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.
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.
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.
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, 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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.