Reviews by Andrew Schultz

IFComp 2021

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 Spring Thing 2023 TALP 2022
...or see all reviews by this member
Previous | 21-30 of 63 | Next | Show All

Silicon and Cells, by Nic Barkdull and Matthew Borgard

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Cute pastel-colored text, seedy cyberverse, successful Unity effort, December 4, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

I've known Unity was powerful for a while, yet maybe it was too powerful for a regular-style text adventure. There've been Unity games in IFComp before, the first (I think) being Milk Party Palace back in 2014. It was relatively harmless, featuring Montell Jordan's "This is How We Do It" as part of the soundtrack, as well as random demands from Alec Baldwin. So it was just a case of people showing off their new and shiny unity skills. That's all well and good, but with Unity being more mature and less new and shiny, we'd hope for something deeper, and I think Silicon and Cells gives that to the reader.

IFComp 2021 had no shortage of simulation games, or games where you went into cyberspace. While they ran together for me, largely because I procrastinated a lot to their end, each was clearly its own game. I think Silicon and Cells stood out the most for me. That's partially due to a good story, but I have to admit I remembered the technical features most. One of the first things SnC provides is immediate customization of font size. This may not seem like a big deal, until you realize you can use the mouse wheel to scroll through the main text window, and you don't have to click "next" nearly as much, and you don't have to worry if you read something carefully enough before clicking "next." This was a big relief to me. The game said 1 1/2 hours, but it valued my time and saved my energy, so I was able to focus on the story. You can, of course, control-scroll wheel with twine, but Unity calculates the text wrapping so you can see as much or little as you want.

The other thing about the text is this: the game is divided into Meatspace, with light blue text, and Cyberspace, with pink text, both on a background. This echoes the "dark mode" that works so well on browsers, and so I'm grateful for it. While Meatspace simply has a standard text interface, Cybertext is is a neat curved 3-d surface plot with all sorts of cute places (castle, your own home replete with whiteboard) and reenforces that it's, well, not real. You know where you are without having to look up a specific location And your dialogue/where-to-go choices are in a thin rectangle on the right. This makes it so reading is never exhausting, and these are the sort of design choices that you take for granted once they work well, but people miss them a lot if they're gone. And it's needed, once playtime gets over an hour. I experienced very few "are we there yet" moments as I went through, despite having no walkthrough.

You don't really need one to get through, either. Because the progression is straightforward, though the puzzles aren't trivial. You, as Jaya, have failed at a heist, but you've apparently done well enough for your quasi-mentor Elihu to encourage you to things bigger than a giant heist. Elihu's plans are deep, and you wind up having to see and talk to a lot of shady people who themselves are fighting against even shadier people. On the way, you get bionic upgrades. You can't use them all at once. In fact, at first, you can only possess one at a time. These form the basis for most of the puzzles. I went with social engineering, which occasionally gives an extra dialogue choice that pops up as soon as you switch it on. Unsurprisingly, these move the game and narrative forward in ways regular chat can't. I also got enhanced vision, which let me see fingerprints on a keypad. Later on, you get super strength or the ability to slow down time, and you get multiple charge units, so you can, for instance, really slow time down or get super strong. Many of the later puzzles require you to switch to the right power-ups in time, or you die. Sort of. The game just kicks you back a bit, and you have to try again. Since there was no save feature, I appreciated this.

As for the details of the plot? It's fun to figure how to cheat at the casino or visit people in cyberspace. The small MUD is full of humor and purpose and an appropriate villain (not that anyone's TERRIBLY nice here) and, of course, a puzzle to get around a troll with way more HP and damage per turn than you. There seems to be more than one way. There's also some character called The Oracle who used to be human and is sort of one of the Elders (like Elihu) who used to be in charge of things, before the G.O.D. framework and its cherubim (who are not very innocent enforcers) took over. You can only ask the Oracle factual questions, so often you need to find the right way to ask. Or you need to ask other NPCs the right way to ask.

So there's a lot of back-and-forthing among the various locations that include NebulaCorp, which is pretty dysfunctional and dystopian, and your own haunts. SnC is good about rejecting you if you don't need to do any more. Some NPCs are a bit snarky but never mean in suggesting where to go next, and your private home in Cyberspace with its whiteboard lets you connect the dots at your leisure. You do, indeed, have a choice of which Elder to betray or annoy. I wanted to betray one of them, but I couldn't figure the timed puzzle, so I went with the other. Hooray, expedience! Sadly I couldn't save and see the other ending quickly. That combined with no documentation cluing all the walkthroughs (surely for getting through the game we deserve a big-picture view of all the ways through?) was probably my biggest disappointment. I saw a well-conceived world but felt locked out from really exploring it, because a simple feature, one much simpler than SnC's useful conveniences, was absent. I noticed Mike Spivey's review mentioned he had an easier second time through, and experience bears this out. The interface is more comfortable, and you have an idea that the world is bounded.

Still, the story engaged me, and I missed that there was satire bit at first, but then again, I missed the satire in Fight Club and was just kind of disgusted (mitigating factor: many people praised it for what they thought it was.) Then again, I also missed the satire in RoboCop the first time through. Then I learned it was there, and I enjoyed Robocop a totally different way. Same, too, with the first bits of SnC. It's pretty clear the scene where you get bionic arms installed is meant to be, and I'm sure I've missed others. It's equally exciting played straight-up or acknowledging sly fourth-wall winks, and even before placing near the top quarter, it showed text-based adventures in Unity are worthwhile and doable, and you don't have to be super-dazzling. The authors showed considerable skill in making SnC accessible, enjoyable and even revisitable to someone who thought he was sick of internet/virtual reality simulators.

