Reviews by Andrew Schultz

IFComp 2021

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The Libonotus Cup, by Nils Fagerburg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Golden Heist, by George Lockett and Rob Thorman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sting, by Mike Russo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Closure, by Sarah Willson

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dead Account, by Naomi Norbez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

extraordinary_fandoms.exe, by Storysinger Presents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So my take-away is that the fandom itself isn't extraordinary, though Pinecone's jump in life quality is pretty phenomenal when given something like normalcy. Pinecone seems to have learned that sort of interaction shouldn't be seen as extraordinary. Perhaps the work is too black-and-white about abusive parents and a supportive teen social group and how quickly things can change. Perhaps I'm jealous I never had that fully supportive teen group. Let's just say there were oddities in my family life, and kids in the Smart Classes said "boy, in case you're not lying, you're dumb to sit there and accept that. Oh, also, shut up and be grateful for advanced classes." Or it's too optimistic, about the turnaround Pinecone's friends help her achieve, and Things Don't (Usually) Work That Way. Yes, there are probably diminishing returns to scale if I would read too many similar works. Yes, reading too many might put me in a dreamland that prevents me from doing stuff.

But it is worth finding a work, or a community, that hits that sweet spot just when you got cynical, where you seem to be good at something and it feels like it's no big deal, but it is, to other people. It is believable, far more than the standard "if you believe it, you can achieve it" melodramas with a rags-to-riches story. Someone quite simply finds acceptance, acceptance most of us think we need, but we figure it's not enough. Here, it is. Pinecone finds a niche and doesn't worry about who has more Programming Experience Points or whatever. Maybe Pinecone never takes on super-big projects or reaches the top. But Pinecone finds acceptance and peace. And even though I felt EFE may have cut corners or left something out (maybe for a sequel, perhaps, when the author has had more time to reflect on things,) I want to label it as a Good Thing well worth looking through for someone who feels blocked from learning new coding. Yes, it felt too general at times, and I felt the author may've holding back the sort of important details that are hard to write down. Perhaps exploring Pinecone's doubt more, or what their parents would think of such a project, or Pinecone fixing other stuff they missed, would be a good idea for a follow-up work.

D'ARKUN, by Michael Baltes

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
atmospheric mystery/horror game in Dialog, December 30, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

As D'ARKUN combines horror and mystery, which are two of my least preferred genres, I'll mention I still enjoyed it, because it gave me several good chances to. I'll tackle the programming side first. On realizing D'ARKUN was, in fact, in Dialog, I realized it was the first Dialog game I played. I had clear chances, since others have appeared in IFComp. I left my first run-through thinking "Wow! How did the author do that?" to some parts I found unusually smooth. Now the programming side is well more than competent. It certainly gave me ideas of stuff to do in Inform. And I think Dialog uses very well the information of what programmers need and use from the Z-machine, as well as more data on what players find improves their own experience. So Dialog and such aren't bound to support arcane ways of doing things just because Infocom did it that way, when maybe Infocom only did it that way due to hardware limitations. Hooray, progress!

But there's neat stuff which the author seems to deserve credit for. The big boost I saw in D'ARKUN was the "find" command, which helps make a big in-game world such as D'ARKUN feel much more accessible. FIND X moves you to X's location, if you can make it there. This is something I implemented as a debug command in some games, but it was tricky, and it felt smooth here. It even rejected my attempts when I dropped climbing gear needed to bridge gaps or travel between towns. This all set the table for a much more pleasant experience than I feared, but it would have been good in Inform as well.

D'ARKUN takes place in a small set of villages near the north tip of what was formerly East Germany–a great spot for an obscure, distant cult to take hold and go about their business for years without anyone noticing. You generally ride your bike between them – I'd have liked maybe a menu or shortcuts here so I didn't have to type "ride to altenkirchen," but I did enjoy not having to do this too much. Though I was maybe sort of hoping for nudges to say, okay, you spent enough time here.

After a good competent start on my part, I went to the walkthrough very early on this one. Enough was signposted in the game and not the walkthrough that I enjoyed reading the auxiliary materials that popped up to give atmosphere. They provided stronger atmosphere than some passive verb construction during action sequences ("some hands are grabbing you") – which looks like a translation thing that's easily fixed. And I think sometimes it was hard to follow the why's of the walkthrough. I had to search instead of look at a lot of things. HINT mentions this, but still, it was a bit of a nuisance to me and one of the relics of ancient text adventures that is on the author and not Dialog.

The puzzles that appeared were not super-esoteric. A lot revolved around using the climbing gear judiciously. But stuff like mixing the right liquid for the final bit felt like trial and error. Still, once I dropped down into the final tomb-ish area that there seemed no way back from, it was appropriately creepy, and the escape was believable. The bad guy was, indeed, bad (a variant on "What you think is evil is actually power you're just too scared to use" that always seems to be effective) and information along the way built up to who he was and what he was trying to do. Diaries scattered around also gave me an idea of past events, and perhaps the most interesting part for me was a chair you could sit in for a psycholgogical evaluation, which was simultaneously creepy and useful.

I'm at a loss to say too much about mystery/horror games, as I don't really grok their conventions and so forth. Other reviewers note D'ARKUN is even more in the Anchorhead vein than I'd guessed, while still being its own game. I can't say, because I haven't played Anchorhead--in fact, Cragne Manor with a walkthrough was enough for me! But D'ARKUN plus a walkthrough (even one that doesn't get all the points) worked as a positive experience for me, as an outsider. The password-protected PDF, of a map you unlock on your second day (D'ARKUN uses sleeping after performing tasks as a way to provide chapter breaks of a sort,) is a neat way to make sure people don't spoil too much too quickly. I did find the light-requiring puzzles tricky given the time you could keep the lamp lit. I wound up save-and-restoring, even with the refill I found later. But they weren't too bad, and I was able to accept not seeing a lot of the game beyond the walkthrough that got you half the points. I had some idea of places I hadn't explored, and the ending was satisfying enough.

Taste of Fingers, by V Dobranov

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Once you get it, ... eyowch!, December 30, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

If you may need to play something through twice, it's best if 1) it's relatively short and 2) it gives you clear alternate paths through and 3) it's rewarding to play through, because you see something you couldn't have expected to the first time. ToF is three for three here. Simple arithmetic makes it clear that re-reading through is constructive: at two critical points, you get to choose two of three memories for a tourist/businessman (their business seems more than a bit shady) in China to follow, then the story pushes forward. So if you say "Wait, what?" to the story at the end, as I did, the next time through, you can stabilize with one of the memories you've seen, then push forward with one you haven't. I was going a bit fast. So this was, in fact, an effective way to tell me: hey, look again, you missed some clues. I did.

ToF, ostensibly at first about zombies the narrator sees on a trip to China, has a twist. The person is revealed to be less than saintly. They are holed up. They know they can't go outside. Then the viewpoint switches to quasi-military personnel hunting down a rather big zombie in a coffee shop ... and we can assume the original narrator is that zombie, and they saw the personnel in their Hazmat suits as zombies of a sort, because they do look alien. We learn there's a virus that turns only certain ethnicities into zombies.

This would have felt ripped from the headlines in 2020 or this year, but it was apparently written a few years before. I certainly didn't need this sort of scare about how COVID could be worse (my basic fear was it would mutate into something more contagious like, well, the Delta or Omicron variant.) And, in a way, COVID has targeted a certain sort of person through misinformation. Thankfully hospital staff aren't and don't have to be as ruthless as the exterminators in the story, but there's obviously a toll on them or a temptation to think "this person asked for it." I've certainly long since grown weary of schadenfreude stories about "hey! This idiot promoted misinformation on Facebook, and COVID killed them!" The main character in ToF, it must be said, is worse than average.

Seeing a new vector for how awful COVID could be is, of course, not the sort of uplifting thing anyone's clamoring for right now. But it seems like a logical and nontrivial extension of how the next COVID could be worse, and other passages reminded me of where I can't visit and how and why, and ... well, quite bluntly, I'm glad I'm not the only one having worries, and sometimes when someone else puts their own worries into writing so well, it at least stops the vagueness. There've been all sorts of things COVID has cut short or made annoying: for instance, making the choice to eat something I am missing an ingredient for, or finally getting to not-waste a grocery purchase I made, instead of actually going to the store. And even when at the store, worrying about people who would not wear masks and ignored the one-way signs (bonus points for cell phone yammering) and thus raise more unnecessary risks. Again, the narrator is far, far worse, and the examples I cite are not worth getting worked up on a personal level, but ... too many people are like the narrator, and their petty actions may increase the risk all around. ToF's narrator, with his need for adventure despite what must've been frequent and obvious warnings, reminded me of that. It was worryingly pleasing to see him meet his fate at the hands of soldiers who were, conveniently, just doing their jobs, but they sure had fun doing the parts that would put most of us off.

How the monsters appeared in the Wasteland, by V Dobranov

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Very quick and effective, December 30, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

The author, like me, put two entries into IFComp this year. I think I see eye to eye with their methodology, too: don't make anything too long, because there will be more than enough entries, and you don't want to hog the oxygen. Let people revisit if they're interested. And I was, and I was glad to have something not in my genre(s) energize me for the next few entries. They've done well to present everything clearly and not leave any loose ends, except for the ones you need to chase down to find a few interesting details, and the translation is strong. On my first reading through, I thought "Why isn't it WHEN the monsters...?" but on re-reading, I get it. There's a bit of sleuthing to do, because you're not spoon-fed everything. It's that sort of entry that has a bit of everything, even up to causing tension without having any way to get you killed.

It seems HtmaiW is intentionally light on aesthetic details, and I think that's the right choice, because listing the technical specs of whatever armored vehicle you're using to transport the goods, as well as the how and why, would take away from the emotional punch. You are mercenaries doing a job. You don't have a lot of time for the technical stuff. You just have to make sure the power works. And at the start, it doesn't work well. Lights flicker. The fridge compartment's power is flaking, and your orders are to keep the cargo cool–which leaves various macabre suggestions as to what the cargo IS, and why it needs to be moved from the Enclave to the Citadel. It's a weapon, of sorts.

And very quickly, after the first repairs, you realize WHY this run may be so tricky. Nomads want to either steal or destroy your cargo. Again, both possibilities are workable, and your conversation with your android, uh, co-worker, Doho gives a sense of urgency. Yes, you need to fix that door in your vehicle that's on the blink. No, you don't have a lot of time. The vehicle isn't super-huge, but it's big enough to know this is serious business. The player's unfamiliarity with the GUI (well-presented as it is) also contributes to the tension when Doho exhorts you to hurry up. Doho's like that throughout.

And after you shoot down a few stray nomads, you get overwhelmed. Doho, being an android, sees things quite level-headedly up to the end. And it's his physical head you need to preserve, as you need to do certain things to ensure your own safety. This is a good creepy way of giving the player instructions without a full instruction sheet. You know what to do, but you're worried about Doho, even though he's irrelevant in the big picture and knows it. I certainly experienced some fear of "what if I arrived at the Citadel without even Doho's head, with the memory card in it."

Through all this, no mention of monsters, though probably some monstrous behavior and leadership contributed to the whole situation. You just can't call the monsters ... that. And of course, when they appear, they make sure you're safe from the nomads attacking you. It's unclear to me whether Doho predicted the monsters would destroy your potential captors, but either way, they're not the sort of entities to care about memory chips in an android's head.

I was able to escape, and I don't think there's much more, though I had lingering feelings something was missed. I suppose I could not have stopped the monsters from spreading, and I wound up not getting killed, but not much more. I'm curious if I could've done more. I feel like I missed something. Maybe I wanted to do more with or for Doho, or I expected to do more with the toolbelt, which had an interesting interface where links changed colors when you examined it. But HtmaiW was effective even before that. For all the Bad Things that it implies happen behind the scenes, it's the sort of entry that clearly adds to IFComp and won't bog a lot of people down, even if they get stuck fiddling with some mechanics. That's part of the game. It doesn't intimidate you with importancy, but it definitely provides a quick rush. And it has some nice touches, such as small passages in Arabic you can just google-translate, or a choice between Russian and English text, where later the English version gets some Russian text. This just made me smile.

So I think it's well worth a visit. And it definitely feels like there could or even should be a sequel.

Universal Hologram, by Kit Riemer

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Pain of loss/scrambling for survival in a sim, same/different as real life, December 30, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

UH was tough for me to get to replay. I thought it was mainly due to the snark of the main character, as well as Ged, the person encouraging you to act so everything doesn't go down the drain. Ged cusses sometimes. A few cuss words are nothing in the face of mass extinction, I got it, or I thought I did. This doesn't change how I enjoyed the meat of the game, or what I thought. The most amusing parts to me weren't the direct jokes but when the game stood back and let me think about things. Okay, yeah, I could pull back from the game any time, because I am a person with free will, and the game is just an HTML file with graphics and sound. But the pacing was organized well enough that you'd have a hub and branches, and the hub was pretty clearly a Good Place to Sit and Think of Things. Perhaps UH was too heavy on snark at times, which is okay. But it didn't rely on snark. It did other things to establish a Futuristic Tone, like having about/credits explicitly listed metadata. So I knew what I was getting into. But on reflection, I saw a theme of loss throughout the game, of worlds we dreamed up and let die, and how having someone in our created world keep it alive is, of course, an extreme exception.

You start out on Mars. Humans have moved here long ago, leaving behind a doomed Earth. There are pyramids of information, some practical and some not, and you've been chosen, for whatever reason, to look into them and find something. You're given a multiple-choice quiz you can cheat on, with easy undos, and it seems it's more of a way to catch you-the-player up on what's happening. Often, only one or two choices aren't ridiculous. The quiz to some extent establishes a theme: with all that technology, the witty repartee feels mechanical (responding "was that the first question?" to "Are you ready for the quiz?" is an example.) This pops up later, when you start analyzing the best social responses in a situation, ones most people would quickly choose either way, e.g. polite white lies or overbearing, overstated truth.

Because, as you find out, you're in a simulation. In fact, you are in U9, a very deep simulation, below U8 and so on. So it makes sense that, that far away from humanity, some of your emotions become quantified to some degree, and natural actions, such as deciding whether to tell your friend they look great or awful, become rigorous show-your-work-a-thons. I think it's no mistake that there is no real humor from your point of view, no "oh, that's neat because X," only comebacks.

After a few more evaluations, you find out you may be able to astral-project, and you find your quest. Your world is likely to be deleted. Nobody uses the information from your world any more or cares. Besides, you wouldn't understand stuff like soccer. You just wouldn't. Trust me, the overseeing computer says. It's not worth asking about. You've had a good run, no offense, but it takes work to upkeep, and you do understand your own self-interest may be adjusting your calculations? You and Ged both, really. Ged particularly adamant things should be saved. He provides actual reasons.

If you accept the challenge, you're sent forward into the real world (U0 or U1–I forget) to take a box with your world in it away from the people who are about to destroy it. Even if you succeed, things are irrevocably changed. You probably don't want to go back. And sort of like Narnia, the time you spent away is nothing compared to how time passed below, but unlike Narnia, there are no allegories or talking animals or aesthetic places to explore or wonder. Because, well, simulations are a dime-a-dozen. And I think UH meant not to give too many details, because it wanted to emphasize that even people in badly created or imagined worlds have a world and belong there, and it's the only one they've got. The semi-random, deliberately imperfect, odd graphics seem to reinforce this.

I think I got tripped up on some terminology and some science-fiction conventions, and when I kind of rolled my eyes at the swearing and snark, it probably cost me some Comprehension Points. So I didn't get as much out of this as I could. But there were still more than enough takeaways. The erasure scenes are very good, if you tell Ged to get lost. Given your character's snarky contrarian bent, it feels a little dirty of the game not to give you the chance, or force you to undo a lot. I'd have appreciated, once the game was over, a way to revisit the critical checkpoints and branches to see what happened if I messed up elsewhere. And certainly the whole "we're in a simulation" thing reminds me of all the times I played a game to somewhat-lose to see what was going on. All the people I killed with my decisions, this time through, all the simulations I aborted because I wasn't interested, with no Ged to save things remotely! Even the worlds I created in my head, whether with Legos or a computer program (e.g. The Sims) or even purely mentally, I imagine them drying up and sort of hoping they could save themselves somehow--of course nobody in there has free will or emotions--but I'd like them to live on. While UH kind of crushed me with all the mental worlds I'd created and left behind to shrivel, it also provided a story as to how they could keep going. So it was more to me than standard OMG YOU'RE IN A SIMULATION.

Dr Horror's House of Terror, by Ade McT

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Worth it, though I almost put it down for good, December 26, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

The title isn't joking around here. It gives you a clue that there is a lot of horror, and it may be overdone on purpose, but there is a point to it all. The problem with this is that one image or passage is probably not going to go down well for you. This is far from fatal, and I don't know how that can be helped. All I can say is, the bad guys are exposed as bad in the end. Because this was the game I most had to sit myself down to play. Others, my mind wandered. Here, I wanted my mind to wander. But there were rewards.

What, then, got me nervy? (Spoiler - click to show)You kill someone innocent in the game, rather early on. It made me get up and walk around a bit. It’s all there to establish what a bad person you are and how much you’ll do to gain power. But it’s there. And it quickly changed the tone, for me, from a light-hearted, silly "look how messed up bad movies can be" into other things. Yes, it’s supposed to be over the top. Yes, you may be the surprise-twist bad guy. That’s the point. Everyone’s revealed at the end to be awful, power-and-fame-grubbing people. But, hoo boy. One of the implements of death, well, might offend religious sensibilities. Perhaps people more comfortable with horror tropes can cast it aside. Part of the joke seems to be that you, a bumbling actor, get worse along the way to power. Knowing the author is a good person and a strong writer, I think this is the right explanation.

Maybe I felt ambushed by the gore, though, because the game does seem to go full-scale joke at the first required command. It's a pitch-perfect well-clued guess-the-verb that gives an idea of who you are. Then, after being called to Arnie, the director's, office, you discover that a cult is backing the whole production, and later, you find the big-shot actors also playing a role on-set are not quite as they seem. It goes well beyond needing makeup or a hairpiece. Along the way, you gain your first points, too. SCORE doesn't just give a numerical total but a list of "horror movie themed" things you did to avoid perilous situations, which mostly involve running away or, later, not letting someone else run away once your inventory's at full strength.

Enough strategic running away lets you make forward progress to Studio 5 (yes, there are four others) to see your first task. The actors are involved with that, and you not only need to gain their favor but also need an additional item for protection, which you can only get from killing the security guard. Security guards pop up throughout the game. They scold you and kick you to the studio lot without ever hurting you, so you see how it can be disturbing that you may need to deal harshly with one. There is a definite Chekhov's Gun lying around. I felt guilty considering doing what I needed to do. But I did it. And a part of me still felt, boy, it's pretty annoying to have to HIDE from the security guard for the fifth time. It'd be nice to get rid of them and get on with solving the puzzle.

