know if ADL has this implicit-noun capability. We take it for granted.

This feels like a step up from the author's previous ADL efforts. The dark room provides some mystery, and the NPC interactions give the hotel some life, and the verb guess puzzles provide a good and very fair introduction to going beyond the basic commands. Stuff like double-dipping on important commands (e.g. taking something twice) is rejected, too. I guess my problem is that I was able to solve the puzzles because there was nothing else to do, and since the game had a solution, doing X had to be it. So I wasn't left as fulfilled as I could've been. And I wish more scenery could have been implemented.

This all feels fixable, though. The author mentioned he planned to tighten up certain things, and he ran into the deadline. And I've been there too.

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First Encounter, by T H Tyr
Good solid first game wih supernatural elements, June 19, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: TALP 2023

This looks like a first-time complete game from an author who had, as of 2023, some basic game elements and a partial one. So they knew what an initiate to text adventures might have had trouble with. Not only that, they've executed something that would work well on its own or as a fit for TALJ. First Encounter is a brief horror tale where a ghost of a woman appears to you, and you follow her. It's not quite clear why she appears, so there's some mystery.

However, you learn soon enough, because FE is relatively on rails. The experience was effective for me. There aren't many puzzles beyond finding a light source and leaving the house the right way. Locking yourself outside to follow ghosts with uncertain motives willy-nilly is just a bad idea and, in this case, taking precautions heightened the tension for me. There are also a few directed-verb-guessing puzzles. Here I'd suggest the tutorial might go on a bit longer. I really don't know if Adventuron has something to look at the input and say, for instance, if someone has a kazoo and people type BLOW KAZOO, "this is a relatively simple verb." But if it does, that feels like a tap-in for a post-comp release.

Saying the author didn't try to do too much always feels like a backhanded compliment because it kind of implies they shouldn't have considered reaching higher, or maybe they should not do so the next time. But here I hope it is sincere, because of the increasing scope I saw in their itch.io submissions, and it feels like they're ready to make another jump soon, if they want. Too many people, some with considerable skill and knowledge, shoot too high and wind up with nothing. I think TALP really helps with that--you'd better have an excuse to do too much! And one problem with a too-elaborate game is that it can exhaust reviewers and judges for the next one, though of course too many that lack details make us look for more exciting stuff elsewhere. And of course there's a balance between self-interest and not hogging the oxygen. It feels like EF made sure it did not hog the oxygen, and the author can and should be bolder with their next game.

FE works particularly well with TALP, as it took on a good subject and good atmosphere that forced it, or gave it an excuse, not to do too much. In this case, adults were sleeping and you didn't want to disturb them, which meant you couldn't go walking through the house. It may be the shortest one you play through in TALP, but that's more due to very sensible, logical cluing and an economy of use. There are few red herrings, if any.

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The Interactive Adventurer's Tutorial Adventure, by Cobwebbed Dragon
Made for TALJ, and made well., June 19, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: TALP 2023

Like Rex Mundane's PJTA, I was worried this might get too meta, or meta in the wrong way, and just like PJTA, I was glad to be proven wrong. The meta-fiction bits here have, to my knowledge, not been done before, but now I saw them, it feels like someone should have. And it also feels well-paced. What the author does could easily come off as forced. I think it might have the most effective tutorial segment I've seen in a TALP competition, as of 2023. The tutorial is integral to the first part of the game, and it flows well.

The object, for the first part, is simply to visit all the rooms, which is refreshing, as it takes a lot of the pressure off the player to do stuff right away. But of course it's not just a matter of mapping things out. The rooms are named after parser concepts. The first one is, appropriately, You Are Here, and other rooms include examining yourself, other objects, and locks. There's a side room. You have to navigate darkness to get to the real adventure. There's even an insta-death, which is pretty well clued and reversible. You don't quite get eaten by a grue.

I think the author deserves credit for (likely) resisting the temptation to hat-tip classic Infocom games. It would be fun for those of us experienced with parser play, but that sort of inside joke would ruin the welcoming atmosphere ParserComp seems to want to give. And also, it seems that the lack of really wild or catchy items or room names at the start is a design choice and one I agree with. While it might be interesting to see a more advanced tutorial discussing longer commands, or even one that goes through the history of Infocom games, that also might be outside of the scope of TALP. But IATA has opened the door.

The second part is a more classic adventure. Mystery builds and fits together at the end. There are keys and a safe and all sorts of things to examine. You can also type CLUE if you get stuck, which worked well for saying "don't bother with this location." The trickiest part for me was heeding the note that you can EXAMINE twice, but for the wrong item. In the end, there is a treasure to find, sort of.

It's impressive that the author took a bunch of standard adventuring items and put them into a game that feels like a really good introduction for people who might have trouble with parsers. I've played too many parser games to be sure of this, but certainly I had many "I wish I'd known that" moments when starting out. And while stuff like Zarf's reference card is certainly handy and well thought out, you can't really experience reference cards.

TALP is a great niche for this sort of thing, and while it would have been a good IFComp or Spring Thing entry, I can't imagine either of them inspiring it. Its focus and experimentation revolve around teaching. While IFCom and Spring Thing of course encourage experimentation, the experimentation there is more literary or with visual effects. And, of course, the specter of past not-so-robust homebrew parsers may make people think "oh no."

In TAIA's case, though, everything is pretty clearly spelled out. And it seems to anticipate mistakes the player may make. For instance, near the end, you have to guess a number, and one might be wrong, and it has a useful response to this. That doesn't make or break the game, but it was one of those "aha, the author really understands how not to frustrate the player" moments.

That's not to say TAIA neglects aesthetics. Colored text makes it easy to focus on what's important, and the text is consistently grouped nicely above the parser prompt, though I would needle the author for a change post-release. They talk about the EXAMINE command that can examine scenery – but it would be neat to have a different text style for scenery that could be examined, or an option to toggle it, much like the game had the HELP NUMBER option to toggle noting how many rooms you'd explored.

TAIA is done well. It teaches without being pedantic, and I like the ramping up into the main adventure, which was fun, too. You could even, if you want, say it doubles as a tutorial to make an adventure.

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Entre-d’œufs coquilles - An Eggcellent Preparation, by manonamora

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Has sunny side, not scrambled, June 19, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: TALP 2023

My first reaction on seeing this was, oh no, I wanted to play the parser hybrid the author wrote for spring thing, and I just got lazy/behind! But then there was oh yes. They, presumably, had the confidence to build on their experience and use a standard parser programming language. It's really interesting to see someone move from Twine back to parser languages, as so often it's been the other way. And in the case of AEP, it works well!

Having recently played a game that wasn't really about just making a PBJ sandwich, well, cooking eggs seemed in the same vein. Given the author's previous works I figured it wouldn't be a straightforward "just make breakfast" affair, and I was right. Don't be fooled by the fried eggs on the cover, though. That is not how the eggs are prepared. Perhaps showing how they should be would be a spoiler.

And this isn't about preparing a fancy egg feast, either! Though I wondered if it would be, where the author switched from Thick Table Tavern and different types of alcohol to, well, a cooking scenario with all different manner of eggs.

AEP is about something more interesting. It involves proposing to someone in an unexpected and memorable way, and no, it's not throwing eggs at them. I enjoyed the intrigue here. There was an explanation of what you needed to do and why, and how it worked scientifically, and it wasn't too long, but my adventure-game-theorist side immediately said "Oh, I can see what sort of puzzles would come from this."

The plot is, in a nutshell: get eggs from the hen house, then prepare them (not the hens, silly.) This makes part of your marriage proposal, if you do things right. The puzzles are well thought out and lend themselves well to tutorials that don't spoil things. There are ways to mess things up, and the tutorial mode notes a few of them both before and after the fact. I'm being vague about what to do with the eggs, because I hadn't read you could do that, and I think playing AEP would generate more interest and surprise than reading me post it here. (You find out pretty quickly, in-game.)

As for the story, there's some amusing awkwardness and tension over how and when to propose and, yes, there are ways to do it wrong. A traditional way fails badly, and for good reason if you pay attention to things in your house. It's also possible to propose incredibly unromantically. So that's all quite funny.

AEP was clearly successful, to me. I felt like sort of like a bum for pointing ticky-tacky stuff out, and I was sort of glad the browser swallowed my transcript on itch.io. Because, well, it's the sort of thing that pops up in an author's first parser game, especially if they were just coming off writing an ambitious entry for Spring Thing. While what you do is inventive, getting through is itself not too esoteric with good hinting. The in-game walkthrough is fine, especially coupled with the tidy text map. It's a good size for a first parser game, and it does a good job of funneling the player into what they should do when presenting them with an interesting task, one where I thought "does that really work? That's neat." In fact, it's interesting enough, it's something I might try in real life.

Many text adventures/interactive fictions may remind me of books I want to read or even coding I want to try for my own games. Or they make me Google images of some far-away cities or look up terms. But actually try something new? That's rare. AEP did that.

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Barry Basic and the Witch's Cave, by Dee Cooke

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Don't enter the cave, Barry! Um, until you're sure you need to, June 19, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: TALP 2023

After a few Barry Basic entries and several other works, one sort of expects a baseline for Dee Cooke's work, and Barry Basic and the Witch's Cave hits that and then some. It's an increasingly ironic name, because in each entry except the very first, you do something not very basic to Adventuron or text adventures at all. I'm worried even this allusion may be a spoiler, because when a lightbulb went on for me, it was a neat moment. It wasn't critical to solving things. Maybe I should have seen it right away. But this is intertwined with another BB game. It might make perfect sense if you played through things in order, though I'd be interested to trade experiences with people who played Barry Basic in a different order than I did. It would probably impact us both differently.

If I recall correctly, BB was one of the games allowed in slightly post-deadline. Good choice by the organizers! And the worst I can say about it is – the difficulty jumps from on the easy side to what is a very neat sequence to complete the final task, so that's uneven. But the final puzzle is quite fun.

In BBWC, you've been sent to the seaside, chaperoned by a horrible teacher named Mr. Brawl, who will spend the day reading the sports section and yelling at kids not to go in the cave. Your task: pick up five seashells, and since Barry is physically slower and weaker than most others, and he's already been pushed around on the bus ride up, there's not much left when he gets going. At first, Barry has to use (ahem) basic verbs to discover a few shells. But of course that cave is there for a reason! After all, this game wasn't titled "Barry Basic and the Witch's Cave He Avoided." And I enjoyed how it jibed with Barry's adventures in future games, looking where he was not supposed to.

The adventure turns surreal once in the cave, with an underground lake and such and new verbs to learn. They're nonstandard, but you know them. How? Well, I'm torn between waffling on this review and giving out untagged spoilers. Suffice it to say the final shell is definitely the hardest, and Barry has an interesting run-in with another student, described below.

(Spoiler - click to show)That student is Tony O'Hara, whom I didn't realize was Barry's big strong friend in Quick Escape until near the end. Then I felt dumb I didn't notice it! I like how the author plays off how Tony and Barry see things, without playing the DUH TONY IS DUMB card. And after I realized Tony was that Tony, I realized it answered another question I had in BBQE: how the heck did these two very different people wind up as friends? Perhaps we will find how Barry and Gill met in another game in the series, too. I'd like that.

Also, I'd like to see more Adventuron games where you can switch between characters. On the strength of the Barry Basic games, I see a lot of possibilities.