Mermaids of Ganymede, by Seth Paxton

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Sci-fi that works, even for non-sci-fi fans, December 4, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

It's rare that finding a hang in a game helps you appreciate it more, but that's what happened in Mermaids. Certainly there was enough to appreciate beforehand, in this high-production-value science-fiction tale where you take a crew to one of Jupiter's moons, crash, and meed mermaids and mer-sharks. It's not just about the technology. As a captain of a research spaceship, you have ways of escaping (relatively lax) imprisonment, a chase through or under an iceberg, and ultimately some moral choices to make at the end.

So where was the hang? It was in the iceberg maze, in chapter 4 of 5. Mer-shark ambushes were too frequent, and I couldn't figure clues of when they were close by. I somehow missed the "survey" command that pinged where to go next. So I got a bit frustrated and hit F5 to restart and play chapter 5. MoG let me choose how I'd behaved, since I didn't save my game. Now this had also been done in At King Arthur's Christmas Feast, but there, the choices varied less, in order to remain faithful to the source material. Here, it acted as a nice hint of things to retry without spoiling too much. I'm the sort of person who enjoys picking apart all the story lines, so I was glad MoG recovered so well from the hang. Robustness in programming is a good thing.

Pacing is also good. The "action" chapters are 2 and 4, with dialogue in the odd-numbered chapters. In chapter 2, you have a very hands-off house arrest. Talking repeatedly to the warden turned up empty threats of actual imprisonment, and it couldn't have been by accident. That combined with the choices on starting chapter 5 makes for something to poke at on replay. Though the dialogue (chapters 1-3) felt up and down to me. Your crew consists of V.C, a pilot who felt nondescript, Emmett, who is not very likeable and knows it, but more importantly, knows his stuff ("the geyser guy,") and Hyun Jae, whose mother is on one of the research flights that vanished. Hyun Jae knows her mother is (was?) a better researcher than she is, and that makes her the most interesting of your crew. Later there's Cixatli, a mermaid guide who moves the story along by being there, but I felt she could have done more. But it all feels quite well thought out and worth following, even if some of the prose and dialogue feels flabby. Being able to fiddle with the different endings in chapter 5 made up for that. You have big choices of whether to stay and leave at some point, and you learn what happened to Hyun Jae's mother.

I felt like things fit very well in MoG even if they didn't totally shine. Part of that is maybe because I'm not really a science fiction fan. But it did feel consistently well-organized in the big picture. The graphics and music felt appropriate without being intrusive. The world building is there, and replayability is built into it. It feels like an entry that may not be anyone's utter favorite, but I'd have been shocked to see it in the bottom half. The effort put into it by the authors is clear, and I enjoyed it, but my thoughts tended toward "Yes, I see the authors put in a lot of good effort" instead of the fully immersive "wow, this is just neat! You have to play this now!" Still, if you are playing through the IFComp 2021 entries, it's worth more than a drive-by look.

And Then You Come to a House Not Unlike the Previous One, by B.J. Best

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
A discussion of what nostalgia is and should be, December 4, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

ATY (we don't need the whole acronym) quickly establishes itself as metafiction: you, Em (short for Emerson,) are playing a distinctly mediocre game called Infinite Adventure with your friend, Riley, who's about to move away. You're young enough to still forgive programmers for the sort of simplicity found in IA, but you're old enough to want more and to start feeling bored. But these games are what you have. So you play them. You give an elf a carrot, because giving them a feather doesn't work. This continues until you and Riley realize that this is not the greatest way to spend time together before she leaves. And there's a nagging feeling you two aren't discussing what really matters.

There's not much to do besides play games, though, especially with the weather. Now part of ATY's task is: how to we make a game-in-a-game that's clearly boring, without making the game boring? Well, it makes several offerings, all of which are boring in their own way, but certainly back in the '80s this sort of variety felt like it had to be interesting. There's Infinite Adventure, featured in the blurb and cover art, which ... goes on, in its "give x to y" sort of way, until it's broken and you don't have the item you need to help a witch get organized. At this point, your in-game computer's menu reveals three other games: Warriors of Xanmor (all stereotypical adventure games should have an X,) Strip Poker and CompuDoctor. Each is a simplistic game with an adult NPC. All three have holes in their own lives. They're far from perfect. But each gives you appropriate distance from their shortcomings,. Strip Poker has impressive ASCII art which shows someone reclining without, well, showing anything. CompuDoctor is mostly textwalls with egregious typos (they're there for a purpose.) And Gardon, Warrior of Xanmor (the first NPC you meet) does the whole elevated middle English thing before lapsing into more normal chat or, once you're done chatting, estimating his experience points or performing other fourth-wall-breaking activities. There's also a shop in Xanmor, but your adventuring won't give you any currency it needs.

He needs something, and so does your opponent in Strip Poker and the doctor in CompuDoctor. Each one of them irks you in their own way. That's partially your own immaturity and part their own shortcoming as adults. There are particularly good parts here where you don't even want to talk to the doctor because he knows to much about you, and your strip poker opponent knows you aren't eighteen but tries to give you advice about growing up. And the three NPC, well, they know of each other, at the very least. And when I played through quickly, each time I had to give slightly different items to each NPC, which was a nice bit of flavor. But I think the best part is solving the 5th iteration of Infinite Adventure and beyond. AUTOPLAY gets you through and pushes the story right when you worry it's sagging a bit. It senses you get the point of how grinding is fun, until it isn't. Plus it signals things are going to go off the rails, both in terms of the game's realism and Em's own frustration.

There's a feeling of just extending time together for its own sake that the game captures well, then there's a flashpoint to what's brewing, because Em and Riley clearly have things they want to say but can't, and the adults in the games help them with that. And in fact you have the option at the end of explicitly not doing anything for Riley, or only doing part of what you can do, which affects the ending you choose. I enjoyed comparing them.