Yes, there are five studios, each with a theme. Each brings you a phalanx you will need to defeat your executive director's evil cultish plans. The puzzles for all this work technically. The best one is where you have to summon and banish ghosts to create a sub-story by itself. This could be trial-and-error, but it's pretty clear who has to go where, and the locations also have clues. The outline of a body suggests a murder. And so forth. The build-a-monster one, while not as emotionally effective, signposted the pieces I needed, and then there was some thinking about how to tie them together. There's another one where you have to force someone who's scared of animals somewhere. I thought the English pub scene was the weakest, but it was still pretty good. The big basic types of horror movies are covered here: building a monster, giant predatory animals, and so forth. This was all well thought out, and there are a lot of good laughs leading up to the final fight scene, where you defeat evil. Of course, you don't exactly have a holy army behind you.

The final scene ... well, if I have to poke the author about something, it'd be to streamline the parser so you don't have to type in so much. Use abbreviations. Because it's a neat bit of five-on-five fighting, with different army groups pitted against each other. Then the surviving ones fight, and so forth. There are several possible outcomes here, but I found it amusing to compare aligning who fights whom to gerrymandering, which is a banal evil of its own sort. Gerrymandering? Why, yes. The way to win the war with balanced armies is to find who barely beats whom else (the mechanics, as far as I can see: (Spoiler - click to show)units start with 0-4 strength and lose one point for each fight they win,) and give yourself four wins and one big loss. You can even try to lose this way, too. But one thing I noted was (Spoiler - click to show)it wasn't whether you won or lost, but WHO won or lost, that caused the ending. There are three, and one is almost redemptive and potentially makes Dr. Horror feel like a big trolley problem. And this made me think: for all the physical power everyone has, or the offices and connections, you ultimately have the most power, because you have a bit of knowledge the others don't. And with this knowledge, your status as outward underdog is a bit fake.

Overall, if you're up to a lot of macabre jokes, and you understand/enjoy the genre (written or film,) Dr. Horror seems like it's for you. Perhaps it hit a perfect storm that almost made me put it down. But it was an "almost" because the craftsmanship is obvious, and the bad guys are clearly labeled as bad guys. "Bad actor trying to force their way through" could be a cliche, but here there's variety in the puzzles and knowledge of over-the-top horror films in detail.

One word on the fatalities and why I found them unpalatable: (Spoiler - click to show)I've run into mean security guards and nice ones. Perhaps it's not even security guards, but the people who work the late shift at the athletic club and have to deal with folks who won't go home. I remember leaving my house keys in the office at work and forgetting my badge to sign in when working late, and a security guard I knew helped me get back in. Or I left some writing notes on top of a machine at the athletic club, and the front desk person let me run in to get it. That sort of thing. And it's not a very respected job, and it's not where people want to be, but they need to pay the bills. But it's funny. I admit to thinking "gee, why can't the security guard reminded me more of that one condescending security guard from my high school? That'd be more fun." So Dr. Horror brought out that less-than-beautiful side in me. And I suppose the point is that you are killing innocent people, which is a step beyond Arnie ruining careers or providing lousy pay and benefits.

A Paradox Between Worlds, by Autumn Chen

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Collapse of a fictitious fanfic community, December 21, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

My initial thoughts on APBW rambled a bit. It brought up a lot of ideas that swirled around. They took a while to settle. It's a very ambitious work, and I'm not surprised it co-won the Golden Banana. But I'm also not surprised it placed highly, as I think it was rewarding to go through even though I only went in for part of its experience. It's about an online fan-community for young adult fanfiction that blows apart when the author of the books insults someone who's a big fan of theirs. In this case, it's GT McMillan, author of the Nebula series. To me, the GT sort of lampshades JK Rowling's hot takes on Twitter and fans' disappointment.

But I think it's more than just frustration with a Rowling clone. They get relatively little text compared to you and your friends. Overall, APBW helped me realize how much stability some online communities have, because with competent, sane adults in charge and some simple rules, along with punishment for trollish "look how these rules aren't perfect," really terrible things don't happen. But then again, these communities have decentralized power. For instance, the SBNation group of blogs knows the college athletes they cheer for are, well, only twenty or so, and they make mistakes. Or they know the commissioners of their favorite league aren't there out of altruism. Or they can see the good and bad sides of their favorite or most hated coaches. And the rules are simple: no bigotry, no flaming, no illegal streaming links. They work. I'll be comparing things in this review, because I had a lot of moments saying "Well, life goes on, right?" Though it sort of doesn't.

When you are young, that all is a lot tougher, even without trolls around. Any chaotic event throws things into turmoil, especially when an adult precipitates it, because adults don't DO these things, right? Especially one that could write such cool books that really stick it to bad guys?

Well, GT McMillan DOES do something. Not right away, though. APBW is told through the lens of an aspiring fanfic writer who blogs a lot on tumblr. You're amazed at the people who write more and, apparently, better than you do. But you'd like to try. You have friends you reblog and like and so forth, but you quickly realize they're at cross-purposes with each other. Some friends have troubles that get reblogged, both trivial and serious. Some friends just post for attention. Your reactions to this can get you blocked. I wound up completely ignoring the @brunova-official fanfic account, as I figured any drama with romantic fanfiction between Bruno and Gali, the two most popular characters (I didn't want to worry about the details of the work-within-a-work,) and I still made enough connections. I was amused to find the author's comments in the source, explaining how following and rehashing that sort of thing got you lots of likes, just because.

So I did all right with the whole writing racket. Despite my character's reticence and worry everyone was better than they were, I kept racking up likes, as my character paged through the five physical senses for ideas ("What do you think/smell/see/hear/feel/taste?") and my character wrote stuff down. This was meant to be mechanical and formulated on the player-character's just plowing through and doing what they were told in English class, when really they want to do so much more. People assure the PC that it's all so good and so forth. Then the pivotal moment comes. McMillan doesn't just cut down any fan but one who really looked up to McMillan. Others who did so, too, are confused. Some of your friends proclaim McMillan "over," even as the actors and actresses of the movie based on the series disagree. There's a split among fans with big followings, too, that goes beyond "Who's the coolest character?" Claire/Shadow-Protectrix, a big fanfic writer who organizes NebulaCon, comes down on McMillan's side (ironic, given their screen name) when your friend Luna is attacked by GT McMillan, prompting more attention than Luna ever wanted. She winds up deleting her account and starting a new one and not even asking for reblogs in support of her.

NebulaCon's largely organized by adults, too, or at least Internet friends who seem grown-up for their age! Most of whom are nice, but some of whom let the kids know who's in charge. And with every pronouncement of Claire's that she has to scale back, I certainly feared NebulaCon would be canceled. Because NebulaCon is only once a year, as opposed to twelve fall weekends for football, where fans of opposing blogs on SBNation get together for more than just the obligatory "preview with the enemy." They take pictures. They even share loss and big life moments. It can happen every week, even between fans of archrivals. And stuff like this shows the best of Internet fandom, of people getting together and helping each other through disappointment, of empathizing and saying "what if it happened to me?"

It's pretty clear the downside of the McMillan community collapsing is much higher for its members than for adult sports fans. And it's not just pro- or anti-McMillan. There's "we should've known it all along" and "I still can't believe it" among the antis. At one point, the main character wrestles with a passage that discusses not being false to yourself and how it was interpreted as pro-trans, but after MacMillan's words, they realize they maybe saw what they wanted to. This parallels fans tired of a losing coach, in a sports community. Some think they can still right the ship, some see the signs in retrospect, and flame wars start. But the stakes are higher, because when you're younger and don't know certain mind game tricks jerks play, and you have to hold on to what's there and be glad there's only so much trolling. You don't even feel you can speak out against jerks who like what you like, because on balance, they've been a positive, right? And it may seem there is no plan B if your group of book-loving friends collapses. The author touches on this by having some characters say "Hey! I found this cool KPop group." Which is different from what you'd expect, logically, such as "hey, there's another great book series." But in that moment I realized both you-the-character and your friends wanted to say "I don't want to lose you as a friend" but you didn't want to seem that desperate.

And, of course, you will need to stay together. Good things will end. As you write your final fanfic, you-the-character are far too aware the fourth wall break you make is as mechanical as checking off the five senses and "think" for writing prompts, and it's done before, and it will be done again, splitting community or not, because it's part of growing and moving on. You actually do finish your fanfic and go out on a high. That, along with trying to support your friend McMillan called out, is all you can do, especially when McMillan doubles down. (Well, actually, you can side with Claire. I didn't have the heart.) The older fans who orphaned their fanfiction–well, you get it now, you didn't see how they could stop if they had this gift, surely they could've just glided into a pretty-good ending sheerly out of momentum. You figured people just kept having stuff to say, and they don't. I had a similar thing happen when writing game guides at GameFAQs. I realized I was going to run out of motivation or games, and I also realized YouTube might become a Very Big Thing. I eventually just had a list of games left that would up my total word-count. I moved on, slower than I should've, of course.

It's difficult when a community dissolves, big or small, but it's also so nice to cross paths again. Still, you just don't think you will, and while that's out of the scope of APBW, I'd like to think the narrator plants the seeds for that, despite NebulaCon being canceled. They'll find other interests. I suppose it's the same sort of thing as a first crush, except, well, it's about having lots and lots of friends that evaporate, or you know you won't be able to keep track of them all.

Playing through once was exhausting. I had trouble remembering which player in the canon was which, and I also had to brush up on which of your blogmates did what. But it was the first of this sort of writing I'd seen in this form, and I found it amazingly effective for getting me to sit down and thing. I had a lot to say, and on reflection, it might not seem relevant now, but it filled a place that other IFComp games didn't come close to filling. So I think it was overall very successful as a story and an interesting world, as well as a reminder of all the stories I wanted to write but never quite did.

The author had a lot to say in their postmortem. There was a lot to read, so for the first time through, I simply looked at the source code to see some of the options and such that I missed. The check_blocked.txt file provided me with great amusement and demystified some of ChoiceScript. There still feels like a lot to unpack. But I found I was able to keep up with APBW, even if I had to ignore chunks, as I learned some terminology that made total sense once I read it.

APBW originally inspired some much more random, rambling thoughts that I don't want to pull out of the authors' forum. They're not really about APBW. But they were important to write and bury. They reminded me of the slow breakup of other communities and some I'm still shocked are there. APBW even reminded me to check some I thought were dead, and it's great to see them live on, or even see a 31-year-old say "hey, some people were really nice to me when I was clueless and 13, and I miss them." I remembered how I wrote game guides because I didn't feel qualified to write actual cool games, just as the narrator writes fanfic. (I still haven't written a graphical one!) I saw parallels between fanfic and some humorous features at SBNation sites, such as the ubiquitous Power Poll which ranks teams in a conference and compares them to characters from The Office or skits from I Think You Should Leave or, from one very creative person, stages of evolution. And it all works. It somehow pulls everyone together and reminds them of what they want to look at while they wait for the next game. Simple yet funny rules are established: on offtackleempire, a site for Big Ten team fans, you must punch in on Saturday if your team lost this weekend. There are inside jokes, but of course people with decent Google skills can figure them out, and they deserve to. And there are fanfic legends, people who wrote great stuff and are maybe retired now, but they drop in unexpectedly with a few hilarious tweets or essays.

This all is the result of a fully mature community and may not be as exciting as McMillan fan communities, but it's at least as rewarding. APBW made me realize how much we have, more than any impressive "look how far we've come and what we take for granted" speech could. For that I'm grateful. I'm even grateful for people I like only because we like the same team (just as APBW's characters like the same series and maybe even share a favorite book or character, and it's wonderful until they find other incompatibilities,) or even people I liked and then it fell apart. I even wound up sort of wishing I could explain this to some of the more upset APBW characters. Perhaps it's worth doing in real life.

It seems reasonable to critique APBW for problems of focus, or of certain things being too generic, but it's wildly ambitious and hits the mark often enough that I, a layman to fanfic, enjoyed it much better than more polished traditional efforts which seemed to fit in a nice box. Once I got into it, it felt like something someone would have done eventually, and I'm glad it got done so well. And it reminded me of all the things that could've gone wrong but didn't. It hurt when longtime Purdue basketball head coach Gene Keady laughed as he endorsed Donald Trump in 2016, a man Keady would've kicked off the team after a week on general principles. I was disappointed with the accusations swirling around Kingdom of Loathing's co-creator and how this forced a much more serious view of the nightcap you drink to get drunk with your turns gone at day's end. And I'm glad I didn't know about Roald Dahl's dark side until he was an adult. Yet at the same time, any one of these is the sort of growing-up experience I'd have loved to have other people around for, even if things fell apart at the end. APBW captured that and more for me, and thus, I value it.

The Best Man, by Stephen Bond

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Emotionally brutal on many levels but (for me) ultimately rewarding, December 21, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AardVarK Versus the Hype, by Truthcraze

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
High school angst and (oops) a corporate-induced zombie apocalypse, December 11, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

(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.

How it was then and how it is now, by Pseudavid

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
There's emotional reasoning hidden behind the spatial reasoning here. I think., December 10, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

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.

You are SpamZapper 3.1, by Leon Arnott

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
I admit, I preferred the shallower parts. Which weren't really shallow., December 10, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

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, by Sasha

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Great title but short on memorable bits, December 10, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

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.

Second Wind, by Matthew Warner

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Non-cheery Adventuron games can still be entertaining, December 10, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

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.

Ghosts Within, by Kyriakos Athanasopoulos

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Too long for IFComp without a walkthrough, but lots for horror fans to like, December 6, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

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.

The House on Highfield Lane, by Andy Joel

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Nice-and-creepy showcase for Quest 6, December 5, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

The House on Highfield Lane is a neat demonstration of Quest 6 and JavaScript. I beta-tested it, but I unfortunately wasn't able to add much to the final product, as it was pretty polished when I got it. It's a big, smart game, and big smart games sometimes need idiot-proofing, especially when the idiot is a judge who wants to get through the other seventy IFComp games. The HINTS referenced from the game weren't enough (I see what I missed now,) so I needed to wait for the post-comp walkthrough to see the end. But I think my tries at finishing paid off I got a bit further each time. I think it was worth the wait to suss out the details I missed. I may be grading the author on a curve because I know the author is technically and creatively capable, and my view may be slanted because this isn't my favorite genre. But I do feel HoHL may have missed a few chances for greatness that I can't fully articulate.

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.

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.

Recon, by Carlos

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Fast-paced, but critical parts may zoom past the 1st time, December 2, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

Recon has maybe the coolest stand-alone puzzle in the whole comp: the bookcases that clue you to a computer's password. It's a funny moment for me, and yet, it doesn't feel quite right in something with the plot of Recon--how you're a rebel leader who plans to meet up with his girlfriend at a bar in a dystopian Baltimore, but she is missing. Cue warnings that the police, or rather the restrictors under the control of a large conglomerate called Faro, know about the meeting followed by a chase through the city and up to an earthscraper, in order to find allies and information to see where and, eventually, why your mate disappeared. Along the way you-the-player also learn why you are so motivated to take down Faro.

There are plenty of ways to die, and quite frankly, they're interesting and fill in a part of the plot that playing through can't. There's a real choice between disguising yourself fully and getting a bionic arm. Each gives different puzzles, which feel a bit like the author showing off technical prowess, but they're also effective, and many give a sense that you need to hurry. While a torture scene felt a bit clumsy and was thankfully not explicit, there was certainly the expectation you had to abuse your captive just right, balancing threats and violence, which was a bit unpalatable but certainly created tension.

We don't get to see a whole lot of dystopian Baltimore, but there's certainly enough: checkpoints, smuggling and the like. The main reveal is inside a biological/cyborg-ish research facility. While it explained why your girlfriend X was missing, I really didn't grasp the whole story until I played through a few times and did some proofreading for the author. Meeting X, your girlfriend, felt a bit flat, too. People's reactions to traumatic and irreversible incidents don't feel right. But the thing is: there is, in fact, a happiest ending, with a surprise at the end if you survive. Check that: two surprise endings. One is about your pet/friend Blanco, and it always shows up. The other can be happy or sad.

And I think one thing originally off-putting about the game was that I shoehorned myself into final choice where neither really made me happy. It does have a save feature, but all the same, I thought this was The Ending. Some of this may be since things get lost in translation ("thanks for your time" after a dramatic ending is polite, but Recon is not a polite game) and the blurb and game mention too much about the "social and economic gap," which isn't the way to keep things fast-paced. Recon does better when it shows this, via a flare-up at a city border checkpoint. There might be a bit too much "Hey, here's where we go next" dialogue as well. And in some cases, the tries at quick "let's hurry" dialogue fell flat to me, like when you leave a tied-up captive behind. But we have pretty clear cases of betrayal among family and friends, and that's a good foundation for a story. And there are a lot of ways to die, which feels appropriate, given the high stakes and the dystopian feel I assume the author wants to give. These ways added color to the Baltimore the author envisioned, and so if some felt a bit out of the blue, I was glad for the detour (you get bumped back to the chapter's beginning) and the explanation that, yes, Faro's power is pretty stifling! The part where you contact another rebel leader, Olga, felt very good too. There's a third character that adds drama and tension.

I have to admit I wasn't clear on if Blanco, your companion, was an actual cat, or more like Red Dwarf's cat, or something in-between. I may have missed it. In fact, I did miss something critical about Blanco the first time through. But Blanco is a trusty sidekick in fights and makes for an interesting character I'd have liked to see more of. Perhaps Recon's too-puzzly puzzles made me miss out on a few details, or perhaps I was tired when I played it. I needed a re-read to understand things, but on the other hand, it was fast-paced enough that it was no problem, and if you enjoyed either disguising yourself or accepting a bionic arm, you have a ready-made path through with the other option. So that should work out well.

Unfortunate, by Anonymous

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Missed opportunities--in relationships and gameplay, December 1, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

Every year in IFComp there are a couple games with great ambition and obvious promise that have techincal errors, so things never shine through. Unfortunate is such a game this year. Without the bugs, it would be neat and bold, but with them, unfortunately, there's an additional puzzle of working out the right order to do things in so the story isn't dead-ended. With more testing it could've been quite interesting, and I'd have been more eager to try different endings. It's sad the author wasn't able to find testers.

In Unfortunate, you're at a party with 7 other people you give fortunes to. Once you do, things start happening. Someone drops a salsa jar. People make romantic plays for each other. There's almost a breakup. Then things wind down with a short timed puzzle at the end. Sadly, this timed puzzle can be started at the beginning, which hosed the causality for everything else. But as Unfortunate isn't very long, it's not bad to restart and try again and make sure that people don't disappear before they have their resolution. As things turned out, I was exploring and experimenting so much that I forgot to do a few simple nice things for people. The party bombed, and all my predictions (I spammed 1's, which seemed the most dire) came true. I scored 7 of 7 points! So I both totally won and totally didn't. This charmed me. Unforunate had several different ways through, clearly.

