Ratings and Reviews by Emily Short

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Scents & Semiosis, by Sam Kabo Ashwell, Cat Manning, Caleb Wilson, Yoon Ha Lee
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Lionkiller, by Sisi Jiang
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SPY INTRIGUE, by furkle
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You Are Jeff Bezos, by Kris Ligman
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Human Errors, by Katherine Morayati
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A Beauty Cold and Austere, by Mike Spivey
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ibis, fly!, by Mary Hamilton
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Miss Clemory & the Wall of Fire, by Porpentine
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Bring Me A Head!, by Chandler Groover
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Solarium, by Anya Johanna DeNiro
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Vesp, by Porpentine
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Light My Way Home, by Caelyn Sandel (as Venus Hart)
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What Fuwa Bansaku Found, by Chandler Groover
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Secret Agent Cinder, by Emily Ryan
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Neon Haze, by Porpentine and Brenda Neotenomie
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Tonight Dies the Moon, by Tom McHenry
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itch, by Liz England

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Very short squick-horror, June 18, 2015

itch is a Twiny Jam entry, which means that it had a very tight content and word limit. Accordingly, it's pretty short, and within that short space, it does a lot of its storytelling through images rather than through text.

It's also probably the most compact demonstration I've yet seen of the principle that interactive horror works best when the player is deliberately walking into danger. In this case, we are pretty sure that scratching is a bad idea, and yet the temptation to do so is so strong -- tied with curiosity about what's going to happen -- that we're drawn into it anyway.

Without that component, itch would be much less interesting, though the final reveal is the kind of scary-gross-funny thing that could easily turn up in an urban legend. It made me go "ugh" in the moment and then left me with several fridge horror moments afterward. (Spoiler - click to show)If there's an eyeball in my body that I wasn't aware of, can I see out of it? If I can't, WHO OR WHAT CAN??

It's always hard to assign a rating to ultra-short and in some respects unambitious games that nonetheless do exactly what they're trying to accomplish, and I wavered between 3 and 4 stars before settling on 4.

Krypteia, by Kateri
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Plan Your Son’s Funeral! , by ClickHole
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That Sinister Self, by Astrid Dalmady

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Sinister reflections, June 10, 2015

That Sinister Self is a short horror Twine that dramatizes the ways our own minds and self-critical impulses can turn against us. It focuses particularly on the kinds of body-shaming thoughts and social concerns that are common among high school girls, but it's presenting a kind of distorted thinking that can affect other groups too.

It does this with a neat trick of typography: the main text appears right-side up, but underneath is a reflection layer, upside down mirror text that sometimes reads differently, indicating the alternative perspectives of the second, mirror self. As time passes, the mirror text differs more often, more aggressively, demonstrating the warping of the inner monologue. The mirror text makes fun of the protagonist, emphasizes her flaws, rejoices in her mistakes and embarrassments. There's no way to interact with this text, to erase or refute it; we can only take actions in the real world and hope for the best.

There are several endings; I reached only one ((Spoiler - click to show)The Contagion Ending), but it felt sufficiently fitting that I didn't really want to try for others, so left it there.

Speaking purely personally (and this is why I haven't assigned a rating), the emotional impact wasn't as powerful for me as that of some other pieces that delve into inner monologue. (Cis Gaze comes to mind here.) I think this was because the protagonist didn't seem to me quite as uniquely imagined and individual, but more like a representation of a general type of problem, and those usually don't work quite as well for me.

Your mileage may vary, however -- and there was plenty of formally interesting content to make this well worth playing.

The Ambassador's Daughter, by Stormchild

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Slightly rough around the edges but not without charm, May 17, 2015

This is a vignette-sized piece about trying to get the attention of someone who interests you, at a diplomatic ball, through a short series of light puzzles.

I initially struggled a little bit with what I was supposed to be doing and had to glance at the source -- the main interaction mode could be better hinted in-game -- but once I'd worked that out, I was able to get through without further spoilers. The main things to bear in mind are that you should TALK TO and LISTEN TO other people: this will give you hints about what they're likely to want, and allow you to make some progress in the story. Also, one critical action is coded in terms of the general task you're trying to accomplish, rather than the components of that task. (Spoiler - click to show)If you find yourself struggling with the tea leaves and cauldron of water, don't bother -- just MAKE TEA.