And things like this made ATY so much more than a look back with regret, or nostalgia, or whatever. For starters, I thought of how neat it seemed when I was 5 that a computer could almost sort of have another person inside it, or seem to, but I didn't realize what that realism would entail. Then there are shout-outs to other things from the '80s. They're not joyous, just mentioning, we liked this, but maybe there was better. The Amulet of Werdna is one. Wizardry's a good fit because it never really grew technically or provided a story, and it only slightly became less oppressive for starting players, and you could get nostalgic for it while missing Bard's Tale or Ultima. For me, Wizardry nostalgia was about making unbeatable characters with byte-editing and running through quickly, then discovering sibling folders on for RPGs I'd never heard of--and they were so much better once I had the guts to poke around or pay for an eBay copy of Quest for Clues.

As someone who can listen to one song on a loop, the Journey CD (CDs, wow) with references to newer, more experimental bands ring a bell, too. So the callbacks aren't just to cover retro-cred bases but to say, yeah, this was neat, but a bit was missing. So I had some regret that I never really got to discover BBSes or phreaking or assembly language, but ATY balancing things right still reminded me of long or slow goodbyes to certain friends, and even to ones I thought were my friends. Sometimes that good-bye was expected. Other times, maybe I should've seen it coming. I went to a big high school and had a feeling I'd stop being in classes with some people I'd liked to have seen more of. I had friends who showed me cool things and semi-friends who did, too, but they hid the GOOD stuff, and some of these friends-on-paper made me feel I couldn't share with others, or maybe I didn't deserve to share with others, and I felt the same sort of regret Em seems to if you end things wrong.

But ATY doesn't really dwell on things, or if it does, it makes it clear dwelling is not healthy, even if we can't see anything better. It has four possible endings, based on how well you want to remember Riley. They all bring up how dumb the Infinite Adventure game was but have different levels of contentment. But in any case, it does something good, which is to put in perspective some of the silly stuff I enjoyed, not just computer games, or stuff I played just because it was there or winnable, and that's not something to have nostalgia for. Maybe it was a game my friends and I all got better at until we hit a rough ceiling,and we should've been learning other skills instead. But it's also hinted when the adult characters inside the computer programs indicate that they want to move on, and Em has issues to address.

ATY was a tough one to replay, not due to quality issues, but because it was about how replaying lame stuff or nostalgia in general isn't healthy. The author mentioned in his postmortem a quote that nostalgia is anger misplaced, and I've certainly seen that when I've played through something old and thought "I wish I'd gotten the hint book earlier/had friends to share ideas with," and these thoughts often turn to "I wish I had more to be nostalgic about, like the trickier Infocom games." There are good memories, of course. And we should be able to get a lot of neat things from something that seems stupid on the surface. And looking back, I never realized how many adults I looked up to mixed in anger with their nostalgia. But I also think nostalgia is fear misplaced, or it has been for me. I want to try new things, but not really, just as Em and Riley like Journey, but it's hard to discover new things--what if we don't like the new thing as much? All the while, Infinite Adventure, the safe bet, gets more boring on replay. We're looking for something that isn't there. We do find new stuff, but less each time. I know even old beloved games get old, and sometimes (as with 2400 AD) the best part is finding a clever shortcut to make things go quicker. Narnia and the Chronicles of Prydain, well, I felt sad re-reading and finding nothing really new.

So I definitely worried ATY would have these severe diminishing returns to scale. It should be replayable on paper, but I think I paid enough attention to say: wait, ATY doesn't encourage too much of this sort of thing. I found ATY spurred me to try things I left out--that is the best you can hope for, grabbing onto someone's nostalgia and saying "Hey! I never saw that! I have a chance to now!" whether it's an old game or old video. Perhaps it's literal, where ATY mentions phreaking or some bands I never heard, or it reminds me of friends who said "What!? You never saw popular movie X?" Certainly the isolation ATY provides--the bulk of the real-world game takes part in place--reenforces that some nostalgia I had was itself too self-focused.

I remember on one gaming forum I had friends who liked retro games, but I knew I was looking for something different, and people wrote reviews, and eventually the reviews became more polarized, and the more aggressive personalities cut down favorite nostalgic games like Kickle Cubicle before leaving because "this place got a bit boring, no offense." I'd just never considered the anger angle before. The gradations of anger are reflected nicely in ATY's endings. But I also remember nostalgia as "boy, my friends and I were happy before we got bored of each other" and taking a while to realize we weren't a great long-term fit, and both sides may not have tried hard enough to find people they could grow with. ATY reminded me of several people like that--people I'd like to hook up with, but I wonder if we'd really talk about what we'd done since then and what we want to do, or if we'd get stuck.

I feel I don't have the qualifications to pick apart fully how good the meta-narrative is, but I think it must be Pretty Darned Good, as it reminded me of departures through college and beyond. It reminded me of people who said "keep in touch" and people who meant it, of people I should've gotten on with better. It made me Google a few dimly-rememebered names. I didn't dwell on whose fault it was we didn't get together more. And it made me (re)visit stuff I never got around to, in a way a detailed article or someone saying "OMG you have to listen to this" (or memories of people who bragged they knew it but never gave details--again, maybe a bit of anger on my part here they didn't share) never could. And, of course, it reminded me of the objectively boring things that provided bonds, even if they should not have, on paper. And even if those bonds were with people I ultimately fell out with, for reasons right or wrong, they were still there and far more real than the times I looked at something nostalgic and thought "this should cheer me up." And it should have, on paper, but it didn't.

