Reviews by Andrew Schultz

IFComp 2021

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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

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
atmospheric mystery/horror game in Dialog, December 30, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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


Taste of Fingers, by V Dobranov

2 of 2 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

3 of 3 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

1 of 1 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

3 of 3 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

5 of 5 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.



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