I also did run into a few typos and mis-punctuations.

That said, there's actually a little more world-building than one might expect from so brief a piece, and I found myself smiling several times at character behavior and descriptions. Also, because all of the puzzles involve doing things that will provoke a reaction from other characters, they gave me a certain satisfaction even though they weren't exactly difficult.

If you enjoyed Plundered Hearts, August, or the games in SwashComp, you may find this a fun few minutes' play.

On a Horse with No Name, by Greg Ewing

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
More satisfying than I expected, January 11, 2015

On a Horse with No Name is a fast-playing, lightly puzzly fantasy short. It's a tale about a person with amnesia in a trackless waste, but it has better than usual excuses for this, and the main selling point of the piece is its slightly Twilight-Zone twist. Neither the prose nor the setting depth are as strong as the concept itself, but they work well enough to get the point across.

The game's biggest puzzle is a bit underclued -- I had to look at the walkthrough for one step of it -- but it's well integrated: it serves to teach some rules of this story universe that you need in order to understand the stakes of the final scenes.

There are some polish issues. The parser is not fabulous. It's using an earlier version of Alan that gives some unhelpful responses to now-standard kinds of interaction. And I ran into a couple of bugs if I did things out of the expected sequence, but these flaws really weren't serious enough to impede the progress of the game; a few descriptions that were out of sync with the world state, but nothing that made it impossible to continue.

As an aside: there are points where I got stuck because I just needed to WAIT. It's worth giving that a try if your situation seems to be uninteractive.

With Those We Love Alive, by Porpentine and Brenda Neotenomie
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Lime Ergot, by Caleb Wilson (as Rust Blight)
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80 DAYS, by inkle, Meg Jayanth
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HOLY ROBOT EMPIRE, by Caleb Wilson (as Ralph Gide)

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Lightweight but solid puzzle game, September 20, 2014

HOLY ROBOT EMPIRE is a short and easy puzzler built around the premise that robots have become dominant over humans, not just technologically but spiritually as well. The new theology is based on a robotic comprehension of the universe, which they will sometimes deign to communicate to humans. Your protagonist's goal is to kiss the ring of the Robot Pope, though as there are a lot of other humans who want to do the same, you'll need to solve some puzzles in order to get close enough.

This premise feels silly and is mostly handled in an amusing way, but there are a few darker or more serious moments: a musing on the nature of faith towards the end, the relics one finds of human religion, the suggestions of an Inquisition, and the treatment of some of the human NPCs. These give the worldbuilding a little more heft than it might initially appear to have.

The puzzles, meanwhile, are on the lighter side in terms of difficulty. They mostly involve finding objects to fit spaces or locks, but there are a couple of nice twists in which the player may find her expectations inverted. Solidly implemented and fairly clued.

Though HRE is a Shufflecomp game, built using song suggestions submitted by other members of the IF community, it does not require any familiarity with those songs to play.

Invisible Parties, by Sam Kabo Ashwell (as Psychopup)
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Monkey and Bear, by Carolyn VanEseltine (as the opposite of sublimation)
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10 Second Defence, by Christina Nordlander

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Small puzzlefest, April 23, 2014

10 Second Defence is a single-puzzle game about laying out a booby trap for someone you know is coming after you, using a combination of objects found in your one-room apartment. There is a tiny amount of backstory about how you got into this situation, but really not very much: the game isn't so much interested in telling you a story as in setting up a replayable challenge.

When a piece is primarily about inventive uses of objects, implementation becomes extremely important. 10 Second Defence is a mixed success in this department. It doesn't always offer implicit actions that ought to be obvious ((Spoiler - click to show)such as picking up the glue before gluing something to the wall). Some of the actions are a bit surprising or require finicky wording ((Spoiler - click to show)I had to experiment with several phrasings before figuring out how to fill the syringe from the capsule), and one solution requires things to behave in a way I found a bit implausible ((Spoiler - click to show)it was hard for me to believe that even a very strong glue would affix the knife to the wall in a way that would successfully stab the hitman).