So games like ATYC are extremely valuable to me. I wind up pushing myself to do or try a bit more than expected, because I don't want to be like Em thinking back too much to how things were, no matter how happy Em is in general. It certainly makes me want to try new things when writing (I worry I get in a rut) or coding (it's so easy to use the old packages you first learned and try to recreate the "Hey! This works!" excitement without trying for that next step) or, well, visiting new places. Works with exotic locales and exciting characters don't do it for me nearly as well. My feeling looking back is that Gardon and the doctor and Ashley don't need to be disturbed, but that also applies to real people and some of their memories, and I know I need that to block out possibilities that don't lead anywhere, to focus on the ones that will.

The Last Night of Alexisgrad, by Milo van Mesdag

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Can be played by yourself, but we need more 2-player games like this, December 3, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

Okay, so the cat was out of the bag pretty early that this was intended as a two-player game, and in retrospect, it was signposted pretty clearly by the author's comments, the introduction and, yes, the title, that this wasn't a strategy game, but I ignored these signposts. And I'm pretty glad I did, so there was that surprise. I've had enough neat surprises spoiled. But even if I'd paid full attention, I think I would have enjoyed the experience.

Because I expected an apocalyptic war, something far more fantastic, maybe two ancient kingdoms both pointing to a prophecy that said, well, on this night in Alexisgrad all will be decided, and each is sure the prophecy upholds THEM as the winner. And I'd certainly play something like that by this author. But the actual scenario is far less fantastical: there is the General of the Kingdom's Army and the Dictator of the Republic. You may play as either. If you think "Dictator" is a bit odd, you're right. But also, the king's army outnumbers and has more firepower than the army of a sovereign democracy of sorts, one that broke away from the Kingdom. With feuding factions (Republican and Socialist) that dissolved their government years ago. A look into the mind of the Dictator reveal someone who is power-seeking in her own way. The story certainly looks at certain paradoxes. Did the Dictator really become a dictator to save democracy? It also leaves things largely unsaid, like how Ivanov, the Dictator's rival, may have had better political instincts and thus committed suicide, knowing things were hopeless. And how, with some choices, the Dictator is revealed as selfish, as people who chase power can be, in a monarchy or democracy. Yet the Dictator seems as aware things have gone wrong internally as the General, who notes the inequality despite the republican/socialist aims. She gives the old "we have to try it" line, one I've certainly believed about liberal democracy. But it rings hollow when she says it.

On replay the opening feels like the strongest bit, and in fact that's where the main decisions are made, where maybe even Alexisgrad can be saved. I'm not spoiling this, but I didn't see this and just assumed inevitability and how and why the loss of Alexisgrad was bound to happen. (Note: even if the Republic pushes the kingdom back, they're still obviously always under the gun, long-term.) I feel silly not trying as much as I should've, but I'm grateful for the author mentioning different endings than most reviewers found, and I enjoyed reading the branches in the source to say: oh, yes, that's how this worked, or that worked, and I thought I tried it, but I didn't. Oh, and of course (choice redacted) was, indeed, very silly for one of the characters. There's one negotiation scene that's particularly interesting, where the General suspects or even knows their victory was hollow, because it should've been bigger, or the Dictator's followers are grateful that they only surrendered THAT much. Of course, the Dictator can negotiate badly, too, if she even manages to get where she can negotiate!

At first I found the General and Dictator, for all their power, seem pretty much fixed to behave a certain way, outside of what seem to be a few irrational choices. So I thought LNoA worked well as a "your choices are futile" game (The Dictator can escape with her life or semi-betray the people she serves/rules,) which I've seen before, but obviously there were more choices, which raised it in my estimatin. Even so, it usually starts with big plans which devolve into the General and Dictator facing each other, and you expect 15 years from now, the General and Dictator would be seen in the same light regardless what paths they chose and whether the Dictator was shot on the spot or sent to the King's mercies. And on replay, it seems the Colonel is more formidable than the General, and the Secretary of War/Defense is similarly tougher than the Dictator she advises. Seeing more of them would've been interesting, but the Dictator and General definitely have more interesting dilemmas, and LNoA already gave us a lot.

This sort of thing could get people playing more interactive fiction, because I think it's what interactive fiction can and should be. I say this as someone who prefers the label "text adventure" for most of my stuff. LNoA isn't too stuffy or preachy or high-minded. It takes a cool concept an executes it well. I played by myself but can picture people are interacting as they make choices, both with the story itself, to find the passages through, and with each other. There's a bit of strategizing, and some potential prisoner's-dilemma type strategy (you don't know how aggressively your opponent will bargain,) working together to see if you missed anything. It took me several plays to beat this story into the ground by myself, and I in fact missed a few things. Like the old Zork games before the internet, I could see people playing this poking at their friend to say hey, come on, you can figure out what to do so the Dictator comes out okay.

It's interesting to see who's in charge of things (one side is, more than the other,) and I really liked having to fit the story together in a non-conventional way. Looking back, I got close the first time to a stalemate of sorts. There's an overwhelming feeling of the powerful not only staying powerful but also being able to make it look like they worked hard to earn and keep their power (You are sort of ruthless, if that counts.) But that's a bit simplistic. LNoA seems to have avoided commenting on any important Political Issues of the Day, and I was glad of that, because too often they leave me grumpy whether or not I agree with them. It really does stand out more as something that breaks new ground rather than any sort of political statement, and I'd be glad to play knockoffs if they appeared in 2022.

Final note: A basic (frameset cols="*,*") with two (frame src="main.htm") tags worked very nicely for me to keep track of things on my own. But obviously the experience is better if you don't see everything right away.

The Song of the Mockingbird, by Mike Carletta

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
A Western for people who don't like Westerns, December 3, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

Don't worry if you don't like Westerns. I don't, and I quickly stopped caring that SotM was one. The emphasis here isn't on Western flavor or what-have-you, though there is plenty of it. Like the previous author's Dynamite Powers vs. the Ray of Night!, it's more about MacGuyvering things, though it's a good deal more serious. I have to admit I remembered the silly fun more than the MacGuyvering, so I hoped the second bit held up, and it does. I also felt the path and plot were a bit clearer, which I think is a combination of both experience as a designer and programmer and the more realistic setting. So I was pleased and unsurprised to see it do so well in the Comp.

