Reviews by Andrew Schultz

View this member's profile

Show ratings only | both reviews and ratings
View this member's reviews by tag: 2021 Text Adventure Literacy Jam Adventuron 2019 CaveJam Adventuron 2019 Halloween Jam Adventuron 2020 Christmas Comp EctoComp EctoComp 2020 EctoComp 2021 EctoComp 2022 gimmick IF Comp 2011 IF Comp 2012 IF Comp 2014 IFComp 2014 IFComp 2015 Reviews IFComp 2020 IFComp 2021 IFComp 2021 extras IFComp 2022 ParserComp 2021 ParserComp 2022 post comp PunyJam 2021 song Spring Thing 2022 TALP 2022
Showing All | Show by Page

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.

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.

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.

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.

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)

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.

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/ 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.

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.

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, 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.

The Mansion, by Manuel Sagra

1 of 1 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Pascal's Wager, by Doug Egan

1 of 1 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.

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. 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.)

Nose Bleed, by Stanley W. Baxton

1 of 1 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.

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.

One Way Ticket, by Vitalii Blinov

2 of 2 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.

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.

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.

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.

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, indicating that, yes, it does get a bit trickier. Most every point scoring command has a different verb.

Darkiss, given its original Italian publication date of 2010, seems like a very clever and snappy response to the awful Twilight series of books. It wasn't a necessary reply, and it takes a decidedly different tack than the more focused parodies I read and enjoyed. It contains no darkly evil laughter and vows to rule the world one day with one's minions. It simply contains a protagonist who sees a lot and plans a lot and accounts for nearly everything except, well, the people he draws his energy from have a far shorter lifespan than he does, but still, he's entitled, because reasons. Playing along with the supernatural eternally spoiled brat is disturbing fun. And yet you feel the pain of Professor Anderson and the villagers in the face of such a menace.

The term "energy vampire" may not have been in widespread use in 2010, but it's certainly more prominent today. And I couldn't help but think of how Martin Voigt's exploits magnified the acts of some people I disliked. Darkiss went beyond just poking fun at vampire tropes to remind me of some people who, well, darned near drained everyone around them but felt aggrieved people didn't understand them enough and took extraordinary measures to keep their aura strong. Oh, the knowledge they sought! (Okay, we've all been drains on other people. Yes, that includes me. But I'm talking about the people who've honed their craft.) The text borders on actual text dumps, but the author seems to know just when to stop--it's like that coworker who you're about to tell "enough, don't bother me with chat for a week," but then he stops at the right time, which is kind of disappointing after five minutes, because you realize you kind of wanted an excuse to cut him off.

Only when Darkiss stops at the right time, it's more benevolent. It generally understands when a joke might fray and pushes you on to the next bit. And while my eyes glazed over at some bits, I could see myself gladly replaying in a few years' time to revisit just the sort of thing that shouldn't have worked for me on paper, but it did.

A Long Way to the Nearest Star, by SV Linwood

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
An odd not-quite-friendship, big picture tech-futzing, deep-diving anthropology, January 17, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

I left some really good entries for the end of IFComp 2022, and LWNS was one of them. I confess, I bumped it to the back, because the subject seemed flat to me. Science fiction? Near-vacant ship? A sabotage mystery? Not my cup of tea. Plus there was an indication you had to deal with an AI. I put on my jargon-ducking helmet, only to find I didnt need it. LWNS wound up reminding me more of a buddy-cop sitcom than anything else. Not that it's full of jokes, but there's great interplay between the player-character, a thief whose own spaceship is on the blink after a hyperwarp to escape galactic police, and SOLIS, the AI in a host ship that the thief finds as fuel is low. SOLIS has kept the host ship going– well, sort of–with all the occupants dead. So there's a whodunit in addition to technical footing.

SOLIS's sarcasm and reticence to help with simple tasks suggests malfeasance, but unfolding the big answers isn't that easy. Fortunately, navigation is. While it's ostensibly a big ship, there are areas shut down for security purposes, so that helps with focus. You can visit the living quarters, but the core is off-limits. You need to not only butter SOLIS up the right way, but you need to discover evidence in datapads left by crew members. There's some finagling here. SOLIS knows who you are, being AI and all, but if you have the right passwords, there's not much it can do. It understands deeper things may be at work, and it understands there are things it doesn't understand. Oh--and passwords are inventory items you don't have to remember. Yay, anti-pedantry.

So you can focus on big picture stuff, like cleaning out the lab, where there were some important experiments. It's nice that things like getting the flashlight to work are done from an intuitive item menu. You use something, and if it's in the right place, it works, and unneeded items are discarded. The cluing's pretty good, too–at one point you need to fix a janitorbot, and even though there's a lot of futuristic technology, the puzzle's very much big-picture. The Internet having manuals for download is great, but here

It becomes increasingly obvious the deaths were not accidental, and as it does, your ability to call SOLIS is hampered. The game often suggests you may not want to ask a potentially hostile AI about THAT. And you don't, and there's usually a neat workaround. Then an action sequence at the end to defeat a weird monster provides an unexpected opportunity to cooperate with SOLIS, where it quite believably can't grasp what you're doing, or why, probably because its AI wasn't built for quick-thinking combat.

It's only near the end that you learn what SOLIS stands for. It doesn't really matter, and this is reiterated beforehand, but by that time you've gotten to know it well enough, you feel you have to. The ending put SOLIS's early actions and words in a new light for me, too. It reminds me of that scene in Hill Street Blues where Becker, the tough cop, finally finds the real name of the guy who keeps giving aliases like William Shakespeare. And I walked away with a very human perception of what SOLIS was, what they did, and why they did it. I've, well, been there. It's a human experience we've all had, and here it's done with almost technological detachment, until you realize what the guilty party did, and how it would be wrong to do to a person, but they probably felt clever doing so to an AI. Cognitive dissonance for AI's is all I can say. And I find it interesting LWNS was written in 2022, before the 2022 Merriam-Webster Word of the Year was rolled out. As I see it, SOLIS understands snark, or at least the mechanics of snark. But it doesn't understand deeper, darker stuff. It was emotionally hard, having to explain that through LWNS, even though I just had to click on and option and didn't have to think up the words.

Long Way has, according to the walkthrough, several endings. I did not see them all. But the one relatively neutral one I found provided me with enough food for thought. I've certainly sat through a bunch of "two lovable rogues" productions that made me groan a bit, where I didn't love either, whether it's in science fiction or an action movie or whatever, and I got the feeling they'd not really bonded, or the parting was too melodramatic or whatever, or there was humor, which got laughs, but it missed profound stuff. I can't call Long Way super-profound, as it doesn't want to shake you with its profundity. But at its heart it's about two entities who didn't expect the improvement and understanding that they wound up getting from the experience. Neither did I.

Note on similar works: it feels like Star Trek: The Next Generation is low-hanging fruit, where Data tries to understand what it's like to be human. The computer makes a good, if unemotional, limerick. And there's definite tension as we see whether SOLIS is more like Data or Data's evil twin Lore. But I was surprised how much it reminded me of Tunes for Bears to Dance To, by Robert Cormier, maybe my favorite young adult author. Henry, the protagonist, experiences some very troubling things indeed, despite a lack of melodrama. I rarely have an IFComp entry cut across genres like this.

According to Cain, by Jim Nelson

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Alchemical Biblical story, hold the excess moralizing, January 17, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

So I was worried AtC would go heavy on the Biblical stuff. Fortunately, there's more alchemy than Bible verse grinding. On the surface, you may be able to guess what happens. Abel feels like that guy back your one high school who'd laugh at other people making mistakes or at people who knew a bit too much, and the teacher never quite caught on. You wondered how he got such good grades, but the teacher liked him! Murder, of course, was out of the question, but given that the fifth commandments is more about "thou shalt not hate" than "thou shalt not kill" (boy, I felt guilty about all those fruit flies and house flies for a good long while!) one can see how a person might sympathize with Cain. Abel is perfectly okay with Cain getting some nice stuff. So perfectly okay, all things considered, that Cain had better not lash out at him back. You could even say Abel was the first troll, as he
seems to make a nice* mix of concern trolling, boredom trolling, etc.

The angle is a bit different–there's a neat fantasy/academic element involved with you being able to go back in the past and scrounge around for Cain and Abel, with an envelope you can open at any time to return. In the past you dabble in a bit of alchemy. You find swatches of substances like sulphur and salt and so forth, and at critical points, you blend them together to gain revelations. There's a good deal of crank science that the author knows is crank science, but it has a neat bit of logic to it. It revolves around there being four people and four ancient Greek humors.

You need to learn what sort of person Adam, Eve, Cain and Abel were, and each time you figure what combination of reagents to use on a special item, you access a new memory. There are sixteen total, which makes for a good deal of symmetry, good to have for such a big work–the memories themselves have mnemonics or feel organized. That extends to the spellcasting you have to do, which contrasted with Adam tried to use magic to find a way back to Eden. You also learn some basic spells, but thankfully it's nothing like, say, memorizing the Ten Commandments and its explanations to the word. (I so hated that in confirmation!)

Two risks with this sort of work are that they may feel too "look, I'm being accurately biblical" or "look at how brilliantly I'm reinterpreting things" and it never really got that way for me. I think using known and anacchronistic pseudoscience worked very well to establish a fantasy feel without going fully silly mode, and I enjoyed how the pacing of revealed memories worked, and I confess I sped things up with the walkthrough to see what happened next. It's almost like the author has done this sort of thing before but in a different medium! Near the end, one of the moments I thought could happen and be very heavy-handed felt appropriate.

AtC ran the risk of being slapdash and smart-alecky all along, in that "THE EVIL GUY WAS THE GOOD GUY ALL ALONG AND VICE VERSA, HAHA" manner, but given the revelations are more gradual and nuanced, there's no chance of it being a hot take. Certainly I wound up thinking about "nice" (well, I couldn't prove they were mean) people from my past I should've been closer with. Nobody got killed, but certainly there was a good deal of maneuvering from people who said "you don't deserve something this nice, but I do, no offense, I'm not looking down on you or anything."

Unlike Sunday school or confirmation lessons, I never felt pressure to remember silly details I didn't think I would use. I was grateful for I would actually want to learn things, to fill in the holes that aren't there, on replay, and I certainly wouldn't feel obliged to memorize things. So AtC brought up an angle beyond "yep, some people who should've been figurative brothers weren't, and whose fault is that?" And it also addressed things I figured I'd better shut up about or get excommunicated ("for the first people ever, wasn't incest necessary? And isn't that a sin?")

TADS entries in IFComp are very rarely middling, and this is probably a function of the Inform community being bigger than the TADS community, and how people may either choose TADS and not get as much support as they would with Inform, or they may look at TADS and Inform and decide TADS has some features Inform doesn't, and they get a lot of help in the forums because people have been waiting for someone to share with. (I just stuck with Inform, and I know I've had "well, it works well enough" moments where someone pointed out, yes, here is one way in which TADS is more robust.) AtC is clearly on the upper end, and for all its being steeped in the past with its plot, it leaves me looking forward too, well, a future where more TADS games are written, and there is a bigger TADS community. There could be so much to gain.

Lucid, by Caliban's Revenge

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Unnerving supernatural powers beyond being able to retry endlessly, January 17, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

Loop-til-you-win Twine entries always interest me. They feel efficient and tidy. You have some feedback on what you're doing right, and you will have to lawnmower a bit, but there are places to skip. The gold standard of loop-til-you-win may be Spider and Web, but we don't have to scale those heights. "Keep poking until you get it right" works, if there are enough tries, and you are told–hey, this part isn't useful yet, or that other part is. Lucid has the added advantage of remembering critical things you did, so if you die, you don't start entirely from scratch. It seems to combine the best parts of save points and also giving you the freedom to do things wrong. This may not be perfectly realistic without an explanation. Lucid gives none, because it's trying to invoke surreal supernatural darkness, and I think it does so–it's also a small enough world that the lack of undo makes you feel helpless but not frustrated. I wound up feeling uneasy with the knowledge and powers I'd gained, and the main character seems blown away by the writing on a cereal box underscores that nicely. I prefer this sort of thing to physical descriptions of gore.

You're not told who you are, as you explore a dark city, but the false branches (it's easy to get killed or escape, neither of which is meant to seem satisfactory) make it pretty clear you're here to do something, to sit and fight. But what are you fighting against, and what are you fighting for? That's what you discover. And Lucid , written in poetry form, hides certain things and makes others clear. The part mentioned in the walkthrough–that you stack progress even after a death–doesn't seem to appear in-game, until there's something clear. Then, I felt like I was off to the races. There were some places that should be inert but weren't. Some deaths were of the "don't bother again" sort, others of the "it's not time yet." And there were in-game shortcuts too. There's a high-rise apartment you have to climb the first couple times, which set atmosphere, but all the same I was glad I didn't have to repeat that once I'd figured things out. There's a man on a park bench who'll help you out. It's not idyllic.

With each power or item you acquire, Lucid feels more constricting, and this makes sense, given the ultimate ending. You have a destiny, of sorts. Your character is slightly aware of their changes, but you the reader may be even more aware.

I can't speak to precisely how good the poetry is, but given that it had definite high points for me (the grocery store and the residential tower) I think it's more than just "hey, look, I decided to make a line break after every 6 words and give the finger to strict capitalization!" I think reviewers more competent at that than I addressed details elsewhere, but they found a lot to like (so to speak–the game is not lovable.) So did I. I found it a bit rough around the edges, but that seemed more due to ambition than inattention. So it was a very worthwhile experience for me. That first bit may seem forbidding, and you may wonder what you're doing here, but it's worth holding tight until you find that first clue.

The Princess of Vestria, by KPO

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Well-executed medieval fantasy, January 17, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

I can't remember a medieval-fantasy IFComp entry executed as well as PoV. Often people write one just to try their hand at fiction, and it falls flat. And it may be the most entertaining game in IFComp 2022. Lost Coastlines borders on the surreal, and Only Possible Prom Dress has its share of wild puzzles where you will probably laugh at a few of them. But PoV reads like a fantasy novel, down to listing the chapter you're on, where you get to make choices and even fail. You get five lives, but with save/restore, you don't need them. It feels mainstream, which makes it a rarity for IFComp. It has no mind-blowing plot twists, but it has plenty of decisions to make and people to make and also has a neat ending where, the more friends you made, the more ways you have to win.

This is a winning formula for a lot of people, me included. You, as Princess Imelda, find your brother Prince Alexander has been poisoned. How, and why? Is it foreign intrigue or something magic?

A lot of the elements in here pop up in fantasy books: princess uses disguise to escape, princess is impeded by allies and enemies, princess befriends or works with someone initially hostile, princess is nice to poor person and gets unexpected aid, princess realized her royal family is potentially awful in ways she hadn't suspected. They're all combined for a fast-paced experience. You have choices whether to learn magic and when to use it, with a strong "it's the friends you make along the way" undercurrent. It reminded me a lot of the Lloyd Alexander books I read in my youth, except with graver risk.

Given that it's pretty easy to ditch certain companions (including your main one, whom I liked a lot. There's a very neat bit about him coloring his hair for disguise,) it might be fun to try and run through with them not around. It seems like complex work to decide which game-winning scenarios are allowable, and I'm quite curious if there's a way to lock yourself out of a win in the final chapter through sheer pigheadedness. There seems like an opportunity for pathos there, but it might be too cruel to the reader who's worked through so much. The final fight has several paths to victory depending on whom you take along, which is a neat touch. You don't have to be Ms. Super-Good.

I don't really have any huge criticisms. The introduction brushed me back a bit, since there's so much to establish. A lot of scrolling screens that set up the fantasy land history. And the end seems like an opportunity missed, as well. I never really understood what luck in the stats was for, as i only lost it once. A lot of actions in the final combat are repetitive and involve waiting for the right moment, and on getting your brother cured, you get a brief biography of your reign, and it's static, but below it are stats and attributes. This was largely noticeable because the middle breezed by so wonderfully, and I really enjoyed it. (Also: the music box puzzle others mentioned? I wasn't fully a fan, either, but I was glad for the walkthrough and explanation.)

Graveyard Strolls, by Adina Brodkin

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Ghost Healer, no supernatural trinkets needed, January 17, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

I still don't particularly "get" Texture as a development system, as opposed to others: Ink, Twine, parser. However, it seems to produce a certain sort of effort I might otherwise ignore but for IFComp, and overall, I've enjoyed them. The GUI is just too fiddly for me, on a desktop or on a phone. But it does tamp down some of the special-effect excesses that can occur in Twine and ambiguities of the parser. You need to keep stuff tidy on one screen. It doesn't seem built for long works. GS felt like the most technically substantial of the IFComp texture entries, and it didn't feel too long.

My expectations certainly swerved through GS. Early on, you have a lot of player deaths, as you'd expect from a game named Graveyard Strolls. Whether you flee or not, you can get killed, unless you thread the needle. Most of the time, you'll figure what to do, but there are enough forks you will probably slip once later. Then, later, there are ghosts you have to face, which I assumed would be as lethal as the ones that struck from the blue to kill me. With a lack of undo feature, this was stressful indeed. Not just that my character would die, but I'd have to retrace my steps with a lot of mouse-tinkering!

So I don't know if this was fair, or if it was intentional, but it worked well in the end. It's possible I missed things in the introduction and what you were going to the graveyard to do. But suffice it to say chickening out is a bad idea.

After the death-trap gauntlet, you wind up meeting spirits who need help. They're disappointed. They may even believe bizarre things. Talking with them is not so tough, and perhaps just having two options, one that feels contrary to the spirit of investigating stuff, cuts across what I already mentioned with the quick deaths. It feels either too easy or too tough to make the right choice.

But that's just the mechanics. The stories are rather good, with ghosts unable to quite remember things, or even believing wrong things, and there's a nice pet, too, because why not?

Even without any potential player deaths near the end (I didn't have the heart to check) it was a surprisingly harrrowing experience, but nothing to leave me permanently freaked out. Certainly I needed time between finishing and writing a review to think of things. There's a feeling of helping people who most say can't be helped, and how much can we do for them? And is it worth it? And if there is an afterlife, can we change, and how much? It's been asked before, but there's always a new way. Most times, a living person brings back a talisman to put a spirit at rest. Here, there's a bit more dialogue. As a dedicated source-checker, my not seeing how much you could've done immediately is a positive suggestion of immersion.

The final ghost you help does feel like a good one to end on, too, even though the progression to them feels like it has some holes. I didn't mind that jump much. Perhaps adding one more ghost would work here. You dealt with stuff and helped others deal with things finally. That's a good feeling and an unexpected one given the deaths early on, and it had more suspense than I thought it would. So GS is a bit bumpy, especially early on, but I enjoyed the fantastical elements combined with just trying to connect.

Inside, by Ira Vlasenko

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Campus Invaders, by Marco Vallarino

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

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

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

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

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

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

Under the Bridge, by Samantha Khan

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
So, how much sympathy do you think you deserve?, January 16, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

INK, by Sangita V Nuli

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

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

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

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

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

Feathery Christmas, by OK Feather

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

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

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

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

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

SANTAPUNK 2076, by Gymcrash

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

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

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

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

The Hidden King's Tomb, by Josh

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Parsers, like ancient trapped tombs, are tricky..., January 13, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

Writing two entries for IFComp is hard, especially when they're different in scope or tone or setting. There's so much bouncing back and forth. And writing your first program in Inform is hard, too. Playing through HKT, there seemed to be potential well beyond "this author lucked onto a good subject and didn't make the most of it." So I may be poking at its weaknesses more than I might for entries that placed in its general area.

You see, the author had written two entries. And it sort of made sense. There's a lot to look at and enjoy in Counsel in the Cave (CitC,) which I think it's clearly the superior of the two, as did the judges--it deserved to finish in the upper half. In HKT the story is a bit sparser: a friend has pushed you into a pit which, serendipitously, is right by a mummified king's tomb. As you walk around, there's a Queen, too, and a sarcophagus. There are no supernatural NPCs chasing you, so you're a bit stuck. There's a nonstandard verb to guess. I was able to, though first I did so in the wrong place.

The tricky thing was, there was so much to take, I thought it'd be a puzzle where you performed a ritual, and it wasn't quite. I can see the author intending it then scaling things back and leaving a few red herrings. Because after I guessed the verb, I found the way up and out of the tomb, through secret passages and other methods. The story clicked, though I wish I'd learned more about how or why your friend double-crossed you. Unfortunately there are a lot of unimplemented and sparsely described items, and when I was allowed to take fourteen candles, I thought there'd be puzzles, maybe a scale puzzle or something. But they just stayed in my inventory, along with other things. There seemed to be many chances to make cursed artifacts affect you negatively, or to note you needed others, but I missed that.

However, the changing map when you figure out what to do adds nice atmosphere. It would probably have made quite a good entry on its own, honed, making everything else scenery. As it was, I stumbled successfully through HKT without a real feeling of accomplishment. I think writing HKT was a good risk to take, even if it didn't pan out, and I'd like to see the tomb and story fleshed out a bit more.

I really do recommend playing CitC to see what the author is fully capable of. I suspect if they go the parser route in 2023, they'll have something more substantial than HKT. Because as-is, the experiment didn't quite work. I'd have encouraged a post-comp release even before working through CitC and, in fact, with some blind-spots fixed, HKT would be well worth a replay to me. Unfortunately, HKT as submitted falls into some traps we all must, as growing Inform programmers, and it may have caused people to shy away from CitC once people noticed both were by the same author. So if I am being critical of HKT, I'd also like to boost CitC.

Northpole, by John Blythe

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Two-stage game of an elf's redemption, January 12, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Adventuron 2020 Christmas Comp

Northpole's graphics helped carry me through the rough bits for a really enjoyable experience. It's not the only game in the Adventuron Christmas Jam to do that, but it's particularly smooth and homey with a lot of variety in backdrops and elves to see. all very smooth and homey, and as you play through more, the variety of locations and people (well, mostly elves) drawn is impressive. Both realistic and magical landmarks are drawn with love and care and attention. The plot is strong, too, as you're a disgraced elf accused of causing delays in the delivery process. You need evidence it wasn't you. It's interesting how Northpole claims its own middle ground between Save Bigfoot's Christmas and Santa's Trainee Elf. The high production values helped me blow off a few potentially frustrating verb-guessing roadblocks. I wound up playing in two sittings: first, I got five presents so I could enter the Elves' village I'd been banned from. Then, I got the final two. Each half of the adventure is a distinct experience.

The snowy wasteland you've been exiled to is not too huge--fifteen rooms or so. The room names are generic and even duplicate, but given the images, you'll have enough of a map in my head to be able to wander around. (Besides, I'd rather have the images, if I had to choose.) There are two places that indicate an area behind, both via text and graphics, each with the appropriate mystery. The Elven Pole in particular is neat. There's a snowman tucked away in off to the side as well. You can ASK it for hints, but since it's out of the way, you need to organize things first, which is a neater bumper than "ARE YOU SURE YOU WANT HINTS?" And while HINT gives some help, too, you get tripped up if there's nothing to do in a room. Northpole shows the verb-help menu, which scrolls. And it doesn't necessarily help with the verbs you need to guess. And all this has another thing drawing you on: the outside wasteland locations are well-drawn, but the village Bori the Border Elf guards you from, well, you can see how colorful it is at the entry to the village. The wasteland part is beautiful, but the village promises even more, so there's motivation to get there beyond "I want to solve this."

It delivers visually, and the plot picks up, too. Villagers you find new clues about who has disrupted things. The puzzling part is less smooth, but it has more story, with other elves to ask questions of and a neat reversion of the "kid standing on other kid under a coat to get into the movie" trope.

There are two more presents you must find in the elf village area, and I found some fiddling with verbs was necessary to break through. Eventually I found a command I thought I'd tried. There are a lot of cutting implements. AndI was able to see roughly the order I needed to do things in, and what I needed to do, but I had to scour through the village again.

That said, the mystery of a weird fireplace that teleports you if you use the right powders is a neat one--you won't even have to use the parser to mix the right ones when the time comes! And the final puzzle to snatch the final present away is suitably clever and closes a loop on a few plot points.

I thought highly enough of Northpole, despite some minor technical flaws, that I considered writing a map and guide of it for CASA quickly after winning it. I didn't want anyone who played it in the future to get stuck. But one was already there! I wasn't disappointed in the time I spent stuck, and I was glad someone else had played it two years after its release. It's a case where there are about ten verbs to guess, and you should do so 80% of the time. So the math dictates there'll be a hitch, but now you'll be able to enjoy nice story with many magical places to go and even a bit of helper-elf culture to explore without getting stuck. (I almost found myself craving sprouts.) I'd guess a lot of people would be glad to call it a day after getting into the village and seeing their way around, but I was very glad to see that last bit of magic when I came back to Northpole and figured a way to brute-force things.

4 Edith + 2 Niki, by fishandbeer

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Un-4-2-itous, January 11, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

This one's really short by IFComp standards. I mean, it's shorter than The Lift, which I like to point out as something someone slapped together because IFComp seemed neat to enter at the time, and also to win the game you have to do something kind of hilariously skeevy. The author had other creative pursuits which, on Googling, seemed to go well, and they probably thought, what the heck. It happens. And with 4E, the concept had so much you could do with it, but there's no other way to say it: you bounce around and check out a few coworkers named Edit(h) and Niki and choose one to go on a date with. None work. Thankfully, it's got more than the most minimal on IFDB. I remember the author's name, but it'd be mean to share them. The game simply asked "Do you want to win this game?" Well, it kept the IFDB front page busy for a bit. Even when the author made points I agreed with, it made points so clunkily that I just groaned.

With 4E there's more, and the premise of sorting out similarly-named people is ripe for comedy. I was ready with a sheet of paper to evaluate pluses and minuses. I was about to start writing. Then I chose someone, just to see what happened. 4E ended. I undid and tried again. Same thing. I learned who Niklos Fenyo was, which is something.

The final observations are sparse, with a sentence or two describing your remaining life together, which may be a long relationship or not. It's arbitrarily chosen and can't be changed. So there is not a ton to see here, and given the game mentions it was for Twiny Jam, with some details added, I could have done with more. Well, better a bad date than a bad drawn-out relationship! It felt a bit more like getting free samples of the only thing left at the store, and it's nice, but you're not going to buy it as-is and you know why it was left last. My guess is that the author misjudged the scope of IFComp, and if they'd known it was for potentially longer works, they could and would have done more.

Day of the Sleigh, by Dee Cooke

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Stuck with Santa and your little sister, January 10, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Adventuron 2020 Christmas Comp

Day of the Sleigh hits several holiday notes for nostalgia and hits them well: it's the 80s, and you are a teen with a babysitting job. Today, you're taking Deirdre, who is more excited about Christmas than you, shopping. (I'm not sure where her parents are. All the same, this potential plot hole wasn't worth scrapping the game over. I actually played in to sessions and assumed you, Elidih, were her older sister.) Deirdre's so excited, she runs off in a department store when the lights go out and gets lost and trapped.

Thus begins the fun. Deirdre's not hard to find, but you can't get to her right away. While it's not a huge emotional moment, I still don't want to spoil it. You can't blame a young kid for getting lost the way she did, and you can't blame Elidih for being exasperated, even when you get Deirdre to cooperate for something important. Elidih understands certain things aren't fun for teens but were for seven-year-olds, and that's good enough.

DotS is not a very big game at four rooms, and there isn't a ton to do, but it's more fulfilling than many bigger games. Your first task is to find a key that opens a door to the south. Tutorial mode works very well here. It establishes you'll need to look under or behind or in a few items, which would get exhausting in too many rooms, but they set the mood well for the treasure hunt. It also establishes its size early. There are stairs up, but you can't go without Dierdre.

This was comforting when I had trouble finding what Santa wanted. What he wants is randomized across games, and a few quick replays suggest there are four treasures, one in each room. So you may get lucky and find what you want right away. Then, once the sleigh is full, you need to get it running and open an exit. This requires a few steps that include contacting the shop workers without, you know, letting them know Santa is nearby. They also have an item you need, but they're not going to give it to some teen.

Despite having only four locations, DotS's room graphics are very colorful, and when you need to move scenery around, the graphics change, though Deirdre keeps her teddy bear and Fischer-Price radio even after escaping. So it feels very full. The variations on LOOK worked for me. They aren't the only puzzle, as there are some guess-the-verbs that also feel eminently fair. A couple need prepositions. And there's funny stuff to try, like giving Deirdre sweets. (She also seems to blame you for the whole situation, and seven-year-olds can get away with that! Given her name's similarity to the author, I wonder if this is a slight mea culpa to a babysitter they liked but they knew they got on their nerves a bit, because being that young, you can't help it. I've been there.)

In the end, Deirdre gets rescued, and I don't want to spoil precisely what happens, though I was glad I saved near the end. It's not earth-shattering, as high drama would ruin the humorous tone, though I do recommend restarting, as there are a few callbacks to the beginning text. I may have missed a few achievements, and that would make DotS well worth replaying to check on, but right now I, in the Deirdre school of thought, am running and grabbing all the Adventuron games in this jam that I can, because I can.

The Solstice Sovereigns of the North, by Natrium729

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
"But what if the days DON'T get longer this winter?", January 9, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Adventuron 2020 Christmas Comp

SSoN's title does sound a bit ponderous, but fortunately, that doesn't carry over to the game, which has a great premise. The Summer Solstice Sovereign has refused to wake up the Winter Solstice Sovereign of the North, and until he wakes, the days will be very short and, I assume, cold. This comes to you in a dream. There's a ritual to perform. There's even a romantic interest. It all fits together quite nicely at the end.

SSoN isn't a huge game, with seven locations, and one is locked at the beginning. That's where an archaeologist lives, and you sort of have a crush on her. She helps you later on. But in the meantime, you need to find a way to cross the lake to get to the ritual site, and you're worried people may not believe you. Once you do, and you solve another puzzle, a neat cipher is revealed. Some suspension of disbelief is maybe required, here. You have about ten items in the cipher, which makes for a puzzle translating the ancient text that tells you what to do. And yet the puzzle was satisfying once I put this aside. The ritual isn't complicated or disturbing at all--you just need to find two items and use one semi-standard verb.

So SSoN feels like standard puzzle fare in some ways. And the puzzles do feel a bit puzzle-ish. One item I thought I had rendered useless turned out to be useful, but the in-game hints (I used them a few times--they work well) showed adventure game logic applied, sort of. The TLDR is, every location has a use. And there's one irregular verb that's semi-obvious for another item. There are two items that fuse together, as well, and while the actual combination was a slight stretch, it fit in well with the story. The location pictures similarly don't have a ton of detail--they remind me of Apple low-resolution graphics--but they adjust nicely when you move stuff around or even find or take an item. I don't know how difficult it is to adjust graphics across game states in Adventuron once, but having it work across the game is a nice progress gauge.

In the end, you get the girl and help the Winter Sovereign. I noted that English was the writer's second language, and this showed in obscure ways. It's a case where the translation is logically correct but, well, safe. It doesn't try any tricks, so sometimes the writing seems a bit pedestrian. I'm left feeling this would probably be a sharper, more colored-out story in the writer's native language. Parts feel on-the-nose. But the big idea is original and well-executed and very satisfying. So SSoN shines as not being like the usual "find and give gifts" which I've also enjoyed very much in the Adventuron 2020 Jam. Instead, it reverses something that we probably all wondered about as kids. What if the days don't get longer this year? We understand the physics, as adults, but SSoN reminded me of those fears and more. It also leaves open another angle, where maybe people try to summon bad magic to keep days extra-long, and you need to prevent that. I wound up thinking about that a lot after SSoN. I'd definitely play a game like that from the author.

Deck the Halls, Gieves, by VerdantTome

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A welcome lost episode of Jeeves and Wooster, January 8, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Adventuron 2020 Christmas Comp

Wodehouse is one of those authors it seems easy to make a tribute to. The main problem seems to be avoiding too-well-trodden paths or, perhaps, a plot of his you just haven't read yet. And stories with Bertie Wooster and Jeeves seem particularly easy, because we know the formula. Bertie gets in trouble, sees a silly way out, and seems to make things work, until things turn out okay, because Jeeves planned things that way.

I knew this formula well, but the end was a nice surprise. I was distracted by the things I needed to do. And if part of the distraction was fighting the parser, well, I guess being slightly muddled helps put us in Bertie's shoes. Okay, your name's actually Bartie Worster (your middle name isn't Wilberforce, either,) and your butler is Gieves, probably for intellectual property reasons.

But DtHG does so much more than just say "Hey! You like Wodehouse? Here's something Wodehouse-y." Anything could be a bit too verbose, enough to bring back memories of Bertie, and we'd give it a cheerful wave and thumbs-up. Fortunately, the strong introduction made it clear the author knew their stuff, or knew it well enough I didn't mind being fooled.

The airy verbosity extends to useful error commands. Not that you have to have it. You can get rid of some '20s slang with an option, which helps limit one potential source of overkill (people's tastes will differ.) I admit at first the error messages threw me for a loop. But they really couldn't be the generic ones and keep the tone of the story! I think this is the first Adventuron game I've played with really custom error messages.

And there's a risk they may be too cute--I've had games I really liked where parser error messages backfired due to context. But here, Bertie has several random ones that loop. And my favorite staple, "you can't go that way" replacements are delightfully chatty. With each push-back I thought, hey, this is sort of neat, but then I realized there was a huge impressive body of work. Also, the help felt in tune with the 1920s and what Bertie would say. Outside of, well, the direct HELP that just states the main verbs. Bertie would probably be flummoxed by concepts such as a parser, after all!

The plot? DtHG begins in a town square, where you, Bertie, need to make change for a bell-ringer collecting for charity. You are not dropping a whole crown into their bucket! You actually have to make change twice. The game then twists to an estate where you, as a guest, are locked in your room and need to MacGyver your way out--the item descriptions make it pretty clear some of what must be used, and there's not too much.

For the third part, you need to rig things in the house so that Julia, the object of your affections, will step under the mistletoe and let you kiss her. You need to distract an overbearing aunt (a Wodehouse staple) and disable a door. Once it works, but doesn't, your final task seems trivial indeed.

The game is not very big (four rooms, one room, ten room in the three parts of the game,) but all the same there are enough places to visit, and the descriptions are funny. I got hung up trying to bring something messy in the house by tinkering with scenery I hadn't used yet and avoiding a room that had helped me solve a puzzle.

Jeeves is conspicuously absent from all this. But he plays a part.

DtHG, though, has some frustrating moments. The hints are well-done. You can HINT NEXT or HINT RECAP as needed, and Bertie vaguely discusses what he did in the big picture without spoiling things. There are also some guess-the-verb problems. HELP mentions this, and I agree that explicitly mentioning the verbs you need would spoil things, but the alternative is awkward, too! So maybe if there is a way for Adventuron to detect "Okay, you tried for the 10th time to do something with <ITEM>, I'll help you out" that would be useful. Or maybe things could be spoiled if you keep failing a certain way X times. That sort of balancing act's tricky.

I'm quite glad I played DtHG, all things considered. I imagine there's been a Wodehouse game tried elsewhere, and of course the Monkey Island games feel Wodehousian in their own way. And there are games that like to feel Wodehousian, with the 1920s setting and meandering stories I find more fun to read than actually sit and listen to. But based on what I've read, this feels the most closely connected to "Plum"'s works, and it pulls things off well.

Save Bigfoot's Christmas!, by Quizlock

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Detective work, North Pole style, January 7, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Adventuron 2020 Christmas Comp

The enjoyment I got from Save Bigfoot's Christmas was well worth the struggles I had with the parser. This seems to be more a case of the author still learning Adventuron. It's a tidy, balanced game, in the big picture. You're an elf assigned with verifying who has been naughty and nice. Bigfoot is your subject. He believes he has been nice, but Santa has received information otherwise. That information is out of context, and your job is to find out why.

The crimes are not especially terrible: Bigfoot's hair is near a littered soda can in a national park, BIGFOOT has been sprayed on the side of a house in Hoboken, New Jersey, and Mrs. Maple's children have fingered Bigfoot as the thief of one of her pies. The graphics? Well, it's probably old hat to compare an Adventuron game to Sierra AGI graphics, but this feels particularly close to the good bits without rehashing any old Sierra puzzles, with graphics changing as you make progress, so that is very neat.

These locations are, unsurprisingly, spread out, and you need to go through a teleporter to get to them. In each one, your main goal is to (Spoiler - click to show)get rid of an NPC so you can rummage around the environs to find the needed evidence. The puzzles have a good balance of absurdism. In one case, there's a garage making a lot of noise, and you find a garage door opener. But of course the battery comes from another of the areas! So the puzzles have balance this way. You have to go in and out of the teleporter a few times.

Accomplishing each main task is pretty varied. Sometimes you must do something off-stage, and one (the campground) is pretty complex. There are a couple spare items I didn't figure the purpose of (the toy robot,) but the descriptions and basic verbs managed to clue me into what to do or try.

Brian Rushton's review mentions some of the exact verbs you need. This game pointed to a high-level weakness of Adventuron and maybe parsers in general: for Mrs. Maple's pie, I had an item to use and saw what to use it on, but the verb was tricky. Perhaps having a hint-cue if I typed both items would help, so the player doesn't flail too much. It was more notable than usual, since for an AAA battery, you couldn't type AAA or battery but had to type both. So hopefully this warning lets you know where not to get stuck.

Having that aha moment to get rid of the campers was the high point for me--after that, I had a bunch of wobbles, but the game clued me nicely to make progress inevitable but still challenging. Combined with a small puzzle-maze the game only made you go through once (I'm glad this user-friendliness seems to be more common!) it was clear the author was committed to the player having fun and was willing to offer ways to streamline the pedantic bits. There are still a few that could be sanded. For instance, you need to enter the transporter out and the portal back a lot, so ENTER TRANSPORTER and ENTER PORTAL could, after a try or two, be replaced by IN. Disambiguation for similar items could be honed. But there's nothing to really make you bash your head. SBC, despite being slightly raw, is genuinely uplifting and clever, so the bumps when the parser fights you a bit are quickly forgotten.

Use Your Psychic Powers at Applebee's, by Geoffrey Golden

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Terrible beer, terrible lives, great profit potential, January 6, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

Does anyone really like Applebee's? It's a pretty easy target. Maybe it deserves to be. Nobody likes working there. The food isn't great. But it seems convenient enough and not as unhealthy as McDonald's. You could do better. But you could do worse. You could say Applebee's is as easy a target as airline food was. It seems like a good target for someone like the author, who's so consistent about putting out an adventure gaming newsletter, and for light-hearted humor, it does well. It also goes beyond "Applebee's, amirite?" The main thing it hits is advertising. I mean, nobody really likes advertising. Many advertisers probably don't enjoy their jobs or the ethical implications. But over the years I've found ways to be able to zone it out, and I feel that's an achievement. Probably the trickiest was blocking the ads for stuff I didn't need between songs I didn't like at the athletic club. It's the sort of thing they don't teach you in school. But of course, advertisers are always looking for another way to horn in on your life, preferably without you feeling violated enough to push back.

One they haven't gotten around to in the real world is the protagonist's main power, which is being able to see in people's minds and also plant a thought there occasionally. So, yeah, you're getting quickly into "creepily overstepping boundaries" territory. And here I originally assumed the game would be about parlor tricks where the crowd paid money if you were particularly clever! (Of course, if some people just wanted to sit and eat and didn't know you'd be there, that's invasive in its own way.) There's a certain violation of childhood dreams for me, too--mind reading seemed like something really cool, but of course powermongers will ruin it. It's treated as an asset by corporate management, and not just an asset. One you'd better use to their advantage and maximize, or the lack of initiative goes on your performance review. But -- but! The ad agency you work for has ethics. Well, sort of. You'd better not mind-read more than once, or they'd be in legal trouble, and you can't do that to a place with such an innovative business model that helps you make the most of your abilities!

This is of course bad on many levels: one, that your psychic ability is for more ambitious and "big-thinking" people than you to enjoy, and two, that the legal branch of the whole corporate empire has considered all the angles here to provide loopholes if things go wrong, and they've probably cross-communicated with the number-crunchers, and even the lawyers who would sue you for violating other people's space are probably plenty sleazy. And so forth.

This is the scary bit. Fortunately there are funny bits. First, you work for Schtupmeister beer. The world can never have too many parody beer brands--these certainly do more for me than actual alcohol. The four people whose minds you want to invade are, well, imperfect in their own way. There is a cryptocurrency trader. This was written three months before Sam Bankman-Fried and FTX went belly-up, and now that happened, I'm actually sort of disappointed more wasn't written earlier about Cryptocurrency, and, well, it's a bit too easy of a target now. Cryptocurrency, like advertising, drains resources in ways most people aren't aware, and of course, there are some smug, slick types pushing it. But dang if the story doesn't roll out another side quickly!

There's also a somewhat lonely old man, and a waitress upset with her lot in life (I couldn't help but think Schtupmeister would both fire someone for drinking on the job and for, well, not getting enough people like her to start drinking on the job, or right after their job) and a kid who turns out to be exactly the wrong sort of special. Let's just say selling alcohol to minors isn't the worst thing going on here.

You have a small number of turns to try to get each to try your special brand of syrupy beer before Applebee's closes. Do so at the wrong time, and they ignore the instincts you planted in their brain. And this right time isn't obvious for all targets until you've played through UYPPA several times and read everyone's mind. Since it's not too long of a game, this is no burden, and I'm disturbed how nosy I got and how fast.

Once Applebee's is closed for business (my not just saying "closes" may be a minor spoiler) you can catch up with your targets to see if, indeed, your psychic invasions got them to buy Schtupmeister. The indications of whether they drank your specific brand of beer are amusing. For instance, one person has Schtupmeister beer spilled on their shirt instead of what they were drinking, and this pleases you greatly. In all cases, the fallout from people drinking Schtupmeister far outweighs any profits you redirect towards Schtupmeister.

Though you the player already have a pretty good idea, the performance review at the end hammers things home, both how well you did and how awful the Schtupmeister corporate culture must be. You get a combination of rah-rah and condescension from your sales manager no matter how many people you got hooked on Schtupmeister. UYPPA combines a lot of this sort of small horror into a big one.

Criticisms would be that UYPPA hits some low-hanging fruit, though it knows not to beat said fruit into a pulp. It's low-key terrifying, too, and I'm not surprised that an author who has a newsletter of short games understands balance. UYPPA reminded me of all the times I'd been accosted by salesmen, and how hard it was to turn them down, and the effort it took to be polite, because I knew it was their job, even though I knew part of their job was leveraging guilt and hesitation. These four decidedly imperfect souls of targets? Well, for the most part, I sympathize with them. The kid, no. His mother, yes. So this was definitely a successful entry, to me.

A Christmas Quest, by Richard Pettigrew

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Elf needs transport, does chores, January 5, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Adventuron 2020 Christmas Comp

"Elf helping Santa" seems like a good idea for a Christmas theme in text adventures. Being Santa would require the sort of big-picture administrative commands or tasks we may be putting off with our latest game. And between A Christmas Quest and Santa's Trainee Elf, the results are intriguing. There's probably a limit to stories that keep things fresh, but these have enough differences.

The big one is this: STE is full of NPCs, but you have been left behind after an elves' party, and you have one more package to help deliver. There are some optional cleaning tasks and a small bit of gross-out humor (avoidable, I'm pretty sure, and not VERY gross) but the heart of the story is very neat indeed. The present is not too bad to find. The transport is trickier! Christmas games are best when they riff on something you thought was completely played-out, and ACQ definitely does so with a heart-warming way of finding transport.

The main puzzle is actually cooking something up, which sounds potentially really tedious, except once you know what to cook, the why is really persuasive. There is, in fact, a lot of fiddling, but with the imaginary ingredient involved, why you're doing it feels as real-lifey as an imaginary trip to the North Pole can.

The graphics are also neat--they go heavy on the green and red in many right ways, and I enjoyed wandering around once more before calling it a day. On winning, the game also suggests some actions that are the sort of thing a young elf would enjoy. I get the feeling more were implemented, but they might've been hidden.

There are some fiddly bits, such as needing to TAKE something to READ it. But the in-game hints do the job, along with David Welbourn's walkthrough in case I tripped up. So I was able to forgive any parser hacking, or perhaps the latest version fixed some things post-comp. And maybe ACQ could have benefited from keeping score or having a brief list. But then again, if you forgive any game, a holiday game has to be at the top of the list. And it feels like something I could come back to next Christmas and enjoy working through now that I get it in the big picture.

The Adventures of the President of the United States, by Mikko Vuorinen

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful:
Nice big idea, impeachable details, January 4, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)

The idea behind the game is wonderful--the President escapes from his boring job in the White House and visits various countries. Only the big ones, plus Finland and Sweden, get a room. The puzzles are apolitical and silly, and they are generally funny once you figure them out. APUS also gives many funny default responses and "You can't go that way" replacements.

Unfortunately, it's not big enough ("South America's not interesting,") and it neve builds on the gags. The few puzzles that veer from recognizing gently amusing stereotypes are poorly cued. While there's no guess-the-verb, there's plenty of trivial commands semi-logically changing the environment, or the effect of other trivial commands.

There's such a contrast between what you do to leave the White House (nothing unclean, but imagining ANY recent President doing this makes me giggle) and explaining that the White House is pretty boring, and you're bored, except for some generic details, that the game feels grossly unpolished.

