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.
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.
With Rameses and The Cabal and now The Best Man, Stephen Bond is now a resounding three-for-three in the "be very, very harsh on the player character" department. It's not slapstick stuff, no physical wounds or financial ruin. Just brutal existential despair and failure and helpless and pointing out how the main character misses the point. The Best Man helped me revisit certain unfortunate relationships with better perspective, but on the other hand, I'm sort of glad I don't know Stephen Bond very well/at all, because I'd be absolutely frightened of any character portrait he might make of me.
You see, I really wanted to believe Aiden, the main character, sees a way through the abuse he received by the end, that his final statement he's put stuff behind him is true. I hoped and believed, and in my mind, it was so. I didn't want to reread _The Best Man_ to disprove this. Once I did, though, I had to change my opinion. I'd simply blocked out the worst parts, because I wasn't in the mood to cringe at the time. Surely Aiden had learned from these experiences? I'd had a few, wher I idealized people and I realized they weren't so great. And to me, Aiden was not as outwardly horrible as the social circle he was sucked into. But that's not much. He's the nicest guy around, and the nicest guy he knows, and it's good enough for him, and it isn't. I felt icky saying "boy, I sort of identify with Aiden there" or "I've seen that/been there before." It was a rough experience. It left me feeling I wished I'd stood up to a few people who were as outwardly respectable as Aiden's clique, people long gone. But it also made me realize how hard that sort of thing is. Dryly speaking, we're all prone to a sunk-cost fallacy. Most of us stop sinking, though. With Aiden, though, I wondered if perhaps he were a bit autistic--I'm not a doctor, but his treatment at the hands of his acquaintances reminded me of seeing some other people on a long-ago message board "just teasing" someone who was. So perhaps this story could be read not about Aiden but about human cruelty. It's important to recognize that Aiden is a very flawed individual, but the author does make it pretty clear that his so-called friends are worse, just more polished.
And he appears to have nailed things down, starting with the cover art. A white suit is unusual for a best man, and along with the title, it immediately brought to mind Philip Larkin's "Sympathy in White Major." This poem calls into question what selflessness and likability really are. The critical line is (Spoiler - click to show)"Here's to the whitest man I know, though white is not my favorite color." And, in fact, white isn't Aiden's favorite color, deep down, but he has no choice. I wondered if this would be another story about a repressed good-guy, or someone trying to be a good guy. It is, and the only question is if he breaks away from that. We've all done good deeds and not puffed our chest out. We've all felt a bit self-righteous at times. We've all been pinned down by compliments and unable to say "Not this time" and made unreasonable requests of our own, or we've had to pick and choose our fights. But Aiden seems in an active cycle of doing the technically right thing and feeling more miserable. He's unable to walk away, until he has to run way.
Aiden certainly has his fantasies about people realizing what a good guy he is. He's not even the first choice for best man at the wedding of Laura, a girl he had a crush on, a girl who likely used him as a social crutch and yes-man until she found someone she could live with. The groom-to-be is John, who, as we read more of the story, is really a male version of Laura. Aiden doesn't see this, and it didn't really hit me until later. Of course what Aiden sees as bad in John, he sees as joie de vivre in Laura. And on re-reading I think John and Laura kept Aiden in reserve for the sort of drudgeworthy tasks a hungover best man would not want to perform. Aiden wears white to be "on team Laura," as if weddings are competitive. And he's foolish enough to think he's running these errands just for Laura.
But it turns out Colm, John's main best man, has worse than a hangover. He suffered a very avoidable accident after Aiden left the stag party early. It was Colm's fault, and perhaps the best man also has a few last-minute errands to run, but hey, John and Laura were thinking of Aiden! They go looking to Aiden for aidin', we begin the flashbacks. Aiden meets Laura in college, waiting for a bus. She tries to "get him to live," as she "gently" reminded him of the ways he may be a bit silly. (Note: getting him to live didn't mean helping him live as he wanted, or well, just bringing excitement.) One of Aiden's attempts at spontaneity results in a pathetic act of littering. His choices of dialogue range from passive-aggressive to snarky, but the results are the same. Aiden's certainly self-absorbed, and he looks up to self-absorbed people like Laura who seem more absorbed than he is. John swoops by two years later, and he's a better match for Laura. She respects him a lot more. Perhaps she's been able to use Aiden. She knows that small things like a touch matter a lot to him--too much, perhaps. She gets him to like a teal-colored scarf. But a man like that won't stay interesting.
And Aiden also ascribes virtues to her that aren't there. At one point there's a buildup to "she gave me my agency," which, nuh-uh. None of his choices matter. And her laughing at him? Well, it feels nice, because it feels nicer than when guys do. It feels like life. "She created this world of ours, this was her world, and she chose not to live in it," Aiden says, unaware of how easy it was to create such a world and how empty it was and even how she tried to expand it, but he said no. Aiden seems in love with the idea of love. Later when Laura suggests he get to know Ash, a girl in her circle, better, Aiden says, well, he couldn't love Ash as well as he loved Laura. Truth, of a sort. So another member of the bachelor party, Nick, winds up dating her. It didn't work out, but Nick does seem better adjusted. Aiden's "Before I learned — before she forced me to learn — what it is to care about another human being" rings hollow because, well, you can't force someone to learn that sort of thing. And indeed, it's not clear what Aiden's learned, and in the scene Nick narrates, Nick picks things apart more meaningfully than Aiden does. He's cynical (weddings are a racket so stock up on "free" food, the stag party bored him) but sees Aiden as better than the lackeys and with some hope, because the difference between errand-boy and "person reciprocally actively encouraging bad behavior" is significant.
