I confess I've never really gotten into Larry Horsfield's work. Based on this, perhaps I should, or at least try to chip away at one of his works for a few minutes each day. It's odd. I'd have been bummed about a work as short as this as a kid, even if I could solve it, but now, given all the games there are out there to play, I want more like this. (I can't complain, of course, having my own series of decidedly old-school parser games that do their own thing.) It feels like a good introduction, even if it is the fifth in the Mike Erlin series, so it may've been a wake-up call to say, yes, scaling back the difficulty would be worth it. I'm glad it snuck into ParserComp under the deadline.
You, as Captain Mike Erlin, have a group of five subordinates whom you have delegated to help track down Meneltra, which -- well, they need to be shot, because they're big long ugly bugs that shoot acid and terrorize the town. You are to shoot them down with minimal property damage, then BECOME the next person in Erlin's troop. You can play with timed turns or not. The timed turns are a very close shave indeed, at eighty moves total.
Your team splits up at the nexus of a road, going every which way. One Meneltra is easily findable, and another is disguising itself among zampfs, aquatic creatures which need air, while Meneltra don't. You as the captain have one of the toughest ones. There's also one Meneltra you can't shoot, and you need to use other weapons. Blow up six Meneltra, and, mission accomplished!
This is standard parser stuff, but it gives a good look-in to the universe. It's worth playing without the timer, then with it, to feel like you really understand what's going in.
The timed test is a bit confusing from a plot perspective: if you've split up, shouldn't the maximum time taken be what matters, not the total moves? Mike Erlin seems like a man of action and not one to stand around, but when you switch perspectives, the turn count goes up, and that's that. Still, it's a pretty tidy timing puzzle all told.
Still, I wound up coming back to this after ParserComp to play it again, because I appreciated it, and I hoped it would bring me closer to really appreciating the author's other works. So often I've spun out on them earlier, wondering if I should have tried harder to fight with the ADRIFT runner, and such. I've had such fun with short ADRIFT games in the past, and I feel sad I can't tackle bigger ones. Bug Hunt on Menelaus is a good place to start, though, it seems. It leaves me wanting to understand more about how the characters interact (they're all sent separate ways from the center.) It leaves me feeling I can tackle such a game, and all the non-obvious verbs can be quickly found. I'd like more of that!
In The Last Mountain, you are on a multi-day mountain race with a friend, Susan, whom you've raced with before. You're doing pretty well. You might get a medal, which would be a first. But she's a bit exhausted midway through.
This immediately brings up a dilemma, as she says you should go on without her. But you can't. With the races you've run together before, it feels wrong. You can't read her mind, so you don't know what she really wants to do. And from here, there is a trade-off. She will slow you down. And some paths give adventures and realizations and accomplishments that others don't. (There's also a way to get lost!)
In essence, there are three main choices to make. This allows for eight endings. Some are similar, and some are different. I was aware of the walkthrough the author provided, and I planned to lawnmower through when I played it in-comp, but I didn't. It reminded me of other things, from a noncompetitive hike at summer camp where I and a friend started late but wound up getting to the destination first, to other challenges. This might be learning a programming language or getting through a computer game. Or, well, reviewing all the ParserComp games but getting distracted. Or maybe just reading a bunch of books in a short period of time, before they are due back at the library.
Or, one special in my case, writing X bytes a week to my weekly file. It's only a number, but all the same, it establishes something. That I've put in work and focus. And there's always the motivation to do more next week if I can, but that would break me, and I couldn't share my work or see what others are writing. It's a similar dilemma of "try for a medal or help a friend finish before the DNF (did not finish) cutoff." For me writing feels like something I can't give up, whether it's code for a new adventure or IFDB writing or maybe, one day, NaNoWriMo.
I got a lot out of the first endings, as I got the expected sliding scale from helping Susan versus achieving a personal goal. But as I played through them all, one noted that you gave up on racing for a while and came back to it. And it reminded me of other things I'd come back to, not needing to win it, and not needing to be super social. One of the big ones is/was chess, and hitting a certain rating. You want to do stuff by yourself, and you can probably hit a certain rating if you play a lot, but even if you get there, it might not feel good if you are playing to win. How you win matters. And breaking a new personal best rating feels much better if I win a good game instead of winning on time forfeit in a lost position. If I devoted myself too much to chess, I would ignore other things important to me, including sharing writing, even if it is not super-social. But TLM reminded me I still have goals to share, and they are worth sharing, even if I never reach the ratings stretch goals I once had.