This is too bad, because I don't think an American could make a game like this, with such a neat title, and stay apolitical. And yet, the author couldn't be expected to know that a West Wing would make the opening puzzle a lot better.

So, more countries and better descriptions--the potential's there, as I enjoyed many quips and default command responses--would've made this game memorable for more than the title and opportunities missed. Not that I regret playing it. I enjoyed filling in the details I wished the game had, but others may just get exasperated.

Jimmy's Christmas Foul, by Kieron Scott

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Hope the coal next year's worth it, kid!, January 4, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Adventuron 2020 Christmas Comp

Jimmy's Christmas Foul brings some self-awareness to a simple goal: get Santa to give you more presents than you deserve. Kids would all kind of like to. Some do it with a flowery letter. Some do it by being extra nice in December. And Jimmy, well ... you, as Jimmy, set a trap for Santa.

It's a relatively simple game--it admits as much, that it was created in a few hours, but there's still enough to do. It feels like there are too many rooms and not enough items at first, but the puzzle is where to lay the trap, and what to lay it with. There's a small puzzle with needing to climb something as well, and if you mess up setting the trap, you can actually lose.

The trap is not very complex, and the parser is very stripped-down (you have TAKE and DROP as the main commands,) there are hints, and you're even clued when you have things right with helpful colored text. Still there may be a bit of stumbling around--Jimmy knows better than to go in his parents' room, but there are a few locations that seem redundant. They aren't, totally, as part of the game's puzzle is figuring where to put the trap.

Physically, the puzzle is a bit odd, as (Spoiler - click to show)kids who believe in Santa or can't reach a medicine cabinet shouldn't be big enough to pick up trees and the item you use to tie up Santa is a bit flimsy. Plus, he doesn't try to escape, though your trap thankfully isn't very paralyzing.

In other words, there's a bit of absurdism in service of a short game where the author just wanted to have fun and share something. And they did! The graphics are also pretty neat. I'm also assuming that one of the items you discover was lost over the course of last year, and your parents didn't let you go somewhere. The item's out in the open, but it reminded me of (re-)discoveries I was happy to make when I was younger.

So JCF isn't something to overthink--especially since the hints show once and print I CAN'T. Perhaps it follows that kid-logic where you think your trap or your imaginary world is more complex than it is and you rightfully ignore any self-contradictions. The trap isn't, well, evil either, and for a few moments you can be that plotty, bratty kid I hope you never were for the holidays.

With the prize the author won from this comp, they seem to have gone on to create some interesting stuff, or at least the titles and cover art look intriguing. It's neat to see this--while Jimmy seems like the sort of kid who probably got bored with whatever toy he extorted from Santa, it's good to know the author has lived their life a bit differently.

The Archivist and the Revolution, by Autumn Chen

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
finding meaning and relief in future dystopia + COVID + doomscrolling, January 4, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

Some self-indulgence, first: last year, while I was playing A Paradox Between Worlds (the author's 2021 entry,) it just so happened that it tied in very nicely with what I was doing at the moment. I was paying attention to an Internet community that was much more stable than what was described in PBW. It was run by adults, 4 adults, and in a way, about adults, but it was about adults younger than all of us. There was no focal point of the whole community. There were American college football teams, and golly there were a lot of them. Under the SBNation umbrella, people pretty much stay in line with basic decency, and if the founder wound up being a jerk, we could move on. Yet still I found a ton of parallels and a ton to be grateful for. Purdue was playing at Nebraska in American football and won a game fans from both sides, at, verified was very dumb. So, being a fan with superstitions, I decided to look through AatR while Purdue played Nebraska. The game was even more exciting than last year's, but of course we all thought it was very dumb. Both teams forgot to play defense, but fortunately, Nebraska forgot a bit more. And I forgot to, well, tune into this. I was still wrestling with AatR. Whether it's better than PBW, I can't say. It brought up entirely different issues, and I felt a lot less immediate personal involvement. So I'd definitely welcome a third entry that swerves in yet another direction, because I now have an established silly superstition.

This all may be a long and tedious joke, but the TLDR is that though I'm clearly not the intended audience for the author's works, I get a lot out of them. And seriously, it's this sort of thing that distracts me from watching football games I don't want to waste time with. I may not be Mr. Busy, but I value stuff that makes me look for better ways to use my time, or think big ideas, or whatever. And the author's IFComp entries are two-for-two in that department. I wound up falling asleep soon after playing, and when I woke up, I didn't check the late-night football scores. I poked at the alternate paths through.

So what makes AatR good? For starters, combines a few things that could be (and have been) beaten into the ground if done wrong: a job that pays and uses your skills a lot less than it should, money problems, relationship problems, and oh yes, being ostracized for being different. It'd be painful if an author focused too much on any one of these and of course it could get unwieldy if they're not mixed together right. The money angle seems intended to be frustrating. You're too tired to do your job (within the first five minutes, a polite email assures you you've just been reallocated, not demoted,) due to chronic fatigue syndrome and, well, other stuff. So you can never make as much money as you want, and a bit of quick mental math after my day's first pay showed me the pay was inadequate. But this is more than an argument for living wage. You find out you're an undesirable person (AatR discusses being trans and what it means or can mean–even going out for food is a bit dramatic) and perhaps your company is trying to push you out. The rent jumps exponentially, along with the late fees and so forth. And through it all, the archives you search through (your job) have a bunch of things you want to read and a bunch you're paid to file. I've read a lot of treatments of mean employers all "YOU COULD DO THE WORK IF YOU'D JUST BE NORMAL," and I've had times I was unable to work after "normal" conversations that excited everyone else and drained me, but this provided a new angle without the "hey, others have it worse than you, feel for them before moving on."

Because your job is not hard, at least technically. Emotionally? Perhaps--knowing you can and should do better, and sometimes you can't even do your job, must take a toll. To prevent the plot going too slowly, AatR may make it trivial on purpose, perhaps, once you get what to do. The file names tip off how to sort them, if you're paying attention, though it's not obvious at first glance. But given who you are, well, it feels almost like a lie to settle into something normal, or if you do settle into such a routine, you might let something else slip, and then society's out for you. This is captured in CityNet's messages about horrible "righteous" punishments for "men who impersonate women." Forgive the quotes. The news is obviously slanted and meant to attract the "what the hell is wrong with the victims?" responses found on in-game message boards. You admit it's exhausting to read CityNet, but you also can't avoid it. (Plus ca change, eh?) There's that plague going on, too, and wearing a mask, normally a common-sense pro-health thing, is seen as maybe disguising yourself further.

And of course the additional fees that crop up just for existing make it pretty clear you're not going to make it. Fortunately, you have old friends, exes in fact, you can lean on. Though it's hard. These choices are frequently blocked out, to show you're not up for it yet, or the fear of asking an ex is still stronger than the fear of eviction. Certainly I've faced this in much less dire circumstances–maybe it's just having the fear of an IFComp bug slip through versus the fear of "geez, how didn't you see how to code this?" on the message board, and if these fears are neither fully rational nor critical to my well-being, they're there.

I missed a lot the first time through, and I know it. In some ways there seems no path for me to really sympathize with the main character. Works where exes still care about each other are tough for me, given the sort of marriages in my family. (People stayed together and sniped.) But I appreciate a believable scenario where, yes, this is the case, and no matter how horrible the government is, people are willing to take risks for people they still care about, if not as intensely as usual. And that's uplifting, as is ending one, which I don't want to spoil because I may not fully have a handle on it. It's just that there's a weird feeling certain sorted messages are for you, and it's even weirder when you realize how justified that feeling is and reach that certain ending.

I spent a lot of time trying to poke through the different messages after downloading the source. I felt too mentally exhausted to play through again, but I wanted to find out more about the archivist's world, just as they wanted to find out about, well, mine. I remembered the times I wanted to go out and didn't, and the times I felt forced to go out but didn't want to, and the times I went out late just to avoid people to talk to. I think I'm missing the main point, and I'll need to read other reviews. But I got a lot out of it. Looking at the endings, I realized how tough it would be to actually play through the ones where you accept the friendship and help of someone you broke up with. It's something that would be effective in a dystopia or a normal world.

The Grown-Up Detective Agency, by Brendan Patrick Hennessy

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Are you there, future me? It's me, former you!, January 4, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

I'll start by discussing a comment I saw on a forum about Matthews and Linehan and how I don't want to be that sort of person. M&L were the folks who created Father Ted, a universal character we probably wouldn't like in person but who showed our faults so well and let us laugh at them. The commenter said "Well, M&L never got close to that afterwards." Someone pointed out that The IT Crowd was very, very, good indeed, and the commenter said "Well, fair enough, but it's still not quite Father Ted."

Whether or not FT is better than IT Crowd, or however BPH's (I hope that's not too familiar. I know I hate, for instance, being abbreviated to Schultz. But I find Hennessy as misspellable as most people find Schultz, as my brain WILL insert that third E) works stack up to M&L, I want to relate this story: Small Child in Woods felt dang-near perfect to me. It had universal appeal and weird humor and made many people laugh. Someone had to do it, and I'm glad they did it well. Cow Farming Activities on the Former West, the second part of You Will Select a Decision, was almost as good. And the rest of the author's stuff? Well, it doesn't hit the sweet spot of SCiW for me, and he shouldn't try to, and when I make time for his stuff, it's always worth it. But I wouldn't want him to deliberately try for another flashy thunderbolt like SCiW. He owes me nothing.

Also, I'm hacked off he didn't publish the "promised" sequel It Is Good To Be Skateboarding Champion of the World. I had an idea that was just a bit of verbal gymnastics to make the reader laugh, and it still does, but each work of his reminds me I would love to read that apocryphal book some day. Curse the author for following their own vision, said the guy who knows his own stuff is probably more niche-y!

All this was no excuse for whiffing on Birdland, Known Unknowns, and BOAT PROM. And GUDA is one of many IFComp entries already that make me say, hey, I need to check stuff from this author's past, too. It may be the only one with a link in the introduction giving a brief overview, which I appreciated. But it was also sort of shocking to think, wait, did he really write Bell Park: Youth Detective that long ago? Wow.

Yes, it was nine years ago, and Bell is nine years older. She's a private detective now. I didn't recognize Cassidy, who's come to Bell with a missing persons report. More specifically, her fiance has gone missing. Checking back at BPYD, she doesn't get a ton of billing there. Drifting away from best friends is like that, I suppose, and with GUDA, it's pretty inevitable they would've broken up, as they show themselves to be very different people. Eventually you grow, and you realize how you were sorted into social groups at 12 was just a good guess, or it was the least awful of the available options, and you get to see what (hopefully) works even better.

All this navel-gazing aside, what sticks out about the start is: there is banging from inside of a locker in Bell's office. Is it an animal? How does Cassidy pretend it's not there? Is Bell some sort of criminal? You make allowances for friends' eccentricities of course, especially if you spent time being weird or outcast together, but, um, well, if it gets too obvious...

No, it's just that Bell is hiding her nine-years-ago self in that locker and doesn't want to have to explain things. And she doesn't, immediately, but it's tough to cover things up forever, and this is one of the many humorous threads that recur throughout the story. There are some leads in finding Cassidy's fiance, and you follow them all across a neat map of Toronto. Below the map are names, and a red arrow appears where they are on the map. This apparently was a big hit for people with an attachment to Toronto, and while it stirred up no memories in me, it's really well done and gives me some idea of how big the city is, and I was able to compare it to, say, a similar map of Chicago. I also like how the current characters in the scene have head shots–Bell-21 and Bell-12 on the left, and the person or people they're talking to on the right. The transitions worked technically, and the pictures are well imagined and drawn.

The Bells go to various places, visiting and revisiting them, and they meet casts of weird characters, even Bridget, whom Bell has broken up with. As someone not acquainted with Birdland, I didn't know Bridget in any way, but I still found her effective as a character. It's pretty obvious something is up, and I enjoyed Bell-12's reactions to a grownup she knew (Cassidy) and one she didn't (Bridget). Naturally Bell-12 starts bugging Bell-21 as to why they broke up. Through this all I had an occasional worry: is the time paradox going to blow up in our faces and make this whole story unbelievable?

Well, I don't know if it's ever resolved fully satisfactorily, but up until then there's a lot of fun to keep things going. Bell-12 has a lot of questions, which Bell-21 avoids, until Bell-12 keeps on asking. You have some agency in how much you tell Bell-12. But this certainly brought back how I would discuss things with Andrew-12 or Andrew-22. There's a lot to unpack, and I forgot how much there is to unpack even in the last ten years! It can blur together a bit. Bell-12 is decidedly more caustic than Andrew-12, asking the sort of questions I wished I'd asked, and having a mentor in Bell-21 who gave more good-faith answers than many people older than me.

The interesting characters about Toronto didn't land so well. I'm the sort of person who's not particularly interested in interesting characters, or if I think they are getting too obtrusive, I'm inclined to think "Stop showing off, already!" I can only take so much per day. Nevertheless, there's some good stuff in there with Bell-21 and a woman dressed like a cat, who seems like a potential villain, and having to return to the place that serves wings (Bell-12 and Bell-21 both hate to be caught dead there, for different reasons) provides character development. Bell-12 bugging Bell-21 about why Bell-21 broke up with Bridget is well done, even if the "aha, you're remembering what you liked about them" angle seemed a bit forced. A lot of good jokes and observations come out of this, well beyond narrative threads funneled into "Look! Bell realised that adults are weird and insecure and annoying but they have a good reason to be and are worth putting up with, even the obnoxious ones! And, um, yeah, humor, too!"

So it's a good sign that what to me were the less interesting parts turned out to be worthwhile, and I think the author had a strong idea of pacing–there's a shaggy dog story here, but it doesn't get too shaggy, although the reason for the fiance's disappearance didn't resonate with me. You have to deal with people you don't like, and it's tricky to pay attention to them the right amount without being fully transactional, which Bell-12 doesn't understand. Then you have to be annoying sometimes to get what you want, too, and Bell-12 encourages that (with Bell-21 ceding a few points) without getting too in-your-face. There's a lot to work with, telling one's younger self everything's not black and white, but also hearing your younger self remind you that intuition matters--presumably, you have more data to check your intuition at 21 than 12. There's knowing we can veer from certain big questions as we get older because focusing on some side issues is very interesting indeed, and if we can't do everything, we don't have to. And there's also poking oneself to realize, yes, there are definite dark and light greys where it's best to put nuances aside temporarily so, ahem, You Will Select a Decision to push ahead expediently and meaningfully.

I can't say I've run into an Andrew-12, but I did finally join my high school's graduating class's Facebook group, and it was like I was speaking to my old self, with things I remembered and people I remembered and may or may not have wanted to deal with. It was awkward, but I settled some things. GUDA brought back that, and new ways to look at things, and people and ideas and fears I'd forgotten, and I'm glad I was at least somewhat prepared for that.

Perhaps I'll be more prepared to replay GUDA once I've read the BPH works I've missed, especially Birdland. But I definitely found Birdland et. al aren't critical to appreciating GUDA, though, and even if GUDA didn't hit all the notes for me, it feels like it should hit a lot of really good ones for others who may or may not be familiar with BPH's works.

Prism, by Eliot M.B. Howard

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Subterfuge and escape in a fantastic city, January 4, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

Prism was the last of the IFComp entries I played. There was a mix of anticipation and fear. I believe it was the last of the IFComp entries to get any review, and playing it, that was more people having a lot to digest than "hey, let's keep away from this weird mess." Looking at the review list near the end of IFComp, it had caught up, and I can see how the people who liked it would want to explore several branches before pronouncing a final opinion. We know we're going to miss something.

And we don't want to typing a mere "I liked this bit/this bit surprised me/this bit confused me." Maybe this review does that, in disguise. But Prism is a real wild card, one that half makes you feel guilty for giving something more conventional a high score. It's sophisticated and complex enough that blanket "gee this is cool you should try it" statements make me feel like a bit of a goober. It's like that tough class other people tell you to fear, but you wind up enjoying it, and you worry people might pound you for admitting that--until you find other people who like it.

Or, maybe, another way to put it is: you may be worried Prism isn't your thing. And maybe it isn't. But I think you will get a lot out of it, anyway, which is impressive, because it's not super-long. This sort of thing is more likely to happen with fifteen-minute games where you say, okay, they knew when to end the quirky joke and left me time and energy to enjoy the next one. But even in my sped-up mode, pressing to get through the final IFComp game, I realized I'd have a day to write a review for Prism, and my instinctive reaction was, I wished it'd be longer. Fortunately, there was an entirely different branch worth replaying!

So with the usual "I probably missed branches and themes" caveat I'm satisfied I got enough. If it's hokey to say "be glad the glass is half full and you like what's there," it's a lesson I still have to learn after trying to get through all the IFComp games. I've put off potentially rewarding experiences before, and the clues were there. But I'll be thinking of Prism when I balk at my next challenge or reading goal or whatever.

Prism is part of a whole phalanx of Ink entries which acquitted themselves very well in IFComp, in my opinion. In particular, it's a splendid complement to Elvish for Goodbye. Both are about an imaginary city and secrets you can't quite express, maybe even ones that would be ruined if you described them fully. In EfG, they're related second-hand, and that somehow makes them bigger. In Prism, you're in the middle of it, yet with your courier's job, you sense there must be even more than you're able to see, or you'd like to be able to see stuff even quicker.

Your friend, Karae, is partially to blame for this. You're pretty close, but she has holes in her life story, ones that should have been filled by now, the more time you spend together. She's missing an arm, but that's part of why she has power. You've seen a lot as a courier, but you know she's seen even more. You know the city you live in, Conduin, has grown from what was once pure desert, and it is growing, and you want to grow with it. There's a question of what new suburbs reveal the most.

I played through twice. Each time I had contraband to deliver, but it was radically different. My journey both times led me to people who talked unusually but logically, then out of the city, where I had to outsmart guards. I'd have felt rather helpless doing so if I were a newcomer instead of a courier--there was some knowledge assumed about which way to flee, so the choices didn't seem too zany. Each way it was pretty clear there was no way back, but the first time, it was about rebellion, and the second was more about finding my own way. Both entities I found outside the city suffered their own persecution. I saw my friend Karae in two entirely different lights.

It feels like there must be so much more than what I saw. The branching to two very different but believable escape scenarios is really impressive. Conduin feels even more sprawling after the second time than the first, and I want to explore even more. This feels like something that must have taken a good time to get straight, and the author also took some big risks that people might go "Huh? What?" And maybe I did sometimes, but I was fairly sure early on that this question would be answered. There's a whole assortment of mystics and criminals, and Prism feels like that food you can maybe order once a year, that you do and don't want to eat too quickly, and you're quite glad if you forgot about it for a couple months (I mean, assuming it keeps,) because you'll find the right other thing to enjoy it with. I suspect I'll find another game that will remind me I want to replay Prism with a new perspective, and enough will be forgotten that I won't sleepwalk through any choices.

I've talked a good deal about my impressions of Prism, because after two play-throughs, I'm left pondering a lot of possibilities for who might be the good guys and who might be the bad guys. This isn't due to vagueness on the author's part but rather that there's so much intrigue and nuance it'd be a pity if anything was too straightforward.

Oh, one final note: shout out to the author for noting where to save so you could see a bunch of options. This didn't apply in the second work-through, but by then, I had a pretty good idea where the bottlenecks were. On the one hand, this can seem like authors nudging players to the good part, but on the other hand, it can be more effective than a blurb for helping us know what to expect. There are that fewer save states to juggle.

[IFComp 22 - Beta] Cannelé & Nomnom - Defective Agency, by Younès R. & Yazaleea

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Overbearing at first but stops horsing around soon enough, January 4, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

So. The bad stuff up front, first. There will be good stuff. But I want to list stuff you may want to zone out to appreciate the strong points of a work. It was necessary for me here. A personal confession about snark: it overloads me very quickly, in many forms. Heck, (political views ahead) I loathe Donald Trump and all he stands for (or how he stands against certain things and people) and am under no illusions of the scorn he would have for me if we met. Yet at the same time, I quickly feel deluged by constant anti-Trump snark that blossomed in early 2017. This was tough to sort out!

But I realized snark could, indeed, be draining, whether or not you agree with it. It's a way of saying "put up with me" without saying "put up with me." And the problem is, if unchecked, it really barrels people over. I've failed to appreciate snark properly in social circles, which got me Suspected of Things. I'm not good at snarking back and forth and don't have the energy--for a while, I thought it was that I didn't care. I think I've grown good enough with words over the years that I can defend myself, and I no longer feel I'm ruining a circle of snark, as a participant or spectator, by saying "hey, this is not for me." Because I feel tense and helpless around it. But hopefully I've gotten some perspective. I want it carefully curated, and if it crosses a line, I have no problem zoning it out.

This was necessary for C&N, but it was also worthwhile. Other reviewers have discussed their own reservations about C&N's snark, which I don't think is needed to establish the characters' eccentricities. They're not the first comically bad detectives in a creative work, and they won't be the last, but they have enough individual touches that they should be charming if they clean up their act in a sequel, which may include an episode to tie up loose ends the authors deliberately laid out. I just wish they'd have dialed it back from eleven. It's funny that they seem to talk about themselves when you're the one with amnesia, looking for someone-anyone to give you a clue about your wallet, or what a rainbow-colored cat was doing, but it shouldn't be oversold.

And while I'm on the hobby horse, I'm grateful I could hold down "space" to get through the dialogue – but it was frustrating to have to do so, and it caused me to miss a few links to click a few times through. The effect was like having to deal with a coworker on their break who doesn't recognize you have something important to do, or who slips in some genuinely awesome technical advice or ideas you'd like to google, but they just have to continue with the small talk that's run its course. This trick of portioning out dialogue the player may just want to get through often leaves me feel like the rat must, in one experiment where they get sugar water randomly when they push a bar. This is stuff I do on my free time! I don't want that, I want fun, especially if the game is a comedy!

And this is compounded by having a score kept track–who has gotten in a good dig at the other. I can't expect the authors to have trigger warnings out there for people keeping score, but fact is, people who do keep score in any form in a conversation for too long tend to be people I wanted to steer clear from. I was hoping for peace. So I think the authors went above and beyond what they needed to establish chaos.

That's the bad stuff. I think this is the harshest I've been on an IFComp entry, and when I do that, it's because I'd love the option to ignore this and work on the good stuff. Which is certainly there.

C&N's conspiracy board isn't just a clever name. There's a useful tutorial for how to pair post-it notes and connect them to a bigger theory. So that established what you would do: look for clues and see which are pieced together. One semi-puzzle in the game has you sorting out which post-it notes were valid, and which were just C&N babbling. I felt like I was getting a bit of my own sanity back in the process. Which was a nice gesture from the game. As was what I interpreted as a hobo paying money to make C&N go away. This establishes C&N's personality better than the lengthy dialogue.

Narrative and puzzles tie together well, too. You learn other people have lost their memory as well. There's a neat card game-slash-word game where C&N are sure you're being hustled, because the experienced players around you are acting forgetful! (I've played chess hustlers who let you win the first game.) How much money I had didn't matter. I always feared getting cleaned out. So the tension there was wonderful. The graphics are very high-grade, and combined with the cover art, it's impossible to miss that the authors have creativity, and they can control it with time and effort. And once C&N realize the hustlers actually lost their memory, it's an aha moment and a nice fake-out. It actually advances the plot.

I also feared the solution to the mystery might try to get too wild, based on the game's intro, but it's cute and sad at the same time, and it's a clever shell-game on the part of the antagonist. So I forgave a lot of the earlier red marks I'd come across. At game's end I was notified the spare post-its from C&N's small talk could maybe be arranged into something, and though I saw some quick possibilities, I was a bit emotionally drained.

There's a lot of care put into C&N and it just feels as though the authors guessed the wrong side of what we'd enjoy. It's tough to capture playful constant bickering versus endless constant bickering. It's heavy on artistic touches, but it gets carried away. Hopefully this sort of warning and assurance you're missing relatively little by skimming the dialogue will make C&N a pleasant experience worth the prep. I've had people where I was flattered they tried too hard to impress me. Whether those tries were specific to me, it didn't matter. What mattered was the follow-up, and on the evidence of that, C&N has a lot more substance and value for your time than the introduction suggested to me.

Twelve Days, One Night, by B.J. Best

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A good small game that turns an annoying song on its head, January 3, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Adventuron 2020 Christmas Comp

Back in college, chain email jokes had started to be a thing. There was one Christmas joke about the twelve days of Christmas where, in fact, someone does get his true love the twelve gifts, and she winds up sending him a restraining order. From what I knew, nobody ever really liked that song anyway! So there was a bit of schadenfreude and a sense it might be overdone if it lasted for the length of, say, an Advent calendar.

12D lasts about the right amount of time, too. Anyone acquainted with the song will know what to do. There is a question of how. You have a bunch of gifts, not quite twelve, in your storage closet. You need to dump them in the room with the Christmas tree to the east. There's also a kitchen east of that. You have an inventory limit of three, as well. This is rather clever. It prevents brute force solving, and what's more, you have a list of gifts on your cell phone. So in case you forget what you have left or can do, you can read it. And, of course, if you haven't, you can drop it and have a bit more freedom to shuffle items to get everything in place. 12D gets a lot of mileage out of its only mechanic, which is that DROPping something makes you act on it unusually. This is most useful in the kitchen.

How 12D winds down is mechanically effective, as with each present you get in place (it is there in rainbow text,) there are fewer possibilities for your next wrong guess, and you may have a lightbulb go off. And if you place something in the present room before you're ready, there's some explanation why it doesn't quite fit. For instance, one of the three birds you need will fly away because your tree is not decorated properly. This is a good introductory puzzle, but you don't have to start with it. Some presents do rely on others finishing first, and it's all pretty logical. There's also a good deal of cluing when you wind up with, say, six of an item.

You'll also have to notice some puns or double meanings of words, which are kind of cute. There's even myrrh, too, and years after seeing The Life of Brian, an occasional "just what is myrrh, anyway" joke works well, even though I know danged well what myrrh is. None of the jokes bring down the house, and they don't need to, because they're quite effective all told and the sort of thing you need when you're slightly flustered trying to get presents organized.

So what feels like just schelpping items about is a good deal more sophisticated than that. There will probably be one present that you don't get at first, or something you DROP may do something by accident, and you have the a-ha moment.

That 12D placed next-to-last in the Adventuron 2020 Christmas comp and yet has over four stars on IFDB as of January 2023 is a strong indication that there's a lot of other stuff to look at. (I haven't much, yet, but I plan to!) If you are in the mood for a short game that gives bumpers but not outright spoilers and maybe could leaves you less annoyed at that one Christmas song (I was after playing,) it's very nice indeed.

January, by litrouke

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Zombie stuff, hold the annoying zombie tropes, January 3, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

IFComp has a bunch of works that subvert expectations, some in-your-face, some trying it under the hood. January is one of the latest ones, more under the hood, more highbrow, and the mechanics work, though they may be a bit exhausting. There've been plenty of discussions of linearity, friendly or not, and my main takeaway is that I'd prefer not to have too many passages where you just click ahead for its own sake, and it feels like the work is tugging on your sleeve not to leave just now, because it has so much to say, honest it does, and you'll miss some of the deeper meaning if you do leave. So if someone wants to write something linear and give the player a fixed ending, while still giving them a chance to say "hey, what about that" or 'hey, what about this," how do they go about it?

January provides some good pointers. It's innovative, to me at least, and it forces the player to re-read without being too intrusive. It's illustrated, too. The illustrations provide a practical focal point, as it turns out, the way the story is organized.

It's a zombie survival story but a bit more than that. You can safely assume the narrator doesn't die right away, because after the first passage, you're presented a calendar. Something is ahead, likely dread. There's a moderate but not overkill amount of content warnings. A date early in January is circled. You can click on any circled date, and once you're through, there's an X. This was an interesting and relatively simple wrinkle to me, and it worked very well. I've been shocked by jumps before in a book, and even seeing "Three months later, X was still thinking about the incident" feels a bit clunky. It provides a bit of shock protection, I guess. Chapters end with a picture, which re-appears if a date goes from X'd out to red-circled, and then the picture reappears again. I liked the pictures, and I sort of needed them, after the rather bleak content.

I don't know much about visual novels, so I have no clue how much is the author's own innovation and how much they are pulling from general knowledge, but either way it's effective. The text changes dramatically, fading from old words to new ones to provide a different perspective, and my only complaint is that I can't (or I missed the way to) go back, because a lot of times I realized a detail was important, and I wanted to see more.

The work itself is more about loneliness than outright horror. Your family is infected with the zombie virus, and one infects someone else accidentally, or cluelessly. You find a cat to take care of, which I thought was one of the strongest focal points (I can only take so many details about survivalism,) and you realize there is a lot you don't know about, well, survival and life and how other people are getting along, but they must be out there. There's one passage where the warning for suicide kicks in, and it's not some stale old "woe is me, I have no friends." It's something I don't quite want to spoil. But I was certainly engaged in the story of the main character protecting the cat, even against the bodies of zombies they formerly knew.

I'm a bit disappointed I couldn't go back and revisit stuff I realized I skimmed over a bit. Perhaps that's a user error, but I still hope for something relatively linear and long to allow you to do so, because things get missed, especially when it drags you to re-read, then bam! No, you can't re-re-read to make sure of things. My usual refrain of "but I can look at the source" was mentally countered by "No, it's not the same thing, it's missing something." The ending bit where you can mouse over images to show different ones felt like end credits in a TV show, and they brought up a lot of memories. Maybe on point it hoped to bring up was there is a lot of stuff you forget when just in survival mode, whether that be with zombies, or people around you at a job you can't stand, or a horrible high school. There's also a twist there that other people found effective but didn't work for me. This is sort of harping on the weaknesses. I thought the strongest bits were the part that went beyond ZOMBIE PLAGUE and dealt with the "what if I get infected" and "maybe it's better if I do." Sometimes it felt like it didn't get out of its own way, but that's how legitimately experimental works feel. Overall, I'm glad it staked out new territory in the potentially tooth-grinding genre of zombie survival.

Crash, by Phil Riley

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Sabotage, with a question of who did it, and oh, space chores too, January 3, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

Crash is commendably ambitious both narratively and technically. It doesn't mess around to start. You're given some trivial tasks to fix a spaceship (a microwave and cabinet are out of whack,) but of course those are just an introduction to the main plot. A spaceport to the side blows up. Obviously, someone needs to figure why, and you're the only person on the spaceship who can do so. Not because you're a detective, but because you're conscious. Not only that, you're on a crash course with a major spaceport! There's a lot of help early on with nice touches such as the Unicode character for an arrow. So I felt pretty comfortable attacking things early. And there was an in-game hinting system. I was making good progress while clueless of the very nice PDF walkthrough that came with the game.

My initial try, I spun out early, but the puzzles I solved, I was happy for. The scoring was neatly done, with a list of things you've fixed, want to fix and have to fix. In some cases it seems like there's an intentional bit of difficulty, for general humor or moving the plot forard. For instance, with a pair of bunks, I could CLIMB the one I didn't need to do anything, but the one I did, I couldn't. The alternative verb exhausted me for a bit.

Still, I had a lot of neat stuff to do and found it generally amusing to see or find what the solutions were. Like the microwave, which should be easy to fix, except I didn't have the right tools. Fixing the microwave, though not a puzzle requiring intense technical knowledge or deep building on what was there, had just the right sort of subversions and got that first point that said, gosh, I had Done Something, and of course it wasn't going to be super-simple right away. And I also enjoyed figuring how to go up from the galley containing microwave–you know something is there, and you hear voices, and it's a good part of the mystery, and it plays well on the fear of death and being lost. Then when you hear the voices, you have another choice to make.

I got stuck a bit after opening the way up, where double-checking the scenery got me "Really, the equipment trunk isn't important to the story. But by all means, continue to fiddle with it" and after a bit of wrangling
with the parser, this felt like someone was looking over my shoulder and saying "boy, you are clumsy with tools." I don't think this was the author's intent, and it may be gone in a post-comp release, Needling the player just the right amount is tricky, and a little snark can go a long way in the wrong sort of way, but hopefully forewarned is forearmed.

That's where I cut off in-comp. I'd started to see there were two people with opposite stories you needed to evaluate. I'd found a way to walk outside the spaceship. So I felt competent, even if I wasn't able to stop it.

So it's where I cut off, as I was at about the time limit, and I'd had a satisfying time, technical quibbles aside. Poking afterwards during a more relaxed time, I enjoyed the possible endings (failure, blowing the ship up without crashing into the city, success) and I'd even worked my way through a schematic with the help of some manuals. This is always tricky for me, as I like to play things to get away from technical manuals. And I wasn't sure if I would feel competent enough to make replay worth it, until the diagram made sense, and aha! There I went. The problem of trusting the Sergeant or Captain was interesting, and I certainly felt pressed to respond, but of course, I didn't have to.

Crash felt like a very enjoyable work that definitely wasn't my thing, and I always welcome those. The author's shown a great willingness to learn even more on the forums. And so Crash sort of has the feel of Marco Innocenti's first Andromeda effort in 2011 both because it's Sci-Fi and it involves an apocalypse and old-scoolish puzzles. In 2012, the second Andromeda effort won IFComp.

Into The Sun, by Dark Star

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Spaceship scavenging maximizer with randomness and a deadly enemy, January 3, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

I can't help but link Into the Sun with two other IFComp entries that take place in space: Crash and A Long Way To the Nearest Star. Obviously, they're all three different games, but this intersected the other two nicely. And I'm aware it's a homage to Aliens, where I still haven't gotten through the series, and I forget what I saw. It's very much its own game. It has a lack of order the other two have, not in the "the author didn't bother to nail down their vision," but in a "you need to strategize here" way. I think when it comes to maximization games, I may've hit my, uh, maximum a while back. There's so much of my own stuff I want to fiddle with. I'd rather maximize my own writing, if not for others' pleasure, then for myself. But I still think it's a worthwhile and entertaining experience, even if I may have a certain amount of second-hand "oh, I can see how someone would do this" joy.

After just playing LWNS, I was ready to start using access cards and so forth to figure how to discover places, and, well, I needed a more violent solution right off the bat. As a scavenger, I'd been looking for a derelict ship to raid, and I needed enough money to be able to refuel and repair my own ship. Here there is no intrigue or politics. It's still a matter of life and death, and a more acute one, because you'd also like to avoid the bloodthirsty, massive, quick alien running around the ship. This is different from politics or sabotage or a cagey AI! Oh, and as the title says, this derelict ship is hurtling into the sun, so there's urgency outside the prospect of a violent end near the monster.

The alien's hard to avoid, too. It stumbles around randomly and persistently, and you have some clue where it is. You need to nearn how to navigate the ship's three levels, with maintenance elevators you can run around. Most importantly, you have a stun-prod with three uses. It will repel the alien temporarily. The alien's fast and powerful. You can't run once it sees you, so you'd better
be armed, though you can UNDO. This isn't a cure-all, as you can only guess if the alien has destroyed a room with a particularly valuable treasure, if it's far away. So you're left with the prospect of pessimism if too many rooms of little value are pristine. This brings a lot of tension as you replay, on top of, of course, the whole life and death thing if the alien is nearby.

I wasn't really expecting this, since the only other timed game with anything resembling violence is Approaching Horde! And that had a lot of humor. Here I had a hard time adjusting to all sorts of things, even getting port and starboard confused! This is my fault, but it also reminded me of how non-parser players might feel when faced with standard parser directions everyone knows. At the same time, I realize it's not a gimmick–there aren't really directions in space! It was easier in Crash for me to adjust because of the lack of ambushes, and also Crash had a smaller ship. Into the Sun's seems just about the right size. There's enough space to get around to start, and then you realize you'd better take the initiative to tear the ship apart before the beast does.

I quite bluntly had no clue what to do, as I don't think in "destroy this" mode. Then I read some other reviews and, aha, I managed to open some panels that were closed. No, I wasn't going to perform some electrician-style miracles here. There was no puzzle with colored wires. It took a while to get used to. And of course there was the random alien. It had destroyed almost everything the first time I managed to avoid it or explore most of the ship, and it was a while before I even got enough money to repair my ship. I still lost, technically, since I had no money for fuel.

This in itself felt like a victory for me, if not for my character. The game's rather intense, and I wasn't necessarily up for that, but I caught myself jotting down strategy. Touches like the service elevator were nice, as were finding spoiled rooms the alien had been to. A-ha, that might be good next playthrough when I know what I'm doing. I also like that I didn't seem to have to maximize everything and there seems to be a lot of latitude to find a strategy for the best odds of escaping. So while I thought I wasn't up to ItS's challenge on the day I reviewed it, in the stretch run before the comp closed, it pulled me through and got me to try some things I wouldn't have otherwise. I really enjoyed having the different stories based on money found, as opposed to just ranks.

An entry that helps pick me up and postpone or cancel severl "I quit" moments is very well done indeed. And that's where ItS fits. Perhaps I'll pull off a few more reviews and read them and see if I can maybe even retire with my haul from the ship. That's a sign of good game design. The author mentioned being inspired by Captain Verdeterre's Treasure, and I actually found the puzzles and story more compelling here.

The Thirty Nine Steps, by Graham Walmsley

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Classic spy novel, adjusted to three flavors you can customize, January 3, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

I used to have a ton of Dover Thrift edition books. They were $1 at a mom-and-pop-ish bookstore. I bought up whatever I could. There were ones I knew, like A Shropshire Lad, and ones I didn't, like The Thirty Nine Steps. The physical book is gone, but an e-copy is on, which sort of has everything–well, before a certain date. I didn't remember it very well, and I think that's the best choice for a project like this (or Dorian Passer's refiguring of The Lottery Ticket by Chekhov!) Too well-known, and it feels like a rehash no matter what you do. Yes, there's a movie by the same title, so it's known, but it's not overdone.

And I think the project works well. You wake up to notice Scudder, an acquaintance, has been murdered. How to escape and maybe figure out the who and why? This sort of thing lends itself to immediate choices. Whenever I read a book like TNS, I'd think "boy, I'd be too dumb or unobervant to make this choice, or I'd cop out." And though I gave the book a brief re-glance at Gutenberg, I couldn't really track how much was the original source and how much was needed to put parts of the original book into believable branches. Whatever the ratio is, it works. I noted some obvious changes: the cipher key is different in this work than the original book, which makes for a nice small puzzle without having to bang your head.

TNS is pretty up-front about the choices you can make. They're mostly classified into Open, Bold or Clever. There are no wrong ones, and you get the bad guys no matter what. But there's still a lot of tension. The music is effective and not distracting. And I wound up trying to play through while going heavy on each option, and I enjoyed the flavor.

Since you get vindicated in any case, you might then ask, what's the point of going through? Well, the more you observe correctly, the more of a story you get. You get out what you put in. With a bunch of bad or careless choices, I wound up saying "okay, yes, action, good." But when I made an effort to look around, things popped up. This might not work in a standard Twine story, but given that it's a spy story where there's supposed to be pacing, and the start is "someone is dead in your house and you don't know why," this makes a lot of sense–you can stumble through and be glad you're safe and have no clue what's going on, and the action in the meantime is breathless and branched enough that you can have completely different stories despite the core text being there.

So I thought this was a neat trick, though really it's more than a trick. There's enough to piece together that you have a story, but not so much you're confused. It's never self-indulgent, and I don't mean this as a pat on the head and a cookie for people or works that "can't be exciting" or "are efficient, at least." Flashy effects or embellishing critical passages would ruin the mood of the original book, since only the text is modernized and not the in-story environs. I enjoyed both the immersion and the realization that helpful technology would make a lot of the protagonist's concerns moot today (for instance, the cryptogram could be googled, as the hints point out.) True, more technology would make it easier for your pursuers, but it's really good to have a reminder that that's not needed for a good thriller. I retained a lot more images from this than from gaudier works. Perhaps that's because I read the original so many years ago, but I also think, beyond being a good story, TNS is a very neat and successful experiment in seeing how the writer or reader leaving certain things out can expand a work.

Santa's Trainee Elf, by Garry Francis

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
2 years later, still a great holiday present, January 2, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Adventuron 2020 Christmas Comp

STF intimidated me a lot the first time I played through it. The map is not small. But fortunately, when I sat down to take another shot at it with David Welbourn's maps, things went a lot easier. I noticed it placed 8th in the Adventuron 2020 Christmas jam, which left me thinking, "Man, how good are the seven ahead of it?" While part of the low placing may be that some people probably found it tough to get going, that can't be all--there must've been quality stuff ahead. And I'm glad I got to unpack this, over two years later. The advent (heh) of Adventuron had passed me by, so I missed this sort of thing, and I'm glad it's still fresh.

STF is very much a directed treasure hunt. You, as Eldrid the trainee elf, get a list of basic tasks to perform. They're pretty pedestrian kids' toys, the sort kids might not even really like these days. They're certainly not cutting-edge technology. But what can you expect, being at the bottom of the rung? Nevertheless, I was quickly left feeling that these toys would be fun to give and make in a way that, say, potion-mixing games to be strong enough to beat up monsters could never be.

You should quickly find a manual that tells how to make the toys, as well as a list of kids who are getting gifts. And since there are several supply rooms, you can get most stuff done by brute force. You can't run out, either.

But ... but ... the neat part is that you can and must leave Santa's house to find everything. That includes a lump of coal for the one bad kid on the list, which is probably the very easiest task. There are other items that are lying around, which are useful but replaceable, so you might as well take them. There are a few puzzles to get to special rooms. And there's one puzzle I find well-clued: Mrs. Claus asks you to get a box of gingerbread cookies from the top shelf of a pantry. You have a box, and it's not quite tall enough, and neither are you. It weaves in nicely with another puzzle, so that STF is about more than reading recipes and dumping stuff in Santa's sleigh.

Most of us poking around in text adventures have, of course, long since stopped believing in Santa. Perhaps we are cynical about the gift-giving of Christmas, with good reason. But here there are no ads or comparisons of expensive gifts or even stress over sending out holiday cards. (Note: gifts and holiday cards with people we care about are good things. But, well, they shouldn't feel obligatory.) And we may even be cynical about ways to bring the magic back. Somebody's profiting off it, right?

Only for STF, that wasn't quite it. I mean, just finding Adventuron existed was a neat gift at any time of the year, even though I didn't discover it for a few months. It was another nice way to connect that we sort of needed with COVID. And it was also something I dared wish for when younger: something more sophisticated than Sierra games, with lower load time and more colors. And a lot of the special effects, too, mirror something I'd have loved as a kid, and still enjoy now. The presents you find or build have alternating green and red text, which flies in the face of our cynicism about too-gaudy HTML. The pictures of each room are fun. The list of tasks changes them from red to yellow to green. It's cheery and practical, without any of the "Oh, it's holiday time, if you can't be cheery now when can you be cheery?" that it feels more commercialistic holiday routines, or holiday office parties or whatever, inflict on me.

Santa's place is pretty well drawn out, too. Some rooms are clearly blocked off, such as Santa's Bedroom, and there are NPCs willing to help you but also reminding you of your job as a trainee elf. Instead of making you feel small, period, this actually funnels you to your tasks and leaves some wonder of the sort of things you could do or see if you did your job right. And while the interaction isn't intense, there's the feeling you're working together with the other elves. In a neat touch, there's also a metals room for advanced toys where you don't need anything just yet. (You can verify this with your toy making manual.) It hints at perhaps a sequel which, even if it doesn't arrive, is easy to imagine. STF has a bunch of neat responses to custom verbs as well. So it's well-produced, and while I think even a middling game would've left me with unexpected gratitude, having something nice that someone made for free, in their own time, feels good.

Part of me is a bit upset I didn't discover Adventuron right away, but it and the Christmas jam and this entry were waiting for me to play, and I did. I wasn't expecting too much of a gift, but perhaps I was more in a frame of mind to enjoy it than I was two years ago. Also, I was suffering through Adventuron withdrawal--this year's IFComp game had no Adventuron games! So STF filled that void and also pointed me to where I could keep filling it. I've been fortunate enough to take advantage of a few neat no-obligation trial offers this holiday season. I appreciated them, even as I felt slight guilt about canceling them even though all that is baked into the business model. But I appreciate a nice experience like STF, with even fewer strings attached, even more.

You Feel Like You've Read this in a Book, by Austin Lim

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
ransom-note thriller, book references extra, January 2, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

I love a good sneaky reference to a popular work I liked, and I love getting the reference–or even forgetting the reference and saying "gee, of course." The title indicated something more idyllic to me than what I got. Because, indeed, one of the endings is very dark indeed and makes a play on the original title. There are several, and since YFL is a tidy little game, you can explore it to see them all without too much trouble. I wound up almost missing one because of my eternal nemesis, timed text. (Note: it's used effectively somewhere else, and I also appreciated the use of colored text.) But I got them all, with help from the walkthrough, and enjoyed it. I'm not ashamed to admit I push ahead a bit, and if I have to look a couple times, I chalk that up to my own haste and obtuseness.