That run-in, though, made me realize the one thing I felt was missing. It's well done, as you do things to the landscape that make the graphics for a room change (the author does a lot of this. It's a neat feature of Adventuron.) But it has something its predecessors don't. Barry already feels established in them, and here, if the difficulty isn't as well distributed (yet--post comp releases can fix stuff) Barry Basic and the Speed Daemon felt more smoothly paced despite being bigger. It felt like the author missed a chance to maybe put in more conflicts with other kids, nothing terribly violent, but enough to make puzzles tougher before ramping up to the big one. Still, the game is more than complete, and I wouldn't have liked the author to put off publishing BBWC over that.

So, yes, I really liked BBWC overall. Mr. Brawl is an effective antagonist, though there is another, later. You just know that cave he tells you not to explore is going to be explored, and you will find out why it is dangerous. The conflicts were resolved well. I am already looking forward to a fifth entry. If you are considering playing this after TALP 2023, though, I recommend you start with Barry Basic and the Quick Escape.

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Mr Seguin's Goat, by auraes
Possibly too challenging for TALP but a good story, June 18, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: TALP 2023

Mr Seguin's Goat (MSG) seems a bit miscast for TALP, but it does seem to be a worthy effort, if more than a bit opaque. It's an adaptation of Daudet's short story, which you can find on gutenberg.org about a goat who wants freedom, and she has warned that it will be the death of her, but she goes anyway. She meets a male goat, and then she meets her fate in the form of a wolf who kills her. Cheery stuff!

MSG is largely faithful to the story, with of course the obligatory ways for the player to mess up and a few tricky roadblocks and frustrations to endure. It's cruel on the Zarfian scale, largely due to a deck of cards you must find. Here the game seems to tease you by making card 2 easy to find, and later you find cards 3 and 4. The problem? It's divided into four chapters, and you can't go back. You may suspect there is a card 1, but it's not obvious.

Perhaps there is something like the learned helplessness experiment with the rats and the shocks here. If it's intentional, it's a sly trick to pull on TALP. The start is relatively charming. You are a goat on a farm, and you need to eat three things before your owner milks you. You are tethered to a post, so you can only go two rooms away. The coding here must be rather clever, as you could go north/west/south/east from the start, but not with the post. It also underscores the security you feel, which is a trade-off for the freedom you think you really want. Something important to the best ending, so to speak, is outside of your initial range.

One character in the first part tips you off to the existence of the other, who is kind of tough to find due to the verbs. The game has a list of verbs, and while you can brute-force your way through them, it gets tiring. I wound up finding the card and not guessing the verb because (Spoiler - click to show)it was bloody, and I figured the blood had dried. The descriptions aren't especially lush, since the game is in Quill format and fits into a Z3 file.

Indeed, I felt I was missing something, but a bit of impatience kicked in. And while Mr. Seguin asked "are you sure you've done everything here?" I was in the mood to push forward. Especially since there was a fence where you need to JUMP FENCE instead of JUMP, even after you've jumped and it could be implicit.

This all seems a bit more like "here's how a parser can be a bit sly and so you have to use your head if things don't work" than a genuine tutorial. The author probably had to save space for the Z3 game. But it felt almost like an anti-tutorial, and a list of possible verbs really didn't change stuff.

So that's the bad stuff, and I think it's important to be warned about that before going on to what works rather better, which is the assortment of animals that you as Blanchette, the goat, talk to. Some don't react much, some just chat, and some show the same fatalistic fear that the reader may be feeling. Some warn you against doing further, and some are willing to help you on your way to the top of the mountain to meet the wolf. You're pretty sure you can win!

The story reads like a conglomeration of fables, but it works, overall, to me, once you see what to do with the puzzles. You find a secret passage. You realize an upturned cart needs to be moved. You find a use for dung.

The game foreshadows a bad end throughout, as when your owner locks you in the barn to stop you from fleeing, but then you get out anyway. A few of the puzzles involve killing a weaker animal than yourself, or leading them to their doom. Some seem resigned to it. It's not especially cheery in retrospect. There's a bit of odd causality with some dancing faeries that disappear once you solve a puzzle elsewhere. A sign somehow counts as wood and bread. The climax at the end is a fight with the wolf. I can't spoil it too much, but it is a sort of card game, and it relies on you picking up the cards that you found.

I wound up getting only 60 out of 100 points, and a lot of people were baffled as to whether there were 40 others, or maybe this was just another trick the author played on us to say, well, you can't even get close to what you want.

As mentioned above, Mr. Seguin's Goat felt like it would have fit in better with ParserComp or a TinyInform jam. It doesn't really have a tutorial behind a list of verbs that you can crank through and eventually get the right one, and there's even a sign that you READ to see that you are veru obedient! I'll take it as snark pointed at the goat and not the player. That, and how I figured the one missing card was destroyed when I found it, and taking a while to figure how to put something in the cart, slowed things down a lot for me. Perhaps I should have tried some of the solutions, in the general "there must be a solution here" vein. It would have worked. But I think it would run contrary to the spirit of TALP, which is about intuiting the right answer or at least telling the player what to do.

Still, I'm glad to see a retelling of an unusual story. There is macabre imagination here, and it's an accomplishment to figure what you did and look back through the journey. It's fatalistic without a "ha ha you had no chance." But boy, it's the feistiest TALP game I've played by a long shot.

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DO NOT KILL THE SLEEPING BEAST, by mogar

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
A strong and flexible allegory, June 18, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Neo Twiny Jam

ALL CAPS titles can reel me in or repel me quickly. This did the first. It suggests not just nonviolence but enforced nonviolence. After all, the sleeping beast hasn’t killed you yet! Um, at all. Who are you to strike the first blow? You're in no shape right now! And if you need to kill it, maybe you are being melodramatic about your problem? Maybe you have to admit you have a problem? Maybe you're ignoring the people with the real problems, or maybe you think you're too good to have real problems!

Yes, this is about addiction, or it can be, which you might infer from the cover art with beer bottles. Works about addiction always take a lot out of me, considering whether or not it works. So be warned. They can put me into a pensive rage about things I was told were good for me but in fact put me at serious risk of substance addiction. And I think I’ve discussed before how, say, playing games I don’t enjoy any more (or games just to say I completed reviewing everything for a comp/jam) is sometimes an anodyne that hides my fear of pushing ahead with something I've meant to do for a while. "Well, it’s not lethal," you hear. But there are less horrible sleeping beasts on the surface that can keep their hooks in you longer. That I thought about having to write reviews for every single entry, and writing a review for DNKTSB anyway--one that might even eclipse the 500 word jam limit!--tells you what I thought about this entry.

I think Twine works like this have definitely matured over the years. They’re a lot less in-your-face and feel a lot less like they have to prove a point or be exciting or exemplify the pinnacle of a certain art form. (Maybe I’ve mellowed on my views towards them, too, because there is less of a choice vs parser war than before.) But the fact is--this is surreal without being crazy, and it left me thinking yes, this is an addictive pattern I had, and this is something I couldn't break away from. Addiction is the easy one, but I also remember people who genuinely wanted to help me but I felt I couldn't pull away from some others. As if I didn't want to ruin the happy people's time. These people trying to help are the King in the story, who can be interpreted several different ways. His willingness to help and good intents and even his contempt for your situation are up for interpretation, as is the beast. Having a King and beast also, for me, left me with the question "doesn't someone else deserve to slay a beast first?" It's a nonsense question--you do what you can, and you can never be sure you've slain the beast. But it's one we've all had, if we're reflective.

As for the mechanics, there are a few questions with the same response. So this doesn’t especially branch, but I think (and this may be an old choice trope by now) it doesn’t matter, and you’re stuck. Here you ask how likable you are but are pretty convinced you’re not being objective, and if anyone really cared, or you were worth caring about, they’d help you out. It’s a heckuva dilemma to be in. Certainly I got to imagining "well, I-the-character am less likable for having an addiction, and I probably can’t get back to where I was, which wasn’t great anyway, or I would bring down the average happiness in the room there but not here."

The level of fantasy with the king, the knight (you) and the beast was not too in-my-face and gave me leeway to think of a lot of things. And it captured well how addiction/depression etc. is like a cycle where you say you don’t have the energy to tackle THAT yet, or it isn’t quite SO bad, or it could be worse. Then you have stretches where things go right and you wonder if they really are that right, or you feel dumb not breaking out in the first place.

It reminded me, too, of other things, such as comments by my family about how (paraphrased) druggies hang together. So don’t hang with the wrong crowd or you will get into drugs! And the isolation this presents turns that bit of nasty prejudice on its head because, as research has found, isolation increases the risk of drug use. No, it's not necessarily loud parties, etc. And this character is certainly alone in the game context.

While I prefer comedic works, or ones with a strong vein of comedy, I didn't want to pass up that DNKTSB was effective for me. It asked for a lot, but it helped address a few unfunny things that were tricky for me. I tend not to like kitchen-sink works about trauma. Perhaps I, like the hero in the story, just can't quite kill the beast today, so I settle for less. But on the other hand, a lot of side beasts can get killed with works like DNKTSB.

For what it's worth, after playing DNKTSB, which takes place at night when you're alone, I stayed up late, thinking about things that were broken and things I wanted to fix. It felt constructive. I made a small commitment to avoid some old beasts I didn't have to kill, I hope. So it was practical for me, too.

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Big Barbarian's Tiny Adventure, by nlem

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Short words and sentence: laughy Jam entry. Grah!, June 17, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Neo Twiny Jam

BBTA is right up my alley. It’s not the first spoof of adventure gaming, and it’s not the first twine game with directions out there (this could be inspired by the parser or by side-scrolling RPGs,) but I enjoyed it a lot, because I think having the word limit forced the author into stylistic choices to avoid elaborate jokes that maybe were heard before, or conventions which wouldn't add anything to the story.

Mages would have to worry about big long spell names. Priests? Praying and so forth. Thieves might be too obsessed with treasure. Bards? Well, you have to shoehorn in a song or two, to make them believable characters.

Barbarians are entities of few words, and they certainly don't futz about with spells! They are people of action. The result is a dungeon that is as big as it could be withe the word limit. I counted eight rooms when I mapped BBTA on a Post-it note.

BBTA also has a few deaths that you really should know if you paid attention. One is hinted particularly well. It is worth taking the scenic route for them. And as brevity is the soul of wit, they and the puzzles do indeed combine for a good deal of humor.

At the end, you get a choice of reward, and the unusual but in-character one is quite funny. About the only disappointment (for me) for this entry was that there wasn’t more in-game art like the image! That said, it was easy enough to imagine.

BBTA felt like more than comic relief as opposed to the more serious entries. There's craft and thought in there, like a Cheech and Chong skit featuring hapless idiots you can't help but like. (Hey, I like Cheech and Chong!) The decisions are surprisingly impactful. And it's fun to replay and see if the choices you make at the start matter for getting through the game. (Spoiler - click to show)They seem to make a difference with how much you get injured, but since you're a barbarian, you brush it off.

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Text Adventure Collector, by Rex Mundane

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Not the first Scott Adams tribute, but a good one, June 6, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)

Text Adventure Collector (TAC) is about, well, collecting old text adventures. It's written in the Scott Adams style, replete with short sentences in the room descriptions and action response. And while I suppose Jason and the Argonauts is the gold standard for this kind of thing, there's always room for a new angle. Perhaps there's a ceiling to this-all, because the self-referential humor and winking nostalgia at the good old days, where the author acknowledges the bad bits, only goes so far. But that ceiling is well above my-lousy-apartment games if the author is capable. And Rex Mundane is.