On the other hand, there are multiple uses for most of the objects, and the replay concept worked pretty well for me. I found that each playthrough gave me some ideas about what might work better next time, without being entirely obvious about it.

I was able to replay to a successful conclusion in about five tries, and enjoyed doing so.

Into the Open Sky, by Matthew Lindquist

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Ambitious story, modest implementation, March 17, 2014

Into the Open Sky tells a big sweeping story: after many generations, an interstellar empire is brought down by internal betrayal, the great starships that defended the Empress turn against one another, and access to the Imperial time vortex, the Palace of Mirrors, is lost. There are many additional pieces of lore: love stories, myths, bits of imperial history, and hints of the protagonist's own complicated and storied past. Many of these stories and pieces of information are presented through database entries and diaries that can be unlocked, in a way faintly reminiscent of (but less disciplined than) Christine Love's Analogue: A Hate Story.

The gameplay aspects of the piece are not up to the scale of the narrative conception, however. There are a few key scenes of present-day dialogue or combat, but these are delivered as cut scenes; when it comes to the aspects under the player's control, they involve tasks like swapping out power couplings and giving predefined commands at particular starship consoles. There are a number of minor polish issues, as well -- for instance, descriptions that describe a particular object being a particular place even though the player may have already picked that item up.

The structure of the game also gives somewhat the impression that the author significantly scaled back his initial plans. There are some doors that never become openable through the whole game, and others which open only during an epilogue sequence at the end, when the player is told to wander around gathering as much data as she likes, then quit when she's done. So in this portion one gets the impression that the author originally intended a longer sequence of gameplay to introduce those rooms and objects organically, but perhaps ran out of time to make that happen.

Despite all this, there were some striking and vividly imagined pieces to the story, which kept me interested enough to play through to the end.

I came away thinking that perhaps the author would have had an easier time with choice-based rather than parser-based IF: the larger sections of non-interactive text would have flowed more naturally in that context, and some of the puzzles could have been implemented in a more streamlined way, allowing the author to focus on the expansive lore-telling that seemed to interest him most.

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KING OF BEES IN FANTASY LAND, by Brendan Patrick Hennessy
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Quit Your Job Simulator 2014, by Caelyn Sandel (as Colin Sandel)
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Candy Quest 3: Edge of Sweetness, by Michael Brough

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Polished in its own way, January 28, 2014

Candy Quest 3 is a text-based RPG, reminiscent of the bizarrely addictive Candy Box but, in this case, implemented in rainbow-colored Twine.

You belong to a world where combat and magic-like powers are accomplished using candy. Monsters drop rock candy as loot. NPCs require lollipops to do you certain favors.

Descriptions are simple and spare, so as not to get in the way of the numbers involved in combat. The mechanics replicate a lot of standard RPG features, but with a very deft touch.

Take combat: each time you go up against a monster you can choose to attack or to consume some of your candy in order to strengthen your armor or attack abilities. There's no randomness at work here, and even so, it's possible to undo an unsatisfactory move by using the browser back button. Winning combat is typically about figuring out a good way to stack the multiplicative properties of your candies: some candies double the effect of the next candy you eat, for instance, or double an existing stat rather than simply adding a number to it. While you never level up, you do find more and more types of candy that can contribute to your stats, creating absurdly heightened powers.

There's a tiny bit of object-collection grind, but really only a taster amount: enough to make the process of collection interesting, not enough to make the player really sick of trooping back to the village store.

There are one or two other fun surprises, including a puzzle or two. Taken together, it's an amusing and extremely well-balanced piece -- unsurprisingly, considering the respect Brough commands for the ingenuity of his other indie games.

The only part that confused me came at the very end. (Spoiler - click to show)I'd reached 99% doom averted when I encountered a state where my only option was to "wake up", accompanied by a broken image link. Clicking "wake up" brought me back to the same state over and over. I suppose I could see this as an end (of sorts) to the game, but the fact that the image link was broken made me wonder whether it wasn't a bug instead.