Though the two entries that placed above it were deserving winners, TLM might be my favorite from the classic section of this comp, because it touches on issues of fulfillment in a subject and pastime I didn't know much about, but I can relate to it more.
The two above it were more swashbuckling and had flashier or cuter details, along with more humor, but TLM felt to me like it had more individuality, and it was the first of the three I replayed. It reminded me of the real-life adventures I wanted to take and maybe had given up on. It feels more like a choice-based or Twine game, with a relatively fixed plot and relatively few side rooms or things to examine. (You're tired. You don't have time for that!) And it could definitely be remade as one. But perhaps that wouldn't capture the essence of a mountain race as well, if you could just speed-click through. I mean, it doesn't slow you down with deliberate nuisances and annoyances, but the parser has a whole "don't sprint through this" feel which meshes clearly with what you're doing in the game.
I wanted to try to avoid reviewing ParserComp games during the judging period, but I wanted to make exceptions for works people might miss out on and be sorry they did, due to the subject matter or an unfamiliar author.
In BtLoF's case, we have both, although I should note the author has written in non-English works that seem to have been well-received. (I onl researched this after playing through.) Nevertheless, I was sort of dreading looking into it, because it was about war, and I worried it might drag on, to show war drags on, and it might have more description than I wanted.
Well, I was totally wrong on both counts. It's a relatively short affair, and there are a lot of ways to get killed, and perhaps it would be better that way if you did. There certainly is something awful at the center of it. In the introduction, you know you're going to die. You're not sure how. BtLoF lets you know your protagonist's death is not very noble, and they're cowardly, too. He tries to get the bare minimum of bravery so he won't be found out. All this is done without pointing the finger.
Here's where things are tough for me as a reviewer. I don't want to spoil to much, but you steal something very particular, and it seems both very valuable and not valuable at all. It relates to some things I've seen. But it recalled upsetting moments for me, where I thought "Oh, I have no right to be THAT mad." But I did, because even if nobody stole my soul or wound up leaving me to die, they crossed some boundaries, under pretenses that Things Were Tough and There are Worse People Out There, You Know.
The final chapter is a fitting climax, as perhaps the narrator overestimates how much his fellow soldiers understand what he is trying to do, and it makes for a Tell-Tale Heart kind of moment.
I'll put why I found BtLoF powerful in a spoiler, and it's an oblique spoiler, too, just so if you read it, BtLoF should still have impact. It's not very long. You shouldn't have much problem with the four or five commands needed to pass each chapter. The story drew me in, allowing my character survival, wondering if he wasn't that bad, then slowly realizing that, yes, he was pretty bad indeed, or worse.
(Spoiler - click to show)it reminded me of people who told my story as if it was their own, maybe even interrupting mine to say "See? I told you so! That's what I've been talking about!" (Whom and what they told so is unclear.) Perhaps they even ascribe motives to me, or to antagonists or friends in my story, that weren't there, or deliberately emphasizing points I didn't care about. Perhaps those motives were flattering, or not. But it was my story, and someone corrupted it, by overplaying and underplaying certain aspects, and perhaps it was one I wasn't even ready to tell at all. It reminded me of people who told George Carlin jokes without noting, hey, this was by George Carlin, and they seemed much smarter than they were. There's a sort of spiritual robbery here, though in BtLoF, there's a bit of "what's the matter? They're dead anyway!" And I found myself trying to protest that and failing early on and even remembering when I'd warped others' stories, aloud or in my own mind.
BtLoF could have been done with a supernatural background, or as a slice-of-life game. Other works have done this, and successfully, in both long and short form. But it's a war story I hadn't read before, and I don't think that speaks to my blind spots. There are plenty of stories of ghosts on the battlefield, or of innocent people killed, in war. This is different. It was surprisingly personal to me without, well, being as invasive as the main character.