All you have to do is find ten text adventures (they appear in your inventory in helpful rainbow font! I love that Adventuron has this as a feature) and put them back in your bookshelf. They're all parodies of ones known and loved by the author, and though I drew a blank on a few, I noticed Garry Francis drew a blank on a few others and said so in the game's Itch.io thread. The author provided what translated to what. Zurk is one of the more obvious ones, and The Galactic Stowaway's Manual ... well, think about it a bit, and you'll get it.

And my favorite joke -- as part of a puzzle, you have to pry an iron key away from a magnetic scroll. There's more than enough subversion in the game to keep the puzzles fresh. They're pretty crazy but nothing mind reading, though you have to do a good bit of exploring to see how anything fits together. You'll be stuck with a colorless orb, but a wizard wants a dark orb, and so you have to find what item goes with it. The Wompus (no, not the Wumpus!) is described in another room, and so you learn how to defeat it. And there's a teleport spell to learn, which is not XYZZY, but there's some funny meta-humor about people not wanting you to use it. The clipped prose works well, too, with the toner being laconically described as "Overpriced." So while the game clocks in at 26 rooms, which is a bit contrary to the minimalist spirit of the competition, the prose makes up for it. I think one problem with retro/meta-humor games is that they get too involved in a joke, and maybe the contest's general guidelines helped the author keep the game text tidy, so the jokes flowed.

As for the games you find -- well, it's possible you may guess a few of them with what you need. The big problem may be it's frustrating to have to do and search for a lot before getting that first item. A screwdriver ... well, you probably know what that refers to. But you don't need any knowledge.

The author shows a lot of talent in TAC, and it's a fun time. But it's a bit limited by what's already there. And this is a tricky one--between TAC and the author's other game, there's a lot of fun meta-humor. And it isn't just about retro games and a love for them, which the author clearly shares, but it reminded me of After-Words from IFComp 2021. (Okay, this game was published in 2020. But, not being aware of Adventuron's existence until May 2021, I played After-Words first.)

I could read this sort of thing for a while, and if the author has more such ideas, they should take them. Because while this hits the mark for those of us who grew up with text adventures, those younger among us may only look at the jokes and suspect they seem pretty good. They are. And I think my relative lack of "oh that joke/trope again" reactions speaks to that the author didn't just try to check all the boxes with TAC.

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Insomnia: Twenty-Six Adventures After Dark, by Leon Lin

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Funny and technically/narratively worthy, May 15, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2023

As a fellow Spring Thing 2023 author, I was amused to note a similarity between Insomnia and Write or Reflect–well, WoR in helpful mode, anyway! Both have a possibility of going to endings you’ve seen before. (Insomnia has a bit more writing as a payoff, and said writing is better organized through some pretty diverse adventures!)

But they have different mechanisms for helping you to find all the different endings, so to speak.

Also, I’d like to thank the author for an early encouraging note to me about WoR. I hope this is good payback. So any suggestions here are “It’d be neat to do this too!”

WoR’s helpful mode lets you know if you’re about to walk into a node where all endings are covered. So you will get there, and rather quickly, by trial and error. It forces you to find the right path, which may ruin the fun of exploration.

But Insomnia leaves a bit of a puzzle. It’s quite up-front about things and I think even the endings seem to be organized so that, say, ending #1 is “first choice all the way through” and #26 is “last choice all the way through.” So you have a neat idea of what you can target and when and how. There’s some neat intuition here that I like, because while I enjoy branching Twine games, I sort of cringe at having to look at the source to knock off that last ending or two. Whether or not the endings diverge as much as Insomnia!

So I’m not aware of anything else that handles the endings as Insomnia does. But I’d be interested to see others, because I think it’s a great idea well-executed that helps it go beyond "yet another zany Twine game with clever fun writing." Especially since Insomnia doesn't try to slide on its zaniness alone. There's a funny ethical dilemma (well, not really) and I was amused to find the main villain was someone named Richards. With apologies to people whose last name is Richards, I laughed, remembering a line from a story I never wrote in college: "Geez, you have Richards this year for English? What an asshole!" Richards is, indeed, worse than that. I thank Insomnia for dredging up my irrational subconscious hate of people surnamed Richards. Especially if they have mustaches and wear corduroy blazers with elbow patches. (That's part of my never-published story.)

Insomnia's structure and bumpers open up possibilities for creating Twine-ish paths elsewhere, maybe even allowing the player a difficulty knob of how much they want to spoil.

For instance, you could have a counter saying, once you’ve hit all the endings in the (Spoiler - click to show)UFO branch (there are four) two times, that one is blocked off somehow or the node is bumped back! It seems like this would be tricky to do in Twine, but it would allow for a VERY branching game with even more than 26 endings so that the player’s energy would focus less on staying patient and juggling endings and more on the writing.

(Another neat idea, especially if the game had meta components, would be to allow the player maybe 2-3 glimpses at a branching ending map. Or maybe even label the endings 11111, etc., based on which choice gets you somewhere in the minimum tries.)

Insomnia is definitely a fun light-hearted read but it brings up some (to me) engaging, serious issues of how to keep the player’s attention and the niceties we should add to help them along and feel the optimal amount of stuck so we had a neat challenge, without giving up!

All these considerations, though, are nothing to lose sleep over. Ha ha ha.

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Talk to him about love, by auraes

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
I'm a bit baffled, but I can't hate it, January 31, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Adventuron 2019 CaveJam

TTHAL has a noble, unusual goal for a Cave Jam setting: awaken a stone troll and bring him back to life! This is where the "love" comes in. There's not a lot of talking, though. However, there is lots of fourth-wall humor, including a memo that keeps flying away when you examine it. Finding it several times helps you progress through the story. There's also a key you have to lose and find again, as well as baby birds you have to kill, but not really.

It's all a bit of a trip to me. The main thing to remember going through the game is that if something disappears, it's probably in a location where nothing has happened yet. Bonus points are dispensed oddly, for finding walls that aren't described and some guess-the-verb that makes moderate sense in retrospect, once you realize what the author was going for.

Still, this game broke me pretty quickly. I had trouble following the story, simple though it was, and there seemed to be a moral message (you become king of the ravens for a bit but worry you are evil). And i learned to expect that even taking an item in front of you is fraught with silly risks. Indeed, just being able to take something and have it, or me, stay as-is was a great surprise.

Later versions seem to have curbed some excesses, such as the deep mine that used to be 1000 levels (you jumped from 20 to 30, then 100 to 200, but still, it's nice they cut it down). This one needs a walkthrough to appreciate the jolly graphics. It seems very good-hearted. But some of the jumps are a bridge too far for me without more in-depth explanation.

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Snowhaven, by Tristin Grizel Dean

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Making a meal of reflection, in a good way, January 31, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: ParserComp 2021

Snowhaven takes place in, well, winter. The object is to make a stew for your brother, who is dropping by. It has three modes, and the third is mature and thus password-protected. I played through Pleasant and Emotive, which have the same map but also have slightly different puzzles and scenery. Both were effective and a bit unnerving, and the accomplishments list at the end of the game suggested Sinister mode was very sinister indeed. I think it's what scared me off playing back in ParserComp. I'm sad I missed it now, though, and I'd like to try it some time, though.

The graphics are very attractive, black-and-white ASCII-ish stuff with some animation indicating winds and, thus, extra wind chill. They help give starkness without anything being too imposing. And, indeed, your small home and the forest surrounding it are pretty bleak. Trees and such and even a river are dark.

The one difference between Pleasant and Emotive that I won't spoil is that you need a different meat for the stew. Finding and preparing said meat is trickier and, frankly, more bloody. Again referring to Sinister mode, I'm left a bit fearful of what happens there. So the password may've been effective in unexpected ways by leaving certain bits hidden.

There is a good deal of verb-munging to make the soup (finding several items needs a small leap of logic, but one that makes sense once you figure it,) and I also had some trouble making a snare in the second part, but I think this is part of the slice-of-life experience the author intended. Nevertheless between that and the text pauses, things felt like a bit of a chore. I knew what I needed to do, and perhaps Adventuron's focus on two-word commands may've inhibited the author helping the player as much as they'd have liked. Sometimes this is very on-point--for instance, the game taps you not to leave a food locker open with wild animals around. But other times, the repetition is slightly tiresome, e.g. chopping up the vegetables and placing them in the pot yet again. There is also a bit of odd forcing causality beyond just the game nudging you to avoid a certain area for now, or to go back and dump what you have in the soup--the reason for "Emotive" requires you to do something that fits in the story, but it shouldn't logically help you find the meat you need for your stew.

So there's some mimesis-breaking and a good chunk of repetition of similar actions between the two settings, but these criticisms seem less important than noting the author has managed to create two similar, parallel stories that are effective in different ways. (Probably three. I hope to verify this one day.) So it's a very impressive work, and certainly, once it's on the back burner, it's easier to remember the inventive bits than the parser-wrangling that, at least in part, gave a proper "it's tough in winter" feel. I think people may find Snowhaven tough to get into because it's not as directly cheery as the author's other games, and a few jumps you have to make early on may seem tricky, but that shouldn't stop people from enjoying it.

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Hallowe'en: Night of the Misty Manor, by Dee Cooke

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Overwhelming, but funny, game about Halloween curses and camaraderie, January 31, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Adventuron 2019 Halloween Jam

HNMM starts out as a fetch quest but soon swerves into greater scary-farce. You visit an old folks' home and, finally, the misty manor in the title. Along the way there's a branch based on which mask you choose.

It's good fun if you know what to do, but I can't escape mentioning its biggest weakness, so you're prepared if you've enjoyed the author's other works (as I have) and want to see all of HNMM. This all spilled over, but I hope it's more to provide a buffer than to read a loud laundry list the author, who's a veteran at writing games by now but maybe wasn't then, probably knows and sees.

You can get stuck in several unwinnable states, and there is some arbitrary stuff you need early on. That's a problem of zany games in general that try to provide a lot of replay value. For instance, there's a sugar packet necessary for one of the five branches, but if you make it through another, there's no clue which branch you need the packet in. There was enough of this that I needed a couple more sessions to work through each alternate path (there are five total, including a no-mask option,) and I did use a walkthrough.

Once you get to a place, you may say "Oh! I wish I had (X) now!") but because the game map is broken into a few distinct parts, you won't be able to go back. So it's tough to see ahead. And it's also tough to figure when you're at or near the final puzzle, and it's easy to worry you may be shut out from a win in other ways. Given that HNMM keeps throwing zany situations at you, it seems like there can always be several more, and the game's score is tracked internally.

So--yes, just save before you choose a mask, and save before you enter the mansion. You'll be able to enjoy HNMM best that way. And there is a lot to enjoy despite the technical unfriendliness of being locked out near the final puzzle.

You are Eilidh, charged with supervising four kids younger than you as you go to an old folks' home to entertain them, but first, you have to find a gift. Nearly everyone at the party refers you to the next person, who says "oh, wait, no, the gift is over THERE instead." Which certainly gives you the feeling of "oh, man, i sort of don't want to deal with these kids." But I didn't want to actually throw anything. The scenes where you'd probably get exasperated in real life are funny in writing, though there is one guess-the-verb situation that's so on the nose I didn't consider it ((Spoiler - click to show)you're told you need to distract someone, and the verb is DISTRACT X</spoiler).) The scene at the old folks' home is sort of sad, and the kids' performances are objectively terrible in a funny way. Then you're given a spooky green rock as a gift.