But that didn't stop me from thinking, geez, Aiden's really a sucker, isn't he? "I had to find that love within me. I had to find the energy to be there for you ... even at my own cost." But did it really cost him if his main goal was to be around Laura? I remembered people I looked up to or had crushes on, but I wasn't that bad, right? Stephen Bond is more eloquent. But there are passages interspersed, of the people Aiden meets. The people preparing the organ music for the wedding see him wandering around. Their lives may not be full, and they have faults, but they are self-aware. The couple selling the roses grumbles about things, but they at least account for others' behavior (each alternately forgives and lambastes the bad behavior of various wedding parties) and try to respond to each other's complaints. There's no hierarchy.
But Aiden still sees one: "Our group of friends, now pruned down to the classic 'gang of five' (the two of us, Aisling, Deirdre and Orla), held court every night in a different venue; we pronounced on topics far and wide; we praised the worthy and dealt justice to the deserving." One wonders how much pronouncing Aiden did, and how much he was there just to be someone to talk at. One even wonders how much he listened to said topics. Just before the wedding, he thinks "Orla, but sometimes you can go too far, sometimes you can be hurtful. Laura somehow is able to temper your worst excesses." Laura, who encouraged him to "live" and be snarky. As he himself says, bouncing from nostalgia to bitterness: "You started hanging out together once and you hang out together now and maybe later you'll hang out again and that's it. That's your story." He does a lot of that, based on his mood.
And he never admits that, well, he is at the bottom of the hierarchy. His neediness shows just before the wedding reception when he asks for a good-bye individually from each of the bridesmaids, which is maybe appropriate if you are twelve. He also has two tasks before the wedding, and he checks off with Laura to say he's got the first part of her requests done, and she blows him off beyond what he deserves for rambling on a bit. You suspect she'd have said "Oh, I was WORRIED about you, it was so senseless not to check in" if he hadn't called. And John gets in on the act, too. Colm returns miraculously (?) for a speech and a roast of John, but next it's Aiden who's roasted for his white suit. His speech as Best Man is, on the surface, decent, though it does contain a passive-aggressive slap at Nick, who deserves it the least. It gets scattered applause, where Colm gets roaring laughter. And this is tricky: you want to do the right thing, despite it all, but with Aiden, perhaps the right thing is to recognize when your good efforts aren't making anyone happy and say "enough." And he never can.
Aiden doesn't realize the no-win situations he's in. There's one brief scene where he calls Laura to say, yes, I got the flowers and I'm going to get the ring, and she lets him know she's busy and he'd better not call unless he has to and that's awkward, and my immediate reaction was, if he didn't, Laura would tell him it was awkward not to check up briefly. Then you/Aiden hang on for a bit for some empty chatter, to drive home Aiden's need for approval. He's pushed around by John's creepy cousin who hits on someone well below his age. The bridesmaids chide him for eating desserts left for the guests, then finish what he took a bite of. John gets gum on his expensive shoes and somehow still manages to embarrass Aiden a bit. Neither set of parents even recognized Aiden--no, Laura either didn't have a picture of him or take time to show one or even mention the white suit.
Even Laura and John's wedding march, Deep Blue Something's "Breakfast at Tiffany's," may be a joke at Aiden's expense. The church staff mention it is an inside joke, but it's never explained.
And I said, "What about Breakfast at Tiffany's?" / She said, "I think I remember the film" / And as I recall I think we both kind of liked it / And I said, "Well, that's the one thing we've got"
Aiden is saying this in his mind to Laura, even as they have drifted apart. And yet, Laura may be leaving him hanging, and perhaps she enjoys it, and she can use it to get him to do something. She knows she can point to the one thing they've got, in order to get him to do something. (Note: I still hate the song, even after I see its purpose here, because it's always felt too whiny. It's very apt here, though. Especially when the characters confuse it with other 90s songs I realize could be confused together. It's as if he could easily write something uplifting and lighthearted, but why bother?)
But the greatest humiliation may be internal. Aiden, of course, would love to blow up the wedding, and he has many choices at the moment where he hands over the rings, but each way he's foiled, often by someone different, and people forget about it. If you try to pocket the rings, someone grabs them effortlessly. If you wear John's ring, for instance, it's way too big for you and falls off, and to me that captured how John was just more imposing, physically and mentally, than Aiden. The worst you get is a sardonic "he had one job," which reminds me of how the Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy changed its entry on Earth from "Harmless" to "Mostly Harmless." The least awful option is just to seethe and hand over the rings.
I'm not sure which hurts worse, being blown off or actively mocked, but Aiden certainly gets both. And I know I have. The first time I realized it was when someone younger than me in high school had the temerity to do so. There were episodes like where people told me I needed to swear more and not be a prude, and then I did and they laughed and they said I didn't do it right. But I recognized this--I think. I found ways forward, things to study, and so forth, so my time focusing on myself wasn't focusing on the approval of someone louder. Aiden doesn't seem to have that. He simply can't bring himself to say: these people are at fault, full stop. He'll kvetch about how they bug people, but he never says, "well, here's what I can do better." His looks inward are about him and Laura and climax with a scene in the bookstore five years later--no, he says, two--and which go off the rails as he nails down how best to imagine a meeting with Laura, now divorced from John. While the marriage doesn't seem like it will be happy, because Laura and John are fundamentally unhappy people, Aiden's constant revisions make it pretty clear he's going beyond the occasional daydreams about someone that got away. This registered with me the first time through, but I didn't process how bad it was. Perhaps it's because I've dealt with people like Aiden and learned to zone them out for survival's sake. It wasn't until I reread the game and noticed how Aiden would adjust and edit text that already appeared, that I saw -- this isn't a daydream, it's meant to be a habit. And the proofreading he does is never "well, I might not be making sense here." It's florid stuff like "(Reifying the symbolism of the incident with the crisp bag.)"