Cheree: Remembering My Murder is definitely something I want to give a boost to during ParserComp. It's got AI-based dialogue, and the interface may scare some people away. And some may find it a bit long. I was able to get through it in one sitting, perhaps slightly guilty I'd dropped the ball on actually testing it when the author asked. (It wound up getting tested more than well enough!)
It feels like the sort of entry a lot of people want to play, but they never quite make time to, as there are risks it might be too unpleasant. But it navigates several flavors of unpleasantness well for me. I wound up playing it twice over one weekend. I'd like to explain fully why, but at the same time, I don't really want to spoil anything that might lessen the impact of the ending.
It's not the author's first try at this. It's similar to their first, Thanatophobia, where someone comes to you with a recurring image they just can't work out, and you talk it through. Here it seems more accidental and less clinical--you haven't met Cheree before, and she's actually trying to remember huge chunks she just forgot. And, oh yes, she's a ghost who was murdered in 1891, at the age of 16. But in each case, you talk with the AI to try to get to know them, as they look back and try to understand their life.
And before I go further, I want to offer a spoiler as to what CRMM is not, as certain possibilities may open up early on that stop people from playing: (Spoiler - click to show)there are no major crimes other than murder.
Cheree's rather more emotional than her predecessor--while you have the option to just hit return and plow all the way through, that changes her mood to misunderstood or neglected. So there's a bit of humoring her. Which is understandable, given you're talking to a 16-year-old. It was tough for me to make small talk, because I'm not good at that in real life, but it's kind of odd. Going through those motions, it was actually a boost to go and (re-)touch base with some other people, or just ask for things I hadn't. She has a lot of questions, which isn't really surprising for someone her age, but it is surprising that she wasn't able to answer them by, say, visiting her family. Of course, she can't, any more, and the more you learn about them, the more you see they were insular without being particularly close.
So how does this mix with the supernatural stuff? That's a rail I don't want to touch without spoiler tags, but it's pretty clear that being dead has given Cheree a certain amount of freedom. She is able to Astravel any place she wants, which simply means to teleport anywhere on Earth and give you an image of what is there. You can't touch anything, but you can and should ask questions. Ask the right one, and a trust bar on the right goes up. Ask enough, and in the right places, Cheree realizes a clue. It's actually a cipher, which might seem like busy work. But I found that busy work to be emotional relief and something easy to solve. The UI is neat--you can use arrows and just type the letter. And often you'll have recently been discussing one proper noun (a person or place name) or just a very long word, which gives you a great key to get started. These seem to get shorter with each clue, which makes for a difficulty curve. This is the sort of puzzle that's easy to find or generate now on the Internet, but it must have seemed very novel indeed back in 1890, so it makes sense Cheree is clueless about it. Also, she can't exactly use pen and paper!
There are four such clues to open up the main game, and they appear quickly, within the first ten locations or so. Then there are five more. They appear somewhere among forty more locations. You don't have to visit them all, and you may be able to guess which are most likely to have a clue. For instance, Cheree has never been to the Great Barrier Reef, so you can use process of elimination there. Sometimes she opens up a few new areas that don't give clues. But I think this is reasonable--often when I try to remember something, I can't work too hard at it, and I need to take a step back. But I don't know where. So I shuffle through some more pleasant memories and maybe even sleep on it. At one point on replay, I wound up hitting my head where I knew there was a clue--and taking my own break helped me. (I saw it quickly once I had Cheree astravel away and back, which reset the prompts she gave me. But, in a way, this dead-end sort of justified why Cheree took me all sorts of places and reminded me it can be futile to run into a wall trying to remember stuff.)
Cheree doesn't seem to have sleep. She's certainly trying hard to impress you, though. Nothing skeevy, just -- hey, would you like to see the Alps? The Rocky Mountains? A waterfall on the Argentina/Brazil border? So you have to filter through what she wants to see for its own sake and what might provide clues, and you need to humor her and her trivia questions and her small talk, and after a bit you gain her confidence. This sounds harsh on her, though to be fair, the scenarios are interesting and it fits her character well. She never got the chance to see much, and often when she brings up something from her past, there's a reason she does and doesn't want to be there. For instance, the place where she grew up is overrun with wildlife, now. Then you find where they left her body.