This is where the manor comes into play. I figured a way in, but it was a one-way affair. Puzzles included sneaking up the stairs silently and giving a creepy girl a gift. There are neat touches such as having to peel an apple and the peel turning into a random letter, which is the first letter of your husband's name. Then there is the random bit based on what mask you wear. It's rather funny if you don't wear one, period.

The author had a lot of wacky humor to dump in, and it didn't all hit for me, but the aggregate on the whole was successful. While you do have to retrace a lot of steps even with strategic restore, HNMM hits all the undead ghoulies and tropes it's always fun to tweak for a laugh. By the first end I had some fear of "oh no am I trapped this time" but they had some really clever ways to let you retreat back to your car, or at least near it, as you explored more weird and spooky places. And so I felt like I could feel may way through well enough with the final mask--though I did have to make sure I had the special item(s) I needed!

HNMM is ambitious, but isn't as focused as the author's latest efforts, and it makes a few unfair demands on the player. However, it was neat to see Eilidh and Deirdre from its sequel Day of the Sleigh again. It felt like the sort of odds-and-ends game we all have in us, and whenever we get it out, we will, and it's more than worth doing. While parts definitely feel a bit arbitrary, it is a good dose of humor that all Halloween jams can use to offset the more serious entries.

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Seeker of Magic, by Garry Francis

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A solid, no-frills, linear magic treasure cave jaunt, January 29, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)

It's weird, stumbling on Adventuron late and still having a backlog of stuff I really want to see. I've seen writers' more mature works first, with the earlier ones coming later. All sorts of factors, then, blunt ambition. The new authoring system is tricky to learn, there aren't resources, parts of the syntax may not be ironed out, and maybe there aren't as many great shortcuts or examples yet. People just want to get a nice game out there. And in the case of SoM, Garry Francis did. And went on to even nicer.

Overall I think the only possible point against SoM is that it is relatively unambitious, as a cave exploration game. As a thief armed only with a knife, you get by a gross troll (a highlight of the graphics, both when it is in your way or defeated for good,) make fire, solve a riddle, and pick off a slightly unexpected treasure. Hence the twenty points in the game, with only four actions. The map is linear. You get in and out. There's a quite sensible inventory-capacity (well, sort of) puzzle.

It's all over a bit too soon. I wondered if I'd really earned the treasure I found, but maybe part of this was due to the nature of the treasure and my enjoying the ride.

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The Witch's Apprentice, by Garry Francis

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Peak Adventuron, January 29, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Adventuron 2019 Halloween Jam

I played Santa's Trainee Elf recently before playing WA, so my cynical first reaction was "Wait! Garry's already done this before, but for a different holiday." But of course WA was released in 2019, STE in 2020. And, well, it's a very good thing they're similar. Both have neat graphics and are really sensible and entertaining fetch quests that fit the season. If you forced me to decide, I'd say STE is a bit richer and handles the whole "find stuff to make something special for kids" a bit better. But I liked them both a lot.

In WA, you are an apprentice who must find eight ingredients for the witch, for a potion to keep kids safe this Halloween. Some require more creativity than others. One even requires you to remove a cat's bell collar so they can (Spoiler - click to show)catch a rat. It's well-timed and paced, too, with the run-up to entering the Witch's mansion being just a bit spooky. There's no response when you knock, and the author deserves full credit for the joke/minor puzzle therein.

The mansion has a lot of off-limit areas that help it feel big without the game being overwhelming, and pretty much every sort of spooky location is covered. It's a three-story affair with a backyard, too. The ingredients aren't anything too novel. They don't need to be, though I laughed at needing rotten fruit. But there are amusing explanations for alternate names for mustard seed and buttercups. WA has a lot of small subversions of general witch tropes, and I particularly enjoyed poking at the scenery you couldn't use yet, or didn't know how to, as if to reinforce that you're an apprentice without belaboring the point.

WA just feels like the sort of game Adventuron was made for. You couldn't quite write it in Inform, and the parser bits feel like they'd lose something in Twine. I enjoy Garry's Inform games, but his writing seems to have a bit more character in Adventuron. There seems to be some nice synergy with the graphics.

Which leaves just one question. When's that Adventuron Valentine's Day jam coming? I'd love to see a trilogy from the author, if they had the inspiration.

(edited 1/29/23 5 PM, originally posted 1/28/23 5 PM)

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The Cave of Hoarding, by Dee Cooke

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
The reverse of a treasure hunt, January 29, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)

It's always amusing what authors can come up with when given a theme for a jam. I mean, some of us (like me) will probably play it safe and not take any big risks or even try to shoehorn their own specific knowledge into their effort. But others are better at saying, okay, how can we subvert this meaningfully, in ways the next entrant probably won't, either?

This is what happens in CoH. You'd think, with a title like that, it'd be a romp through a cave with a lot of treasure. But really it's about hiding treasure for later, as in, finding a place it can sit so people won't see it and eventually forget it's missing.

Such is your task from one Mr. Lo Kingdom. You and your not-really-friend Msndy (you're more like a chauffeur) need to find a way to hide things. Mandy's a bit absent-minded and can even get killed, which detracts from your point total even though Lo Kingdom mentions she was a liability if you fail to protect her. She manages to kind of mess things up along the way.

There aren't very many puzzles here. It's pretty obvious who is guarding the item you need and what you need to do with them. So burying the treasure is not too bad. It's turning things back to as they were beforehand that's the tricky bit. This is nowhere near as complicated and intriguing as Sub Rosa, but it's still a bit of fun. There's even a bit where Lo Kingdom gives you money for something special you have, because he's "persuasive" like that, but it's something you wanted to keep. This costs one point at the end. The points aren't displayed in-game, and given the author's later works, I like that she made the switch from points to achievements.

CoH does feel a bit less substantial than the author's later efforts, and I don't think this is general "oh people always get better" revisionism. For instance, Day of the Sleigh may have fewer rooms, but it feels like there's more to do, and the jokes are more focused, and the alternate paths and odd achievements feel more logical. Nevertheless I was glad to see there was a game of Dee Cooke's I'd overlooked, and I enjoyed working through the branches. Maybe it's a bit on the silly side, but given that the game's general intent is to do things backwards, it should have leeway for that.

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Century, by Zuuri

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Avoid the bugs, and it's a quick affair. Neat graphics., January 29, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Adventuron 2019 CaveJam

So, okay, I went to Garry Francis's walkthrough up at CASA/Solutionarchive.com pretty quickly for this one. Which is sad. The graphics are cheery and colorful. But it hits the "you have amnesia and are not sure what you're doing" a bit too heavily--and unintentionally, in the case of some verb-guessing.

Being stuck in the cave isn't so bad. This part is decently well-contained, though why and how the combination to a safe is scattered in parts about the area is a mystery. The puzzles are sensible. You find a key in the safe. You get out and climb a tree and even hunt for food! (This part is random and frustrating and chases people off. The next puzzles seem like arbitrary guesswork, unless i am missing something.)

You then find some treasure, except ... except ...

Well, the ending had me shaking my head a bit, too. I felt heckled. Not that that's a bad thing, and not that it was particularly abusive, but the shift from "what's going on here, anyway?" felt as helter-skelter as the game itself.

Given the chaos that transpired even with a walkthrough, I recommend you have one close by if you take the plunge with this game. There's a certain eagerness to it, to give you some standard adventure-game locations with weird twists, along with some puzzles that should feel good to solve. But they bounce from perhaps too obvious to "whoah, that was weird" too quickly.

However, if you're one of those people who can get into playing every game in a comp once you start, take solace in this game having enough heart that any frustration endured because of these puzzles is not lasting. That's how Adventuron rolls.

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A Mission in Time, by Soso

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Explore forest, avoid beast, find relics, January 29, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Adventuron 2019 CaveJam

"Astronauturon" feels like the sort of word a native thinker couldn't figure out, or that we might dismiss as too odd. But it works, a portmanteau of astronaut and Adventuron, presumably. It's far less plain than "A Mission in Time." Though the execution itself isn't especially snazzy, for better or worse: you're in a dark forest with a lot of rooms, but it's not really overwhelming. You're an astronaut coming back down to Earth, which humanity fled when it was irratiated, but after a hundred years, it's relatively safe again.

Well, except for that bear chasing you around the map. I didn't get caught by it, but some red text indicated it was nearby, as I took photos of artifacts with my camera. Then I went back to the ship and uploaded them, which presented the main game puzzle: there's a time capsule hidden outside the initial rooms you can view, and since your inventory capacity is two (three, if you drop the camera,) and there are six items on the photograph which you now recognize, you need to decide what is most practical.

This part is not very taxing, but recovering the time capsule is effective, and of course, when you win, you see what's in it. The ending is a bit cute, maybe too cute for the general mood, but it wrapped things up nicely.

Astronauturon is not a crushing experience, nor an unfriendly one, and the mapping goes quickly. But it feels like there could've been more puzzles with the items you find in the house, and the camera mechanic could have been used more. I feel like I may have missed something during my quick playthrough. I quickly went from being worried the map would be too tangled to wishing there was a bit more to do. But it works, and the black and white graphics are a neat touch that help emphasize the red text without overdoing it.

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The Missing Witch, by Dawn Mary Mac

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Short semi-spooky game with a funny instadeath, January 28, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Adventuron 2019 Halloween Jam

I'm really impressed by how unironically good last-place games can be in Adventuron jams, and The Missing Witch is no exception. Perhaps it doesn't soar, but it clearly does more than just make up the numbers, and if you're playing through the whole jam, you won't want to miss it.

You play as a nine-year-old who wants to get into a party and have some adventures. These involve, well, a lost witch. So the beginning is largely reconnaissance. One thing you must find is in your home, and if you dawdle too long, your parents make you stay in. (There's a joke to this. I won't spoil it.) The other things you need are strewn about the scenery, and this might be a pain in Inform with the non-sparse room descriptions, but Adventuron's ability to highlight critical words makes everything easier.

Once you've got a costume for the party, the summoning really starts. I was thrown a bit because I had to remove my costume to reach one semi-hidden room, and I was worried the twins would come after me, but that was relatively trivial. Getting there involves standard item-munging. There's a crypt of sorts to explore at the end, too.

The sorcery involved is decidedly g-rated and, well, it's trivial guess-the-verb. The ending was satisfying. It's a nice balance of kids'-party and minor spoernatural creepiness. So I really recommend playing through. Even if you get stuck, there's only so much to do, and there's one NPC you may forget about that turns out, indeed, to be an obstacle later.

One tip, though: the author added AI art for the 2.0 version now on itch.io, but it's in a 1x1 ratio, meaning you can't see it unless you narrow your browser a good deal. This, however, is worth it, since the graphics do add to the experience.

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The Mansion, by Manuel Sagra

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Short game about skeleton is comfortable in own skin, January 28, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Adventuron 2019 Halloween Jam

The Mansion definitely recognizes it's close to cliche. It recognizes it probably isn't going to shake you out of your chair. But it's short and tidy for all that and about as light-hearted as a game about an amnesiac skeleton could be, and it's well-focused. You will immediately see what to do at the end, but that's because the author didn't try to do anything crazy.

You wake up unaware of who you are or were in a locked room, and you slowly make your way around spooky grounds. There's a diary filling in the past, along with a shovel for digging, a spooky portrait, and an empty suit of armor. Perhaps you've seen these before in other games. There are a few small jokes if you examine everything, which isn't arduous.

Given there are maybe six rooms, it's not hard to find the way through, and you may guess what one special-seeming item is for. (I never did figure what the hammer and nails were for!) The game's main challenge is navigating the inventory capacity of two, I assume because you have two hands and aren't very strong.