The plot is this: you wake up with a case of amnesia, only knowing there's a neurotoxin in your brain due to explode in 24 hours unless you find a $50000 ransom. That one day's enough, in game time (fixed number of clicks, plus there's that handy undo arrow) to look around quite a bit, but it also indicates bumpers so that the world is not too big. And what do you find? Well, you find your own apartment, and you find you're rich, though you never learn why. A lot of details are left unfilled, which I found a bit favorably creepy. You can also find or steal stuff to sell to the local pawn shop. You can get away with two straight-out profitable activities (your bank account gets you close to the magic number) but there are several things well worth finding and selling. Morality doesn't matter, here, and perhaps the item you get the least money selling would be priceless in any hypothetical black market of famous items found in books. Not only that, I don't believe buying it could ever push you over the $50000 mark. If indeed the author worked the numbers so this happened, congratulations to them!

There are a few ways to end. You can die, you can perform a ritual to get cured, or you can even visit a hospital as long as you get injured other ways. The hospital only takes the neediest patients, so you need to find a way to get injured more than once. The second way was a bit tricky since it required a bit of a walk around the map, which only had ten rooms, but with the repetition involved it wouldn't be surprising if some people had the right idea but then backed off.

This all gives a much more different impression than you'd expect from the title. I expected high fantasy or absurdism. I got a bit of a thriller-mystery. And that doesn't quite match up with the book allusions for me, even with how I saw they were supposed to work against your amnesia. Some do feel a bit shoehorned in, and the game is left feeling mechanical and generic for that part, though--of course you want to see all the references, once you've read a few! I can also see some people not quite getting that different things can happen at different times, even though the world should be small enough you can traverse it more than once before dying. I didn't recognize one or two of the books, too. My lazy side would also have preferred the undo/redo arrows be closer to the bottom where I did most of the clicking, though of course there's always tabs. None of this is fatal, but it certainly let me feeling needlessly slowed. But I liked what I saw, and based on YFL, I have a couple more books to add to my list.

Hanging by threads, by Carlos Pamies

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Brief branching city exploration with intrigue and instadeaths, January 2, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

Recon, the author's entry last year, had a lot of moving parts and a backstory that took a few playthroughs to put together. HbT is similar–it's a lot smaller, but it feels more organized, and it's still fantastical, though the fantasy veers toward general abstract stuff more than sci-fi. I think it's a technical step up, but there were a few design choices that made it hard for me to say what I wanted, as quickly as I wanted. I'm not surprised a few reviews rolled in late. There's an unexpected hard break just when it seems things are starting, and people may wonder what's up. Sure, we see the "end" in small print below a separator, but it's not clear how or why until we've played through several times. I thought I'd just walked into a death trap, and I didn't see what I did wrong.

Once I realized that there was a sort of timer where you make so many moves and then just die, things picked up. I was able to plan out relatively modest goals, deciding what part of the city to explore, and how. This is hampered slightly by being unable to reload, at least on Firefox, even with a complete refresh. Fortunately HbT isn't huge.

It starts with a cute puzzle, the sort I felt was the strength of Recon. You are told to choose the shortest stick, and you get a sneak peak, with several different spellings of "stick." These sorts of HTML tricks seem very easy until you have to think of one yourself, and if and when you guess right, you get one of three items. Each is specifically useful at some point in the city, and it's fun to find that point and then do things with or without that item and compare and contrast. I'd consider finding all six such states to complete HbT, such as it is.

There's definitely weirdness about, and for the most part, it works, but I was frustrated that the turn-limit cap along with options such as "turn right/turn left" that didn't give me enough information to work with. So it was a matter of more weird detail, please! You want to feel helpless, but not too helpless. I think some sort of timer can and should be integrated in a post-comp release, and I'd also have liked the cut-outs not to interrupt a choice I made beyond traveling somewhere new. Surely there's a way to incorporate a game flag and also to say, okay, the story won't end just before you get to talk to someone. As-is, it was a bit jarring. It seems like a forgivable oversight, but it's also a high priority when it comes to revision.

I think these issues impacted the replayability the author wanted to give the player and which, with the game text, seemed even more rewarding with a smoother gameplay experience. I might even suggest a small bonus to people who keep replaying, as payback for their faith. Note the timer, not with just a number but with narrative cues, and also maybe fill in details of paths they have already seen. It's tricky, but I think that would combine the whole "you can't explore everything at once" aesthetic with "you don't want to repeat yourself too much." Perhaps I'm greedy, too, but the ability to constantly restart as with Let Them Eat Cake might open the way for a grander vision once you've hit all the six states I mentioned above. UNDO might be a bridge too far, but I'd also like to get greedy and maybe track which branches have been fully explored and which haven't. This is nontrivial coding, but it seems worthwhile.

I was glad to see reviews pour in late for HbT, because it deserved them, but I'd also have liked it to be less forbidding, and the forced game-over probably intimidated people. So I'd be very glad indeed if my main questions became obsolete! How much you should push the player back is tough to judge, but it's not clear to me right away why things should stop completely, and I think people legitimately had trouble figuring things out. Here's where my great enemy timed text would be quite welcome, before a "restart?" link popped up. It would be an appropriate penalty for a player's inattention. There are other solutions, too. Unrolling everything too quickly here wuld probably ruin the author's vision, but I think a compromise would be welcome.

A Matter of Heist Urgency, by FLACRabbit

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
An exciting mini-whirlwind of crime, mumbling ponies, and pirate fight moves, January 1, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

It's hard not to enjoy a game where you play as an animal. And in AMHU, my biggest groan was realizing I'd missed the pun in the title. (If you missed it: highest/heist.) It's a bit less serious than last year's Finding Light, to say the least. You're Anastasia, the Power Pony, and through this brief game you collect evidence after the crown jewels have been stolen, then you go fight the baddies to retrieve said crown. The only other entry I can think of offhand that does this is Peter Nepstad's Slap That Fish, and there, you're fighting with animals as weapons (Anastasia's weapons are her hooves,) and there's more strategy and less to do outside of that. MoHU allows for a good deal of showmanship and style points that weren't my thing, but I was glad they were in there. They fit the comedic tone of the heist.

The evidence collection is not hard. You do it considerably better than Sir Ponyheart or Commissioner Mumblebumble, who is true to his name. Sir Ponyheart understands the Commish, but you can't. The evidence quickly points to some evil llamas, and once you track them down, the fighting starts. This is one case where excessive disambiguation works. It captures that you're beating up a bunch of llamas at once, like a true action heroine.

And the author makes it hard to lose, with the focus on humor and creating a detailed fighting scene rather than intricate puzzles. The main thrust seems to be cluing you how to perform fighting tricks. The fight's on a pirate boat, and anyone who's enjoyed a pirate movie will be able to figure a couple of them and will probably want to. This factors into your rank at the end of the game. I'm not sure you can really lose, as there seems no ending besides the default, where you-the-character leave slightly disappointed, but I-the-player did not. I was amused by it, as well as the in-game good-bad puns. And the title. It's genuinely good-hearted, and my fears it might get too twee never materialized. It seems like a really good type of entry to expose interested people to the parser, too, because it's got a clear vision of what it wants and achieves it without feeling light-weight, and in a fight sequence, well, custom verbs seem almost necessary. I even appreciated the music, which feels like a really neat chiptune tribute and is appropriate for such a bouncy game.

AMHU already has a post-comp release, and I'm glad it did. I can't be the target audience, but that doesn't matter. I really don't care much about pirates, and the bonus content for choreographing pirate or dance moves or similar things isn't something I'd prioritize. That doesn't matter--I wound up enjoying the craft, and it's the sort of entry that makes me glad I at least tried to hit all the IFComp entries. I probably won't play the post-comp release due to general time concerns, but it's cool to imagine the possibilities opened up by the author's change logs, and given the good work they did in-comp, it's good to see they're dedicated to their craft and this won't be the last thing they write.

The Counsel in The Cave, by Josh

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Reflective post-HS piece with questions worth asking at any age, January 1, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

When I was going off to college, or even just after college, I wish I'd have felt free enough to write something like this. It hits on themes I wondered about, and it cut through many "wiser" adults' assumptions about college quickly. It might not soar for your average reader. But it was in the right place at the right time for me, and I think it discusses the sort of universal themes we need to read more about. Looking back, I'm shocked I can't remember someone else trying for this in IFComp, at least for the years I reviewed. CIC has the interesting, wild choices of Elvish for Goodbye and the coming-of-age of Doug Egan's Roads Not Taken from a few years ago. And it also parallels, in part, Mike Russo's Sting. This was the life of someone who'd been given a lot of opportunity but still had questions about things. It didn't enforce its criticality on you. And tht worked great for me. In this case, Sting's main character is rather more privileged than CIC's, having gone to a prestigious East Coast private school, then to Cal-Tech, so the author labeled that character as privileged. The characters in CIC are doing well, but not quite so well.

The two main characters, May and Jason, have both graduated high school and are going to college: May to Temple, Jason to Lehigh. They're both from Bucks County, which is north of Philadelphia, where Temple is located, and east of Bethlehem, where Lehigh is located. (You may not recognize Bethlehem, but it's next to Allentown, which was the subject of a Billy Joel song. Both were hit hard in the eighties when the steel industry lost jobs. They've made a comeback, and they seem likely bigger than May and Jason's home town.) So there is a literal fork in the road and going in different directions for them both, and it's one that can't be avoided.

As for myself? Well, I haven't been in college for a while, but I must be close to the target audience, since I am sort of between Sting and CIC. I moved from one relatively acclaimed public school near an acclaimed public university to one near a private one (Purdue, up to middle school, to Northwestern,) but I went to classes with a group who figured Temple and Lehigh were nice and all, but you really should do better. I never really felt comfortable there, and I in fact worried that I wasn't really trying hard or didn't want to learn, or whatever, or if I couldn't succeed here, I certainly couldn't really succeed or thrive in college.

As it was, I went to a university that itself probably look down on Lehigh and Temple, even though the Ivy Leagues look down on it in turn. (Side note: it claimed it was tougher than some Ivies. The perils of comparison, which is the sort of thing people told me I needed to do more of!) However, it did have a good creative writing program, which I discovered a bit too late. I wound up trying to take advantage of it, but also feeling like I was an outsider who never quite fit in. I had my chances, and I had my moments, but somehow, I felt like I was wasting the college experience. I see that now I wasn't, and if I'd started earlier, I've gotten a lot out of it. Perhaps saying that I know I missed something and I want to recover it without going full midlife crisis is useful for me. People said college was about asking questions, and of course ideally, it is about opening up those questions which last a lifetime and are worth asking no matter what your career is, or how big your office is or whatever. And CIC's are.

That's my story. It's not quite May's or Jason's, but theirs would have helped me bring things into some perspective even if CIC quickly laid an egg. But it didn't. They asked questions I'd had before I convinced myself weren't really relevant or suited to my skill set or to all the opportunities high school gave me. They were the sort of person I'd have liked to meet in college, regardless of university entrance exam score. I didn't realize not only did other people share similar than me and they're worth having, but you could do so and still do well in classes or whatever. It just required more effort and sacrifice. To be frank, I am a bit jealous that somebody was able to express these thoughts at an earlier age than I was, but hopefully I have the maturity to be glad if I got something out of it. And I got a lot.

CIC presents itself in three parts: Shiloh Hills, Lost on Layers' Edge, and Counsel in the Cave. You can play through any of the three chapters repeatedly, making the interface very smooth. As May and Jason talk, you're presented with choices of how to take the conversation, from fear to hope, and so forth. And I think this is done well, as you often have a choice between two plausible but different emotions, and in the flashback or fantasy scene, the choices are always exciting. I'd like to compare it to a choice-based game that did much better in IFComp, Creatures Such as We, and it took a while to express why CSaW didn't do much for me. There, you had choices, but it felt like the author was constantly saying "C'mon, one of these is good, right? Right?" or mayve they were giving you a personality survey to "surprise" you at the end with a gift you couldn't decline and had to like. Sometimes I related to none of the four choices given. I don't sense a lot of this sort of people-pleasing in CIC, and it was refreshing, because CIC is wanting to be about more than people-pleasing and yet at the same time, you want to fit in somewhere.There was a certain amount of "I'd like to let my mind wander, and not around you, if you please."

CIC let me push back if I needed, or let me blow off the rare choices I didn't care about, so I quickly stopped caring How Good It was or What Its Place in Posterity Might Be. i enjoyed having to go forward with what I picked but also being able to look at the other choice or choices too after too long. I'm the sort of player who can lapse into "okay, I'll just choose the first choice and see what happens." That didn't happen here.

The first part felt the strongest for me, because it quickly brought up good and bad memories as well as fears or dreams, and it let you decide what to dwell on, both as May and Jason. Moondog, an old fisher you meet in act two, feels a bit too old-and-wise at times, with some mystic advice, but once I accepted this was a bit of a trope, things worked better. The third part includes a lot more surrealism, and the thing about surrealism for me is, I can't judge it unless there are clever jokes. I think at some point I was saturated with my own thoughts and just clicking around a bit to see if anything hit me directly. Overall, though, I got the feeling that May and Jason were both waiting for a sign to move on, and at the end, they sort of got one, but they realized they couldn't and shouldn't expect it in the future.

I suspect with CIC there were chunks where I sat back and just heard what I wanted to hear or read what I wanted to read, but I got a lot from it anyway, and it very much beats the alternative. There are works that hope youdo t that, and there are those that let you, and CIC is in the second, which is preferable. I've played through a few times now, and I feel sure I missed something, and I'm okay with that. It means I'm actually searching and interested and don't want to close the door on those questions. There's a surprising amount of wisdom in there for someone who is as old as the author seems to be from their Twitter bio. And I wish I'd let myself try to write something this good when I was their age, even if it hadn't nearly been as successful. CIC quickly reminded me of some former concerns and put other long-term ones in new perspective. I hope this is higher praise than the adults who told me "Oh, hm, yes, you ask important questions. I asked them too at your age!"

Final meta stuff: the author had two entries in IFComp. The Hidden King's Tomb was the less successful of the two. I imagine writing HKT was itself the sort of experience Jason and May both fear and anticipate. They're worried they won't succeed. They wonder what they're there for. They wonder if things are worth sharing. They're worried they won't hit their potential, or their potential has a ceiling. And HKT missing the mark adds to CIC in a way a more successful entry maybe could not have.

We understand that this person is good, and they've shown it, and they just missed the mark, not due to laziness but becaue they took a chance worth taking. They deserved, and deserve, to show up and say what they had to say, and maybe they didn't use their time the best way. That doesn't matter. They've looked for something beyond what was necessary to get by, and they found something or they said, you know, I didn't get all of that, I would like to do more.

We saw last year how Infinite Adventure cleverly added to BJ Best's comp-winning And Then You Come to a House Not Unlike the Previous One, but that was intentional. HKT feels less intentional and more real for all that. Because it's an old saw to say that you should try new things, because so what if they don't work out? It's hard to express, though, just by writing something that doesn't work out. With the author's two entries, we get to see both, and my general feeling is: the author will get their next Inform game right, if they choose to write one, and they did the right thing sticking their neck out or maybe even taking on too much this time. Next time, it won't be too much. But they may have found bigger and better things to do.

TOMBs of Reschette, by Richard Goodness

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Tongue in cheek RPG stuff, December 31, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2015 Reviews

It's been a while, but the author requested that people not spoil things, if they figured out what was going on in TOMBs. I still won't, explicitly, but I'm caught between not writing a review at all and explaining why I liked what was going on. And years later, I sort of forgot, and I sort of remembered. Did I only like TOMBs for the novelty value at the time? Most text-adventure RPGs I'd read were a bit too earnest, which helped it stand out. But when I poked through, I was able to enjoy it again and notice the snarky bits that gave me pleasure.

It's sort of a relief, in IFComp, to have something where you can just kill a bunch of monsters for a bit. Sadly, a lot of these entries have little more to offer. But I knew the author knew what he was doing, so I had a Trizbort map ready to go for a nice big dungeon. I would kill everything. I would go in for level-grinding. I didn't particularly want to empathize with anybody, or anything. I'd get to those entries later. In TOMBS, I would do some hack-and-slashing.

But of course I wanted to make sure I didn't miss any secrets! I got the feeling I would need a few, to beat the big bad beast. Reading the book in the library was the first inkling that there was more to adventure than the usual. I remembered the monsters I'd disposed of. I became curious what the ?'s were for. And I enjoyed having "limerence" as a stat, because it's a great word people don't know too much about. You may, but if you don't, it's the concept of being in love with love instead of, well, with people. And it's not an especially good stat for surviving in an RPG. So it sort of clues us into how things aren't quite right. Here we’re in love with the idea of nobility, etc., or improving ourselves through fights, but if we are just sitting grinding at some game, are we really improving?

So the second time through I managed to do more than just kill everything, and I used the previously ???'ed options. Some irony here: I didn't go face the beast for so long because I figured "that would just kill you, right? I'm not strong enough, and besides, I've been doing nice things, so I don't want my fate." So in a way I was paying for my bloodthirsty mentality even when I intellectually knew what to do.

The game made me feel trapped in level grinding, too, not hopelessly trapped but enough to get me the feeling there should be more. It was small enough, though, I was able to reload and see if there really was something else and say, okay, I’m not doing this. So many games are built to get players to keep playing even when it’s not fun, and ToR turns that notion on its head. We need more of this.

As for the final message? Well, it’s one we’ve heard before, but it's been too mushy or melodramatic other places. And it puts your earlier defeats of the beast, and the text from that, in perspective. Looking back, stuff like the chest guarded by bats also clued me, if I’d been paying attention.

So there are a lot of fun lessons in this game we don't realize are lessons til they’re done. And I think that’s very, very good. It's a case of having a bunch of independent jokes that have a 5-10% chance of working or making the light go off, but because there are twenty of them, it will happen eventually.

ToR is not the first subversion of RPGs, but it's one that doesn't shove the observational humor or retread fourth-wall observations in your face. As you explore, evidence piles up that something's wrong, and you can have a good laugh at what you've missed. You may even miss stuff even knowing it's a subversion, as I did on replay. I suspect many people may have missed this and downgraded ToR as just a collection of jokey shticks and feel superior to it and say, ok, maybe the next game will be a REAL game. But it looks like enough people, indeed, got it.

The Thick Table Tavern, by manonamora

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Bartending for profit and dream-chasing, with nice atmosphere, December 31, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

I'm not big on alcohol, in general. I was fortunate to learn quickly that it doesn't work for me, and there were other ways to loosen inhibitions that did more harm than good. Yet as a kid I remember looking at all the drinks in bars and how people might mix them and it seemed like magic or artistry, perhaps even more fun than mixing a root beer float. The reality of bars was drearier, though. I still loved Cheers growing up, but that was much more for the characters. They all had their flaws, especially Sam, the bartender. But it was must-see TV, and my later (slight) experience in bars never came close to that. There were other TV bars, too, such as Phil's in Murphy Brown or McLaren's Pub in How I Met Your Mother or even (if for all the wrong reasons) Paddy's Pub. Again, they seemed more fun than the real thing. Also, there was the occasional illicit game of Tapper, or even Root Beer Tapper, at the arcade, with an amusingly violent end when you failed to schlep brews in time. Then later there were bars in RPG where you found information or new recruits or, perhaps, found experience-gaining fights. That seemed to cover it all. But T3 provides a new perspective: you're an employee who likes where they are, but you want to do better.

The production values for T3 are established early: the "wait, loading" graphic is a neat green snowflakey tesselation on a tan background. There's been a lot of thought put into the design, and it's not just about looking pretty. The whole experience is very smooth, and at the core, it is about mixing drinks, though there's a neat subplot as to why you want the money at your tavern job. And of course the title is very cool. It suggests some rough clientele who dig their knives into the table, just because.

So where does your bartending pay go? What are you saving for? Well, you've got a leaflet about joining an adventure academy, with a 300 coin fee for a course that starts in one week. This all feels a bit fourth-wall. In fact, the scenes at the beginning and end drive this home a bit too much for me, but on the other hand, that's probably my major complaint, and I'm not sure what I'd had the heart to cut out. Overall, T3 fell into the "I was just having fun and really paying attention, so I feel half bad for noticing this missing detail" camp. I recommend you do the same. I enjoyed many moments throughout the game, even ones the author probably did not angle for–for instance, I had a slow internet connection, and so the graphics of the various drink ingredients that appeared behind the bar popped up in amusing fashion. It almost gave the feeling the drinks were about to fall off the shelf, and I think it fit in well with the general lack of organization the author established was endemic to the tavern itself.

The mechanics are simple enough. You're the barmaid, and you mix drinks. Get them right, and you get tipped well. Miss, and you don't. You can decide whether to knock the tavern sign for luck (Roscoe, the owner, gives you a trivial fine) or to leave your tip box out, too. It might get stolen. I made sure to save before making the decision for the first few days, but I got absorbed enough that I forgot later, which is a good sign. (This almost bit me later, but the details are a spoiler.) You have a frenemy relationship with Brom, the cook, and Ez, who serves the food. Roscoe isn't very reliable, but it'd be boring if he was. People play stupid pranks on each other during slow times. Coffee isn't just for the customers.

I played on easy mode, so I was under no time pressure, and I assume the recipes were there for me to take my time with, so I did not miss out. It wasn't just easy mode that made T3 feel welcoming. I particularly enjoyed how certain syrups or fruits would be lumped together. Perhaps this is done behind the bar regularly, but in this case, I think the author nicely avoided clutter. You want it to be busy, but not too busy. The pull-outs for applying garnish were very charming, too, and I liked that I had to use some minimal reasoning to get some drinks working. For instance, there's only a specific section for citrus fruits, but if you're asked for oranges or lemons or limes, you just have to click there. So there's no need for additional futzing! You don't want everything done for you, but it's nice when a game trusts that you do, indeed, get it.

With all this, the first two days, with generic customers, were more than enough to help me adjust to the curve. I was ready for more challenge, and this came (one of those neat moments I don't want to spoil,) and it was pretty clear how this would fit very well into the timed/arcade version of the story. Then there were two special customers. Contrasting their goals with yours worked very well, I thought.

This special encounter helped me scrape by after just five days of the seven allotted. I tallied up my tips, and yes! I had just hit the mark! There were good-byes, and they felt appropriate, as I felt enough of a kinship with my coworkers. But once I'd moved on, I wanted to go back and mess up a bit to see how long things would last and whom else I could meet in those remaining two days, or even how my coworkers would react if I did not meet my goals.

It wasn't until the end of the story that I realized I hadn't used the cognac to mix anything, and I was never called on to use the paper umbrella! As a fan of The Jerk, this made me sad, but now I wonder if adding them willy-nilly might have gotten me bonus coins. The cognac felt like a sort of Chekhov's gun, along with the rattling tip box, and it's moments like this, where something you looked forward to didn't materialize and you still had fun, that make you realize what a smooth, enjoyable ride you had.

T3 established high standards quickly and gave my mind time to wander free. I've often thought of the good-citizen concept of IFComp entry, and sometimes it feels like "you didn't have anything profound to say, and you didn't pretend to! Yay, you!" In a way, yes, but in another way, this is something to enjoy and see things from a different perspective, and you don't need anything profound, and the game never taps its foot and expects you to find profound stuff. You know you don't need tense life-or-death situations to have revelations, or to remember something cool, or to say your own experiences are worth sharing. Plus it reminded me of those baffling bartender books I remembered seeing, and I never actually wanted to mix drinks, but I wondered what was in there. I did find trivia I might like to correct for a post-comp release, but in this case it would be an excuse to generate more deserved publicity. I think it's definitely one of the cheeriest and best-produced IFComp games, and it clearly doesn't rely on its production values only. It's a game about friendship and goals that doesn't get mushy. Part of me wants to try the arcade mode to challenge myself on replay, but the other part is worried I might miss a part of the story I meant to revisit.

Good Grub!, by Damon L. Wakes

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Low-level, self-aware heckling is the best kind of heckling, December 30, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2022

Good Grub embraces its limitations as a no-frills Twine game enthusiastically, and I think it does so without going overboard. Teaching facts without coming off as pompous is tough. And with GG, the idea is that bugs are good to eat. We've heard it, but unfortunately, the people loudest about this are the least likely to listen. GG takes a fake on-the-nose tone through it all, though there's not a ton. It reminds me of that clip in Wayne's World where Alice Cooper and Pete Friesen, his guitarist, educate Wayne in semi-stilted voices about the history of Milwaukee. I still remember these facts, and the presentation to this day! And I enjoy it when I find it elsewhere.

GG can't master Alice and Pete's voice inflections, being text and all, but the script is decidedly snarkier, and it works well for the time it takes. It's about starting a restaurant. It pokes you if you try to guess something wrong, but often in random ways. For instance, choosing the worst possible name for your restaurant gets a "Stop that. Try again." But other things that seem less fatal do, in fact, ruin your budding business. This sort of randomness has been done before in Twine games, but it's not purely zany here. The choices are always fresh. With easy UNDO, it's fun to see which actually matter, too, because GG is short enough you can do that without getting exhausted.

It's hard not to sound a bit moralistic or preachy when talking about subjects such as sustainability, and GG's tone works throughout. You take transport to your interview, where the reporter tries your fare. Your restaurant's success is at stake! It's a surprisingly dramatic moment.

GG is a good blend of entertainment and teaching--nothing too deep, but there can be a thin line between preaching and giving people a boost and encouragement for open-mindedness. Lots of people still don't like the thought of eating bugs--they prefer to eat smarter, more sentient animals. So it's a good tongue-in-cheek advertisement for that sort of thing, as well as the author's other games.

Dream Pieces, by Iam Curio

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Build letters into words, with optional rhymes, December 29, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)

I tested Dream Pieces for IFComp 2013 and remembered enjoying it, so I pulled it out again. It wasn't a hugely complex game, but it has a premise it was hard to dislike. You are in your room and need to get out, because it's your birthday, and there's a party waiting for you. There are items in the room you can break up. For instance, a desk breaks up into a DE and a K. You don't use the S.

Some things, you can't break right away, and you need an item that can destroy them. Building such an item is the first puzzle. Another is for destroying really big items. I enjoyed this whole process of building and destroying, and if it's a bit on rails, I think that's better than being too arbitrary--I found the puzzles challenging without being too frustrating, though there's a small risk they may be not challenging enough or not user-friendly enough either way. But on the whole, I like the balance. There are limited items, and if you understand the conventions of parser games, you know what you need.

What I'm really impressed with is the stuff I didn't remember. The author has done some neat work to improve DP post-comp. Rhymes are optional--I remember some reviewers bemoaned the rhymes, which I think are good for a non-native speaker. There are cheery sound effects when you do something right, and color coding may help you figure what goes with what. Quest allowing drag-and-drop or clicking for verbs is a big help, too, and this is one area where it might be better than Inform. You don't have to guess the verb.

DP feels like a neat wordplay game for people who enjoy the genre but might not be really hard-core. After many years, I was glad to come back to it, and I enjoyed seeing the features I forgot, some I now remembered the author saying "I can sneak that in before IFComp" and others he said he might like to try post-comp. He did.

Approaching Horde!, by CRAIG RUDDELL

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Efficient real-time resource management and humor, too, December 29, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

Me and all caps don't get along so good all the time. Well, almost none of the time, to be honest, if I'm not the one typing 'em. And when an author puts their name in ALL CAPS, that's a bold move that could BACKFIRE! The author furthermore doubles down with a zombie game. Many of you may not remember IFComp back in 2010, but there were a lot of zombies in the entries back then. It was a weird coincidence, but then, each year there's sort of bound to be one of them. I'll cut the birthday paradox-related calculations here. And I was sort of tentative looking at this game. The introduction seemed like it was going for humor, which seemed odd for a zombie game, and I wasn't sure what to expect. Bluntly, I wasn't optimistic.

As it turns out, I played AH three times before even starting on a review for the authors' forum, and it turned out to be one of those gapper entries I play before more serious IFComp stuff (Anything too complex and I, uh, turn into a zombie and procrastinate.) It's really not a text adventure, and it may not be a great fit for IFComp, but it gives great fun for relatively little investment. It's more a real-time resource game where you can, if you want, just plug things in and let them run. It takes twenty minutes, under the half-hour it says it does in IFComp, and it's almost all big-picture stuff. You are in charge of a fortress the zombies will eventually break through, but until then, you can maybe build tunnels are research a cure for the zombie infestation or try to kill the zombies. I tried killing them. It failed.

There was a lot to digest at first. You assign people to jobs: Farmers, Guards, Builders, Researchers, Hunters, Scavengers. You can recruit more people with hunters and scavengers, or you can go out and kill zombies. Farming is necessary for food, and there's also a morale component. It's pretty relaxing, for a zombie apocalypse, with the main problem being clicking the pluses and minuses to switch people from one task to another. At the end, you are the star of a newspaper article, for better or worse, and you get a notebook log of your time in the bunker. The first time I read this, a few things at the start of the story clicked. I suppose I wasn't quite ready for the humor the author threw at me, so I'm glad I backtracked. Things made more sense the second time through, and I knew what to expect. I realized I was supposed to be laughing a bit more than I did

I confess I went in for easy mode (there are normal and hard,) but the in-game help (a note on the wall) points out that you can actually lose survivors who find your compound because, you know, it's risky hunting out there at the higher levels! It also contains mechanics for roughly how often hunters find supplies, and so forth. And I simply watched as the progress bars filled up–they start once you assign people to groups. Each one can have up to four tasks, and when they're filled, improvements happen. For instance, farmers can either create food or increase production. Research can increase maximum food production. So it's multi-layered. Recent events are presented in a sort of ticker-tape display, where you allocate resources but above the game-hint and general ground observation parts.

I never had food or happiness bottom out, but I had survivors not join because I seemed low on food. Now I've played through a few times, I wonder if I missed a funny ending based on losing all my survivors or food. At least on easy mode, it's not hard to win. I indeed got the cure the first time, and I escaped with 30 of my 50 companions on the second, trying to build a tunnel. Trying to shoot down the zombie hordes by building up crazy firepower failed. As I played through I also realized some allocations were wasted on easy mode (e.g. the radio tower, since I wasn't losing survivors) and also that I could get away with skimping on food or happiness, and I saw ways to help keep my troops lean and mean. I bet there are more.

Horde! definitely falls on the game side of the game/story continuum, and I'm glad it did. It's good enough that the author has earned the right for sure to present his name in all caps. It fits in well with the unsubtle, confident humor. I could see myself replaying on medium or hard. I like how I was able to get up and walk away for a few minutes, or switch tabs. Maybe zombie apocalypse simulators shouldn't be so stress-free, but I enjoyed being able to poke around, and it certainly put me in a more welcoming mood for the more serious zombie entries that might be ahead. It's legitimately replayable, too. So, Mr. CRAIG RUDELL, well done. Oops. WELL DONE.

Witchfinders, by Tania Dreams

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Engaging enough, but a bit too straightforward maybe?, December 29, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

In Witchfinders, you play as a potentially suspected witch who wants to help people with their problems back in 1800: sick cattle, a fever, etc. You have a witch score that determines how suspicious you seem, and when it gets to a certain point, you're in for it. I got to the best ending with maximum points after a couple tries, as the game's well-clued for success, and as you'd suspect, generally being hush-hush helps you a lot. The strongest part to me was having to keep your methods hush-hush, even if they didn't seem particularly magical. It's pretty clear they're actually helping people overall (there's a mix of common sense and alchemy,) but you can't say it, so louder, more powerful people prevail. So everything works, logically. And I gained a favorable impression of this work, but it's one I feel has untapped upside. So I have criticisms.

Because it never really soars, and a big reason may be an uneven translation. There's an attempt at Scottish dialogue, which works to my limited ear, but then there's a more contemporary narrative voice which pervades the dialogue, so the sense of place is disrupted. For instance, at game's end, you're asked "I guess we hang out for a while here?" which was not something said before 1950. There also seem to be several translation errors–they're mistakes a native speaker wouldn't make, though it's pretty clear what the author meant to say. The inclusion of points of out 100 also feels a bit off-key. It's good to know how far along you are, but on the other hand, in a relatively slice-of-life game with no ultimate goal, a point total seems incongruous. But then there are bulletins posted that change: they describe cruelty and such, suggesting the populace does not turn a blind eye to cruelty in general, only to witches they find guilty. This shows understanding of, well, witch hunts beyond the literal boring stuff.

So much seems on-the-nosee, too. For instance, the introduction at the start. So the writer knows what they are doing, but perhaps they concentrated too much on nailing basics that didn't need to be nailed down fully. And the result is that some events that should have emotional impact don't. Nevertheless, the option of playing to sneak around or get caught provides clear replayability, and I was interested enough to. The translation is adequate, and I know translation work is very hard, even without the attempted Scottish dialogue. But with more rigorous translation, Witchfinders could gain the full flow a story like this needs. As-is, I was interested, and I got through, and there's good craftsmanship. It finished respectably, as I expected. But many things prevented full emotional interest.

Beythilda the Night Witch, by DCBSupafly

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Quick fun spooky touching poetry, December 27, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)

EctoComp does let people run wild with their imaginations or throw something out there they might as well. It certainly helped me say, sure, I can try to write something, why not? Lots of works never succeeded perfectly, but they worked quite well.

Beythilda is such a game, from way back when to just after EctoComp opened itself to non-ADRIFT games. It has some of the tricky guess-the-verb/noun stuff (note: use WINDOW instead of WINDOWS) that ADRIFT games and Speed-IF tend to have, but fortunately there's a WALKTHROUGH command, and on replay I was surprised how well the verbs were clued. Maybe part of that was knowing where to look, or having confidence that I played it years ago, and things eventually fit in.

You, Beythlida, find your familiar Tissues the Rat is missing. But Tissues will be tough to find. There's a mad mob determined to burn you, and they're about to ransack your house. Avoiding them is your first line of duty. The poetry in the descriptions and actions creates an interesting effect. It was written in three hours, so you can't expect a ton of emotion to come through, but it's atmospheric enough. The actions involve typical witch things, though again, reading the descriptions will tell what is useful.

The end puzzle is sort of cute, too, as you put a guard to sleep in surprisingly nonviolent fashion, calling into question how oppressed the mob really is.

This is one game that I shrugged off as "a neat idea or try I guess" when it came out, but it's stuck in my mind and I wish more people would try it. EctoComp or short efforts seem to work well for this so we don't get tired of the poetry, and also so we don't have to put on our pedantic critic's hat.

With twine, a poetry angle has been much more common. The medium is well-suited to it, from rhyming doggerel to free verse. People should take advantage of it. But I hope there'll always be a chunk of the community that would like to throw in a parser game, where either the player or writer is there to explore poetry, perhaps with a special typed command here and there.

I sort of shrugged this game off when I originally played it, but somehow I kept coming back to it. EctoComp has had its share of successfully zany games, but this was an experiment, one that was largely successful. There are side questions of if Tissues was helping you find a new home or just plain scared, and thinking on that and the overall design, I've been through it more times than several (also worthy) entries that excited me more when they came out. We all need a good deal of oddness, especially if it's not forced, and here it is not.

Lost Coastlines, by William Dooling

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
So many things unexplored, like a dream half-remembered in a good way, December 26, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

LC is way too big for two-hour IFComp's judging frame, but it still belonged there. It's a work of pure imagination and love, and its dreamworld is as interesting as people hope they are when they tell you about the dream they had last night. The map is big, at 17x17, not including the north pole. There's a Prime Meridian which sort of lets you get your bearing. I cursed it occasionally for being so big. The main takeaway is that I knew mapping would be a chore, and I knew ADRIFT allowed UNDO to make things easier, but I was involved enough not to want to. My last act for the two-hour judging period was naming an isle that had no name yet. I cursed myself for not properly curating my own list of weird names from my notes. It was the perfect chance to pick off something I always wanted to use but that couldn't fit into a creative work.

And that's a side effect of LC's dream-world! There are a lot of interesting parts, but so many reminded me of my own weird dreams, waking or sleeping, that I got distracted. Also, it is an investment to get started! You do have to read the instructions to have an idea what to do without extensive trial and error. They're quite good. You may be a bit lost without them, because there's so much you have to decide at once. And the character selection is amusing, well beyond basic dice-rolling stuff. Before entering the dreamworld, you're asked how you fell asleep, what odd item you're carrying, and what class/special talent you have. I restarted after 20 minutes once I had some data on what stats seemed to matter. And the procedural text changed. Bill Clinton, my old bartender, was replaced with Halle Berry. The old map is, well, like a forgotten dream now. I tried to wrap my head around the different currencies. There are several. But at some point it's just best to dive in.

Which is very rewarding. It took me a while to realize that death simply bumps you back to the center, and boy did I spend a lot of time avoiding death. The game has accomodations, though. The documentation, I mentioned. There's an automap, too, and while it's useful for getting started, once the map gets big, it starts to interfere with the text window on the left, so you have to close it. I wound up using Trizbort. I was able to annotate places with interesting or odd stuff. There's a certain sense of frustration combined with wonder as you know the odd place you stumbled on must be useful linked up with somewhere else, but you have no clue, yet.

It's a bit intimidating to guess what to do at first, but the game does put your actions for a particular location in all caps, so guess-the-verb is not a thing. A twist here is that you can perform one such action, but if you try to come back and perform it again, it may destabilize the dream world. Actions include fishing, finding diamonds, visiting shrines, or visiting markets. I had a bit of trouble at first making profit in the markets, because I needed to feed my crew while I was sailing, and I didn't realize that death was relatively harmless, because this was a dream world, after all.

So I sailed in search of, well, I wasn't sure. But that's part of the fun. There was definitely enough to keep me going, through weirdly named locations. I found Las Vegas. There is no shortage of silly humor in Lost Coastlines, and I think it's sort of needed, and it doesn't go overboard, and I'm pretty sure some is specific to the path you chose. Something like finding a friend in your dream, and if you talk to him, he will explain stuff you missed because you fell asleep in class (that's what I chose at the start, for when and where I fell asleep.) This helps break up some of the worries about chance encounters and pretty clearly indicates, yes, there's more fun stuff to look for.

It's not all arbitrary, and LC does a good job of balancing how you come in blank with general guidelines on how successful choices will be. You can't know what's good and what's not, although you're pretty sure, because when you have a choice of actions to perform, the game rates them impossible, difficult, or easy, also helpfully color-coded. I enjoyed looking ahead to when certain choices would no longer be impossible.

For instance, if you walk into a swungle on the first isle (a neat portmanteau, that, much better than jomp,) you can CUT the vegetation or TURN back, and you're told the odds of each succeeding. This isn't a high-risk choice, but as you sail farther, you hit impossible quests, ones you need to build yourself up for. The result of a bad encounter is that you can increase your worry, fury, madness or sadness. These are negative currencies, but you can also accumulate, for instance, knowledge. There are other currencies, and some, you can swap. This is a neat twist on trade routes. Others seem to offer--well, something else. For instance, you can't solve a certain mystery until you have fifty shards of knowledge, and that gets you an important (and cool) sounding special item. On the other hand, too much of any bad-mood stuff is pretty much a virtual death, and you're kicked back to the central port city where you started, which gives you sadness. I'm not fully sure how the moods interact, but I enjoyed having the negative stuff I had to balance, as well as the postiive. Too often in games you wind up getting too much gold and don't have much else to do, or you're worried about super-low hit points. Being stuck with negative stats adds a lot of color.

My fear of game death prevented me from exploring at first, even though I had a save game, and I eventually discovered a small base of merchant isles I could poke around. However, I got a bit frustrated in the Prime Meridian, where it seemed that the map got non-reciprocal. Which, given how big the map was, caused me to put Lost Coastlines aside for a bit. Granted, the Meridian should be weird, as it's marked as significant. I even found a hidden location there based on the nonreciprocal directions! But it took a lot out of me. The scrolling did help with mapping, though, as I wasn't pinned into a corner. But if you're forewarned, this probably won't be so bad.

I still don't really have a handle on Lost Coastlines after two hours. I understand the basic choices and where to stop off and what works, but I still haven't quite tried all options, and I didn't improve my character that much. I'm sad about this, yet hopeful. I suspect once I really nail down a trade route, or some way to keep moving between two locations that boost my stats, things
will get easier. In the meantime, thinking back to it feels like a dream state. One day I'll get the pieces of knowledge to unlock a quest! Or I'll figure a way to make a certain fight beatable. There's so much to do and no clear way to win, which is frustrating if you only have two hours to judge something. So I'll sit back and just remember the oddly-named places I visited, both those useful to my quest and not. I'll remember the thrill of finally mapping that weird central bit, of underpasses on my map (think: a square of islands, with only the kitty-corner ones connected diagonally) and the realizations I had when, oh, these two islands far apart link up!)

LC feels like one of those games you miss a lot but you worry it won't live up to the hype when you get back to it. And I'm frustrated by that, because I did want to play it more. I've seen entries that forced me in to care about a social issue or something. Perhaps it was an issue I already cared about or didn't care about enough, and I felt obliged to go back to it. Whether or not I did, I felt like a bum. But here I'd like to explore the author's dreams and remember my own. I think it's the best ADRIFT game I've played, and it uses ADRIFT's features (the auto map) well enough to reel you in. It's a definite positive advertisement for the author's other work, and given its size, I can see why it took four years to make, and the author was right to follow their vision. I enjoy seeing theirs--but unfortunately, when I'm in the best mood for that, I generally take time and energy to push my own forward. So LC may lose out for my attention, but it was a great reminder to, literally, follow my dreams. The author followed his, and I enjoyed doing so, too. The breaks were mainly to remind me of stuff I'd thought or dreamt. It's definitely exhausting in a whole stretch, but part of me wishes I would, say, make thirty minutes for it per day to see out one big whole dream--and it feels sacrilegious and intrusive to try to disassemble it too soon, but on the other hand, I want to see all the neat stuff the author dropped in there! I think, at the very least, the next time I reconsider playing an old favorite RPG, I will give serious thought as to whether LC might be a more valuable use of my gaming time, because there is so much to explore.

The other option is to stumble on a community of people putting stuff together for a finished general guide, or to notice things you couldn't on your own. The author has expressed a desire to find this or cultivate this. I'd definitely stop by. One can and should dream.

Am I My Brother's Keeper?, by Nadine Rodriguez

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Terse, compact game about helping (or failing to) a troubled sibling, December 25, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

AIMBK is a relatively short Texture entry that seems a bit too linear to take full advantage of the medium. Nonetheless, the dynamic parts of Texture that don't have you move the mouse around everywhere are effective. You, Sara, have a sister named Sofia. She's been distant her whole life, in and out, and it's not clear what's wrong. The usual, well-trod problem (alcoholism/drug use) isn't the cause, here. Or if it is, it isn't explicitly stated. Unsurprising, as this is a horror game.

So what has gotten her? It's never clear, and that's intentional and more than acceptable. We're left with some ambiguity as to how the supernatural monster chased Sofia, or why. But we're left with the portrait of a narrator who realize they haven't done enough for Sofia, and Sofia has done a lot for them: listening, etc. Sara's provided material comfort for her back, but she can't help her with what's really bothering Sofia. It also seems implied that the narrator doesn't fully realize how Sofia sacrificed mentally to help her. The title itself suggests a feeling of "I've done enough--do I HAVE to do more?"

At least, that's what I'm guessing. I confess I pulled the text from the source, the same as I did for To Persist. And I put things together. I think I enjoyed it more that way. Perhaps this entry would shine more in Twine–as it is, Texture breaks up the flow a lot, though I still got enough out of it. Things got bogged down when turning a page becomes a matter of learning to drag-and-drop from the right place, to the right place. Perhaps this is less of a problem to people more comfortable with Texture.

That said, it's a nice touch to have your answer to the text's question change to a further question when it hovers over the highlighted text it needs to, but the payoff is too little for a story you can't undo, which feels to me like a weakness of Texture. There are three choices at one end, along with a semi-obvious "dud ending" branch early on.

This seems a bit harsh, because clearly AIMBK is well above a "look what I can do, I did something" entry. The writing puts it well above that. There are no Great Evil Proclamations, and I found several interesting revelatory moments. A lot of the ambiguity works. But I don't know if the author used the right tool for the job, and perhaps if they had, I'd have been able to see the author's vision of Sofia's world and trials more cleanly.

Lost at the market, by Nynym

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Of dreams, music, and playing to the crowd (or not), December 25, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

So, a game in GrueScript! If Robin Johnson isn't in IFComp this year, it's good to see his engine makes an appearance, which is the next best thing. I've been curious about GrueScript for a while–sometimes it feels like it could capture everything I want out of a parser, except maybe for gag commands like XYZZY or SING or profanity to be coyly rejected. I dabbled in USE X ON Y, hoping to make guess-the-verb less of the puzzle, and I may go back to that. But I realize how efficient GrueScript can be!

LatM is a bit of an odd game. There's no real market, officially, and I was waiting for one to show up, but it never did. It's more about your dreams as a musician and how you go about finding them. It felt a bit surreal to me, which given my stuff, I can't complain about, but it took a while to realize surrealism was the intended effect. You just need to find things to rig so that you can escape from various situations, some of which feel very odd. For instance, you are locked in a bathroom, but you have enough tools to make a hole and get out by trial and error. In another place, it turns out you're just in a dream, and you have to find a way to destroy that dream. Orr you talk with an old man who may or may not be your future self before doing something odd and symbolic ... but it makes sense in retrospect.

Your ultimate goal is to make it to a concert, though there are other endings that provide failure. In one, you avoid the stage and open an envelope, and you decide not to go on with things. It feels like the author had some metaphysical recollections they need to include, but they didn't, and they're leaving a bit too much hidden. And unfortunately this seems due to unintentional omissions. There are a couple bugs where you search scenery X and an item appears in the room. But if you search X again, the item reappears, even if it's in your inventory. This is particularly odd with a wardrobe after you've worn your costume to go on stage, which probably isn't the dreamlike effect the author wanted.