Things start out pretty badly for you, Boots Taylor. The Black Blade has kidnapped Rosa, whom you think you've connected with nicely, and you go chasing the gang by yourself. Unsurprisingly, you're ambushed, and while you're hiding, a thug named Ace is throwing canisters at you in order to kill you. The higher-up gang members have business back at the ranch, and you're unarmed, so how hard can it be? While ducking, you sort of wonder how they explode, but more importantly, you're wondering how to disrupt him. That's your first puzzle. Once he's gone, you find a small gold casket you find on his person. Operating it is the first real puzzle, and the game is quite kind saying "okay, next time just use (command)!" Earning points is always nice, but earning a shortcut is an extra bonus!

The casket(Spoiler - click to show), which is really a lighter, helps you kill three more enemies: the gang members who left Ace to kill you. They're all hiding so as not to give anyone a clear shot. But that means if you sneak around right, they don't have one, either. Podge sneaks around the corral, Whitey is on the roof of the barn, and Felipe is on a windmill. These locations, along with a stable where you make friends with a horse (a Western trope, but definitely worthy of a Senor Chang "I'll allow it") hold clues how to kill enemies you can barely see.

All three of these puzzles feel to me very smart, yet not obscure. Upon killing each person, you note they didn't deserve quite a gruesome death (I suppose safety ladders weren't invented back then, leaving Whitey and Felipe having to jump,) but you still find a letter and a key in a pocket on each corpse. Each is used to open a triple-lock (spare a thought for poor Ace, who didn't own one) that leads to the Real Mystery.

Given the time frame (just after the Civil War) there are some call-backs to invoking the Confederacy that feel relevant today. Other reviewers pointed them out a bit better. It's all quite a dirty business aside from that. I may be walking a tightrope avoiding what the Real Mystery is, as I'd like to, but I just want to add, I found the annotations at the end interesting. Some stuff, like the safety powder, I knew, and some I did not. I feel like this is a game I could revisit in a year or so, having forgotten a lot of details, and I would recall enough of it to enjoy it unfolding in a slightly different way. Maybe as a boost before any of 2022's longer IFComp games that might seem intimidating. However, if I had to use a walkthrough, I'd be glad to read the one included with the game. It's a story by itself and manages to avoid the mechanical "move here then here" or even the stronger narration/command back-and-forth. I don't think it would've worked nearly as well if it weren't walking you through such a good story. It asks questions about what you may've noticed, then tells you, and it has a few red herrings worth trying. It's great fun, with a lot of care put in.

Oh, one thing: once you finish, the opening scene makes a bit more sense. You'll probably have forgotten it when you've been engaged in the story.

Funicular Simulator 2021, by Mary Goodden and Tom Leather

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Sort of public transport, sort of a sightseeing cruise, good fantasy, December 3, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

Earlier in 2021, the New Zealand touristry bureau released this great ad about avoiding cliches when visiting sites: avoiding certain poses or certain shots, and so forth. It's well-done and amusing, as it opens up some questions: why do we go interesting places? Are we really getting anything out of it? Are we getting what we should? How do we get what we should? Funicular Simulator doesn't pretend to answer these questions fully, but it does provide us with ways a sightseeing trip could be more than just something to check off on. In fact, here, it can lead to an entirely new life, or death. And, as Mike Russo's review (which will appear on IFDB in 35 days) invoked for me, it may give a feeling of being on public transport and having your own stuff to do, and yet being open to discussion if the right person is nearby. It helps scratch the itch of wondering what the interesting-seeming person on the bus/train is thinking about, whether you've never seen them before or recognize them on that route. So there are very accessible personal and fantasy elements at play here.

The situation here isn't exactly the daily commute to work or the weekly bus trip to the grocery store, though. You're on the tram to see an aurora that appears every twenty years. Four people around you seem, well, interesting. There's Luke the graphic artist, Sofia the pilgrim, Meena the scientist, and Ray the student. You choose one to start, and the game focuses in on them. Each has their own story. None fully expects you to believe them, and there's no reason to.

Well, until you reach the end of the line. One of the four leads you to a conclusion, and you have a choice of whom to go with, at that point, if you made friends enough. There's a sort of Groundhog Day mechanic at work here. You can mess up a bit, and the person just says they want to be alone, or in the case where someone is romantically interested, you can push them away. And you can try again, if they didn't invite you a bit further. Or you can choose another conversational companion. You know a bit more, and that "Yes, I know what the aurora is for" option is now more viable. Without enough knowledge of the future/past, you don't REALLY know what it's for. The "actually, I don't know" follow-up option disappears. So the same options feel different. Along the way, stuff we know isn't true (aliens, time travel, reincarnation, etc.) becomes believable. Or I want to believe it, or I might as well, and the best part is, there is no scientific mumbo-jumbo.

I found the game-ending choice on the third person through. It was pretty clear they would end things, and I could back out when I wanted. It never quite feels like lawnmowering, though given the content warning, I used process of elimination to figure what was up with my final conversant. Having a bit more meta-information than my own character was maybe not something the authors fully intended to happen, but it gave me another layer of complexity in the whole "looping to find knowledge/resolution" thing, which was neat. I didn't feel there were barriers on what I could or should imagine, either. Things could be possible without me having to explain them. And there were lines like this:

"Oh well," says Sofia. ... She laughs. "I haven't even told you my name! I'm Sofia."