Every comp seems to have that one game that's very competent and says, hey, here's a bit of fun, take it or leave it. I'm not going to be profound, but I am well-constructed, and you're not going to get lost. The Mansion, down to its generic name, is that, and yet it was spooky enough, even as I was pretty sure of what I was supposed to be doing, and the end had just enough of a twist to make me look back in worry.

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The Life (and Deaths) of Doctor M, by Michael D. Hilborn

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Love or hate your protagonist, there's a lot in here, January 27, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)

LDDM was, strictly speaking, too long for IFComp. But I'm glad it was in there. It was immensely demanding and rewarding, and it gave me much more to think about than the average work that assures you it is Making You Think. It managed to both place high and win the Golden Banana. Sixth is the highest place for an IFComp Banana winner, though A Paradox Between World achieved a higher percentile in 2021, being #10 of 71, versus #6 of 39.

LDDM deals with the concept of assisted suicide. You, Doctor M, are a purveyor of it, to the famous and anonymous, to the rich and poor. But the question is: are you a good person or a bad one? Throughout LDDM, you see evidence for and against it. There are awful people you please and annoy and good people you please and annoy. People argue it's done for fame, and others argue it was not. Some of your patients seemed to give full consent, and some didn't, and in some cases it may not have been so humane. Then there is the mystery of your death. I felt like LDDM did a good job of keeping things neutral while still being exciting to play through. It reminded me of the one chapter in Julian Barnes's Flaubert's Parrot where the narrator alternately blocked out events from Flaubert's life so as to make a work like Madame Bovary seem inevitable or impossible. Flaubert had all the privilege in the world, or he had all the bad luck. And, less universally, we've all had times where we felt we were obviously hard done by, but others assured us we weren't, or we've seen people balanced on the knife-edge.

So what must you, as the spirit of the recently deceased Dr. M., do? In a surreal afterlife, you need to look for closure in your own life. It's a long way off. You wind up revisiting the scene of your first euthanasia, your most famous one, and your last appointment. Along the way you meet an angel and devil. Each suggests you need to go with them. They're at a bar, and you need to fix the taps, so they each get a drink. Then there's a library, which amused me greatly--you've forgotten your own life, and in some cases, you need to look up information on people who died after you, because apparently you spent a lot of time sleeping in the afterlife. I wound up searching these people after climbing up and down a ladder to access their biographies, and the end result was a puddle of books on the floor.

This all feels like research, meaningful research, especially when paired with how you have to ask NPCs about all sorts of things, and while I hate full-blown amnesia games, the act of recovering your mortal past was quite fulfilling. I think this was also my first real exposure to abbreviated parser commands, where you could A (SUBJECT) instead of ASK ABOUT. As the years went by, I think I felt smarter and smarter that I'd figured it for myself. Oops!

When I finally visited my former patients, I actually messed up a few times. One has dementia, and I found the randomness of their response (you had to gain assent) favorably unsettling. I don't want to spoil the final one beyond saying it seems both tragic and logical, and once fame is part of the social calculus, it really sinks its teeth in and clouds moral clarity.

This isn't to say LDDM is a big long sermon. I love the surreal world it's in, with a door leading different places when unlocked with a different key. There are certain rules you find out in the afterlife, too. And there are swift dabs of humor, such as repeatedly ringing a bell to summon Death when Death's there. I love the denouements as a reward, too. It's not hard at all to figure the good, bad or neutral endings, which are effective. And in an odd way, it mirrors Cana According to Micah in that both can let you decide how good a person you feel you were.

LDDM is a long game, and I don't blame you if you pull out a walkthrough. When I replayed it, I went straight through and still slipped up, which led to some interesting sidelines. I can't even begin to discuss the morality of euthanasia, but I enjoyed the shades of grey this anything-but-grey game elicited, both when I played it in 2011 and now, when I revisited it. It was my favorite game I could vote on in IFComp 2011 (I tested Six) and I think its length may have turned some people off. But it gave a lot to think about, not just about life and death, but all those times you hoped you were doing things for the right reasons, or you wondered if someone else was, whether you liked or disliked them.

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Cana According To Micah, by Christopher Huang (as Rev. Stephen Dawson)

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Surprisingly touching Biblical apocrypha, January 26, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)

I probably wasn't ready for CATM back in 2011, the first year I really tried reviewing IFComp games. I was just trying to get through all the comp games, and this one pushed back at me, but not in the "oops, I'm broken" way. So I couldn't help I was missing something. Everything seemed a bit off to me: even the pen name, Rev. Stephen Dawson, seemed like a pedantic boor who debated endless theological points enough to scare people from church. Anna, an NPC, behaved cluelessly and almost annoyingly, yet she was trying to help. It seemed.

And there was a wedding feast, which I can only assume was the 30 AD equivalent of a cocktail party. (I don't like weddings.) This probably contributed to CATM being dinged a bit in the final standings. But I sat down and found several ways through it, such as they were, and -- well, looking back, I'm not surprised the author went on to publish a novel later, one that appears in my local library system, no less.

CATM isn't a big game. The mansion where you serve is just eight rooms, and the other bits are more straightforward. Yet it took a good deal of diligently fighting through the in-game hints to push through--they don't spoil everything, and I think they even manipulate you into trying things you otherwise wouldn't. I could complain that they don't appear or disappear when they should, but maybe it's my fault for losing faith that early. But you have to manipulate people in order to move the plot. Jesus/Joshua apparently isn't thrilled about the whole turn water-to-wine thing, and unless he has strong motivation, he's not going to. You can't convince him on your own. The whole water-to-wine thing is also subverted with an early puzzle, where you run into John, and, well, Jesus played a small trick on him. John deserved it.

Getting Joshua to perform a miracle without nagging is thus the main thrust of the story. You're sort-of aided by a young orphan named Anna (there are a lot of subtler anachronisms you may miss if just trying to solve CATM.) She causes a set of shelves to collapse, which seems awful, but it just says, okay, there's nothing at the top, so don't bother to look for a ladder. Later she becomes part of a small moral dilemma that leads to branching endings. In the main good one, Joshua lets you know that he isn't a stickler about some things, and you did right. Yet it's easy to imagine these days people with far less than Godlike powers deliberately putting subordinates into impossible positions. So that was an unexpectedly revealing moment.

It's never quite clear how far you are in the plot--you need some NPCs' help to point out other NPCs, and the upper-right, instead of "10/10," is in Bible verse format, which is sort of cute. So there's some ambiguity, but I think that's planned, because your fellow servants Amos and Martha are often sent to town to perform errands. There's a lot of personal interaction implied and required. Though the author deliberately leaves you hanging about one particularly tedious action before speeding it up drastically, as if to say, I don't want you to focus on that. It's not a miracle by any sense, but it's a benevolent way for the author himself to play God.

I missed a lot of the humor of CATM the first time through, and I'm glad I gave it another chance. Parts still feel a bit sticky years later, but I think that's more to the author's discretion. CATM doesn't let things happen too easily, and it nearly forces you to interact with the NPCs and try things to see what to ask about and gives you several chances to solve things as a decent person or as a jerk or worse. It's an interesting bit of speculative apocrypha that avoids crazy humor and asks some what-ifs within the story.

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The Troll and the Teddy, by Llewelyn 'NylePudding' Griffiths

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Maybe only one puzzle, but a sweet and funny one, January 25, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Adventuron 2019 CaveJam

Here's an old one: A troll sleeps in front of his cave. There's treasure inside. The troll won't give up said treasure unless you're clever.

The twist? He's not hostile in the least. You need to do him a small favor. The title may spoil it. His cave isn't very big, but it's lovingly laid out, with a treasure room and clothing room and even a book.

The main puzzle, how to wake up the troll and make friends, is not hard and may partially be spoiled by the title. But no matter. It's an economical game, and the puzzle, indeed, makes emotional sense. You simply help the troll sleep better. He's remarkably generous, but perhaps he had enough treasure, anyway.

I can see why a game like this placed in the bottom half of the Adventuron CaveJam, because it's not terribly complex, and there's not a lot of tension, but with the delightfully blocky just-so graphics and surprisingly charming goal, I had myself a good time. The competition would've been less without it, and if Adventuron keeps giving people the ability to produce games like that, I'm glad to have more of them to play.

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Slasher Swamp, by Robot

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Surprisingly fun, with perspective and a walkthrough, at least, January 25, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)

We all have games like Slasher Swamp, ones that maybe aren't terribly good, but we played them and enjoyed them for what they were. Perhaps there were better games out there, but Slasher Swamp had a simple enough premise, and the world, while big, only had so many items and so many death traps. So when, on replaying it, I stumbled into an instadeath, I could just reload and try again.

The premise is: your truck (pickup, I assume) is headed for Miami on Spring Break when it breaks down in a swamp. There are all sorts of decrepit buildings and mazes to navigate. You need a combination of good luck charms and weapons to survive. There's little clue what you need if you stumble onto a fatal obstacle, though there's plenty of gore. Then you open another area, mostly through examining stuff and finding a tripwire. This all culminates in a battle in an otherwise innocuous straw hut in the corner of the map.

Along the way you find a severed head and revolver and even some useless items like a King of Spades and Queen of Clubs in an otherwise irrelevant area, which hinted at, perhaps, a few puzzles the author could not slip in before IFComp. Perhaps it's better that way. Too big, and Slasher Swamp would've lost its fun. Looting an abandoned house and gas station is enough. There's even an outhouse and, of course, a side-warping map with non-reciprocal directions. There's a secluded shack, too, not to be confused with the hut. The whole deal is surprisingly dry-goods (find item B in area A, then D in area C since B gives you protection,) and there really is a lack of subtlety. But it is fun for all that. The descriptions seem to beg you to be scared, but I have to admit, they have variety.

Replaying Slasher Swamp years after it was a sort of cult favorite in IFComp 2014 reminds me of other TV shows I enjoyed fondly, even if they weren't good. That one cartoon. Maybe even that one commercial that, these days, makes me smile more than the show it interruopted! You can't have a steady diet, but it has an undeniable enthusiasm and willingness to throw in everything that refreshes the spirit, if not indulged too often. Perhaps I'll have a different perspective seven years from now, in 2030. Somehow, though, it's more than the sum of its parts, and unironically better than you feel a game like this should be, which makes up for more highfalutin' games which miss the mark. We need a few like this. And I guess that's partly why I wrote a walkthrough and map for it years ago, so maybe when I'd need a break from the more mindbending stuff, I could have more simple enjoyments. I did. Maybe you will too.

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The Bible Retold: The Bread and the Fishes, by Justin Morgan and Celestianpower

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Oh, God! You delegator!, January 24, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)

BR:BF is a fun game, if some of the puzzles misfire. It's a jokey retelling of Jesus feeding a crowd with bread and fish. You, as Jesus, need to actually find the bread and fish. It's a tricky prospect. There are people to be healed, and once they are, your Father above--well, he certainly lets you know what to do next. It's kind of a goofy joke I don't want to spoil, but it doesn't get old. No great theological arguments are broached.

Some of the puzzles require Biblical knowledge, and one sort of does--or you can use trial and error. It's based on the number of verses in each chapter of Mark, which seems a bit odd, and there's a bit of arithmetic too. While i like having numbers integrated into a puzzle, this felt like busy work to me, although it also gave the feel of a big, lost place, and it was sort of neat and different to put different priorities on things you needed to map. You then unsurprisingly have to do something based on a Bible verse.