I admit, though, I had to decompile the game to see some of the text. As-is, the game offers helpful advice for compass-direction exits but doesn't mention two places where you need to go IN. So this threw me off one trail. Then I found a record in a closet and played it, but it was meant to bring two people back together--two that had disappeared. However, once I knew what scenery was relevant, things made sense. There are a lot of details that are well-observed but may not work well for parser fiction, or they might even be better with twine, e.g. you could highlight important items or closets with a link. Some nooks are important and some, like the shower in the bathroom, aren't. There's a lot of meaningful care given to certain details, which leads me to believe the author didn't know quite what to look for or where to ask for guidance, and they did the best they could, and that's not a backhanded compliment. But it's not enough to make Unfortunate playable without serious aid.

You see, there are games where I shrug and say "oh I guess they wanted to do that, that makes sense" and others where I'm genuinely disappointed for the author they didn't make things smooth enough, yet. And this falls in the second category. I obviously stumbled on an odd way to do things, going out of order because I just poked around to make a map, and I finally got my bearings in the bedroom, which was meant for later in the game. But Murphy's Law is cruel that way.

There's a thread on the forums of what order you need to do stuff in so Unfortunate doesn't go belly-up. It's worthwhile. And most of what you need to do is something that feels natural--but there are so many things, you may wind up forgetting something, leaving you with nothing to do. Unfortunate could use an update then, even post-comp, and I'm sad the author may've looked at the placing and decided this sort of thing wasn't for them. But if you have the patience to tiptoe around a few game-breaking bugs or learn from where others fell, there's a good experience to be had.

At King Arthur's Christmas Feast, by Travis Moy

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
I'd read more branching interpretations like this of classical works, December 1, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

I imagine a lot of us have heard of Cliff's Notes, those dreary little pamphlets that helpfully summarize plays and novels and poems assigned in English class. They seem to give you a good idea of what's going on in a tough piece of literature without any risk of actually feeling immersed.

"Don't read the Cliff's Notes! You're only ripping yourself off! Teachers will know if you do!" was the adults' battle cry. Oh, plagiarism was bad too. And yes, plagiarism is still bad, but these warnings didn't really teach us how to balance legitimate learning you can't do on your own with our own thoughts, and I think a sadly high percentage of kids knew what the teachers wanted. Stuff that would show the teachers they thought for themselves, because it worked last year for other students they knew.

But I wanted more. I wanted something that would illuminate. It felt greedy. I remember playing some not very good Narnia choice-games on the Apple. Some had minimal dice-rolling. One had an action game at the end that actually required effort to lose. I recognized, even at a young age, what a money-grab it was, but I still wanted more, and later when I found the Asimov archive, I still played the Narnia game I'd missed.

And we have them now. Some are interactive, but some aren't. I remember finding an Internet comic that summarized Ulysses. Obviously, it missed a few finer points, but it helped a lot. I needed the help.

And I think works like AKACF do that, and well. I've read Gawain and the Green Knight--Tolkien's version, at least--but it was so long ago I forgot most of it. And part of me felt uneasy that he was a bit too much of a Good Guy. AKACF gives him the option to behave poorly, replete with nagging noblemen and ladies who tempt him to. It doesn't drag on, but certainly it gives me a feel for the "why not just give in and get on with it" that we sometimes feel before making a bad choice, and yes, that is part of morality. Curiosity for the wrong things is universal, as is saying "Oh, I know what I'm supposed to do, but it seems so boring," and how do we resist that? Yet, even if you act terribly, Gawain never comes off too badly. That'd be too much authorial interpretation. However, when he strays from the path, different things happen than in the original poem, and I think the branches are both fair and interesting. The author is still pretty much faithful to what would've happened, but just asks "what if Gawain gives in a little?"

As for the story: a mysterious green knight appears on Christmas day. He tells King Arthur, hey, cut my head off, but Arthur can't bring himself to. Gawain offers to and does. The price is: within a year and a day, Gawain must find the knight and accept a similar blow. He has no clue where to look. But with time running out, he manages to find a castle where the lord takes him in. The lord's wife attempts to seduce Gawain, and here I'll draw a spoiler veil to mention the choice between behaving better or worse than Gawain is pretty clear. You can even utterly ignore the lady of the castle. The lord knows where the Green Knight is, and yes, Gawain finds him and faces his fate.

Being able to do walk through Gawain's choices leaves me with much more of a feeling than "good guys gonna good-guy," so it was a success on that alone. I largely glossed over the bits that the author put in a content warning for. That's my style in general. At least, the first time. But once I'd gotten through, I appreciated being able to look through things by chapter, again, and even change the critical choices you made in, say, chapter 5 before trying chapter 6. It's nice to be able to lawnmower alternate story lines or pick them off a la carte, and while AKACF is worth re-reading, I'm glad it's very not-thirsty about it all. I've left so many games I meant to look at again because the effort to start up would be too much. While it's obviously nontrivial to draw this up as an author, it gives accessibility without ruining any surprises, so I encourage it. Here, you will probably want to tweak how well Gawain behaves without having to re-pay your dues.

I really wish I'd had this sort of thing for tougher literary works when I was a kid, and I hope other people follow the author's example and make something interactive like this. While is all well and good for the latest classical work I want to read but never got around to, it seems like there's a lot of fertile ground for other works. In addition, ChoiceScript seems well-suited to changing these options--this is dryly stated, but in a nutshell, this is what happens. And it sounds trivial to write until you sit down and do it and have familiarity with the source text. Still, providing these what-if options seems like an achievable goal for many potentially tricky classical works, and I hope to see more works interpreted in this way, whether for IFComp or general consumption.

we, the remainder, by Charm Cochran

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A good deal more than just "cults are bad, mmkay", December 1, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

wtr establishes the whole oppression angle early on: you start as one of four sisters in a decrepit apartment, one you're not encouraged to leave, even though your Momma doesn't seem to be anywhere around. And once you leave, you're in a gated community anyway. A decrepit one: dogs in the street, lack of food, and so forth. So the mystery is: what are you doing here? And, of course, can you get out? Well, there's a hunger puzzle to begin, and if you strictly explore and map things out, you'll die of hunger. But fortunately it's not hard to find food that'll sustain you for a while, before you find food that works indefinitely. This "find something good then something better" contrasts with the general tone, where you'll find something bad and, yes, it's even worse.

Exploring your enclosed town, you find clues of what life is like, with a schoolhouse, a pavilion, and many reminders of What Happens to Sinners. In particular, nosing around places that'd be off-limits with adults around give you painful memories, where the screen turns red, if you search enough. It becomes clear what your life situation is like, and the only big question is if this is a full dystopia or this community is unique. Of course, this is one you-the-character don't want to think of right away.

As you explore the town, you learn about the Prophet Hunter and his influence on the community. He said everyone would be taken to heaven and, well, they sort of were. You find the key to his house, which is better stocked than his followers'. You find a way past rabid dogs. There's also a woman whom you feel guilty gazing at, and it introduces a strain of legitimate supernatural interference if you keep annoying her. This made wtr more than just a smackdown of cults because none of this could happen--some of it, it wtr's world, could.

The game's feel is parser-like even though it's in twine. You have compass directions, and you'll see text on the left edge if there's a path west, and so forth, which makes a map easy to visualize, and it also gives a perception of distance. You have to move the mouse a good deal to actually go west. The occasional item use similarly just needs clicks, though it's kept in the center, and with all wtr threw at me, I was grateful not to have verb- or noun-guessing to wrestle with as well. I found the background color changes are quite effective as well. There's green for the farm area, purple for the Prophet Hunter's house, and different colors for the streets. I don't think detailed graphics would work well here because the main character has been sheltered and thus pays attention to little beyond their own survival. I suspect even the ASCII map of the town you find early in the game clues you in to how backwards this commune is. The map by itself is pleasing, but then you have to ask, who would've created it, and why? While a time frame isn't given in the game, I can't picture any era where normal society would go with an ASCII map instead of something more graphical. Here it feels like the time I visited the DPRK government website and noticed a link to forms in Esperanto--not the nice or useful touch the creator (in-game, not the author) thinks it is!

While you can die of starvation or of sacrilege, the game's true ending is--well, a success, of sorts. There's a big gate. You need to go through it, for salvation, of a sort. The tool(s) you use for this relative freedom are, ironically, symbols of strength and unity, but in this case, they're just one more thing that makes it hard for people to pull away.

wtr also offers seven different places to find memories that break open that much more of how cult life really is. The walkthrough mentions them and avoids saying where they are, and I like this procedure, because I know I can have everything spoiled if I'm not too careful. And if you manage to escape without the memories, perhaps you're like the main character, just doing what you need to survive. There's some learned helplessness at work here for the player: you don't want to search for local flavor when looking for endless food, but once you find it, you forget about looking around until you've escaped and can't and don't want to go back. So this surviving vs actually noticing details really struck me once I looked back. How I could've been more observant, but I just wanted to get out. And going through again reminded me of times I'd replayed bad episodes in my life, looking for that memory of cruelty that would clinch things. Sometimes I found it and realized it wasn't necessary, but it was comforting.

The Last Doctor, by Quirky Bones

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A too-brief moral dilemma, November 30, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

This quick effort provides a few moral dilemmas a doctor faces but doesn't explore them as much as I had hoped, given the strong good introduction. You're a doctor in some sort of war-zone. You have a choice of how much to treat your current patient. Treat them properly, and you have no resources for the next patient. Don't treat them, and maybe you can treat more. But will it be satisfactory? The patient seems grateful either way.

The next day, the warlord responsible for the huge conflict comes in, with his posse. He's close to critical. You have the choice to treat him or not (he says he understands, since you're helping the rebels, and nobody will harm you even if he dies.) Either choice you make, he comes back later, offering you a position where you have more resources and can treat more people better. The dilemma, of course, is whether healing soldiers aligned with an oppressive system will, in fact, do more damage.

The themes are treated a bit lightly, as I see it. I don't know if I buy that the soldiers you treat aren't wounded quite as badly if you help the big boss. It reminds me of the flip side of Saki's The Storyteller where the kids say "but wouldn't people have helped her even if she weren't bad?" Perhaps the boss orders less flesh-cutting bullets, or even fewer head shots, but even so that doesn't stop the war. It feels a bit like bullies backing off when security guards are watching.

Without more details, it's impossible for the reader to divine the boss's intent fully, but on the other hand, you've been helping for a long while, according to the story. So you should know something about what the boss does, how he does it, and maybe even how much fault people on your side have for the whole mess.

So trying for a fable- or thought-experiment-like effect ("help 5 mean people or 4 nice ones?") really doesn't quite work for me, here. It feels like there should have been more, and I expected it, from the first interactions with the patient. But it felt like maybe the author ran up against a time deadline and wanted to send in something complete. And it is, but it feels a bit workmanlike after the first patient.

After-Words, by fireisnormal

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Brevity: Wit-soul. Layout: inventive. Experience: absorbing., November 30, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

After-Words is the sort of sharply designed and presented game that takes a while to get used to. It's almost too slick to adjust to at once. I was clueless how to do that first thing, but then, everything clicked. There's a tidy map with lock icons by passages you need to open. There are two buttons on the main page: look and interact. You build an inventory and use it on people or items you find--dry goods stuff, perhaps, but not dry writing. And the writing is largely in two-word phrases. And it all works.

Because the wordlessness is part of the quest: you, the Resolver, need to bring words back to Skycity, where there's plenty of activity but little spoken. What words there are create a vivid world. There are all sorts of flies, as well as other surreal things like gunflowers (they are rusty and need oil to defend the city properly, and once they do, security stops blocking you from going elsewhere) or robogulls or hammerspiders, or glowdoves who give you eggs you need to hatch. This all sounds like it could be a mess I had to use a bit of trial and error, but the cool thing was: there weren't a ton of errors to make! And After-Words tersely lets you know when you can't use something. "USE ELSEWHERE." Though some items, like a hammer, give amusing variants (VIOLENCE UNNECESSARY) or location-based text (I was almost sad to give the prismheart up!)

The map itself is nifty, with arrows protruding from your current location. You can click on them to get around or hover over a location to see its name, though most of the time, the location's icon should remind you what it is. This is a big help once you've explored the whole city and have a lot to remember, and all the locks that indicate a temporarily blocked passage have fallen away. Since there is some fetching to do, I was mildly disappointed I couldn't click on the location and move there, or maybe use arrows to get around and L/I for LOOK and INTERACT, because there were so many other conveniences. But it was pretty slick, all told. And I appreciated the "hint" command at the top that told you where to go next. I used it a few times the first time through, but revisiting it for this review, I remembered bits and pieces of the logic and was able to piece things together. My main problem was forgetting to INTERACT fully after solving a quest or helping someone. They'd often offer you an item, but it wouldn't go right in your inventory.

You don't need many words to figure what to do in the big picture. There are three gates near corners of the city that need Big Items (Moon, Blood and Summer,) and they're in the corner, behind a few locked doors, of course.

The only problem I had was that once After-Words got clicking, it was pretty much over. I was almost sad to see my exploits had cost the city its brief charm! But maybe there'll be a sequel. I think I really appreciated the lack of forced logic or received wisdom in the puzzles, though, because on my second play-through, I only had a vague idea of what was where. This felt about right. I enjoyed winning a trophy at the football stadium, counting fractalseeds to acquire another prize, recharging a judge with the right battery, and helping dancers down from being too happy (the relaxed discoball on doing so made me laugh, too.) It's a good-enough sized game at six-by-six, but not so much that too many possible alternative uses for an item pop up and frustrate you.

An aside about myself: the 2015 game The Problems Compound suffered, according to one tester, from AGI-itis, where you "just take one item and use it on someone else, and so forth." While I'm proud of what I wrote, I was glad to see a different strain of AGI-ish game pop up and be done so effectively. It sort of justifies my decisions to make such a "USE X ON Y" game. But I see the clear and obvious appeal of a game like After-Words. It was the sort of thing I was aiming for, and if you aren't doing anything tricky with the parser, I think it works better in a graphical interface than a textual one.

The Daughter, by GioBorrows

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Much lost in translation (I think), November 30, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFcomp 2021

I got a bit confused by this one, and from other reviews, it seems like I'm not the only person. A very promising premise fizzles out quickly. While staying young's been done in Brave New World, and I remember a short story by Martin Amis where homosexuality became the norm and reproduction was an arduous process, The Daughter combines these concepts and throws immortality on top. Not only that, everyone's been immortal for a while, and there's no age when people grow old and die, to be replaced by others. This brings up a lot of different, interesting issues. For instance, nobody remembers how to bring a child up.

So how do people react to stuff that's totally new to them, but we take it for granted? This applies to both the issues of murder and the childbirth. I suppose someone had to see a child some time, but it was 2500 years ago, and immortality without infinite memory means you forget a lot. And won't the world get overcrowded if nobody dies?

But The Daughter never really explores these issues. The main incident also seemed a bit foggy and didn't have the emotional impact it should have, too. Why did it happen? I have my guesses, but it's unresolved. There are parts which could be very funny indeed even if they don't fit the tone established e.g. "There seems to be a weird obsession on true crime stories in pre-immortal society." This sort of thing seems to reinforce that, even though English is not the writer's first language ("hot 30 year olds" seems unintentional, though,) they have an eye for the important, but maybe they just got a bit glib here or rushed it. But when the story describes everyone as looking like "hot 30 year olds," I expect the translation may be off-base.

And The ending seemed abrupt. I read back to see why it should be. I didn't get the significance of the hotel--was the main character accepting his own mortality?

I checked off with other reviews on this, because it felt like it should have been more than it was. Joey Acrimonious's review in particular articulated some concerns I had. It feels like the author had a relatively strong vision and the ability to get it across, but they didn't. I'd be interested to hear more from the author, because despite my criticisms, this doesn't feel close to a total throwaway. Just be prepared to be let down by a sudden end.

My Gender Is a Fish, by Carter Gwertzman

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Self-exploration in 15 minutes or less, November 30, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

I was glad I wasn't the only person worried this was a troll entry along the lines of the "clever people" who write "gender: attack helicopter" in their twitter profiles (thanks to PopeHat for this specific examples) and I'm also glad it's clearly not. I suppose to a certain extent, categorizing gender is tricky. It shouldn't be black and white. Yet making an involved taxonomy for its own sake is just exhausting all at once. Yet at the same time, people who criticize it the loudest have no problem discussing the difference between Alpha, Beta, Omega and Sigma males.

Abstractly, the game tracks your gender. It starts with boy or girl. Then it asks eagle or fish. Then a pebble or sun. Then a bit of a false choice before the final one, with an explanation. This all feels pretty simple. There's no overboard mysticism, and I appreciate MGiaF giving me a new way to think instead of telling me to.

I also think MGiaF shows a certain evolution from some of the more confrontational earlier twines that just flat out tell you you're not considering gender hard enough, you privileged cis white male, you. I mean, this is just heckling as opposed to outright abuse by cis white males, but if we're trying to make art, let's make it accessible even to those who might not be our target audience. And I appreciate feeling included, as someone who's heard I didn't try to be masculine enough, or why the hell was I trying to be macho, I wasn't fooling anyone.

I wanted a new way to look at things. MGiaF provided that. It's not the only way, but it helps reaffirm wishes I had long ago. Wishes that people who classified me as Not Masculine Enough (but don't try being as masculine as us!) would just clam up, or that there was indeed a third way, and there was far more to seeing yourself than being ranked by masculinity or desirability.

And it also provides a good contrast to the usual dialogue we hear in general. One particularly bad passage from a Reality TV show sticks in my head. I was only watching it because it was on the screens at my local athletic club. A bunch of guys were competing for one woman (the very worst kind of Reality TV, because shocker of shocker, relationships built on competition and the excitement of the chase don't last,) and the narrator asked "can the sensitive guys do man's man things like get a high score at the rifle shooting range?" Maybe this wasn't exact, but it was bad enough and obviously a very shallow exploration of our roles and who we are. We obviously can do better, and that MGiaF did so much better in under 15 minutes pleases me greatly. I can't speak precisely to how good the symbolism is, but it seems to me that we respect (or find wonderfully mystifying) the concept of spirit animals or objects or even corny tattoos in languages we can't speak, and it shouldn't be something to make people ooh and ahh, but something we can internalize and share as we wish. And MGiaF having nothing too exotic helped it feel accessible to me.

So I walked away wishing there was more but not feeling there had to be, despite my earlier-mentioned aversion to taxonomy. The old saw about how there are 2 times to walk away, too early and too late, apply here, and MGiaF walked away well before drowning you in pointless possibilities. I've certainly had that feeling of "I think I'm X, wait, no, that doesn't fit, more like Y" and so forth, and realizing that no labels fit, but reasonable ones helped me find who I was. And I appreciate having that experience sped up with little to no risk.

