So, the pet peeves first. I wouldn't do this if IWYWD didn't have a lot to offer, because I try to avoid beatdown-style reviews. The first peeve? A title in all lower case. I'm a bit like the cranky narrator of Julian Barnes's Flaubert's Parrot, here, as I've seen this sort of thing before, and it never ends well (though the ALL CAPS entries recently have been more than respectable,) and I immediately cringe at this sort of thing, expecting--and getting profanity later. (Small spoiler: it's not so gratuitous, as I have some sympathy for both characters in this work.) I'm still going to ALL CAPS its acronym in the review, though, so there.
The second sin? Timed text. Lots of it. I did my usual regex zapping with \(live:.*?\), and Notepad++ said "757 replacements." That's at least 15 minutes of pauses, assuming one second per pause, and it was often more. Running up against IFComp's judging period didn't help, either. That's not IWYWD's fault. But it does add a lot of bloat to people who want to get through it and explore different things to try, if the end could've been changed, and so forth. Because undoing doesn't give you a free pass back through the timed text.
But I'll tell you what. I bucked up and got through it. Because it was worth it. During the timed text, I did some exercises with my rudimentary equipment I have at home. I can't do this all the time, and I don't want to have to, but it was timely. I ignored the screen, thought of things as I did a set, and made my next choice. That's not sustainable long term, but IWYWD knew about the length it should be. Perhaps it was just flat out good enough that, despite my reflexive annoyances, I sat down and said this time, I'm not letting timed text bother me! Perhaps having less timed text than in years past softened me to say, okay, a bit is not so bad.
This digression hopefully isn't me showing off or venting but saying, hey, you too may want to find something worthwhile to do to wait for the text to show. Fix some tea or whatever. And sit down for a story of betrayal in love, though really, it applies to platonic relationships as well.
You, the main character, believe you've caught your partner cheating. They have a good explanation! They didn't mean it! (They never do.) You have the FACTS on your side, though, and you press them. They make confessions. They have excuses. They want you to stop before it's too late. Though it may already be. I was able to guess a good chunk of IWYWD's twist at the end, but not all of it. (Maybe the timed text forced me to sit back and think what might happen next more than I usually do!) That didn't make it any less effective. I've been on both sides of the argument, where I'm sure I'm right, and the other person is sure, and in both cases I know it'll end terribly. Too much has happened. The soda bottle is too shaken.
The dialogue here does not mess around, so I was able to feel the conflict. On reflection, the person you control has a lot of options of soft- or hard-pedaling their case, and the other character has something resembling plausible denials, if they could just explain. But you doubt your character is really open-minded. You definitely have cutting questions: "how could you do this? This was our movie." Then a bit more of the story comes out. This may not be perfectly fair to the player, who doesn't necessarily know the two people in the story have spent time apart. But it certainly can be interpreted as the character thinking certain things don't matter. Other details leak in later. The narrator, it turns out, has been negligent, in ways where you can't bang your fist on the desk and present good cold hard evidence. I didn't see all the branches, but in this case, not having much variance gives the impression that your character came into this expecting a victory, or what passes for a victory in an argument.
So reading IWYWD was useful-difficult for me. I know I can be distant, though I hope I'm not as possessive as the narrator, and I often wish I stood my ground as well as their partner. I've been thinking a lot about jealousy recently, though, about people who were upset I seemed to be having more fun than they did, or that I was able to use my time to do certain things. And the things they said. Some of them were people who should have been my friends on paper, and they'd approached me with similar facts that the narrator did, and I sympathized a lot with their partner. Of course, we probably all hope we have more in common with the partner than the narrator. You also get the sense that the target has had to tell a lot of little white lies to the narrator, some covered, some uncovered.
Maybe it's not so much lies as distortion. I remembered some people asking me why I did something a certain way, or thought something not very commonsensical, and wasn't that odd? And the truth was – I was covering for some of their obnoxious behavior in ways they'd never cover for me, or perhaps I was convincing myself they did care deep down despite some caustic behavior. There've been people I've had to break up with like that long after I hadn't seen them for a while, and I don't quite wish them dead, but I'd like to make them dead to me if possible. Well, except for being able to say "hey, if someone reminds me of X in the future, I want to steer clear of them."