There are two ends, one where you give up on your dreams and one where you don't. You have a choice whether to sing a pop song enough. It feels like something the author could've explored more, and on balance, a lot of what seem to be philosophical statements feel a bit overgeneral. Nevertheless, LatM felt complete, though quite possibly the scope of its ambition was cut short by the IFComp deadline. It was a good technical demonstration of what GrueScript can do in the hands of someone other than its creator. I hope we have more.

Headlights, by Jordan White and Eric Zinda

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A somewhat paint-by-numbers dreamscape in a custom engine, December 25, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

The first two games with the Perplexity engine, Kidney Kwest and Baby on Board, were ... well, a bit different from this. Those were quiet domestic affairs. And while taking your medication for kidney disease is important, the stakes are raised in Headlights. Here, you're out in the wilderness and injured. What are you doing here? And why?

You may be able to guess, especially with the clues the game gives. The detective work is more about just looking around and finding items. The world's a bit surreal. For instance, there's dark liquid dripping from the ceiling of a cave, and when you taste it, it's awful. Guessing the liquid provides a clue. There are also minor puzzles where you need to find a way to make light or gain strength. It feels like standard cartoon or comic book logic, which again is an effective indication you aren't in the real world. But for the most part, you look around and find things based on the room's description, and the verbs you have to guess are very standard.

So it felt technically smooth, much smoother than the previous games. They certainly had their charm, but you had to wait a long time for the next move. You can probably guess what has happened to the mangled deer. Everything's pretty tidy. Though I'm still not convinced that, as-is, the Perplexity engine has any special advantages over a standard Inform parser. I like the drop-down box that appears to fill in a command, e.g at one point, you may try to PUSH BOULDER, which fails, and once you think you can, you can autofill after typing P. That's not related to syntax parsing, and I'm still not big on the debug messages that correct your grammar if you type "PUSH BOULDER" instead of PUSH THE BOULDER. But the tutorial was neat and helpful and the engine appeared faster than I remembered from Kidney Kwest.

The writer does have a good concept of design, but unfortunately the dream world introduces a lot of puzzling for puzzling's sake. If you know the conventions, there's not much to worry about, but the problem is, without much to worry about, the big reveal doesn't have a lot of oomph. It feels like implementing Perplexity for text adventures has overall been positive, and it resulted in a clean, sensible game, but I can't help the chat-style interface worked better in Thanatophobia, and the creativity of both authors (Jordan White and Eric Zinda) would be better served using something that's already there. So far I even think all three of the games would look great in Adventuron (sadly absent from this year's comp.) But it's obvious that progress is being made with Perplexity as a text adventure platform

The Last Christmas Present, by JG Heithcock

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A well-done holiday treasure hunt for (cliche) the kid in us, December 25, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

(Trivia: with how I scheduled embargoed reviews, the original ETA was December 24, or 6 PM December 23 Central. I got behind, and not having this super-close to Christmas was a reason I considered shifting the chunk of reviews before it to after my review of the #1 entry. But then I figured, since it'd drop on December 29th, it'd be a sort of Last Christmas Present in its own way.)

LCP breaks a cardinal rule of parser games right away, but it does so for the right reasons. Which rule? The one about not forcing the player to examine more than once or use weird verbs or prepositions to search through something more than once. And why? Because you are a kid, excited to get presents, and you will probably look through things a bit carelessly and miss them the first time. (Note: I had trouble the first time figuring this, but then I got what the author was trying to do. This may be worth putting in the hints more directly, but I'm not sure how without spoiling it. Also, I may've missed clues. So technical purists may be upset, but on balance, I think it works well emotionally.)

And I'm not just saying this because games about Christmas presents are hard to hate, even if badly implemented, because who can give a thumbs-down to generosity and togetherness? LCP is well planned out on top of that. It's based on a real-life scavenger hunt which I also assume left all involved quite happy. Its Harry Potter-themed hunt for clues reminded me I disliked Harry Potter even before hearing JK Rowling's hot takes on certain issues. But it also reminded me the good parts of enjoying a story still endure, and of watching a cartoon I liked as a kid and recognizing its shortcomings but realizing they only mattered marginally. Maybe the main character in this story no longer enjoys Harry Potter, and that shouldn't affect their memories, or a player's enjoyment of LCP. It did not for me. It reminded me of things I grew too old for, and how I felt embarrassed at the time and don't any more.

LCP is a scavenger hunt, in a nice big house that isn't too big for a game, and I wound up wondering what the gift was eagerly enough, even though I've long since stopped caring about big gifts. I'm happier with a strategic Black Friday or December 26th bargain purchase, while still hating to see the horridness that is people fighting to be first in line to buy their own. And, yes, the final present is something I don't want to spoil, but it's neat to have that anticipation of what it might be. It's not anything terribly exotic, but it's something I couldn't have gotten as a kid, and that sort of filled a hole, that I was able to share in getting a gift. The end, where you're about to find what your gift is has some semi-obvious foreshadowing that is still exciting for the character, and I felt that through playing, too.

I also liked how the clues popped up. There are two kinds. One, you can ask parents for help--I was amused how this mirrored A Walk Around the Neighborhood, and I wish more games would do this, because you feel less like you are begging for hints. You can feel both worried you are disturbing your family and yet at the same time you want to show them you can figure things out! You also have to find four snitches (side note: I loathe Quidditch and JK Rowling's depictions of sports announcements in her books. It felt nothing like any experiences of sports fandom I know. There are better journalists and bloggers out there. None of this mattered while playing LCP. This may seem like a "oh don't let this bother you, I'm just saying" note, but I was impressed how LCP got me to like things I really should not have, or at least feel kinship with people who liked stuff I didn't) which, together, build a message. I was able to figure what it said after getting two, but I felt sort of guilty to the characters in the story if I'd have just gone and tried things based on what the message was. The puzzles aren't super tricky but don't need to be, and anyway, your family is there to give hints, which is clearly a lot more fun and immersive than poking at a hint menu.

There's a map, too, and sadly that's probably the thorniest of the implementations. Unfolding the flaps and folding them are probably great fun for the character, but for someone using a parser, there's a lot of disambiguation and such, so that's one part of the fun that didn't translate. The map was a pretty big part of the game, so sadly it dented my enjoyment some--but I think something as nice as LCP deserves a mulligan, even if it weren't the author's first game. This feels like a neat post-comp project, if the author is interested.

LCP took what the writer knew and did it very well. And it wasn't just something that's common experience but a unique experience that wasn't too private. I can imagine the main character, and the person the character was based on, maybe not liking Harry Potter any more but still having good memories of that Christmas. It's the sort of entry that should appeal to everyone. If you didn't get around to it during the comp, maybe try it during the holiday season, along with Garry Francis's Santa's Trainee Elf, which I always meant to get to. I'm more motivated now. There are other different Christmas-themed games, too. They may get more stars on IFDB, and they may deserve it. But I'm a bit surprised I've seen nothing like this yet, a more classical Christmas treasure hunt, and I'm glad LCP filled that void.

The Pool, by Jacob Reux

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Can be scattershot, but what links, links well, December 25, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

I knew this was going to be a horror story when I started, which isn't my thing, so I was pleasantly surprised by the first bit: you have a choice to applaud or not. The lecturer notices whether or not you do. This sort of thing invariably charms me, exposing people's passive-aggressions and leaving you helpless without melodrama, and it bought a lot of good will going forward. Because The Pool does feel a bit chaotic. Part of that is the author's intent–aquatic monsters have been created at a biological research institute, and you will want to figure out why. Oh, and survive, too. It becomes pretty clear that something has gone wrong with the experiment, but it also becomes clear that your definition of "wrong" may be others' of "right." The Pool is also a bit low on polish at the micro level, but I'm impressed with the branches where you can get yourself killed.

I managed to escape, and I felt a genuine relief beyond the trivial snark of "ha ha ha I can move on to the next entry, and that's good, because I'm behind schedule for reviewing everything in IFComp anyway." I'd reached a sort of operational base for my explorations into other branches, and I was interested in not only the ways I could get killed but what they meant. The instadeaths seemed a little less insta. So the organization is impressive. There are a lot of behind-the-scenes moving parts I didn't cop to in my first forays where I did stuff, undid, and looked around. My character felt like a bit of a cipher in the process, someone who wished they could do more, and even at the end where I eventually survived after a lot of trial and error, this didn't seem to be resolved.

This is okay if you're trying to make an AFGNCAAP, but here, you sort of wonder how someone so insignificant and malleable got a job at such a place. This is compounded slightly by going too far to the other extreme with, say, "Ask XXX who would like to attack first, but secretly hope XXX says yes." This is a bit on the nose, and it's not the only one. It does feel like a lot of dialogue could be cut down, and it would've given me endurance to look through even more branches to see the full backstory. Because I'd like to.

The Pool reminded me a lot of early Choose Your Own Adventures but was a heck of a lot darker and didn't have the totally random endings that sometimes got sprinkled in, the sort that seemed like a brilliant reversal when I was twelve but seem totally unrealistic now. There's still the sense of getting shot unexpectedly or dying other ways, and these do make sense the more you explore. So there's general creepiness and intrigue here, and it certainly reminded me of people I thought were my friends, but it turned out they weren't. (Don't worry! Nobody got killed there!)

Sometimes it feels the pace is too much, and the "help bad person X" choices are too scattershot, and it even seems a bit too bland, until you realize something genuinely disturbing is happening in the background, or you get shot, calling the integrity of another character into play. This more than saves The Pool as a solid work to me, and though I recognize it's not perfect, I legitimately enjoyed it, and if parts left me confused, there were bits I was glad to patch up and realized I'd just missed.

The Alchemist, by Jim MacBrayne (as Older Timer)

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Custom parser, classic fantasy, December 25, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

This is the author's third effort with a custom parser, and if you've played the previous two, you probably have a feel for what it is. The parser is very old-school and attempts to recapture the good bits and cut out the most useless bits. It pretty clearly succeeds. And with each game, Older Timer's work has made technical and creative strides.

But I also saw the potential to hit a wall. It's one I fear I have, too, for what I write, but in a different way. We write about different things. But it's OUR different thing, and we care about it, and we're willing to take a risk that people say "yeah, yeah, I get it" and move on. And we don't try for a huge emotional effect. And I see those sorts of similarities which could be comfortable for those in the know, and a formula that works for enjoyment for the people who like this sort of thing, but then that comfort formula will eventually run out. That time may be a long way away, but it's still there, and it certainly lurks in the back of my mind. However, being able to enjoy efforts like this consistently reminds me that, yes, there are ideas ahead, ones I should work on, even if they pull from previous works, or you realize you've seen that general twist before.

You start off getting a letter from one Ezekiel Throgmeister, who has left you to do your own thing–and if you do it well enough, you'll gain his approval and see many neat things. The ultimate goal is to find a bunch of reagents to make an alchemical spell that, well, completes his experiment. So you know you're getting an adventure game with this all, and if this is not your thing, that's okay. It is mine.

The most entertaining part of the game is a device that renews items. There aren't very many to renew, because even though The Alchemist is long, it doesn't flood you with items. But it's useful in some fun and unusual ways. Alchemy almost feels second to restoring a document or being able to refill a weightlessness or strength elixir endlessly, but then again, if alchemists exists, this is the sort of thing they would ultimately develop. And it's handy in-game, as if you make a mistake with where to use one of your elixirs, you get a small but not insurmountable penalty.

Another focal point of The Alchemist is a mirror that you walk through to visit new weird areas–fantasy staples such as a chapel. You find something new to do there, then move on. It's hard to hate on mirrors that transport you somewhere else, but having this magic contrast with seven-digit codes found on documents laying about didn't fully sit well with me. I wound up more with the feeling of accomplishment I got when I got a microwave or VCR working instead of "hey, I'm exploring a cool fantasy world." Especially since the game has you PRESS 1111111 and then PRESS ENTER–making the magic mirror feel more mechanical and less magical. There are some adherences to old- school parser that don't quite work for me. It's big and involving enough that this sort of busy work drains me a bit. Another nuisance was TAKE ALL/EVERYTHING FROM X, when a one-word verb like, say, CULL would be more convenient. But these are the sorts of things the author sanded down over time.

Sometimes The Alchemist feels a bit color-by-numbers, if you're an experienced player. And if you're not, it won't be for you. But it's fun for all that, and the author has craft. There are no great social insights to be had. It has a relatively low ceiling but also a high floor. It seems that, for non-parser players, just sitting down and going through the walkthrough could help someone familiarize themselves with how parsers work, both strengths and weaknesses. It seems universal but at other times a bit generic, with the various mirror codes. It clearly fell more on the "fun to play" side for me, though. And efforts like this probably will for a while.

An Alien's Mistaken Impressions of Humanity's Pockets, by Andrew Howe

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
An enjoyable, if done-before, "Humans are weird" diversion, December 25, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

AMIHP is a short and purposeful game about, well, aliens discovering things in humans' pockets and guessing what they're for. It's labeled as a class project in the "about" text, and it does feel like a first work of sorts. But though it's very rough, I liked the humor a lot. Often these are not very successful in IFComp, and this wasn't. I'm not sure they need to be, for students' goals. They are often jumping off the deep end and trying something new. Teams of students have run into headwinds, too, submitting stuff to IFComp. In AMIHP the proofreading is certainly uneven (this may be a case of the author just not knowing where to look for help.) So it had a few strikes against it.

Plus people have probably seen the general conceit before. I was exposed to Horace Miner's "Body Ritual among the Nacirema" back in my freshman year of high school, and it left an impression on me. I know it's been done before, but it's a good template for someone who wants to write something creative without getting too crazy. It's a theme you can riff on without getting burned or seeming too dull. And AMIHP largely does that. There are some minor puzzles, too, such as getting someone to fetch a box or getting by a maintenance person or mixing fizzy drinks in the cafeteria to make an appropriate substrate. The last one felt speculative, but I suppose constant "humans are backwards and odd" riffs might've grated.

There's enough humor and insight in here that I had no problem seeing things to the end. And I'm glad the author didn't beat the joke into the ground. I hope this doesn't come off as "they don't have the talent to go on for an hour," because the story felt wrapped up well, and often I'd like to see more shorter entries that don't feel like they have to transcend everything. You can tick it off and move on and recoup from the bigger ones. I had no problems sticking with AMIHP until the end, despite the distractions with grammar and style. There are about seven locations to visit, so there's not much to hold in your head. I think I'd have been quite happy to write something like on this level in college and to have the opportunity to share it with the world. I wish I'd tried more back then.

Thanatophobia, by Robert Goodwin
ELIZA with higher stakes, December 25, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

Every year I have one author I didn't know with whom I trade a flurry of testing emails. It's exciting. I learn a lot. I wish I'd have started sooner, but on the other hand, I'm glad I had a chance to focus. Thanatophobia (TTP) was such an experience. An innovative interface and seeing my suggestions fixed quickly made me quite happy. As a reviewer, I try to dissociate the enjoyment I had changing works and seeing an IFComp entry under the hood before the big reveal on October 1st from, well, is the work any good? On replaying to actually review it, I think it's still quite good, and I'm glad people reviewed and discussed it despite minor technical hurdles (note: best played on an Opera browser with VPN.)

Now my ideal IFComp entry would be comedy. I do wish IFComp would have more of such entries, where people overcome frustration with coping. Nothing cheesy or prosperity gospel-ish, nor any too-hackneyed "Ha ha ha just deal with it" or outright absurdism for its own sake. But I've always been interested in new and different ways to Deal With It, and a lot of what I write revolves around that, albeit abstractly or weirdly or related to parts of my life I can't share, and if I did, it might not make sense.

Thanatophobia pretty clearly establishes itself quickly as Dealing With Something. But the cheap fun jokes are missing. It's not oppressively dark, or dark for darkness's sake, though. You can guess what's going on pretty quickly. Someone is describing a dream they have. You need to ask them questions. The right ones may push them forward, but it's not necessarily a matter of "hey, look, I can speed-run through with the exact ones." Madeline, the subject of your interrogations, so to speak, gets less vague as you ask more pertinent questions.

As for what you're asking her about? Well, that's something you may guess at with an elementary knowledge of Greek, given the title, but it's not revealed right away. There's a dark figure in the corridor she is dreaming of, but she can't look at her face, only giving small details.

Thanatophobia's natural language parser seems very good and also knows quite a bit of trivia. I just asked about Ren and Stimpy for the heck of it during testing, and she had a non-generic response. TTP's playing a tricky game here, because in order for it to feel real, Madeleine will have to have a response to everything, and a lot of times it is watered down. That can lead to saying oh, why bother, but on the other hand, given that she is vague about other things she needs to be specific about, it works pretty well. You learn when she is being meaningfully vague, and when you should push forward with what you have to say, and when you are just going down a dead end. So it sort of felt like an emotional intelligence test back at me.

How does one pass that test, then? Thanatophobia has three main points, which are revealed in the hints, unobtrusively placed in a pop-out box below the game's main image, which changes when you hit a critical moment. But you and probably figure out pretty clearly when meaningful progress is made. Madeline talks to you about her family, about her friend Kim, and about her friend Kim's family. She reminds you of how you met, and that plays some into what you need to ask about. She wonders why you knew she might have needed you, and you can probably figure out some of the reasons as you go through things. All this doesn't happen right away. I don't know what goes on under the hood, but you slowly start asking about things, and she slowly starts revealing more or saying "But I can't X, can I?" If you get too far off-base, there are nudges back. She notes there's something she's worried about and would like to be asked of. It's much more natural than a quit button or even "Don't leave me now!"

The end was not a huge surprise for me, but that didn't matter. I pretty much knew what had to be done, and I saw through it, and I sort of didn't want it to be true, and I still think I had empathy for Madeline and what she went through. It's certainly an issue we need to address, and in many different ways, especially since, well, I recently saw one of John Oliver's This Week Tonight that addressed the issue: (Spoiler - click to show)it was about how drug gangs in Brazil took more precautions against COVID than the government did, because people being alone is a huge risk factor in drug addiction. You get bored and need something to do, and surely with COVID done, you wouldn't keep at it? So it hit home a bit extra based on what I'd recently experienced, as well as (nothing too dramatic) realizing I was eating more than I should when my athletic club closed for 3+ months back in 2020. I guess I got away with not too much damage, but I did spend too much time playing computer games.

It's tough to provide a new spin on the issues that Thanatophobia raises, but I realized that it may not have been so much about the issues as about getting someone to open up and tell you their secrets, even if you're not the sort of person who looks into secrets. Maybe they had to hide them for a bit, but they need to reveal them to you now. So I felt there was a very good back and forth there, and I think it worked especially well because maybe just you couldn't see the usual parser prompt or whatever, and the use of graphics gave a realistic world that couldn't be too in-depth because of what Madeline needed, in the short term, to hide.

I wound up testing TTP in more iterations than I thought, and not just because I said, hey, maybe this would break things, or the author would get more feedback, or out of a sense of obligation. It provides a useful line of inquiry into certain things that are stigmatized, or into people where we say, how could you be dumb enough to do that? It makes you realize what the real important questions are, without bathos or melodrama or without cloying with too much sympathy. I found it a boost for my IFComp stretch run, both technically (hey! I'm finding stuff!) and also as a reminder of things I'd fought through that I could feel good about, even if they were not as critical as what Madeline saw and experienced.

Star Tripper, by Sam Ursu

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
The universe: big, cold, hostile, random and ... strategically interesting, December 25, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

There's a lot to explore in Star Tripper, a homage to a sophisticated old phone game, and I don't think two hours was enough to explore it fully. The author knew this, too, but all the same, I was immediately intimidated by starting at sector 99. With a two-hour judging time, my immediate reaction was "oh no, 20 minutes to get acclimated, then maybe one minute to explore each sector?"

That said, it's a well-constructed trading game with a lot of neat bells and whistles, and the procedural generation works. You start with a small ship and look to boost it by learning which planets are where, etc. I found it neat how you could visit a bar and buy drinks and the prices of goods would change, which leads to a lot of game theory based on tracking prices. But the problem from an IFComp setting is that it takes a long time, way more than two hours, to nail things down, and you've already guessed at the strategy, and I was faced with the prospect of, okay, how many sectors do I need to explore before continuing, and how many bars do I need to buy people drinks at? The thing is: you want the game to have surprises, so it doesn't get boring, but with a time limit on playing and an inability to save, you realize you're going to get blindsided. It's fun to get blindsided a bit, of course, but with only two hours, it's impractical.

So I'd like the opportunity to cut out the bit at the start, as the choices don't seem to matter. That might not sit well with the author. The player can just keep rolling for favorable scenarios, e.g. ones with places near the starbase where you start where you can run quick trading routes that don't waste fuel–but on the other hand, you need several tries to really look into things, and it's possible to get bad luck early on, and restarting is frustrating. That and other keyboard shortcuts (beyond being able to hit tab end enter) might go a long way to help people who need to get their feet wet. Also, saving would be nice, especially for a long game. Again, closing a tab inadvertently and not being able to recover was frustrating for me, which on the whole seems more important than preventing save-scumming. I also have some worries, after several replays, that there's a lot of luck involved in finding a good trade route. Getting hit with the same RNG on replay loses a lot of excitement.

So I see there's a lot there, and I'd like to see more, but some of the less important and absorbing features were pushed to the forefront. I'd like to be able to enjoy even more of the cool coding and world-building the author did, but more in the overview sense. Stuff like just being able to buy information quickly after you did so the first time would be a big help (note–sometimes you waste money on beer, because you get thrown out after ordering one drink. I'm okay with that. It's just that sometimes the repetition caused my eyes to glaze over, and I missed vital information.) And then there was the mining sub-game, which was pretty painful on a desktop, even being able to hit TAB a lot.

These are some harsh technical quibbles but I think the author showed they've grown a lot as a game designer and programmer since last IFComp, and shoehorning the game into ChoiceScript is impressive, but ChoiceScript's limitations come through a bit, so it's not as streamlined as it should be. But – in the big picture, I think I see it, and I get it, but I'm too exhausted to look into details. I do, however, wish I'd enjoyed ST's predecessor many years ago, and I feel a sense of loss over that as well as the author requesting ST to be removed from IFComp. ST definitely felt like a bad fit if it wanted to place well, but I'm glad it was there. It does a lot for me technically if not emotionally, though I really would find it most ideal if someone else hacked through to find a win.

The Staycation, by Maggie H

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Flatmates, can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em, December 25, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

The Staycation listed itself as taking two hours, but for me it wasn't close to that long. However, the time suggestion and content warnings (which seem almost apoligetic) pushed it back in my IFComp backlog. It's more a sprinkling of discomfort than anything intense–a brief Texture effort about spending a few nights at home, or trying to. Claudia and Xavier, your two flatmates, are on vacation for a bit. It's not clear if they're actually dating, or if you are upset about this, but they mention you are welcome to come along. You don't. You're sort of glad they're gone, you say. But then night comes, and you either poke at a book you don't process or a phone, where you see Claudia and Xavier on social media.

There aren't many choices here, but that's part of the intended creepiness. You realize you may not want to be around your flatmates, but you don't want to be away from them, either. The main choice is whether to face your demons inside or not. You have two or three nights of this. My first ending was, apparently, seeing my own blood on my arm and not realizing why or how it happened. Another? Well, it seemed the story got frozen, which was creepy in its own way. You have two options to drag-and-drop, but you have no words to drop them on. The text say "you choose (X)" and the implication is, you can't choose.

I looked at the source, as I wondered if this was intentional.I don't think so, because there's a final ending, where you have a nervous breakdown. Whether or not it is, it's effective enough. I've had times I thought I made a decision and didn't really, because I would flip back and forth. Or I'd choose to face a horrible truth but only after this next go through social media I didn't care about. Perhaps if and when texture becomes more mature, people will know this trick and say it's been done and can we find something new? But I found the jolt effective.

The Staycation mirrored a high-placed game several years ago in IFComp written in Inform that forgot to include an "instead" at the end, and the result was that excessive text bled into the game, but it was surprisingly effective. Here, if the hang was unintentional, it was effective–it gave the prospect of an endless loop of nights, or a fear of an endless loop.

Sadly there isn't enough here. It's a bit light on character sketching, and I think too much is left to the imagination, so it falls short of the well-done cover art. Obviously filling in all the whys would be unsubtle. But there were missed possibilities to play to Texture's strengths by, say, looking at items around your flat.

Side note: this is the first Texture entry I played on my phone, because I looked for ways around the apparent bug and thought it might be the browser. The interface made me wonder if I should revisit my earlier reviews–it makes a big difference!

Jungle adventure, by Paul Barter

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Very chaotic Python parser game with whimsy to spare, December 24, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

The fears of some about parser games, especially custom parsers, are fully warranted for Jungle Adventure. It has all the usual faults. But it manages to be fun. I like the ASCII graphics, the whimsicality, the not-too-big maze. And, I admit, I enjoyed peeking in the source code. I'm still not good with classes in Python. Paul Barter is much better than me with them. If JA is whimsical (describing your game as "rip roaring" certainly is bold,) his organization is not, and I learned a lot from it. Hats off to him for that!

The game part is chaotic, though. The parser, first. There're simple verbs that outright clash. You don't want to type just "exit." That exits the game without warning. But "exit plane" leaves your plane, which you need to do. Similarly, LOAD GAME and SAVE GAME are necessary, not just LOAD and SAVE. Some items are implicit in the charming ASCII art or the item description, which is clever until something is forgotten, and you're looking for something that's not there. More seriously, you know your radio must have batteries, because it works, but this is not explicitly described in-game. Then the batteries form part of a neat puzzle. And seeing "oh, hey, this is the part of the ASCII drawing that's not in the text" is neat, but it comes at too high of a price.

The game itself isn't too arduous--well, if you cheat a bit. While there's some guess-the-verb or guess the item, once you get a puzzle, items are swapped and you move on. If something is broken, it's pretty clear you must fix it and how. The maze near the end is not too painful, and the main map is not huge. You'll know what to do. A lot of times you may need to get killed to know what to do, but you'll know. There's humor to keep your spirits up as well. Maybe not Mitch Hedberg or George Carlin, but it's there, and it helped me through some parser-wrangling.

So even if the puzzles take on some additional weight due to you missing the right verbs or nouns (pro-tip: read and scenes/*.py in a text editor) and you have to save-and-restore the fights in the maze (if you get killed while button-bashing, you may be kicked out from the "restore or quit" dialogue, too) it's not too bad. As BJ Best said, there's a certain joy of discovery in Jungle Adventure which more advanced games won't have, and we can lose that if we're not careful. That doesn't make up for serious technical flaws, but for those of us who like writing or playing parser games, it heartens us to try neat new stuff and take on a bit more than we might have felt comfortable with before.

Too many JA style games in IFComp and we might have less patience with the parser. But for me a small handful is always nice, as they never seem to deal with heavy issues, and too often I do not want to deal with heavy issues, even if such efforts are well-written. With JA, there's that genuine joy that, gosh, you can DO something like this, and it succeeds at its goal. And to me it's clear these games are better than they were five or ten years ago, where we have to dig deep to find what the writer was saying, and it's a bit unsatisfactory. JA has a walkthrough now, so IFComp completionists, if you're out there, will hopefully be able to enjoy things more easily. There are frustrations, and a lot of them, but they're (relatively) forgivable. So if you are an IFComp completionist late to the show, you can notice and understand the holes in JA and not feel impeded by them, and the fun I suspect the author had putting JA together will be far less filtered.

Perhaps for a sequel, in addition to a more robust parser, the author will use the colorama package which allows a programmer to specify text color. Then, maybe, the important items could have color in them, while the background is just background. Colorama's something neat I use for my own Python programs to tell when stuff goes wrong, or when a test passes. I think JA shows a lot of potential. With the author's knowledge of Python (I imagine this could expand to learning a testing module as well,) a game design book or two could make something really special, whether for IFComp or elsewhere.

Traveller's Log, by Null Sandez

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Monster grinding in Python, parser version, December 24, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

Python? Well, it feels like Python has possibilities for a simple-stupid parser that people can figure easily. With its "split" function (divides a string into an array with spaces) and so forth, it avoids the pitfalls of a lot of homebrew parsers in C or whatever. You see the verb, and you see the object, and you know what to do with each. You don't have to worry about Inform's custom verbs. (And hey, I wrote one last year because it fit what I was trying to do. Someone pointed out JavaScript would've worked better. They were right. But I don't know JavaScript.) With my own Inform games, Python might work better, because I really abuse the regex matching, which slows Inform. The potential is there. Unfortunately, Traveller's Log (TL) doesn't do much with parsing or plot.

It's a relatively small Python game. It's a bit confusing at first in that it asks if you want to read a file, and either way, it then asks for a 3-digit code, which affects what you start as. Looking at the source, there are several options, and I only wish we'd had some nudges as to how to start. I don't mind the randomization per se, but I was flying a bit blind. Perhaps on ending, if I were given some clues how to proceed and replay, I could and would.

You're given commands to type (e.g. walk, trade, exit or warp) with the goals of either gain money to live comfortably or find a king to ally with to live happily. There are some fights, but nothing too stressful, as dying resurrects you quickly. You also get random gold for staying at inns which pop up randomly, which is counterintuitive. The main goal is just to TRADE enough for the best weapons, then kill enemies as needed.

The writing and mechanics are don't have much to distinguish them. The game's title feels a bit generic. It's technically sound in terms of gameplay, though I'd have liked "y" and "yes" to be synonyms along with "n" and "no." Nevertheless, there's a good deal of effort put into the entry, as I can see from all the possible characters you could play as, and I enjoyed looking at the source because I tend to skimp on programming classes, and after some play time, I had a much better feel for them. They're something I've used more and more as I try to to script-testing of my Inform games, and I had a few aha moments.

It's good to see people are trying to use Python. There was one game in particular I meant to look at from 2016 that also placed last, though Chandler Groover said "Hey, there's a lot here." And there are advantages to Python--less worry about failing to implement default verbs and so forth. Everything is laid out well enough in Traveller's Log, but there's not much to do and not much reward for the grind, so it misses the mark. I'd like to see more Python efforts. TL doesn't do anything to change my views on this, from a functional perspective, even if the story and imagination are lacking.

The Absence of Miriam Lane, by Abigail Corfman

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Coming out of the shadows, but nothing supernatural, December 23, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

A woman has vanished, well, sort of. Her husband's a bit confused. There's no foul play, really. You're a researcher, maybe an investigator, maybe a combination. That's an early choice, but your title doesn't matter. Your task is to find out what has happened, where did she go, and why.

Everything seems in order in not just the house by also the story and the technical layout. The layout feels appropriate–black and white sketched pictures, unintrusive but effective music, and a small local map in the bottom left where you click on where to go. So big-picture navigation is easy. The calculated sparseness gives us a good feeling that something is wrong. We're seeing enough details, right? But we aren't.

Asking her husband gives you additional questions to ask in general. Some things seem out of place. The light is wrong. You can have up to five questions to ask, and the right one in the right place offers clues, leaving Miriam Lane closer to visible. Ones you don't need any more are discarded. While brute force works, things are generally well-clued, and you should be able to find some clear places to ask the right questions before the last observation or two needs guesswork.

Once you become adjusted to the light, you have an idea of how or why she is gone. Here there's the only thing that really broke immersion for me, but the rest of the game is so well-done, I may be missing something: you-the- character need to find her name, which her husband never tells you, but you-the-player know it's Miriam, and based on the puzzles in the rest of the game, "M. Lane" would seem suitable. It's minor, but the rest of the game is so strong, I want to leave the possibility open I was missing something.

Once she's visible, you can start collecting items. Some of them have special meaning to her, for better or for worse. An average reader should discern pretty easily what makes her happy and what doesn't. Also, the stuff that makes her happy is hidden, and most hidden items are similar to something unhappy in clear view, and yes, this Means Something. The more positive items you collect and show her, the more optimistic the ending is, though once you know her name, describing what you've found of her also helps her return to her normal self. This threw me off slightly, too. There was a status bar at the bottom, and it increased when you gave her something nice, but I was under the impression you had to make it go all the way. You don't. But perhaps I should have known.

You see, there's a moment in AoML where it clicks that the author knows what they're doing. This is the only other time AoML slightly broke immersion for me, and that was more due to me appreciating the technical and design work, because I was looking for it when writing a review. There's a book of flowers and a flower bed. The book describes several flowers. Each flower has about five descriptions. When you pick a flower, you're asked to choose from about twenty descriptions. But you don't need all five! I can't recall this convenience before and, well, it just makes sense.

This was an immense relief but also in line with the game: you don't need to know every detail about why things happened to Miriam, or how she got to be the way she is. Although in some cases, items you find may make her upset. Several that seem happy aren't, which you can deduce if you have been paying attention, thus putting AoML that much further above your average fetch-quest. That's how empathy works in general, beyond an "oh, you like this, right? Well, you seemed to enjoy it. Whatever." Miriam doesn't need that complete understanding, yet you feel she needs it, and her husband seems to want a complete explanation. None is necessary from her, and none is necessary in-game. So when we ask for people to understand us completely, perhaps we would really just be happy with people who understood enough to block out others who tell us, with bad intentions or not, "Gosh, I just can't understand this about you." For Miriam, it's her husband not really caring about her impractical or "childish" desires and ignoring her sacrifices. While that may be a truism, AoML pushes it forward nicely.

There's one more criticism that's quite high-level. I'd like it to be easier to tab through the options. There's a lot of mouse movement, and certainly AoML is more ambitious and intricate than your average Twine effort, so there needs to be, with pop-up screens when you want to think or take an item. This is detailed GUI stuff, and it's the sort of request I only make when it's clear the author knows what they're doing and then some and, well, I wanted to see everything in-game before rifling through the source. I think with something as high-level as AoML is, it leaves you asking for more--especially because the main NPC, Miriam, never did, and look what happened to her! That's what being sympathetic gets you, game.

This is minor, though. AoML offers a wide variety of emotions and choices. You can play very badly or well. The second time through, when I knew there were things to be remembered (the more you remember and find, the more you recover of Miriam) I felt bad forgetting stuff I should have known. It occurred to me that there were people I found forgettable whom I cared about more than noisier people who grabbed my attention, and perhaps I was on the other side of that.

One more thing: AoML made more than enough sense the first time through, but it made a lot more sense when I replayed the introduction and poked around and also re-read the content warning. So much is well-hinted. It leaves you feeling you missed something, and that is your fault and not its, and that's an eerie feeling. I wound up remembering times I'd been ignored in my past, as well as people I ignored. There was no rage. But I remembered certain items people felt should give me joy and didn't, and I had an explanation. So that was a boost.

AoML and Elvish for Good-Bye were my top two rated entries in IFComp and may be more similar than you think. Both talk of unspoken desires. In AoML, they're more realistic, stuff you can't say you want, or stuff that can be easily crushed. EfG is more fantastic, more optimistic, a knowing there's something out there you can't imagine one day. Each feels necessary to give life color in its own way.

Trouble in Sector 471, by Arthur DiBianca

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
I, Robot Handyman, December 22, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

With the author's games, you have stuff you know you should expect and a whole bunch you don't, and both are pleasing. You know you're going to have a lot of whimsy, and some puzzles that should be basic but aren't, but they are fair. And you have limited verbs that say, okay, this is the puzzle. You'll have to combine them in some ways, and there aren't many commands, but there are enough that brute force just isn't going to happen. So come use process of elimination and a bit of intuition and solve it.

The subject matter is something else entirely. There will be something new, nothing you have to think too much about. That's saved for the puzzles. Here you're a robot in some high-tech area that's out of power. I assumed it was a spaceship, maybe because of "Sector (HIGH NUMBER,)" but the author noted that nothing made this the case in the text. He is correct.

Your official name is Exter-17, and you'd better do a good job here, or you'll be relegated to the boring stuff. You only have a few commands (COM to communicate and ZAP to zap) to start. The main spaceship doors are all shut, and without power, they're not going up. And all the other robots are out of power, so ZAP it is. This one's hard to bungle, and that's how introductory puzzles should be.

As power comes back on, you gain another abillity/command. You can interact with crystals, which (among other things) open doors. You'll gain a few more commands, so you can even be able to pick up items you find lying around, eventually! This is of course an amusing inversion of how TAKE is one of the first commands a player learns or uses, and TAKE ALL is an accepted early way to get your bearings. I won't spoil the actual command names, because they're nice small amusing surprises, as are the robot name abbreviations of the NPCs. These presented small puzzles to figure out (what do the first three or four letters expand to?) when I got stuck with the main puzzles. This is totally optional, of course, but it helps prevent you from feeling dumb or frustrated.

This all feels very simple, like learning very basic machine language commands (as with many DiBianca games) but there are production effects, as well. The first is what happens with text art that happens with power back on. I won't spoil it, but if you play for five minutes, you can't miss it. You also have an option of which background to choose, so that's very cool. I ran through all the options more than once.

Restoring power is the easy part. Destroying bugs is next, and it's tougher. Well, the first bug is out in the open. Then the next two are in rooms you need to solve relatively trivial puzzles to gain access to. Then, if you try to ZAP a bug, it evades you! There are thirteen total, and while no puzzle is too complex, you have to pay attention to your surroundings, or to rooms that seem like dead ends. Pretty much everything is useful, and you have to figure how.

You can win without exploring all the rooms in S471. This is a DiBianca staple: enough challenges to make you happy you got through it, then a hint you're missing something. In this case, there are a few rooms in the center that are unexplored. It seems two squares are pretty obviously needed to preserve symmetry. You get a small bonus on killing the last bug, and it's up to you how to use it that to poke around even more. Given the square map, you can figure where you need to look. There are also locked doors, or ones that won't stay open. There's even a robot that imitates you around a locked door, so toggling the door is out.

I enjoyed Sector 471 a lot. While I don't like rating it as opposed to other games by the author, I just would like to compare it to books of brain teasers as a kid, mathematical or otherwise. DiBianca's stuff seems to last a bit better. With the books, at first it was fun to say "Hey! I know how to do that!" but they got less fun when I knew all the tricks and realized I was only getting answers from what I already knew. I felt ripped off. I hoped for more out there. And I wanted more than problems. For instance, it's fun to solve "Two mathematicians were talking. One said the product of his kids' ages was 36. Then he told the other mathematician the sum of his kids' ages. It wasn't enough for the other one to decide their ages. Then he mentioned his oldest just had a birthday." It's fun to work through again after you've forgotten it for a while. But it is such a bummer when reading a puzzle book and getting a bunch of these not-new puzzles but you're aware these are rehashes. And I still remember the day I realized logic puzzles didn't have the satisfaction they used to, and I was probably avoiding mistakes more than trying or enjoying anything new. With the author's complete works, I don't feel that way.

S471 definitely has its own personality, and the general brevity works well -- the robot dialogue is odd and whimsical the right way, because robots shouldn't talk much like humans, and you can and should have a good laugh about it. It continues a nice string of works I'd have enjoyed as a kid, ones that would've boosted my confidence when the Zorks, no matter how much I loved them, left me baffled. As much as I enjoyed abstract problems, I wanted more, and I didn't know what. (I preferred this stuff to dirty jokes at 13, which did not make me at all popular.) These tastes feel less weird now I've played many such games and know others like to, too. While I don't need them any more, and the Internet provides other ways to explore my mind, I'm glad there's a repository for neat puzzles consistently blended with a fun story.

The Only Possible Prom Dress, by Jim Aikin

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Lost in a mall--it's more fun when you're an adult!, December 21, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

Big picture stuff first: PPD (I'll neglect the O, as otherwise I'm reminded of Naughty by Nature's hit which seems, um, incongruous with the title) makes me want to play Not Just an Ordinary Ballerina. It's maybe on the long side, slightly, to fit into my plans, and I'd have missed it outside of IFComp. I admit I appreciated the walkthrough greatly. I don't know how much I can kvetch about tricky puzzles, or even if I have an ethos of one, but it's the sort of thing I wish I have bandwidth for, even if I don't. Still, it's a lot of fun, with a lot of variety, and it's old-school in many ways. I mean, malls are dying, and it's extremely expansive, and you need a big map. There's a big word puzzle, too. I'd have absolutely loved it back in the Infocom days, before there were so many other games to grab my attention. I've had paid for the InvisiClues. Thankfully, during IFComp, I needed to buy neither PPD or its cluebook. Technology!

PPD is the story of a woman who wants to get her daughter the perfect prom dress. It tackles no great social issues (okay, there's a bad rich person who gets comeuppance, and we can never have too many of that.) But it's not just pure entertainment, as there's some nice family stuff in there. Your daughter sends slightly pleading texts that double as shallow hints, and one of the main puzzles includes a love story on its own. There are absurdist laughs along the way and a bit of criminal mischief. You lock someone in a closet, but it's revenge, because what they did violated a memory of something nice from Ballerina. You may have started them smoking again, too, though they likely didn't have the discipline to stay away) and I do enjoy the cringey puns in the store names.

I hope my review gives you a big-picture idea of what was a fun experience for me, even though I abridged it. This is a game where even looking at the walkthrough will make you laugh. But sometimes we don't have the time. Compared to other long efforts, I got a lot more. This has obviously been planned and tested well. And the author admits they don't expect anyone to solve it within the IFComp time limits. They hope it will last. Perhaps it's a great game for when it's cold outside and your Internet is flaky.

A word on malls. Even a closed mall brings back memories for me. Malls were bigger when I was a kid--part of it was, I was smaller, so they seemed bigger. There was a mix of awe and fear, and I figured the future held even wider and taller shopping malls, because everything would be bigger and better in the future! They amazed me–all the stores I wanted to look in but parents wouldn't let me, because we wouldn't buy anything. Then, of course, malls started closing, and I realized I never had a look in store X. Sometimes I still see a store name today where I wonder "what did they sell?" (Thanks for answering, Google!) And I feel like I'm doing the next best thing to sneaking away from my parents looking in. PPD captures that sense of being lost in a way a swashbuckler can't, but not really, because if a mall were an actual maze, it would be very, very bad for business. It has to be practically laid out, and there are no dungeon rooms or whatever (government regulations!) but there's still a chance for hijinx. And though I've been in few malls with elevators (Schaumburg, Water Tower Place--they're there for aesthetic value,) just having that elevator in PPD helped me imagine an impossible mall, or one I expected would be build by now and wasn't. It turns out, there's some reason why the mall and its elevator are laid out the way they are, too. Nice planning by the architect.

As for the puzzles? I thought the item-based ones were the strongest, and the more abstract ones felt forced. In one, you push a bunch of buttons in a certain order to cause security screens to go blank. This is neat on its own, but picturing the security guards you suckered away from it actually figuring out how to operate this seemed far-fetched. If they could, they'd have a much better job than security guard. Perhaps I'm a stickler for this, given the puzzles I like to write. I can't express my full theories, but sometimes an abstract puzzle at the wrong time feels like it's just there, and here it can break up the relative fun of doing odd things with everyday items.

These puzzles make for a very pleasant escapism, and when you do punk an NPC, there's that brief moment of worry PPD's going to get mean, then it doesn't. It could really have gone wrong with the homeless man (he seems to have delusions, but he doesn't,) but you actually enjoy some significant cooperation. And there's general retro mischief like smoking indoors, which we wouldn't tolerate today! It's not full retro, though, as a cell phone you have provides you with occasional love-bombs from a well-meaning daughter and also the ability to take photographs. I remember reading how so many horror plots from years past could've been subverted if even one person in a party had had a working phone, but here it's not possible. OPPD has the phone, but you never need to use it, and in fact you probably want less technology.

PPD also does well enough keeping the relevant focus areas small. You eventually need to distract the security guards, but until you do, they have movie cameras centered on most stores. You have a catch-all for unnecessary items, and the various stores with their crazy names (bad pun alert! Of course, I was sad when the bad puns were over) are emptied quickly enough. So OPPD is comfortable despite its intimidating size. It doesn't make any great philosophical statements, but I'm often glad when a work doesn't state that up front, and I don't think they all should need to.

I can see myself going through PPD with a walkthrough before I play through Ballerina. Jim Aikin is one author I'd always managed to look into, and I just haven't found the right excuse, yet. It really is a fun, long story, and although I ran out of energy because I had other comp games I wanted to look at, I enjoyed getting turned around a bit and having that sense of wonder I felt so long ago, when Internet one-click shopping made everything easier.

A Chinese Room, by Milo van Mesdag

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
The Ethics of Oppression, or at least the Optics: a review of half of the game, December 20, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

I feel like I failed to a certain extent getting through this and trying to evaluate it. There's a lot to grasp, but on the bright side, what I was able to grasp lasted. I'm just finding it hard to build the courage to try again. You see, it's a two-player game, and I only played one side, which gave me so much to think about. I may choose to update this later once I've gotten through both sides. But this is enough. So I hope this is, at least, an endorsement even just to play on one side.