This is a good example piece for people who are interested in Twine games that push the traditional boundaries of Twine, and also for those who are interested in IF combat options that go beyond randomness and UNDO-prevention.

Besides, it's just fun -- if in a very different style from a classic text adventure.

Coloratura, by Lynnea Glasser
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The Statue Got Me High, by Ryan Veeder
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climbing 208 feet up the ruin wall, by Porpentine
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Fingertips: I'm Having a Heart Attack, by Andrew Schultz
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Dominique Pamplemousse - It's All Over Once The Fat Lady Sings!, by Dietrich Squinkifer (Squinky)
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Very many brightly colored links, April 5, 2013

If you have tried other work by Porpentine, you probably have some idea whether you'll like this: it too is about the relationship to your body, about reclaiming your sexuality for yourself, about culture and the way society frames gender. It is also about video games and the game as body.

It is not about any of these things in a way that resembles an ordinary plotted story. It uses music, voice, colored links, images, sometimes links to outside resources and video. It is not contained in the files of the game, but reaches out into the real world.

At one point, the protagonist's body is represented by a huge page of links, an overwhelming number of nodes, some of them active, some not, painfully colored. The process of navigating this page, bringing more nodes alive, might be seen as a kind of puzzle, but it is meaningful less as a puzzle than as a metaphor for the strangeness of the self; of parts that are numb, parts that are in pain, parts that are aroused.

In other sections, the piece hints at a more IF-familiar world model, of spaces to move through and directions of travel, and then subverts that model by offering attitudes and emotional stances as moves, alongside the usual EAST and WEST.

"HOW TO SPEAK ATLANTEAN" needs to be experienced more or less completely before it becomes comprehensible, because it uses confusion and alienation intentionally. I suspect some people will feel lost. I was a bit at sea myself during certain bits, but when I came to the end, I felt I had been told something interesting, something that would be hard to sum up in any fashion other than by handing on the piece to someone else.

So. I liked it, and found it both personal and artful.

18 Cadence, by Aaron A. Reed
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Intake, by Maddox Pratt

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
"You" and you, February 11, 2013

The premise of this extremely brief game is that you're undergoing an intake interview for mental health services, and you're being asked to identify your gender and your feelings about how your gender is treated in society. When you pick an answer or category that doesn't fit the intake interviewer's expectations and bureaucratic forms, you're forced to pick an option you're less happy with.

I get the idea and I'm interested in understanding the problem it describes. But I also was distanced a bit from the piece precisely because the answers that I myself would have given were not always included in the initial option lists. (Spoiler - click to show)Do I feel oppressed or empowered? A little of each; it really depends on the circumstances, the day of the week, the people I'm interacting with. Sometimes I feel respected and sometimes I don't. But there was (unsurprisingly) no way to express that answer, or that kind of answer, through the interface provided.

To some extent that distance comes from the fact that, as a cisgendered person, I don't share the experiences of the protagonist -- but that could have been an opportunity for me to learn more about the life of people unlike myself, and the work as it stands occupies a spot where it doesn't feel like it's about me but also doesn't really feel like it's about someone else.

I think lengthening this work might have clarified the separation between the fictional "you" and the player, making for a stronger presentation of its core points.

Bigger Than You Think, by Andrew Plotkin
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Nautilisia, by Ryan Veeder

12 of 12 people found the following review helpful:
Parody of the surreal psychological genre, January 12, 2013

Nautilisia is a short, surreal piece riffing on the many many games that take place within the psychological landscape of a comatose (or sleeping, or deceased) protagonist. In contrast with most of those, however, Nautilisia makes no secret of its subject, telling the player up front of this premise, and explaining each symbolic object as one encounters it.

In this vein, there are three very basic puzzles, and a helpfully explanatory NPC who will answer questions and deliver rewards. The gameplay is straightforward, and is likely to take only ten or fifteen minutes to complete. Some of the imagery is charming or evocative, but the narrative voice is so quick to explain what it all means that one doesn't really have time to contemplate it before having it explained away.