One more thing: I was worried about severe melodrama from the title and I am glad to have been wrong on that count. I'd like to think the narrator's partner's response and frustration will help vindicate some of my own actions more fully and hopefully prevent me from diving in feet first to show I'm right. And I'm impressed about how IWYWD had several potential red flags that turned up far less serious than I imagined. So I, like the narrator, saw several red flags which came to much less than I suspected. But my experience was clearly happier.
We've all had those involuntary moments where maybe we misunderstood or misread a work, but it was powerful to us in some way. That happened here with R160. You open your eyes in the hospital and the text says SHE'S HERE. I thought it was the narrator's mother, one of two main antagonists. But it was actually the person you loved. It shook me. This was a high point for me in IFComp and R160 as well. It's deserved, even if R160 doesn't soar. It reminded me of old fears and how I'm at least glad some of them didn't come true. Some remain. They're nothing as harrowing as escaping from a preacher you don't love, whom you're engaged to. Not only that, but you don't like men, period, which is another strike against you.
So it's a cliche we're all running from something. And driving's a good way to do it. I remember driving around through some curves in college, curves a friend three years younger than me told me about. It felt like I was dekeing some problems or other, or I hoped I was. I soon realized I wasn't. My problems weren't as serious as the main character's. But we had similar abstract concepts we were running from. "Be grateful for what you have, you barely deserve it" guilt trips. It reminds me of my fears of marriage, too. There are all sorts of jokes about picking the wrong person, but I found it easy to picture that a spouse would either be not right for me, or for my family or, as a horrible compromise, nobody. Of course, along the way, I chose bad friends, not to be rebellious, but just, well, I was used to certain things, and there were certain faults I felt I should be able to forgive.
These days there are more late-night bike rides or walks or even visiting the athletic club, too, about this sort of thing, but they're not as intense, and often it's about getting ideas. But R160 brought back some of the thornier bits I'm able to deal with now.
These days the driving around curves is replaced with late night bike rides or walks where I can reflect on things that don't bother me any more and
problems worth bouncing in my head. There are always writing notes to type into my computer when I get back. But certainly the fears in R160 have loomed in different contexts.
The plot itself can be oversimplified into continuing your flight or returning home or stopping for a break. If put that plainly, there wouldn't be much there, but based on the scenery you choose to concentrate on, different memories pop up. And with them, we don't get much of a view of the groom, but what there is, it's hard to like. The main character is obviously escaping more than heteronormativity. That's a word I hate, and I wish there was something shorter, but maybe such a concept deserves to sound ugly. She realizes her fiancee sees her as an accessory, too, and not even one particularly to be proud of. Someone convenient, maybe even a trophy. Her mother does, too. The narrator's being pulled into a life of apparent relative ease, certainly better physically than she's told she deserves. Based on the brief character sketch, I imagined the fiance cheating on her and blaming her or, at the very least, lying to her in the name of the Lord. Whether or not he knew she was not attracted to men. It didn't matter. There's ambiguity why he chose her, which seems intentional. The possibilities are disturbing both ways. That's how it is, fearing someone with power.
I suppose I'm a sucker for lines like "He argues with you about your withdrawn silence. / It's ironic that he never lets you get a word in." because they describe so much more than romantic failures. The sort of thing it took me too long to realize, and once I did realize it, I wondered if I was being snarky or ungrateful or nitpicky. This was more effective to me than the poetry, where the author resorted to super-short sentences once too often, which broke up some good observations.
There are three endings without a whole lot of branching, and there's no appreciable puzzle-solving, but here, there probably shouldn't be. You're making impulsive choices, but they are based on the characters' neglected fears and desires. Not even the best ending is fully happy, but each in its way dealt with non-romantic fears I had and even have. Maybe I was ready to laugh at the own weirdness from my life--like how my parents loathed fundamentalists, but don't go listening to that heavy metal music just in case there were Satanic lyrics. (It was too loud, anyway.) Or how elder family members had reservations about the Wisconsin (or was it the Missouri) Lutheran Synod. Eventually, my parents divorced and remarried non-Lutherans. My sister's husband is Jewish. This wasn't truly funny until I heard Emo Phillips's canonical joke on religion. (It's best in his voice, but it's good on paper, even/especially if you see where it's going!)