I played as the officer in an army that was occupying a much smaller country. My father was a prominent oligarch, but somehow I'd never made as much of my family connections as I should have. But I had a position of some authority, of breaking up fights between privates, and so forth. There was a good deal of pushing them around as I kept them in line. I guess that's war, whether you're the good guys or bad guys. It reached a new level because I had something called the Throne that I put prisoners of war in. The Throne couldn't read minds, but it did know what questions to ask. Which, ostensibly made my job easier, except it sort of didn't. I-the-player realized I-the-character would be responsible for my actions and judged in the same way. So I sort of hedged. How much should I let prisoners go? I'd say, from my own chair where war is assuredly bad but at least not happening to me, "Well, of course I'd let them go." But on the other hand, I wondered how much my decisions would reflect of my playing partner. Would they wonder what the heck I was doing? Would I ruin the experience for them? Would I be too self-contradictory? And this was well apart from even the human considerations! Certainly there are some oppressors we wish we could put in a throne, but of course, oppressors being oppressors, they'd seize access to the throne and use it.

And that's what happened here. And I-the-player wound up sympathizing very much with the people in the thrones. I enjoyed their arguments to try to get out of the AI style questioning, and it reminded me of stuff I wished to say when I was being interrogated (nothing warlike, of course! Just entitled jerks! Now's not the time for details, much as I want to spill them.) But being able to rebel and speak out like that, well, I like examples like that, wherever I can find it, so I wound up wanting to see more of how they defied me and the Throne AI. Each such session seemed woven in with some happenings in the barracks where fellow soldiers had beefs. It often seemed my character was madder at his cohorts than with the people he captured. Or maybe I was just more interested in the dissident writer and his crazy-sounding books I'd totally have read. Or maybe I was just remembering all the times I'd been interrogated by someone who was just looking out for my own good, you know, and if they didn't get to interrogate me, someone meaner would years down the road, and I wouldn't be prepared. It sure as heck felt like they had a Throne to put me in so they'd ask just the right question to drive me semi-crazy. (That wasn't the case. It just felt this way. And people know how to play tricks. So the thought of something being REALLY accurate and asking the questions I really fear does, in fact, scare me as no amount of blood could.)

I found myself hedging a lot to the authorities I figured were in the game–I had a feeling they would strike me down as wrong no matter what I said. Many thoughts went through my mind, from "hey I respect this guy" to "oh god he'll just get captured anyway and probably killed, maybe I should keep him for his own good." Where of course his own good wasn't very good.

I sat back and wondered what power the other person had over me, if they had any at all, waiting for punishment that never quite came, beyond frequent debriefings by my direct superior. I suspected anything I did would not be good enough. ACR wouldn't be the first game to pull this trick, but being on both ends of someone being told they are not good enough is harrowing, and I remembered times where someone said that to me and probably had someone above them saying the same thing. I found it hard to have sympathy for them. I still do, even after my experience with ACR, but I see the whys and hows a bit more clearly now.

This is a lot, yet I walked away from ACR pretty sure I missed a big chunk of what it was about. The verbal sparring with the prisoners interested me immensely, and the big themes, not so much. I'd meant to play through as Caroline, but I couldn't help but feel I'd been lucky enough to choose the side that interested me more. It made me think about things entirely unrelated to war, but to persuasion and manipulation in general.

It was uniquely disturbing to me, not in the "look at all my content warnings" sort of way, but in that I was put in a position to make really sticky decisions I did not want to, and in this I think it was superior to Alexisgrad, the author's entry from last year, where so much seemed a foregone conclusion. I felt trapped here, but the tough questions and issues felt more personalized. The prisoners felt more real than the Dictator, and the privates I had to keep in line felt more real than the higher-ranking generals. There were big ideas in each work, but I felt like I could access them a bit more, so I feel more than okay acknowledging I must've missed a heck of a lot, and I think I need a lot of help from other reviewers to ask the sort of questions that ACR wants me to ask, if I really want to get the full experience. Because it does seem to want the reader to ask them, without forcing anything, and they are important questions without being drenched in importancy.

Esther's, by Brad Buchanan and Alleson Buchanan

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
"clueless human finally understands mice", December 19, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

I heard enough buzz about Esther's in-comp that I decided to slip it in in front of what looked to be slower entries. This worked. I am not ashamed. Esther's certainly does not address any big issues, but why should it have to? It left me more recharged to deal with them than, well, pretty much any other way you can stare at a computer screen. Even my old favorites which are actually still fun. If I had run into something like Esther's when I was ten or so, Esther's would be an old favorite, too. Kids these days don't know how lucky they have it. At least, kids exposed to multimedia as nice as Esther's. The pictures are charming, and the story lives up to them.

The whole scenario of talking animals whose human friends don't understand them has been done before. That's probably because it's fun and leads to imaginative miscommunications such as what's found here. (Spoiler: it's easily resolved.) Having had cats, it's kind of fun to decipher what they want, even if it's not so fun for them while I'm being clueless. I found myself wondering if they really preferred one sort of canned cat food to another and whether I should give them variety or their favorite. I'm still not sure. I figured when they wanted petting, or they wanted to go out the front door, or they needed attention. But I'd have liked to do more. About all I figured was, they liked the taste of the chunky soft food as long as I mashed it up, but they still licked the sauce first.

The main characters in this story are mice, not cats, and they dine at Esther's. Esther is a clueless, well-meaning human who, like me, has no clue that Janie and Harold, the animals she serves, would like to eat something different today. They want avocado toast. Avocado toast as a meme was hilarious for a while but then got burned out from overuse, but the thing about good memes is, it's a great feeling when they're resurrected in new and different ways. That happens here.

And Harold and Janie not only get their avocado toast, but there's a lot of connection as Esther understands what they are asking, and why. Harold and Janie waste nothing. Esther is confused why they put some bits aside, but they eat it later. So a good day is had by all, including the reader. There aren't very many choices here beyond what sort of dessert you prefer, but I don't think there need to be. And really, would you want to be the sort of person who brings what seems to be a regular tea party tradition crashing down? I think and hope not.

Esther's reminded me of Susie and Mr. Bun in Calvin and Hobbes, and how Hobbes was real and Mr. Bun wasn't, and the shock Calvin had when he lost Hobbes, who wound up at Susie's tea party. But of course Esther's is its own story. There are so many creative variations on "talking animal/toy, confused owner/human friend" that make us happy, even if they are not very good. But Esther's is well-done, even without the wonderful artwork, and so I'm glad it was part of IFComp. The judges thought so as well, and unless you are very, very cynical, I think you will be, too.

A Walk Around the Neighborhood, by Leo Weinreb

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Least messy "my messy apartment" ever!, December 19, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

I'm not really a fan of mythology, but the author's entry from IFComp 2021, Hercules, was a sympathetic look at a kid who was smart but not very strong, and I'd hoped to see more from them. Hercules, replete with lack of muscle and an asthma inhaler, could've gone off the rails with a "hahaha dorks suck but dorks rule" view, but it never got close. With my limited knowledge of mythology it was still pretty clear what to do without making the puzzles too obvious. I had a lot of good genuine laughs. And AWAtN, while modern and much more slice-of-life, gives them. Your grand objective is to leave your house during COVID quarantine. Your partner who may slightly be getting on your nerves, and you may be getting on theirs. It's all pretty direct without being heavy or cruel or overdoing the "gosh it's boring in here" angle, and it hit a lot of notes for me. The scenery is pretty clearly less sweeping than ancient Greece, but the result is tidier and a lot of fun, an ambitious escape-the-room game.

What really makes AWAtN work for me is the hint system. It's in-game--your exhausted partner, Alex, reminds you where you might've left your mask or cell phone or, because your battery is drained, your charger. There's that weariness that can too easily be forced, but here it wasn't. Yes, your partner gets a bit bored if you ask for a lot of things. It becomes fun to, because you learn a bit about your and Alex's history, and Alex can't know where you put stuff but sure has a lot of good questions. I remember long before COVID, I would lose something, and my parents would always ask "where did you leave it last?" which annoyed me. I figured why, now--Alex says "You know, you've left X around Y before." The "oh I'm not sure" dialogue feels so plausible and avoids spoiling things. You will get the hint, especially since your character often has stuff to say back.

"My messy apartment" or "I'm such a loner" games can often think they're quite self-aware by broadcasting their lack of effort, but Walk is much cleverer than that. It hits at some parser tropes like "LOOK BEHIND X" or "LOOK UNDER X" which are usually the bane of parsers. It just doesn't force the player to look every which way, but you remember something falling behind a sofa, or whatever. The implication is that you were a slob before COVID and worse after, without totally roasting you. Again sort of like Hercules, who is neurotic and physically weak, but the jokes aren't cutting.

You, Sam, have stuff to do before you go out. Dress up in sweatshirt and sweatpants instead of your pajamas. Look all over for stuff misplaced. And, well, the puzzles amused me, and I'm glad they seemed to amuse the judges, too. It's simple stuff like turning the TV on and opening a window, and you have a bunch of keys to track down, because of course you do. Turning on the TV gives vital information, and while this mechanic's done before, and the author is having a great big laugh, you get to have one, too. Certainly during COVID I flipped through YouTube channels for all sorts of odd information I wasn't really interested in, hoping something that useful came up. The conversation when you open the window (yes, this is also a nontrivial event) reminds me of how restrictive things are/were/need to be with COVID, back when we weren't sure if we should.

AWAtN also commits what is, on the surface, a cardinal sin: a convention among parser games is that LOOK UNDER and SEARCH and LOOK BEHIND are bad ideas. With AWAtN, they aren't quite the same thing. But they shouldn't be, here, and it's fun to have that extra guesswork which makes trying to find things just the right amount of frustrating so you don't give up, but you "get" Sam and Alex.

I had to look at the walkthrough for the final key to put on the ring. I thought I'd done something I hadn't. The other endings--well, I got the one where you get lazy and do a crossword--this sort of thing often kept me in before COVID, where instead of exploring something new, I'd go with something I knew how to do, but it felt different, because it was a randomized game. The walkthrough listed them, and some are obscure, but they should be. Some things in the game indicated "this gives a bad end," and I felt kind of dumb I overlooked them. Some seemed quite absurd indeed, where you have to be a bit too clever or dumb, but that seems like part of the fun--it's the sort of thing you think of when cooped in your house. I laughed just reading the commands to get the endings. But, funny thing: on replay, I picked off a few bad endings, but I wanted to just get through to the main ending to go out. I suddenly felt up to it. Most games generally try to trap you into playing them more, or they leave you fleeing. AWAtN hitting that third way is a welcome rare thing.

AWAtN also reminded me of This Won't Make You Laugh from IFComp 2021, which had its moments and (spoiler) mentioned a lot of frustration with COVID and was direct in its own way, in particular when the narrator broke the fourth wall, but the humor feels more consistent and less forced here. Alex was, on reflection, a more effective character than I thought. There's some suggestion Sam, the main character, and Alex are getting a bit sick of each other, and they need time apart whenever possible and know this, but they still care. This isn't nuance you should have to strain for, but then you shouldn't have to, to keep relationships going, and AWAtN doesn't claim to blow you away with it. The androgynous names for Sam and Alex are a nice touch, too--it's not the first time I've seen this, but games that include this generally work well.

I deliberately played AWAtN as a boost to start IFComp 2022 reviewing in the authors' forum, and I was right. It's got a bit of slapstick, but not too much, and it certainly got me started happily. I'm glad people can self-classify their entries so we can attack what we want first, as I seem to need the shorter ones to start, and this fit in place nicely. It's hard to imagine a "my messy apartment" entry doing better than AWAtN. It seems to have that right balance of cluelessness and self-awareness. But I'd be happy with something half as nice.

Admiration Point, by Rachel Helps

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Workplace crushes and their discontents, December 18, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

Um, so, yeah, Workplace crushes bad. There's reasons any self-respecting HR department has a whole stack of procedure on what to do about potential workplace relationships. But then again, HR is just about covering a company's legal liability, even if they throw in bromides such as "harassment-free work environment." Fortunately, there's more to Admiration Point than this. It weaves in the awkwardness with what is a very interesting look at a hypothetical museum in the future. It tracks social media in the 2010's and 2020's, and while it doesn't point the finger, it certainly lets the reader connect the dots. (It being the museum and story.)

Not that things are all dark and dystopian and so forth. You have a job as a graphic designer, though it's not the position of responsibility you want. Some of the things you need to do whitewash some very real struggles in the past in order to gain looks for your museum. (It seems to have missed the point of the social media it seeks to analyze. It's part of the problem, but hey, things happen like that.) The job seems pretty stable, though, maybe with some friends moving in and out. You have problems at home with your husband, about having sex, and while I try to avoid that stuff in my games (cheap and hopefully harmless jokes notwithstanding,) someone's got to discuss it, and in this case I'm glad it's not done in all caps or with dreadful text effects or, worse, talking about how they've been repressed from doing so by society. It's just: things happen. Certainly in high school, I had crushes on what I see now to be pretty awful people. But they were attractive. Or I felt impressed by someone who seemed charismatic and told dirty jokes. And, yes, some decent people didn't reciprocate to me, and that hurt. Immaturity isn't an excuse in the workplace, though.

There is considerable agency as to how much you can get to know Sean, your crush. I just didn't want to deal with him at first, because 1) I was interested in why the museum was there and its daily workings and 2) I didn't want to have to deal with workplace relationships. I'd seen some work well and some not. I also remember a poor schlep who, neglecting a co-worker's picture of her with her fiance she'd attached to overhead metal cubicle drawers with a magnet, say "Think I have a chance with her?" This may only scratch the surface of possible awkwardness--I realized I didn't want to deal much with the core issues AH brought up, and I was actually glad it didn't force me to, right away. Also, I generally don't think much of socializing, period, with coworkers more than I have to. So perhaps I am like Sean, except with friendship, for some people. Though I enjoy what they share, sanely, on Facebook. That Facebook (FACEBOOK!) works better for this than face-to-face may say something about a former work environment. Or about me.

So there's so much that can go wrong, but it's handled pretty delicately. I have to admit that after I'd gotten three endings, I sort of just breezed through the rest and said, okay, I have to be flirty to see it all, and I didn't want to be flirty, and I don't think I'd have wanted to even if AH's description mentioned things wouldn't be reciprocated. Thankfully there's nothing cringey beyond the signs misread, and you feel like you can forgive the protagonist. Yet all this sort of echoed how work can be – you do the same thing every day, except when some annoying emergency pops up, and then you wish you went back to the boring stuff, and the only way out is – to act out, or maybe to start an office fling. Anything to break the monotony. Fortunately you have enough of a life outside the office that you're offered other jobs in some threads, and this all feels more than satisfactory. I appreciate discussions of missing signs, because I've missed them, and I've had them missed, deliberately or not.

AH did a good job, to me, of capturing the discontent of office work beyond any mere need for romance or career fulfillment. Some games go full angst or corny joke, which are great whn you don't want to be chanllenged, but I'm glad middle ground is being filled. There were times I sensed the main character was as drawn to complaining about the hidden restrictiveness of her job as she was to flirting with Sean. So this feels like a nontrivial work. It certainly reminded me of my own frustrations and of people who acted out more than the player-character could have dreamed of. This with me not really being its target audience. So, well done.

Lazy Wizard's Guide, by Lenard Gunda

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Definitely not a lazy custom parser, December 17, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

LWG is a fun game that I feared might not get many reviews in IFComp 2022 due to a custom web-based parser, but I was glad to be proven wrong. While some homebrew parsers have been bare-bones, this one is technically impressive and manages to eliminate some outdated conventions and bring useful ones in. Here, the most obvious things are detailed headers, or small buttons with rounded edges that you can push with rounded edges to toggle things like dark mode. It's stuff you maybe shouldn't have to use the parser for, and I know a lot of times, I've fumbled what command to give to certain options, or I've had some overlap with more important verbs. This hybrid parser model makes sense, as I think a big draw of parsers is to type in a command to do something, and tweaking presentation is a lot less exciting or rewarding.

So, about LWG. You're not exactly a wizard in this one. But you want to be. You have wizarding exams ahead. The only problem is that you haven't studied much, or really, at all. The Wizards in charge, though, don't know that, and so they give you the exam, and you have to run around your magic school looking for reagents and finding places to cast spells. They start relatively small, such as unlocking a cupboard, which you have to do a couple times. This requires replenishing reagents, which isn't hard, but it helps you meet a few characters and gives some color to your unnamed school.

It's a small pity the school doesn't have a name, and it's a recurring theme throughout LWG. It may even be LWG's major fault, but having said that, as major faults go, it's not a bad one. The author gets so much right, but nothing really soars. I think what happened was that the author spent time nailing down technical stuff and putting out fires so that the parser worked well, and it does. But they left out potentially interesting details in the game proper. I've been there. Creative stuff distracts me from technical stuff and vice versa. And while I definitely sympathize with technically-heavy stuff, I'd still be interested in stuff like a school name or a small storyline for all of the characters. As-is, they do some things such as upbraid you appropriately for requesting reagents you already have, but fleshing out something beyond the game flow would be really neat in a post-comp version. They feel utilitarian.

There's still a lot of fun, of course, and it wouldn't have been worth holding up LWG to drop in the details. I think the author did well with the exam jinn who is there for hints if you want them, but it explains your grade drops a bit if you do. (Well, of course! But it's a creative way to discourage asking for hints too much. ) Also, I like how it transforms a lot as it follows you around. (Even) more of this, please!

Another thing that's right: the school size. There's enough to explore and get lost a bit but relatively few meaningless passages. And the puzzles are satisfying. At the start you're given some ideas about how you may be able to bend the rules a bit, which presents an interesting moral dilemma. If you've learned all the spells straight-up, you deserve a good grade, but if you learned a way around cramming, that's learning how to learn, amirite? LWG touches on this, but the restrictions given by the examiners feel fair, and they are so much more creative than "you can't go that way."

As for the puzzle content: this is tricky! An eighteen-year-old potential wizard probably doesn't need super complex stuff, so you don't need to do anything spectacular to win, and nothing weird is expected of you. But on the other hand, you don't get to do anything spectacular. Or the one potentially spectacular thing you do feels like a puzzle for puzzling's sake: you summon a vampire only to unsummon it immediately, and you just need to be prepared to dispel it. Perhaps this is a wry commentary on preparing strictly for a test and not looking for general knowledge, or maybe it is just a case where the final puzzle got stuffed in so that the player has a bit more to explore. If the second, that's no crime, but I sort of have to wag a finger at it affectionately.

This is technical stuff, though. Given the fun I had sneaking out of the grounds, during an official exam no less, or reading the forbidden books in the library that I had all semester to read but didn't, was quite satisfying. There's a forbidden attic and a dark basement that have been done before, and I knew they'd been done before, but I still enjoyed them.

LWG was certainly a lot of fun, but when I went to poke at it, I noticed a lot of details had fogged over. This isn't a bad thing. I really enjoyed the magic helpers. But it sometimes felt like it hoped to have a bit more of a story, all while throwing puzzles in your way. It does a lot right, though, from allowing you to leave with pretty much any grade, to hiding some tough extra credit. If you're willing to do a bit of legwork to replenish reagents in case a spell goes wrong and put up with a little recipe book reading and a few repetitive spells (but not much--it's hard to recommend how to do it better) you'll have a very pleasant game that deserved the strong placing it got. I've dropped a lot of quibbls here, but if the author keeps adding stuff to their custom engine (as an Inform author, I'd love to see pronouns implemented, e.g. X CUPBOARD.UNLOCK IT.) LWG was, I think, a success, and its relatively high placing was a pleasant surprise. And since the custom parser is probably more stable and needs fewer features added, the author may have more time to concentrate on the story for their next IFComp entry, and that could make it something really special. But if it's "only" as fun as LWG, I'd welcome that, too.

No One Else Is Doing This, by Lauren O'Donoghue

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A night's frustrating activism, in 15 minutes, December 17, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

The United States had a census in 2020. Right in the middle of COVID. I didn't get a community organizer at my door, but I did get a census taker. Filling out the census had gone to the bottom of my priorities, below generally worrying how bad the virus could get.

I was glad to talk to them. I'm not a big talker, and we talked through the door, but I was also able to help them with the names of my neighbors, and I appreciated the reminder. I also appreciated not having any awkwardness about asking for money, or any of that sort of thing. It still must've been awkward to buzz up and ask for entry, more than usual.

And they must've appreciated that, well, they got paid for it, and it was a less than Sisyphean task. The more you went out, the fewer places you had to visit to remind people to fill out their censuses. Door-to-door nonprofit stuff holds no such relief--and, in fact, there's always the possibility that the cause you're espousing, or the candidate you're canvassing for, is wrong. I know certainly I feared being on the other side of that a lot. I'd feel guilty saying no and feel a sucker saying yes.

Before COVID, I did some cold calling for Elizabeth Warren back in 2020 and ... well, between the Trump supporters who yelled at me and the people who POLITELY asked to be taken off the list (these people were in Iowa and were sick of political ads) I realized how tough it was. Heck, it's tough to cold-call for your own profits, for different reasons. I'm just not cut out for that. I'm wondering if anyone is. Perhaps the overseers who say "you can do it! You just have to believe in yourself!" also primarily believed they could move up from cold calling to a leadership position.

And the kicker? Well, sometimes some black-swan event happens that's more effective than all the pavement-pounding. Or perhaps it's the tipping point that makes your efforts seem irrelevant. For instance, <img src="">this photo</a> did more to make Rahm Emanuel look silly than a lot of community activism, and sadly, an unarmed suspect being shot 16 times was necessary before people really dumped someone people once thought might be mayor of Chicago for life.

Sure, someone had to do it, and anyone could've, but it feels like "oh geez all this hard work and someone else swoops in and makes a politician who deserves it look awful quickly." It isn't quite that way, of course. This guy had prior history with Emanuel. And there are far worse politicians than Emanuel. But he was whom we are stuck with. And now people have legitimate reasons to dislike his successor. So it goes. What was all that activism for, anyway? I say this as someone who has voted for people that turned out to be disappointments, or corrupt. Rod Blagojevich just seemed sort of obnoxious back in 2002, though he was possibly a bright young Democratic star. At least something good came out of Illinois in the oughts.

NOEDT capture the futility well, for me. There are 32 places you can visit, asking what issues are important to the residents and--no obligation, of course, money's tight these days--for donation. They are not shuffled randomly on replay or, at least, not until you refresh the browser. You can pick off which have nobody home, for when you replay. You have four hours to visit as many as possible, and five to ten minutes to visit each place but, and here's a mean but effective trick the game plays, you can't use nearly all the four hours knocking on doors.

NOEDT was surprisingly exhausting, and it wasn't due to overwriting, but rather to me realizing I was trying to connive the most efficient use of my time and game the system (e.g. take notes for replay) to, ostensibly, fight against powerful people who gained their own system in much more lucrative ways. So you really can't win, and even if you plan well and have foreknowledge, it doesn't feel like a win. There's no DESPAIR DESPAIR DESPAIR at the end, just, you meet all manner of people in the process of doing so, and there should be variety, but there isn't.

I'm glad NOEDT went for that sort of tone, because I think it is effective, and even if this sort of community organizing isn't what you see in the USA, it's still so awkward to cold call or get cold called, to know how the game is played and hate being on either side of it, but also to know that the alternative (none at all) would make things far far worse. Of course, even if you play the game well, things go wrong (there's sleight of hand by the author that doesn't feel totally fair. The writing isn't heavy-handed, but the mechanics are. Perhaps the author is saying there is no way to game the system, and even in informal "fight the power" structures or ones that don't take marching orders from big donors, there's still a lot of arm-twisting or helplessness.)

I end on a note of positivity: I've seen these things work in Chicago, where a corrupt alderman is pushed out, or another alderman established good constituent services or uses community resources or feedback effectively. Or there are regular gatherings for people's rights, or over the years something like a gay pride parade is less controversial. So it does work, but man is it slow. Things that seemed ridiculous years ago are now taken for granted. I voted for Tom Tunney as alderman back in 2003, and he was the first gay member of Chicago's city council. It was somewhat of a watershed back then, but we don't care now. Halsted Street, once mocked in whispers as Boystown, now has rainbow-themed lampposts and such. There are free, clean and useful health centers, away from the stigma of AIDS. And so forth. People who were activists now have bigger roles in the community. Their endorsements are actively sought. Sadly, most people like the protagonist get less credit.

One other thing: I was amused to compare and contrast the performance reviews at the end of NOEDT and Use Your Psychic Powers at Applebee's. Both about equally awkward, but NOEDT had better intentions. Or at least higher-minded. You never know, with anyone involved in politics.

Let Them Eat Cake, by Alicia Morote

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
fake-picturesque and entertaining story with many endings, but ..., December 16, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

A humble village! You, a new baker's apprentice! Why, there's a miller, farmer, priest and all that sort of thing! Sadly, a barrow-boy, hauling whatever they haul in barrows, and the old lamplighter are not in on the act. But you do what you can. The cake can't be too fancy. There's a system of barter and trust, roughly, with even a system of credit if someone can't pay just now. For instance, the farmer has given all their eggs to the priest, who is willing to swap for something later. It's understood that you help people carry or unload sacks, since you're so young. The font is a cheery cursive, and there are appealing graphics. Picturesque, indeed! You even get to type in your own name and the name of a cat you meet in a script font, which also appears at the game. This and the postcard-ish boxing of text gives an almost cutesy feel.

It will stay that way, as long as you don't get too nosy. The moment you do, though, sordid layers get peeled back. You find things you find in a trough, or in the baker's recipe book, or even around the nice old lady who assures you the "POISON" jar is not where the sugar is. So absent-minded! There are plenty of ways to get killed, but the game assures you there are lots of endings. I got 15 out of 8, presumably to reinforce the "more than meets the eye" angle. This sets us up for a potentially neat play/explore/replay cycle where we do eventually manage to explore everywhere and find interesting deaths. Another look at the cover art makes you realize something odd. That shadow is the wrong shape and color. Oh dear!

Unfortunately the technical side is a bit lacking. There are a few loops. If you click on "credits" at the end, you're kicked to a page with no way back. With little time left to judge IFComp initially, I threw in the towel, quitting while I was ahead. An individual playthrough is relatively quick, though there is a lot of overlap that seems unavoidable with the main quests--if you explore too much, you die and have to start over. So I quickly experienced a bit of dread looking through what I needed to. Maybe I didn't map what pitfalls were where carefully enough.

As-is, I got the "good" ending the second time, and I was invited to a faux-idyllic town gathering choose someone to be the Reign. They weren't happy about it. I'll invite you to play to find out why. So the cake got baked and eaten, which counts as a success. But I do think that, if there are different endings based on who is the reign, that's all a bit much to grind through repeatedly to see them. I wasn't quite curious enough to click through repeatedly.

This is a tricky one. UNDO all over would allow the player to lawnmower the end and know too much too soon, but blocking it out made exploring tedious. I'd suggest a compromise where, once you've made it to the gathering, you can click through "get the milk" and so forth on replay, to cut out a lot of unrewarding repetition. There'd be some leeway for the author on whether or not they should nudge the player to say hey, you're done here.

Let Them Eat Cake feels like a relative tap-in to fix some features to make it even more playable post-comp (the bugs mentioned,) and perhaps there's a good way to streamline different parts you've already seen or at least to indicate that the reader has done everything they can in a certain branch. So perhaps a one-two punch of post-comp releases would be good, one for maintenance, and one to smooth out seeing all of the village and all the deaths. Goat Game is a good example of how to invite lawnmowering without driving a player crazy or making them feel they aren't doing much. LTEC does seem worth the challenge, both for us and the author, though I haven't checked since my first try! It has a strong sense of setting, and while I saw what I reckon are a few errors in translation, those aren't nearly enough to sway a very favorable opinion of it. It definitely achieved "worth looking at" status, and I like the pace at which secrets were revealed to a player who poked around.

Elvish for Goodbye, by David Gürçay-Morris

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Imagination and loss. I feel almost unworthy., December 15, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

I'm pretty shocked EfG didn't get a top-twenty finish in IFComp 2022, and when I say top-twenty, I mean top-ten. I voted it top-two. It seemed very close to Prism in many ways in terms of building a distant magic city, though they were built in different ways. Prism was also in my top ten and likely well worth your time, but you get to see and imagine Prism, while you get to imagine and dream EfG. Perhaps it hit at the right time: I had gotten behind with my reviews, and here was a work about an interlocutor (there are three at the start--I'm not clear if they have anything different to say, but since there is enough to say in any one read-through, this doesn't matter,) with not much time to speak to me, and I had little time to consider what to ask him. After a few questions, my immediate reaction was: you know, as much as I'd love to hear about this city, others would deserve to, too! So I'd better ask good questions, even if the conversations took place across a few days in-work. My unexpected friend had a lot to offer, even if they were not part of the leadership, or movers and shakers in Wild Idyll, the city in question.

Perhaps playing EfG when I did was a happy accident, and I liked it more than I should have. And I've had my share of "how the heck did this place so low" or "I understand this placed low because it was unusual and the innovation isn't for everyone and it be remembered well post-comp" entries. But I've never felt, wow, this is really big, and I encourage a lot of judges who rated it low to go back and try to find the stuff I see. Maybe I'm off-base. I was almost scared to revisit it, because what if it didn't measure up? What if I was just making stuff up? I suppose part of EfG's thrust is to give you permission to make stuff up, or think of what your conversant would have said with more time.

That said, I don't know if I've ever enjoyed the difficulty of making choices as with EfG. I was devoid of the usual cynicism of how writers have to keep their work on rails to keep within the two-hour IFComp limit. And the thing was -- the question choices felt like quite possibly the best of that sort of thing I've read. Many very good and well-respected works give you a nice variety of choices to fit your personality, and you can clearly see the game design. You know which one you want to ask, or, if you're playing to win, you're pretty sure which one will give you an edge. Perhaps you will even remember something from your journey that helps you make the right choice, or you suspect you missed something that'd help give you information. But with EfG? Well, your friend seems to anticipate what you want, for instance when you slightly yawn and they change the subject to something else interesting. I often had a choice between three very, very good and quantitatively questions I wanted to ask all at once, and I couldn't. Many of them, I wish I'd thought of. They encouraged me, in fact, to ask more and better questions, or try to. I did so, for at least the next week.

I sort of cringed when my questions were technical, because they stopped well short of the author's goal, or one of them, which was giving free rein to imagine what could be, in as much or as little detail as you'd wish. And perhaps I saw where the ending was heading. (Don't worry, "the city was within you all along, if you just knew where to look" ain't it!) But I enjoyed the journey so much. And that, I think, was part of what the author wanted to get across. And thinking of EfG, I remembered all the Ink games (Ink works well with the narrative--it feels like a story flowing and not just text) where I figured, okay, this choice didn't matter, and neither did that one, and I usually tried some reverse-engineering. But I was too caught up in forgotten needs and desires and things I didn't know I wanted yet to do this sort of analysis. I've never had an IFComp entry do that. I've had ones give me something unexpected in a genre I hated, but this opened the floodgates and made me why I didn't want or question certain things before. I've never used psychedelics, but EfG feels like what some people hope the psychedelic experience is, and it does so without any of the old tired tropes or trying to shove anything in your face. It even managed to make a discussion of language interesting to me, skipping well beyond "where are the bathrooms?"

It's quite a wild ride, extremely ambitious, but it never throws its randomness or mythicness in your face or tells you how you are supposed to interpret it. It allows you to be skeptical and snarky with your questions. Even as it describes 497 ways the Elves said goodbye, you want to believe that happened, or could have. It regenerated me in a way that self-help books could only dream of, and not just for the final stretch of IFComp reviewing and judging. I was worried, coming back to it, I might not enjoy it the second time as much, as I had time to sit and be critical. Perhaps I would see proof that this work is really all just a pile of pretentious twaddle and I am a fool and sucker for enjoying it. I did not, but even if I did, I think I would still have enjoyed it immensely. It is the sort of work that should be intimidating, you feel, but it isn't, and it's about so many things that were lost, but you can't describe how or why or when, and you know even getting a bit of them back would be immensely valuable. And while a review can never nail down what a work is about, in this case I feel particularly disappointed and helpless.

Because a work like EfG certainly reminds me of all I want to do, as opposed to the stuff I take because it's there. I thought back a lot to CS Lewis's definition of Joy: a desire for something longer ago or further away or still "about to be." And this popped up throughout EfG. And I realized that even with a "well, the stranger was BS'ing you all the time" cop-out ending, that wouldn't change the things I'd forgotten about that I wanted to do or look at or that I believed were possible until I knew better. I remembered a few, because there is so much weird stuff we forgot we wanted, or weird stuff we might want once we understand. During EfG I thought about how hollow pop songs about saying good-bye or whatever were, or of summer days and nights that can't last, and of cliches like "the only constant is change." Those all felt dull compared to a surface EfG had helped me scratch, one I probably hadn't for a while, one I want to scratch at instead of clinging to old habits that aren't nearly as rewarding as they used to be.

This explains Wild Idyll. But the title? The title is given by your new friend's explanation that the Elvish language has 497 words for good-bye. At the end, of course, there's the big one: "This last 'goodbye' was a great equalizer-- ... this farewell was not one of decisive departure, but rather surrender to the inevitable: an abandonment of oneself to the force of fate." It feels a lot like that one work by Borges where a minor poet's one word destroyed a castle, though it felt less harsh than when people talk about the unspeakable name of God. I mean, after my brief time reading, I didn't want to let go, even though I needed to. I certainly wanted to remember crazy things I believed as a kid or wanted to talk about, or at least, I wish I had remembered them long enough to polish them. But then I got back down to earth: I was behind reviewing for IFComp, and I needed to pick things up, chop-chop, to find new stories and try to interpret them and maybe even fall asleep after a particularly odd one, to have weird dreams and wake up with new ideas, trusting the best would stick and saying good-bye to the ideas I loved that would not deserve to last, at least not with me, whether it was the ideas' shortcomings or mine for not being able to express them properly.

Physics searches for a GUT, a Grand Unification Theory. Literature searches for something that ties together our shared existence. I can't say EfG hits that, or that it does so better than anything else I ever read, but it gets up there and makes you aware of what could be. Perhaps it even makes you a bit more wary of literature that tries for the lowest common denominator. But it encourages you to find big stuff even in that. The climax of the story may be somewhat predictable from the title, but I don't think that's a spoiler (also, don't worry, Wild Idyll is neither the friends you made along the way nor something that had been in your heart all this time.)

Along the way you learn a lot, and I think each time I had a very different good-bye on finishing. While I won't have the 497 the Elves had, there will probably be more than 3 for EfG. I've certainly had gradated good-bye responses to all the IFComp entries I've seen. The total is probably around 497. But none made me realize as much as EfG that I needed to say good-bye if I didn't want to--to EfG, to this year's IFComp, or even to other things, and, of course, there were different ways I could, and should. Here, perhaps, it's an acknowledgement that whatever I go to next won't be as neat as EfG on its own, but perhaps with luck and persistence I will find another work very different from EfG that is still as satisfying and inspiring.

Who Shot Gum E. Bear?, by Damon L. Wakes

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
All the twisted amusement the cover art promises!, December 13, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

WSGEB is a fun, and funny, short effort by someone who's been here before with others. I used to call them good-citizen entries, because they do not demand too much from you, but if you want, you can look into them and see more. The only problem here is that WSGEB doesn't contain any good citizens! Or, rather, nobody's perfect, and everybody is suspected of murdering one Gum E. Bear. He wasn't a great person/candy thing or even a good one, but nonetheless, a murder is a murder, and murders must be solved. Every character here is some sort of candy, and the comic potential piles up and is largely achieved. The technical bits are a bit lacking--I say this, hopefully not to neg, but to brace you, so you have no letdowns as you enjoy the funny bit.

Your job, as a private eye named Bubble Gumshoe, is to figure out who it was. Or, you know, you can just ACCUSE everyone (and I mean everyone!) and undo until you guessed right, for humor value. You don't need any actual evidence, and in fact there really is no physical evidence to collect. Given the jokey tone of WSGEB, you may suspect it ends on a deliberate clanger, and you're right. Rest assured the villain's "you got me, but..." speech is funnier than the game bashing you when you pick the wrong person. (Note: my initial guess was right, but for the wrong reasons. I'm still proud of it.)

There's not much else to say. There are relatively few locations, and the characters are all entertaining. There is Officer Donut, Big Hunk who is a bouncer at the local nightclub, Jawbreaker who guards Don Toblerone's room with an intentionally stupid password, Don Toblerone himself, and Candy Kane, who operates a seedy bar. You can ASK them about stuff or (at least try to) SMELL and TASTE. This fits in well with the general candy descriptions of Sugar City.

WSGEB is about as light-hearted a murder mystery as it gets. Overbearing cop, seedy environs, rough dialogue, and so forth. The jokes landed home for me, with the stipulation that nothing was profound or meant to be. So it was a game about empty calories that didn't have much empty prose. I think people who give it a shot will enjoy the descriptions and dialogue enough to try everything they can. I did. And it's fortunate there's not too much--the implementation is spotty, which would become a factor in larger games, though on the other hand, WSGEB is high on my replay list.

It even hits a few serious issues. My sympathies tend to the ACAB side, and I found the swift portraits of police contempt for those who "serve and protect" quite effective and worth laughing at. I was genuinely glad to see the guilty party get their comeuppance. As someone who did not want to use drugs but always felt boxed in by anti-drug messages, some of the lines around it are just great, and they're infused with candy jokes without being tasteless, so the author is sympathetic to the victim.

As for what more I would do? This sort of thing seems ripe for having a suspect picked at random, with details shifted around, a la Christopher Huang's An Act of Murder, which has been on my to-play list for ten years now. WSGEB seems ripe for this treatment, maybe with a sequel or expansion pack--the author's a very experienced Twine writer, but shifting from choice to parser is tricky. I think on the whole, implementing the senses worked better to get the laughs across, and my technical quibbles are just that, and yours should be, too. Part of me wonders if the author should be so cruel as to carry out their "you can't undo once you accuse" threat in that case, to make a legitimate challenge. Maybe this all could be a hard mode you could unlock.

And I really enjoyed putting the game file through a disassembler to see the funny stuff I missed. So, one last suggestion for a post-comp release, or the author's next effort, because dang, there was a lot to laugh at: give the player a list of AMUSING stuff to do!

You May Not Escape!, by Charm Cochran

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Just a Maze, except, well, it clearly isn't, December 13, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

I like to draw a distinction between things that make you think and things that let you think. YMNE falls into the second category, which is the better and less forcing of the two. When prepping this review for IFDB, I kept writing down stuff on the side, ways to look at things from my own life, stuff worth noting that didn't fit into this review. This happens maybe once or twice per IFComp entry. Last year there was The Best Man. YMNE goes down a different road: instead of alienation from a group of friends, it's from society. These things can get horribly didactic horribly fast, perhaps with too much detail and preaching. YMNE has neither. It deals, at least in part, with the powers that be (TPTB) and how they are unfair. And it helped me accept that unfairness in ways a Wellness Guru (TM) never could.

Strictly speaking, it's just a maze game where you need to escape, without a ton of detail. The maze has clues that taunt you or give trivial help, and it's not clear which one's worse. It's not a very big maze, either, and you have a few side quests where you can do something for the souls of people at a cemetery. Your grave is there, too. The maze could be a metaphor for any number of things. The most obvious one is poverty--a jukebox plays a song about a tramp not welcome anywhere. Rain comes down and gets heavier. But I think it could be any sort of Not Being Normal, with the obvious big subjects (gender identity, sexuality, race) and others from something minor like social awkwardness to perhaps autism. Perhaps it is anything that makes you feel isolated, stuff that people who haven't had it don't understand. Mapping the maze isn't the main challenge, here. The author asked that players not spoil the mazes with maps, and I think that may extend in spirit to some details as well. But I'll say this--it's worth working your way through the map. The room descriptions alone help you more than the LCD displays that give encouragement, concrete or otherwise. And with what was there, I realized I felt sort of grateful that there weren't any dead ends with YOU HAVE DIED or a secret police force tackling me. I realized I had a sort of low-level Stockholm Syndrome thing going on there, which is impressive.

This makes for seemingly not much to do in a straightforward game. But YMNE isn't intended to be a game. It doesn't have many characters, either, or a ton of scenery. There's a man at the start, false-cheery and trying to help you, until you ask some obvious questions. You have security cameras you can destroy and park benches o rest at, though this is discouraged. Once I did so, I felt glad I'd snuck something by TPTB, whoever they were, but this soon passed. The ubiquitous LCD displays filled in so much more for me. They mirrored the double meanings of the game title itself: "You may not escape!" could be an expression of fear and concern for the poor player. Or it could be a stronger admonition that you don't have a right to, or we'd prefer if you didn't, because you don't really fit in there.

The double tone of the messages, though? Some give factually wrong information about the maze ahead, and some get it right, but it doesn't help you, because if you've mapped, there's a dead end ahead. Sometimes there's a useless "you can do it!" Other times, a message to kill yourself. My favorite one is "You should know that I donated to CAM two years ago? That's the Council Against Mazes. They've got a lot of big things coming up." This may've been my favorite line in IFComp--it's unclear whether the speaker wants to help or just wants to be seen as a help, but either way, well, they just don't get it--in the best case!

Having those contradicting messages from the LCD display made me think of some relatively unpleasant parts of my past, where people gave contradicting advice that I was apparently supposed to sort out on my own. And so I went into the weeds with other advice the LCD displays could've given, if TPTB (who may have hard or soft power) had been bothered. I suspect the author has thought about this a lot and wants us to think up our own. I was left with reminders of being told 1) I have no common sense and 2) I'm smart enough to work things out. These may not have come from the same people, or from very many people, but they certainly came from the loudest people, the sort that would think, say, a "motivational" message on an LCD screen would get people going, even though they expected much more for their own routine.

Perhaps the biggest contradictions: I should be glad the maze-square isn't bigger, since it would waste more of my time. But perhaps I should be glad the maze-square isn't smaller, as then I would feel no accomplishment getting out. Perhaps I should be glad things are colorless in the game, because that won't distract me from getting out of the maze, but at the same time, what kind of person am I that I would actually enjoy a colorless world? And the walls--a discussion of YMNE related how tall they were. I realized that TPTB could say, well, if you can't see over the walls, well, isn't it nice you're not being made jealous of the "real" world? And if you can, isn't it nice to have that motivation to get out? That sort of thing. I felt discarded, and apparently, I was smart enough to justify some pretty awful behavior from TPTB, but not enough to justify my own being-who-I-was.

For me there was also the specter of people trying to play both sides of the coin with my own experiences--whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger, etc. It sort of reminded me how some people appreciate blues music but will be danged if they'll listen to, well, your own personal problems, no offense. "Hey! We haven't gotten to see the neat things you have!" while having their own things they show off for social status. Or people who've told me I should be so social also want me to understand why they're jealous of the rich internal life I have–and they never, well, quite get it.

And there was also the memory of how I once loved mazes, drawing them, trading them (sadly too rarely) and eventually realizing that no matter how different they look, they're all the same. I remembered a maze book my parents bought when I was young, and I wrote the path through in marker, and my parents told me not to get through it too quickly. Years later I found I'd never gotten to a few. The magic was gone. I no longer needed to feel competent getting through mazes. And, of course, mazes can be generated algorithmically now. But YMNE, unlike games with a maze popped in the middle, or even one that subverts it cleverly, reminded me of this, and of how solving a maze-book made me feel like I was working through something, and then I enjoyed playing RPGs where I might get lost but I knew I'd get through, and somewhere along the line, knowing there was an exit and I had experience became "big deal, anyone can do it with perseverance." So perhaps there's an angle of, we get certain shackles sluffed off on us, and we don't realize they're shackles until it's too late, and we can't get them off, and by then "helpful" people may say "I thought you liked that" or "Why didn't you say so earlier?"

Even escaping was unsettling. Maybe not so much for the final bit (it reminded me of the end of a Robert Cormier book, and I like Robert Cormier a lot) and I wondered if I'd really earned any feeling of accomplishment, because really, I'd seen this sort of thing before. I suppose one could feel guilty about going through too quickly and ignoring the graves, or maybe taking care of the graves and saying, well, I just did that to feel good. Did I really deserve to move on and pay my dues? Was I downplaying people who might be in a bigger maze than me? Was it silly to look through the dead ends, or was it selfish and over-expedient to avoid them? That all is survivor's guilt, pretty impressively captured by a relatively short game.

Other things happened maybe by accident, too, so they might not happen to you, but I imagine they happen stochastically and enough for people to say aha, this is important. I failed to do something the second time that worked the first. So I felt as though I'd slid, even though it was really more just because two items were close by the first time and I got lucky. Chance plays a big part--and we can beat ourselves up if it's against us, or puff ourselves up if it's not.

But replaying, I immediately pictured the LCDs with new announcements about how this doesn't really count and I already had advance knowledge, and that's just a bit unfair, isn't it? And shouldn't I have been observant enough to pick up on things the first time? Another conflict was between "oh you're not going to go back to replay this, you're going to forget and get lazy" and "oh you're using the mazes as a buffer to avoid IFComp entries that might challenge you more." Another thing I noticed on replay: (Spoiler - click to show)The path through is randomized, an impressive bit of coding in Inform 7, which gave me the image of many people having their own mazes, similar but different, and of course being alone and maybe even being prone to arguing over whose was tougher once they got out. I didn't decorate the graves the first time, and I almost had a "why should I help these people? I know how to get out" moment. But I did, out of duty, grumbling as I put the wrong thing in the wrong grave once or twice. In essence, I'd become like TPTB writing stuff for the LCD displays. Do what I do, figure what each person stands for, and move on. And I couldn't shake "you used to love mazes as a kid, when'd you get spoiled" versus "don't you want a more profound challenge than a maze? You're more than smart enough, you know."