I didn't see a lot of this the first time through. Then, when I re-read, I realized how grateful I was for the non-Aiden scenes. With the excitement of initial discovery gone, I found Aiden's constant choices between passive-aggression and aggression exhausting. I sort of assumed "Oh, Aiden meant to say that but just forgot. He was too busy at the time. There was a wedding, and so forth." But all the same, we are getting Aiden's story, and that's what he chose to discuss, and when he digressed, it wasn't about what he learned, it was just about his next immediate problem. And his ruminations are "I will find the right words to make everything okay"--common magical thinking in many unhealthy relationships and, of course, in The Best Man, none of Aiden's choices turn out to be the right words to make anything okay.
The Best Man was a difficult read for me, but a good one. It can be hard to deal with times you thought were good and now realize weren't. Or times you thought you were being the best you could, but you really needed to stop pouring emotional energy down a drain. Or to have friends/acquaintances who tell you you'd better not embarrass anyone, because you're sort of prone to that, and then have these people embarrass you, because just being decent is boring. Or to see that people who were "just joking" were really being kind of mean and, more importantly, to find a way to deal with it.
Aiden does so with platitudes. Some are pretty black-and-white, such as when he talks about "the good guys." Others feel transparent, talking about faith or "I had to find that love within me." Or he talks about having to do good deeds and bury it -- but boy, does he remind you how you buried it! Since Aiden has an engaging sort of self-absorption, it's possible he has indeed, as he said at the end, done some good, more good for people than, say, if they'd made friends with John. Ameliorating nastiness isn't great, but it's better than nothing. People who don't know him very well might actually learn something, in the same way a fortune teller can accidentally remind you of something you want to do. But I can't see this as a basis for a healthy relationship. It may be a long relationship, if the recipient is as naive as Aiden, but not healthy. And it's sad that this is the best some people can do or be.
The ending, where Aiden talks about darkness, reminded me of friends, or nominal friends, who treated me as a second option, yet I still enjoyed how they were "opening me up to life" until I realized the truth later. Then I realized they were sort of mean, and much later I realized I hadn't thought about them for a few years and I was over them, though they were good "don't fall into that trap again" reference points. Man, high school sucked. Aiden, however, is a college graduate.
And I certainly think that believing others can improve, even if it isn't likely, helps me improve. But Aiden the unreliable narrator, looking to change his story beyond the standard "Oops, I meant..." seems to hide actively from changing himself. Perhaps, with the social circle he claims at the end, he has taken over John's role despite saying "that darkness is behind me now." Or perhaps he is not quite as insufferable as John, but he can buttonhole you for ten minutes. Maybe he's easier to blow off or admit you're tired of him. I'd like to believe he's become a better person, but I suspect on meeting Aiden I'd be very interested at first, and then things would fall off quickly and I'd look for any excuse to duck further conversation.
All the same, though, I'm left feeling how tragic it is Aiden found people who gave him bad life advice, not out of evil, but out of their own selfishness, a more exciting self-absorption than his, and he tried to learn from that. How much that leaves him off the hook for his long-term cluelessness, I can't answer. I do know Aiden failed to strike a balance between lashing out when someone goes overboard and soft-pedaling the "hey, ease up there, huh?" He certainly chooses his battles wrong. And so do I. I've had my share of Walter Mitty fantasies about standing up to people or maybe telling them, I saw what you did twenty years ago. The Best Man brought a lot of that back. But I also think they prepared me to actually stand up, and my fantasies of "what I really want to say" have a lot less anger. Whether or not Aiden became a good person, I see his potential pitfalls as my own, and I certainly want to make sure I didn't react or dwell as badly as Aiden did.
(Disclaimer: I tested AvtH prior to IFComp 2021.)
So I was wrong about AvtH in two ways. First, I assumed it would place much higher than it did. Second, I assumed the author's adolescence was much more "I hate high school" than it was. AvtH grabbed my attention with what I thought was an easy target, and then it proceeded to hit others and provide some good laughs along the way. It's supposed to be more than a bit silly, but it has enough of the wisdom of looking back mixed in, so the silliness is not just for its own sake. It's sympathetic to its own characters without getting overwrought, and perhaps people didn't notice all the wisdom, since it was very gentle. Well, for a zombie apocalypse.
You play AvtH in different perspectives, as members of a high school band. Not the one with fuzzy busbies and uniforms–oh no. Much less conformist than that. You have no school spirit, remember! You play four different members of a very loud and earnest grunge band as you go through a story of oppression from the popular kids and corporate types trying to appeal to you. Many dramatic incidents center around a Gas'N'Stuff, which is a great name whether an actual Gas'N'Stuff franchise exists or not. (It does, indeed, seem to. But not where I lived. I suppose it has that mystery about it, like the Circle K in Bill and Ted or Ralph's in The Big Lebowski. I figured both couldn't possibly exist.) One winds up feeling quite sorry for the poor chap behind the counter after all this. Dealing with the band members is not so bad, but, well ... if he's the owner, I hope he had insurance. If he's not, poor guy having to explain all this to the owner.