It wasn't just about religion, either. I picked the wrong college sports team in my adolescence: Purdue, where we used to live) and not Northwestern, the smart kids' school. Not quite picking a life mate, but not something you should have to justify to anyone, and I did. Peers and teachers found it odd. Others at school were upset I quit an extracurricular activity because I felt I didn't belong. They played the "it's the best you can do, really" and "what are you looking for, anyway?" angle. I felt like a bottom feeder in them, then felt lost away from them. It definitely depicts a moralistic community without being moralistic, and that certainly gave me space to consider far less drastic things than a failed marriage, and I never felt the story saying "You think you were lost? Look at the protagonist!"
If you want a robust story, US ROUTE 180 might not be the work for you, and the poetry didn't work well, either, but the core but it was remarkably effective at reminding me of some horrors I escaped, and which frustrations mattered and which didn't, and other ways I even compromised saying, well, I've found enough of myself, and that's enough, right? Some might find US Route 180 a bit too overgeneral, and I can see that. But it hit a sweet spot for this never-married, never-engaged person.
I remember being proud of myself for learning how to deal with long wait times on the phone. It was a bit annoying, sure, but I had things to do. I would plan out, for instance, cleaning out browser tabs or whatever, or maybe even tinkering with a particularly tricky script. Or I cleaned off my desk or, if the phone cord reached that far (back when all phones had cords,) the fridge or sink or whatever. It's changed over the years. But the important thing is, I have something to do, and I've gotten over the boredom and fear and so forth. There are some worries that I will get distracted and maybe even put the phone down, and that is exactly when the hold musical breaks, and the operator will say "Is anybody there?" and then hang up when they don't hear me.
Now I don't particularly deserve an award for this trivial bit of adulting. The cheesy line is that finding something to do to fill in that spare time is reward enough. I've even managed to find gethuman.com to save me a bit, too. I kind of had an ethical dilemma with that one: I was sort of lying to get to the head of the line, but geez, maybe everyone was doing it. Technology has taken care of these fears, or ways to lessen them, but I still remember them, and they resurface when my internet connection is down.
The protagonist of TPEEP has no such chance to grow or reflect or blow off inconveniences. They're not calling about that charge on their credit card that still doesn't belong there, but they can afford it. They aren't even calling to switch to online bill payments or to activate a gift card. No, their needs are much more basic: to jump from despair to happiness as quickly as possible. Who knows if they are asking for permanent or just temporary happiness? It doesn't matter, really. It's pretty obvious early on they won't get it. They have no chance. And they don't even have the thrill of the chase from more traditional stories. And perhaps they don't really believe they really deserve happiness, even if they hope the quick jump is there. The end result? You-the-character can wait a few turns, but you will have no choice but to hang up eventually.
There's not much text in the game, but I don't think there needs to be. It probably doesn't want to force the point home, but we get it, nonetheless. The options on the phone are not for customer service but for different types of happiness. Soon they diverge into how to avoid sadness. Of course, there is nothing to be done. That's the point. And I found it much more effective than more visceral tales of depression. You half get your hopes up, because you know not to get them all the way up, but all the same, it's still too much. It's like trying to get your money back from a casino. TPEEP has no sound, but I can still a fake-cheery voice rattling off the options. You know that it's blowing you off, and it's ostensibly speaking clearly and slowly so you understand things, but really it's just so that people will get bored and hang up, so the company has to hire fewer operators.
This is in the name of company profits. When the character calls the happiness conglomerate, well, you'd expect happy people would want others to be happy. Maybe that is true. Maybe the people who seem happy are as clueless as those who know they aren't. Maybe they're just saying they're happy to fool themselves and have nothing to say beyond "turn that frown upside-down."
Ironically, this lack of getting anywhere close to happiness in the entry provided me with a certain amount of happiness, reminding me how I'd at least avoided hitting some pitfalls repeatedly. I remembered the times I found happiness when I failed to get excitement, as well as good replies I discovered to bossy older people telling me "You can't be happy all the time, deal with it." (Protip: it's okay to be sick of barriers to happiness thrown in your way arbitrarily.) I suppose I wanted some agency to be able to deal with a big pitfall. Here the narrator has none.