This is an experience that is only likely to appeal to one who enjoys Veeder's flavor of humor: if the first room or two don't strike your fancy, the rest of the game isn't likely to either. Personally, I find it engaging enough to enjoy. Veeder has (in my opinion, anyway) an excellent sense of pacing -- of exactly how many times he can push the player's patience and still be funny rather than purely exasperating; of how much he can get away with nudging the player in the ribs without being tiresome.

Overall, a fine execution of a small concept, rightfully brief so as not to overstay its welcome.

The Town Musicians, by Anonymous

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Lost in the woods, January 12, 2013

The Town Musicians casts the player as a hunting dog past its prime and driven off by its master. As in the original folk tale, the player character must find some other animals who are no longer being supported by their human owners, and form a small band, with the intention of finding their fortune in the city.

The game is designed as an aid for English-language learners, and is meant to be as accessible as possible. This is an admirable purpose, supported by the relatively simple and repetitive language of the story.

The interaction, however, is quite a bit rougher than it probably needs to be in a game for beginning players. The description says that the game is puzzle-less, and this is perhaps strictly true: one spends the first part of the story mostly in taking actions we're directly instructed to take (such as sniffing around for a rabbit, or following other characters from place to place). I found that this was not entirely easy even so, however, because there were a lot of missing synonyms and scenery, and even for the game's first action, I went through several attempts (SNIFF CLOVER, SNIFF GROUND, SMELL HEDGES, etc.) before lighting on a command that would do the intended action.

It's thanks to one of these situations that I got permanently stuck before the end of the game: our little party got lost in the woods, and though the other characters claimed to be able to see a cottage nearby, I could neither enter nor interact with a cottage object, but wound up wandering more in the woods. I wasn't able to find any hints or clues to put me back on the right track.

I commend the concept behind the creation of this game, but I believe it would need to be stronger on IF fundamentals in order to fulfill its intended purpose: this is a frustrating play for a native English speaker familiar with IF, so I suspect it would be flatly impenetrable to someone who was just learning.

Otherwise, it might be of some interest to people who especially enjoy IF recastings of classic fairy and folk stories, but even in that category, I found it a difficult play.

Andromeda Dreaming, by Joey Jones
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The Subtropical Server Room, by Andrew Schultz

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
You (Still) Hate Your Office, July 7, 2012
by Emily Short
Related reviews: cover stories

I didn't get all the way through this one, so I'm not giving it a star rating. However: what I saw of the game was a fairly standard You Hate Your Office puzzler, with obtuse managers, passwords to guess, and lunchroom appliances that look ripe for sabotage. Scenery is fairly minimal, and there are a lot of rooms that, at least at the start of play, have no obvious function.

The reason I didn't get further is that hint system doesn't work the way it claims it's going to: typing HINT gives a general clue and then tells you you can type HELP for more explicit spoilery instructions, but in practice the game seems to interpret HELP as being a synonym for HINT, and no clear solutions are forthcoming.

The hints I did receive suggested to me that I was going to need to do something moderately tedious and tricky ((Spoiler - click to show)decrypt and make use of a whole long sheet of chess notation) in order to make progress. It's possible I misunderstood and that the thing that stumped me was a red herring, but it was hard to tell, and none of my other experiments with the environment were leading anywhere useful either. As I hadn't worked up much of a commitment to my character and am not generally a huge fan of the Office Misery genre, I stopped there.

It is possible that this game would be a significantly different experience if the HELP/HINT system were revised, the text revised to give the player more direction, or both.

The Feather Grange Job, by David Fletcher

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Lightweight fluff, some polish issues, June 18, 2012
by Emily Short
Related reviews: cover stories

Feather Grange Job tells the story of a jewel heist pulled off by a team of birds: it consists of a series of vignettes in which each of the gang uses its particular bird skill, with each scene containing one fairly simple puzzle. It's cute and amusing; and as I tend to enjoy heist capers, I was largely on its side.