AvtH is presented as a series of flashbacks from when the first band member, Jenny, stumbles to the garage where you all practice, up to the present time. Something weird has happened to you, and you know something weirder will happen shortly! Your bandmates, well, they need to verify your story, as you're incapacitated. They find one small clue as to how to reverse the damage, which provides a running gag, too.
Once Jenny is subdued, there's a flashback to earlier in the day: a school assembly where a company was promoting the new soft drink, Hype! Now I remember as a kid Jolt! cola came out, but ... it was marketed a bit differently. The pandering was there, but it was less tone-deaf. Also, maybe I wasn't old enough to be cynical yet. As Jenny, you go through the humiliating actions of screaming loudest for free (and ugly) clothing (there's a point to WEARING it) and make the mistake of drinking Hype! She doesn't drink much, so it takes time to turn her into a zombie. But it still happens.
Armed with what they know, your friends start following leads. Amanda goes to the Gas'N'Stuff to buy stuff. What stuff? Um, stuff you could get for free in college. You need condoms, because the zombies have latex allergies, and balloons aren't available. The illicitness behind stealing them for Completely Different Reasons works for me. Sneaking out of the gas station with them may be slightly amoral, but it contains good stock jokes about the sort of yucky things you buy at convenience stores when you're desperate. Stuff you swear you'd never buy, especially at THAT price.
Another, Lewis, needs a tape of your greatest hits. There's no time for a performance, so he remembers one he gave to a girl he liked. He's not getting in the front door (the jock guarding it is well described) so he has to sneak in through a window, which would be creepy under normal circumstances, but when everyone's a zombie, it's not so bad. The party is, well, unusual. Lewis has a few revelations about how she's ignored him, but there are some bright spots. Maybe. More importantly, he gets the tape. With another involuntary assist of sorts again from the Gas'N'Stuff. Lewis's distraction is also bad for upkeep, but hey, the fate of the world could be at stake.
Finally, Paul needs a plot to get his brother's car. This involves a rather mean tip to the police, but one suspects Paul's brother sort of deserves it. Here I got sidetracked by the three food wrappers you have when the scene starts as a way to distract the hungry squirrel, and I should have figured where to get a quarter for a pay phone, but I should have realized what a focal point the Gas'N'Stuff was and gone that direction.
I believe I played this the same way through both when testing and seeing the comp version, so I didn't see anything different. I'd like to go back and switch the order, since the game lets you–it seems either one puzzle clues others, or you'll need an alternate solution. And the final scene ties it all together–your music will help free people's minds! The balloons will help keep you safe! The walkthrough has a neat misdirection here. It lists a hard way, but the easy way is more intellectually rewarding and in tune with the game's general humor.
There are a lot of good lines if you examine people and such, too, so again, if you just go through with the walkthrough (which has its own fourth-wall jokes) you'll miss out on a bit. Any one joke feels like it could've been dashed off and you could laugh and move on and say "oh, I was crazy when I was a teen," but they fit together well. The author mentioned he may've sat on the game for too long, but on the other hand, the jokes feel well-organized, and their sum is more than the parts. It was worth the wait. A lot of times I said, oh, that's maybe where the author got this joke, or this observation, and I'd seen it before. But the thing was, AVtH never relied too much on one canonical late 80s/90s reference, and it wasn't the WHOLE joke. I realized afterwards I'd missed a lot of references, and that seems like a good batting average: some of them, the reader will pick up on, but others will be from stuff they hadn't seen or had even forgotten and meant to watch again. Indeed, in the credits, the author mentions the state the game was in before testing, but I also think they deserve credit for building together a story that would've fallen apart with less thought. It's not a simple one.
AvtH is a very ambitious game despite its silly high-school-angst feel, and while the author uses some modules very well (especially the dialogue module) for pacing and for keeping things relatively simple for the player, there's some parser-fighting involved with its more advanced features. I felt bad maybe explaining to the author "Yeah, I bet you'll fix those nuisances, but a few more will pop up, because parser games gonna parser, and don't worry." That's the risk of ambition. Things won't be perfect. But AvtH covers bases more than well enough, with a hint system that picked things up nicely when I was floundering. It's a bit snarky, which may not work for some, but AvtH won't be their thing anyway. I chose to disassemble the blorb afterwards just to pick off the hints, because that sort of thing is too hard to track in-game, and I was rewarded.
The author also mentioned an ingenious shortcut in the forum that skips one of the areas. It's not obvious, but once he explained it, several people said "oh, of course." There's a lot of that in AvtH, which feels simplistic in some places, or we've heard this joke ... but AvtH does it better, and consistently, and you realize you're not hearing the stock jokes that get laughs in average sitcoms. I hope it's not insulting to say AvtH's like the best of Cheech and Chong. It doesn't seem super-clever because it doesn't try to be cleverer than you or shove its newness in your face, but all the same, there's nothing stale.
Oh. There's also an epilogue. It felt well-timed, like the credits at the end of a half-hour sitcom, when one last loose end is tied up, and the laugh track plays one final time. And yes, it works! I've seen other epilogues, but never one this short. More games should do this -- I really like having this sort of denouement.
HIWT promised to be interesting for me, as it described "two smart people walking to the center of many disasters." I like writing stuff about people who need to be smart, or are seen as smart, etc. And the main characters are characterized very well. They've had arguments. They argue over what they should remember and what the other person should remember. Oh, and they've been called to stop a huge apocalypse where everyone is turning to collections of geometric shapes (fingers become cylinders, head becomes a sphere, etc.,) and you're trying to run towards, or away from, something called the Exit, which will help stop all this. Unless you make a wrong step and get geometric-ized yourself. The puzzles alternate between telling which 3-d solid a graphic is a cross-section of, or having three lines between greater-than and less-than prompts. I (Spoiler - click to show)cut and pasted them to text and still seemed to get myself into trouble. So these may be red herrings.
