Reviews by Andrew Schultz

Spring Thing 2023

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The Sacred Shovel of Athenia, by Andy Galilee
New cat game! Aww, don't turn that needy face down!, September 4, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2023

It's hard to hate a competently written game that's written around a pet. I dare you! The Big Blue Ball last year was about a dog as the main character, and this is about a cat you wish to befriend. I'm more a cat person than a dog person, but I found both worked well for me. You know what to do, more or less. You have a likable protagonist or NPC. Things can't get too simple, because it would confuse said cat or dog.

SSoA and BBB were first efforts, and they were strong ones. I could play games like this a lot, though I'm sort of hoping for the occasional gerbil or hamster game. Perhaps it has a low ceiling compared to more serious or profound subject matter. But said ceiling is more than high enough, and SSoA is closer to that ceiling. It has all the basic elements of an adventure game and does not feel too basic, and at seven rooms it doesn't try to do too much. So it is closer to the ceiling.

I've had experience making friends with a cat, myself. I have some experience with this. My first ever cat was from a barn in Iowa. He seemed like he really wanted an owner, but the people most likely to adopt him had another cat, and he didn't get along with them. But he got along with people. Well, not me for the first day. When I brought him back home in his cat carrier, he immediately slipped behind the toilet and stayed there. He didn't seem to want to be petted. He wasn't growing or anything. He had just been moved around a whole lot in the past week, and he needed space. So I laid out a litter box, some food, and some water. I think I put some toys out, too. Within 24 hours, I remember playing Pooyan on MAME and I think he liked the music, because he walked in and just jumped on my lap and then on top of the hard drive. He was at home! (I still remember switching from a CRT monitor to a flat-panel one. I felt sort of guilty, giving my cats one less place to sit.)

I wound up having to do nothing, really, to befriend a cat, and SSoA has you do a few things, but with some surreal adventure-game wrinkles. You own a catometer, which is just a fancy name for a bracelet telling you how friendly the cat is at the moment. It starts at red and goes to green, through the rainbow. It's a neat variation on scoring with points, because in relationships, keeping score leads to lots of suspicion. Perhaps even among animals who don't care much about arithmetic. They understand emotions! Also, "0 out of 4" makes the game feel a bit small and technical, which SSoA, in the spirit of adventuring, wishes to avoid, and does! It also says you don't have to do too much to gain the cat's trust without leaving you feeling "there's not much to this game."

The puzzles are not too hard, and they're not meant to be, because this was sort of written for the author's son, about a real-life new cat. There's a key on the other side of a keyhole, with a different solution than us adventure game-playing adults who love Zork would expect. Looking through other reviews, I think others found the potential game-breaking bug which was intentional on the author's part–here, though, it seems like they have a neat loophole which could make sense out of things.

In the comp version there was some suspension of disbelief in the store, from being kicked out when the cat is following you (here it seems like the nice old lady proprietor could/should reject you a lot more softly) to, well, kind of stealing for the correct solution. The author worked to fix that and keep the good absurd bits and provided an alternate solution, which is commendable. The drama at the end when you actually get the shovel involves a fight that does make me smile how it is a wink-wink-nudge-nudge substitute for, say, Excalibur.

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Stygian Dreams, by Giorgos Menelaou

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
AI (partially) rewriting ancient myths. I'm worried it worked so well., September 4, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2023

This was in the Spring Thing back garden, but I think it would have been at home in the main festival! It's experimental, with AI-generated text, and it's much better than what I've previously seen of AI. There is more discussion of what I felt on and after playing than of the work itself. But I think that's because, if you're as lucky as I was, SD will remind you of things, so to speak. I also found it to be better fleshed out than The Fortuna, which appeared in ParserComp a few months later and also used AI.

This is going to get a bit political, but – well, in this case, I recall reading two very bad AI-generated poems praising Elon Musk and Donald Trump. They had minimal value for ironic humor, at least. But I was able to forget the words and not that, well, AI-generated art or stories can be mind-numbingly painful and little more than a checklist of details. (I couldn't tell if any text was strictly AI-generated, which is a good thing. I suspect the author had a go-through and punched it up.)

And there's another angle. Right-wing trolls' mantra is "Donald Trump is in your head, and you can't get him out of it." But we'd like to, because it would clear things up for what we want to do. (Never mind that certain people are certainly in Trump's head without trying to get there!) How do we get Trump, or anyone, out of our heads? And how can we be sure that if we do, we're not just cutting out legitimate opposing views, period?