I can't offer any detailed literary analysis. This is out of my realm in many ways. There's a nonzero (but low) chance MGiaF is just random mysticism or parts are way off-base and I glossed over them and it successfully BSed me. But in that very unlikely case, I got a lot out of it. It left me writing and remembering a good chunk for something that took 15 minutes to get through. And I have a feeling I missed something, too, but these are blanks I'll fill in later.

Smart Theory, by AKheon

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
A brief work about cults where maybe I, myself, saw what I wanted to, November 30, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

Smart Theory is a great title, from my view. I guessed what the game was about, and I was right. It's very slippery. You see, if you're an advocate of Smart Theory, you get to show how smart you are, but you don't actually have to put it into practice. And if you're wrong, well, it's a theory and You Can Evolve. Of course, the antagonist in this game, Paul Bother, who invented Smart Theory, doesn't state things so directly. He strongly invites you to his lecture on Smart Theory, and you have no way to wiggle out (smart of him to know all the angles, eh?) You find Smart Theory is simple and accessible and has also changed people's lives. Everything about it works, and if it doesn't work for you, well, you don't understand it well enough.

This seems very much like a cult but also of times people just needed to hear themselves talk and I was a convenient alibi. I wanted to tell them they were full of nonsense but just couldn't. Sometimes they rattled on for a half-hour, which was longer than I spent with Smart Theory, both when I tried to reject Paul Bother's "philosophy" completely and accept it.

Now this isn't the first game to railroad you and try to do so amusingly, but I think it's quite effective, and I'm glad it's only 15 minutes, because too much would be too heavy for me. The author probably knew this, too. Paul Bother, to me, is every sort of person who informs you how lucky you are they are sharing their opinion at, I mean with, you. When he gets up there to make that lecture, he gives you a lot of things to think about but, of course, no time to. It's impossible to leave. And of course you get the inevitable "How was it?" question at the end. There are no right answers. Fortunately, unlike Paul Bother, the game (via Paul) exhorts you to think about what he said, and then it actually leaves you to think about what he said.

ST certainly pulls the usual psychological tricks to keep someone roped into a conversation. It pulls a lot of psychological tricks on the protagonist that can hurt in real life. You have the sense no matter what you do, Paul Bother will show you why you just weren't being very smart. Around Paul, you need to kiss up, but you also need to expect to be ignored. More advanced Smart Theorists will understand. At some points the game lampshades Paul's "rules for thee but not for me" approach. He is more advanced than you, you see, and his secrets are worth $10000 because, well, they just are. Paul's a philanthropist with stuff everyone should know, but only the people willing to make a commitment deserve to know the good stuff. He knows how to shift from soft repression to hard repression of actual ideas. And sadly, learning these tricks from someone like Paul would, indeed, be worth $10000 or more to some people.

All these thoughts are serious, but ST never got too serious. I see a lot of self-important humbugs from my past in Paul. Some had good concrete information and some didn't. But in either case, their personalities overshadowed any good advice. All needed to be looked up to, or fawned on in different ways, but nothing too obvious. They gave me a sort of ceiling I felt I couldn't break through, and if I wasn't able to overwhelm them with praise, I did look back feeling guilty I didn't praise them enough.

So I was quite happy to see this sort of polemicism dealt with. It didn't need anything deep. I've long had an axe to grind with "if you believe it, you can achieve it" motivational speakers (note: there's a place for developing your intuition and faith, but it's not with the Paul Bothers of the world). And people who need to tell you how smart they are (or common-sensical, because all YOUR book knowledge, well,i it's not practical.) It certainly brought back memories of very awful conversations with very overbearing and self-assured people, both smarter than me or not. Ones where no matter how much I contributed, I was sure I was doing it wrong, even if someone said "chime in if you want to."

So I think Smart Theory captures the basics of Internet arguing and grandstanding quite well. I know I spent years wondering why I didn't fully agree with people who I should agree with. This seems teleological, but over the years, I've realized there are attention-grabbing tricks and methods, or even just flat out assuming people would rather hear you than listen to your own thoughts. Confidence and taking constant steps towards your goals ... works. We need to develop that, despite our fears. And we need to trap ourselves into taking action, too. We need people to push us with Morton's-Fork style arguments. But doing it the wrong way can make you into a Paul Bother type. Some people actually want that. And, of course, bad people can use all these skills to seem like they have something to offer.

So I'm glad I was exposed to Smart Theory in a context that showed it was nonsense. Perhaps sometimes it's occasionally too on-the-nose, that's okay. What was on the nose for me was probably an insight for others, and vice versa.

And yet in a way, maybe ST fooled me. I suppose it told me what I already knew, and I agreed with it, and I was intrigued to learn more. Or I saw what I wanted to, for better or for worse. Which left me worried how weighty the game actually was. But one thing's for sure: I enjoyed seeing Paul Button flipping from "just listen" to "you said you'd give me a chance but you didn't REALLY" all too quickly.

Other people saw something different. Perhaps we all see what we want, or what we expect, in ST's generalities. After further reflection, I'm inclined to believe it was meant to be ambiguous. And I think clearly it's not the sort of thing you say "ALL THE FEELS" or "SO MUCH YES" to. But if you're in the right mood, it will help you deal positively with the next person who "just wants a bit of your time" about "something you need to know." Maybe it will pinpoint something from your past to bury. For a fifteen-minute investment, that's worth it.

The Miller's Garden, by Damon L. Wakes

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Quick, efficient motivation and reflection without philosophical cliches, November 30, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

The author has labeled TMG as "experimental," and on my first play-through, that seemed like a cover for "heck, I'll throw something together and claim it's experimental." Oh, sure, the graphics of gardens depicted as rhomboid tiles was cute. It's neat that people offer that sort of thing on for free, and I think the visuals worked well with the game. But that was it, right?

Because the gameplay seemed awfully repetitive. Not annoyingly, tediously repetitive, but hey, once you get it, it's not too hard to keep going. You've been left some land to tend to, and the lawn and flowers and watermeadow by the river keep eroding, so they need to be tended to more. There's a pamphlet discussing the flooding, which seems like a red herring, but it's not, because the mill you've built is the reason the river is redirected and ruining your nice garden and such--also, the dry text says-without-saying that this sort of thing destroys beauty. It's not hard to figure how to be able to tend to everything you need to for each day of internal time. You then fall asleep, tired from your exertions, before you wake up and have to do it again. So after a bit, I said, okay, I get it, and I, in solidarity with the main character, fell asleep. Then I woke up and poked around to see if there was more. There was. A game-day later, I went through the motions and was asked "Is this how you wish to spend the rest of your days?"

The irony is that I probably wasted more time with more "interesting" stuff before I came back to TMG to see the whole point of it. Even then, I sort of missed the point until I thought about it again.

So the experiment worked. What seemed like a nice, harmless, tidily-packaged fifteen-minute game left a question stuck with me. Sure, I'd asked it before. I'd had others ask it of me, in that “your time isn't valuable but you're morally obliged not to waste it” sort of way. I'd felt bad not feeling fully inspired by people yelling "GET OUT THERE AND DO WHAT YOU REALLY WANT TO DO." It reminded me of how I'd spent some days, not even building anything back up, and I'd have done well to ask myself that question before sitting around for three or more hours, doing something that took energy but not getting anywhere. Perhaps it was at a website that long outlived its usefulness or benefit. Or maybe it was playing a game I'd mastered and found nothing new at.

But by this time I'd forgotten that it was the mill's fault that you had to do this extra work to keep your nice garden up. And so the "is this how you wish to spend the rest of your days?" question becomes more serious. Work and profit have gotten in the way so much that you've forgotten Nice Things, or rather, upkeep of the Nice Things gets so boring, you've forgotten what was there. And that happens whether you own a mill or not. Coworkers distract you from time to yourself. You need to learn new skills. You need to meet and keep in touch with the right people, people who are far less likely to have a garden than you. It brings to mind the opposite of the ending of Voltaire's Candide where the main character says "bien sur, il faut tenir notre jardin." And it takes even less time to (re-)read than Candide.

All this is more motivating to me than being yelled at to either get out there and live or do what you have to do. It reminds me of days I want to tidy up works I've written, or how I want to exercise every day or look through my old writing notes, where there probably won't be anything awesome in any 10-minute stretch, but when there is, it's really awesome. We all need these wake-up calls, and I'm not the sort who likes loud, rousing ones. They exhaust me. I suppose TMG worked on a superficial level and then a deeper level, and it will stop working one day, and I'll have to ask myself "is this how you wish to spend the rest of your time you use to get motivated?" But in any case, TMG really helped me get through all the other entries in IFComp, and I'm glad I did.

Because "Is this how you wish to spend the rest of your days?" is a question we need to ask ourselves, and we know it, but we also need the right context so we don't blow it off, or so we find a better way to spend the rest of our days. And of course we need to ask it before making drastic decisions like building a mill. I'm glad TMG asked this of me, and hopefully the next time I spend more than 15 minutes somewhere out of inertia, I'll know to ask this question without going through a few loops.

I feel like I'm raving about how it's the sort of game you don't rave about. But I think we need that sort of thing. TMG is an oddity for an IFComp entry despite not saying "LOOK AT ME I'M ODD." Its economical design certainly made me think back to my plans for 2021's IFComp--with 100 entries in 2020, I really wanted to make something that people could enjoy briefly, feel good about solving or working through, and move on to the next one, while still offering challenging things to think about. And I certainly hoped to see other games that did this for me. It may seem like backhanded praise to "attaboy, sport" TMG as a "glue guy" sort of game or a "good team player," but I certainly saw it that way, as something small that punched well above its weight and gave perhaps the best insight-per-time-spent ratio of any entry. And if IFComp continues to have 70 entries, well, I think we need efforts like this that help us breathe and still reveal a few things. Some will find it over-general, and I can't blame them, but I'm glad I didn't.

A Papal Summons, or The Church Cat, by Bitter Karella

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Garfield, this ain't, November 30, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

For such a potentially sweet-sounding title, this sure gets rough fast. It's the story of a pilgrimage gone wrong or, more likely, that could never go right. You've taken leave from a faraway diocese in northern Scandinavia (or so I guess from the name Isjfall) for three months to visit His Holiness. And nothing about the trek is holy.

It starts with your companion on the ride to the Vatican. I'm struck with how his lack of dignity is an instant turn-off, while the cruel people in charge that you meet later are less immediately disgusting. You have plenty of chances to ignore the True Believer, as the game calls him, but you'll probably eventually give in to curiosity. He's carrying a casket, and it's never clear what's in there. You have ... a cat who can spout Bible verses. And the cat spouts the goriest ones! The Pope seems to want to see your cat, not you, but hey. You take what you can get.

Just one problem with your cat: there's a Papal edict that cats are all tied to witches. So they are being shoved into burlap sacks and burnt all over Rome. You get to see the results of this destruction: lots of smoke and lots of rats. Parallels with modern, uh, issues are pretty clear here: some politicians currently blame everything but the virus for COVID, and "religious exemptions/beliefs" are listed as a reason/excuse not to get vaccinated.

Of course it gets worse. The Pope is below ground, and in a pretty clear parallel to Dante's Inferno, you keep descending and keep finding worse and more powerful people. Until you make it. Your True Believer friend makes it, too. And the meeting with the Pope is certainly underwhelming. For you and the True Believer, but for different reasons.

This is deliberate, I think, because it calls into question if the Pope has any real power at all, and the unsavory people you've met along the way are doing the real heavy lifting, and they have as much contempt for the Pope as for any deity. The end feels like a bit like a cop-out, but not quite on the "it was all a dream" scale, but it does bring questions. It's been six months since the Pope sent the letter. Did the Pope forget about you? Did he ever care? Did he just like feeling important, having people spend so much time coming to visit? One also gets the feeling that the people who wave you by when you show the summons know you are no threat to what they see as real power. They don't exactly help you find whom you need to when you're exploring 10 or 15 or 20 levels below the surface. Because part of having power over people is making or letting them struggle when they don't need to, and that's true regardless of if there's any actual debauchery or bribery going on.

There was almost too much for me. Because we ought to have scorn for those who corrupt religion and morality and so forth. We need reminders that those who yell the loudest often yell to distract you from their bad sides. And we need to 1) not be the True Believer and 2) reject True Believers' arguments. But this work left little else. It was effective, and it's still relevant today. We see popular mass-preachers coming up with new lies, from Joel Osteen's fake sunniness to Franklin Graham's more wrathful approach. They blame rock music, nonconformists, or whatever is convenient, somehow convincing people they weren't in it for wealth and power, but gosh, good things happen to good people!

I don't think Church Cat is trying to look for a way forward, either. It shouldn't have to, but if you're reading reviews before playing, you may want to know this. I prefer a way forward, however small, and sometimes I fool myself it's there when it isn't. Church Cat left me no such outlet. So I'm left stuck a bit, but I probably would be, either way. Seeing ruthlessness in describing horrible people helps, until it doesn't. But on the other hand, putting in a sliver of hope after some of the passages would feel as hypocritical as a preacher switching from "God is love" to describing how and whom you, who are not God, should hate. Church Cat definitely crosses lines, not necessarily lines of taste, but beyond which any further observation or choice leds to more horror and chaos.

This didn't stop me from playing again to see if there was anything I'd missed, for better or worse.

Beneath Fenwick, by Pete Gardner

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Parser-feeling Twine horror with innovative features, November 30, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

I have a low tolerance for horror. I see enough bad things going on in life, and realizing they are not confined gives me enough horror. I played Beneath Fenwick in the middle of a bunch of other horror games I'd procrastinated. I'd like to think I saw good in all of them, but some of them drained me a bit. BF, on the other hand, BF was a pick-me-up. It's in twine but tries for a parser-like feel, and I think it succeeds overall. My biggest complaint was the sudden ending--I wasn't the only person unclear that it was just part one! Perhaps part two would explain some other things, such as rabid dogs that chased you. Nevertheless, there's more than enough to attack in the game.

There's nothing overly complex in the plot. You're a graduate student looking for housing at a rural college. It's all a bit Lovecraftian, but not cringingly so. You run into the locals, who are either vaguely scared of something or actively hiding their fear. Your lodgings feel delightful until you stumble on things that don't quite seem right. You seem to need to tiptoe around the landlady and the gardener, as both notify you of Places You Shouldn't Go, and the bigger puzzles in BF are about gaining access. One place is, of course, very very dark. You'll need light.

Through this, there's clear evidence the author knows what he's doing. I really like the conversation system and how I was able to use the tab and enter key to lawnmower through the options. That's tricky in the parser, where you have to write the right words. But here, there's a popup box for dialogues as well as description, and I think that works better than a page with a "return to what you were doing" link. For me it helped the experience feel uninterrupted. There was even an undo arrow that I missed until I needed it, because I got chased into a dead end by a rabid dog. (This was my fault. The game had two ways to shake them off.

And a few neat touches made me smile in the middle of all the horror, and atmosphere, and so forth. The first was getting booted from one location for asking too many questions. I appreciated the extra focus of having one less place to look at in the future, and how the game still ratcheted up the tension in the process, and it balanced nicely with later parts when the game preventing you from visiting certain areas until you knew where you were going. The second was actually having to use the "drop" command for a small puzzle. The third was having to cover your tracks, as in Sub Rosa, but with bumpers: as opposed to losing final points for leaving evidence, you were forced to do so by the game. I wound up feeling "gee, I'm lucky I didn't get killed, there."

On the downside, I do feel like more could maybe have been done with the "combine" command. It's got a neat interface and is mostly used for an early puzzle to fetch a package without being noticed and largely discarded after that. This feels better than the alternative (overusing it so we have to guess a lot) but in this case, it was pretty clear what to do, though maybe some clues about combos that almost work would've been nice. I may have missed them. But it's some neat under-the-hood stuff that deserved more mileage. There's also a dog chase that feels technically neat but doesn't have the emotion it should. It's a rare part of BF that might've worked better in a parser.

I can't give any advice here to do things better, but I think having shortcomings like this means it's a pretty darn good experience. The author commented in the forums that a sequel was forthcoming, because they wanted to narrow the scope to have something fully playable. Still, BF leaves you with more than enough. I'm definitely waiting for the second part.

I Contain Multitudes, by Wonaglot

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Wherein mask wearing leaves you vulnerable to (redacted), November 30, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

ICM was a bit intimidating for me to start, and not just because of the title. The introduction didn't say so, but I pictured being told "You'd better contain some seriously meaningful multitudes if you want to keep up with this game, kid." And I don't think wasting time on several very different websites every day counts a lot. The first moves, too, promise challenge and variety. There seems like a lot to do early on. You're Chandra Fitz, a junior engineer on a ship, and you're tasked with finding who murdered the Bishop of Elmee, one of the passengers. On the first move, you see a bunch of masks you can wear, and once you leave, there are all sorts of exits. So certainly I got the impression that this game will be very, very big. That, coupled with the captain saying "you have an hour to do things," left me worried I'd have to do a lot of mental calculus, and fast. I steeled myself for an initial mapping run before actually getting things done.

The reality wasn't so weighty. There was certainly more than enough, with interesting characters of noble birth, as well as the gruff captain and helpful ship's mate. Masks are only used for a few puzzles, though when they are, it's quite satisfying. They help give the fetch quests a bit of weight. This is reductionist, because the fetch quests do have a bit of dialogue and push the story forward, and the noblemen and women (and a chanteuse and a slightly mad doctor) who push you around, replete with appropriate highfalutin names and highfalutin dialogue, just can't be bothered to do things themselves. Too many, and the game might start to wear. But there are enough. If you please them, they may give you a key to their suite. And as you help them, you learn more about them. And the ship. It's not powered by the usual sources.

The nobles' needs certainly seem trivial. And each is a bit odd in their own way, and yet, they know something is wrong. Someone has film to be developed that they lost. Another person needs medicine or something resembling it. Another person wants you to sing with them. If you behave well enough, they may invite you to their room in the passenger's quarters, briefly. However, fetch quests aren't really the way to bring out the multitudes in you. And sometimes there's a bit of a fight to search promising locations that look likely to hide something. For instance, I had to SEARCH CABINET instead of X CABINET. Here's where the usually helpful Quest interface backfired. It will generally highlight things that are clearly important, but halfway through the game I got a bit lazy and relied on highlights to tell me what to do. Between that and a parser slightly less sophisticated than Inform's, I got slowed down a bit. These faults are likely not in the author's bucket.