Some parts of the work seem to be deliberate clues: the number of sides determines where to go next. So it seems like some of the talk choices between the narrator and Ciara, whom he is seeing after a long layoff, matter. As does whether you get the intelligence test-y choices right. They seem like they shouldn't be hard, but I wound up failing. I know my 3-d solids and what cross-sections look like. I also seemed to avoid bad choices some of the time, but the text still clouded over randomly, and Clara asked if I was okay and was sure I would figure it out, before I didn't. The text being blotched out seems to indicate I'm doing something wrong, too, but I can't catch what I did wrong or how the puzzles affected how I should respond. A look at the source seems to indicate that you die anyway, trying to relate to memories with your old friend (lover?) after your jobs split you apart.
And the text is interesting--there's a good deal more beyond what I saw, where you and Clara squabble as you run towards the Exit. I never made it. Later pats of HIWT seem to indicate that you coordinate with other people a good distance away. I never got there, so I never fit the writing in with the narrative.
This is one where I'd appreciate a walkthrough, and I assume there is a hearty helping of misdirection, since what I thought were logical tries for the puzzles didn't help me progress. Once I see it, I'll say "Oh, geez, of course." Perhaps you have to be not too mean or not too nice to Clara. But if so, I didn't quite see how that was clued. Still, what I saw, I liked. There may be too much misdirection in the puzzles, but the narration as you run towards the apocalypse to help fix it is strong.
There's a study showing that judges give harsher sentences when they're hungry. Or that's the claim. Causality hasn't been established, and I was interested to read alternate perspectives that poked holes in the "hungry judge" theory. But I remember the punchline and recalled it here on playing SZ31 late at night. It took a very cool premise and wavered at the end. That felt like my own mental fatigue, and then on replay, I wound up focusing on how I felt instead of looking through things again. Perhaps it tried to reach for a message that wasn't there. But either way, it still Had Quality Moments.
The title, if not the play time, suggests that you'll just be zapping spams until you mess up, and then everyone has a good laugh about how futile it all is and then goes home. That would be more than adequate for a decent IFComp entry, but there's a bit more. You do, in fact, play a spam-zapper plugin who ("that" is the inappropriate pronoun, I think, for reasons you'll see shortly) detects spam emails incoming to the account of your owner, Spoony. You get to choose a real name, but that's their email address and what they use on forums.
The tasks start out trivial. They may leave you nostalgic for some Greatest Hits of spam you've received. They did for me. Back in 2000, we had all long since gotten sick of feeling clever we could delete spam immediately, and when my webmail got a spam filter installed, I remember peeking inside just to say, hey, wow, it works, and there were relatively few false positives. It was interesting to see how spam filters got subverted by professional-looking messages, and if I was feeling dumb, being able to finger a particularly bad spam email that snuck through made me feel a bit smarter, as long as they weren't dumped on me. This brought back a lot of that, but there's also a ubiquitous needy loner or two who needs confirmation. Someone forgets their password. Someone at Spoony's workplace sends a mistaken reply-all, followed by reply-alls that are, well, mistaken in their own way. You, as the spam-zapper, have comments on that. You've seen it before. But you also get intents of spam and non-spam emails wrong. Artificial intelligence, amirite?
And that's where the actual story kicks in. One of Spoony's correspondents, Laurie Boggins, has a very, very restrictive father. Not only that, but she seems to have struck up a legitimate friendship with her Wizard email plugin. As her computer is confiscated, she sends one last email to Spoony saying, keep Wizard alive! And that's when the spam zapper "meets" other plugins. They try to band together and rescue this friend. In fact, they create their own virus to track down information. They understand morals in the small picture but maybe not the big one. Helping their owners is all that matters.
So they discuss what it means to exist, and this is where I slacked a bit. One thing about my slacking, though. If you've ever watched Amadeus, you may remember that one scene where the Emperor yawned during The Marriage of Figaro. If I yawn, and think of it? Well, whatever I am paying attention to is not Figaro, but I know it's probably part me. Perhaps I was disappointed the helper apps didn't just stay in their place and entertain me. I mean, it's probably more in-character for them to discuss concepts like nous or whatever that might make people say "get back to the jokes, already." It's tough for AI to make jokes. But it's earnest and does go on a bit, and while I enjoy a good "what and why are we, and what are we doing here?" I felt a small bait-and-switch.
Still, the spam dumping does go on a bit. By the time you've finished deleting the reply-alls, a QuickBasic worm pops up. Then one of Spoony's friends begins composing spam-looking emails that you, SpamZapper, consider to be mind-control spam. Yes, you're wrong, but it's internally plausible. Then you have to search through forty or so emails to find information to the odd plan you've hatched with Wizard and the New Mail Chimes to get Laurie's computer back, to "save" her. They don't seem to understand humans can survive without computers, and yet, at the same time, they're technically–Laurie's father taking her computer away is most unjust. While some emails could obviously be rejected, I just got dragged down by the tedium and took a break and then came back to a few more "search Spoony's emails" puzzles. It was tiring, but I can't see any other way to do it.