I would have been more so, except that there were a number of polish issues that made play slower and rougher than I would have liked. (Spoiler - click to show)Especially problematic was the scene of getting Verbal to open the safe. I tried a whole bunch of different instructions -- (Spoiler - click to show)ask verbal about safe, tell verbal about safe, ask/tell verbal about password, ask/tell verbal about monkey, "verbal, say password", "verbal, say monkey", and so on, before I finally got to the correct method (Spoiler - click to show)which was "verbal, open safe". Futzing around here made the scene take about three times as long as it should have and dissipated a lot of the tension. Several of the other scenes also took me longer to figure out than was strictly fun, just because there wasn't a lot to draw my attention to the right thing to do.

Even given the occasional guess-the-verb issues, however, this took around 10 minutes to play.

Monkey Business, by Benjamin Sokal

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Creepy but extremely incomplete, June 18, 2012
by Emily Short
Related reviews: cover stories

Monkey Business concerns a monkey on the receiving end of some simian psychology experiments. It's extremely incomplete: there are a couple of brief scenes establishing your problem and then a "to be continued" message.

What's there is solid enough, but there isn't really very much to do; the one semi-puzzle could be solved entirely by accident. This puts the game on the short side even compared with other deliberately-incomplete works such as games entered in Introcomp.

If there's a longer version of this game eventually, I might be interested to see where it goes, but the introduction as it stands is not a very substantial play experience, which is the reason I'm not scoring it higher.

Offering, by Richard Smyth

12 of 12 people found the following review helpful:
I'm not sure what to do with this analogy, June 18, 2012
by Emily Short
Related reviews: cover stories

Offering is a highly linear, puzzle-light game that seems to be exploring the significance of a certain type of religious thinking. It's also nearly impossible to talk about without spoilers, so most of this review is going to be cut-tagged.

(Spoiler - click to show)Offering comes in two halves, and it's very easy to miss the second half entirely.

The first half tells the story of Abraham preparing to sacrifice Isaac, in terms just about verbatim from the Old Testament version, with just the tiniest bit of additional hinting at what's going through Abraham's mind. This part of the game is pretty linear, and there's not much to discover, or much opportunity to go off the required path.

And if you follow the game's prompting, you'll wind up just hesitating a bit up at the top of the mountain, waiting for the miracle you know is supposed to come along at that moment, and lo the ram shows up, everything is fine, and you get an apparently happy ending in which Abraham's descendants are more numerous than the stars, etc.

But you can also go ahead and sacrifice Isaac on the mountain before God gets a chance to intervene. If you do, you fall through to a second scene, in which you're a girl on a date in a car in the 1950s, and your hunky date in the letterman jacket gets a little forward, and then he won't take no for an answer. You can't fight him off, so he rapes you, in terms described very similarly to the bit with Abraham stabbing Isaac.

When I played the first part and thought that was all there was, my feeling was that it was a pretty pointless exercise, retelling a well-known story with almost no interactivity or embellishment. The presence of the second part gives the story any meaning it might be thought to possess, but it would be really, really easy never to realize there was a second part. This is, I think, a significant structural flaw.

Once we do include the second part, though, I'm not sure it makes hugely more sense.

Ike's rape of the protagonist is described like Abraham's use of the knife on Isaac, so maybe

Ike:girl :: Abraham:Isaac

Conceivably the reading is that rapists and devout religious people are similar in their readiness to override the will of others? But, frankly, this seems like a stretch, especially considering that most devout religious people still don't go around killing or raping anyone. Then again, it's implied that the girl in the second half is the one making a sacrifice, giving up the struggle at the end of the rape scene, so then maybe the idea is

Ike:girl :: God:Abraham

in which case the point is more that the God of the Old Testament was really an incredible jerk? Except that in order more completely to demonstrate his jerkiness, we've postulated a variant version of that God in which he does let Abraham actually go through with the sacrifice.