Again with the being hit from both sides and paralyzed--and the more I played through, the more not-zen-koans came up. Sometimes they come from legitimate sources, and sometimes they're from trolls past or present, and sometimes they're stuff I thought, inspired by unpleasant people, where I'm vaguely glad at least they didn't hit me with them. These thought experiments are part of being human, and it's never clear how much you should turn them over before moving on.

YMNE doesn't hit you directly with them, but it certainly sets the stage with John Everyman at the start and the unhelpful LCD messages. We need to face that this trolling from both sides is there, and it hurts, and the more we can face, the better, but too much at once is crushing. YMNE provided a buffer for me to write down my complaints and observations abstractly. So I think it was more constructive for me than larger-scale horror games were. It's not so much the physical horror as the anticipation of horror and being lost. For me it was about working through contradictions, or trying to, for me. I wondered constantly if I was reading too much, or too little, into it. But it was an experience I'm glad I had, and I played it a few times while I wasn't quite up to reviewing the new IFComp game. The thoughts dribbled in.

So I got a lot out of YMNE. And ironically, for how boxed-in your character is, YNME let me think very freely about Stuff In General. I half expected an LCD message at the end saying "See? The struggles we put you through were worth it!" Or, perhaps, "You may think you got the point, but trust me, you didn't." Perhaps with dueling LCDs insulting me for being too dumb or too lazy to REALLY figure it out. YMNE may be a catalyst for recognizing this sort of thing in the future, not as a paranoid fantasy, but as a way to more fully accepting that things aren't fair, paved with rueful humor. It's not easy to learn and re-learn that, instead of a conspiracy of people making you miserable, there are enough people who don't care in different ways to sure make it seem that way. I value anything that helps me reflect productively on these matters, as YMNE did.

i wish you were dead., by Sofía Abarca

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Sharp dialogue and psychological tension trumps timed text, November 29, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

So, the pet peeves first. I wouldn't do this if IWYWD didn't have a lot to offer, because I try to avoid beatdown-style reviews. The first peeve? A title in all lower case. I'm a bit like the cranky narrator of Julian Barnes's Flaubert's Parrot, here, as I've seen this sort of thing before, and it never ends well (though the ALL CAPS entries recently have been more than respectable,) and I immediately cringe at this sort of thing, expecting--and getting profanity later. (Small spoiler: it's not so gratuitous, as I have some sympathy for both characters in this work.) I'm still going to ALL CAPS its acronym in the review, though, so there.

The second sin? Timed text. Lots of it. I did my usual regex zapping with \(live:.*?\), and Notepad++ said "757 replacements." That's at least 15 minutes of pauses, assuming one second per pause, and it was often more. Running up against IFComp's judging period didn't help, either. That's not IWYWD's fault. But it does add a lot of bloat to people who want to get through it and explore different things to try, if the end could've been changed, and so forth. Because undoing doesn't give you a free pass back through the timed text.

But I'll tell you what. I bucked up and got through it. Because it was worth it. During the timed text, I did some exercises with my rudimentary equipment I have at home. I can't do this all the time, and I don't want to have to, but it was timely. I ignored the screen, thought of things as I did a set, and made my next choice. That's not sustainable long term, but IWYWD knew about the length it should be. Perhaps it was just flat out good enough that, despite my reflexive annoyances, I sat down and said this time, I'm not letting timed text bother me! Perhaps having less timed text than in years past softened me to say, okay, a bit is not so bad.

This digression hopefully isn't me showing off or venting but saying, hey, you too may want to find something worthwhile to do to wait for the text to show. Fix some tea or whatever. And sit down for a story of betrayal in love, though really, it applies to platonic relationships as well.

You, the main character, believe you've caught your partner cheating. They have a good explanation! They didn't mean it! (They never do.) You have the FACTS on your side, though, and you press them. They make confessions. They have excuses. They want you to stop before it's too late. Though it may already be. I was able to guess a good chunk of IWYWD's twist at the end, but not all of it. (Maybe the timed text forced me to sit back and think what might happen next more than I usually do!) That didn't make it any less effective. I've been on both sides of the argument, where I'm sure I'm right, and the other person is sure, and in both cases I know it'll end terribly. Too much has happened. The soda bottle is too shaken.

The dialogue here does not mess around, so I was able to feel the conflict. On reflection, the person you control has a lot of options of soft- or hard-pedaling their case, and the other character has something resembling plausible denials, if they could just explain. But you doubt your character is really open-minded. You definitely have cutting questions: "how could you do this? This was our movie." Then a bit more of the story comes out. This may not be perfectly fair to the player, who doesn't necessarily know the two people in the story have spent time apart. But it certainly can be interpreted as the character thinking certain things don't matter. Other details leak in later. The narrator, it turns out, has been negligent, in ways where you can't bang your fist on the desk and present good cold hard evidence. I didn't see all the branches, but in this case, not having much variance gives the impression that your character came into this expecting a victory, or what passes for a victory in an argument.

So reading IWYWD was useful-difficult for me. I know I can be distant, though I hope I'm not as possessive as the narrator, and I often wish I stood my ground as well as their partner. I've been thinking a lot about jealousy recently, though, about people who were upset I seemed to be having more fun than they did, or that I was able to use my time to do certain things. And the things they said. Some of them were people who should have been my friends on paper, and they'd approached me with similar facts that the narrator did, and I sympathized a lot with their partner. Of course, we probably all hope we have more in common with the partner than the narrator. You also get the sense that the target has had to tell a lot of little white lies to the narrator, some covered, some uncovered.

Maybe it's not so much lies as distortion. I remembered some people asking me why I did something a certain way, or thought something not very commonsensical, and wasn't that odd? And the truth was – I was covering for some of their obnoxious behavior in ways they'd never cover for me, or perhaps I was convincing myself they did care deep down despite some caustic behavior. There've been people I've had to break up with like that long after I hadn't seen them for a while, and I don't quite wish them dead, but I'd like to make them dead to me if possible. Well, except for being able to say "hey, if someone reminds me of X in the future, I want to steer clear of them."

One more thing: I was worried about severe melodrama from the title and I am glad to have been wrong on that count. I'd like to think the narrator's partner's response and frustration will help vindicate some of my own actions more fully and hopefully prevent me from diving in feet first to show I'm right. And I'm impressed about how IWYWD had several potential red flags that turned up far less serious than I imagined. So I, like the narrator, saw several red flags which came to much less than I suspected. But my experience was clearly happier.

U.S. Route 160, by Sangita V Nuli

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A brief slice of running away, November 27, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

We've all had those involuntary moments where maybe we misunderstood or misread a work, but it was powerful to us in some way. That happened here with R160. You open your eyes in the hospital and the text says SHE'S HERE. I thought it was the narrator's mother, one of two main antagonists. But it was actually the person you loved. It shook me. This was a high point for me in IFComp and R160 as well. It's deserved, even if R160 doesn't soar. It reminded me of old fears and how I'm at least glad some of them didn't come true. Some remain. They're nothing as harrowing as escaping from a preacher you don't love, whom you're engaged to. Not only that, but you don't like men, period, which is another strike against you.

So it's a cliche we're all running from something. And driving's a good way to do it. I remember driving around through some curves in college, curves a friend three years younger than me told me about. It felt like I was dekeing some problems or other, or I hoped I was. I soon realized I wasn't. My problems weren't as serious as the main character's. But we had similar abstract concepts we were running from. "Be grateful for what you have, you barely deserve it" guilt trips. It reminds me of my fears of marriage, too. There are all sorts of jokes about picking the wrong person, but I found it easy to picture that a spouse would either be not right for me, or for my family or, as a horrible compromise, nobody. Of course, along the way, I chose bad friends, not to be rebellious, but just, well, I was used to certain things, and there were certain faults I felt I should be able to forgive.

These days there are more late-night bike rides or walks or even visiting the athletic club, too, about this sort of thing, but they're not as intense, and often it's about getting ideas. But R160 brought back some of the thornier bits I'm able to deal with now.

These days the driving around curves is replaced with late night bike rides or walks where I can reflect on things that don't bother me any more and
problems worth bouncing in my head. There are always writing notes to type into my computer when I get back. But certainly the fears in R160 have loomed in different contexts.

The plot itself can be oversimplified into continuing your flight or returning home or stopping for a break. If put that plainly, there wouldn't be much there, but based on the scenery you choose to concentrate on, different memories pop up. And with them, we don't get much of a view of the groom, but what there is, it's hard to like. The main character is obviously escaping more than heteronormativity. That's a word I hate, and I wish there was something shorter, but maybe such a concept deserves to sound ugly. She realizes her fiancee sees her as an accessory, too, and not even one particularly to be proud of. Someone convenient, maybe even a trophy. Her mother does, too. The narrator's being pulled into a life of apparent relative ease, certainly better physically than she's told she deserves. Based on the brief character sketch, I imagined the fiance cheating on her and blaming her or, at the very least, lying to her in the name of the Lord. Whether or not he knew she was not attracted to men. It didn't matter. There's ambiguity why he chose her, which seems intentional. The possibilities are disturbing both ways. That's how it is, fearing someone with power.

I suppose I'm a sucker for lines like "He argues with you about your withdrawn silence. / It's ironic that he never lets you get a word in." because they describe so much more than romantic failures. The sort of thing it took me too long to realize, and once I did realize it, I wondered if I was being snarky or ungrateful or nitpicky. This was more effective to me than the poetry, where the author resorted to super-short sentences once too often, which broke up some good observations.

There are three endings without a whole lot of branching, and there's no appreciable puzzle-solving, but here, there probably shouldn't be. You're making impulsive choices, but they are based on the characters' neglected fears and desires. Not even the best ending is fully happy, but each in its way dealt with non-romantic fears I had and even have. Maybe I was ready to laugh at the own weirdness from my life--like how my parents loathed fundamentalists, but don't go listening to that heavy metal music just in case there were Satanic lyrics. (It was too loud, anyway.) Or how elder family members had reservations about the Wisconsin (or was it the Missouri) Lutheran Synod. Eventually, my parents divorced and remarried non-Lutherans. My sister's husband is Jewish. This wasn't truly funny until I heard Emo Phillips's canonical joke on religion. (It's best in his voice, but it's good on paper, even/especially if you see where it's going!)

It wasn't just about religion, either. I picked the wrong college sports team in my adolescence: Purdue, where we used to live) and not Northwestern, the smart kids' school. Not quite picking a life mate, but not something you should have to justify to anyone, and I did. Peers and teachers found it odd. Others at school were upset I quit an extracurricular activity because I felt I didn't belong. They played the "it's the best you can do, really" and "what are you looking for, anyway?" angle. I felt like a bottom feeder in them, then felt lost away from them. It definitely depicts a moralistic community without being moralistic, and that certainly gave me space to consider far less drastic things than a failed marriage, and I never felt the story saying "You think you were lost? Look at the protagonist!"

If you want a robust story, US ROUTE 180 might not be the work for you, and the poetry didn't work well, either, but the core but it was remarkably effective at reminding me of some horrors I escaped, and which frustrations mattered and which didn't, and other ways I even compromised saying, well, I've found enough of myself, and that's enough, right? Some might find US Route 180 a bit too overgeneral, and I can see that. But it hit a sweet spot for this never-married, never-engaged person.

To Persist/Exist/Endure, Press 1, by Anthony O

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
The real happiness was the game design choices I noticed on the way, November 26, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

I remember being proud of myself for learning how to deal with long wait times on the phone. It was a bit annoying, sure, but I had things to do. I would plan out, for instance, cleaning out browser tabs or whatever, or maybe even tinkering with a particularly tricky script. Or I cleaned off my desk or, if the phone cord reached that far (back when all phones had cords,) the fridge or sink or whatever. It's changed over the years. But the important thing is, I have something to do, and I've gotten over the boredom and fear and so forth. There are some worries that I will get distracted and maybe even put the phone down, and that is exactly when the hold musical breaks, and the operator will say "Is anybody there?" and then hang up when they don't hear me.

Now I don't particularly deserve an award for this trivial bit of adulting. The cheesy line is that finding something to do to fill in that spare time is reward enough. I've even managed to find to save me a bit, too. I kind of had an ethical dilemma with that one: I was sort of lying to get to the head of the line, but geez, maybe everyone was doing it. Technology has taken care of these fears, or ways to lessen them, but I still remember them, and they resurface when my internet connection is down.

The protagonist of TPEEP has no such chance to grow or reflect or blow off inconveniences. They're not calling about that charge on their credit card that still doesn't belong there, but they can afford it. They aren't even calling to switch to online bill payments or to activate a gift card. No, their needs are much more basic: to jump from despair to happiness as quickly as possible. Who knows if they are asking for permanent or just temporary happiness? It doesn't matter, really. It's pretty obvious early on they won't get it. They have no chance. And they don't even have the thrill of the chase from more traditional stories. And perhaps they don't really believe they really deserve happiness, even if they hope the quick jump is there. The end result? You-the-character can wait a few turns, but you will have no choice but to hang up eventually.

There's not much text in the game, but I don't think there needs to be. It probably doesn't want to force the point home, but we get it, nonetheless. The options on the phone are not for customer service but for different types of happiness. Soon they diverge into how to avoid sadness. Of course, there is nothing to be done. That's the point. And I found it much more effective than more visceral tales of depression. You half get your hopes up, because you know not to get them all the way up, but all the same, it's still too much. It's like trying to get your money back from a casino. TPEEP has no sound, but I can still a fake-cheery voice rattling off the options. You know that it's blowing you off, and it's ostensibly speaking clearly and slowly so you understand things, but really it's just so that people will get bored and hang up, so the company has to hire fewer operators.

This is in the name of company profits. When the character calls the happiness conglomerate, well, you'd expect happy people would want others to be happy. Maybe that is true. Maybe the people who seem happy are as clueless as those who know they aren't. Maybe they're just saying they're happy to fool themselves and have nothing to say beyond "turn that frown upside-down."

Ironically, this lack of getting anywhere close to happiness in the entry provided me with a certain amount of happiness, reminding me how I'd at least avoided hitting some pitfalls repeatedly. I remembered the times I found happiness when I failed to get excitement, as well as good replies I discovered to bossy older people telling me "You can't be happy all the time, deal with it." (Protip: it's okay to be sick of barriers to happiness thrown in your way arbitrarily.) I suppose I wanted some agency to be able to deal with a big pitfall. Here the narrator has none.

A word about the interface: at first it annoyed me. You click on a verb at the bottom, and several nouns change color. You can drag and drop each verb over them. This was awkward for me at first and I felt, cynically, I'm glad this entry is short, or I would make it short. The repetition even after a few times was exhausting (part of that was the hour I played through) but then when you no longer had a choice, it felt worse. But then I got used to it after playing a few other Texture games, and on my phone and not just my desktop, which made me happy in a way that hammering away at one single Texture entry could not.

Entries like this remind me of the old Yiddish joke "Waiter! Such lousy food!" / "Yes, and such small portions!" which can be hard to pull off without, well, actually annoying the reader/player. Not that TPEEP is lousy, but it's about lousiness, and balancing that feeling or joke or whatever ("I give up" feelings without making the player give up) is tricky. But I think it works here. Though it does feel like the cleverness of being able to drop a verb over more than one noun wasn't used to its fullest, and one of the main mechanics is, after a few times, removing wait/give up choices for giving up.

TPEEP gave me a lot to think about for an allegedly short game. I'm comfortable in that wheelhouse, not needing a whole lot of physical details and feeling okay stepping away from something to come back to it. In this case, I stepped away from TPEEP and got some personal insights in the meantime. It felt, in a way, like I was sticking it to TPEEP's unresponsive in-game automated phone support, or phone support from my past, whether it sent me in a circle or cut me off outright. And in this case, I was amused that a game ostensibly about wasting a chunk of 15 minutes for me-the-character felt like just the opposite for me-the-player.

Glimmer, by Katie Benson

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
"checking up on people" simulator, November 26, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

I've seen the author's works before and always meant to get around to the stuff of hers I hadn't looked at. I'd like to see more of them, and I have to admit I'd also like to see more of this. It's a positive but short game about feeling socially trapped, which unfortunately has been a pretty big thing since 2020. But it's tough: too much positivity feels forced, and too little feels like it glosses over serious issues. And there's a third rail when trying to express getting stuck without getting the player stuck. That sweet spot is tough to find.

Your choices don't matter much. That's the way things are sometimes. Some days, no matter someone's good will, you don't want to put up with them, and others, no matter how nasty they are, you're willing to put up with it. A friend will still drop by and help you bounce back from social isolation, and it sort of feels like they might be forcing themselves on you, though you-the-character and you-the-player know it isn't enough and want to do more and know you need to do more. So Glimmer knows not to force itself on you. But I also think that we need things forced on us sometimes, but we just don't know how or why. And looking back we wish certain people we liked had forced more on us (and, of course, certain people had forced less on us. But Glimmer is not about that, thankfully.)

While I'd have liked to see things more fleshed out (the character's first try going out. I know for instance just going to the grocery store or athletic club once the COVID lockdowns was over were both big) I realized that, well, I'd had people bring me back to a forum (like here) with just a like on a comment, and I hoped I'd been able to do that in some way for others. So I think and hope I got what the author intended. I was able to look back without having to relive the fear.

I also saw a parallel between Glimmer's main character and reviewing IFComp. Getting into the swing of things, or back into it, is tricky, and you have to start small, sometimes, whether it's with your own writing or reviewing others'. I reviewed Glimmer early on, and it was welcoming, though I just wish it would've led somewhere bigger--perhaps there's a message here that after someone checks on you, you need to go find more stuff for yourself that you might like, and perhaps that might mean the author's other works.

The Lottery Ticket, by Anonymous

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Modernizing and Interactivizing(?) Chekov, a quick foray, November 24, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

This review may be more about what I believe Dorian Passer is trying to achieve in general, or tried to achieve, rather than the specific work, though I think in this case, a Chekov short story you might not be aware of works better than Cost of Living did for ParserComp 2022.

It feels like there should be a cottage industry for stateful narratives and their relatives, well beyond the Cliff's Notes my teachers warned me against in high school, and of course well above the synopses you can pull from websites that offer to write an essay for a fee. I always felt Cliff's notes got dragged down in symbolism, and anyway, the good teachers knew what was in the Cliff's Notes, so you could only really avoid bad grades that way. What did help (he said cynically) was knowing what the teachers liked, their unconscious biases. So I was always a bit suspicious of English class and the next great short story. I enjoyed nuance, sure, and figuring what could be. But it always felt that people who were working for that A were a step ahead of me. They knew what to say, and they knew how to say it without some pretty smart teachers detecting that they knew, or if the teachers knew, the students knew how to put in enough that you couldn't argue they didn't deserve the A. This doesn't discount that some people deserved an A, but there is some cynicism about studying a work and trying to interpret it that I still haven't shaken off.

And I don't mean "cottage industry" as a derogatory term or "this isn't high art." I'm well aware other people could turn that argument, or something more harsh, on my own stuff. It's that I think we need something that will require minimal effort for us to twiddle, to see changes based on a few things we try. The payoff will surely be better than, say, FreeCell where we've developed that strategy to win 90% of the time and sense it's useless to get to 95%, but darn if we don't keep doing it, because each card-shuffle feels different, you know.

TLT, or a replication of its idea, feels in the same vein as chess videos where, say, GothamChess or Agadmator, two Youtubers with over a million subscribers, go through a game or list of games. The basic presentation is formulated, and they even have catch phrases that have developed naturally, as a way to keep us involved. They analyze sidelines, some worthy and some boobytrapped. And it feels like there's room for more in that boat, which is good for knowledge and variety but bad for my free time. Agadmator is more likely to cover classic games, or lesser-known games from a grandmaster's simultaneous exhibition. GothamChess is far more current. Hikaru Nakamura, who needs less introduction, can discourse at length about his own game.

Why the heck can't we have those options with literature? Well, one problem is, literature doesn't have the equivalent of a programmable chess engine, and it's even harder to say "that phrase is good" or "that paragraph is bad." Understanding is more organic. Sometimes it's based on realizing that, say, that poem of Robert Frost's means the opposite of what it means from a cursory glance and seeing why it goes beyond "simple sincerity." And it's just more fun to look at a chessboard than a bunch of words or to say "hey, look what the engine is saying, this is something the presenter couldn't have fit in to a fifteen minute video. I'd like to do my own exploration." For me, it was tough to find that exploration. There were simple what-ifs to ask. Sure, I enjoyed a story with a surprise twist, or where it wasn't clear what the narrator meant, or what the character did after (either option seemed equally likely,) but even there I could picture Mister I-Know-How-To-Get-A's dropping his two cents in, over my shoulder. Even if I hadn't seen him for a while.

TLT inverts that for me, and that seems both due to the subject matter as well the author's general intent. Chekov's story is relatively simple. Someone thinks he's won the lottery. Suspicions pop up. Could and should he hide the news? Windfalls going bad have been done before and will be done again, but there's always a new perspective. Chekov really Gets It, and in a more visceral way than Cost of Living did. I mean, Cost of Living was prescient, but when it starts talking about debt and interest rates, it potentially loses some zing, even though the issues (keeping up with the Joneses, being in debt over items you didn't want to buy, and so forth) are very relevant. So I can see why I might not have heard of the author but I still enjoyed CoL as well as their other stuff, though I was glad to be exposed to the story. The main thrust, though, is this: change a few things that may seem fixed or obvious, and we can reinterpret or reimagine it in a more modern vein. What do certain words mean if we ascribe different intent? Sometimes, it's obvious, but with the right stories, it gives us insight into human nature, and maybe even times where we ourselves have been fooled or confused and don't want that to happen again.

Chekov's story is ancient but in parallel with something more modern-day. It's odd to remember that a much smaller amount of money was once paid out in lotteries, but certain things remain. The administrators get their cut, so the expected value of a lottery ticket is less than its purchase value. I know that even if the lottery ticket paid out more than you spent, after taxes, there's a concept called marginal utility. (In plain English, that second million is a lot less useful than the first.) People have no idea how to manage money and go into debt. It's sad. I read a book by a person who negotiated lump-sum settlements for lotteries paid out over 20 years (and yes, the lotto winnings don't mention this payout, and that $1 million 20 years from now has less value, because inflation.) The person eventually felt awful about their job, and I remember how they noted starving horses at the farm of one lotto winner. This is all relatively technical.

Modernizing TLT feels like it would be a trivial jump, and maybe it is, but it's one worth making. In Passer's remake, you get to choose a few adjectives. Is someone genuinely happy they might win the lotto? How willing are they to actually share? How much of friends' sharing via instant messaging is actually altruistic? Anything seems possible.

You can play through a few times, and if the game text doesn't change, the text still has a different flavor based on what you say. Well, to me. Your friends' accusations (eating the sauce you're cooking raw, thus depriving your friends of a bit of it, is contrasted well with how much of your lottery winnings you might share) are constant, and I didn't keep very rigorous notes, but acting with bravado or standoffishness does change things. And at the end you seem to want to buy one more lotto ticket, despite having UBI and so forth. Which brings up a lot of questions–the lotto is about more than just having more money, it's about dreams, and yet on the other hand, those dreams, once realized, are ruined. And there have to be better ways to bring people together than the lotto, but it's sort of taken over, because it's the easiest way to find something in common.

Now, a writing like TLT clearly seems to have limited range for any particular story it may cover. But on the other hand, it feels like it could be applied to many other writings I always wanted to read but never did, when I'm not quite ready to read passively. I like that it doesn't pretend to be an exciting, sweeping new modernization of a famous old tale. It simply reminds us that things are, in many ways, as they were, despite technology creeping up and the size of a lottery growing astronomical. Chekov's summer villa we'll never use becomes timeshares or a yacht we can't use often. There is only so much to say about this subject, and that's okay, because there have to be others, from stories by authors famous or not.

I really do wish I had something like this in my inbox every day, or even a couple times a week, to poke through, because it would be time far more well spent than clickbait. Maybe that "it does what it can, and that's good" seems faint praise compared to "well, this is soaring art," but it's good and needed and if more of us did this for favorite authors or stories the rest of the world didn't know about or should, the Internet would be closer to the repository of ideas or questions that people dreamed TV would be in the '50s. There's enough great stuff, of course. It can soar, if you know where to look (e.g. the Daily Show gives news and asks questions and reminds us that some people in power or the public spotlight, or constantly seeking that sort of thing are, in fact, those who least deserve it.) You don't need to write a thesis in a 300-level college class to have access to it, either. There's a snappy trade of ideas that leads you into a hall with a lot of doors. Perhaps a lot of those doors leave you disappointed to know you're not so original to have thought of X before, but then you realize others have given you a boost to where you can start with the real ideas.

I think we've reached that self-sustaining point for more concrete stuff. Math, chess, etc., are some examples. I'm saturated with videos there, along with Youtube channels on psychology and building social skills. But videos don't seem to work as well for written words as, well, this sort of thing does. And I recognize it might lose something in mass-production. But I remember being awed by a library as a kid and thinking "I never could read all this" but I would so love to make a dent, and works like this give me confidence I still can. (Of course, this may already be out there in some form. I'd be glad to be wrong. But we can always use more, in quantity, quality, and tone.)

Death by Lightning, by Chase Capener

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Double-crossing, sex and ... low resolution?!, November 24, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

Oh my. Putting GameBoy-style graphics with a narrative where you've just finished having gay sex. That's a heck of a contrast, for sure, given attitudes towards homosexuality when the GameBoy came out. And my main quibble with all this is that you have to keep pushing "Z" to see relatively little text, some of which repeated. I've gone all old man yelling at cloud about this sort of thing before, but in this case, it was more that I'd like to see what's going on, and I'd like to piece things together better, and I wish there'd at least be an option to get the game to cooperate more after, say, three or four endings. There also was some worry I'd get impatient and start button-bashing and miss some of the text. I'm also not sure why the title is what it is. I found a lot of other creative and interesting ways to die, and there was lightning, but I didn't find the ending where you died by lightning. Perhaps it was the "best" one?

Unfortunately my enduring aesthetic memory is of the text chopped up like the timed text from Twine, and it backs up even one playthrough. This is okay at first when you're getting your bearings, but DbL seems meant to be replayed, and a lack of UNDO hurts this. This may be a feature for some. But in IFComp, with my goal to get through a lot of entries, I find it to be a bug. The work simply stops once you've reached a conclusion, too. Nevertheless, I took several diverging paths through and had a general idea what was going on, and overall what was there seemed good. So it's not a "waiter, the food is terrible! And such small portions!" sort of thing.

There was also a neat feature where the screen flashed, but it we assume all the threads are continuous, lightning kept striking at different times. I wasn't able to determine whether the player should be coming to a realization I missed, but I thought the screen flashing worked well with the low-resulution graphics. With more detail, or the game taking more of the browser, all the technical stuff might feel like it was trying too hard to call attention to itself. I fortunately don't have any physical reaction a flashing screen, but nonetheless, it was nice it wasn't overdone.

From what I saw, you're trying to betray your lover, but you're wanted, yourself. They have a truck outside the mountain lodge where you are both staying, and you, for reasons not immediately obvious, cannot let them leave. So do you take the truck or try to convince your lover to stay? Taking the truck risks accidents and meeting the local (very) wildlife, but staying in the cabin risks a fight, as they have a past that's not clear, too. Whatever your web of double-crossing and intrigue, you're pretty much, well, screwed.

The gimmick of a GameBoy-style game is clever, and I've generally enjoyed entries that give this retro feel. But unfortunately, with this entry having no exploration components, the design choice probably backfired in terms of placement in IFComp. I just wish there'd been more latitude to explore without having to repeat myself so much, or at least a way to increase screen size to see more at once, because there were some branches I didn't look into and wanted to, and without UNDO it was hard to keep track. Perhaps labeling a branch yellow or red based on how much you'd seen (some/all) would work, even if it violated the GameBoy aesthetic? The writing seems fast-paced and I was disappointed that certain design choices slowed it down, not to give us more chances to think about things, but to say, no, you can't quite move ahead.

Through the Forest with the Beast, by Star

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A quick journey through a trap-loaded forest, November 24, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

The opening screen promises a lot: a well-done background, effective and non-intrusive sound, and a request to pick your name and a color that corresponds to you. There's a list of stats (health, thirst, hunger.) It's for, well, an escape through a forest, to a place where people with the same Mark you have can be safe.

We get a fast-paced story, too, but it goes by too quickly without really knowing what the protagonist is like. One vulnerability in particular wasn't mentioned. There aren't many locations in the forest, and you can find shelter in both hostile and friendly locations. There's food and water, but if you're already too full or not thirsty, it does more bad than good. You're also vulnerable to rain, which I didn't pick up on until I ran into a bad ending.

I played through a few times. There were a few random deaths, but beyond them, escaping is not too hard, if you're suspicious of everyone who seems remotely harmful. Perhaps most interesting was my final play-through when someone offered me clothes in their one-room hut in the middle of a downpour. Removing the clothes would reveal my mark, but going into the rain meant death. This was one of the more concrete choices in the story, beyond going forward and back, and with more like this the story would be very strong indeed, but then again, it was never explained in the over-general beginning.

A lot of the action is scattershot, too, and the stats aren't really used as much as they could be. Why marked people were viewed suspiciously was hidden beyond a general assumption that marks are bad. And I wish I could've undone stuff. As it was, I had to open up a new tab for each play through the story. It all feels a bit too earnest, often introducing something you should've known mid-story. The world's been built, and it feels like it has the standard features, but the author doesn't have control of it, and they never fully commit to using the statistics, or building a story, so it never fully gels beyond being a quick affair where you maybe find a couple ways to make it out and move on. Things like penalties for eating when full were interesting and showed good general understanding, but TTFWTB never really sang to me in quite the way that, say, Under the Bridge did from the '22 comp.

HOURS, by aidanvoidout

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Frenetic, with an interesting end, but uncontrolled, November 22, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

HOURS certainly jumps right in: you're a soldier who has had a mortal wound, and an apparition tells you, hey, come with me and kill the evil Shogun who's been controlling your mind. Hey, you're going to die anyway. A compelling start!

You have that choice of staying at home or actually going for revenge. And I think early on, the work established it would be a bit too on the nose: "stay in your room and die" is, well, direct, as is much of the dialogue. That said, I think it provides, relatively speaking, the best writing. It doesn't feel like it's trying too hard to induce excitement. This part is linear, where you have a different thought in each of your final hour. It seems quite focused, maybe because the author didn't have to worry about game states or branches or whatever. And of course the player can just undo things.

Once they do, the on-the-nose dialogue does come into play. We've all done it, where we've forced in where we need to. I like to refer to Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie's very polite spies, Tony and Control, for guidance. They spell things out a bit too much and are a bit too formal and still always getting to know each other. It's sort of sweet but also a reminder that we can often say things that don't need to be said, both in life and in literature, and that can ruin the mood. For instance, "poor soul... you've seen so many horrors in this battle... if only the kings, sitting in their ivory towers, understood what the common folk like you went through..."

As for the story? I'll bring up something else: the movie Streets of Fire. Things seemed to sprawl until they sort of clicked at the end. Like that movie, there appear to be a lot of anachronisms and cliches, and I think they're deliberate. The Shogun is 300 years old and still youthful, so something is going on here. You are Jack, and he is Charlie. You have swords alongside suits and communications devices, along with an old-fashioned slave auction. The chaos seems deliberate, but it quickly feels uncontrolled, even if everything is tied up at the end. And the ending I got with reaching the Shogun certainly brought things together--my guess is (Spoiler - click to show)the character is not the only person the spirit gave this offer to, and perhaps that is part of how the Shogun has retained their energy. Which is pretty heavy stuff! But sometimes with the helter-skelter writing, it felt more like you were in an express grocery line that suddenly shut down once the cashier had to go on a two-hour-overdue break.

Certainly the ending, along with the small detours I could take (talking to people versus immediately getting to the point) made me wonder if there was any way I could save time and avoid falling at the final hurdle. I did not find it. Nevertheless, the dialogues in the tavern helped bring out some of the story I didn't see when speed running so I didn't waste a single minute. There's obviously something supernaturally weird about the Shogun, and the story of how his henchmen pronounced him as blame-free was effective to me.

Perhaps HOURS wished to make the point that there was nothing you could do, or it went for the "it was all a dream"/Incident at Owl Creek angle. Perhaps it meant, deliberately, that pulling an arrow out of your flesh and not having it hurt was a sign things were already on the paranormal end, or you were already half-dead. That seems even likely. The contrast of reflecting on your family in your room and being forced to see the Shogun's past works well. But the less-than-tight dialogue and sometimes over-earnest narration got in the way of that. While you needed to be in a rush, unnecessary description that sprawled jumped back to where the narrative skipped a bit. That cut down both the urgency and any idea of how close I was, and it's a place where having a "you are here" style map, in the status bar or one click away, seems the sort of thing IFComp is built to allow and encourage. Even posting the time outside of the "go to your room and doe" ending or saying "you've lost track of time--you can only judge it by the sun/stars" would add to this. As-is, I felt hurried along, so the tension didn't build as it should have.

Tower of Plargh, by caranmegil

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
A "my first game" in Inform with some charm, November 21, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

The Tower of Plargh is a short puzzle game where you must do stuff and then push a big button in a center room to advance, once you’ve done what you needed. There are jokey bits in here, too. The room names made me laugh a bit but also wonder if there was a fifth room, since the initial 4 rooms differed by which vowel was in the 3rd position. I spent time wondering if there was some head-fake ending where I'd missed a clever detail, though disassembling the gblorb changes nothing.

Also there’s a bit of trickery with the game map--the tower is bigger than it seems at first glance. The jokes may be a bit flippant to stick in your memory, but on the other hand, there are no mind-reading puzzles. There are a few items and you can figure what to do just because the author didn’t try to overwhelm you with details. Apparently the author wrote it for his daughter, so there were serious limits on how complex he wanted to make it, but then these limits ran up against IFComp expectations.

The puzzles feel relatively straightforward, though the final bit in level 4 was kind of tricky, and a "why" is missing beyond "because it is there." In level 4 it took me a while to realize an NPC left right after you saw them, even though they pretty clearly were a jumpy sort, so there was a lack of description. With minimal verb-guessing, I figured what to do. There’s a small bug where the NPC from level 4 is wandering around in level 5, so I chased a red herring there. Perhaps ToP was simple enough I was sort of hoping for one.

The rooms didn't change names as I went up the tower, I suspect as an attempt to reuse code. However, the end result is that it feels like a programming exercise more than a game. So although there’s no walkthrough, you’re probably not going to get stuck if you resort to trial and error, likely the sort that needs only minimal knowledge of parsers. This made Plargh a nice whimsical diversion before playing far darker games with content warnings, although since its focus is simple-to-trivial puzzles, it doesn't establish a super-strong identity. So it sunk to the lower end of IFComp. But as a first work it is nothing to be ashamed of.

Trick or Treat or Trick or Treat or Trick, by Stewart C Baker

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Groundhog Day for kids, November 15, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: EctoComp 2022

One of the things you have to face when you are writing a SpeedIF is, what should I leave out? It's stuff you'd rightly get destroyed for leaving out in a more robust piece. ToToT makes the right choice here, as what it leaves out only adds to the brief timed puzzle. (Plus, UNDO blocking is left out. Strictly speaking, it should not be, but for me, it added to the feeling of being stuck.)

It can't be the first Groundhog Day style game, and I've probably played one and forgot, but it fits the format well. You're knocking at the door of Old Man McGuffin, because your friends dared you, and when he answers, he sticks you with a weird-science item that sticks you in a temporal loop. You need to dump it on some poor unsuspecting soul. You have a fixed amount of turns, or you'll wind up having to do things over again.

And here's where the puzzle gets interesting. Stuff like directions to exit and so forth aren't revealed, because this game was written in 4 hours. So you wind up bumping around a lot, and in fact it's probably more efficient to avoid finding the items you might need first to make a map! This would be a poor design choice for IFComp, but here, it reinforces you're a little kid who's walked out well past where they should, and you're pretty lost. (My technical side notes it'd be neat to have a post-comp release that slowly fleshes out the directions you tried. That could be a programming exercise that takes well over four hours!)

There aren't many items, and if there were too many, things would be a mess. However, I always enjoy a good candy joke and seeing the box of L&L's (REAL candy! But you don't have time to eat it!) reminded me of the box of W&W's that the Suspicious-Looking Guy gave you every Halloween in Kingdom of Loathing, back when I played that game too much and enjoyed it.

I admit I disassembled to see the text of what happened at the end. I'd come up one move short, and I had trouble actually finding the person to give it to, though I knew they must be around. One feels sorry for the poor schlep.

ToToT reminded me of Ray Bradbury's The Halloween Tree by sort of being its opposite in many big choices. You're alone in ToToT, but HT has a whole group of kids. In ToToT, you're in essence getting free time as a kid and extending your Halloween beyond what you thought possible, while HT takes a year off the end of each kid's life. But I think each, if it actually happened, would provide a kid with a bunch of neat weird stuff to share for years. As for the end, I enjoyed thinking about why your friends may've poked you to see Mr. McGuffin. The possible motivations can vary greatly depending on how much they actually know about him.

There are spoilers I want to add and spoiler-fy, because they gave me a good chuckle going down some mental back-roads, but I don't want to add them into the review until after EctoComp, if at all. Part of the fun is being in that area of optimal confusion-versus-progress I think ToToT hits well.

Midnight at Al's Self Storage, Truck Rentals, and Discount Psychic Readings, by Thomas Insel
Amusing MacGuffins and long title make for a fun brief exploration, August 11, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: ParserComp 2022

Long titles always give me pause. Will they indicate a long, sprawling game? Or will the game have a tight focus, as sort of a reversal joke, so tight you think they overdid it with the super long title? In the case of Midnight (spelling the acronym would take more keystrokes,) thankfully, there's little to worry about. It's short and tidy and subverts the "pointless task in lousy weird job" genre without overusing the zany or "lousy jobs are lousy" angles. It's well-organized. I replayed it quickly after ParserComp, and though there's only one tricky puzzle, I still fluffed it at first and then felt happy once it was fixed.

You start out with an undemanding task left by your mysterious manager: find three boxes and bring them to the loading dock to the north. The first requires little more than exploration. The second requires fiddling with locks on an elevator. Some may find this tiresome, but it made me recall bad experiences with a frieght elevators and padlocks (not together, thankfully) which the passage of time had healed. The constraints are tongue-in-cheek, as you can't leave the basement if you are even carrying a mere task list. While it's busy work and meant to be, I enjoyed seeing something different than the Towers of Hanoi and the 3-, 4- and 5-liter jugs, and it underscored how badly managed your rental shop was.

Things get interesting after you place the second box on the loading dock. The weather changes. The place shakes enough that you can carry not just a task list into the basement but everything in the game that's not nailed down! This was an exhilarating moment of freedom. Not only that, but a previously-locked door is now open! This was a relief, considering all the futzing with keys and padlocks I'd done earlier.

On your way to finding the third box, you have visions. They contribute to why your place of employment is weird, and you have something to set right. It's not very hard, but it's satisfying, and it ended too soon, with the promise of a sequel I will be glad to enjoy.

Midnight certainly is economical in design if not in its title. And its brevity and oddness make its wit stay. And if the sequel takes a while, I will have stuff to tide me over. I hadn't realized this was the author's third work.

Gent Stickman vs Evil Meat Hand, by AZ / ParserCommander

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Well, you can always hook ME with stick figures!, August 5, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: ParserComp 2022

Gent Stickman stood out immediately for me, not just for its title, but for its stick-figure drawings. My relationship with drawing is a thorny one. I'd like to be more realistic, but I do enjoy the humor a well-done stick-figure drawing can do. It just has to be thoughtful, and yet, stick figures can help take an edge off serious subjects so you can cope with them. This is the case with Gent Stickman, a small game with relatively few rooms and a simple parser. All the responses are in graphics, including the error messages, which is nice because sometimes the default messages are annoying even when they don't try to be.

This is a successful design choice as I see it. If I'm correct, The author's first language is not English, and the game does have a universal feel. I wasn't surprised to see they'd won the Spanish version of EctoComp, based on this effort. They could certainly write in English. I mean, GS is definitely one of the most fun and creative titles I've seen in my gaming exploits. So they could definitely hammer something respectable out in English. But what they did was slick. They know what they're doing, and they never need to drill it in your head how clever they are. There are hints and death scenes, and the hints are particularly nice because, well, you still have a bit to figure from some of them--but nothing unfair!

And they do form a nice story of where you've been and where you're going. I've certainly had instances where I saw one hint too many and felt like I was just taking transcription, and that didn't happen here. The graphics cut through the "push X for next hint" instructions, only revealing one additional hint per room per hint request. This left GS feeling quite welcoming. They also pushed back on one of my pet-peeve straw-men in web-based games: timed text. After a certain amount of that, I always picture someone pausing pompously for dramatic effect, but here it's like a small funny YouTube clip you could watch several times.

As for the story? Well, you, Gent Stickman, are--well, the guy people see on a bathroom sign. Your beloved is your female counterpart. She has been kidnapped and locked up in a high castle guided by a pit. There aren't many rooms, and the game establishes early that compass directions are Not a Thing. One error graphic shows an X'd out compass with left and right replacing it. The main verb to figure is -- well, you have to guess it, but it's not a blind guess, and (Spoiler - click to show)this game gets away with it where others wouldn't.

And solving the puzzles gives some nice cut scenes that remind me of the sort of flip-books I used to make in second grade, though this is clearly more clever than that. It left me wondering why someone didn't think of this-all before, and I hope to see more of it. Jumping over the pit has a lot more drama than "PUSH SPACE TO CONTINUE." There's doubt if you'll make it over. And yes, there are a few surprise instadeaths that make you want to restart, but once you know what to do, it doesn't take too long to get back. They're all worth seeing.

GS has some interesting innovations in streamlining the player experience, which makes for a lot of fun that's over a bit too soon. I'm certainly glad to see it's marked as one of a series. It's one of those games you can just enjoy, and on reflection, you realize the author did a bit more than throw out silly yet satisfying jokes. While obviously "ha ha ha this game is meant to be a simple satire/joke" can be overdone, it definitely isn't here, and I really enjoy these quick booster games that remind you you don't need anything super complex to have reasonably clever fun.

Uncle Mortimer's Secret, by Jim MacBrayne

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
An entertaining old-school romp through time, August 4, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: ParserComp 2022

Uncle Mortimer's Secret intimidated me, but at the same time, I wanted to play it. Details leak out from a game's reviews even if nobody means to spoil anything. And that worked both to draw me in and push me away. It was obviously a big game with a custom (and old-school) parser, replete with scoring, but it was also well-organized, by someone who knew what they were doing. It probably got fewer ParserComp votes than average because of the custom parser. It's got its oddness, but that's not a cover for the author's laziness or inability to put a story together. It feels more focused and assured than Somewhere, Somewhen, which the author submitted to the previous ParserComp, which had That Something. UMS had a lot more, maybe because the author didn't need to focus as much energy on the parser itself. It was the first ParserComp game I came back to post-judging, and I was surprised how quickly I did so. I'm grateful to the people who pushed others to play this game, and I hope I can do for so beyond ParserComp.

Your eccentric uncle Mortimer has disappeared and left you a letter. He's gotten involved in magic and alchemy, and he's probably been captured by someone quite evil. To rescue him, you need to visit several important time periods and events, and you may not have to do much, but when you do, you'll gain the trust of historical figures Mortimer meant and get the next piece of the puzzle. You travel through time by twiddling four numbers on a bracelet while in Mortimer's machine, and for me, it was nice to be able to get something right before doing what I had to.

I did so in all cases except the (Spoiler - click to show)Whitechapel murders in 1888, I was clueless as I never connected them to Jack the Ripper. This isn't all bad; for me, it was nice to know a lot without knowing everything, and also there was enough of a new spin on (Spoiler - click to show)Kennedy's assassination in 1963. I think with this sort of buffet-line approach to important historical events there's always going to be something you wished to see more or less of, and nobody's pleased perfectly, so your tastes may differ from mine, but overall it should work out right. For me the funniest puzzle was finding (Spoiler - click to show)Sir Francis Drake's bowling ball in 1588.

Eventually you do find Uncle Mortimer with a weird tesseract puzzle. The journey is worth it to me, though you will have to dedicate a lot of time. But it's the sort of game you can blow by with a walkthrough, if you have to, and you will get a lot out of it, and maybe in a few weeks you'll find yourself coming back to it, too, to see how much you remember. I found, briefly poking around, I enjoyed both what I remembered and what I forgot.

A few things still slow it up a bit, though. I'd still like to see a more understanding parser--the disambiguation isn't great, and there are some abbreviations, but maybe I'm spoiled with Inform. I'm pretty confident that the author will tweak what they want and need, though, given how they've honed a lot from the promise shown in Somwhere, Somewhen.

Sindrella's Potions, by Tristin Grizel Dean

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Fixable bugs dent an enjoyable story/mechanic, June 7, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: TALP 2022

As a rule I'm not big on retellings of an old story. You'd better bring something new to the table. And in Sindrella's Potions, you do. Your grandmother is Cinderella, and before you go to a ball, you put on a slipper and become her. Your quest is to make it to the ball, but to do so, you'll need to buy a gown and slippers and make transport.