Wait, I thought at first, that's just a clear mis-step. But of course, that's what happens when you cycle through and get to see a conversation more than once. You do know Sofia well due to the cycles the game goes in. I like takes on time paradoxes like this, whether they're heavy or light. I also found some question of whether or not your companions cycled through this train ride up several times, which put a spin on some of their small-talky "but you can't believe this" proclamations. I mean, maybe they learned and remembered a lot by observing you, as well, and it would be weird to explain that back to you.

So we get a lot of potential trippiness with very little "look at me I'm being trippy and showing you The Truth and yet The Truth is fungible" sort of nonsense. This is appreciated. Adding to the effect is the background–I remember tinkering with gradients in Microsoft Office years ago, and it was just fun, but it didn't mean anything. Here the effect is relatively simple and works well. It's sort of sunset-ish, but a bit more than that, and anything too jazzy would've been inappropriate.

The undo command allows you to see all five possible endings (go with anyone or stay by yourself) so you can get a feel for the narrative, and yet at the same time you feel as though you've earned it. Though I like logic puzzles, I'm glad there wasn't any huge logic puzzle to unlock each ending, more just asking questions and trying things out. There aren't many puzzles, but I liked how the bit with the scientist's chronon tracker worked, both how it was laid out and how you could find something if you were clever. You had to set a reading to a certain number, which was not bad with trial and error, but that wasn't everything.

I can't be the only IFComper who looks at the entries next to me alphabetically, to see if I'm in good company. Fine Felines before me was quite enjoyable, and I'm happy to report so was Funicular Simulator. (They wound up placing next to each other, too!) But it goes beyond just "wow, that's neat." Funicular Simulator is a game on the very surface about interesting people sitting next to you to learn from on a ride, thrown together by chance, and it has a bit more. You can bug whom you want to bug, and nobody will get annoyed. And, to me, it's a heck of a lot more interesting and involving than a luxury cruise could ever be. You get to ask questions and not worry if they're the wrong ones, and you never feel as though someone's waiting to pat your hand and saying "sweetie, there are no wrong questions or answers. No, really, not even yours."

Codex Sadistica: A Heavy-Metal Minigame, by grave snail games

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
Several grades above scrap metal, for sure, December 3, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

So I was worried this game would be much darker than it actually turned out to be. Well, perhaps heavy-metal-hating adults from my youth who insisted there were Satanic messages in there, or at the very least it wasn't the sort of thing that helped you be productive in society, would disagree. But it did turn out to be sort of supernatural and dark, or at least, that's the fate that was threatened. It never actually happened. And yes, this effort is about heavy metal music and various subgenres, but this didn't stop my clueless self from enjoying it, and it shouldn't stop you.

You're at a heavy metal club and are very upset your own "real' metal band is being kept off the stage by a very long glam-metal performance. You need to get back on-stage. This is harder than it seems. The lead singer of the glam-metal band is, in fact, more than just a selfish jerk. Your problem? You'll need all your band members together to have the force to do so. They're all distracted by something silly. Emmy, your guitarist, is upset her Switch is low on power. Mae, your cousin ("and more importantly, your drummer") is being accosted by – horror of horror – dudebros out in the back. Tamm's brother insists on playing D&D with her. Clover and Max stuck themselves in a closet to avoid a stalker. All this must be settled before you go on stage. And there's a "horrible" secret why the glam-rock band is so popular: the lead singer is worse than the dudebros. A demon, in fact.

Evasive action must be taken so that the club and, indeed, the world avoids a horrible fate. The key command to use here is JAM: once you jam correctly with a fellow band member, they're willing to do what it takes to get on-stage. JAM also meshes different subgenres of metal into a third. All this is beyond me, and apparently the hybrids aren't relly related to the originals, but it's all in good, clear fun. Clear enough that even an uninitiate like me could understand it.

Minor vandalism is required. You must burn a poster for Acid Lobotomy (there really is a band named this! It's too perfect,) but the game notes they would've wanted it that way. You and Mae have a very detailed discussion about heavy metal minutae that can't possibly appeal to outsiders, but it does here, because it's obviously overdone, and it's used to leave the dudebros bothering her in the dust.

The game map itself isn't very big–it's one of those packed music clubs, after all. So you could trial-and-error everything except the puzzle noted in spoilers. I was worried it might be something much, much bigger due to the word "Codex," but really, I think it's about the right size.

I'm pretty sure I missed out on some of the joke details, and I had no clue whether or not jamming created different fusions of metal styles. But I didn't mind. It's a fun little romp of good (but not, like, sickeningly or boringly good) vs. evil. I very much enjoyed it, and I'm speaking as someone who doesn't really enjoy live music, especially loud live music. I'd almost say the game's good harmless fun, but somehow, that seems like exactly the wrong compliment. Perhaps I get all the excitement of crowds without, well, having to deal with crowds. At any rate, I think the author did a good job of articulating the excitement and humor of metal culture, probably better than I would do discussing college sports fandom or chess ("That Carlsbad pawn structure, eh? Eh?") And I'm glad I played it, as if it hadn't been in IFComp, I'd likely have said, eh, heavy metal? I'll pass.

Cyborg Arena, by John Ayliff

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
You've played this before, without all the technology--well, sort of, December 3, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

Cyborg Arena has an unusual symmetry you will probably see if you play through a few times, and it's not hard to. On the surface it's a small competition: a cyborg-on-cyborg fight, for human entertainment. You get to choose your name and weapon (I suspect the flamesaw is a crowd and player favorite) and then spend a few rounds fighting your opponent. The major twist is that you (Spoiler - click to show)know your opponent and have fought them before, multiple times. You and they are more than friends. Throughout the fight, the crowd grows more or less excited. You have flashbacks of how you met your opponent and how cyborg fights have become kosher, and on multiple times through, you get very different endings based on how friendly you were, or how excited you keep the crowd. So you can play explicitly to win or to lose.