My tired mind did find the whole plot a bit too farcical, and all the talk of nous seemed a bit mystical to me, and I zoned out, but I was still able to appreciate the loneliness of Spoony's friends and what sort of person Spoony must be. Still, I can't help but feel I mostly enjoyed the low-hanging fruit. The switch between the general narrative and the mailbox work well, as does the glimpse into a post-apocalyptic (well, climate change) future. It's hard not to be amused at SpamZapper forcing decisions or having something it HAS to say about Spoony's dad's email. You'll know which one. And the time-distortion where you're not sure how much time was between emails, but it helps remind you the spam zapper can't understand certain emotional concepts natural to humans. Yet it tries. And I felt, as I was playing, I was missing something, but I hope I was trying.
So my advice is to be awake for this game. You'll need the energy, but I guarantee it will pay you back, even if you drift a bit. There are lots of funny examples of how AI gets things wrong, and I think this was the strongest part, where you can see clearly that the well-meaning plugins are about to release something potentially catastrophic. It's quite a good laugh and very touching, but looking at the work again, my eyes glossed over the philosophical discussion. Still, once you solve the game, there's an amusing way to unlock design discussions for each character, and I appreciated them very much. Though I needed a break after all that philosophizing. It's tough. I've written games where I wanted to be smart, and smart people told me "keep it simple, stupid," but really, I thought the parts they disliked were the best part. SZ31 turns the table on me, as I found I wanted to give it the same advice. So I feel like a bit of a hypocrite, but given a choice between the funny story plus philosophizing and nothing at all, give me the first.
An Aside About Everything seemed to promise a universal message and maybe didn't quite follow through on it, but it was still quite worthwhile. You're some nameless man or, more precisely, Him. You want to find a woman, whose last name is an initial. This reminds me of an admonishment from Geoffrey Braithwaite, the protagonist of Julian Barnes's Flaubert's Parrot. Rule 8 in particular: "8. No novels in which the narrator, or any of the characters, is identified simply by an initial letter. Still they go on doing it!"
Now I may or may not have started my own writings with a character named A. and later, when I was feeling adventurous, J. But AAAE started this off with a main character named Him and K, so along with the title, it felt like it was swinging for the fences with someone generally-named. It never quite got there, and the conclusion, though pleasant, didn't feel earth-shattering. But it had enough for enjoyment.
You, as He, start off in the sort of dingy detective office Geoffrey Braithwaite, again, might cluck at if he played lots of text adventures, parser or twine. It's in The Void, though, and you can escape to it at any time and return to the Outer Ring and, later, the Inner Ring. Along the way you meet a bunch of women who give you information about K. Why they know this, it's not clear, but they seem to have nothing better to do. One has an assortment of pills that give different emotions. You have to find four weird objects to give her to get all the pills, but then, you only get to take one pill at the end, which is kind of a bummer. I have a chance to take mind-altering drugs I never would in real life, and it's taken away from me for .... a revelation that, apparently, the journey is more important than the goal! This is nice, but it belies the game's initial ambition. Perhaps the narrator needs to learn this sort of thing along the way.
But this is sniping on my part. Looking back, it makes sense. He uses four women to get at the woman he really wants, and he has to realize he's been using them, and he has to admit he went about things in the wrong way and didn't deserve K's attention. So it all neatly folds together. And if I knew the ending was coming, I was surprised to remember things I'd looked long and hard for until they weren't worth it for themselves. But I realized things on the way, and I realized I realized things on the way. It just felt a bit blunt.
My adventures where I found this in real life were far less supernatural. For instance, I remembered books I loved as a kid and picked them off with city library intra-branch loan, and tracking down everything by an author or everything in a series was a rewarding sort of adventure, and AAAE felt like that. But it wasn't having the books so much as going through the process of finding what I wanted quickly and no longer missing it or worrying I was missing something big. And of course these books weren't perfect, but they were worth finding, and doing so encouraged me to tackle bigger projects and not be upset about what I missed.
Or there was that BASIC game programming book I remembered a year ago. Another BASIC book tipped me off to vague memories, and I followed the trail until I saw a cover I recognized. Then a friend tipped me off there was a sequel, which I built up in my mind until finally I just went through with it. The programs that seemed so profound, and they seemed, well, pretty cheap, and the sequel objectively wasn't much more. And I couldn't blame myself for not typing them out, or I recognized the coding was weak, and I realized I'd even remembered some as far more complex than they were. It was something I thought I had to find, though I didn't really. But when I found it, it was good enough. (The books, by the way, are by David Ahl.)
Him's realization reminded me of this and more. I don't know if I stayed fully tuned in for AAAE, but part of that was that I was connecting to His experience. And His being able to manipulate women to get what he wanted paralleled a Julian Barnes (again) short story where a person slowly got everything he wanted and asked to be truly happy and then was left with just his life. AAAE felt like that, though it took longer to get there and didn't have the same punch. I don't really remember whom you need to manipulate, and for what, beyond Luna. But it had enough for a good, positive think.
So I got something entirely different than I expected in Second Wind. Seeing what I wanted to see, I noticed the skillful cover art and the italics noting Second Wind was in Adventuron. The least cheery Adventuron game I'd played up until this point had been Snowhaven, which claimed the title by default, because it had normal, serious and dark mode, and I only played on normal mode, which was very nice, and it had warnings plastered abut serious and dark mode. And given the cover art and how Adventuron gives you a picture for each room, I thought we might be treated to something whimsical artistic. However, I only noticed the art quality and what it meant.