And seeing places from when she was alive, you realize her parents certainly never prepared her for anything approaching a normal life. Her mother was a medium, and she has the gift, too, maybe even stronger than her mother. Her father disapproved of that stuff, and he only beat Cheree when he was angry. (This was not a red flag in the nineteenth century.) There's one place in Wales where Cheree astravels, to see a well-known medium. She and her mother went there and quickly came back, and she'd have liked to enjoy it more. Cheree seems to have a lot of euphoric recall, which was probably needed to keep her sane. Her father neglected her at best, and her mother railroaded her into a life she maybe didn't want. And her two older siblings seem a bit jealous of the attention she gets, even though said attention is empty. They go on to live longer, less abnormal lives. You visit where she was buried, and a tombstone mentioned she was just the sweetest person ever, though nobody told her that in life. You'd expect there to be a clue for how she died, but no. And, well, the full explanation can't exactly fit on a tombstone.
The middlegame may feel like it's not going anywhere for a while, and I admit I cheated a bit with some of Cheree's trivia questions to gain her trust without having to engage in too much small talk. She does feel a bit clingy, but that makes sense, and not just because of her family. She later notes that most ghosts transcend from her state after a year or two, but she hasn't, and she needs to fix something out of balance. The question is, what? That fits into the story title, and at one point she notes, either people fix their balance or they become devils. So she has motivation to search high and low for clues. Plus she is just a genuinely curious sixteen-year-old whose parents didn't exactly let her see the world.
Fortunately moving between places is pretty easy. You have a pull-down map and can even type in numbers of locations, so I just had a post-it note where I wrote down new numbers and crossed them off. I used several such modern conveniences I took for granted to help the ghost from before 1900, and it made me chuckle. The first time you play, you may just need to run through them all, but the second time, when you're better at saying what she wants to hear, it goes more smoothly. (I made the choice to replay once I realized that some things she said early on were, in fact, clues as to what would happen. So I had to balance the mechanics of empathy with getting stuff done. It felt a bit cold. I never wanted to be the sort of adult who absent-mindedly says "yes I see" all while making clear I'd heard that stuff before, but for a couple hours, well, I was. I remembered adults both well-intentioned and not who said "Hmm, I see" in the process. I hope I fell in the first group.) I also was left feeling a bit of emotional blackmail, once I learned she found it hard to say no to her parents, and I in turn found it hard to turn her down. Who else would say yes to her? This went outside the context of, hey, let's just try to get through all the games for ParserComp!
So there's a good deal of translating what Sheree says about her parents, and more precisely, what she leaves out. A seance goes wrong, and it wasn't until I completed the game that I realized her mother had been horribly negligent both then and after. Cheree was her meal ticket--her mother rubbed elbows with the police and even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle! The Whitechapel murders are mentioned, but here, it's clear this is something different. And there's an argument between parents. The father, financially successful in business and detached and very religious (much like businesspeople who praise God more than you do, and that's why they're successful, right?) isn't home much, but that also feels like not much of a loss. The mother, who would prefer fame, and who even hangs around an initially charming police officer. And you suspect they frame the arguments not in terms of what Cheree wants and needs but in terms of what God says, or what each emotionally deserves. There's a theme of not being able to tell adults no. Cheree never explicitly says she was displeased with her gift, though she does mention friends who she grew away from because of it. So you sort of feel bad for her and play along with her games.
Oh, wait. I've left one person out. She has a friend, still alive, called Mel, who's a bit of a smart-aleck and the same age as her. How they tie together is interesting, but they both seem to find you very smart. The fawning's not too much and I never feel it is romantic (thank goodness) but it reminded me of people under eighteen who were quite impressed at what I had gotten used to doing. I remember on Roblox (Bee Swarm simulator) other players were quite sure I had a job. I must be OLD! Why, I might even be twenty-five! So I sort of felt that responsibility when people with less life experience placed trust in me. But Mel provides a foil to Cheree, as she's quite clearly pushed back more against her parents, and she also makes clever snarky comments about modern technology to confuse Cheree. (Heck, Wifi confused me when it came out!)