It's not hard to beat your opponent, since you can read them pretty well even if you didn't make friends with them. They have three moves, and each move beats one other--yes, even in technologically advanced society, 1) rock-paper-scissors is a thing and 2) peole can be suckered into wasting time and money watching it. There are bells and whistles, of course. But we know what it is at its heart. There's a bit more, too: smashing your opponent's health bar and running up the score isn't necessarily the point. Keeping the crowd cheering loudly is a different mechanic that you have to experiment to get right, and it affects your ending. I managed to completely outmaneuver my opponent and still get killed, for instance. On multiple playthroughs, it struck me that the "twist" in the battle, which was apparently a first, well, wasn't. (Spoiler - click to show)It was the first ever fight to the death. But the crowd wanted it to be, and arguing the point in the middle of a fight would, of course, be worse than hopeless. Successfully subverting the "twist," in fact, only makes the crowd roar louder. They think they understand your story, but they don't, really. They see brave fighters, but the story is complex because of how cyborgs have been treated.

Certainly, with what the story reveals about cyborgs and cyborgs' rights, the best you can do is be their favorite second-class citizen. Cyborgs had been granted personhood in the near future, but later, they'd gotten it stripped. This brought up a lot of issues for me, not because I'm a cyborg (I'm not,) but because I've had acceptance pulled away from me. Sometimes that acceptance was in good faith, and sometimes it wasn't. Sometimes I still felt second-class despite that acceptance. And I'm also reminded of how some (seemingly) popular kids loved to disrupt less-popular kids' friendships in high school, just for entertainment. Maybe popular isn't the right word here. They probably just understood power better than most. Well enough to get deference from everyone. But they also knew how to manipulate people just long enough to ruin a friendship. Here, it's institutional. There's a constant prodding for you not to trust other cyborgs, not even your friend who repeatedly helps you, and I think the diverging storylines worked well with the actual fights. It's so easy to do what's expected of you, but pulling yourself away to find an unexpected friendship–or one louder, nastier people would mock–or to help someone you should be competing with, is hard. You can blow your friend off, with the fight taking a very different tone.

And you can, of course, flip the script on its head, playing to lose, or even allowing your enemy to be the one to kill you and make the decisions. It was, to say the least, a bit different when I was at their mercy. So I got a lot more than I expected out of what seemed to be a dystopian sci-fi where robots fight and the crowd cheers. It's presented so straightforwardly it's hard not to get sucked in and give a few tries. But the funny thing: once I thought I'd tried lots of anti-establishment things against the repressive government behind the cyborg arena, I realized I never had let my friend win or come close to winning. Despite choosing some high-minded, selfless options during the flashbacks. And it's sort of scary how, even in a simulation with nothing concrete to lose, you can still do for you.

Grandma Bethlinda's Remarkable Egg, by Arthur DiBianca

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
It's like your usual DiBianca game, except different, in all the good ways, December 3, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

After several years, you may think you know what you're going to get from a DiBianca game, but maybe not. I say this as someone who's enjoyed beta testing his games before. They're already in quite good shape by the time I get them. I like the surrealism with more than enough backstory to allow for a nice variety of puzzles. And I like being able to get through the basic ending, then the more-fun full ending. There will be challenges, but I don't have to do everything the first time through. I know I saved GBRE for later after completing the easy part first. And, for the author's usual efforts, it is unexpectedly easy to get the basic end. But then again the author also leaves much tougher puzzles out there for those who want to stretch themselves.

You've managed to handcuff yourself without a key, but fortunately Grandma Bethlinda's Egg has just about everything you could expect from a mechanical egg, including lockpicks ... if you can figure how to open it. The egg, however, needs you to run diagnostics. Not too many, but enough to keep you busy. Each one opens up new commands, which may or may not be necessary for your immediate needs. A small puzzle with 3 variable letters in a 7-letter word is one example I'll focus on. There are a few ways to do it: one is to write a program that spits out all the combinations and compares it to my words file. Another is to write a script that grinds through all the possibilities with the commands. An example would be:

* change slot 1 3 times
* change slot 2 once
* steps 1, 2, 1, 2, 1
* change slot 3
* steps 3, 4, 3, 4, 3

Or, of course, you can just have fun with trial and error. There's a balance here. Too much brute force, or too many programs, is no fun. I tend to get a good blend of regular problem-solving and coding tries. I enjoy the meta-game of balancin things. There's also another puzzle where the egg is dirty and needs cleaning. But you need the right temperature of steam. So you VENT or WAIT for several turns, which heats things up or cools things down. It's an arithmetic problem, really, as VENT cuts the temperature in half. But it's a fun one, and I wound up getting the right temperature a mve early, which wasn't good enough. Figuring out what I missed was rewarding. It feels like it should be busy work, but it never quite is, and the author has a good intuitive feel for mixing things up, for starting with received knowledge and moving on to trickier things, and also talking effectively to the reader.

I got a basic good ending, which was enough. I knew there was obviously more. I was unable to print out the manual, which the game lampshades pretty early on. You don't have any paper to feed the egg, you see. But there are other things: a racecar that doesn't want to fall off a table and a mechanical dog that ... well, it seems fun. There are 21 or so bonus endings and more than 50 verbs to use or find. That sets the stage for a lot of experimentation. I admit I was a bit short of time, so on replay, I looked at some of the tricker puzzles. While the author's shown humor before in his puzzles, it's more explicit here, and you can't just sit down and calculate everything. There are timing puzzles, as well as puzzles for taking the right things out of the egg (too many, and it says you need to bring some back in.) There's even a survey you can (again!) brute-force, and I really liked the puzzle to get the egg to 100% commands. You control a microbot going up it, and the microbot can only describe the items blocking its way. From that, you have to order the egg to expel certain things, so the microbot can move forward. There's more lateral thinking than usual here, because GBRE gives you all the achievements' names, and you have to guess the right verb(s) or, more often, the combination of egg commands to get stuff done. Some experiments don't quite work, and that's kind of funny too.