The boat isn't a very huge place. Once you've pleased all the nobles, you find out there's something sinister happening in the engine, to which you have a one-way passage. I admit to poking through the source post-comp and having several a-ha moments. It's not quite spiritual possession--but the boat doesn't exactly run on high-octane gasoline or anything scientific. You do just need to be prepared. Here a choice of mask matters. There's a bit of retcon for certain masks. For instance, for one mask, you realize (Spoiler - click to show)you were the one that committed the murder. This conflicts with someone completely different planning the murder if you take the straight-up no-mask ending, where you get something about generally learning to be your own person, etc. That's all well and good, but it's a bit plain compared to the others. Stuff can get macabre. Perhaps the most interesting thing is the "where are they now" at the ending: choices you made during a dialogue can, for instance, cause a lovesick nobleman to enter or avoid a duel depending on how flowery a love note you ghost-write for him is.

ICM may have buried all this, and I don't think it gave an adequate technical carrot-on-a-stick to go look back--perhaps even a "you should try" option at the end. Though it does signpost that you should save before you visit the engine. So if you're reading this, save before you reach the engine, and take all the masks. It should be rewarding.

But given that, the concept of a ship powered by what it was powered by, and the end revelations (yes, the captain has a reason not to hire an actual detective,) makes for a good sort of creepy story that feels like time well spent. Certainly the final moves add a good deal of tension and some explanation. The biographies at the end add a lot of closure and explanation and, yes, a carrot-on-a-stick to say "what if I'd X instead?" I just felt I had a lot of adjusting to do after first impressions, and it wasn't until I replayed and looked at the source code that I realized who in the story got to say "I Contain Multitudes." It's only shown in one ending, perhaps the trickiest to get to, and one only hinted in the walkthrough that comes with the game. I don't blame the author for giving you the "plain good" ending in the walkthrough, though--discovering new endings, even cheating by looking at the source code, gave me a deeper appreciation of what ICM was doing.

Enveloping Darkness, by John Muhlhauser, Helen Pluta, and Othniel Aryee

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Logical but unemotinal narrative of rescuing your brother, November 30, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

This is a short choice-based game with a relatively linear structure--you can try radically different things, but most of the time, they loop back to the main narrative. It opens up a lot of possibilities it never really acts on, and by the end, I'm not sure why it took the title it did. Yes, there's a war going on, but I never really encountered a darkness or overarching evil. That said, there's enough to do that I played through it twice to flesh the world out a bit more.

Enveloping Darkness takes you quickly through your younger brother getting captured by orcs. Then you grow up and ask to go on a quest to rescue your brother. You usually will. I only found one possibility that kills you. Trying to avoid your fate doesn't work. You can insult your king or neglect your half-orc ally who wants to help you get to the palace. You can even act sore at your brother. The choices are all plausible for an adventure-seeking adolescent.

The mechanics of the storytelling are good. It's well-organized. But there's not much to be emotionally invested in, which is a pity, because having a half-orc ally in enemy territory presents so many possibilities. The game makes good use of a few rather quickly, but it felt emotionally wanting. Sometimes the game seemed to steer deliberately away from any emotional revelations or depths. For instance, when you rescue your brother:

(Spoiler - click to show)First things first. You ask, "Where's dad?"

Shazia says, "Hello to you too.

This is a bit cold, especially from someone who begged to go on the quest in the first place! I've had this unintentional misdirection where I walked away from a story mid-idea and come back, where I've worked out the technical bits and forgotten about the emotional or readability side. The authors have kept track of things abstractly--there are some running tabs on how willing you were to let Troy, the half-orc, join you. But none of this is put into the narrative as you'd expect, when two very different teenagers have to rely on each other for survival as they flee Something Bad. It doesn't have to be heart-wringing. But here it buries the lede or jumps off a track for a bit. The story opens up possibilities--for instance, ditching Troy or expressing displeasure with him--but it's all tamped down too quickly, and all this avoidance of overwrought prose turns out to take away from the story's full believability in its own way.

The Waiting Room, by Billy Krolick

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Effective nursing home/geriatric wing horror, November 30, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

In TWR, you're a new hire at a nursing home, and the patients seem to be dying more painfully than you'd expect. There are unexplained incidents and mentions of shadow people, but your coworkers don't believe it. Until they sort of do, if you push them to investigate things they've grown acclimated to.

On your first day you meet a fellow nurse named Austin who tells you not to bother with Ethel, who is always complaining. Whether or not you do, and whether you determine her complaints to be real, is one of the meaningful decisions in the story. There are other things to do to verify Ethel's complaints, which seem like generic "old folks whining" stuff, but of course, TWR wouldn't be very exciting if that were it.

The next meaningful choice is when you are sent on a night shift with a nurse named Maria and have to face a Shadow Person. Maria sort of believes in ghosts and sort of doesn't, and after a few sequences that turn out to be dreams, you're faced with the fact that, yes, the Shadow People exist. Who they are and what they want is revealed if you know where to look in the dark wing of the hospital you've been relegated to. The mystery isn't a particularly tricky one, intellectually, but there's always an obstacle once you think you've done the right thing. Though I wasn't surprised, things fit pretty tidily with the introduction, and I realized I cared about the other patients in Ethel's wing as well.

I got the good ending the first time through, basically by paying attention and not being be a jerk. The story grabbed me enough, I felt like trying for the not-so-good one, though it was hard making some choices knowing what would likely happen immediately. I even worried whom my bad acts might take down. Both main endings turned out quite satisfying, and while writing this review I thought a bit about the dead nurse you find and what sort of person they must have been. My guess is, they'd have to be meaner than Austin. It was disquieting.

Perhaps hard-core horror aficionados might find it TWR too facile, but I was engaged, and the depiction mentioned in the content warnings weren't overwhelming to me. My brain said it'd be easy to blow off anything supernatural in a nursing home because conditions there are bad anyway, but TWR had enough emotional pull to overcome that.

I hate backhanded compliments, so I hope this is sincere: it's workmanlike, and it works, and quite bluntly sometimes I'd rather not have a story try to blow me away. This is a work by someone who knows what they're doing and how to tell a story without trying too little or much, but they didn't seem to shoot for the stars this time. It feels polished enough, but not shiny, and that's better than the reverse. I'd be happy with another work like this in IFComp 2022, but I also sense the writer can do more.

Finding Light, by Abigail Jazwiec

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Well balanced rescue quest featuring a fox/human shapeshifter, November 29, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

The main feature of Finding Light is immediate and very appealing. You can change between a human and a fox with the help of a gem, and you need to switch between forms to rescue your master, Aurel, who has been captured by bandits. It's done quite well. FL rejects rejecting physically impossible stuff and balances fox tasks with human tasks quite well and even hints the player special verbs to do or type without force-feeding them.

The game starts with you (Ezra) waking up, lost, in a forest. And it's pretty clear you need to become a fox to escape, but the problem with foxes is: they're color-blind. So this creates problems later. However, you, as a fox, can also talk to animals. You'll need to, to get into the bandits' fortress. The puzzling here is pretty clear but not trivial. There are two horses to talk to. One wants something before really helping you. Along the way, you need to change back to human form to handle a certain item. But one thing I really enjoyed was the game letting you open the gate as a fox-–putting the key in your mouth and finally getting it right. That is attention to worthwhile detail.

Then inside the fortress you find other obstacles. Ezra can't read and needs an ally who can. Ezra meets a rat who wants shiny objects and whose brother is missing. Eventually Ezra finds a secret passage that lets him infiltrate the inside of the fortress, but there's a maze, and I think it's well-done, especially when you go off-course. It tells you you've missed information without saying "go back and look for more," and while many of us (rightfully) hate mazes, I really enjoy seeing one more way the whole "big maze" trope is successfully subverted. This mechanic was, in fact, used independently in two other entries in the Comp. So maybe in 2022, it will be stale. But for now, it's something good, and each of the three games treated going off-course in the maze substantially differently. Here, the first time you go off-course, an animal will help you back to the start, if you found an optional item. FL is the strictest about getting the path through the maze right, though, as you'd expect. And it pretty clearly signposts things.

Crossing the maze seems to trap you in a final fight with no way back, and it's possible you might be locked out of the best ending. There's one item with a clear purpose that isn't used to get deeper into the fortress, but it plays an important role. FL is replayable and memorable enough to patch this up. And so you can hit all the endings. Some were sad, of course (you can sit and do nothing during a big fight,) but they felt emotionally right.

One thing I didn't try was changing forms around animals. I definitely have my testing side while I play through comp games, but I certainly felt "hey, my friends might react unfavorably," which speaks very well for the immersion factor. As do some choices you make (mostly interacting with other animals) that don't affect whether you can get through with the game: they're there, and they're real, and I didn't care if they were practical. They were worth thinking about.

I'm not surprised that a first-time effort like this would do well. Its goal is clear, the mechanics are intuitive and relevant, and the puzzles are smart without forcing you to pull your hair out. My major worry throughout this game was that the human/fox switching would be thrown to the side, but that doesn't happen. Each form gets approximately equal screen time. I took a transcript as I went through, and when I found a nitpick to comment on, I felt like a bit of a bum noting it despite all the fun I had. On replaying, I still enjoyed it a lot. And I think you will too.

Goat Game, by Kathryn Li

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Cheery illustrations with a replayable Your Lousy Job (sort of) game, November 29, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

Goat Game advertises itself as taking two hours, which I think is an overestimation. The first few times may seem tricky, but once you see the main branches, subsequent playthroughs go fast. You'll see the story and what roughly happens if you make certain choices. The main thing then may be to see how to get all the endings efficiently. There's some risk of repeating endings, even if you figure which choices fully matter. There are three stats on the bottom: work, opportunity, and social, and twiddling them correctly gives different endings. This sounds a bit dry, and it neglects the actual story and the neat illustrations which play well with the story. Though after a few times through, you may be more focused on which combination of choices makes a legitimately new ending. It's very logical but with a neat curveball.

You play as a goat researcher who will soon have the decision of signing a new lease or moving on with your life. While sticklers might say nothing in Goat Game relies on you being a goat, there are some nice touches like talking about horn enhancement and banging your horns under a desk when searching for something. Part of me wonders if more could've been made of your goatness, but maybe I'm being greedy here. It's creativity, and if it's for its own sake, it doesn't feel misplaced. It also helps soften some of the more serious themes.

Goat Game takes you through a workday or two and exposes you to the personal consequences of your action. It details your research at Yobel Labs, how you get there, how you interact with people. It asks how you like the job, or where you live. Later some co-workers offer to tell you about an ancient secret. The underground workhouses are a bit sobering even with the whimsical pictures. There are standard themes of worker exploitation. Soon after this tour (which you can decline,) something happens! An explosion. Tobias, the CEO of Yobel Labs, gives standard corporate-speak reassurances, and he's a bit of a jerk. Based on your earlier choices, you can confide with people you know. You're accosted by some protestors as you go to work, and then you have a chance to leave or stay. The protestor bit stuck with me because, no matter how you respond, they accuse you of Being With the Man. Not quite as awful as Tobias, but still annoying.

Each possible ending feels like it really branches out, which is creative on the one hand but a bit unpredictable and sometimes unrealistic on the other. They don't all fit together logically. Aaron, your colleague with a rebellious streak (he's the one who tries to get you to sign a petition after taking you belowground) swings from being very successful to nearly losing it. This seems incongruous on the face of it. You can't really affect someone else's life that much. But given the final ending, and the sort-of cutscenes (with some self-flagellation) after you achieve a certain number of different endings(Spoiler - click to show) (mostly dream-logic stuff or at least you worrying what could happen) it does make a bit more sense.

I saw the paths through as perhaps regretting what didn't happen or worrying what you'd turn into, and (Spoiler - click to show)the 15th ending only appears once you got through all 14 paths, a more universal message about people being different, etc. yet being able to work towards their goals as a consequence. You saw everything and were able to bring together people with different levels of dedication to their work or confidence they'd make a difference. The dream sequences seem to indicate there may be some woolgathering on the protagonist's part. There's always something wrong. Perhaps you feel lazy and layabout, or perhaps ditching Yobel for the startup made you a different kind of ruthless.

So this is definitely an interesting experiment. For having the endings branch out a bit too much, it's pretty tidy. However, I found that by the tenth or so playthrough, I was focused more on clicking through quickly (note: to save time and energy, choose the bottom options and work up, so the unfolding text doesn't push the options down.) And I also stumbled over something that confused me that, whether deliberate or not, provided an additional interesting wrinkle. I do think the number of endings was about right. An explanation of endings is below the spoiler--you may not wish to fight with things.

(Spoiler - click to show)Sometimes an action that seems like it should increase a stat doesn't. That's because the game gives a score of 0-3 for each stat, and 0 is low, 1-2 are mid, and 3 is high. So jumping from 1 to 2 gives nothing. But what the game really tracks is if you have any of each of the three stats (8 possibilities, discounting having zero in all three,) and then there is a yes or no question at the end.

Goat Game feels very well done, then, on balance. The final ending, while not super-profound, brought everything together well, so I'm glad I spent the couple extra minutes writing out what choices to make, when, to see everything. The small abstract exercise didn't dent my emotional enjoyment, and it shouldn't dent yours.

The Corsham Witch Trial, by JC Blair

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Nothing supernatural but still thoughtfully unnerving, November 29, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

I was worried this was going to be about supernatural stuff, so I put it to the side. Too heavy for me, can't think about that, and so forth, even at a half-hour per playthrough. Might disturb me enough I have to think of other things before getting back to business. Well, there's no supernatural stuff (perhaps I saw the author's last name and Witch and thought Blair Witch, too,) but I needed to have a good think and clear my head after it. It was emotionally effective for me. But the "witch trial" is figurative.

You are a new investigator with a firm, and the boss has given you a case of his that got away. How you react to it will indicate whether you're a good long-term fit for the firm, though any discussions of that are outside the scope of this entry.

The case is one of alleged child abuse and whether an administrator showed criminal negligence in deeming it NFA (no further action.) Sarah Teller, a teacher, sees there's clearly something wrong with a student, Emma-Mai Morgan. The obvious signs are there (bruises and so forth) along with some creative writing that seems above Emma-Mai's level, and it's pretty dark stuff. It gets even darker: something serious happens, and Foster-Clyde, the case worker, is on trial for criminal negligence for ignoring her warnings.

Through the story, you click to open emails tangent to the case and exhibits offered in court. It's quickly obvious that, as the main characters say, Foster-Clyde is a bit of a prick (okay, maybe I'm biased against the name,) and Mr. Morgan, the father, is far worse. Andy Etteridge, the boss of the firm and prosecutor on the years-past case, sends emails to Sarah Teller to say, keep strong. Foster-Clyde seems to say the right things about not being too hasty and only so much that can be done legally, and yet he doesn't cc: Sarah Teller when explaining his NFA. He throws in a token "this may be important to you, but we're overwhelmed." He does tell Mr. Morgan to cool it, in person, but he doesn't do much more–like, for instance, noting Morgan's behavior is pretty classic DARVO (though that acronym might not have been so widely-known back whenever this trial occurred--we're not told.) And, of course, he has a very expensive, observant, biting lawyer who finds a flaw in Sarah Teller's personal history. It's saved for last. She's discredited before the jury but not in the court of popular opinion. I can't comment on whether this would be acceptable in court, in he UK or US, but putting myself in Sarah Teller's shoes and fearing a blindside like this can be crippling even if it doesn't happen.

This is tough for me. I've had times when things were far less critical than in the Morgan household and I heard "we can't do anything" or "there are more important things for you/society to worry about." Sometimes even with flowery words and a quick smile. Sometimes it was people who could've taken time to say something nice but didn't. But there was one time where, legitimately, someone said there was not enough actionable evidence. In this case, it was about an abusive schoolteacher ("but he made people laugh!") and four years later, that schoolteacher was pushed out the door. So it gives me some hope the form letters I receive are more than that, but it's also awful that the Foster-Clydes of the world hide behind them. One wonders why Foster-Clyde took the job he did, and one suspects there are many Foster-Clydes who just had the good fortune never to have a case they turned down blow up so spectacularly.

I also kind of froze for a while considering that the weakness the prosecutor found in Sarah Teller might be the reason why she saw something in Emma-Mai. Sarah Teller, too, knew unhappiness and family disappointment (her reaction to her father's death has a lot of anger, and it's unclear whether (Spoiler - click to show)her drinking was a suicide attempt) and despite being smart enough to be a teacher, acted in ways she didn't understand and hid certain things and wound up looking bad for it. Perhaps someone without that experience would've asked Emma-Mai "are you okay" and tried to help and that would be it, but what else can they do? They would not have pressed.

Perhaps you-the-character's opinion on the case is too much of a litmus test for whether you're right for the job, too, and that's meant to reflect on Andy Etteridge. I mean, yes, Morgan was a bad man, and Foster-Clyde slipped badly. I was a bit unnerved by how the boss wound up marrying the teacher who was subjected to cross-examination, so it wasn't just a case near to his heart. At the beginning, your coworker Cerys tells you "some people read it and decide it's not for them" and gives a general "oh yeah, THAT case" vibe. But it also feels weird and roundabout that you got the file on the anniversary of the court date and not, say, a few months after being hired. It suggests that Andy's frustration is more about him wanting good-fit employees who'll stay in line if he himself gets shouty than employees seeing if they are a good fit. Which, okay, you could Google him and find out his case, but something sat wrong with me.

It's minor compared to Morgan and Foster-Clyde, of course, but it's there. And it puts "Andy just wants to do right" in perspective. Sure, you want subordinates you're on the same page with. But this feels underhanded, and it's disappointing that a crusader against child abuse–especially one who got changes brought–would use his power in this way. And I can't quite shake it, and I suspect the author meant that. Certainly I've had experience seeing Political Crusaders being revealed as abusive jerks, usually ones who originally left me feeling I didn't have the passion they did, before their passion was shown as ... not for the best. Andy felt potentially that way to me.

This is a very tough piece to read for being so short. Certainly there are times I wanted to ask others if things were okay, or I wanted to be asked. But it's chilling to think that doing the right thing and asking may result in even worse, and the people who push for doing right are, in fact, motivated more by narcissism and not general altruism. Perhaps Sarah Teller even felt guilt for maybe escalating Morgan's anger.

All this also brings up the question: who is the witch? I assumed Mr. Morgan at first, as falsely accused, but of course, Sarah Teller gets her own witch-trial in the course of public opinion.

And one other thing that seems like a detail: the comp version skipped from exhibit H to J. There was plenty of interesting stuff to look through. But I'm still hoping to find exhibit I to maybe put one more piece in place. This speaks to how involved I was in the story even though it unsettled me.