A word about the interface: at first it annoyed me. You click on a verb at the bottom, and several nouns change color. You can drag and drop each verb over them. This was awkward for me at first and I felt, cynically, I'm glad this entry is short, or I would make it short. The repetition even after a few times was exhausting (part of that was the hour I played through) but then when you no longer had a choice, it felt worse. But then I got used to it after playing a few other Texture games, and on my phone and not just my desktop, which made me happy in a way that hammering away at one single Texture entry could not.
Entries like this remind me of the old Yiddish joke "Waiter! Such lousy food!" / "Yes, and such small portions!" which can be hard to pull off without, well, actually annoying the reader/player. Not that TPEEP is lousy, but it's about lousiness, and balancing that feeling or joke or whatever ("I give up" feelings without making the player give up) is tricky. But I think it works here. Though it does feel like the cleverness of being able to drop a verb over more than one noun wasn't used to its fullest, and one of the main mechanics is, after a few times, removing wait/give up choices for giving up.
TPEEP gave me a lot to think about for an allegedly short game. I'm comfortable in that wheelhouse, not needing a whole lot of physical details and feeling okay stepping away from something to come back to it. In this case, I stepped away from TPEEP and got some personal insights in the meantime. It felt, in a way, like I was sticking it to TPEEP's unresponsive in-game automated phone support, or phone support from my past, whether it sent me in a circle or cut me off outright. And in this case, I was amused that a game ostensibly about wasting a chunk of 15 minutes for me-the-character felt like just the opposite for me-the-player.
I've seen the author's works before and always meant to get around to the stuff of hers I hadn't looked at. I'd like to see more of them, and I have to admit I'd also like to see more of this. It's a positive but short game about feeling socially trapped, which unfortunately has been a pretty big thing since 2020. But it's tough: too much positivity feels forced, and too little feels like it glosses over serious issues. And there's a third rail when trying to express getting stuck without getting the player stuck. That sweet spot is tough to find.
Your choices don't matter much. That's the way things are sometimes. Some days, no matter someone's good will, you don't want to put up with them, and others, no matter how nasty they are, you're willing to put up with it. A friend will still drop by and help you bounce back from social isolation, and it sort of feels like they might be forcing themselves on you, though you-the-character and you-the-player know it isn't enough and want to do more and know you need to do more. So Glimmer knows not to force itself on you. But I also think that we need things forced on us sometimes, but we just don't know how or why. And looking back we wish certain people we liked had forced more on us (and, of course, certain people had forced less on us. But Glimmer is not about that, thankfully.)
While I'd have liked to see things more fleshed out (the character's first try going out. I know for instance just going to the grocery store or athletic club once the COVID lockdowns was over were both big) I realized that, well, I'd had people bring me back to a forum (like here) with just a like on a comment, and I hoped I'd been able to do that in some way for others. So I think and hope I got what the author intended. I was able to look back without having to relive the fear.
I also saw a parallel between Glimmer's main character and reviewing IFComp. Getting into the swing of things, or back into it, is tricky, and you have to start small, sometimes, whether it's with your own writing or reviewing others'. I reviewed Glimmer early on, and it was welcoming, though I just wish it would've led somewhere bigger--perhaps there's a message here that after someone checks on you, you need to go find more stuff for yourself that you might like, and perhaps that might mean the author's other works.
This review may be more about what I believe Dorian Passer is trying to achieve in general, or tried to achieve, rather than the specific work, though I think in this case, a Chekov short story you might not be aware of works better than Cost of Living did for ParserComp 2022.
It feels like there should be a cottage industry for stateful narratives and their relatives, well beyond the Cliff's Notes my teachers warned me against in high school, and of course well above the synopses you can pull from websites that offer to write an essay for a fee. I always felt Cliff's notes got dragged down in symbolism, and anyway, the good teachers knew what was in the Cliff's Notes, so you could only really avoid bad grades that way. What did help (he said cynically) was knowing what the teachers liked, their unconscious biases. So I was always a bit suspicious of English class and the next great short story. I enjoyed nuance, sure, and figuring what could be. But it always felt that people who were working for that A were a step ahead of me. They knew what to say, and they knew how to say it without some pretty smart teachers detecting that they knew, or if the teachers knew, the students knew how to put in enough that you couldn't argue they didn't deserve the A. This doesn't discount that some people deserved an A, but there is some cynicism about studying a work and trying to interpret it that I still haven't shaken off.