This all is a bit odd and uneven. But there are neat moments of talking with the people you've healed and getting very modest favors back from them in search of your big grand meal. I am, however, glad I had David Welbourn's walkthrough as a crutch, so I could enjoy the humor scattered through the game, and I found it interesting enough to replay for what I saw in the AMUSING menu. Certainly I studied it harder than those old Bible verses.

Oh, the ending is a funny take on things. Crowds being crowds, what they do is sort of expected, and it makes for a satisfying denouement.

Though BRBF's puzzles seem forced, I did enjoy the general storytelling and world and humor involved even if it never soars. So I do quite recommend it, but keep a walkthrough handy so it's not too frustrating. Navigating the addresses in the village is an arithmetic grind.

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Pascal's Wager, by Doug Egan

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
What if God was one of six? Play this game and get your fix. Bleebleebloo, January 23, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)

Pascal's Wager is an odd one, for sure. But it looks into something I dared to think when I was younger: if there are a bunch of gods, we're even less likely to pick the right one. Is heaven that exclusive? Did you get part-credit if you picked the right one, sort of? Limbo, at least? So many religions had ways to X you out if you screwed up the One True Faith anyway, and the "everyone can make it" ones seemed to give a nice afterlife as a participation trophy. I admitted I sort of looked at which gave the most potential reward for the least effort, which was probably not a paradise-worthy musing.

Pascal's Wager takes a different tack. It's decidedly funny. You can ask WHO IS GOD right off the bat, and there's also an item that shows you who the real God is. This requires some trial and error, but it's the sort the game invites. Then, you have to act in accordance with the deity's wishes. The result is a game with a lot of really irrelevant-seeming items or paths through, with a core of stuff to do right and NPCs who are, somehow, grounded in what's really what. I found the Bacchus path quite funny indeed. I care not how theologically accurate it may be.

Until then, it's not terribly clear what exactly to do (maybe this is just the confusion of youth,) although there are locked doors and such that dare you to open them. You'll probably hit the (generous) time limit, at first, resulting in a lot of being sent to hell by God, who usually asks you a trappy "didn't you consider X?" question. You lose either way. As if omnipotence isn't enough, he has to make you feel helpless one last time. I have to admit, after figuring who God was, he blasted me for being all prayer and no action. Ouch! Well, at least he told me what I should have done.

The basic run-through is as follows: childhood, teenage years, and finally adulthood. Who God is each time doesn't affect the run-throughs, but some items just don't matter. Mechanically, it's more a game about sneaking around than about any deep philosophical musings. There's nothing too intimidating, especially the second time through. It's a rather fun adventure to find the name of the True God.

So there's a surprising amount of subversion built into finding the True God, and I suppose that's what spirituality is about -- controlled, sensible good questions. Even unlocking the hints is an amusing trivial exercise. Each subsequent replay feels a bit more conventional, though, and what felt like subversion turns into checking off on details just to get through and not make mistakes. Which may be a mechanical weakness, but it also brings to mind the sort of person who thought they were very, very clever questioning God's existence and not letting you question their good faith asking the question. PW even seems to poke fun at straining too hard for spirituality--two characters seem to satirize the concept of a guru very lightly.

I have to admit, on winning, I got the five other scenarios queued up for later. In other words, not right away. PW is very funny, but replaying too much too soon is a bit of a slog, and I needed to take time to sit back and enjoy having so many different paths through what seemed like a samey story on the surface.

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Present Quest, by Errol Elumir

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
A few unrelated, odd puzzles that come together at the end, January 22, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Adventuron 2020 Christmas Comp

So about two-thirds of the way through Present Quest, I was baffled as to how and why it had won the Adventuron 2020 Christmas Jam. The puzzles seemed facile and, quite bluntly, a few things didn't add up. Everything was clunky and empty. Did nice graphics really go so far? Were the busy-work puzzles more captivating than I thought? The first puzzle, I needed a hint on, and I double-checked, and yeah, it was too obscure and vague! Then they got unrealistic. And what's up with the short names? Was I off-base, or we the fifteen people who rated the game? Why did I need the food and energy gauge, when they were so easy to recharge? I mean, yeah, content warning and such, and maybe people emphasized with the author, but a pity vote seemed too much. It was a bit odd the author latched on to a meme that peaked in 2008.

Well, by the end my perspective had changed. And it forced me to reconsider certain things about my own life. It made me think about my own time-wasters and why I did them, and whether or not they really helped. My past is probably different enough from yours that you will get something very different from it. Let's just say that I read the content warning, assumed a certain incident in the game was the bit referred to, and said "okay, that's bad, but I don't feel affected by things."

What is PQ at its core? To me, it felt like Progress Quest, where you progress just by having the app open, though I think there's a better explanation for the name in the spoilers than you finding a sligtly cringey Christmas present for Pel. It certainly gave me that idea that minimal progress was inevitable, and you were going through the motions. Even though, well, you have little things to keep you excited. You, Terry, have a ho-hum job that's not well-described. Your wife, Pel, cooks breakfast and takes the car in to have snow tires put on. One day she drives you. One day you take the bus.

Everything has a small puzzle weaved in. On the first day, you need to find a password to your computer. If you want, you can call Pel for hints. It was a bit tortuous the first time, and then when I thought I had the answer, I thought, no, that's silly, it's too short. A fellow named Gord came by and talked to me. He has no effect on the story, and the game warns you against talking to him, and boy do you get an earful if you ignore the game and TALK GORD twice in a row. (I skipped the first time.) The next day, on the bus, you have a small puzzle to figure the route number you need, and the photocopier is broken. Then you have a puzzle with trivial UNIX commands to shut down George Michael's "Last Christmas" playing in the office. Work goes by.

I managed to get better at the puzzles. But I was very close to saying, geez, really? A my lousy apartment game AND a my lousy job game, with because-it-is-there puzzles on top? But PQ seemed inoffensive, much like Terry himself, so it couldn't hurt.

Then the incident happened, and things went to smash, but not in the way expected. And, well, the realization--it didn't hurt, but it tripped off a few things from my own life, of personal crutches I'd kept and thrown off. I was impressed enough by PQ that I want to spoiler-tag the critical bits, but again, I'd encourage you to play through it. As for a walkthrough? I was planning to write one for CASA, just to give Adventuron games more coverage. But since all you have to do is call Pel repeaetedly. You do feel a bit naggy, and that's the point.

(Spoiler - click to show)Hm. Okay. I don't want it to be that easy. ROT13.com will decode the next line below.

Jryy, fbeg bs. Rnpu cnentencu orybj unf n qvssrerag ahzore va gur Pnrfne Pvcure. Gurer'f n jnl gb svther vg bhg bgure guna ol oehgr sbepr. Ohg V qb jnag gb tvir n ovg bs n ohssre gb jbex guebhtu vg, naq V unir ibvqrq fbzr cnegf bs gur cybg. Naq V jnagrq gb unir fbzrguvat gurer gb funer jvgu crbcyr jub'ir svavfurq CD, gb pbzcner abgrf. V ubcr vg'f abg gbb zrna naq va gur CD fcvevg. V pna'g cebzvfr nal rzbgvbany eriryngvba, gubhtu.

Drobo kbo drsxqc S nyx'd gkxd dy pybqod pbyw wi ygx vspo, dyy. Wkilo droi gobo zbylvowc sx wkdr myxdocdc drkd S qyd, grsmr gobo dbsmui, led S pyexn k gki. Kvcy, drobo gobo dro mrocc qkwoc, grobo S zvkion kx yzoxsxq yb grkdofob, grobo S pyexn k xsmo mywlsxkdsyx dy zevv drsxqc yed. S nsnx'd bokvvi gkxd dy pybqod drow, ofox grox S vkdob zed drow sxdy k mywzedob drkd dybo wi wyfoc kzkbd. Kxn grox S myevnx'd psqebo cywodrsxq yed kd gybu, yb wkilo ofox grox S gkc zbyqbkwwsxq cywodrsxq pyb wicovp, drkd'c grox S grox S qyd lkmu dy, kxn sd qkfo wo k lsd yp k lyycd. Led dro lyycd rkn nswsxscrsxq bodebxc dy cmkvo. Kvv droco wowybsoc wki xyd lo kc dbokcebon kc k czyeco iye vyfon, led kvv dro ckwo, droi gobo czomskv dy wo. Zobrkzc droi gobo dyy czomskvsjon dy zecr pybgkbn, kxn cywodswoc dro kmd yp bowowlobsxq drow gkc wybo nbksxsxq drkx S dryeqrd. Drobo gobo ofox yvn qkwolyyuc S lyeqrd yx oLki, tecd dy rkfo kqksx, kxn drobo gkc yxo zkdr drbyeqr, kxn dro zejjvoc gobox'd rkbn, kxn grox S qyd drbyeqr gsdryed k wscdkuo, S oxtyion dro wowybi, led S nsnx'd poov cwkbd. Kxn sp S woccon ez, S gyxnobon, qycr, kw S vycsxq sd?

Pdana sana okia reypkneao, pkk. Oawnydejc bkn khz huneyo wjz oknp kb ieo-naiaixanejc pdai wjz dwrejc Ckkcha pqnj pdai ql wjuswu--cnawp! Dawnejc pda okjc wcwej wjz nawhevejc E'z bknckppaj sdwp E hkkgaz ql, pdwp E oskna E'z naiaixan xaywqoa kb ykqnoa pda oejcan owez pdwp--kqyd! Xqp ep swo lnkcnaoo wjz hawnjejc. Wjz E dwz w ykskngan sdk odksaz ia w lnkfayp kb deo ej Y. Ep ykjranpaz w opnejc kb jqixano wjz klanwpkno pk w jqixan qoejc LAIZWO. E pdkqcdp E ykqhzj'p zk ep, E swoj'p jawnhu wzrwjyaz ajkqcd, wjz da owez E ykqhz, eb E ows ep necdp, wjz E dahlaz dei sepd okia kzz eilhaiajpwpekj zapweho. Da habp pda ykilwju odknphu wbpan, wjz bkn w sdeha, E skjzanaz "dks zez da zk pdwp," wjz kjya E becqnaz pdejco kqp, ep swo okiapdejc pk ck xwyg pk. Wjz ep dahlo pk pdeo zwu wo wj atanyeoa pk hawnj w jas lnkcnwiiejc hwjcqwca. Xqp ep swoj'p qjpeh E wllheaz ep pdwp ep dahlaz ia ikra bknswnz--pda ykjbezajya xkkop bnki owuejc "kd, pdwp'o dks da zez pda xwoeyo" skna kbb.

Qdt jxuhu muhu xebbem lysjehyui qbedw jxu mqo. Veh ydijqdsu, yj'i fhujjo uqio je adem xem je wuj weet qj VhuuSubb, rkj Y mekbt iehj ev huluhj je yj, qdt ulud myddydw q vum wqcui yd q hem tytd'j vuub weet. Eh jxuhu qhu/muhu fqydj-ro-dkcruhi fkppbui mxuhu Y adum jxu rqiys ijhqjuwo qdt mqid'j fkixydw vehmqht. Y cqo'lu beeaut temd ed Juhho'i vehckbqjut fkppbui, rkj Y xqt co emd.