SD is not specifically about this, but it helps address these questions. And it's a nice change of pace from works over the years where you have a long quest to enlightenment. Now, many are very worthy indeed. There are some where you decide your eternal fate, such as Michael Hilborn's The Life and Deaths of Dr. M. And there are some where you try to get someone out of your life. And there are others with a big, horrible realization at the end. Sometimes I'm not ready for that. But I can get a lot of mileage out of them, too. See AmandaW's What Heart Heard of, Ghost Guessed. And, of course, there is the whole "you have amnesia" subgenre. Pieces fit together, and actions you made or things you saw or thought that didn't make sense, do. Some stories work well, and some don't. And, in Spring Thing this year, we also have Repeat the Ending, which deals more directly with emotional issues and drowning in one's thoughts.

But this is the first I'm aware of where forgetting is a quest! At the end, after meeting some other spirits, you drink from Lethe. This is a gross oversimplification, and SD provides no outright solutions, but it's a short mythological story that brought up questions I had and gave me enough partial answers to old questions I had. It reminded me briefly of things I let weigh me down, of things I hadn't quite let go of, and of things I let go of enough that when they popped up, I was able to push them back off the front burner. There were even a few people I remembered who couldn't let go of things they should've, people who seemed very with-it and attuned to society's faults big and small, and the semi-tortured souls you got to talk to near the end reminded me of them, and I saw some of those real-life people were just babbling. So that was big for me. I tend to place very high value on "what does this entry do for me," and with SD, this worked. But it can't be too forcing!

And I'm glad, for instance, the souls in the underworld have no grand description. Dante's Inferno–well, I loved it, but I'm just not up to that sort of thing right now. And the souls are simply a former warrior, etc., and they will tell you about themselves, and they ramble on, but not too much. The contrast of "don't you know who I am" versus "I was nobody and didn't really even try" (which to me implied "I don't deserve to try until I square away X") struck me as very important indeed. Both parties deserved to forget who they were or what they did, at least partially–the one, to become better people, and the other, to reach their potential. Although the powerful types reminded me of people who told me I'd better remember or forget. Perhaps they told me I was forgettable, and I shouldn't forget why. (Spoiler: these people probably don't remember me and have probably done this to others, sadly.)

SD is not a huge game, and if it were, that might deflect from its central element. You have an ethereal guide. You meet people who can't forget bad and good things. You learn about yourself a bit, but then you see you get to forget, and you can forget at your own pace, and though there's no Lethe in the physical world, you can go on quests to help you forget things. Said quests are best achieved with more than "PUT THE PAST BEHIND YOU! TODAY IS A NEW DAY!" or "THINK POSITIVE OR YOU'RE SCREWED" books and mantras that tell you, the heck with any awful things you did, live in the now! I've long since seen their faults, even if they accidentally helped me in some ways. And I've searched for better, and things like SD generally help.

I could ramble on a bit about what SD helped me remember for quite a while. Those times I didn't realize I'd been a place before right away, and if I had, I'd have remembered some unfortunate idees fixes. Maybe it was something as simple as approaching a park from the west instead of the north, as I did ten years ago. SD reminded me, too, forgetfulness comes in layers–you realize you took longer between sessions when something awful hammered you. And it made me ask, what else did I put aside, or work to put aside? Perhaps it was a high school classroom where I did not enjoy myself. I took pictures of how different it looked and deleted them from my phone mistakenly. Then it occurred to me I didn't really want or need to keep the pictures. And I remembered how I had some memories in place trying to neutralize other bad memories, but the defensive memories weren't even that good.

We mortals don't have a magic bullet to forget things. At least, not without potentially proving our mortality. So we have to make do. We find something that lets us back-bench the worst of our thoughts, and if we don't forget them, we put them where they can be recalled instead of forcibly remembered. We can say, okay, I've accounted for enough, I can put that aside.

The cheap jokes just write themselves. They'd obviously be unfair, but somehow they helped with putting things in perspective. "I had something brilliant but I forgot it." "This game is about forgetting, and it's true to its colors by being forgettable." "I forget the most relevant detail, but in the spirit of the game I don't want to go back and read it and remember something long-term." None of these zingers are fair, emotionally or logically, but they were fun thought experiments and got me wondering what I felt I had to remember or wanted to. I felt okay quickly remembering and forgetting some bad things from my life, and I felt confident others would not stay. And i have to admit, I forget some parts of SD already! And I know sometimes certain writings can stir up personality-cult-like "oh, this is what life is about." But I believe SD stirred up things legitimately worth writing about for (looks at word count) 1000-2000 words.