And I don't mean "cottage industry" as a derogatory term or "this isn't high art." I'm well aware other people could turn that argument, or something more harsh, on my own stuff. It's that I think we need something that will require minimal effort for us to twiddle, to see changes based on a few things we try. The payoff will surely be better than, say, FreeCell where we've developed that strategy to win 90% of the time and sense it's useless to get to 95%, but darn if we don't keep doing it, because each card-shuffle feels different, you know.
TLT, or a replication of its idea, feels in the same vein as chess videos where, say, GothamChess or Agadmator, two Youtubers with over a million subscribers, go through a game or list of games. The basic presentation is formulated, and they even have catch phrases that have developed naturally, as a way to keep us involved. They analyze sidelines, some worthy and some boobytrapped. And it feels like there's room for more in that boat, which is good for knowledge and variety but bad for my free time. Agadmator is more likely to cover classic games, or lesser-known games from a grandmaster's simultaneous exhibition. GothamChess is far more current. Hikaru Nakamura, who needs less introduction, can discourse at length about his own game.
Why the heck can't we have those options with literature? Well, one problem is, literature doesn't have the equivalent of a programmable chess engine, and it's even harder to say "that phrase is good" or "that paragraph is bad." Understanding is more organic. Sometimes it's based on realizing that, say, that poem of Robert Frost's means the opposite of what it means from a cursory glance and seeing why it goes beyond "simple sincerity." And it's just more fun to look at a chessboard than a bunch of words or to say "hey, look what the engine is saying, this is something the presenter couldn't have fit in to a fifteen minute video. I'd like to do my own exploration." For me, it was tough to find that exploration. There were simple what-ifs to ask. Sure, I enjoyed a story with a surprise twist, or where it wasn't clear what the narrator meant, or what the character did after (either option seemed equally likely,) but even there I could picture Mister I-Know-How-To-Get-A's dropping his two cents in, over my shoulder. Even if I hadn't seen him for a while.
TLT inverts that for me, and that seems both due to the subject matter as well the author's general intent. Chekov's story is relatively simple. Someone thinks he's won the lottery. Suspicions pop up. Could and should he hide the news? Windfalls going bad have been done before and will be done again, but there's always a new perspective. Chekov really Gets It, and in a more visceral way than Cost of Living did. I mean, Cost of Living was prescient, but when it starts talking about debt and interest rates, it potentially loses some zing, even though the issues (keeping up with the Joneses, being in debt over items you didn't want to buy, and so forth) are very relevant. So I can see why I might not have heard of the author but I still enjoyed CoL as well as their other stuff, though I was glad to be exposed to the story. The main thrust, though, is this: change a few things that may seem fixed or obvious, and we can reinterpret or reimagine it in a more modern vein. What do certain words mean if we ascribe different intent? Sometimes, it's obvious, but with the right stories, it gives us insight into human nature, and maybe even times where we ourselves have been fooled or confused and don't want that to happen again.
Chekov's story is ancient but in parallel with something more modern-day. It's odd to remember that a much smaller amount of money was once paid out in lotteries, but certain things remain. The administrators get their cut, so the expected value of a lottery ticket is less than its purchase value. I know that even if the lottery ticket paid out more than you spent, after taxes, there's a concept called marginal utility. (In plain English, that second million is a lot less useful than the first.) People have no idea how to manage money and go into debt. It's sad. I read a book by a person who negotiated lump-sum settlements for lotteries paid out over 20 years (and yes, the lotto winnings don't mention this payout, and that $1 million 20 years from now has less value, because inflation.) The person eventually felt awful about their job, and I remember how they noted starving horses at the farm of one lotto winner. This is all relatively technical.