I blew off a lot of clues the first time through. But I had the chance to replay them with a clearer head, unlike Cheree. And it reminded me of how, well, in some situations where I was sixteen, I either put stuff off to the side, or just questioned if it really happened, or I just figured it was something natural. I even let people younger tell me it couldn't have happened like that! But I had people help me along the way, maybe someone who wrote a book, or even someone who made an off-hand comment or who pushed back on someone who was being a clever jerk. Or someone who fought for a social cause, especially/even if their personal lives were flawed.
CRMM reminds me a bit of GK Chesterton's story The Man Who Wasn't there. Certain parts of my life, I wondered about once, but then took for granted. Or I crossed some people off too quickly as potential bad actors. I never really noticed who was steering me towards a life. Not "drugs are cool, man," but over-caution or jealousy or whatever. I could picture them now, catching me playing something like CRMM, saying "What the hell are you doing with your life?" I've carried around a lot of their criticisms, ones they've forgotten about. Some have died. They're hardly evil incarnate, but it certainly hurts to remember one more thing they said which seems obviously wrong now that I assumed was true, especially if they quoted George Carlin's anti-authority rants. Even though I was smart back then, I let it slide. There was nothing illegal. Cheree, too, has taken certain things for granted, or feels they aren't worth mentioning, or she can't mention them. And so often like Cheree I had to go to some nice place and come back later. Mine are different than Cheree's. I'm fortunate to have a lot, and CRMM worked for me to revisit a few people. I realized I don't have 100 years to transcend and put them to the side, but I do have a lot of resources, and I hope I've used them.
There's a lot of spiritual stuff in CRMM, and you might wonder why it's there until you complete it. But I was able to relate a lot of the spiritual stuff to more concrete mundane things I'd seen in the world. I certainly had a lot of suspects by the end, and they weren't guilty, but they sure didn't help matters. It was far too easy for the antagonist to do what they did. I also thought about what my ghost might show people, where I'd go, where I'd like to astravel once money wasn't an issue. I remember feelings I didn't deserve to take a vacation to somewhere as dazzling as Cheree showed me, certainly not as much as certain people who were more gung-ho about life. But one of the big non-spoiler takeaways I have from CRMM is, there were people in CRMM who were not evil or close to it. But they sure as heck didn't stop it, and they didn't gain the self-awareness that they should, or could have, until it was too late.
Self-aware games about looting castles and adventuring for its own sake and such are relatively common and generally do pretty well. Titles that pretend they didn't try, or at least you hope they are, but you're worried they actually didn't try. Some are forgotten, because they didn't try. Some, like Yet Another Game With a Dragon. Yon Astounding Castle (of Some Sort), obviously put effort into the title and wound up successful. Steal 10 Treasures quickly earned its way into their ranks, with the suggestion you're not a VERY heroic adventure, but it offers a new parser experience with the expected assortment of meta-humor and misdirections and efficient gags. My overall impression is that it should appeal to everyone: classic parser fans, people who don't like parsers, and people who are trying to learn parsers but don't want to have to memorize a bunch of commands.
S1T is the sort of game that puts its tongue in its cheek and keeps it there, all while being very intelligible. It's what I imagine the administrators of ParserComp hoped for 2023 when they created "freestyle" and "classic" divisions, and it paid off right away. I imagine the author felt very welcome to create this sort of work. Some of the one-letter commands step over themselves a bit, so there's a small learning curve, but the game's supposed to be a bit absurd, anyway, so it's easy to laugh off. For instance, P is push, but Y is pull, since P is taken and YANK works well enough. But then yell is B, for bawl. T is dedicated to turn, but the period sign is used for take, which I found really handy. C is climb, and V is conVerse. The arrow keys are used for compass directions (and there's a compass up top showing you which ways you can go,) since the letters need to be saved for other things, and it works terribly well, better than standard parsers where arrows are used to move around inside or between previous commands. Here, you don't need to tweak previous commands. There are even a few commands you pick up along the way once you found a few items. All are labeled in the help and thus eliminate guess-the-verb. So the parser organization feels like a huge success to me, with a small learning curve.