O makyy oz'y zngz cge cozn Zkxxe, zuu. Noy jksktzog sgjk oz ngxj zu xkskshkx znotmy, gtj znay zu ju noy cuxq vxuvkxre (vkxngvy Hkxz gtj Muxj mobk nos yorre zgyqy/vaffrky yu Zkxxe jukyt'z yzxgot nosykrl cozn xkvuxzy) haz yurbotm vaffrky mgbk nos g iutlojktik huuyz ux inkkxkj nos av, atzor znke jojt'z gtj iuarjt'z, hkigayk znke ckxk zuu lgx ot znk vgyz gtj nk tkbkx subkj luxcgxj. Oz'y yigxe nuc znoy ngvvkty kbkt coznuaz jksktzog--O'bk gryu ngj se uct Muxjy gz cuxq cnu jojt'z yzuv zgrqotm, gtj ngbotm urj vxuhrksy zu irkgx se nkgj ul znkox iutbkxygzouty cuxqkj, atzor znke jojt'z. Oz'y grr bkxe ixakr kbkt ol eua jut'z ngbk jksktzog--xkgjotm urj yzall eua cxuzk, gtj cutjkxotm nuc eua znuamnz ul zngz, znuamn znk grzkxtgzobk oy "O cgyt'z znotqotm ghuaz sain, cgy O?" Yuskzosky O'bk igamnz seykrl ruuqotm gz znk Cgehgiq Sginotk lux nuc O luatj g ikxzgot vokik ul tuyzgrmog zngz O luxmuz zu huuqsgxq, gtj oz lkkry muuj zu xkzxgik gtj lomaxk znotmy uaz, gtj ekz O qtuc oz cgy zosk cgyzkj tuz lomaxotm uznkx tkgz tkc znotmy. Ux O cutjkxkj cnu zngz yammkyzkj lxoktj cgy, yuskutk O ynuarj qtuc, gtj oz noz sk g lkc jgey rgzkx. O qtuc znkxk oy yzall cuxzn rkzzotm mu ul, haz grr znk ygsk, znk lkkrotm ul ruyy oy gclar.

Ylb ugrf Rcppw'q nsxxjcq qncagdgayjjw zsgjr ypmslb fgq nyqr ylb rfgleq rfyr kyic fgk fynnw, dpmk qmkcmlc cjqc, ucjj ... wms ayl dccj fmu fgq zmyr fyq zccl qgligle dmp y ufgjc. Wms umlbcp ufyr'q lcvr. Ylb rfcl, md amspqc, Npcqclr Oscqr bmcql'r kcyl y npcqclr, zsr rfc npcqclr. Ylb ufgjc Rcppw zmsefr fgq hsqr zcdmpc rfc qfmn ajmqcb, fc lctcp emr y epgn ml rfc npcqclr. Ylb rfc rpslayrcb lykcq dgr gl ucjj ugrf fmu Rcppw ayl mljw npmacqq qm ksaf.

Mzp iuft Fqddk'e bgllxqe ebqouruomxxk nguxf mdagzp tue bmef mzp ftuzse ftmf ymwq tuy tmbbk, rday eayqazq qxeq, iqxx ... kag omz rqqx tai tue namf tme nqqz euzwuzs rad m ituxq. Kag iazpqd itmf'e zqjf. Mzp ftqz, ar oagdeq, Bdqeqzf Cgqef paqez'f yqmz m bdqeqzf, ngf ftq bdqeqzf. Mzp ituxq Fqddk nagstf tue vgef nqradq ftq etab oxaeqp, tq zqhqd saf m sdub az ftq bdqeqzf. Mzp ftq fdgzomfqp zmyqe ruf uz iqxx iuft tai Fqddk omz azxk bdaoqee ea ygot.

(Ghmx: rhn vhnew ybznkx patm mh khmtmx ur ybznkbgz patm max exmmxk B fnlm ux. Xoxg by B inm bm bg ehpxk-vtlx, rhn'w atox t tgw b tl lbgzex phkwl. Matm'l fr vhgmkbunmbhg mh max pahex insser ubm.)

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Nose Bleed, by Stanley W. Baxton

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Oh hey! A metaphor I think I got! One I could apply to life, too!, January 22, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

Nose Bleed was my clear favorite of the Texture games I played in IFComp, and I feel it is likely very worth the relatively little time to play through it. The bits that necessitate the content warning are not just there for street cred, too--they provide the right sort of discomfort, not "look how I can gross people out" but more "yeah, I've been there, even if I couldn't have admitted it before I started." The metaphor for the gore is pretty clear. Or, well, the main one I saw.

NB starts off as a "my lousy job" entry (an upper-class one, perhaps, but still lousy) which quickly aims for meaningful absurdism which, from my perspective, hits the mark. There are graphics at the right places, with some sort of vector-ish effect. Given the game's title, it's not too much of a spoiler to mention there are small blood splashes and lines of blood running down. Gritty realism in the blood trails is absent but unnecessary: the trailing line is straight, and the splashes are perfect circles.

This all leads to a puzzle at the end which may feel old hat or a cop-out once Texture is more mature, perhaps the Twine version of "pick the right link in a whoe maze of them." However, since I haven't played many Texture games, it's extremely effective, and if it does become a cliche, I'm glad it wasn't when I played NB. You feel as though you're fumbling in the dark for an escape, and it's the reason a walkthrough is included in the game. Even if you know what to do at the end, you don't quite know what to do.

This makes NB as much more than a "my lousy job" or "I hate my co-workers" fly-by. Details are left out on purpose. You have spontaneous nosebleeds. You try to ignore them. You fail. They stop, soon enough, but the damage is done. Someone notices. They pin you down a bit. They may be a competitor, or a supervisor. There's a flashback. Expensive fabrics are involved. No matter what you do, it feels like you did the wrong thing. You'd like to run away or explain yourself or feel too cool to, but "you are too cowardly to be cowardly."

I've had few nosebleeds in real life, but I've picked a zit at the wrong time and not noticed I'd cut myself shaving until I got to work. Okay, I noticed before, but I thought I'd stopped the blood. But of course the blood in NB isn't just blood. I think we all have that area where we feel completely socially incapable, and we can't shake it, and the narrator does, too. There's that awful secret we don't want revealed, but if we take deliberate steps to cover it, someone could play detective and eventually figure what we were trying to cover. We worry we might be embarrassing others. Or ourselves. And yet, the people most likely to mention we are embarrassing them, well, they seem to be embarrassing us back, right? For me the story built to a very plausible "embarrass or be embarrassed" scenario. It brought to mind a lot of people who could on the one hand say "this hurts me more than it hurts you" and "you're embarrassing yourself more than you're embarrassing me, but it's still too much."

The ending may be open to interpretation, and perhaps it's the sort of surprise twist that isn't a surprise if you've read or played enough, but one part is very clear: the final person berating you spontaneously gets nosebleeds, too. This reminded me of people who said "Oh, X who is mocking you has their problems, too, you know, so don't judge them too harshly." It isn't clear how harshly we should judge X. But certainly there's latitude for saying, enough, already. Some people can't, or they can't point out others' obvious flaws, or don't want to, or it isn't in good taste. Or perhaps X had seemed to learn to deal with their own phobias, with jokes. Or perhaps X was someone on an Internet forum or twitter or wherever who was up front about their social anxiety, so up front they'd note other people didn't have nearly the barriers they did, so you all really need to stop whining for your own good. In any case, the big reveal allowed me to dislike my antagonist without judgment. On replay, I realized that was the sort of person I'd like to be indifferent to, and I've gotten better over the years.

These are my somewhat filtered-for-review thoughts. Nose Bleed's crisp presentation brought moments of where adults may even have told me "X has problems too!" I felt guilty wanting to call these people out and failing, mean at how I wanted to lash out, and cowardly because I didn't. The author isn't explicit about their sympathies, though I suspect they lean towards the player. You do have to note people like your assailant have their own problems, but they also have to fix them, and if they assert power over you, why should you help them?

Given all this, NB was much better than someone very, very well-meaning saying "oh you know bullies are empty inside" or "they only pick on you out of insecurity" or even "I understand, but don't let it get you down!" And I realized something else: it doesn't resort to ALL CAPS, which is such a temptation when discussing social anxiety and, I'd guess, a metaphoric nosebleed on its own.

I had several short reflections mid-game of saying oh geez yes it can be horrible like this. But then I had a much quicker bounce-back than I might have had ten years ago. There were people from my past the antagonist reminded me of. I didn't have things like NB to help me take a step back and see through their charades. It's too late to push back at them, but at least NB helps me push them further out of my mind. Looking back on the blurb, it's hard not to laugh at the experience of playing NB and, yes, at some people who said something similar years ago.

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The Bible Retold: The Lost Sheep, by Ben Pennington

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Simple game with cute auto-walkthrough feature, January 21, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)

Lost Sheep entered in the first IFComp where I judged. I was kind of shocked to see that, yes, a lot of IFComp games could be both relatively simple and satisfying.

In this case, there was a simple game where you needed to find your one lost sheep of a hundred. The sheep's a bit reticent, as while it's pretty clear where it went (the game is not big,) it bounces between locations. The puzzle was a bit of a trick--fortunately there aren't too many items, and the puzzle is more about ancient history and progress than the Bible. Then there's a fun part where you are blocked by water buffalo.

But what stuck with me was that, well, you could type WALKTHROUGH not just for a walkthrough but for the commands remaining! I thought about this trick a lot. How did they do it? After some thinking, I realize it wasn't terribly esoteric, but it was a neat bit of engineering I'm a bit disappointed more games haven't implemented. Perhaps it would only get the player so far, so the text didn't scroll off the screen.

This doesn't make BRLS a blockbuster, but it provides a niche. It's all very pleasant, even with funny things to try once you've won. They don't bring the house down, but together, they add light-hearted deaths and even some odd fourth-wall stuff. Perhaps I'm biased favorably because I remember the puzzle to get through, but I still find BRLS something neat to go back to just to poke around. I'm on the fence about if that's mainly due to the WALKTHROUGH response, but either way, it's a short fun time.

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One Way Ticket, by Vitalii Blinov

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Captivating and odd and flavorful, January 20, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

The cover art biased me early. It was obviously a train on the front cover but not quite like one I'd ever seen. Quirky the right way. But there was more than cover art–the in-game pictures reminded me of Tove Jansson, and so did the writing. (If you don't know who Tove Jansson is, please do stop by your local library and read all the Moomintroll books as soon as possible!) The plot and puzzles and layout are great, too. And though I didn't get through OWT, I loved what I saw, and given how well put together it is, I sense I'm missing something silly. Somehow, between the end of IFComp and posting this review, I didn't figure it, either. I need to fix that. But I saw enough even getting halfway through!

OWT is set in a nonsense land in its own rules, where you take a train, but your trip is derailed halfway through. It's unclear why, but you debark in front of a very, very odd town. The mayor seems very uninterested in greeting you, so off you go to explore a store with legs (it walks away after dark) and visit some very odd characters indeed. But it's the best sort of oddity that never feels forced, and the translation gives a unique voice native English speakers would sound very artificial mimicing. For me it reinforced how far-away this place must be.

I'm still fuzzy on some aspects of why things are happening, but I suspect things will be revealed once I find my way through. It's been fun to learn the town's history and how it wouldn't fly in the real world, but it would clearly make sense to those living there for a while. A key mechanic is changing your free room at the tavern from day to night based on the puzzles. You switch out a moon and sun in a painting. This was reassuring to me–I didn't need to worry about messing up or taking too long–and it also fit in with "look! The natives are helpless!" Townspeople have bizarre reasons for not transporting you palces you need to go, and there are jackals who appear at night. One very fun scene has an NPC scare some of them away so you have a few more places to visit. It's even legitimately creepy to explore at night!