Modernizing TLT feels like it would be a trivial jump, and maybe it is, but it's one worth making. In Passer's remake, you get to choose a few adjectives. Is someone genuinely happy they might win the lotto? How willing are they to actually share? How much of friends' sharing via instant messaging is actually altruistic? Anything seems possible.
You can play through a few times, and if the game text doesn't change, the text still has a different flavor based on what you say. Well, to me. Your friends' accusations (eating the sauce you're cooking raw, thus depriving your friends of a bit of it, is contrasted well with how much of your lottery winnings you might share) are constant, and I didn't keep very rigorous notes, but acting with bravado or standoffishness does change things. And at the end you seem to want to buy one more lotto ticket, despite having UBI and so forth. Which brings up a lot of questions–the lotto is about more than just having more money, it's about dreams, and yet on the other hand, those dreams, once realized, are ruined. And there have to be better ways to bring people together than the lotto, but it's sort of taken over, because it's the easiest way to find something in common.
Now, a writing like TLT clearly seems to have limited range for any particular story it may cover. But on the other hand, it feels like it could be applied to many other writings I always wanted to read but never did, when I'm not quite ready to read passively. I like that it doesn't pretend to be an exciting, sweeping new modernization of a famous old tale. It simply reminds us that things are, in many ways, as they were, despite technology creeping up and the size of a lottery growing astronomical. Chekov's summer villa we'll never use becomes timeshares or a yacht we can't use often. There is only so much to say about this subject, and that's okay, because there have to be others, from stories by authors famous or not.
I really do wish I had something like this in my inbox every day, or even a couple times a week, to poke through, because it would be time far more well spent than clickbait. Maybe that "it does what it can, and that's good" seems faint praise compared to "well, this is soaring art," but it's good and needed and if more of us did this for favorite authors or stories the rest of the world didn't know about or should, the Internet would be closer to the repository of ideas or questions that people dreamed TV would be in the '50s. There's enough great stuff, of course. It can soar, if you know where to look (e.g. the Daily Show gives news and asks questions and reminds us that some people in power or the public spotlight, or constantly seeking that sort of thing are, in fact, those who least deserve it.) You don't need to write a thesis in a 300-level college class to have access to it, either. There's a snappy trade of ideas that leads you into a hall with a lot of doors. Perhaps a lot of those doors leave you disappointed to know you're not so original to have thought of X before, but then you realize others have given you a boost to where you can start with the real ideas.
I think we've reached that self-sustaining point for more concrete stuff. Math, chess, etc., are some examples. I'm saturated with videos there, along with Youtube channels on psychology and building social skills. But videos don't seem to work as well for written words as, well, this sort of thing does. And I recognize it might lose something in mass-production. But I remember being awed by a library as a kid and thinking "I never could read all this" but I would so love to make a dent, and works like this give me confidence I still can. (Of course, this may already be out there in some form. I'd be glad to be wrong. But we can always use more, in quantity, quality, and tone.)
Oh my. Putting GameBoy-style graphics with a narrative where you've just finished having gay sex. That's a heck of a contrast, for sure, given attitudes towards homosexuality when the GameBoy came out. And my main quibble with all this is that you have to keep pushing "Z" to see relatively little text, some of which repeated. I've gone all old man yelling at cloud about this sort of thing before, but in this case, it was more that I'd like to see what's going on, and I'd like to piece things together better, and I wish there'd at least be an option to get the game to cooperate more after, say, three or four endings. There also was some worry I'd get impatient and start button-bashing and miss some of the text. I'm also not sure why the title is what it is. I found a lot of other creative and interesting ways to die, and there was lightning, but I didn't find the ending where you died by lightning. Perhaps it was the "best" one?
Unfortunately my enduring aesthetic memory is of the text chopped up like the timed text from Twine, and it backs up even one playthrough. This is okay at first when you're getting your bearings, but DbL seems meant to be replayed, and a lack of UNDO hurts this. This may be a feature for some. But in IFComp, with my goal to get through a lot of entries, I find it to be a bug. The work simply stops once you've reached a conclusion, too. Nevertheless, I took several diverging paths through and had a general idea what was going on, and overall what was there seemed good. So it's not a "waiter, the food is terrible! And such small portions!" sort of thing.