BLK MTN, by Laura Paul

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Surreal cross-country trip/commune experience, November 29, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

I confess I was uneasy about this one, since it not only featured an all caps title but also one without vowels. The second bit reminds me of how Sue Townsend's Adrian Mole character sent John Tydeman a novel with all the e's missing, by fax. Which resulted in a very, err, polite letter back. Thankfully the author is a little better at the whole creative writing thing than Adrian Mole. (So, for the record, is the author of D'ARKUN, also in this year's comp.) So any fears of "LOOK AT ME I'M CREATIVE" vibes are unfounded, though as the title clues, you may just have to be ready for something unusual to get everything you can from it. I found it quite challenging, emotionally (it's largely puzzle-free,) and it looks like there were different paths through. It's also quite possible a timed-text bug disrupted me from looking as deeply into the story as I'd hoped. Sometimes you have to reset. But I know this, on replay: there's stuff I missed the first time through, and I'm glad I cheated a bit to see everything that was there. Some branches I missed made sense.

The first part of the story is a cross-country road trip, starting in California, destination Asheville, North Carolina. I've heard all sorts of things about how beautiful Asheville is–it certainly seems like A Destination. The main character, Jackson, is headed there, though they don't quite know why. Everything is set up to be a bit surreal, and by the end, it was unclear to me how much the narrator was hallucinating or imagining. However, given that they went to Black Mountain, an experimental commune/university which only existed until 1957 and which really seemed doomed to fail despite/because of its noble/nonmaterialistic goals. There are some breaks in time -- Confederate soldiers are off to the side, and you also meet Timothy McVeigh if you are brave enough to explore after dark. Yet things switch back quickly--your hotel has Wifi, for instance. It's nontrivial to keep track of. There's also weird stuff if you turn on the radio to keep you company. Someone named R. E. Lee describes a rebellion against the nation that has to happen.

Without spoiling too much, you can meet R. E. Lee. Bluebird is also referenced in Black Mountain. But it is quite possible to miss them, and though BLK MTN has an undo function, reworking through is tough. Perhaps a "go to this chapter" page at the end--or maybe a password-protected index--is in order. I certainly put off posting this review of BLK MTN to IFDB, because I was worried I'd miss something gigantic, but once I poked at the source code, things fell into place.

There's also a fellow passenger, Ashleigh, you can pick up for an intentionally awkward but not creepy love scene. So with all that, things didn't really start for me until Black Mountain. Perhaps that's because I really enjoy reading about noble failures, and things that should've worked but didn't, and maybe of people who should've been more famous but weren't. And at Black Mountain, we get a feel of that. The first time through, in fact, I failed to see everything, because I was still taking in all the names and ideas thrown at me right away. In short, I chose the "be a wimp and don't express yourself" options, because I did not to be in a virtual Burning Man convention. (My fears were unwarranted.) The only name I recognized was Walter Gropius, and him only because of his cameo in Tom Lehrer's song Alma, which has some of Lehrer's very cleverest rhymes. That I'm thinking of Tom Lehrer after reading a piece like this tells you where my priorities lie, but I do have to share this rhyme with people who haven't heard it.

(Spoiler - click to show)
While married to Gus she met Gropius
And soon she was swinging with Walter
Gus died and her teardrops were copious
She cried all the way to the altar

You meet someone called Marisol, who (Spoiler - click to show)reminds you of Ashleigh, and who eventually sings Bluebird (I missed this, because I don't care for live music, especially not "spontaneous" Bohemian live music or general 60s counterculture-style be-ins) and your friend who called you to Black Mountain, Jim Clemens, while not a historical figure, is sort of in charge, and he informs you Black Mountain has lost their lease. So BLK MTN ends with some interesting reflections.

These were scattered throughout BLK MTN and were the most interesting parts to me. The local flavor along the way--well, it seems like it had to be there, and it made sense, and I'm glad I took the detours, but it never quite soared. The reflections on memory that I appreciated at the time will probably pop up in some form, and it also called into question how much we can and should remember of past events. The story deliberately keeps this unclear, and I also found on re-reading that I valued a lot of parts differently the second time through. Any actual specifications or concrete suggestions on what to remember, though, would seem to violate the spirit of BLK MTN, where so much is vague and ambiguous.

So I do think the title is appropriate: you immediately see "Oh, this is Black Mountain, with stuff missing." In fact, I figured Black Mountain was just some bit of scenery, and this may've dented my expectations--I was quite glad to find it was an actual collection of people, and BLK MTN didn't end with telling you the journey was the important thing and a moment of realization. It's more than that. You will find stuff missing along the way, and once you hit the Black Mountain, you will see other stuff is missing, or it shortly gets lost. You will be sure you missed something. This isn't always positive, but it works.

BLK MTN seems most closely related to You Are Spam-Zapper, with its attempt to make philosophy out of something entirely different and wild, but it doesn't seem as optimistic, and for whatever reason, that worked a bit better for me, even if I do appreciate more optimistic works. Perhaps it didn't introduce any new terminology, even if some sentences clanked slightly. I feel bad not giving more detailed references and quotes, because BLK MTN seems to deserve it. It certainly got across much more serious ideas, left me with more, got far less in my face than I expected.

RetroCON 2021, by Sir Slice

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Several small, simple and very retro games in one, November 28, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

I snickered at the thought of a slice-of-life game from someone named Sir Slice. There are a few other laughs sprinkled throughout this Twine effort where you attend a retro convention that features various slot machines and retro games. Despite this being a convention, there aren't people to talk to but just games to play. There's a variety of gambling–-the usual suspects-–but also a small parser adventure (pretty impressive, given this is Twine) and a football simulation and a card game called Double Dead Zed. You can leave at any time.

I really lean towards the gaming aspect of text adventures, but given that I was at a convention, I was expecting to interact with people, discuss cool retro stuff uncovered in the past year, and so forth. It seems there were opportunities, e.g. after winning the card game, you could find someone else who was pretty good at it or could show you other interesting retro stuff. That said, RetroCon shows a lot of neat basic tricks of stuff you can do with Twine. Maybe the lack of story encouraged me to poke around in the source, and I found how the parser game got written to be particularly interesting. However, this makes RetroCon 2021 a bad fit for IFComp, because even if it doesn't hit the classic puzzles everyone may be a bit tired of, none of the games really matter or tie you into something deeper. That said, the card game helped prepare me for some other comp entries that are a lot longer and also had card games.

The gambling stuff is fairly standard: Keno, slots, video poker, horse races, and so forth. The horse race reminded me of an Apple game that randomly raced horses and impressed me so much as a kid. It has a $5 cap on betting (you start with $100,) as if to note that gambling too much at once is a bad idea. With all my poking at the source, I forgot to try what happened if you went broke, so that is maybe something to revisit. As for Keno--I remember being overwhelmed by the flashing text and lights of a pirated Apple game of Keno when I was a kid. I never figured out what to do. I figured it must be terribly complicated. I felt ripped off when I learned the utter lack of strategy and also that I was able to calculate easily what a losing proposition it was. So that brought back memories of a sort.

Dozen Dead Zed is a simple card game. You must kill exactly 12 of your computer opponent's players. Cards you draw may kill 1, 2 or 3, and you can also draw a weapon card. There are other special cards like injure, first aid, jam (opponent's gun) and so forth. You can't actually use a 3-kill card unless you have a shotgun, and you can't use a 2-kill if you have a knife, and so forth. Injured players can discard all five of their cards and start over. It took me a bit to figure what to do, but the strategy seemed nontrivial, though sometimes you were just out of luck with bad cards.

There's also a two-minute drill where your football team is down 4 points with two minutes left. The game constantly reminds you a field goal won't do. This could have been tweaked a bit, because how many time-outs you have is important in the actual game. I got lucky with two down-the-middle long passes, since the clock seemed to stop no matter what, and an incompletion took the same time as a completion. Then I short-passed my way to a touchdown. So the balance may have been off, but it had that retro feel and reminded me of a low-res football game I loved to play on the Apple. You typed in your play and the defense's. If your team got a first down, the randomly generated crowd colors changed and it made a clapping noise. I miss it.

The parser game, Uncle Jim's Will, was most interesting to me. Your Uncle has died, and you must find the buried treasure in his house. Given that the game advertises CrappyParser as its engine, you can't expect it to be very good. Its super-blunt error messages heckle, almost bordering on trolling: "What in the world makes you think you can go east?" Though it is complex, as you do have the ability to TALK X ABOUT Y. And while there aren't many items in the game, you have alternate solutions. You can feed or play with the dog, and while you can probably guess where the treasure is without the map, there are two places to use the bronze key before it breaks, and if you get the map and not the spade, your neighbor loans you a shovel. So I thought the parser game was economical, and I put the heckling down to, well, the parser's name. I was also amused that, when I left the game unattended, it had about ten different nags to tell me to get moving, already.

After doing all this, you can go back to your hotel room, get some sleep, and leave whenever you want. I was disappointed not even to be able to attend a lecture about projects for RetroCon 2022 or cool games that got lost and found or whatever. The whole game seems to describe things as "kinda neat" or "yeah, that was fun" and I think I caught a "you guess you can." So don't expect emotional impact, as RetroCon 2021 feels like it'd work great as a programming tutorial. The parser is legitimately impressive. I don't know if it's been done before. I saw input text before in a game (ShuffleComp?) and I remember a review calling it a brilliant take-down of parser games, so seeing a serious effort, CrappyParser's flippant self-depreciating and you-depreciating aside, was neat.

4x4 Archipelago, by Agnieszka Trzaska

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
randomized, replayable, and very focused RPG, November 27, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

In the author's forum, I had planned to start this review a different way. "This game's quite good, but the end was frustrating. I just couldn't figure how to beat the final boss. It was a lot of fun, but after a while, you just want to get through with it, you know?” I knocked off another shorter game or two, then came back to try just one more thing and, uh, wound up trying a few more after the final boss. I then wound up seeing if I could play through faster the second time through, and despite the shortcuts I'd learned, I spent about the same time overall, nailing down the quests I didn't quite solve before or maybe trying different reward options. Which will tell you how involving I found the game.

It's quite pretty impressive technically: a procedurally generated RPG where you bounce between sixteen islands on a grand quest that, itself, is randomly determined. There are thirty possibilities for each game: ten classes, based on a combination of two skills, and three big-picture quests. The Tragic Queen's Relics lead you to a randomly placed tomb you must ask the locals about. Another quest has four map pieces. A third has you ascend the Heavenly Spire to fix odd weather with black snow. There's variety in the classes, too. I started as an Explorer, which let me build up experience and silver by just talking to locals. My next time as a Battle Mage, I didn't have that quick start, but I had a lot of fun blasting enemies every which way. As of the end of IFComp, I had some clear favorites for winning quickly. I wound up playing 4x4 before games in genres I was unsure around. So, yes, I won with all ten and enjoyed the varying challenges. I was especially thrilled to find (Spoiler - click to show)a "bribe" sub-skill let me use that excess silver to get half-experience in combat, which saved real-world time. I tweaked my bribing strategy for a bit. And, as I replayed, I alternated between favorite non-fighting skills, or between ranged or melee weapons, each of which works better for different fights.

And this speaks to some pretty impressive balance in 4x4. You may have noticed "experience by talking to locals" above. Generally, when you think of information in an RPG, it's stuff you'll know the second time through, so why waste time clicking through the thought-bubbles? Well, a lot does carry over here, but more importantly, asking the right people for information gets you experience points, so you don't need to fight early on--and with some classes, fighting early is a bad option. You can barely beat Giant Rats. You can, however, drink repeatedly at the first inn you find to get enough advice/experience to get that first level-up.

You also can get experience solving nonviolent quests. This experience can be pumped into five minor skills that improve luck, HP, MP, strength and magic power. They start at zero, and the requirements for the next level double until you hit level 5, when it's capped. Or you can bump your main class skills up to the maximum of level 2, or you can also pay for a third skill. One really cool thing I noticed on replay is that you need a balance between quick improvement and saving your experience for level 2 main skills. And also after a few plays I enjoyed understanding the game well enough not to need a third main skill. At first I found these caps restrictive, but soon I realized they signpost how you don't need to grind too much.

That's not to say you should ignore good quick ways to grind. 4x4 allows you to make silver pretty quickly. Several islands have markets that sell one of food, luxury items and/or crafting materials and buy the other two, one at an extra markup. So establishing these trading routes early is good, and yes, the Trading skill makes things extra lucrative. I remember being so thrilled I could make any sort of profit that I missed a way to maximize. It involved, quite simply, having a small 4x4 grid of what market sold what. I expanded it to other things the useful in-game journal couldn't quite organize. It felt about right--I didn't want everything done for me, and I liked having my own shorthand to target where to go. The journal's a neat way to keep track of stuff, and while it wasn't too wordy, it was still neat to be able to search the text for what I needed, even something like whether a dungeon was cleared. Between it and the auto-saves when you moved between islands or visited a mine or dungeon, I was really happy I didn't need to backtrack or remember annoying details. It also lessened the intimidation of having a lot dumped on me as I explored islands.

Perhaps the neatest bit is something I didn't see until replay. You have a chance for quests and incidents when you travel between islands, and "explore the island" can also give random encounters. Some are one-time, which means experienced players have to decide what to buy and how much to save. While save-and-restore is a possibility if you get a quest you're not prepared for, micromanaging briefly ruined the game flow for me, and I had to decide what was worth retrying and what wasn't. But you also have rumor-quests, eight of them, from a pool of twenty-four. Every island has rumors to check. Some are random. Others lead to the quests. Many of these have several ways through: you can fight or expend equipment or use skills--noncombat ones are prominent here, which is great for balance, and using them also fleshes out storylines you don't see if you just clobber the baddies bothering the villagers. Some, you can buy your way through with the right materials. The tougher quests might require a lot to avoid a tough fight, but the random unique rewards for solving them makes each playthrough interesting. The easier quests often give you a choice: renown, silver or experience. The harder ones give renown, experience and a great unique item.

Renown? Well, it seems useless but is key to the game, although silver and experience are more important and accessible early. You get renown for, well, actually acting like a hero, or defeating very tough enemies. Some random adventures give it. For instance, if you have crafting materials and run across a stranded boat, you can demand payment, or you can just give what you've got for renown. First-time players probably should just take the more tangible rewards, because they can't get going that early, but more experienced players will want renown in order to get quick access to the adventurers' guild on the main island. It can sometimes be quite random how much you get, based on your rumor-quests and when certain quests show up, but there's a way to prepare, and more importantly there are two cute ways to buy renown. They are (Spoiler - click to show)donating to the Academy, which is a heck of a quid pro quo, and paying minstrels to write a song about you, which is self-promotional in its own way. One thing I find amusing about renown and solving quests in general is that 10+ renown lets you rest free at inns--this isn't a game-breaker, but combined with one-offs where people recognize you and give you powerful items for (for instance) defeating a mist-monster at sea, the attention is almost slightly embarrassing, especially once you have more silver than you could ever spend.

But it takes a while to get there, and in the meantime, I liked how 4x4 made it so it was hard to be fully busted. As you travel between islands, you may gain or lose MP or HP, or tradeable items may get washed out from your boat or onto it. Your fortune stat (aka luck) controls this a bit--I think. You may also find NPC (mer-folk when sailing, hunters on the island) willing to sell you special armor or goods to trade for a profit or buy at a discount, and sometimes you just get small experience boosts for avoiding traps in the small dungeons. With all the random quests, you also have places that reliably give fights, though exploring may give experience and good items quicker. There are three such places (bandits, beasts and undead) placed on random isles, and you can visit the easy or hard sector, so they keep their value without screaming "GRIND HERE."

The procedurally generated text works well, too. There are possibilities for all sorts of contradictions if you try for less generic text, but they don't really pop up. The island descriptions are fun, as are the stories you can get from locals, and having them around really complements the strategic parts. The quests have a lot of hidden jokes, too. One random rumor quest has an arm-wrestling contest, and if you have maximum brawn, the organizers bribe you to let their son win in the final. Another lets you bribe a Red Knight's squire to find the knight's weakness before a fight. I forgot to mention that you can acquire allies who help (marginally) and one of them knows a bit about the history of the Archipelago and informs you when someone is telling a lie. This is all very vague, but I don't want to spoil the fun of discovery.

What encapsulated 4x4 for me, though, was finding ways to go faster and enjoying them despite missing out on side-quests I enjoyed. You see, it's possible to win the main quest without doing nearly everything. A sea serpent has more HP than two final bosses. One quest in particular involves a Wanderer who visits all sixteen isles. She tells you the terrain of her next isle, and you can consult the journal or the main page that displays them all--the islands are attractively drawn, clearly similar by terrain but not identical. So it's a fun mini-game of chance. It's rewarding to try and solve a bit quicker than you expected, and the choice of items she gives you at the end is very powerful. It helped me before I really figured how to get epic weapons and skills early. I also miss the Coral City, a place you can only find by luck until you have access to the Academy. It's a maze with nonreciprocal paths, but it works very well, and I don't want to spoil more.

Add all this up, and you can guess I really enjoyed 4x4A, both as a player and someone who enjoys learning about design, and both for the novelty of the first couple playthroughs and the enjoyment of honing strategy later. Strictly by the rules, it was probably a bit long for IFComp, but I was glad it was in there--it boosted me between games that weren't in my genre. I felt almost a bit guilty reporting bugs I only saw because I was really paying attention. So I really recommend it. It's quite well-balanced, and the randomization makes each playthrough different enough that 4x4 never quite get old. Each time I've sat down to play, it's fun to uncover quests and islands I've seen before, as something always pops up that I'd half-forgotten.

Limerick Quest, by Pace Smith

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
In 2019, IFComp / Had one game that promised this romp *, November 24, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Starbreakers, by E. Joyce and N. Cormier

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
old school logic puzzles with neat twists, November 23, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

I don't think you're supposed to get what's going on right away, here. It seems like just an escape-the-spaceship puzzle with other terrain thrown in later. We've sort of seen the puzzles on offer, too, but in a different context. Each has enough of a twist to make Starbreakers a much bigger game even before the big reveal.

Certainly, when the authors throw a Zebra Puzzle/Einstein's Logic type puzzle at you, along with other puzzles (filling and emptying buckets) you hope there's a bit more. The authors themselves are experienced enough. The writing is good. So you feel there should be. And there is. The mystery unravels as you become privy to instant messages around you that don't seem to be relevant. And as someone who's just trying to get through all the IFComp entries I didn't write, I cut corners and missed a few clues I didn't see until I hit the game's end, where it helpfully recaps said messages, and you see how they fit. For the record, I recommend going with the flow of puzzles you've seen before. There's a strong enough story to complement the puzzles. Let's just say after playing this, I'm definitely interested in the authors' other collaboration(s), as well. I hope that's enough of an endorsement.