Usually I tackle a Grandma Bethlinda game 100% right away, but then I didn't usually want to try to complete all IFComp games. GBRE isn't the first entry where you know you've missed something and you can put it off until later, but you do know roughly what you've missed, and it's easiest to play around with in your head, because all the pieces are there. And one other note: before looking at it, I flipped back through old issues of the New Zork Times. The author mentioned he'd gotten a letter published. It was about how A Mind Forever Voyaging was nice but light on the puzzles he'd come to expect, compared to Zork, etc. Perhaps someone may feel GBRE goes off in a different branch as well, one it shouldn't, one they didn't expect, and history will show that yes, GBRE offers something neat Arthur DiBianca's other games don't. I enjoyed the different humor after first saying, wait, there's a bit more lateral thinking and a lot less number/logic crunching than I expected. But whether the next Grandma Bethlinda related game is heavy on pure logic or lateral thinking or, more likely, has a neat balance of both, I'm looking forward to it.

The Vaults, by Daniel Duarte

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Not really a text adventure, but fun if you know what to expect, December 3, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

Full disclosure: I tested The Vaults after IFComp was over, so I've been able to see a lot that wouldn't be accessible in two hours. I think I've worked well with the author, and he's been attentive about bug fixes--he even responded positively to a one-star review! I've enjoyed my time through it, and again. So this review will be a combination of my IFComp experiences and why it placed where it did, as well as a look forward, and things that are fixed if you want to check out The Vaults now. TLDR: there's a lot more player help and balance.

Within the two-hour judging limit (I think,) I got my keepers to level 2 in The Vaults. I saw basically what was going on: you have little three mini-ghost keepers, replete with hoods, who go about a terrain and fight adorably grouchy little knocker goblins. They're bluish and keel over and grimace further when they die, which is quite frequently. I even managed to gain my keepers armor and gauntlets. The armor cost one maximum hip point, which shows the author has put effort into balancing things in addition to, well, getting such a massive effort to work.

From a gaming perspective, I enjoyed The Vaults very much, but as a text adventure or perhaps freeware, it's wanting. It's in Unity and takes a while to load--longer than Cygnet Committee, Silicon and Cells or Mermaids of Ganymede. There are in-game purchases, which is just fine for a game that is going to Steam, but other people found it iffy. The ethical considerations here are tricky: you won't see all of the game in two hours, especially with all the special effects, but if you buy a pricey item, you can move forward quickly and thus be able to judge more! I think The Vaults unintentionally found a loophole that should be closed. I doubt this was through malice. The author probably saw, hey, there's a contest for unreleased games that starts just as my game is scheduled to release! So I think IFComp needs to re-evaluate its stance on in-game purchases. Competitors shouldn't feel pushed to make them in the name of fairness. This is far less black-and-white than releasing a game before comp start or actually charging, but I think now we've seen it, we need a future rule.

However, the main reason this game didn't work for IFComp is that it wasn't really text-based at the time. The big text gulps are before you go exploring, and then the screen times out before your next fight. It's possible to take a screenshot, but it shouldn't be. A few tutorial dialogues popped up but not enough to help you understand what was going on. Often text would disappear after some time out, or I'd just want to get through the splash-screen before the next fight and suddenly realized that text might be valuable! So having an information, umm, vault full of these screenshots would be nice. There are starting tutorials, but I wasn't in a position to really understand what they mean until you play a few fights. The game precluded you from doing certain things, too, such as attacking when attack power is zero and now I've gotten through it a bit, it's obvious to me, but not newer players. I almost gave up, and I maybe would've, too, if those poor cute knocker goblins hadn't shown terrible strategic reasoning by attacking me. I eventually decided to see what would happen if I just sat around and let them kill me, and at that point I realized what some of the numbers around the combatants meant.

All this is done much better now, though it's still light on text. Having said that, the graphics are good enough to figure what the red, blue, green and purple are for without text. I did it myself! Thankfully, you won't need to any more.

As it was, I assembled a deck by trial and error (it's now automated--your default cards go to a default deck), and I got bopped pretty badly as I pushed forward outside the first area. So I stuck with knocking around (ha!) the poor knockers goblins, deal with summons, and attack only when it's useful. I was overwhelmed by who did what at first, and again, there are helpful popup boxes now. The author's done a lot of this--allowed for more detailed graphics or animations, or just "hey! Here's the treasure from those twenty chests!"

The Vaults is an impressive piece of programming. I get a sense of strategy that interested me, even though I'm not big on card games. But I definitely wasn't in the right frame of mind for it, and given how I wound up grinding in the first area, the story was almost non-existent. It only unfolds with each new area and tougher monsters. That said, I did get to the end of the second map with a clear idea of what was going on. Even then, I hadn't explored duel mode or really used the Forge, which combines items (you get experience, and it costs gold) into more powerful ones. You also get to choose a specialization class later.

So The Vaults is a bit heavy on the technical effects, and thus it put itself at a severe disadvantage in a text-based contest such as IFComp. I feel like a goon playing gatekeeper and saying "IFComp isn't the right place for this game" because, after all, I did enjoy it. But all the same, given that the author has ambitions to put the game on Steam, I suspect the game's placing will be outweighed by the utility of any bugs judges find and report. I've learned a lot about the whole RPG creation process. And at any rate, it's really cool to be able to say I sincerely enjoyed my time testing both the first- and last-placed games in IFComp 2021, albeit for different reasons.

Previous | 21-30 of 63 | Next | Show All