There was also a neat feature where the screen flashed, but it we assume all the threads are continuous, lightning kept striking at different times. I wasn't able to determine whether the player should be coming to a realization I missed, but I thought the screen flashing worked well with the low-resulution graphics. With more detail, or the game taking more of the browser, all the technical stuff might feel like it was trying too hard to call attention to itself. I fortunately don't have any physical reaction a flashing screen, but nonetheless, it was nice it wasn't overdone.
From what I saw, you're trying to betray your lover, but you're wanted, yourself. They have a truck outside the mountain lodge where you are both staying, and you, for reasons not immediately obvious, cannot let them leave. So do you take the truck or try to convince your lover to stay? Taking the truck risks accidents and meeting the local (very) wildlife, but staying in the cabin risks a fight, as they have a past that's not clear, too. Whatever your web of double-crossing and intrigue, you're pretty much, well, screwed.
The gimmick of a GameBoy-style game is clever, and I've generally enjoyed entries that give this retro feel. But unfortunately, with this entry having no exploration components, the design choice probably backfired in terms of placement in IFComp. I just wish there'd been more latitude to explore without having to repeat myself so much, or at least a way to increase screen size to see more at once, because there were some branches I didn't look into and wanted to, and without UNDO it was hard to keep track. Perhaps labeling a branch yellow or red based on how much you'd seen (some/all) would work, even if it violated the GameBoy aesthetic? The writing seems fast-paced and I was disappointed that certain design choices slowed it down, not to give us more chances to think about things, but to say, no, you can't quite move ahead.
The opening screen promises a lot: a well-done background, effective and non-intrusive sound, and a request to pick your name and a color that corresponds to you. There's a list of stats (health, thirst, hunger.) It's for, well, an escape through a forest, to a place where people with the same Mark you have can be safe.
We get a fast-paced story, too, but it goes by too quickly without really knowing what the protagonist is like. One vulnerability in particular wasn't mentioned. There aren't many locations in the forest, and you can find shelter in both hostile and friendly locations. There's food and water, but if you're already too full or not thirsty, it does more bad than good. You're also vulnerable to rain, which I didn't pick up on until I ran into a bad ending.
I played through a few times. There were a few random deaths, but beyond them, escaping is not too hard, if you're suspicious of everyone who seems remotely harmful. Perhaps most interesting was my final play-through when someone offered me clothes in their one-room hut in the middle of a downpour. Removing the clothes would reveal my mark, but going into the rain meant death. This was one of the more concrete choices in the story, beyond going forward and back, and with more like this the story would be very strong indeed, but then again, it was never explained in the over-general beginning.
A lot of the action is scattershot, too, and the stats aren't really used as much as they could be. Why marked people were viewed suspiciously was hidden beyond a general assumption that marks are bad. And I wish I could've undone stuff. As it was, I had to open up a new tab for each play through the story. It all feels a bit too earnest, often introducing something you should've known mid-story. The world's been built, and it feels like it has the standard features, but the author doesn't have control of it, and they never fully commit to using the statistics, or building a story, so it never fully gels beyond being a quick affair where you maybe find a couple ways to make it out and move on. Things like penalties for eating when full were interesting and showed good general understanding, but TTFWTB never really sang to me in quite the way that, say, Under the Bridge did from the '22 comp.
HOURS certainly jumps right in: you're a soldier who has had a mortal wound, and an apparition tells you, hey, come with me and kill the evil Shogun who's been controlling your mind. Hey, you're going to die anyway. A compelling start!
You have that choice of staying at home or actually going for revenge. And I think early on, the work established it would be a bit too on the nose: "stay in your room and die" is, well, direct, as is much of the dialogue. That said, I think it provides, relatively speaking, the best writing. It doesn't feel like it's trying too hard to induce excitement. This part is linear, where you have a different thought in each of your final hour. It seems quite focused, maybe because the author didn't have to worry about game states or branches or whatever. And of course the player can just undo things.
Once they do, the on-the-nose dialogue does come into play. We've all done it, where we've forced in where we need to. I like to refer to Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie's very polite spies, Tony and Control, for guidance. They spell things out a bit too much and are a bit too formal and still always getting to know each other. It's sort of sweet but also a reminder that we can often say things that don't need to be said, both in life and in literature, and that can ruin the mood. For instance, "poor soul... you've seen so many horrors in this battle... if only the kings, sitting in their ivory towers, understood what the common folk like you went through..."