Part of the twist is that it'd be wrong for you the character NOT to be oblivious, though you the reader may see something clearly up. Fatal and non-fatal mistakes are punished in roughly the same way, with the game cycling back to the last point you were safe. The game asks you for your name with "You should probably report in too. You search for the words; your mind feels terribly foggy. Your name is... it's..." Typing in actual words is then reserved only for specific puzzles, such as breaking a code, which is less intimidating than it sounds. First, you get an easy one, then you get a variation on the theme. For others, such as Towers of Hanoi or the Zebra-style puzzle or even shifting water between buckets, clicking works and works well. Apparently, there's hard mode, but I didn't want to risk messing up and having to restart. I made enough mistakes in the name of expedience (I'll call it expedience and not mental limitations) and the "oops you died" message should have provided me with more clues.

Because you're trying to figure who the traitor is who sabotaged the spaceship, and weird things happen. Someone else dies and pops up again. There's subtler stuff, like the companion named Andrew who got too crossed up in various logic puzzles instead of actually doing something. (Err, no comment there! The authors assured me this wasn't intentional.) Everyone else seems to have their hang-ups, too. You seemed to be the one really doing stuff, figuring stuff out. All the while you were being watched by others. The game does some fourth-wall stuff like "this sure is a weird way to unlock a chest" but things probably won't be clear until the game's over, and you can read what's happening outside your spaceship.

As I mentioned above, the logic puzzles aren't just "look what I can code." The bucket-balancing one where you had seven total units of water to throw around required 3-2-2 distributions in buckets of size 7, 4 and 3. This is a nice twist that doesn't drown the players in complexities. For the Zebra logic puzzle, the clues are less brute-force than "person X was not in room Y" without getting too conditional. The first letter-replacement cryptogram--well, a solution can be written quickly in Python. What is all this leading to, though? And why are certain details not quite right?

Even without the twist ending I would have tipped my hat to the successful efforts to give old logic problems new life in unexpected ways. And I in fact misunderstood the plot and had a laugh, then another one when the authors said "this is what we meant." I was pretty close, and I won't spoil it fully, but it made me laugh because (Spoiler - click to show)a coffee machine is part of why everything goes haywire, and as someone who does not like coffee, coffee machines, people talking about how they need coffee in the morning, or people talking about what coffee is good coffee and bad coffee, or people who have had their morning coffee and suddenly switched to "why can't you be as perky as me" mode, or seeing coffee beans in a filter in the wastebasket, I was glad to see it as a quasi-villain. (Okay, I don't hate the stuff THAT much. But I sure have fun hating it. As hates go, I hope it's harmless. And my apologies to the authors if they actually like, well, that.)

The Library, by Leonardo Boselli

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A fun romp through well-loved classics, November 23, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

If an entry in IFComp is going to have one word (articles don't count,) then "Library" has to be up there near the top for me. I enjoy searching libraries, hanging out in them, or just finding a new city library branch to visit when, okay, I could've pulled an intralibrary loan, but I wanted some minimal adventure. And I wasn't disappointed. It's quite a fun game, and the writing is smooth, no small feat when English is not the writer's first language.

After meeting with an odd librarian and given a red pill (don't worry, here a pill is just a pill,) you're sent into a maze of twelve rooms, each named after a famed author, to rescue Edmond Dantes. Yes, a maze of twelve rooms–each has three others adjacent, and instead of compass directions, you can go back, left and right. Left (or right) then back from one room always leads you to that room.

TLDR for the comp release: the map is the trickiest part of the game, and I want to mention it up front, because it's well worth having a map by your side to subvert this, so the actual fun bits flow. Don't map it yourself, unless you really enjoy that sort of thing. Crib off someone else so the story doesn't get buried. The author originally meant to have 20 rooms in a Hunt the Wumpus sort of dodecahedron structure but cut it to twelve, leaving a few odd loops. The numbers just don't work out to make things symmetrical. Left and right looping in the first room gives two tidy pentagons, but then the map gets stickier. However, for the post-comp release, everything may be more symmetrical.

That said, the interface overall provides a good deal of innovative convenience. It's text at the top, and you can click on the important things to examine them. Books are the big one. In each library room, clicking on a book opens it, where you open it to enter the book itself. Then you find a bookmark to read the relevant passage that helps you understand what to do. Then you can drag and drop one item onto another to see if they work together. You can, of course, escape with no penalty if you're missing an item from another book. So the game has a parser feel without, well, fighting the parser.

So it helps to make a relatively smooth game once you enter the book in the actual room. Which is pretty cool, because though the idea of book crossovers has been done before, often in other books, having twelve to choose from is quite a task! In a linear book, it might be a bit messy, but here, there's a lot of fun. It may be tough to figure what to do first, as there's a lot of randomness involved, and there's no really logical way to say "Hey, I have to read this book first." It's not chronological. But I really enjoyed how some items linked up. You need to use Alice's cake to make someone grow. You need a way to kill Dracula. Dr. Frankenstein repairs someone's body with surgery. Edmond Dantes gets swallowed by the whale as in Pinocchio, with a crossover to Moby Dick. The connections are whimsical and quickly make sense most of the time. For me it was a bit odd to see Ulysses do something to get himself killed, until I realized, given the authors, where the action would lead. This all was a bit of a stretch–taking one step back to take two forward–but it was still entertaining.

The only thing I disliked about the interface was how left/back/right, for navigation, seemed to change order arbitrarily, making the maze even trickier. So when I wanted to try to loop to the left, or to the right, I had to pay more attention. And sometimes the page-turning special-effect, while a nice surprise in the introduction, wasn't what I wanted when I was trying to figure a puzzle. The author knows of this, and they were really receptive to feedback in-comp, so if there is a post-comp version, this may not be a problem for you.

But the puzzles are fun, and you really only need a passing familiarity with any of the books in the game. We all know the story of Gulliver being the giant, or Ulysses and the cyclops, and The Library weaves them together quite well. It kept me entertained and then some.

Sticklers will point to the map, or how some of the book scenarios are a bit off. Or how you have to take one step backwards to take two forward, e.g. by getting Ulysses killed. This may not be peak narrative and puzzles, but it's more than good enough, and it's still a lot of fun. If the rest of the game weren't very smooth, this wouldn't have stood out. Because combining books isn't a shoo-in. For instance, Edward Eager's children's stories are quite fun, as they go poking into other books, but there's a bit too much fourth-wall stuff and overt self-awareness and "ooh what a mess we made," and not enough getting on with it. Sierra's Mixed Up Mother Goose had its own simplistic charm, but it was mostly a fetch quest that just made sure younger gamers knew heir nursery rhymes, some of which made me cringe even when I was young.

The Library throws stuff together without saying "Ha ha, oops, I'm a bit disorganized, and that's part of the joke." While I think there's work worth doing for a post-comp release, it certainly made my gaming side assume a crossover among my favorite books would be easy. My programming and designing side knows better, and I'm glad The Library made it in, and I think if The Library 2 appeared in a future IFComp, I'd bump it up in the random order the website gave me.

Kidney Kwest, by Eric Zinda, and Luka Marceta

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Neat concept with perhaps the wrong tool for the job, November 22, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

Kidney Kwest is a short game aimed at kids who need to take medication for chronic kidney disease. I admit I couldn't find details on the condition, but fortunately, you (and kids who need something uplifting) aren't going to be quizzed on the biochemistry at work here. Your task is far less technical: you want to find a costume for a school play. There are plenty of props around. But you also have an inventory limit. You also are very hungry, and after you eat, you need to take a phosphate binder, to get rid of phosphate crystals your kidneys have trouble breaking down. For that, you go inside your body and explore your intestines.

It's pretty simple in the big picture, but it's slowed down by the parser. I realize there's a lot of criticism below, but it's the sort where I had fun despite having these suggestions and despite, thankfully, not having kidney problems. I think back to how I wish I'd had something like this as a kid for health stuff in general. It would have worked so much better than a video or in-person lecture featuring an adult telling you how you'd better take care of your body, because they wish they did.

It's very cheery (both text and graphics) and helpful for the holes you need to fill in with a non-standard parser, though (small warning) I had trouble taking my medicine even when I knew what to do, to the point where I lost and had to restart the game because I didn't get the syntax right. So not penalizing the player for good (I hope) guesses would go a long way. This seems easily fixable, though. TAKE A PHOSPHATE BINDER works.

The nonstandard (and slow) parser also takes a bit of getting used to (I for inventory and X for examine don't work–you have to spell them out) because you also get a warning if you forget to use "THE." The irony here is that the authors are using something that parses natural language, and it in fact brings back the inconveniences modern parsers short-circuited long ago. While the authors make clear their intentions and the software they're using, I think it's a case of maybe pulling something needlessly high-tech.

At the end of the game I had a chance to restart and get another costume. It would be neat if there were an expanded adventure, or some assurance of it. Perhaps more areas inside your body to explore. The first try had five rooms outside your body, and there was only one puzzle.

But I liked what I saw and hope this game, and this sort of project in general (teaching through parser games) continues to grow, and people try combinations they hadn't thought of before. Pure language parsing doesn't seem to be the way to go here, but this could be rectified in a sequel, if the authors chose to branch out, because sadly there are a lot of diseases, and it may not make sense to kids why they have to do things and all the other kids don't, and "because adults said so," no matter how kindly stated, gets a bit annoying.

I feel like a bum poking holes in a game with so much potential to do good. But I know the authors have taken the feedback they've gotten well and made some adjustments to the parser since I played this. I hope they continue to tweak things for this and other educational endeavors.

The TURING Test, by Justin Fanzo

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
No need to cram, November 22, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

This is a relatively short game that explores what happens when machines take over humanity for their own good. It starts with a questionnaire, asking you various interesting ethical questions about people's purposes and machines'. Your responses will help to pass human traits on to machines, as technology and space exploration evolve.

Then it flashes forward to 2065, when robots have determined that, well, humans aren't going to fulfill their moral obligation to leave the planet a better place than they found it. In a shutdown that puts Y2K, if it had actually been a thing, to shame, machines shut off and rebel. And you're the one to stop it!

This is all quite exciting, as you zip off into space and, as you try to deactivate the robots gone bad (or at least not very good for humans,) you get calls from two entities claiming to be Dr. Ayer, who questioned you about people's purpose in the first part. I was excited to get this correct and get the good ending, but I was also curious about the bad one, which is an eerily nifty artificial "everything is great."

But the problem is, as I looked through the source, I realized this is the only choice that matters. Frequently two choices go to the same next page without setting any variables. This may seem a bit hacker-y, but hey, I am playing a game about robots and such and trying to understand their inner workings, and them trying to understand ours. I guess I was looking forward to a replay where I answered differently, whether it was the survey or other parts. There isn't much. The doctor's responses when you answer the game's initial quiz are, in fact, ELIZA-like.

TURING gets us interested in important and absorbing issues but sadly only touches on them. I have the feeling the author could have done more or will do more in their next effort. The action sequences are well put together, so it's enjoyable, but it seemed to promise a lot more.

The Spirit Within Us, by Alessandro Ielo

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Thorny subject, some thorny implementation in a custom parser, November 22, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

The Spirit Within Us, by Alessandro Ielo

TSWU, with a relatively simple custom parser, is an interesting effort, for all the required fiddling to get through it. I've read nightmares about homebrew parsers from earlier versions of the comp, but I haven't seen any disasters this year. It's probably a good combination of the soft rules of “have this tested,” better technology, and also better guidelines out there for testing in general. Maybe people are just better connected in order to swap testing as well. Whatever the case, TSWU clearly passes the technical threshold, though there are some shortcuts I wish it had implemented. The ABOUT text says it's based on a tutorial, from which the programmer got a lot of mileage. That a game this solid placed so lowly in IFComp suggests judging standards, and the general quality of an average IFComp game, have risen over the years.

And while the text may be a bit bland for what should be a psychological thriller, and the title seems more like an uplifting rags-to-riches lets-pull-together story than it is ("us" seems to imply there will be friendly NPCs–there aren't,) there are certainly clues as to what is going on, and how it might be disturbing. I think certainly it is best kept as a text adventure, without graphics.

You wake up seeming to have amnesia. You learn you haven't had a drink in a while, but you face something worse than alcoholism. Unsigned notes suggest to you that someone is trying to help you but has had just about enough. Enough of what? That's the story, and the handwritten notes and books left behind provide clues. I found it wasn't too bad to hack my way through to find stuff, although I required the slightly unusual commands X NORTH (or another direction) to turn up some important items.

And it's all quite serviceable. There's a trail of bread-crumb clues to follow. They make sense. There is a final confrontation where the time and health you saved matters, because you have a status meter that drops throughout the game, and it seems you'll have more than enough to win. Well, until that final fight. Also, searching around will reward you–the more food you find, the higher your health will be, though in my notes I see cases where different sorts of berries might take stamina away, and certainly when I saw mushrooms, which are on average deadlier than berries, I saved before eating. The writing also does the job. English is not the writer's main language, so I don't want to jump on them for it, because I wouldn't have the guts to write in a second language OR make my own custom parser, and besides, too much description would probably be a bad thing. Though the descriptions are a bit flat. I think the biggest offender is here:

"You see a lot of boxes and some winter clothes, a torch lays on a shelf.
an empty shelf."

I wouldn't be surprised if the technical hurdles the author had to clear meant they had less time to punch up the game text. It may also have cost them time with design choices. Inventory-fiddling was sadly enough of the game to be a legitimate distraction. You can't just READ PAPER. You have to take it, and you may need to drop something else to get it, and then you need to remember to take that something else again. I (and other viewers) had quite a struggle trying to eat some expired vitamins, but at least they regained me 3 health for my efforts. Some things are too heavy, and it's not clear why e.g. autumn jackets which might be important given the weather. The default rejects seem a bit distracting, so maybe some custom messages would help a post-release. I'd also like to use “it” for the last noun you used, but again, post-comp. And the blue text should be made light-blue so it is easier to see. I checked if other reviewers noticed this and felt it worthy to comment on, and they did.

And I think more detail or flashbacks, or less generic flashbacks, would've highlighted the moral choices more carefully. I wound up pretty much saying "okay, forest maze" and wondering just why the third piece of paper WAS located in the maze and wondering why a branch would be worth taking, since the game's good about not letting you take useless stuff.

For all that, though, there is a buildup to the final fight. Whether or not winning the final fight is the right thing to do is the moral dilemma the author hoped to push. One can't particularly blame the protagonist for going through with it, but apparently you can back out.

This is verifiable. However, the save-game feature was harsh, and that, combined with UNDO saying "you can't change the past" is also slightly annoying. The save files are presented as a list of text commands, which the parser than runs through before. That looks like a problem because some random events happen, e.g. the fight at the end or where and when the fox and dog appear. So you need the forethought to 1) be able to copy a backup save file and 2) set it to read-only to make sure you don't write it over. And this is the only serious technical pitfall of the homebrew parser. It's a tough one to tease out as a programmer or tester, but it illustrates how things can go wrong.

This is all a lot of kvetching, but I think overall the author did well to create such a relatively stable parser to write a coherent, logical game in what was not their language, especially when that executable clocks in at a mere 160KB. So as a technical project it's a success, even if some design choices seemed odd, and it doesn't hit the mark aesthetically. My guess is the author focused on the technical bit to make sure it worked, which was the right first choice, but with more months of preparation and a few more testers, they could have ironed out the other bits. So I hope my criticisms add up to "these are the technical pitfalls to know ahead of time and avoid, and once you do, I think the experience will be satisfying enough."

Brave Bear, by John Evans

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
You can't hate a game like this, November 22, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

Brave Bear is a short and sweet little game about a teddy bear who senses their owner's terror. It's not perfect, and in fact, there do seem to be cracks in the world-logic. But I ignored them the first time through, and it wasn't until I read some other reviews that I said "Yeah, I noticed that, but..." So I'll save the faults until the end, because it's a nice game to just enjoy and not worry about its imperfections. Also, I'm assuming this is the same John Evans whose previous entries in the comp wree more sci-fi style, so it was really neat to see the change of focus, which I think overall was successful.

There are phantoms to fight through, which you can handle on your own at first. But then you need the help of other toys. They're strewn around the house, and in some cases, you need to figure how to use them. The descriptions are deliberately opaque in certain cases, because part of the fun is figuring what the toy-friend really is. For instance, there's a frog reporter, which people who know the cultural context will figure immediately. Near the end, you take a trip outside to face the final darkness. It's never quite revealed what your owner fears, and it's possible I missed clues, but it seems as though (Spoiler - click to show)your owner's family is moving, and most of your friends are packed away, and your owner is scared, and apparently your owner's parents are apprehensive, too. At least that's what I was moving towards, though the actual few sentences just reference magic in general.

The house isn't very big, and the puzzles aren't very hard. The verbs are generally pretty old-school, and you have a score counter and everything. The trickiest bit at the end was getting the doll. I kept trying to get the transforming robot to transform, and that didn't work, so that was a bit of a loose end, but not really enough to affect my enjoyment.

The comparison game is always a dangerous one, but this brings to mind David Dyte's Bear's Day Out which worked even better for me. I'm still quite happy to have spent a bit of time here, in a sort of escapism without, well, childishness. I could play games like this all day, and if there are a few holes in the narration, they're fun to fill in with your own imagination. I had to suspend my disbelief in parts where I wasn't completely inmmersed, but a game like Brave Bear is a can't-miss effort if the writer shows a decent amount of skill, and that's definitely on display here. So ... stop reading and play the game right now if you're sold. Nitpicks are below.

(Spoiler - click to show)Probably the biggest confusion I had was with the first verb: ATTACK PHANTOM. Teddy bears aren't violent! Perhaps SCARE would've been better, as in "you are a teddy bear, so you can be scary if you have to, but do it too often and you get exhausted." I also wish you'd have used your friends a bit more to do things, beyond just having enough of them to attack a later phantom. And, well, the phantoms aren't really explained at the end. So these are loose strings. When touching this review up I had notes saying "loose strings" and I almost didn't want to go back to replay to check them out, but they're there. They shouldn't ruin the experience, though.

Weird Grief, by Naomi Norbez

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
When funerals go wrong, November 22, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

This sort of entry does seem to get hammered in IFComp because it is, well, linear, and also because the characters may be part of a social community we just don't understand, though we don't want to look down on others. But it touched a nerve with me in a good way. So I found it valuable. But it's exhibit B in why I find it hard to give stars to fellow IFComp entries. (Exhibit A is that I feel like I'd be knifing a fellow writer in the back if I said nice things but then gave a below-average score.) Exhibit B is that it is hard to compare two very different works, and we know the stars are just a rating, but it's all we have to go on. And complex ratings are too obvious.

But there is a lot to like for an entry that placed so low. First, it links up with another entry from the author's. I played this together with The Dead Account and recommend you to the same, with WG first. They are good on their own but sum nicely together well, and neither takes too long to play. The Dead Account revisits the events of Weird Grief and provides some sort of closure to things Weird Grief left open. I appreciated Weird Grief not explaining everything and letting me speculate, and I was satisfied with how The Dead Account tied things up.