So: forgetfulness is a complex thing. It's scary, because you know forgetting certain things would diminish yourself. But using it to lessen emotional baggage can be a way to grow. And SD reminded me of that. But perhaps it's better to riff on two lines from the Eagles' Hotel California, with its own dreamlike qualities:

* "Some dance to remember, some dance to forget" Playing SD, I realized things I wanted to remember and forget, and I picked and chose according to my own arbitrary standards.
* "You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave." In SD, though, you can check out from memories, AND you can leave them behind.

Or to mention a more technical, practical example. We all have our "Hello World" lessons for coding. And we learn stuff and forget it. I've felt guilty having to look up something that seems simple twice, or something I learned early that helped stuff click, as if that proves I don't have real mastery. But the truth is–I'm making a calculated decision to say, I believe I can put X aside to learn Y, which will have greater long-term impact. And holding onto the trivial knowledge for X gets in the way. It's different from, say, ditching friends who helped you when you hit rock bottom now you're successful.

I got a lot out of SD, enough that I planned to write a review before Spring Thing ended, and two days later I finally sat down once my thoughts settled. And it was almost scary to have someone pop up on another forum who hadn't posted for 13 years. I had forgotten them, but then I remembered (positive) stuff they said in a different context. Perhaps this is a crazy coincidence or, perhaps, I can say without getting too swell a head–if you ask questions and look for answers enough, and stumble across enough good works like SD, things are bound to happen together, and it feels like lightning struck, but really, it's just a form of the birthday paradox, where two neat things will be unexpectedly close, and you can learn a lot from that, and you don't have to worry why it happened.

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Insomnia: Twenty-Six Adventures After Dark, by Leon Lin

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Funny and technically/narratively worthy, May 15, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2023

As a fellow Spring Thing 2023 author, I was amused to note a similarity between Insomnia and Write or Reflect–well, WoR in helpful mode, anyway! Both have a possibility of going to endings you’ve seen before. (Insomnia has a bit more writing as a payoff, and said writing is better organized through some pretty diverse adventures!)

But they have different mechanisms for helping you to find all the different endings, so to speak.

Also, I’d like to thank the author for an early encouraging note to me about WoR. I hope this is good payback. So any suggestions here are “It’d be neat to do this too!”

WoR’s helpful mode lets you know if you’re about to walk into a node where all endings are covered. So you will get there, and rather quickly, by trial and error. It forces you to find the right path, which may ruin the fun of exploration.

But Insomnia leaves a bit of a puzzle. It’s quite up-front about things and I think even the endings seem to be organized so that, say, ending #1 is “first choice all the way through” and #26 is “last choice all the way through.” So you have a neat idea of what you can target and when and how. There’s some neat intuition here that I like, because while I enjoy branching Twine games, I sort of cringe at having to look at the source to knock off that last ending or two. Whether or not the endings diverge as much as Insomnia!

So I’m not aware of anything else that handles the endings as Insomnia does. But I’d be interested to see others, because I think it’s a great idea well-executed that helps it go beyond "yet another zany Twine game with clever fun writing." Especially since Insomnia doesn't try to slide on its zaniness alone. There's a funny ethical dilemma (well, not really) and I was amused to find the main villain was someone named Richards. With apologies to people whose last name is Richards, I laughed, remembering a line from a story I never wrote in college: "Geez, you have Richards this year for English? What an asshole!" Richards is, indeed, worse than that. I thank Insomnia for dredging up my irrational subconscious hate of people surnamed Richards. Especially if they have mustaches and wear corduroy blazers with elbow patches. (That's part of my never-published story.)

Insomnia's structure and bumpers open up possibilities for creating Twine-ish paths elsewhere, maybe even allowing the player a difficulty knob of how much they want to spoil.

For instance, you could have a counter saying, once you’ve hit all the endings in the (Spoiler - click to show)UFO branch (there are four) two times, that one is blocked off somehow or the node is bumped back! It seems like this would be tricky to do in Twine, but it would allow for a VERY branching game with even more than 26 endings so that the player’s energy would focus less on staying patient and juggling endings and more on the writing.

(Another neat idea, especially if the game had meta components, would be to allow the player maybe 2-3 glimpses at a branching ending map. Or maybe even label the endings 11111, etc., based on which choice gets you somewhere in the minimum tries.)

Insomnia is definitely a fun light-hearted read but it brings up some (to me) engaging, serious issues of how to keep the player’s attention and the niceties we should add to help them along and feel the optimal amount of stuck so we had a neat challenge, without giving up!

All these considerations, though, are nothing to lose sleep over. Ha ha ha.

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