As for the story? I'll bring up something else: the movie Streets of Fire. Things seemed to sprawl until they sort of clicked at the end. Like that movie, there appear to be a lot of anachronisms and cliches, and I think they're deliberate. The Shogun is 300 years old and still youthful, so something is going on here. You are Jack, and he is Charlie. You have swords alongside suits and communications devices, along with an old-fashioned slave auction. The chaos seems deliberate, but it quickly feels uncontrolled, even if everything is tied up at the end. And the ending I got with reaching the Shogun certainly brought things together--my guess is (Spoiler - click to show)the character is not the only person the spirit gave this offer to, and perhaps that is part of how the Shogun has retained their energy. Which is pretty heavy stuff! But sometimes with the helter-skelter writing, it felt more like you were in an express grocery line that suddenly shut down once the cashier had to go on a two-hour-overdue break.
Certainly the ending, along with the small detours I could take (talking to people versus immediately getting to the point) made me wonder if there was any way I could save time and avoid falling at the final hurdle. I did not find it. Nevertheless, the dialogues in the tavern helped bring out some of the story I didn't see when speed running so I didn't waste a single minute. There's obviously something supernaturally weird about the Shogun, and the story of how his henchmen pronounced him as blame-free was effective to me.
Perhaps HOURS wished to make the point that there was nothing you could do, or it went for the "it was all a dream"/Incident at Owl Creek angle. Perhaps it meant, deliberately, that pulling an arrow out of your flesh and not having it hurt was a sign things were already on the paranormal end, or you were already half-dead. That seems even likely. The contrast of reflecting on your family in your room and being forced to see the Shogun's past works well. But the less-than-tight dialogue and sometimes over-earnest narration got in the way of that. While you needed to be in a rush, unnecessary description that sprawled jumped back to where the narrative skipped a bit. That cut down both the urgency and any idea of how close I was, and it's a place where having a "you are here" style map, in the status bar or one click away, seems the sort of thing IFComp is built to allow and encourage. Even posting the time outside of the "go to your room and doe" ending or saying "you've lost track of time--you can only judge it by the sun/stars" would add to this. As-is, I felt hurried along, so the tension didn't build as it should have.
The Tower of Plargh is a short puzzle game where you must do stuff and then push a big button in a center room to advance, once you’ve done what you needed. There are jokey bits in here, too. The room names made me laugh a bit but also wonder if there was a fifth room, since the initial 4 rooms differed by which vowel was in the 3rd position. I spent time wondering if there was some head-fake ending where I'd missed a clever detail, though disassembling the gblorb changes nothing.
Also there’s a bit of trickery with the game map--the tower is bigger than it seems at first glance. The jokes may be a bit flippant to stick in your memory, but on the other hand, there are no mind-reading puzzles. There are a few items and you can figure what to do just because the author didn’t try to overwhelm you with details. Apparently the author wrote it for his daughter, so there were serious limits on how complex he wanted to make it, but then these limits ran up against IFComp expectations.
The puzzles feel relatively straightforward, though the final bit in level 4 was kind of tricky, and a "why" is missing beyond "because it is there." In level 4 it took me a while to realize an NPC left right after you saw them, even though they pretty clearly were a jumpy sort, so there was a lack of description. With minimal verb-guessing, I figured what to do. There’s a small bug where the NPC from level 4 is wandering around in level 5, so I chased a red herring there. Perhaps ToP was simple enough I was sort of hoping for one.
The rooms didn't change names as I went up the tower, I suspect as an attempt to reuse code. However, the end result is that it feels like a programming exercise more than a game. So although there’s no walkthrough, you’re probably not going to get stuck if you resort to trial and error, likely the sort that needs only minimal knowledge of parsers. This made Plargh a nice whimsical diversion before playing far darker games with content warnings, although since its focus is simple-to-trivial puzzles, it doesn't establish a super-strong identity. So it sunk to the lower end of IFComp. But as a first work it is nothing to be ashamed of.