I was then disabused quickly of the notion Second Wind was just another cheery Adventuron game, perhaps where you finally have the courage to complete that marathon in a new record time, or you give a friend another chance. But I was also surprised the graphics were utilitarian. It seems like a chance missed, as if the author wanted to make sure they got the technical bits down. Maybe they felt more obligation than they should have to get things technically straight. And they did. They put together a pretty stirring story, too. But I'm left saying "Hey, for post-comp, why not put in an option to see more creative instead of practical pictures, for those who want to replay?" This is my greedy side. I know how tough it is to put it all together and to shift between the technical side and the graphical side. But certainly if the author writes another game in Adventuron, I'd be there just for the pictures, happy story or no.
Saying SW is a timed puzzle does bury what the puzzle is. You're in a fallout shelter. It protects you from werewolves. If they bite you, you change into one, and they're everywhere. Your wife is pregnant, but there are complications. She will give birth in six hours, but if she does, she and the baby will die. You need someone with more experience delivering babies than the nearby midwife, who knows she is over her head. The only person nearby that you can reach in the time frame is your ex-wife. She is your ex-wife because you were cheating on her with your current wife. So your task is to trek across miles of desert from Shelter 4 to Shelter 5. Yes, mass depopulation has occurred, thus making every newborn baby that much more critical. It'd be easy for her to say no. So even a "good" ending will be extremely awkward, even without the whole werewolf apocalypse thing still in progress.
This is a powerful plot, and the title suggests there are obstacles (there are!) Some might just be neighbors who are sick of you, or it might be the hoverbike that's a bit run down, and you have to fix it. But there are also fiddly bits, like opening the airlock properly. The thing about airlocks: I don't mind opening and closing them, but if I have to do so too often in a game or story in the course of a week, it's a bit exhausting, even when it's well-implemented in all instances. And it would be wrong not to acknowledge that, yes, this is a necessary precaution. But I had an "oh no, not again" moment that doesn't seem to be this game's fault. Once you have played X games with airlocks, they all blend together, and if the next one is unrealistic, it can break mimesis, and if it doesn't, you say "Oh no, not again."
Other fiddly bits were how you got the codes you needed to punch in to unlock certain areas. Sometimes this had a bit of emotional resonance and sometimes it relied on pop culture (e.g. a phone number ending in 09–when seeing how googleable it would be, I was surprised another number had gotten higher on the charts in the past few years.) Punching in keypads definitely disrupts the emotional flow of the game, but then again, there has to be some security. I did like how if you type the wrong number, you were locked out for a few game-minutes without having to wait in real life. There's also some fiddling with putting on your protective suit–after the first time you should just be able to REMOVE ALL or WEAR ALL. This is all an occasional nuisance, and it may, in fact, bury the lede that the game's mechanic of allowing variable time per typed move preserve a realistic accounting of in-game time without slapping the player around.
Second Wind is weakest when it gets hung up on minutae--perhaps the author felt they had to offer this detail or things wouldn't be nailed down technically. But it also makes an effort to get around them and explains what will cost you time and so forth. And, of course, in an apocalyptic future, precautions must be taken! It makes an effort to be fair as a timed puzzle, with checkpoints established and maps of the shelters with a "you are here" dot. So I think it works well, even though my suspicions are that the author didn't play well to their strengths. I hope this isn't backhanded praise, because my overall feelings were, they went out of their comfort zone to do this, and they should be pleased with the result. I am, and I think it bodes well for their next effort that may play to their strengths more fully.
GW is a big game, much too big to tackle without a walkthrough, and as a result, when I saw a rather large hint thread for how to get through it on the forums, I sort of ran away from it. It was the last entry I looked at in IFComp 2021. And boy, did I get off to a rough start. It was move 600 before I got a point, mostly because I wanted to take time to map things out. Perhaps TADS's technical boosts Inform lacks were such a crutch I enjoyed tinkering with them and forgot lateral thinking. The module to forgive bad spelling, which I always forget until the next TADS game appears, is quite nice. And in-game, the ASK and TELL were well-organized. There was already a map on the forums, but the thing is--there are three people you can start as, based on the direction you go to start. So the map seemed off, and I didn't know why. This was all overwhelming, but as it turns out, GW is a pretty good game overall.
I confess I decompiled the game to get as far as I did. I wound up having to ask for something slightly outside the box, and once I saw what I missed, I realized I could've typed ABOUT. But these are the risks of a big game, especially one that forces you to do so much concrete preparation to get your bearings. So I never considered asking for materials I needed to make certain areas accessible, namely, oil for the lantern I'd found. Once I did, I got clued/pushed to the right person. In the context of a game being a game where you find stuff and combine it to make new stuff, I should have remembered this. Though, as a person who's new to a village and probably better-off than the villagers, it felt weird to ask them for anything. Maybe that was too far outside the box.
But once that block was gone, I felt more comfortable/less uncomfortable, if slightly less immersed, asking around for what I needed. The story had fit together nicely even in the one-point-out-of-fifty state. I'd started off with a new job at FARMA who, apparently, did research on fog (and where better to do so than at the outskirts of a town called Foghelm?) but also with some injuries from a surprise attack. There was an odd man in a hut that villagers didn't like to talk about, an eerily simple twentysomething daughter of the mayor, a cloying gas station/hotel owner, and a captain and smith who both seemed to want to help me. Some places, it was signposted I couldn't do anything without the right item. For instance, there were rusty chains blocking me from an entrance, and elsewhere, someone offered to loan me a hammer, if I fed them, which was (again) a bit odd. The big mystery unfolding had to do with a ship crashing on the rocks, with a fatality, and whose fault it was: the lighthouse keeper, or a young lover?