The way to do this, unsurprisingly given the story's name, is by making potions, mostly to help other people, who pay you in coins. You have a cauldron to put ingredients in--ingredients are marked clearly in your inventory. Each recipe has three ingredients, and it doesn't fully spoil anything, but it hints things rather strongly. So you may have to do a bit of trial-and-error.

This worried me a bit, as I immediately assumed a problem with using up ingredients (e.g. at one point you get a thread, and I was worried if you messed things up you'd have to get another) but this isn't the case. You can keep trying until things work. And you can figure a potion without the recipe, but it probably takes less time to find things.

As for finding potion recipes, you do this for trying sensible but not straightforward things. It might be talking to people, or SMELL or TASTE or TOUCH. In one case, there's a new verb, but given the item, it's not hard.

The game is well-implemented and even allows you to solve a side puzzle for a portable cauldron, so you don't have to go back to your cottage to mix things. It even has hints--though here, sometimes there's the unintentional side effect of hiding something that should be in plain view. Or you'll ask for a hint, and the advice will disappear before you can use it, e.g. "Potion X requires A, B and C" in a place where you don't need Potion X and then HINT again says "you're done here." I wound up overlooking something much more basic--I missed 2 ingredients because I didn't search the scenery, and some words were highlighted and some weren't. So I'd like to see more robust hints in a re-release saying "You may've forgotten to examine everything in (room x)" or even "you have 2 more ingredients that can be found by looking through each room." Here a little help is a bad thing, because I assumed I was done with certain areas when I was not.

And as of June 2022 I found a bug that seemed to get me stuck for good. The (Spoiler - click to show)note seems to be needed as an ingredient, and it's in your inventory, but you can't put it in the cauldron. The author is very conscientious about providing updates, and though their life may be busy, I suspect they'll find a way to add things in once they have the time, because they have a commitment to strong craft.

That said, until you run into this bug, it's quite well done, and I enjoyed my time, and I liked the potion mechanic. I'm just a bit disappointed to have missed out on the ending, and I think others must've shared my views, too, because SP placed surprisingly (to me) low in TALP 2022 relative to the enjoyment I got and the craft I saw.

Carpathian Vampire, by Garry Francis

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Short vampire game works even for those who don't like vampires, May 17, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: TALP 2022

I admit I'm not much of a fan of vampires, so when the author asked for testers, I opted for his other game. I've been through the general vampire tropes, and they don't do much for me, whether it's humor that plays on said tropes or more detail than I want. Yet it's effective. The tutorial bit gets you inside the castle with no way out, and it's atmospheric, but on some level you know you'll need to (and you will) find the key to leave the castle.

So I believe I would've enjoyed testing this as well as Garry's other, because it fits really well as a TALP entry, giving clues where you need it and providing a clear path through. I think while having a tutorial is good, having other bumpers along the way to follow up is better, so it's not just about helping people through a text adventure but letting them know what to expect. And the tutorial never quite ends--it seems to know when to give a small nudge. In this case, making light has its pitfalls. There are sensible ways to mess up, and the game says, hey, look at what's in your inventory.

There's another bit where your inventory is full from all the items, and you have some choices of what to drop. You never have to inventory juggle, but the guidance is nice all the same. There aren't too many items, because the map is not too big, and generally there's a lot of sampling of ways text adventures should work.

I also must give credit to the HINT command. The game is not too difficult, though I used them a couple times for expedience or to make sure I was done. The hints are in brief four-line poetry like those old Burma-Shave ads, and they're quite catchy and succinct and sometimes even funny, even the "you're done here" nudge. And while the game's tone isn't humorous, it works well here, better than a dry "do this next." So the game is worth a replay for that alone.

The Spooky Mansion, by Tim Jacobs
Nostalgic, amusing graphics, May 17, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: TALP 2022

I come down on the non-serious side with EctoComp games, and so for me, The Spooky Mansion came a few months early. While the plot is potentially serious (your dog is lost in a haunted house,) the details are not. There's a pumpkin to talk to so you can enter the house. Skeletons offer you help in interesting ways. And there's a monster that'd be right at home in Space Quest blocking your way to some important rooms. It's a funny game and not too big, despite "Mansion" in the title, and sometimes smaller is better. Thinking back to my own experiences with learning to read, I certainly felt intimidated by larger books, and given this is for the Text Adventure Literacy Project, it's important to know how not to overwhelm the reader.

You really aren't going to need your puzzle-solving hat, either. What you need to do is clued pretty well, and if you examine and talk a lot, everything will fall out. There's a bit of repetition with one puzzle, but even that is in service of a few nice laughs. And of course you eventually find your way out.

I'd definitely play a longer game by this author, as the graphics alone drew me in, and the jokes kept me entertained. There were a few loose ends (why is your dog in a locked room? What's the (Spoiler - click to show)rake for in the shed?) but the priority was clearly on entertainment, which the game pulled off.

Bug note for the release I played: reaching for an item wrong doesn't get you the item you need. The (Spoiler - click to show)shiny object doesn't change into (Spoiler - click to show)the brass key if you REACH OBJECT WITH GUM. But given the general surroundings, I quickly said "wait, I bet that item's supposed to be (Spoiler - click to show)the key to the locked door to the west, but I just fished for it wrong.

Raspberry Jam, by Sylfir
Simple youthful farm tasks, unpolished but effective, May 16, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: TALP 2022

While most TALP games focus on the parser, Raspberry Jam allows hyperlinks to get around its homebrew engine. That makes it an oddity in TALP right away. By the end, I wound up clicking keyword links much more than I used the parser, but the "click one text object, then another" fits the word/word aesthetic TALP requires and brings up the interesting question: might NOUN NOUN be a legitimate way to skip guess-the-verb?

It's quicker here, at least once you get the hang of things. Once I did, I realized the game was good work, despite its flaws. It's worth a play-through, as it's not very big. Overall, I saw what the author was doing, even if it was a bit hidden. But it never got beyond that for me. Reflecting on this game, it seemed like whatever praise I had was qualified with a "but," but on the other hand, so was criticism. So this review feels clinical, but it's the best way I know to say "yes, there will be obstacles, but this game's worth playing."

First, the plot: you're a young boy, living with your grandmother on a small farm. You're given tasks. The initial puzzle, bringing water from the well, is a good one to establish the tutorial part of the TALP jam. Then you need to go further in the woods to find more things Grandma asks from you. Nothing terribly dramatic or death-defying, so it's a good fit with the jam.

And as for the word "jam:" it's easy for me to picture a native English speaker thinking jam-the-food and jam-the-event were too alike to connect, and thus a game featuring jam would be too on-the-nose, right? But non-native speakers see things with new eyes we can't, so they had no such self-censorship, and I'm glad of that. The games are supposed to be child-friendly, and this one was. One puzzle obliquely concerns safety with sharp objects, something I didn't really learn until Boy Scouts, and it was certainly nicer than the yelling I remembered about what you'd better not do. (Yelling was not necessary.) I'm glad it was about more than just jam.

But on the other hand, the reason I bring up the author's not a native English speaker is because they do many logical-but-wrong things with English grammar (e.g. "an bucket"). This, though, gets a pass. Creating a custom engine is tricky, and they got that right (though there is a learning curve) and there's never any question what they meant. The writing overall has purpose and direction and doesn't deluge us, and perhaps it can fit in with the idea of a kid from a far-off land telling us about their day while maybe being a bit too excited and slipping up with a word here and there. There's more than enough substance and organization that we can allow RJ these slips and not feel like a condescending adult patting its hand. I still sometimes cringe when I say or think "Well, it's brave of them to even write in their second language," because there are so many ways to say it, but it's just one more variable to juggle when trying to program, and it can't be ignored.

That said, it would be nice to have some bumpers once we were done with a quest. This is difficult as there are some moving parts: you're able to return an axe to its storage place before you use it, and if you do so, you score five points, which are retracted once you take it down. Then once you've used the axe and stored it, you can take it down. Details like that. They aren't critical, but it feels like the author put in a good effort on the very important stuff and didn't quite have time to polish things. It's just stuff I feel they wouldn't have missed without the additional mental energy needed to write in a second language. There's also a nice bit of technical work where the author lets you scroll up and down in a room's description, but when I tried to make the screen bigger so all the text would fit, the text stretched.

I'm also up in the air about the ending. A few clues existed, but I left in disbelief for a bit. I wound up missing on the final five points, which are not on the task list. It's something that, emotionally, the story would be wrong to clue directly, since such an action shouldn't be forced. However, once someone else hinted it, I saw it immediately and realized I'd not been paying full attention, but I didn't really feel motivated to go back. So it was more "Oh, that makes sense!" than the emotional connection the author looked for.

Still, RJ seems like a successful experiment, technically, but the author may not have hit their creative stride. Yet. There's a lot to be sorted out, but RJ doesn't need saving, and at heart it's a small nostalgic game that's fun to work through and brings back a few memories. One can't argue the author is technically or creatively clueless. It's just a bit obvious where they miss the mark, and once you're able to accept a few shortcomings, it's a pleasant experience, and TALP is clearly the better for it.

The Bright Blue Ball, by Clary C.

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Animal protagonist, unusual verbs, smooth experience, May 16, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2022

I didn't get to look at nearly as many Spring Thing games as I'd hoped, but all the same, I'm glad I got to The Bright Blue Ball. It's surprisingly cheery for something with the topic BBB has, and I don't think I was the only one who needed that. I'm more a cat person than a dog person, but I wound up being quickly invested in the protagonist, who escapes from their safe home to look impulsively for, as the title suggests, a bright blue ball. It's their favorite, and they know they should know better, and they feel bad the moment they're out the door, but they have to find it. And they have quite an adventure before coming home.

It's no spoiler to mention that, yes, you do find the ball, meeting people along the way and solving the mystery for you-the-player without you-the-character fully understanding what's going on beyond their own needs and the needs of humans they meet in a deserted town. This is hardly new, but here it doesn't feel forced, and so I had the impression the author had good command of the story side of things. For instance, if you went back home too early, your family would say different things based on how far along you were in the game. As to why they can't or won't go outside, while others are, that makes a good deal of sense quickly. The constraints, such as being able to carry only one thing at once because you are a dog, aren't just there as a nuisance. They add to the realism, and here the inventory limits are complemented by not having a lot of useless items.

As an example of the strength of the game world, I ran into a game-state problem where I was locked out of a win (I took a circuitous route that missed a few clues and thus stress-tested things rigorously,) and it was pretty clear, because a room description conflicted with the narrative built up. But it was easy to remember what to do, and I enjoyed seeing clues I'd missed, and so forth. When something potentially disastrous like that works out okay, you know you have something good. And if this is fixed in the latest release, so much the better!

While it's dreadfully unfair to compare a first-time author's work to something like Toby's Nose in detail, I think it carves out emotions and story that Toby's Nose doesn't, and it offers promise that there are others. I'd like to see more games where SMELL is a prominent command. And I think the technical mistakes I saw were that of a first-time author, so if they have something else to share, I'm looking forward to their next work. They seem to have the important and harder-to-teach things right.

Espiritu Roboto, by Ray Leandro

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Robot near end-of-use finds self-fulfillment, friends, May 15, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: TALP 2022

Espiritu Roboto establishes a lane early, and it's a strong one: you're a robot who is about to undergo repair or, more likely, a memory wipe. In your dialog with another machine, there are a bunch of errors reminiscent of an unhelpful parser in the starting cut-scene, and bam, you're dropped beneath a house where you and other robots work. Early on, you try to get back to work, but something is clearly wrong in a hurry. You don't want to go through reprogramming/repair/death, so you set your sights on escaping.

There are, of course, obstacles to get by. Some are physical and inanimate, some are robots, and some are human. There are even cats that obstruct you for a while. You have a dark area you need to find a light source for. You'll probably see where the escape is, but you don't have the skills to get out. For that, you need to find another entity.

An entity beyond the robot spirit (implied by the game's title) you pray to--this is a neat bit of verb choice, with THINK reminding you of what you did and PRAY asking new questions. While the question list gets filled up near the end--some clues are removed, and others aren't--it's still handy and efficient, and it's not the only custom verb that works well. They're all clued, and the parser has covered a lot of good guesses.

Surprisingly for a game about robots, the puzzles aren't really where it's at. That may say more about the narrative, or how the puzzles were combined into a very solid story for such a small game. For instance, in a library, you need to push stuff out of the way, but then to blend in with humans you need something else. There's a sign on a door that says "NO ROBOTS," and getting by is a puzzle, but once you reflect on things, it's all a bit sad and frustrating. And in one case, a solution to one puzzle temporarily blocks getting another item you need, but it makes a lot of sense.

The only place where I got in trouble was when I assumed an item had just one use. I visited a place far away (well, relatively--the map is not huge, and I'm grateful the author drew up a map) and used the item there instead of nearby. Using it nearby didn't quite register as it almost felt too on-the-nose. I can imagine others getting stuck here, especially since if you PRAY, the robot spirit assumes you used the item in the almost-too-obvious place, so I'll note (Spoiler - click to show)the laser pointer has two uses.

That's really minor, though. Espirito Roboto worked for me. I'd also like to call out its graphics as a clear positive. There's nothing super-fancy, but there's good variety, and it feels whimsical without feeling dashed off or calling attention to its absurdity. This sort of snuck up on me, and at some point I turned around and said, yeah, good job there.

There are a lot of longer games that go into emotions more in-depth than ER, but sometimes I am just not up to them. I often don't have the energy to fully appreciate them, so in a way, ER provided a sort of tutorial experience for someone who knows parser games but is a bit wary of taking on a huge dystopia or too-heavy issues. It had a high return on time invested for me, with just a bit of unhappiness and servitude and looking to connect with someone else who understands, someone beyond the bartender who serves bacon-laced alcoholic drinks. This was enough to push me to remember my own nuisance I wanted, and still want to, move on from.

Library Quest, by starflame149

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Cute graphics, but be exact with nouns, May 15, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: TALP 2022

The cheery graphics in Library Quest quickly help reassure you nobody is going to be shushing you as you move between locations, or telling you to finally sit down and stop adventuring, or whatever. There's no deep research as you look to repair your mother's favorite vase, but there is exploration and discovery. So it's pretty low-key, and the atmosphere is favorable for a TALP game.

There are tangles, and I'd like to get them out of the way so you know what you can enjoy. Stuff like having the player DROP VASE to find a new and important item once you start looking on the ground is generally effective, and it wasn't until I finished the tutorial that I realized it was more on rails than I expected. Which was okay. Things don't have to be perfectly realistic, but sometimes the tutorial has you do stuff you don't use again, as when things taught to the player are only used once (GIVE ITEM, for instance--this is important for text adventures in general, but it distracted me a bit.) Other times, it works a lot better. You learn spells from scrolls, and the tutorial offers shortcuts by saying CAST and then a number. So that works okay, though there's some fiddling to X SCROLL, which gives a disambiguation question, then GET SCROLL, which gives another.

I'm being a bit fussy here, but this sort of thing slows things down and makes the tutorial feel a bit remedial and may also give a player the experience that all parser games force you to fight the parser. It seems fixable, though, as I think Adventuron has "does the player mean"-style coding syntax. And it's hardly fatal. But it's there.

So you go through the library, generally using one scroll to find the next, sometimes asking the librarian at the front about things. I got stuck there as I didn't fully spell out an item I needed. I managed to ask about (Spoiler - click to show)STOREROOM, STOREROOM DOOR, DOOR and KEY, without asking for the right thing. One hint also seemed to be misplaced--there's a plant you need to get by to read something on the desk, but the clue as to what verb to use is in a note on the desk. Then later I assumed I had another action was implicit. So the game feels a bit pedantic with what you need to do, even for a tutorial jam.

It's still got its share of fun, though. Once I was done, I was left wishing there was more of it. The spellcasting mechanic is well done, and the puzzle in the restricted area was foreshadowed nicely. Once things clicked, they clicked. And while I noticed occasional bugs (blank responses to retrying things that pushed the game forward) and also one scroll that kept reappearing if you searched the bookshelf twice, the world was well-built enough that the author can and probably will fix that sort of thing quickly, rendering parts of this review obsolete. (I never did figure (Spoiler - click to show)what the bucket or the water spell was for, either.)

But this is one of those games where I found a lot of quibbles because I was glad to pay attention. I could definitely do with an expanded version featuring more of an emphasis on exploring a logically laid-out library (e.g. rooms/branches for different subjects or combining spells) and less on fiddling with the parser.

Kobold in Search for Family, by tosxychor

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Satisfying if slightly bumpy, May 14, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: TALP 2022

I admit the title put me off a bit. The wrong preposition could signal much more serious problems. But fortunately the game turned out not just satisfactory but satisfying for me, even though some of the puzzles would wind up forcing me to wangle more than average.

The plot is simple. You, as a young kobold, fall off a cart and wind up in a human city. Since humans don't like kobolds, you need to sneak around. The first puzzle seems simple: find a disguise to blend in. Except it's not that easy! And that's where some custom verbs, along with USE X ON Y syntax (something I'm a big fan of), kick in. One custom verb in particular is clued and makes sense, and it's phased out as you solve puzzles.

You also have SEARCH MEMORY to see if you need to do anything in a location. It's interesting to require such a long command for hints--it certainly deterred me for going to spoilers. However, sometimes I went in for a spoiler when I didn't need to. I had the puzzle figured, but I didn't quite have the right syntax, so I wound up checking if I was on the right track. I was, and things seemed clued well enough, but this broke immersion a bit despite SEARCH MEMORY avoiding fourth walls. For instance, one puzzle requires USE X ON Y, but I didn't take X because X seemed kind of heavy and similar to another object I couldn't pick up. So I went with a bit of parser trial-and-error, but fortunately, there were very few errors to make.

There are also a few auto-deaths with timed puzzles where humans are getting closer. You just have to leave and return to reset the timer, but it's enough to create atmosphere. I wound up running ahead too fast after solving one non-timed puzzle, not realizing a useful item I left behind. So I thought "okay, okay, timed puzzle" while it happened, but it had a knock-on effect: I was that kid, running ahead, looking for their family, not taking the time to get centered and see everything that could help.

The timed puzzles start out pretty easy (just take something and leave) but the final puzzle requires a bit of prep beforehand. In one case, using a verb with an implicit object not only gives a reject but uses a turn. That's not too bad, as you can auto-save, but it's not very hospitable. I also worried I'd gotten in an unwinnable state when I seemed to have consumed an item I didn't, due to a reject message ((Spoiler - click to show)the game says you burned the plain stick, though it's still in your inventory).

Nevertheless, what was going on was pretty clear. There were a few "you can't quite do that" moments that forced me to make logic leaps that were generally pleasing once I pushed on to the next room. And while it's pretty linear, there are clues of side locations once you're stuck, and you'll realize you're stuck. The final puzzle has probably been seen and done before, but it's well done. At what I didn't know was the final room at the time, I felt the game might be ruined if it dragged on too much. There was potential for a maze, but the author cut things off, and it made for a strong or at least tidy ending.

So KiSfF has some rough spots, enough a post-comp release could boost it nicely (lots of parser clarification, implicit verbs and verb synonyms, and also custom bits like changing the RESTART from the generic "Would you like to forfeit the game?") but they're the sort that I think if you know of them ahead of time, you'll be prepared to sit back and enjoy it. And the tutorial does a good job of showing you what you can do.

Danse Nocturne, by Joey Jones

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
memories of year-end speedIf ... and (successful) experimentation, May 6, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)

For the first Year-End Speed-IF I participated in, I was a bit worried I wouldn't fit everything in that was suggested. I was assured that was okay. I did my best. There were some really good efforts that put everything together. I was proud to sit down and get writing. I think I got some good laughs. Danse Nocturne got more.

It didn't contain any of the suggested items or plot lines. It was definitely its own thing--not guess-the-verb--more guess the adverb, telling you how you, as a lady being courted, should dance. A lot is clued in the story and text, but you can guess and improvise and go against the story's grain without punishment, too. Guess-the-adverb works rather better and not just because you're spotted the last two letters immediately. There's no real way to gauge, at least at first, how well you're doing or what ending you'll get to the poem. There are several, and based on the stanzas you get, you decide what to do next. Guessing wrong gives an interlude-ish sort of line, which is far cheerier than the standard parser errors.

So this is a sort of guessing game, and there's not necessarily a right answer. You just follow it where it goes, and generally after fewer than twenty adverbs, you get an ending. They run the gamut of emotions.

I don't want to spoil the mechanics too much other than to say it's a Speed-IF game and there's no huge surprise and no need to twist your brain, but there's enough you'll keep engaged and probably won't try experimenting formally and measuring what does what for a while. It's possible, but it ruins the experience if you do so too soon.

So I was impressed and glad Joey broke the rules to bring everyone Danse Nocturne. I wanted to see the source, but I'm glad waiting for the source somehow got lost in the shuffle. I think I had a binary on my computer that I poked at, trying to figure the mechanics, and when I finally noticed the source was up, I was a bit sad to lose some of the mystique. But as a programmer, it was very nice to see relatively simple code (the long topic snippets amuse me--Joey recognized coding conventions were the last thing to worry about when trying to cram content into a 3-hour speed-IF, and he had things set up so adverbs could be added easily) bring complexity into speed-IF, and it reminded me that things are out there, where you don't have to be fancy. There are still rules to be broken the right way. In this case, it's guess-the-word, but it's robust and interesting and engaging, and it's hard to get stuck.

I'm glad I've had Danse Nocturne going in and out of my playing experiences over the years, and even if I'll never write anything like it, it guides the way for the sort of effective rule-breaking I like to see and maybe even do. It's one of those positive oddities where you say "I must know how they do this" but you don't want to know righ t away, as it spoils a bit of the fun.

A Tale of the Cave, by Snoother
This game, though small, filks McGonagall/A poet so bad it makes us glad, May 5, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)

The author told me about this game long ago and I never got around to playing it. He hasn't logged in for 5 years (since 2017) and seems to have disowned some of his early stuff, but this remains. It's a tribute to the very bad poetry of William McGonagall, which is now available in the public domain. I think I went and read it all and forgot to come back to ToC. One thing sticks with me more than any of his poems: someone claimed McGonagall would think twice about moving away from Dundee before the year 1893.

ToC is blandly titled and has little plot, and the only puzzle is an odd one, but that's appropriate, given how McGonagall's poetry itself is not especially rich, and it explores well-known rhymes and overused images. ToC is rather short and all in poetry, with very few rooms and only one real puzzle, but of course too much McGonagall could be, well, too much. At some point, we get the point, and that's that. The cadences are all in the McGonagall style, and years after reading him, I wasn't able to pick out what was original stuff by the author and what was fake. But it was all pleasant. McGonagall wasn't particularly known for his epic poems, and those that were kind of ruined the joke.

There are other, deeper poetry-based games out there, but this is amusing and a nice introduction, and I wish I'd remembered to look at ToC before the author left, so I could say thanks to him.

ToC feels like something that could be expanded a bit for other projects or for other authors (I'd love if someone did an Amanda McKitrick Ros matchup, as bad prose tends to take longer to grate than bad poetry--I believe the author may have let me know about her, too!) and there have certainly been more robust efforts. But this does the job for what it wants to be, and if the author has rejected other juvenilia, he has his reasons, but he was right to keep this up. It's a small joke but a good one.

Barry Basic and the Quest for the Perfect Port, by Dee Cooke

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
The origins of Barry Basic, with some secondhand nostalgia, May 4, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)

It's hard to capture the feeling of discovering a new programming language or system and seeing that, yes, some things you always hoped were simple are, indeed. Or that new feature is a bit different in ways you didn't expect. There's a lot of plowing through stuff and educated guessing until it works. There can only be so many ways to do it wrong, right?

That's usually not so hot in games. The plowing through stuff had better be obfuscated by an adventure, or it should be pretty short, and in BBQPP, you get both. It's a two-room game, with Barry's computer room (old BBC Micro, new ZX Spectrum) and the downstairs room where a new package has come in. So there's a bit of excitement built up here and a bit of nostalgia as well, even though I never had a Micro or Spectrum. I did have various programming books I understood progressively more of, the more I programmed them and ran them and tweaked them, and years later I was excited to a PDF-scanned version of a sequel to a childhood favorite. I'm sure Barry did the same sort of tweaking, too, though I don't think a wash-rinse-repeat in BBQPP itself would've been beneficial.

BBQPP doesn't tell you the commands to win, and while it's a guess-the-verb sort of puzzle, the verb isn't too hard to guess, and it feels like when I'm learning a programming language. I start looking for too-obscure stuff before realizing the solution was simple, and it should be, or nobody would want to move over to the cool new programming language.

The first installment of Barry Basic isn't as robust as the ones that came after it, but it wasn't supposed to be, since it was for a jam with a very specific purpose, and I believe it hit the target there without micromanaging the player. But it captured moments of discovery I remember for my youth. Perhaps it only did so because I had already played and enjoyed the two Barry Basic games (as of May 2022--cross one's fingers) that followed it and wanted just a bit more. But it did so nonetheless and reminded me I didn't need any extraordinary excitement or huge fights to have those moments. I wound up looking a lot of odd programming stuff immediately after playing it.

The Libonotus Cup, by Nils Fagerburg

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Jolly little game where you repair your boat for a big race, January 28, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

The Libonotus Cup provided a nice break from the more serious entries which certainly had their own virtues. It's a pirate race, replete with weapons, treasure and mythical sea dangers. It's not too long, but replayable, and it has very high presentation values. While I put the web version of my game in Parchment, this goes a bit further, with custom CSS. It's a combination of JavaScript and parser and choice I didn't quite grok technically, but they're blended welll, and it's not hellishly complex. You've got a compass rose that changes to show which directions you can go...that sort of thing! It fits in great with the pirate theme, so LC never wore out its welcome with me, and I once quickly got tired of "talk like a pirate" memes and jokes.

Having the hybrid of parser and choice works well for when you have to do things with ship--you're the captain, so it might be a pain to type, say, "Have Joe tie the knots." It cuts through a lot of guess-the-verb, and it's better than the game spoon-feeding you the actions, which would make you feel less like a captain and break immersion. (Compare and contrast with Sting, where the parser does a good job of putting you in a slightly confused player-character's shoes without, well, confusing you.) and the choice options are quite nice especially when you see, okay, it would be hard to guess the verb for certain actions during the race, and at the same time, having the game spoon-feed you them would break immersion. So LC combines the best of different system, and sometimes the text of a hyperlink changes if you click it.

And if races have been done before, the puzzles are enough to make things rather interesting. You start with a damaged ship (you need new sails and a cannon) one day before the big Libonotus Cup race, and worse, Henry, the shipwright who could help you repair it, is dead drunk in a bar. Searching for a cure for drunkenness is an amusing puzzle, and it's been done before. Twice this IFComp, in fact! I wound up feeling a bit silly it took me a while until I realized there were twice the options I thought there were, and this only happened when the way forward seemed like the way back. One clue in the game text made me feel particularly silly, but it was a good one, and it fits in with the good-naturedess of the game, where even the death text and messages add nicely to the story. It's one of those "I don't want to spoil the obvious stuff. Trust me, it's funny" moments.

The race itself is fast-paced, with an emphasis more on knowing which crew member does what than on having to know, say, how precisely to tie a bowline. But given what a big chunk of the game the race is, you sort of need a bit. And contrasting Libonotus Cup's race with Sting, each captures something different–your character's more the one in charge in LC, and so I was glad they were combined together. Each also both got me googling a few terms, because it left me generally curious, and it was more about "Hey, I want to make sure I'm enjoying this fully" rather than "oh geez more studying before I understand things." The basic choices are: take risks maybe going too fast, take risks in battle, or just sail through. Err, don't rock the boat too much. Well, you know what I mean. It's clear what the big-picture choices are.

LC also has a lot more ways to fail and undo on failure (I like the explanation and GUI for undoing choice-based stuff) so that there's really no risk of messing up horribly.

Doing the arithmetic, it looks like you can buy all the best stuff if you perform a small task to get a discount on your new sails. There also seem to be several ways through other encounters. I played chicken, mostly, to survive, and I got second place. While I still have other entries to get through, my sneaky side is plotting how I might get to first. I sensed pretty clearly that some of my on-boat activites made some purchases redundant, or vice versa, and that all seems clued pretty well. Looking at the source, there are some nice surprises and funny deaths indeed. I didn't give myself the time, but I suspect players who are interested will find that time. I like the author's strategy of providing a walkthrough to get "only" second place.

With LC, I don't have much to say about it other than it's well-balanced and just a lot of fun and well thought out. It's innovative technically and well-tested, and I really like the concept of a race that takes a long while, yet manages to be packed into a relatively short game I want to revisit. Maybe I'll even use those cannons the next time through! And while I tried not to think too much about final placings in IFComp, I was happily resigned to LC bumping my entries down a place, because the fun I had was more than worth it. Other authors in our private forum agreed.

The Golden Heist, by George Lockett and Rob Thorman

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Outfoxing Nero is, happily, as fun as you'd expect, January 27, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

I'm always a bit leery of ancient-history or mythology entries in IFComp, because I worry I'll have to know a lot about said history or mythology. Usually, though, I'm proven wrong, and GH was no exception. It deserved the high placing it got, and I'm disappointed I didn't really revisit it before posting this review.

Because this is one of those entries that you just like from the start. So many heists or heist movies rely on crazy technology or gadgets, and--well, that's the case with one of your three companions (inventor, sneak or fighter). But the focus is more on contacting your person on the inside and cashing in on favors your family gained when your father built Nero's huge decadent palace. These days, well, your fortunes are reduced. So you need to rob Nero's vaults and get out. Seems easy enough, since nobody likes Nero, but on the other hand, everyone has good reason to fear him.

Of course there are complications. This is one game I wish I'd seen sooner so I could have looked at more paths through. I can't really speak for historical accuracy, but I appreciate that they didn't take something too obscure, and they didn't put in too many gross details about Nero's legendary overindulgence. I had no clue how many characters were real and who was added for flavor. I wasn't particularly worried. Those that appeared, like the Captain of the Guard, often knew me or my companion, and I saw connections as to how they would maybe interact with others I might take in the future. And a few surprise twists made sense--there are a few once you get in the vault!

The dialogue's also very good. It could easily fall into "look at us, we're making fun of cocktail parties," but the tension of looking for the right person to say the code-phrase to helps avoid that. The misdirection and potential false positives make for quite a story, and thrown into all this is how your companion has made enemies at the party.

I took Fabricius, the inventor, and he seemed to have the right amount of "do I have to" and "you can't make me" and even pushed back when I asked for hints, which worked far better than a fourth-wall voice saying "Are you sure you want to X?" Fabricius had some crazy ideas, too, and I did so want to try them out to see how they'd fail, but then I didn't want the story to end early. Hooray for save points to revisit later. While his storyline was surreal and had an anachronism, that anachronism worked!

A scan of the game text, along with the authors' postmortem, suggests a balance to each of the three companions and how you deal with them that makes things replayable. I wish I'd spent more time doing so before this review was up, but the gist is--there are several bad ends, and you can ditch them or be ditched. Incompetence can be punished, and your choices along the way also affect what happens.

The story makes liberal use of timed text, which you can thankfully click, and I also found the music pleasant and unobtrusive. It doesn't call attention to itself, and it changes just right.

I escaped with nothing but the knowledge I'd performed a successful heist, and yet I'd had my fill of excitement and entertainment. I panicked when I had a priceless relic, because I figured I'd be arrested for just having it. I guess that is why I have to rely on games like this instead of becoming an actual criminal. GH is as impressive as its first impression, and it ended too quickly for me, which was a surprise since I played it near the end of the IFComp gauntlet and was just trying to get through all the games. That speaks to how entertaining it was for me.

Sting, by Mike Russo

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Memories built around an unexpected nuisance, January 24, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

Sting, which I beta-tested, is a slice-of-life game that never really intrudes on you or forces you to empathize. It never portrays the autobiopgraphical character as too outgoing or too deserving of your sympathy in a harsh society, or too woe-is-me-I-was-dumb-when-younger, or whatever. The main character's sister is clearly more outgoing and than the main character. But they have a sort of bond through Sting, which explores that and how they see less of each other over time and develop their own lives, but there's still an odd fulcrum.

Perhaps what I liked most about Sting was that it had the right distance. It didn't lean in on you with a Big Message or a Story You Had to Like, but it also didn't go into trivia you felt bad not caring about. It invited me to find my own memories and not worry if they were more or less profound than the author's. This isn't always the case with autobiographical works. They can either be too flippant, or too "you need to listen up for the good of society." These still work in their own way, but with Sting, I felt encouraged to imitate it badly if need be. It took a while after testing it and writing a review in the authors' forum.

That's a general assessment, but I also don't want to spoil too much. Part of the enjoyment is the discovery of something else as you guess how the scene is going to end. The boat race is funny and navigates the terminology well (I enjoyed both finishing last and second.) It has a nice balance of giving you an idea of what's going on and not forcing you to understand the terminology. Getting a player to feel lost is a tricky business, because too much, and they hit alt-F4. I definitely didn't. There's the feel that the people you're racing with aren't going to rub it in, and you've been there before, and you'd really like to do the best you can, but you just don't have the skill, yet. Maybe one day. (There is a way to win. It requires foreknowledge of what goes on. I think I'm close to figuring it out.) It was the most interesting and involving part of Sting to me, because backing up and putting on my game designer hat, I can picture what a hash I'd make of trying to show a player-character in a chess game against someone two or three hundred points higher rated than them. The terminology would be pretty horrible. Which is a bit confusing in the boat race, but not too confusing. Your sister yells at you what to do if you mess up.

The other bits are tougher to describe without spoiling, but the first scene, where you are very young, is well done. An object disappears if you try to examine it, but it's not surreal or crazy or anything. It reminded me of a bee sting I had when very young, and how I avenged myself killing a few bees after that. Yes, it wasn't their fault. Yes, mosquitos still got to me anyway. Yes, I grew out of it.

My later memories of bees are a bit more pedestrian, too: urban legends (?) of the bee in a beer can that stung someone's throat (one more reason not to drink beer, kids!) or bees at cookouts, or even at college football tailgates, especially when my family found lots of cans to recycle at the local Alcoa plant, and then how there weren't any when we moved to Evanston, because crowds were smaller and Northwestern was stricter about litter. I even had a beehive stuck in a dryer exhaust vent outside my condo. They liked the warmth, I guess. The reader may have stories and memories, too, as bees aren't a huge nuisance, but they're there, but not enough to become pedestrian. And certainly when I see kids get upset about bees nearby, that brings back memories. Learning to deal with them took some excitement from life.

The main events work for me because a bee sting isn't quite getting insulted or breaking a bone. It's embarrassing and painful and briefly debilitating, yet not fully embarrassing or painful or inconvenient long-term. And certainly every time I get a rash, even, I think back to the only bee sting I had, as well as the near misses, and the memory of adults taking out a hornet's nest down a gravel road to a pool I loved to visit as a kid, as well as learning the difference of bees vs. hornets and being very very scared of hornets for a while!

But back to the story: you have other small motivators to push the story forward later, too, like groceries getting warm (I almost missed this! Taking the bus to my favorite discount grocer, with good sales on refrigerated/fresh goods, got a lot riskier during COVID,) and the shift from the second-last to final scene made a lot of sense when I slowed down to stop plowing through the testing.

We all have a story like this. It's one we suspect everyone has, until we talk with people and realize it's sort of unique to us. Maybe it's parades or tricycles or poison ivy or even loose nails that tear up shoes or clothes. I'm left slightly jealous that someone could have these memories organized so well, because I don't with regard to a sibling, but Sting left me to sit down and piece through how I'd make a story of my own, of things I remembered from much younger that popped up again and again. They're that profound, but they were mine. For instance, every few years I kick an exercise weight buried under a pile of clothes. Or perhaps I remember the short walk and bus trip to the vet, where I got to show off a cat or two, and that time during COVID when my bus pass expired and I had to run to the vet. And perhaps a lesser work than Sting would have gotten me close to this or made me say "I bet I have that too," but Sting made it a lot more likely. I think and hope there will be such works in IFComp in the future that won't have to compare themselves to Sting, and they won't need you to be blown away by them, but they will be very worth telling, and they'll bring back memories for me and others.

NOTE: A couple days before I revised and posted this review to IFDB, I realized there was a thread I'd seen in chess games. It's sort of my own story, but I want to tell it here, because without Sting, I might not have made the links. I'll spoiler it, for those indifferent to chess or who just want me to stick to the game. Maybe Sting will do the same for you, or your own hobbies or phobias or bugaboos.

(Spoiler - click to show)When I was looking to get my rating up to 2000, someone showed me a weapon against the Sicilian Defense. One line went (sorry, notation is unavoidable!) 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. c3 Nf6 4. Be2 and if ...Nxe4?? 5. Qa4+! picking off the knight. I'll spare you the opening theory, but the point is, you set a few traps, and if your opponent knows them, you still don't have to face the sort of openings they can really prepare. Grandmasters wouldn't play or fear this, but then, I don't play many grandmasters.

A year later I played Ron, a chess hustler who went to my high school 20+ years before me (later Harvard--I didn't go there,) and he fell into the trap. But he started laughing and joking around and pointing out how he might be coming back and things I should watch out for. His extra pawn controlled the center! My extra piece maybe wasn't doing much! And so forth. I wondered if he was making fun of me, but we got to be friends, and he encouraged me and showed me other things.

But I gave up on chess for a long time and didn't see Ron my one college summer. In 2012 I read he'd drowned in an undertow, just offshore from his friends playing chess. And I never got to ask him if he fell into that trap on purpose. There were still a lot of lessons, from that and others, so it didn't matter, and it was fun to imagine either way. When I got back into online chess in mid-2021, I didn't want to face preparation, so I went for the system above. I guess I did the stinging--sort of. Sometimes I'd be shocked someone rated 2000 would fall into a trap and wondering if I didn't really deserve the win. Sometimes they'd bounce back, and sometimes they wouldn't. Black's center pawn mass made for an attack or tricky endgames. I even had some slip-ups where I blundered back against people rated 300 points lower. One pretty strong opponent fell into the trap twice--oops! (I've done that, too.) But no matter what happened, I saw the possibilities in the game, and I welcomed the fight, not worrying if I should be winning quickly or I deserved to cash in on the trap. It just encouraged me to take my chances better the next time I lost material early with a silly blunder, too. Or, for that matter, to bounce back better if I flaked in real life. I didn't feel too dumb or clever after the computer dissected the possibilities I missed, for better or worse. So there were a lot of wrinkles.

Ron wasn't related to me by blood. He probably did this for other people, too. But Sting helped remind me of him and that silly opening trap and pull my experiences apart to realize a few things, and it provided some closure.

Closure, by Sarah Willson

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Clever and cute, but I'm just glad it's not TOO immersive, January 18, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

Closure is a potentially unsettling take on the whole escape-the-room genre, but it still has wisdom and humor. Your friend has just instant-messaged you for instructions to look through her ex-boyfriend's room to find a photograph of her. It's in the last place you could possibly look, of course, and along the way you and Kira learn a lot about the relationship. Using the thought bubbles as instant-message text in a parser game makes Closure stylistically pleasing, too. I wasn't surprised to learn that one person focused on the story and the other on the CSS to get things going, because both parts are well done and substantial.

This division of labor generally leads to a game that places well in IFComp and deserves to, and Closure is no exception, even if the plot may seem in the "that's something I'd never do" department. I can't say I'm comfortable with the thought of the player helping someone rummage through an ex-boyfriend's stuff, but first, I've had moments of nosiness where I didn't have the will-power about far less than a romantic interest. Also, I suspect Kira wasn't in the mood to hear "just get out, already." This could've gotten creepy fast, but I'm going to go with "friend got emotionally blackmailed into support and is trying to minimize the damage," because I think Closure does a pretty good job of establishing who's mostly at fault in the breakup. Kira, the broken-up friend, gets what she deserves for snooping around, but she's not totally humiliated.

At the end I was just sort of glad I didn't have to put up with Kira any more, but I had to admit it was a clever idea and well-executed. I may just have been put off by things a bit because I've had people who shouldn't have looked through my stuff do so and provide a really horrible justification later. But Closure does a good job of giving Kira what she deserves without going overboard on the humiliation, and that's impressive. (She's probably better off without her boyfriend, too, as we learn.)

Logically one wonders why Kira would need to call a friend to ask what to do next when searching through a room that Kira herself is in and her friend is not. But la couer a ses raisons and all that. People ask for support in weird ways, and it's not so much about the actual instructions as wanting to hear "I understand you need someone to listen" while leaving it unsaid that what they're listening to is a bit off their rocker. Of course, all Kira wants to find is a photograph. She's pretty sure it's there. It's up to the reader's imagination to figure why. And of course it's hidden, and it's a bit sad where it turns up, and Kira needs to look around just a bit more than you'd think she would. And her boyfriend TJ's new flame's name also led me to wonder if there was a Call Me Maybe style twist at the end. The main twist, to me, was that TJ was telling little white lies to Kira that you couldn't blame him for, and then he got sick of having to keep track of them as Kira began seeing inconsistencies, and, well, I sympathize with him even though I've never met him. Not that he's blameless--he moved on pretty, uh, significantly. I think we've all had people we tell little white lies to, to keep them from blowing up, and then they turn around on us and cut us down for not being truthful. And it's very good that Closure gives us TJ to empathize with, flawed though he is, to counterbalance Kira's burglary.

The fear in Closure is purely psychological. There is no potential confrontation. But Kira suffers enough embarrassment and disappointment when she realizes she hasn't been a good person. But at the end, I wondered if TJ ever looked for that photograph or even knew or cared if it was missing. However, though Kira and TJ are probably best off not looking back at each other, revisiting Closure provided me some learning moments, both from the CSS and the actual plot that reminded me of less-than-savory people I once thought I couldn't do better than.

Dungeon Detective, by Wonaglot, Caitlin Mulvihill

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Upside down and straightforward at the same time, January 13, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)

Some IFComp entries give you a "why didn't anyone do this sort of thing before" feel, and Dungeon Detective definitely falls into this category. It espouses no great philosophical views or breakthroughs, and while well laid-out, it's not super technically proficient. But it is a smooth, fun experience, with amusing characters, and I'm glad of all the bases it covered.

You, as a gnoll with somewhat broken English, offer your detective skills to a dragon who is worried treasure is missing. They have enough, of course. Dragons aren't greedy, at least not in the game-world. But they want things to be safe for others that dwell in the dungeon. You look through for clues and rumors, and there are five pieces of evidence that you need in order to nail down the perpetrators' identities. None of this is too esoteric or demanding, and the exploration feels just about right. There's no grinding for experience or anything, either, and DD even tracks the clues you've found so far, so you don't have to.

The end result, when the dragon interrogates you about your findings, is satisfying whether the dragon's convinced or not. They are a sporting type, so even if you mess up, nothing horrible happens to your character.

DD is the sort of game that could've been overwritten easily and beaten the joke to death. But it is also not underwritten. It hits at a lot of neat points. Whether or not you get the joke before officially solving the case, there are good laughs to be had. It's all well-constructed, and I think I played a post-comp version so I didn't encounter the bugs earlier reviewers reported. It's one of those entries where you have a relatively simple joke that won't baffle people, but it has enough side passages that it's legitimately fulfilling, and it's not just a joke.

I worry I potentially spoiled the experience with what I've written. But I don't think it's totally spoiled. I can't be the only person glad 1) that it exists and 2) that it was done well and got the expected laughs and then some. As someone who'd be exhausted if I went in for super-deep philosophy all the time but doesn't like vacuous entertainment, I found DD fit my needs well.

The Dead Account, by Naomi Norbez

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Death, social media, and burial in/by social media, January 8, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

The Dead Account closes some of the loose ends for Weird Grief (WG), the author's other entry in IFComp 2021. You work at HiveKind, a social media network, and it has algorithms to detect if a member has died. A new update means their accounts must be closed and deleted. It's your first account, and it's pretty straightforward. The closed account, you-the-reader soon find, is Mike, whose funeral kicks off WG.

Through a list of chat logs we see people asking why Mike hasn't responded to their latest text. He's usually good about it. We find out how Mike dies, and the characters get closure for his untimely death.

I'm curious how I would've reacted if I hadn't played WG first. Learning about Mike's lifestyle later would, I hope, not have mattered. But TDA answered some questions: why Mike died, how people miss him, and what the fallout is. And it deals with some issues I've long thought about. I'd like to leave something cool on the Internet. Are my games enough? Are those game guides I wrote for my favorite Apple games enough? And how do we deal with people dying?

It wasn't a huge problem at first. But it will be as time goes by. It was certainly sad to me that Mike's death coincided with the new policy so soon after. And certainly I can empathize with the characters needing to talk to Mike. I've left comments on social media platforms to people who've probably long since left. I don't expect a response back, of course. I just need to say it, and maybe followers paying attention will be reminded of or discover someone pretty neat. Or if something pops up on Twitter saying someone lost their pet or, worse, someone they love, I leave a like. It's just important.

As for Mike himself? He's special in his circle of friends but not Someone Super Special. He's not especially brilliant. He seems to deserve a memorial, though. And I think most people at HiveKind or wherever would like to keep them up, because they will have friends they lost. Yet at the same time, disk space is finite, even as technology improves. There's going to be an upper limit, even as disk space gets cheaper. And it's not practical to resurrect stuff like GeoCities. What do we do then? This isn't as critical an issue as, say, how overpopulation may drain the Earth's resources, but it's impossible not to care about a bit. You feel as though the characters should have something, and even though they could make up their own MikeBot, it wouldn't be nearly the same as pinging his HiveKind account when they knew he wouldn't respond.