Second of all, the title. It says a lot in ten letters. Grief should be grief. And it hurts to be called weird in any context, with or without justification. But there's the immediate implication that some people's grief is seen as less than normal people's grief because it's "weird," when the truth is, if you don't have a huge social circle to start, losing anyone hurts that much more. I also remember hearing "That's a weird thing to be upset about" over far smaller things than the death of someone I care about. Sometimes it was followed up by "But I didn't call you weird!" So the title gives that feeling of being accused, or being lesser. Which is pretty upsetting, when normal grief is filled with cliches and so forth. It also says: sure, you can grieve, but don't be TOO weird about it, okay?

It brings back memories of snarky teens whispering behind others' back. Does the weird person know we're whispering? If not, it's weird to be that clueless about themselves and others. If so, it's weird not to do anything to, you know, become more acceptable. In this game, the weird grief certainly comes off as much more acceptable than normal grief. The people who call themselves normal seem not to realize that the grief they call weird deserves to be more because, well, it's harder to find friends if you're not normal, so losing a friend hurts more. I hope this isn't too harsh on normal people, but I think it accurately describes too many people who, sadly, lump the world into Normals and Weirds. Perhaps they even have weird friends! But not that weird.

It also brings back memories of a Life in Hell cartoon. If the name doesn't ring a bell, the author, Matt Groening, went on to make the bold move of creating a prime-time cartoon show called The Simpsons and later Futurama. One of the characters was Binky. And he had scary thoughts, like, “if people start laughing at your funeral, do you have to sit there and take it?” And the pastor in the strip said “Well, he lived an interesting and useful life, sort of.” And WG brought that back again. It was easy to picture the deceased family's liking him "despite all that" and his friends actually, well, knowing him better.

As for knowing him? Well, someone named Mike dies at 33. We aren't told why until The Dead Account. Was it COVID? A rare disease? A hate crime? Drugs? (Note: this felt like it would've been the easy choice, with maybe some discussion of the "normies" saying "well he should've known better, why didn't you stop him" and his friends protesting.) But the author avoided any details, and I think that's effective, because at the end, we realize it doesn't matter, and Mike, like anyone, doesn't deserve to have people pry if they didn't care enough during his lifetime. Or, well, his family take backhanded potshots at him and his friends at his funeral.

And while my lifestyle isn't as different from the norm as the characters in WG, I certainly have envisioned a funeral full of backhanded compliments from my relatives. This flared up with the Coronavirus. If I died and my family looked at what I did, what would I have to show? I realized I'd never shared any of my text adventures with them. I think it'd get in the way. Perhaps they'd give condescending approval, but God forbid I sit down to explain it to them, or they take time to figure it out. And I realized people who listed family members as testers or inspiration … well, I couldn't relate. I realized there were people in the community I was closer to than I was to my immediate family, and I wasn't that close to them. But I still got a lot from them. And yes, I was at a funeral where Perfectly Normal people behaved Perfectly Normal and the result was shocking. At least the people involved (including the pastor) waited until the funeral was over to agree: yeah, that eulogy was BS!

And for Mike, that seems like the best possible case, which would be sad indeed. I'm also struck by how Mike's family may say “OMG we loved Mike” but on the other hand, they don't want Mike's inner circle to be able to say the same thing.

I got something different out of it than most people on the discussion board topic that flared up. I'd rather not have sex scenes in games I play, but it seemed appropriate here. The people need to do what they can to move on, and they don't have to worry about things like "what would your family say?" Perhaps they won't do so very well at first, or they're not sure what to do, but they deserve to try. And I know I've had ways of dealing with loss that worked, and people who nitpicked them, well, they showed who they were.

WG was cathartic for me. I recalled many other things, like the sort of awful no-fun fantasies of people I disliked, people I should've liked on paper, people I hadn't seen in a long time, showing up to my funeral and remembering the worst parts. With time I've been able to mix some humor in this, and it's because of positive life experiences and reading stuff like WG that reminds me that my fears are ... well, normal, no matter what my Overall Weird Quotient may be. I remembered reading on Facebook that a middle-school classmate I learned about on Facebook had died, and how that compared to having no grief over a teacher I disliked, one I should've liked on paper, who died and that was a different sort of weird grief, only it wasn't weird at all, and in fact it helped me move on.

I took an hour to reflect after Weird Grief, and I was able to bend some bad things--people laughing at me, fearing people laughing at me--not weird grief, but potentially weird regret and weird fears--into something funny. No, Weird Grief isn't intended to be funny, but it helped me find humor, and to me, that's more effective than straight-out comedy.

The Belinsky Conundrum, by Sam Ursu

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Fun adventure if you choose the right path midway through, November 22, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

The Belinsky Conundrum is a Facebook Messenger app about a top-secret mission to take out a spy who's managed to avoid his kids being chipped. It's a compelling premise, and it's extra-cool that it's on a new platform, and you can do this sort of thing on Facebook, and you (presumably) won't be suckered into in-app purchases along the way to get a better ending. Which gives it a leg up on a lot of games on Facebook.

But unfortunately there wasn't enough of a conundrum to really sink my teeth into. The game follows a pattern of asking for 3 different options, some of which feel very small-talky indeed and maybe did not give all the variety I hoped for, even though they gave a laugh. Given the tone of responese, this would be okay for a comedic slice of life game, but it feels out of proportion in something more exciting–perhaps the author's strength is more with slice of life games. An example is below–I'm not sure of the differences, and perhaps it would be better to have no choice at all, or "nod impressively / stay still ". I think we have some latitude for false choices in choice-based games, but unfortunately here it seemed to contrast with the gravity of the situation. One early example is below:

(Spoiler - click to show)"The national security of the United States is at stake," says Admiral Houfy.

Sweet! / That's messed up / Oh my god

Still, I managed to put up with my boss's orders to succeed or else, and make it to Norway, where I bought a car and gun "off the grid," which was quite fun. Apparently I owned a wind farm, or could pretend to own one, to make the purchases plausible. The only real puzzle I saw was finding the name of the gun dealer, and I chose the most oddly spelled one, because it was foreign, and it worked. I felt satisfied, and I'd have liked more puzzles like that, regardless of how bad they'd kill you off it you messed up. I was also curious who it was that the government had tracking me to make sure I did my job. TBC brings it up on the NorAir flight I took. There are suspects that are so obvious they couldn't be the one and suspects that obviously could be the one.

TBC feels very high-stakes at first, but it seems the only chance to go wrong was at the end, where you had a choice to try a hit on Belinsky or not. I did not and was told to stand down shortly after. This is a point where being able to undo things would've been appreciated, as I was hoping to read about the moral implications or possibilities. But it took a bit too long to get there. That was the first time. Fortunately, TBC was short enough that it wasn't hard to play again. This time, I eyeballed the correct passenger (the old lady) and went to Iceland where I found an underground maze where I met an old contact. Then I burst into the Belinsky house. I had a long, winding adventure with Belinky, escaping both world and US governments as well as some philosophical discussions about safety vs control/surveillance. They were a bit didactic, but they helped me put things together. There was a dramatic end, and yet I still can't help feeling so many of the dialogues and choices were superfluous and missed out on a chance to develop the core story. There was probably more there than what came before, but people might miss it, so I'd like to at least have that for reference..

I think TBC buries the bulk of its good stuff, and not just because it was on Facebook Messenger instead of a more traditional, accessible and lightweight format. But there is good stuff. I mean, I don't want to find out all the surprises at once, but it seemed a bit back-loaded and never quite built to the climax it should or could have had, because after being hit up front with many dialogue choices that didn't seem to matter, I was never really able to get back into a strategic frame of mind. Though without too many spoilers, I think it's satisfying Roosk gets pegged as dislikable in the end. And the chase where you actually try to rescue Belinsky was, for me, probably the best part of the game. So you probably won't want to miss it.

What remains of me, by Jovial Ron

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Surreal "your apartment and neighborhood" game in an interesting engine, November 21, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

I'm not sure if I've ever seen such a conflict between an author's name and a title. Here, we have someone allegedly happy claiming they are left with almost nothing. Yet there's also confusion in the game itself, and it's not clear which inconsistencies are intentionally there and which got slipped in there. After a while it gets too muddy. But there are some lines I really enjoyed. Which is not bad for such a short game.

Technically, it's impressive, and it suggests somebody did a lot of work to make the interface, even with an assist from the TIC-80 framework found on All the verbs you can use are on the screen. You can click on them or an arrow, and the game has, well, interesting responses to ones that don't work. That the game anticipated some of my weirder tries, borne slightly out of desperation at first, suggests the programmer has a sense of humor. My favorite was when you USEd the atlas by your friend, prompting my favorite line in the whole game: "I dont read books you nerd!" shouts your best friend. Other dialogue and descriptions are similarly simple yet wild. Someone describes themselves as "old school" for no particular reason, and that's all they have to say. A man showers in public as if this is perfectly normal. These all work together in the same way Mad Libs do, but then, they also have the long-term reach of Mad Libs.

All this is part of an adventure to do something with your life after having watched TV for eleven hours. And you get to do something! Reductively, this involves figuring the least senseless item to use on each NPC that pops up. The game often lampshades that the choice doesn't make perfect sense, but only after you get it right. Everything's a bit crooked, and I think that's intentional. If you do things right, you get money from an unexpected source, which lets you buy a train ticket and leaves you with a final message that's life-affirming as long as you don't think too deep.

Playing this I'm reminded of the super-brief Scott Adams parser games and even someone who entered such a game back in 2010, which happens to be when this story took place. The Scott Adams-ish game was a deliberate homage to the fun we got from such limited text. It was great fun to know this sort of thing existed. And here, the TIC computer at is neat to know about. It's fun to see the other games, the versatility, and what looks like a nice community based on a retro-styled engine. And of course someone had to write a text adventure, and it's technically solid--you don't ever break the game! I even like the orange text on black background. However, it does run into basic problems such as how DESCRIBE (the game's version of LOOK) tells you certain items you already took are, in fact, in the room.

This one fizzles out after a few quick laughs, though. Taken straight-up and ignoring the special effects, it isn't a great work. I'm not sure how many of the typos are intentional. Some jokes are quite good. But I think even allowing for this, it doesn't have any of the sort of thing that make, say, Molesworth so great. For those who don't know Molesworth, he's the main character of a set of books written circa 1950, a wonderfully cynical student at a perfectly horrible English public school called St. Custard's. Everything is bad there, including his spelling and grammar, but he's observant enough that you want to follow his adventures, and you come to realize things like how he is friends with Basil Fotherington-Thomas, who says “Hello clouds hello sky” a lot. WRoM has the silliness without anything lasting, so it's an amusing curiosity. But when I replayed it, without the wonder of the new interface, I didn't see a lot of substance. It was fun and easy enough. It was a bit like watching a cartoon or sitcom you loved as a kid, and maybe you can see the holes in it.

So it didn't push me forward in any real way, but it also won't make you want to throw stuff. It may inspire you to write some semi-nonsense you always meant to, because the semi-nonsense here, down to the final "profound" message, made me smile. The scattershot jokes are never going to offend anyone, but they never quite cohere, either. However, the ending promises "an expansion of this world with more interactions is available," and I think one day I will give in to my curiosity. It will probably be far more fun and less draining than following social media and, despite being surreal, less confusing too.

Wabewalker, by Ben Sisk

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Live as 3 different people until you get it right, November 3, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

It took a while to update Java so that it would run Wabewalker, and it was time well spent. (Note: download Java 17--you may wish to uninstall your curremt Java version first, too.) It’s a game that’s meant to be confusing at first, I think, but that's not just for its own sake, and certainly not due to the custom parser, which I found worked well. Finding a clue what to do (beyond "explore and take stuff") is a great introduction, and it’s quite possible you’ll solve a puzzle by accident and then realize what’s going on. And that all feels fair.

The oversimplified plot: keep getting killed, sending you to another person’s life, until you organize things right. You become three people total, in three different worlds. If you’re not careful, you get killed for good. At one point, I was quite legitimately worried there was an endless loop, and I very much felt the tension when I was trapped between two worlds, unable to open the third, because I’d forgotten about a door and instead looked for something else that changed game states. That something else was behind the door–I hadn’t taken careful enough notes. If this sounds vague, I want to keep it that way, to avoid spoilers.

Because this game has ambition. It forces you to say “Huh?! What?” and banks on you being able to sort that out. What are the panels with three lights for? How do they work? How do you change lights? And so forth. There’s a certain frustration when you’ve set more lights than you need to open something, then fewer, and you wonder what the heck you have to do. Because there are only so many possibilities, though there seem to be far more when you start.

After I figured what the puzzles were about, the rest seemed like scratchwork, and, well, it wasn’t. There were other moments I hoped I wouldn’t be getting killed like before. I thought I calculated it. But I was still scared. I’d spent all this time scratching out figures to possess three people’s consciousnesses properly, not really knowing who they were, and it had better pay off!

Other than these three people, though, there aren’t many you deal with. Someone invites you in to hypnotize you, for a short segue that lets you see beyond one area where you get killed. This confused me a bit since my host said “No, that worked wrong,” and I still got a scroll. But given I was a bit careless about the narrative, I found it trippy that somehow A might’ve killed B might’ve killed C might’ve killed A. One of them killed the other, though. There’s also a phone call over a landline, which I found amusing, because it plays on a few text adventure tropes. It wasn’t hilarous, because that didn’t fit the game’s tone, but it was a well-paced joke.

So overall, I was pleased. What could’ve been busy work felt like a legitimate adventure. I can’t rigorously decide how true to Buddhism it is, but I do like how things work–there are so many orders to solve the puzzle in, and you may loop around a while before getting it, and quite possibly it’s more rewarding if you loop around more.

As for issues? The end cheesed me off a bit once I knew what to do. All those similar commands to type felt anticlimactic, and between bad memories of Ultima IV shrines (meditating three times in a row, I would go do something trivial and notice my response time had timed out–plus, these games have two mantras in common) and being unable to use an up-arrow, I was ready to get on with things and not particularly close to inner peace. In short, the ending puzzles were what I feared the beginning would be. In fact, one item really seemed to cue that. I saw and thought “welp, I hope they’re not instructions for later.” This all contrasts with how solid the parser is in general and how economical the “open the locked door” puzzles are and how they weave together. So be prepared for a grind at the end, but it shouldn’t outweigh the rest of the game.

The custom parser overall worked very well, though I wish H (hints) would mention the MEMORY command. The author may have updated it by now--I suspect it is an oversight, since they did the hard work of tracking everything you have learned with MEMORY.

Cygnet Committee, by P.B. Parjeter

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Custom engine uses sound-based puzzles to good effect, November 2, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

This review was moved from the authors' forum, where the author helpfully pointed out some oversights: most notably, hints are written into the game text, and I missed some places to mine credits. But I want it up here so people will have an idea how to approach a worthwhile game that may feel intimidating. The TLDR is, even if you miss some of its neat features, it's still a smooth, rewarding effort.

Cygnet Committee is a big download at 140MB, and I admit I was intimidated by the size and 2-hour playtime suggestion, which was accurate, but I’m glad I pushed through with it in the end. The concept is intriguing: infiltrate a cult that worships Joan of Arc’s AI and destroy it. There’s a good deal of backstory here, which is shown as you get further into the base, where you reach save-points that give you small videos. You learn why Joan of Arc is so appealing and why she rose to prominence. You have a map at the game’s main screen, which is useful to show you how far you’ve gotten. It’s tidy and well-organized and purposeful.

The map’s not intimidatingly big, and the main mechanic is this: you move your mouse to detect sounds. There are four ranges on the screen, and one of them gives the right sound, and the others give the wrong one. Sometimes it’s no sound that’s right, as when you’re crossing a minefield or rotted bridge, and sometimes you want a sound, when you’re fighting a drone or guiding your helicopter. Other times, you’ll start with the same sound, but it changes at the end–punching in a keycode, for instance, or listening for a robot patarol. And in some cases, the same sound in all four sectors means you probably need to solve a puzzle so things quiet down.

This is something that isn’t nearly as dramatic with text. Any sort of typing would drag things out. It’s a neat streamlined way to give you a feel for the game and the mechanics without having instructions, which is handy, because having to remember controls and such would get in the way of the big-picture instructions as you weave your way through the base. Overall, the tension worked well, though I’m not sure if it was fatigue or anticipation that had me anxious at the end. I do think the timed puzzles were ultimately a good idea, though I wish the game had started with 20-second intervals to make 7 successive moves instead of starting at 15 and moving up. I was immersed enough that, on the one-minute puzzle, I faced a drone, and its voice made me think “Ah, I’m surrounded? Not really! But I bet I would’ve been, if I’d tried to make a break for (that one protected area.)” Then when I figured how I goofed, I was a bit scared to do the puzzle. But I had no choice. Similarly I liked the ending–it felt appropriately dramatic. I won in plenty of time. I realized, looking back, the game had more of a sense of humor than I gave it credit for.

So in the big picture, it’s a very strong game. I ran into a few pitfalls here and there, and looking at the long list below, they don’t cancel out the positives above, but they may help people push through bits that seem rough.

In one place, I thought I made a mistake, but a trap was unavoidable, and I took the wrong branch to find healing the first time. The purpose of the trap was to direct you to (Spoiler - click to show)a small cabin off to the side with information and supplies, and once I realized that, it was okay–but since I hadn’t saved in a while, I panicked.

On winning, I was notified I could only replay hard mode if I got 500 credits, which is a lot, because random combats give you 14 or so credits for each win, and while you find some credits, it’s just way too fun to disable cameras or electric fields or whatever so you can skip over the sound-tracking parts. It was a steady enough process–I never expected to mess up, and I was sort of curious what happened if I did, but too often I was a bit worried because I forgot when I’d last saved. Instead of hard mode, I’d have preferred some notes on how to get to the final map area, (Spoiler - click to show)past the waterfall and on top of a cliff, where the sound barriers were the same in all four areas. Or maybe how to fight drones more quickly, so it took less time to unlock hard mode. I couldn’t seem to get the in-game temporary for-x-moves hints (also a neat idea) too work. (I’d also like the option to skip videos–especially the ending one once you’ve escaped–the second time through. I mean, the second time you see them in-game, you can skip, but I’m just impatient like that. It’s a case of, get me to the next good stuff.)

Still I hope to come back and see about all the possible deaths and places I missed and gadgets I couldn’t quite afford–gadgets that let you bypass sound-puzzles you’ve mastered. I admit a walkthrough would help motivate me to revisit the game, with all the others I want to see in IFComp. And I think, sadly, the file size and potential system requirements will leave Cygnet Committee underplayed and undervoted-on in the comp. Which is too bad. On finishing this, I was reminded I did not finish Dr. Sourpuss, the author’s first offering, and I probably proceeded too cautiously with it. I started that way as well with Cygnet Committee, but once I jumped in, time flew–and I still got done in under just two hours.

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