The plot is pretty self-explanatory. There is a castle (33 rooms, according to Trizbort) with 10 treasures. Some are hidden. Some are in plain sight, but you can't take them right away because you need a special tool. The first one I saw seemed way too heavy to carry, but the game's internal logic shortly rendered that worry moot. There are all the elements you'd expect for an adventure, with monsters and things that can kill you: a dragon, of course, and a griffin who gives you a trivial riddle you can't solve on your own, even though you've (quickly) tried all the reasonable guesses. Oh, there is a maze, too. Of course, this being the 2020s, you don't have to actually map it out. Once I saw the solution, I was surprised no other game had thought of it before. I was amused at the overconfidence the game makes you feel with the most direct try. Then it pulls the rug from under you. Then--oh, THAT's what you do.
But if S1T was just about meta jokes, it would just be a moderately fun corny time. The puzzles are legitimately interesting, where you have something in one room that affects another. And you have an NPC you must rescue who helps you later. It's pretty clear how, and even when he does, the conversation that ensues would actually be kind of annoying in real life. The author keeps that bit short, and it works.
Perhaps the most memorable bit for me is a puzzle that might feel like busy work, if it were thrown in with too many others, but because it is part of the game with a lot of quick jokes, it's a neat abstract exercise, and you feel smart doing it, even if you don't have to do any huge calculations. It reminds me of another Infocom classic game, but it's good enough that I don't want to spoil it. You'll know which one once you play it, and you find the treasure. It's technically impressive enough that we can picture the author thinking, hey, should I show off a bit like this, and the answer is, yes, they should have. The misdirection here is that the maze is quick to go through, but this is more involved. Yet at the same time, there's little or no painful trial and error.
Though some of the puzzles do force you to say, "can I really trust the author?" One such example is an NPC you can't defeat by yourself. At first I assumed I couldn't get past it, and attacking it meant death, so when I ran out of stuff to do, I thought "hmm, I'd like a funny instadeath." And I walked right past! Though actually there was nothing behind it, used to defeat it.
S1T also sands a lot of details down. I'd also like to give the author credit for what was a really nice soundtrack. I'm not a fan of soundtracks, usually, but the music was, well, sort of like elevator music wants to be. It changes up. It reminds you not to take things too seriously. And when I was stuck on a puzzle, at least I had the music to listen to. It also has a very nice hint system, where you can ask with just one key push, and it pops up, saying there's nothing more to do here. And the clues themselves don't completely spoil anything. And I also enjoyed how directions were implemented, even if you couldn't go a certain place. For instance, if you don't go north to the castle in the forest at the start, The Game says, oh, come on, there's treasure ahead, don't think out! This is something that I always bug writers about when I am testing, because I think it's a really easy way to round out the world and author has built without going into detail, and too often the restrictions on what we can do make you feel small. Here, it opens up possibilities, or it just has several variations on the quote hey, doofus, stop walking into walls. "
One thing I may remember most about this game, though, is that the blurb mentioned some rooms, and I missed one of them the first time through, and even though I saw the game, I wanted to see that special room. I wound up doing so, because originally I had just said, okay, I'll get through the maze.
I played S1t the same weekend I played Cheree: Remembering my Murderer. I wound up replaying them both in short order. They are the biggest successes for the new "freestyle" group. They're two totally different games but really show how we can do more with the parser than what Infocom or Scott Adams could, with their 64k limitations. S1T pays homage to the old games and seems to note their shortcomings. CRM tries for much more wide-open stuff, with a more serious plot, and contrasting them makes me feel the administrators' decisions were a success. They're not for every writer to do, or try. In fact, most of us will never get close, and some may find the classic parser better shows the world we've created. But seeing two radically different works that break the mold renews my faith in the community being able to find these new ideas consistently. There must be more.
The author has found an interesting way to give the parser experience without having to hit your head over a lot of weird and abstruse commands. Perhaps there is latitude for having, maybe, two letters for a command. And the parser can work that out. I don't think that would have worked here, because it would have interrupted the pace of the jokes, but for a more serious tone and bigger game, it would be neat to have that autofill so that people could plow through. So I think this was a success both technically and creatively. It reminds me of the best skits or movies of Cheech and Chong, which don't seem VERY clever, because it's just two idiots arguing, right? But they know what works, and they know why those idiots are funny and show us more than "geez, people are idiots sometimes." They want their absurdism to make sense and not have lots of levels of abstraction, and they know when to play dumb. So does S1T.