The closest I've come to this is having to get pictures from my old PhotoBucket account. I kept getting "MANAGE YOUR ACCOUNT OR LOSE YOUR PICTURES" messages. Some pictures were ten years old. I was able to download everything quickly and efficiently, just as the characters in the story got 24 hours to download chat messages to remember Mike. But I also kept getting the MANAGE YOUR ACCOUNT message even after I signed up for and canceled a membership. It took Photobucket backing off before I was finally able to hit delete for good. They were on my hard drive, but I still wanted them Out There.

TDA brought up these disturbing issues without rubbing your face in them and certainly reminded me of the things I really wanted to do. And while I wish there would've been more of a story around the moderator who made their decision whether to follow policy, I think the author is within their rights to keep the focus on Mike's circle of friends.

TDA is one of those entries where you don't have a lot to say, as Getting All Literary ruins the point. You realize these are things you think about, and these are things people quite unlike you (such as, for me, the characters in WG and TDA) think about. You're glad others do, even though they're uncomfortable. It makes other thoughts easier to face as well and removes the "I might be weird for thinking this, but ..." overhead from some of our tougher thoughts. There are plenty of entries in IFComp that give us what we wanted, and we should not begrudge them. Some, like TDA, finger stuff we didn't know we wanted to discuss, or we just forgot.

extraordinary_fandoms.exe, by Storysinger Presents

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Friends + Learning CSS = healing and growth, December 31, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

EFE in the big picture can be tied up pretty quickly. It's a story about someone who finds friends and relief on a Discord server. They learn to code. They become a part of something. Their life takes a big jump. The different dialogue choices seems trivial. If you're worldly wise and cynical, it's all a bit too simple. And yet it works. Maybe it would wear out its welcome if I read more like it, but as of now, I can take it for what it is, and certain parts resonated with me. A lot of times I caught myself saying "No, no, it's all more complex than that." Strictly speaking, yes. But then, the voice that said that was partially influenced by Authority Figures (including a few younger than me) from way back when, who muddied things on purpose and who didn't let me enjoy small victories. They were melodramatic and oversimplified in their own way, which was far worse. And EFE helped me push back on that, so I'm glad it's there.

It's presented as a sequence of brief chats where pinecone logs into a Discordant chat server, introduces themselves, hits it off with other fans of C-Project, which is a totally fictitious anime, and begins doing some role playing and offers to help with what is a pretty downtrodden wiki. They doesn't know coding, but others are happy to help them learn. Pinecone doesn't know everything about CSS and thus makes makes oversights, and that's okay. This was probably the part that hit most for me, because my experience with coding was first, learning BASIC, and then feeling guilty I wanted to learn about graphics or other neat stuff to make games instead of the Real Stuff that Pushed Research Forward and Took Advantage of Given Opportunities. I remember being in a summer program after 8th grade where other kids and I learned Pascal, and the instructor was noticeably cool on me wanting to just make branching-story games. Even back then there was a lot of one-upmanship, of bragging about what they knew without passing the knowledge on, of playing both sides of the coin: "Boy! This is hard! I must be smart to figure it out!" and "Boy! How'd you not know that? I know that! Everyone knows that!" It's nowhere near the abuse Pinecone suffers, of course, but it is there, and it's unnecessary, and those CSS guru-ing sessions worked well for me as a reader and person. I'm glad it's out there, and I'm a bit jealous I missed out on it.

It never struck me that the "accelerated" class and competition were, in fact, inadequate for my needs, because it wasn't just about helping you get ahead, but about competition, and the people at the bottom got looked down on. Pinecone gets that every day from their father. So I can relate. For me it was just a "fun" summer program and a high school class that left me thinking I wasn't a "real" coder. It persisted through college when I learned HTML on my own but felt I didn't have the passion for real programming that other students in the computer lab did. And later when part of code reviews, I was unable to disassociate the jostling for power and "haha look what you did wrong" or "You DO know THIS, right? EVERYBODY knows this!" or "this is easy, easy enough you better not ask me again if you forget" from legitimate "hey, look how to do this" or "hey, let's throw in some details." It's not easy to blend just showing someone cool stuff with pushing them forward, and while EFE doesn't explore this rigorously, it does establish that role-playing, etc., can lead to people wanting to learn to code, and no, that code doesn't have to be super-abstract or impressive, and part of learning to code is, in fact, learning what shortcuts people ahead of you took and which ones worked for you. There's a parallel with making friends: some people act as though it is very hard to make real, good friends. It is, in a way. But people who act like coding or friendship is a series of trials they deserve to dish out to others? Well, that's not abuse, but it's certainly not a good thing.

And Pinecone seems to be learning to accept this. While I think there were too many choices that were too-similar, having a few, especially between plain thanks and "gee, really, wow" established that Pinecone is the sort of person who worries over choices that don't make a difference, because they can't help it. Perhaps if they said something different, their parents would've behaved better. Really, Pinecone should pay more attention to their own family! Of course, when Pinecone needs to say something different, it had better not be TOO different, because that gets you looked at funny, or whatever. We've all had people who played these mind games, where we just have to say the right thing, but we have no chance. And it gets in the way of accepting situations devoid of such mind games. Some, I found hard to accept at first, or if I stuck with them, I rationalized why they wouldn't last. Pinecone is able to accept this in the end. I've learned to, too. It seems to be fertile ground for a lot of stories, and I wish EFE would have explored it a bit more.

One thing I want to add–I usually hate timed text, but it works well here. So often in twine it feels like an implicit "Hey! Listen up! No, you can listen up better than THAT," but here, it signifies a legitimate break when Pinecone disconnects from Discordant and probably doesn't want to, but real life must take over for a bit. As the story goes on, I wondered what sort of awfulness Pinecone's parents were up to each time Pinecone logged off.

The result was a work that didn't get in my personal space telling me whom I have to sympathize and why. In fact, it's nice to picture Pinecone learning how to deal with personal space and not worry about getting in others', both implicitly and with any creative works. It still gave me something to write about: here and for my own private journals. I got some good snarky lines in at people that don't remember me. I wrote stuff about learning coding that doesn't belong here. The main thing? Just knowing that "simple" games do, indeed, work, and you don't have to be a super-brilliant coder to make others' lives better, makes me happy. I don't necessarily need a super behind-the-scenes look. I just still appreciate the affirmation that not really being able to get stuff done around certain people isn't my fault. Like the guy in the accelerated summer class who got called "Yes, Sir, Mr. Studly Aaron, Sir." No, I wasn't lazy or jealous of his brilliancy. Yes, I'm kind of glad I forgot his last name so I can't Google it.

So my take-away is that the fandom itself isn't extraordinary, though Pinecone's jump in life quality is pretty phenomenal when given something like normalcy. Pinecone seems to have learned that sort of interaction shouldn't be seen as extraordinary. Perhaps the work is too black-and-white about abusive parents and a supportive teen social group and how quickly things can change. Perhaps I'm jealous I never had that fully supportive teen group. Let's just say there were oddities in my family life, and kids in the Smart Classes said "boy, in case you're not lying, you're dumb to sit there and accept that. Oh, also, shut up and be grateful for advanced classes." Or it's too optimistic, about the turnaround Pinecone's friends help her achieve, and Things Don't (Usually) Work That Way. Yes, there are probably diminishing returns to scale if I would read too many similar works. Yes, reading too many might put me in a dreamland that prevents me from doing stuff.

But it is worth finding a work, or a community, that hits that sweet spot just when you got cynical, where you seem to be good at something and it feels like it's no big deal, but it is, to other people. It is believable, far more than the standard "if you believe it, you can achieve it" melodramas with a rags-to-riches story. Someone quite simply finds acceptance, acceptance most of us think we need, but we figure it's not enough. Here, it is. Pinecone finds a niche and doesn't worry about who has more Programming Experience Points or whatever. Maybe Pinecone never takes on super-big projects or reaches the top. But Pinecone finds acceptance and peace. And even though I felt EFE may have cut corners or left something out (maybe for a sequel, perhaps, when the author has had more time to reflect on things,) I want to label it as a Good Thing well worth looking through for someone who feels blocked from learning new coding. Yes, it felt too general at times, and I felt the author may've holding back the sort of important details that are hard to write down. Perhaps exploring Pinecone's doubt more, or what their parents would think of such a project, or Pinecone fixing other stuff they missed, would be a good idea for a follow-up work.

Flattened London, by Carter Gwertzman

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
An uplifting volume, December 30, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021 extras

Flattened London, from the cover and title, provides a mashup of Flatland and Fallen London. It's far more the second than the first, going in more for a Zork I-style treasure hunt, replete with treasure chest to dump stuff in, than any sort of mathematical theory or knowledge. I have to admit I was hoping for the first, but I wasn't disappointed with the second. The items you must find are suitably odd and droll and entertaining, and so it kept my interest quite well. You will probably enjoy it if you go in looking for adventure and not abstract enlightenment. That's not to say it's mathematically illiterate--lines like "Eight candles form an image of a cube" work quite will.

It does seem to have everything: a world through a mirror, a river of death where you play chess, and a mystery and near-conspiracy theories about the third dimension, which is still a touchy subject. And it has good laughs, too. But for pure-puzzle enthusiasts, you may want to know that a lot revolves around finding the right books to read and then following or interpreting instructions--even for the chess! Mapping is a moderate challenge, though it's fun to see the full world being built and all the odd locations. In one case, there's a MasterMind style puzzle. It's more about the story than anything else. And it has some mathy puns in that will make you groan happily.

So if you don't want to approach the trickiness of, say, deriving the Quadratic Formula, then FL will probably appeal. You start off as an equilateral triangle (classes aren't played up as strongly in FL,) and you visit Mr. Pages, a bookseller who wants a book. Clearly for collection purposes--or is it? You seem to have to visit some pretty odd places, including some through a mirror which provide you transport to a flipside. I'm not clear on precisely how the mirror works, but you can only enter it in some places, and it's a handy device for getting out of areas with no way back. It feels just a little illicit, especially as you help others use it before you finally have cause to, yourself.

Things get more illicit with a summoning ceremony, too. To get there, you'll need to go through a maze and navigate some seedy polygons with various different sides, even bringing two together for a common purpose. Many descriptions are funny. There's a very bad painting that hides something obvious after a puzzle is already completed, and it's a nice touch. The different endings for the different hats (there's more than one per hat) you choose at the beginning make things click, too--each profession has a different reason why understanding the third dimension would be useful. And the ending command, well, I can't spoil it, and even if you guess it, it's fully appropriate.

Perhaps one problem with FL is that you may be overwhelmed by a huge inventory--part of that is ameliorated by how only certain items fit in the trophy case (it'd be nice to have a scoring mechanism, even just "1 of 13," to give you an idea of progress, as well as some foreshadowing by your trophy case that this isn't just a treasure hunt.) And the game tries to destroy certain items that are no longer useful. But inventory munging does add a degree of discomfort to an otherwise entertaining and robustly whimsical affair.

And it is a lovely combination of nonsense and speculation that could've fallen apart quite easily. While I had trouble remembering certain hows and whys on multiple play-throughs, I did play through it more than once. And if it is more Fallen London than Flatland, and I played it more for the second, the fun is very real and a good Fallen London advertisement, even as fan-art, for noninitiates. It's the sort of imagination that makes me feel at home, and it doesn't try too hard to be odd. If you wonder and hope it is for you, it is. I didn't find my enjoyment ruined by having to go to a walkthrough.

D'ARKUN, by Michael Baltes

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
atmospheric mystery/horror game in Dialog, December 30, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

As D'ARKUN combines horror and mystery, which are two of my least preferred genres, I'll mention I still enjoyed it, because it gave me several good chances to. I'll tackle the programming side first. On realizing D'ARKUN was, in fact, in Dialog, I realized it was the first Dialog game I played. I had clear chances, since others have appeared in IFComp. I left my first run-through thinking "Wow! How did the author do that?" to some parts I found unusually smooth. Now the programming side is well more than competent. It certainly gave me ideas of stuff to do in Inform. And I think Dialog uses very well the information of what programmers need and use from the Z-machine, as well as more data on what players find improves their own experience. So Dialog and such aren't bound to support arcane ways of doing things just because Infocom did it that way, when maybe Infocom only did it that way due to hardware limitations. Hooray, progress!

But there's neat stuff which the author seems to deserve credit for. The big boost I saw in D'ARKUN was the "find" command, which helps make a big in-game world such as D'ARKUN feel much more accessible. FIND X moves you to X's location, if you can make it there. This is something I implemented as a debug command in some games, but it was tricky, and it felt smooth here. It even rejected my attempts when I dropped climbing gear needed to bridge gaps or travel between towns. This all set the table for a much more pleasant experience than I feared, but it would have been good in Inform as well.

D'ARKUN takes place in a small set of villages near the north tip of what was formerly East Germany–a great spot for an obscure, distant cult to take hold and go about their business for years without anyone noticing. You generally ride your bike between them – I'd have liked maybe a menu or shortcuts here so I didn't have to type "ride to altenkirchen," but I did enjoy not having to do this too much. Though I was maybe sort of hoping for nudges to say, okay, you spent enough time here.

After a good competent start on my part, I went to the walkthrough very early on this one. Enough was signposted in the game and not the walkthrough that I enjoyed reading the auxiliary materials that popped up to give atmosphere. They provided stronger atmosphere than some passive verb construction during action sequences ("some hands are grabbing you") – which looks like a translation thing that's easily fixed. And I think sometimes it was hard to follow the why's of the walkthrough. I had to search instead of look at a lot of things. HINT mentions this, but still, it was a bit of a nuisance to me and one of the relics of ancient text adventures that is on the author and not Dialog.

The puzzles that appeared were not super-esoteric. A lot revolved around using the climbing gear judiciously. But stuff like mixing the right liquid for the final bit felt like trial and error. Still, once I dropped down into the final tomb-ish area that there seemed no way back from, it was appropriately creepy, and the escape was believable. The bad guy was, indeed, bad (a variant on "What you think is evil is actually power you're just too scared to use" that always seems to be effective) and information along the way built up to who he was and what he was trying to do. Diaries scattered around also gave me an idea of past events, and perhaps the most interesting part for me was a chair you could sit in for a psycholgogical evaluation, which was simultaneously creepy and useful.

I'm at a loss to say too much about mystery/horror games, as I don't really grok their conventions and so forth. Other reviewers note D'ARKUN is even more in the Anchorhead vein than I'd guessed, while still being its own game. I can't say, because I haven't played Anchorhead--in fact, Cragne Manor with a walkthrough was enough for me! But D'ARKUN plus a walkthrough (even one that doesn't get all the points) worked as a positive experience for me, as an outsider. The password-protected PDF, of a map you unlock on your second day (D'ARKUN uses sleeping after performing tasks as a way to provide chapter breaks of a sort,) is a neat way to make sure people don't spoil too much too quickly. I did find the light-requiring puzzles tricky given the time you could keep the lamp lit. I wound up save-and-restoring, even with the refill I found later. But they weren't too bad, and I was able to accept not seeing a lot of the game beyond the walkthrough that got you half the points. I had some idea of places I hadn't explored, and the ending was satisfying enough.

Taste of Fingers, by V Dobranov

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Once you get it, ... eyowch!, December 30, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

If you may need to play something through twice, it's best if 1) it's relatively short and 2) it gives you clear alternate paths through and 3) it's rewarding to play through, because you see something you couldn't have expected to the first time. ToF is three for three here. Simple arithmetic makes it clear that re-reading through is constructive: at two critical points, you get to choose two of three memories for a tourist/businessman (their business seems more than a bit shady) in China to follow, then the story pushes forward. So if you say "Wait, what?" to the story at the end, as I did, the next time through, you can stabilize with one of the memories you've seen, then push forward with one you haven't. I was going a bit fast. So this was, in fact, an effective way to tell me: hey, look again, you missed some clues. I did.

ToF, ostensibly at first about zombies the narrator sees on a trip to China, has a twist. The person is revealed to be less than saintly. They are holed up. They know they can't go outside. Then the viewpoint switches to quasi-military personnel hunting down a rather big zombie in a coffee shop ... and we can assume the original narrator is that zombie, and they saw the personnel in their Hazmat suits as zombies of a sort, because they do look alien. We learn there's a virus that turns only certain ethnicities into zombies.

This would have felt ripped from the headlines in 2020 or this year, but it was apparently written a few years before. I certainly didn't need this sort of scare about how COVID could be worse (my basic fear was it would mutate into something more contagious like, well, the Delta or Omicron variant.) And, in a way, COVID has targeted a certain sort of person through misinformation. Thankfully hospital staff aren't and don't have to be as ruthless as the exterminators in the story, but there's obviously a toll on them or a temptation to think "this person asked for it." I've certainly long since grown weary of schadenfreude stories about "hey! This idiot promoted misinformation on Facebook, and COVID killed them!" The main character in ToF, it must be said, is worse than average.

Seeing a new vector for how awful COVID could be is, of course, not the sort of uplifting thing anyone's clamoring for right now. But it seems like a logical and nontrivial extension of how the next COVID could be worse, and other passages reminded me of where I can't visit and how and why, and ... well, quite bluntly, I'm glad I'm not the only one having worries, and sometimes when someone else puts their own worries into writing so well, it at least stops the vagueness. There've been all sorts of things COVID has cut short or made annoying: for instance, making the choice to eat something I am missing an ingredient for, or finally getting to not-waste a grocery purchase I made, instead of actually going to the store. And even when at the store, worrying about people who would not wear masks and ignored the one-way signs (bonus points for cell phone yammering) and thus raise more unnecessary risks. Again, the narrator is far, far worse, and the examples I cite are not worth getting worked up on a personal level, but ... too many people are like the narrator, and their petty actions may increase the risk all around. ToF's narrator, with his need for adventure despite what must've been frequent and obvious warnings, reminded me of that. It was worryingly pleasing to see him meet his fate at the hands of soldiers who were, conveniently, just doing their jobs, but they sure had fun doing the parts that would put most of us off.

How the monsters appeared in the Wasteland, by V Dobranov

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Very quick and effective, December 30, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

The author, like me, put two entries into IFComp this year. I think I see eye to eye with their methodology, too: don't make anything too long, because there will be more than enough entries, and you don't want to hog the oxygen. Let people revisit if they're interested. And I was, and I was glad to have something not in my genre(s) energize me for the next few entries. They've done well to present everything clearly and not leave any loose ends, except for the ones you need to chase down to find a few interesting details, and the translation is strong. On my first reading through, I thought "Why isn't it WHEN the monsters...?" but on re-reading, I get it. There's a bit of sleuthing to do, because you're not spoon-fed everything. It's that sort of entry that has a bit of everything, even up to causing tension without having any way to get you killed.

It seems HtmaiW is intentionally light on aesthetic details, and I think that's the right choice, because listing the technical specs of whatever armored vehicle you're using to transport the goods, as well as the how and why, would take away from the emotional punch. You are mercenaries doing a job. You don't have a lot of time for the technical stuff. You just have to make sure the power works. And at the start, it doesn't work well. Lights flicker. The fridge compartment's power is flaking, and your orders are to keep the cargo cool–which leaves various macabre suggestions as to what the cargo IS, and why it needs to be moved from the Enclave to the Citadel. It's a weapon, of sorts.

And very quickly, after the first repairs, you realize WHY this run may be so tricky. Nomads want to either steal or destroy your cargo. Again, both possibilities are workable, and your conversation with your android, uh, co-worker, Doho gives a sense of urgency. Yes, you need to fix that door in your vehicle that's on the blink. No, you don't have a lot of time. The vehicle isn't super-huge, but it's big enough to know this is serious business. The player's unfamiliarity with the GUI (well-presented as it is) also contributes to the tension when Doho exhorts you to hurry up. Doho's like that throughout.

And after you shoot down a few stray nomads, you get overwhelmed. Doho, being an android, sees things quite level-headedly up to the end. And it's his physical head you need to preserve, as you need to do certain things to ensure your own safety. This is a good creepy way of giving the player instructions without a full instruction sheet. You know what to do, but you're worried about Doho, even though he's irrelevant in the big picture and knows it. I certainly experienced some fear of "what if I arrived at the Citadel without even Doho's head, with the memory card in it."

Through all this, no mention of monsters, though probably some monstrous behavior and leadership contributed to the whole situation. You just can't call the monsters ... that. And of course, when they appear, they make sure you're safe from the nomads attacking you. It's unclear to me whether Doho predicted the monsters would destroy your potential captors, but either way, they're not the sort of entities to care about memory chips in an android's head.

I was able to escape, and I don't think there's much more, though I had lingering feelings something was missed. I suppose I could not have stopped the monsters from spreading, and I wound up not getting killed, but not much more. I'm curious if I could've done more. I feel like I missed something. Maybe I wanted to do more with or for Doho, or I expected to do more with the toolbelt, which had an interesting interface where links changed colors when you examined it. But HtmaiW was effective even before that. For all the Bad Things that it implies happen behind the scenes, it's the sort of entry that clearly adds to IFComp and won't bog a lot of people down, even if they get stuck fiddling with some mechanics. That's part of the game. It doesn't intimidate you with importancy, but it definitely provides a quick rush. And it has some nice touches, such as small passages in Arabic you can just google-translate, or a choice between Russian and English text, where later the English version gets some Russian text. This just made me smile.

So I think it's well worth a visit. And it definitely feels like there could or even should be a sequel.

Fine Felines, by Felicity Banks

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Many meaningful choices, no bad endings. Oh, cat pictures, too., December 30, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)

I worried about failing to do full due diligence in replaying Fine Felines before sending my final IFDB review. It's not the game's fault, or if it is, it's in the most positive way possible. I just simply didn't want to breed the cats wrong on purpose. And yes, Fine Felines is about a year of breeding cats. Your life's fullness depends on how well you breed them and interact with others. Fortunately, there are no bad endings. But that didn't stop me from worrying about it, having owned a few cats. Fortunately, I read the helpful documentation/cheat sheet, and that started me looking into things. All I can do is say that I read through the source. And I'm glad the author added more breeds for a post-comp version. I think Fine Felines more than served a great purpose as a boost when there were games in genres that weren't especially my thing, the darker-themed ones. So it qualified as a "good-citizen" game, which I define as one that doesn't suck up much oxygen and does much like many shorter games, but it was the only long game to really do so. Which is impressive. I remembered things well once I started looking through the source.

Getting through all the IFComp games is tough, and you need to pace yourself, and I put off reviewing FF largely because I figured I would hit a rut, and it would bring me out, and it did. And it's far more than just cat pictures and even getting to name the kittens your cats breed, if you want. Of course, you can do that. And here I'll add some personal history: I can't say I know much about cat breeding, because my first cats came from a barn in northeast Iowa. One was scared of me for a day before jumping on my computer hard drive tower. Another showed over the years he would obviously have made a terrible barn cat, because he had no interest in fighting. Another, well, the barn owners' daughter brought him in, then they threw him back once she left for college, and he wound up sort of clinging to me when I got the chance at another cat. I heard "why'd you choose HIM?" and wondered, myself, as spent five minutes screaming inside a cage on the short drive back. Then after an hour he went and sat with with my other cat.

And one thing COVID ruined was being able to go out and just see cats for adoption at PetSmart or wherever. Seeing all these cats without any breed actually put me in a position where I prefer non-bred cats, because there are so many out there that just need homes, and comparing what people pay here to the $100 adoption fee is a bit of a shock. Breeding cats isn't big in the USA, certainly not as big as breeding dogs. But I wanted to see a few cats and have something more than just pictures, and I got that with Fine Felines. If it's not full spiritual renewal, it stopped the erosion in a big way.

At the start, your mother has died and left you $10000. You decide to invest that in a business. You have a choice of what sort of materials to choose. I went with most expensive, and everything worked okay. I didn't quite run out of money. But, of course, I (and my in-game character) didn't know anything about cat breeding, so I had to ask. And I wound up having to navigate a neighbor who didn't like cats as well as three people willing to help me get started. I confess I hoped for cat pictures as I asked around.

There's also a revealed diagnosis of fibromyalgia, which brought up more memories than you'd think. I still remember having knee surgery and hearing "What are you doing with crutches? You can walk! Are you just trying for attention?" or even bringing them to the athletic center to do rehabilitation and occasionally getting funny looks or comments. Or maybe feeling guilty moving weights up on a leg machine and still using crutches. So the part discussing where people say "you don't need a wheelchair! You're not really handicapped!" resonated with me--I've also received my share of "don't be grouchy" style encouragement, and the main character would certainly have that since raising cats is unpredictable, and that variance is something you may think about even if you're not officially on the job. So the main character has many such variables, and it's not melodramatic in-game. While they can only be dealt with on a basic level due to IFComp's two-hour time constraints, the way they're presented beat the stuffing out of the standard "ACHIEVE YOUR DREAMS" lecture.

So I went through and got a good ending, or one that seemed good, but they are all good in a way. The standard "if you like this sort of thing, you'll like it" praise applies here. And while I didn't replay this on my computer as much as other entries, I probably replayed it more in my head. But my an intellectual interest in finding "bad" endings got short-circuited here, as having owned cats made it much harder for me to make a Clearly Bad Decision. My heart wanted there to be no real way to mess up, but my head said "The more meaningful decisions, the better!" Similarly, my head enjoys games or problems where being a nice person is not enough, but here, my heart wouldn't want that. I mean, enough money for food and such, yay. I have a problem with trying out simulations of deliberate neglect of animals as opposed to, say, being a jerk to other people in your next playthrough, and I'm glad FF avoided that while still dealing with real-life issues. I'm also glad it didn't drag things out. One simulated year was more than enough to make me happy and steel me for far darker-themed games still in my IFComp bucket, both when I was writing reviews in the authors' forum and when I was touching them up for IFDB. It was legitimate spiritual renewal.

Universal Hologram, by Kit Riemer

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Pain of loss/scrambling for survival in a sim, same/different as real life, December 30, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

UH was tough for me to get to replay. I thought it was mainly due to the snark of the main character, as well as Ged, the person encouraging you to act so everything doesn't go down the drain. Ged cusses sometimes. A few cuss words are nothing in the face of mass extinction, I got it, or I thought I did. This doesn't change how I enjoyed the meat of the game, or what I thought. The most amusing parts to me weren't the direct jokes but when the game stood back and let me think about things. Okay, yeah, I could pull back from the game any time, because I am a person with free will, and the game is just an HTML file with graphics and sound. But the pacing was organized well enough that you'd have a hub and branches, and the hub was pretty clearly a Good Place to Sit and Think of Things. Perhaps UH was too heavy on snark at times, which is okay. But it didn't rely on snark. It did other things to establish a Futuristic Tone, like having about/credits explicitly listed metadata. So I knew what I was getting into. But on reflection, I saw a theme of loss throughout the game, of worlds we dreamed up and let die, and how having someone in our created world keep it alive is, of course, an extreme exception.

You start out on Mars. Humans have moved here long ago, leaving behind a doomed Earth. There are pyramids of information, some practical and some not, and you've been chosen, for whatever reason, to look into them and find something. You're given a multiple-choice quiz you can cheat on, with easy undos, and it seems it's more of a way to catch you-the-player up on what's happening. Often, only one or two choices aren't ridiculous. The quiz to some extent establishes a theme: with all that technology, the witty repartee feels mechanical (responding "was that the first question?" to "Are you ready for the quiz?" is an example.) This pops up later, when you start analyzing the best social responses in a situation, ones most people would quickly choose either way, e.g. polite white lies or overbearing, overstated truth.

Because, as you find out, you're in a simulation. In fact, you are in U9, a very deep simulation, below U8 and so on. So it makes sense that, that far away from humanity, some of your emotions become quantified to some degree, and natural actions, such as deciding whether to tell your friend they look great or awful, become rigorous show-your-work-a-thons. I think it's no mistake that there is no real humor from your point of view, no "oh, that's neat because X," only comebacks.

After a few more evaluations, you find out you may be able to astral-project, and you find your quest. Your world is likely to be deleted. Nobody uses the information from your world any more or cares. Besides, you wouldn't understand stuff like soccer. You just wouldn't. Trust me, the overseeing computer says. It's not worth asking about. You've had a good run, no offense, but it takes work to upkeep, and you do understand your own self-interest may be adjusting your calculations? You and Ged both, really. Ged particularly adamant things should be saved. He provides actual reasons.

If you accept the challenge, you're sent forward into the real world (U0 or U1–I forget) to take a box with your world in it away from the people who are about to destroy it. Even if you succeed, things are irrevocably changed. You probably don't want to go back. And sort of like Narnia, the time you spent away is nothing compared to how time passed below, but unlike Narnia, there are no allegories or talking animals or aesthetic places to explore or wonder. Because, well, simulations are a dime-a-dozen. And I think UH meant not to give too many details, because it wanted to emphasize that even people in badly created or imagined worlds have a world and belong there, and it's the only one they've got. The semi-random, deliberately imperfect, odd graphics seem to reinforce this.

I think I got tripped up on some terminology and some science-fiction conventions, and when I kind of rolled my eyes at the swearing and snark, it probably cost me some Comprehension Points. So I didn't get as much out of this as I could. But there were still more than enough takeaways. The erasure scenes are very good, if you tell Ged to get lost. Given your character's snarky contrarian bent, it feels a little dirty of the game not to give you the chance, or force you to undo a lot. I'd have appreciated, once the game was over, a way to revisit the critical checkpoints and branches to see what happened if I messed up elsewhere. And certainly the whole "we're in a simulation" thing reminds me of all the times I played a game to somewhat-lose to see what was going on. All the people I killed with my decisions, this time through, all the simulations I aborted because I wasn't interested, with no Ged to save things remotely! Even the worlds I created in my head, whether with Legos or a computer program (e.g. The Sims) or even purely mentally, I imagine them drying up and sort of hoping they could save themselves somehow--of course nobody in there has free will or emotions--but I'd like them to live on. While UH kind of crushed me with all the mental worlds I'd created and left behind to shrivel, it also provided a story as to how they could keep going. So it was more to me than standard OMG YOU'RE IN A SIMULATION.

Dr Horror's House of Terror, by Ade McT

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Worth it, though I almost put it down for good, December 26, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

The title isn't joking around here. It gives you a clue that there is a lot of horror, and it may be overdone on purpose, but there is a point to it all. The problem with this is that one image or passage is probably not going to go down well for you. This is far from fatal, and I don't know how that can be helped. All I can say is, the bad guys are exposed as bad in the end. Because this was the game I most had to sit myself down to play. Others, my mind wandered. Here, I wanted my mind to wander. But there were rewards.

What, then, got me nervy? (Spoiler - click to show)You kill someone innocent in the game, rather early on. It made me get up and walk around a bit. It’s all there to establish what a bad person you are and how much you’ll do to gain power. But it’s there. And it quickly changed the tone, for me, from a light-hearted, silly "look how messed up bad movies can be" into other things. Yes, it’s supposed to be over the top. Yes, you may be the surprise-twist bad guy. That’s the point. Everyone’s revealed at the end to be awful, power-and-fame-grubbing people. But, hoo boy. One of the implements of death, well, might offend religious sensibilities. Perhaps people more comfortable with horror tropes can cast it aside. Part of the joke seems to be that you, a bumbling actor, get worse along the way to power. Knowing the author is a good person and a strong writer, I think this is the right explanation.

Maybe I felt ambushed by the gore, though, because the game does seem to go full-scale joke at the first required command. It's a pitch-perfect well-clued guess-the-verb that gives an idea of who you are. Then, after being called to Arnie, the director's, office, you discover that a cult is backing the whole production, and later, you find the big-shot actors also playing a role on-set are not quite as they seem. It goes well beyond needing makeup or a hairpiece. Along the way, you gain your first points, too. SCORE doesn't just give a numerical total but a list of "horror movie themed" things you did to avoid perilous situations, which mostly involve running away or, later, not letting someone else run away once your inventory's at full strength.

Enough strategic running away lets you make forward progress to Studio 5 (yes, there are four others) to see your first task. The actors are involved with that, and you not only need to gain their favor but also need an additional item for protection, which you can only get from killing the security guard. Security guards pop up throughout the game. They scold you and kick you to the studio lot without ever hurting you, so you see how it can be disturbing that you may need to deal harshly with one. There is a definite Chekhov's Gun lying around. I felt guilty considering doing what I needed to do. But I did it. And a part of me still felt, boy, it's pretty annoying to have to HIDE from the security guard for the fifth time. It'd be nice to get rid of them and get on with solving the puzzle.

Yes, there are five studios, each with a theme. Each brings you a phalanx you will need to defeat your executive director's evil cultish plans. The puzzles for all this work technically. The best one is where you have to summon and banish ghosts to create a sub-story by itself. This could be trial-and-error, but it's pretty clear who has to go where, and the locations also have clues. The outline of a body suggests a murder. And so forth. The build-a-monster one, while not as emotionally effective, signposted the pieces I needed, and then there was some thinking about how to tie them together. There's another one where you have to force someone who's scared of animals somewhere. I thought the English pub scene was the weakest, but it was still pretty good. The big basic types of horror movies are covered here: building a monster, giant predatory animals, and so forth. This was all well thought out, and there are a lot of good laughs leading up to the final fight scene, where you defeat evil. Of course, you don't exactly have a holy army behind you.

The final scene ... well, if I have to poke the author about something, it'd be to streamline the parser so you don't have to type in so much. Use abbreviations. Because it's a neat bit of five-on-five fighting, with different army groups pitted against each other. Then the surviving ones fight, and so forth. There are several possible outcomes here, but I found it amusing to compare aligning who fights whom to gerrymandering, which is a banal evil of its own sort. Gerrymandering? Why, yes. The way to win the war with balanced armies is to find who barely beats whom else (the mechanics, as far as I can see: (Spoiler - click to show)units start with 0-4 strength and lose one point for each fight they win,) and give yourself four wins and one big loss. You can even try to lose this way, too. But one thing I noted was (Spoiler - click to show)it wasn't whether you won or lost, but WHO won or lost, that caused the ending. There are three, and one is almost redemptive and potentially makes Dr. Horror feel like a big trolley problem. And this made me think: for all the physical power everyone has, or the offices and connections, you ultimately have the most power, because you have a bit of knowledge the others don't. And with this knowledge, your status as outward underdog is a bit fake.

Overall, if you're up to a lot of macabre jokes, and you understand/enjoy the genre (written or film,) Dr. Horror seems like it's for you. Perhaps it hit a perfect storm that almost made me put it down. But it was an "almost" because the craftsmanship is obvious, and the bad guys are clearly labeled as bad guys. "Bad actor trying to force their way through" could be a cliche, but here there's variety in the puzzles and knowledge of over-the-top horror films in detail.

One word on the fatalities and why I found them unpalatable: (Spoiler - click to show)I've run into mean security guards and nice ones. Perhaps it's not even security guards, but the people who work the late shift at the athletic club and have to deal with folks who won't go home. I remember leaving my house keys in the office at work and forgetting my badge to sign in when working late, and a security guard I knew helped me get back in. Or I left some writing notes on top of a machine at the athletic club, and the front desk person let me run in to get it. That sort of thing. And it's not a very respected job, and it's not where people want to be, but they need to pay the bills. But it's funny. I admit to thinking "gee, why can't the security guard reminded me more of that one condescending security guard from my high school? That'd be more fun." So Dr. Horror brought out that less-than-beautiful side in me. And I suppose the point is that you are killing innocent people, which is a step beyond Arnie ruining careers or providing lousy pay and benefits.

A Paradox Between Worlds, by Autumn Chen

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Collapse of a fictitious fanfic community, December 21, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

My initial thoughts on APBW rambled a bit. It brought up a lot of ideas that swirled around. They took a while to settle. It's a very ambitious work, and I'm not surprised it co-won the Golden Banana. But I'm also not surprised it placed highly, as I think it was rewarding to go through even though I only went in for part of its experience. It's about an online fan-community for young adult fanfiction that blows apart when the author of the books insults someone who's a big fan of theirs. In this case, it's GT McMillan, author of the Nebula series. To me, the GT sort of lampshades JK Rowling's hot takes on Twitter and fans' disappointment.

But I think it's more than just frustration with a Rowling clone. They get relatively little text compared to you and your friends. Overall, APBW helped me realize how much stability some online communities have, because with competent, sane adults in charge and some simple rules, along with punishment for trollish "look how these rules aren't perfect," really terrible things don't happen. But then again, these communities have decentralized power. For instance, the SBNation group of blogs knows the college athletes they cheer for are, well, only twenty or so, and they make mistakes. Or they know the commissioners of their favorite league aren't there out of altruism. Or they can see the good and bad sides of their favorite or most hated coaches. And the rules are simple: no bigotry, no flaming, no illegal streaming links. They work. I'll be comparing things in this review, because I had a lot of moments saying "Well, life goes on, right?" Though it sort of doesn't.

When you are young, that all is a lot tougher, even without trolls around. Any chaotic event throws things into turmoil, especially when an adult precipitates it, because adults don't DO these things, right? Especially one that could write such cool books that really stick it to bad guys?

Well, GT McMillan DOES do something. Not right away, though. APBW is told through the lens of an aspiring fanfic writer who blogs a lot on tumblr. You're amazed at the people who write more and, apparently, better than you do. But you'd like to try. You have friends you reblog and like and so forth, but you quickly realize they're at cross-purposes with each other. Some friends have troubles that get reblogged, both trivial and serious. Some friends just post for attention. Your reactions to this can get you blocked. I wound up completely ignoring the @brunova-official fanfic account, as I figured any drama with romantic fanfiction between Bruno and Gali, the two most popular characters (I didn't want to worry about the details of the work-within-a-work,) and I still made enough connections. I was amused to find the author's comments in the source, explaining how following and rehashing that sort of thing got you lots of likes, just because.

So I did all right with the whole writing racket. Despite my character's reticence and worry everyone was better than they were, I kept racking up likes, as my character paged through the five physical senses for ideas ("What do you think/smell/see/hear/feel/taste?") and my character wrote stuff down. This was meant to be mechanical and formulated on the player-character's just plowing through and doing what they were told in English class, when really they want to do so much more. People assure the PC that it's all so good and so forth. Then the pivotal moment comes. McMillan doesn't just cut down any fan but one who really looked up to McMillan. Others who did so, too, are confused. Some of your friends proclaim McMillan "over," even as the actors and actresses of the movie based on the series disagree. There's a split among fans with big followings, too, that goes beyond "Who's the coolest character?" Claire/Shadow-Protectrix, a big fanfic writer who organizes NebulaCon, comes down on McMillan's side (ironic, given their screen name) when your friend Luna is attacked by GT McMillan, prompting more attention than Luna ever wanted. She winds up deleting her account and starting a new one and not even asking for reblogs in support of her.

NebulaCon's largely organized by adults, too, or at least Internet friends who seem grown-up for their age! Most of whom are nice, but some of whom let the kids know who's in charge. And with every pronouncement of Claire's that she has to scale back, I certainly feared NebulaCon would be canceled. Because NebulaCon is only once a year, as opposed to twelve fall weekends for football, where fans of opposing blogs on SBNation get together for more than just the obligatory "preview with the enemy." They take pictures. They even share loss and big life moments. It can happen every week, even between fans of archrivals. And stuff like this shows the best of Internet fandom, of people getting together and helping each other through disappointment, of empathizing and saying "what if it happened to me?"

It's pretty clear the downside of the McMillan community collapsing is much higher for its members than for adult sports fans. And it's not just pro- or anti-McMillan. There's "we should've known it all along" and "I still can't believe it" among the antis. At one point, the main character wrestles with a passage that discusses not being false to yourself and how it was interpreted as pro-trans, but after MacMillan's words, they realize they maybe saw what they wanted to. This parallels fans tired of a losing coach, in a sports community. Some think they can still right the ship, some see the signs in retrospect, and flame wars start. But the stakes are higher, because when you're younger and don't know certain mind game tricks jerks play, and you have to hold on to what's there and be glad there's only so much trolling. You don't even feel you can speak out against jerks who like what you like, because on balance, they've been a positive, right? And it may seem there is no plan B if your group of book-loving friends collapses. The author touches on this by having some characters say "Hey! I found this cool KPop group." Which is different from what you'd expect, logically, such as "hey, there's another great book series." But in that moment I realized both you-the-character and your friends wanted to say "I don't want to lose you as a friend" but you didn't want to seem that desperate.

And, of course, you will need to stay together. Good things will end. As you write your final fanfic, you-the-character are far too aware the fourth wall break you make is as mechanical as checking off the five senses and "think" for writing prompts, and it's done before, and it will be done again, splitting community or not, because it's part of growing and moving on. You actually do finish your fanfic and go out on a high. That, along with trying to support your friend McMillan called out, is all you can do, especially when McMillan doubles down. (Well, actually, you can side with Claire. I didn't have the heart.) The older fans who orphaned their fanfiction–well, you get it now, you didn't see how they could stop if they had this gift, surely they could've just glided into a pretty-good ending sheerly out of momentum. You figured people just kept having stuff to say, and they don't. I had a similar thing happen when writing game guides at GameFAQs. I realized I was going to run out of motivation or games, and I also realized YouTube might become a Very Big Thing. I eventually just had a list of games left that would up my total word-count. I moved on, slower than I should've, of course.

It's difficult when a community dissolves, big or small, but it's also so nice to cross paths again. Still, you just don't think you will, and while that's out of the scope of APBW, I'd like to think the narrator plants the seeds for that, despite NebulaCon being canceled. They'll find other interests. I suppose it's the same sort of thing as a first crush, except, well, it's about having lots and lots of friends that evaporate, or you know you won't be able to keep track of them all.

Playing through once was exhausting. I had trouble remembering which player in the canon was which, and I also had to brush up on which of your blogmates did what. But it was the first of this sort of writing I'd seen in this form, and I found it amazingly effective for getting me to sit down and thing. I had a lot to say, and on reflection, it might not seem relevant now, but it filled a place that other IFComp games didn't come close to filling. So I think it was overall very successful as a story and an interesting world, as well as a reminder of all the stories I wanted to write but never quite did.

The author had a lot to say in their postmortem. There was a lot to read, so for the first time through, I simply looked at the source code to see some of the options and such that I missed. The check_blocked.txt file provided me with great amusement and demystified some of ChoiceScript. There still feels like a lot to unpack. But I found I was able to keep up with APBW, even if I had to ignore chunks, as I learned some terminology that made total sense once I read it.

APBW originally inspired some much more random, rambling thoughts that I don't want to pull out of the authors' forum. They're not really about APBW. But they were important to write and bury. They reminded me of the slow breakup of other communities and some I'm still shocked are there. APBW even reminded me to check some I thought were dead, and it's great to see them live on, or even see a 31-year-old say "hey, some people were really nice to me when I was clueless and 13, and I miss them." I remembered how I wrote game guides because I didn't feel qualified to write actual cool games, just as the narrator writes fanfic. (I still haven't written a graphical one!) I saw parallels between fanfic and some humorous features at SBNation sites, such as the ubiquitous Power Poll which ranks teams in a conference and compares them to characters from The Office or skits from I Think You Should Leave or, from one very creative person, stages of evolution. And it all works. It somehow pulls everyone together and reminds them of what they want to look at while they wait for the next game. Simple yet funny rules are established: on offtackleempire, a site for Big Ten team fans, you must punch in on Saturday if your team lost this weekend. There are inside jokes, but of course people with decent Google skills can figure them out, and they deserve to. And there are fanfic legends, people who wrote great stuff and are maybe retired now, but they drop in unexpectedly with a few hilarious tweets or essays.

This all is the result of a fully mature community and may not be as exciting as McMillan fan communities, but it's at least as rewarding. APBW made me realize how much we have, more than any impressive "look how far we've come and what we take for granted" speech could. For that I'm grateful. I'm even grateful for people I like only because we like the same team (just as APBW's characters like the same series and maybe even share a favorite book or character, and it's wonderful until they find other incompatibilities,) or even people I liked and then it fell apart. I even wound up sort of wishing I could explain this to some of the more upset APBW characters. Perhaps it's worth doing in real life.

It seems reasonable to critique APBW for problems of focus, or of certain things being too generic, but it's wildly ambitious and hits the mark often enough that I, a layman to fanfic, enjoyed it much better than more polished traditional efforts which seemed to fit in a nice box. Once I got into it, it felt like something someone would have done eventually, and I'm glad it got done so well. And it reminded me of all the things that could've gone wrong but didn't. It hurt when longtime Purdue basketball head coach Gene Keady laughed as he endorsed Donald Trump in 2016, a man Keady would've kicked off the team after a week on general principles. I was disappointed with the accusations swirling around Kingdom of Loathing's co-creator and how this forced a much more serious view of the nightcap you drink to get drunk with your turns gone at day's end. And I'm glad I didn't know about Roald Dahl's dark side until he was an adult. Yet at the same time, any one of these is the sort of growing-up experience I'd have loved to have other people around for, even if things fell apart at the end. APBW captured that and more for me, and thus, I value it.

The Best Man, by Stephen Bond

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Emotionally brutal on many levels but (for me) ultimately rewarding, December 21, 2021
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 pe