I got stuck trying to find golden sand and trying to help a man with four right arms get his pedicab going. (Just walking didn't work, due to some existential woes.) Then there was the gambling game I knew was rigged. These barriers and frustrations amused me immensely, and I don't know if any other comp entry has hit this nerve so well, and I'm eager to see more.

One word about the interface. It's not immediately obvious, but once you see how it works, it makes sense. The text for each location has clicky bits that either lose all their links (a compass appears below to show a big picture map to pick your next location) or just let you cycle between the scenery--this gets a bit awkward as you open more locations, and it would be nice to jump, but this is quibbling. A notepad in the upper left, when highlighted, lets you remember clues you picked up, and a knapsack in the upper right lets you use items. Clicking on the location lets you save a game. At first I panicked when I didn't see how or when to save (it's quite possible I skimmed the instructions) but quickly I acclimated–and I was glad not to have even the hint of a save/restart menu tarnishing the fantasy world I was in! TLDR: the visual design is very effective, and maybe it can't be used everywhere, but I hope OWT inspires others to improve their own.

OWT feels like it might not get the attention it deserves because 1) it has a custom format (I think) and is hosted outside IFComp and 2) it is translated. And there is one instance where the translation misleads the player–the "say goodbye" option in the tavern actually means "don't talk to the owner this time," and there's one instance where being called "buddy" feels jarring and too condescending and "friend" would've worked. These are very subtle degrees of connotation, though, and if something was lost in translation, well, what's left is very special, and we have more than enough. I've never been as disappointed in myself for not finishing a game as I have for OWT. It's legitimately, organically odd, the sort of oddness that won't jump in our face and beg us to experience it fully now for our own good or be stuffy squares for eternity. In other words, the kind our souls need more of.

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Chesstopia II, by John C. Knudsen

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Chess and time travel, but I want more, January 20, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)

The author of the Peter Patzer series decided, after a long hiatus, to switch things up a bit. The Chesstopia series is a bit more serious, focusing on actual improvement and spreading appreciation of chess, and it doesn't have some of the parser bugs and helter-skelter feel that made Peter Patzer charming in its own way. The whole series shouldn't be very intimidating. I felt C2 was probably the most substantial of the three, but it should not take more than a half-hour.

The plot is this: Caissa, the chess Goddess who set you on the path to chess enlightenment in Chesstopia, has informed you that nobody can play chess because a bishop from her personal collection of sets is missing. Harsh, but she makes the rules.

Your quest consists of poking around the area. You have three stats: happiness, a chess rating, and strength. (Spoiler - click to show)None of these matter, and, in fact, they seem to increase or decrease your stats randomly. The time machine is the main attraction here. With it you visit historical figures and play chess with them--or not. Figuring whom to challenge and whom to evade is the main mechanical crux of C2. You have a few moral decisions, and once that's over, you report back to Caissa. You can actually fetch the missing bishop but lose.

This doesn't make C2 very replayable, beyond the slightly harsh but amusing insteadeaths. The first time through, though, it is fun to poke around, and it appears to be a lot less on rails than C1 or C3. Given how quickly the game ended once I found the bishop, I'd have hoped for more interaction with the NPCs crowded around Caissa at your home base, when mostly. There were all kinds of ideas I wish had been developed.

The other two entries are worth playing if you are a fan of chess, but the choices are a bit too obvious at times. Here there's imagination and conflict and a bit of loss, and you don't feel like being asked "Come on, you want to win, here, right?" C2 is fun for what it is, and it seems like the author had much more to offer, especially since they hosted a correspondence chess website. The conflicts of long games versus short games, tricks versus general knowledge, and so forth, seem like fertile ground that could keep non-chessplayers interested, stuff that might even be natural to the author but they might blow off as "but everybody knows that." (They don't! Experienced chess players forget that, yes, the Opera game or even Scholar's Mate was neat when we first saw it.) Instead C2 feels just a bit like wish fulfillment, though it's a wish I might not mind, either. Maybe Chess Limbo is where it's really at.

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Darkiss! Wrath of the Vampire - Chapter 2: Journey to Hell, by Marco Vallarino

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Blasphemin' 2: Hellacious Boogaloo, January 19, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)

In Darkiss 2, you're still Martin Voigt, the vampire. You've taken revenge on all the peons. So who's left? Well, the people you're fighting for power in the lowerarchy. The object? Acquire immunity from sunlight, no small task or boon. If all goes well, you'll meet Lilith, your creator and dream woman of sorts. Talk about moving up in the netherworld!

There's no direct violence, but malicious gift-giving fits just right in with a text adventure about bad people, and that's what happens. Oh, and every single room suggests physical, moral or emotional darkness. It's really gothic, but fortunately, it's not goth-kid.

The puzzles are a bit different, too. You have a few powers. You can become different things, such as the fog, a wolf, or a bat. Each has obvious restrictions but also abilities you need to find the very evil relics that you need to kill the very evil people who also like to kill and torture innocent people, though that's where your solidarity ends. Power-sharing and consensus-building aren't their way.

It's about twenty-five rooms all told, and many are just there for one puzzle, so it's not a huge game. And I'm impressed with the variety of puzzles and artifacts. For instance, at the start, there's a mountain, and it's pretty clear you'll have to change form to get to the top. Along the way you learn lore of the next horrible person to summon and how they'll probably kill you unless you're able to fool them. You even resurrect your old love, Sabrina, which is not particularly sappy. It's all part of the business of revenge. There's someone else to manipulate, and I'm impressed with how I was alternately disturbed and engrossed. The climax is a sequence of horrible acts that make perfect sense and tie some loose ends together.

This is all very well done. Part of me was disappointed you didn't use some forms more, or you only really hypnotized (your other power) one person. But I also realize that for this sort of chaos and evil-person-doing-evil-things, there's a point where it becomes too much. So much turns regular stories on its head--Martin finds a sword in a lake, which is like Excalibur except the opposite. And other puzzles are genuinely neat, such as bringing an item I wouldn't touch as a mortal down a mountain. And the NPCs make Darkiss 2 feel a bit fuller--even the brief bit with the vengeful Reverend Bauer left an impression on me, when I both killed him and let him kill me. Other deaths are worth visiting, too.

The story ends with a promise of Darkiss 3, where apparently Professor Anderson may get his revenge. This seems fitting, and I think the change of persepctive would fill in some holes nicely. Martin has been horrible enough, and I'm not sure what's left to do except maybe tackle Beelzebub himself. I'd be interested to see how Professor Anderson navigates Martin's immunity to sunlight, and how Martin plans to seize the day(light). Darkiss 2 doesn't have the obvious laughs Darkiss did, but I found it more involving, and if Darkiss 3, whenever it's published, matches up to either, it'll be worth the wait. The Darkiss games, being in text, have given me a sort of horror I couldn't take in movie form and even given me some surprising new angles on evil, how different types cooperate, and how to fight it.

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The Adventures of Peter Patzer, Who Sought Masterhood and Returned Not Quite the Same, by John C. Knudsen

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Win at chess just once: the text adventure, January 19, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)

I was glad to discover a chess game of sorts. Peter Patzer isn't particularly enlightened, but it has a few good jokes, and it's self-contained enough that certain places where I had to guess ran out of possibilities quickly. It feels like there were opportunities missed, but that's to be expected since AGT was relatively new when the author wrote this. Oh, and the author did a lot of work on AGT himself. It's tough to write both core code and stories at once.

PP isn't a huge game. It has fourteen rooms, ten of which are traps that force you to answer general-knowledge questions. Along the way, you will find the ghost of Alekhine, as well as actual people in Johnnie the janitor and a shady postman/operator and Slimy Harry the Hustler. He will beat you on the board if you play him, and also, he will kill you within nine moves whether or not you play him. The solution to make him disappear is a bit of a stretch, but it got a laugh out of me once I saw what to do. Also, I was amused you lost points if you played him in blitz chess. You can keep playing him for $10 even though you only have $10 on you.

Harry's aggression is one of two deaths--in fact, PP is polite on the Zarfian cruelty scale, as you can undo, for one move at least. (A limitation of AGT.) The other is on the sidewalk outside the chess club. You can walk into traffic, which is very Leisure Suit Larry, but without the theme song you can whistle along to.

PP certainly has its oddities. It's funny, in retrospect, the hidden room where the real people play (away from patzers like you,) even though none of them are implemented, which is a pity, because the room description offers so many possibilities. And certainly the concept of improving in chess does, too--how do you find adequate openings? Can you learn to mate with king and queen, or king and rook? Maybe you can learn a few middlegame tricks, not just so you can catch others, but so you avoid getting caught.

It really just boils down to a few quizzes, though. Get enough right, and the ghost boots you to the next area. Some are covered in a red book you find early on. Another is odd trivia I don't know as a pretty good chess player. And others bowdlerize the concept a bit: for instance, it's cool to know a knight can mate against a pawn, but here it's a yes/no question you can answer again without penalty, and you never see how.

That said, it was entertainment, if more thana bit rickety. The opponent you finally beat brought a chuckle out of me, especially considering the strides in technology since PP was written. Alas, the promised sequel never materialized. At least not with Peter Patzer along. I noticed the author wrote a Chesstopia series in Twine, and perhaps I should look into that. It's been a while since the author wrote PP, so they probably have a clearer vision of what they really want by now.

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Darkiss! Wrath of the Vampire - Chapter 1: the Awakening, by Marco Vallarino

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
An old-school supernatural comedy of grandiose entitlement, January 17, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)

There's no shortage of text adventures where you play as a self-absorbed person who just wants stuff. Some are truly crude. Others are a bit too subtle. Some feature a kid who hasn't matured yet. And Darkiss, well, it features someone who's been around a good while. Martin Voigt, a vampire who has been imprisoned in his coffin by mere villagers. He doesn't want much. He just wants to even the score with, well, everyone who ever got in the way of him chasing his dark pleasures!

There's also been no shortage of "see the other side" works in IFComp. Under the Bridge, from this year (2022,) is one example. It helps humanize someone or smomething that is, on the surface, unlikable. i wish you were dead shows someone with apparent proof a lover cheated, but then it is not so clear what happened or who is at fault. And The Best Man from 2021 presents the mental machinations of a covert narcissist in shocking, disturbing "oh yuck I've been like that in what I hope are my very worst moments" ways.

Darkiss sees the other side, all right, but it neglects such nuance. The character is unapologetically awful and entitled and ruins the lives of mere mortals as he pleases. There are the ones who give him direct pleasure as he drinks their blood, and there are ones who get in the way, like the villagers who shut him in his coffin. Why, it drained him of his powers! Getting them back seems like the least he deserves. Well, to him.

Standard vampire tropes are at play here. You gain power by rediscovering your vampire get-up, complete with accessories. You need to summon demons even more powerful than yourself. All this can and should be disturbing, but the author laid a lot of clues to show he's winking at you and he knows the main character does not, in fact, deserve actual sympathy. Some dialogue with NPCs (Dracula was a good book, but what a sad ending) reinforces this as well. Plus, he, like, plays the violin and stuff! If that's not classy, what is?

Other humor is direct, yet not blunt. I almost feel the pain of the vampire who can't cross garlic fields or get the best of a mirror. There's a bit where his mind's a bit rusty, so he mis-counts the number of bats in the Bats room. And there's the appalling unfairness of how Doctor Anderson outfoxed Martin, and how Sabrina, your love from before you were captured, didn't make it!

Darkiss's puzzles are a bit old-school, which is fine with me. But they're mixed up well. It starts with almost a quiz, which gets you one point, and you work your way up to a 9-point puzzle at the end,