So the story was set well, and the main block seemed to be finding the right nooks to find stuff in. I wasn't quite able to do this. GW suggested look and search were different (ugh,) and I wound up remembering this some of the time, which left a lot of ground to cover. I confess (again) I peeked at how you scored points, and that gave me a boost. I probably went past two hours. But I liked what was there, even/especially the directions I couldn't quite go in, and why. Once I understood different starting paths blocked off different paths in the town, I was glad to know the game-world was bounded. But this, in addition to everything you had to do to gather in-world evidence, was tough to fit into a two-hour comp judging period. Which is too bad--once it clicked that different directions made you a different person, and it all seemed sensible, I took time to be impressed at how well it was organized.
However, I still feel a bit odd asking for the things I needed to ask for: "Hey! can I borrow the gloves you're wearing?" or "Mind if I use your stove?" It felt slightly invasive towards others. I mean, yes, interactable NPCs are a good thing, but I never quite shook this off, so GW provided the wrong sort of creepy at times, not illegal creepy, but just violating people's boundaries. Nevertheless, I was entertained, because there's a lot to like, and reading about the different paths through felt proper. It's neat to see different stories GW has to tell. The author has been great with help on the forums and accepting that, okay, people might mark GW down a bit, and they should be proud of what they've offered us. But I have to draw the line. I've seen two of the endings, and I don't want to get stuck on any one game. I may play through the full ending, but I found the world and map vivid enough to recall, and I know where I spun out. So I'll be able to process the full story, so I can move from "hey, this looks and feels right" to something more rigorous.
Overall, there is a lot to like and look forward to, but unless you're a horror fan, I don't really recommend diving into GW and trying to find everything without serious guidance. I read someone on the forums say "I got all 50 points! What a great game!" and I believe them. And I hope that's not an "oh sure some people will like this." I'm going to wait until a full walkthrough is posted. I know there are four endings: one is a quick failure where it's strongly hinted beforehand that you're begging for trouble, two are qualified successes, and one is the "true ending." I'd love to see the differences between paths through. I know from experience that different villagers can react more positively depending on whom you start as, though most of the core puzzles stay the same. I'm not really sold on one of the three directions, as it seems a bit improbable, but I do want to look for it.
You play as Mandy, a girl who finds a letter by a house she's walked past and always wondered about and, you guessed it, uses that as an excuse to enter. There's no easy way out, so she figures she may have to deliver the letter and talk to the owner.
Well, that's not strictly true. You can leave briefly in two ways: once to get an important though common item, and a second time, you need to set up a science experiment just right. Nothing abstruse, if you know your haunted-house tropes. For one of them, you walk a bit of a tightrope, and it's nice and low-key scary.
THe rest of the house is as odd as you'd expect. Some was charming, but the map wraps oddly--if you go west from one room, you eventually wind up below it, and it felt like surrealism for surrealism's sake. It's also possible to flood one of the few hub rooms (exits three ways) with mannequins during one try, which gives the old-school vibes HoHL wants to project, but maybe not the best ones. I did, however, appreciate the clear signal of a room you needed to get to (an empty lift shaft) and the drawing room that grew or shrunk you based on which way you entered and, by extension, items you dropped there. It made for some interesting puzzles, but maybe the game relied a bit too heavily on it. I got a bit tired of circling back and forth near the end, and I in fact avoided the room because I figured it had served its purpose after the first couple of puzzles.
Then I didn't quite "get" the puzzle about awakening a Frankenstein style monster, until I did, and it made sense, and I had fun getting it to do what I needed. That monster helps you with more puzzles later, and it's the cute sort of stupid. I like how it neutralized some other NPCs. The final puzzle? Well, it was a bit of a pun, and it lampshaded the absent-mindedness of the Doctor, whom you eventually do meet, once he tells you his interpretation. It's a bit of a Dad joke, which is appropriate, since the author indicated in his post-mortem he wrote it with his daughter in mind.
As for the technical stuff: Quest really has grown up a lot! Even stuff like saving and restoring has bells and whistles and circumvents the difficulties that arise from Inform save states, namely that they're useless if the binary is updated. The InvisiClues that come with HoHL are nice, if you don't want everything spoiled. And I love that you can miss the last letter or several letters of an 8-letter word, and Quest figures it out. There's enough so that the verb-recognition error, which I found terribly snarky ("I can't even begin to make sense of this") isn't very prominent--this seems like a missed chance. The game tries to capture the tone of wonderment of a 16-year-old locked in a strange house, with a lot of "Mandy wonders this." So "Mandy had a thought, but she didn't know how to (word 1, or word after the comma in dialogue)--maybe her mind was just foggy" seems like it would work. But as-is, when I had a typo on a tough puzzle, it made me groan. Worse things happen at sea, of course, and I've been guilty of not battening down some of Inform's more tone-deaf errors (default responses to "no" and "yes," for example) but this seemed like a slightly obnoxious design choice, especially when much of the rest of the game was written to be hands-off.
Despite these concerns, I got a lot of positive mileage out of HoHL, and the puzzles made sense once I had that a-ha moment. I think I was at a disadvantage as I wasn't really familiar with haunted-house tropes. The puzzles have enjoyable variety in retrospect, and the atmosphere is good--nothing too terribly scary here, as long as you don't release the frustrating mannequins. There's no dread of being trapped, more just "neat, I'm stuck." I'm glad the author left a full walkthrough so I could figure what I did wrong, though. I'd have missed the neat bit after I got up the lift. The puzzle to get upstairs was a bit fiddly even with the hints, though I like that they're there as gradated spoilers, for those who want to dwell a bit longer.