I don't know. It seemed to me that there were a number of thematic points the author could have been making, tantalizingly adjacent to the story, but that he didn't really follow through on any of them enough to make them work. If it's a story about how the God of the Old Testament is not in fact the kind of character that, in the cold light of the 21st century, looks especially benevolent, then that's a point that's possible to explore, and it's not really necessary to change the end of the Isaac sacrifice story to get there. In fact there were two different games in IF Comp 2011 that dug into the issue of whether God would really desire people to die in order to meet his laws and instructions: Cana According to Micah, which argues that he wouldn't, and Tenth Plague, which suggests that he would and therefore isn't so terrific.

It's also possible to imagine Offering as a story about the way a patriarchal society may use the language of religious obligation in order to force the powerless -- children, women, minorities -- into subjection while silencing any dissent. There are a few hints of this in the first part; for instance, Abraham can't put the wood on the altar himself because it would be unseemly for the patriarch to do such a task, and it must be left to the more subservient Isaac. But, if so, that also doesn't really make much sense, because in fact Ike doesn't bring any of this kind of pressure to bear on the girl. He forcibly rapes her and tells her it's what she can expect for being in a car with a boy, but he doesn't frame it as a moral obligation. There are unfortunately many true incidents in which women were coerced into sexual relationships on some sort of religious pretext, but this isn't a story about one of those situations.

Or maybe the idea is that sacrifices, in general, are like being raped, in general. The game's about text seems to suggest this final reading: "As the story description for this game suggests, this is a story about what it takes to give--more specifically, what it takes to sacrifice something that is valuable to you... Hopefully, this diptych will prompt some thought and debate about the true meaning of sacrifice."

But this doesn't really make sense at all! The whole point of sacrifice is the presence of consent. That's a point in fact especially marked out by the Isaac story: what God is testing with Abraham is whether he would be willing to perform the sacrifice, such that the actual performance thereof becomes irrelevant. And more broadly, things that are given sacrificially are meaningful precisely because they entail the giver's considered decision.

One might say "well, but the consent is meaningless in context: you had to sacrifice things to God because otherwise he could kill you, couldn't he" -- but that's pretty much never how sacrifice is historically framed. The language of ancient sacrificial religions tends to be extremely clear about this point. Making a sacrifice was often framed in legalistic, contractual terms. Do ut des I give that you may give; in other words, you're making a bargain with {God/a god} by providing him with something, in the hope that he will give you something in return.

It's an idea that makes the most sense in the context of polytheism and not-exactly-omnipotent deities who might actually in some sense need human cooperation, and there are stretch marks when this theology is applied to the monotheistic God of the Old Testament. But the terminology still seems pretty clear about this all the same. Man slaughters sheep voluntarily for God: sacrifice. God strikes sheep by lightning, killing it and reducing Man's flock: not sacrifice. Job losing his family and flocks and servants wasn't a sacrifice Job made; it was something really nasty that happened to Job.

Considering this deep misalignment between the consensual, if morally pressured, giving entailed in sacrifice and the non-consensual loss entailed in rape, I'm not really clear on what we're supposed to take away from the juxtaposition of events in Offering.

And, honestly, the longer I think about the attempted analogy between the sacrifice scene and the rape scene, the more bothersome I find it. Trying to say that rape victims are sort of consenting after all, or that being raped is some kind of morally good sacrifice? Surely not. Indicating that voluntarily making a sacrifice of some sort is as traumatizing and destructive as being raped? That doesn't seem right either.

So I don't exactly recommend this piece; I think it's trying to say something, but I'm not sure that something is especially coherent or well-worked-through. Some of the elements may be upsetting or triggering to certain people.

The Legend of the Missing Hat, by Adri

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
As advertised: tiny, June 17, 2012
by Emily Short
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This is an extremely short, extremely easy puzzle game, as advertised: I think it took me between five and ten minutes to play completely. It's sweet and cheerful, and takes place on a miniaturized landscape, as the main character is a ninja perhaps a half-inch tall.

Implementation and scenery are not as deep as in, say, Sara Dee's "Mite" or Ryan Veeder's "You've Got a Stew Going!", but the central concept is similar, in that familiar household objects and critters function differently when the scale is drastically altered.

Home Sweetie-Bot Home, by Jacques Frechet

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Brief, decidedly quirky homebrew puzzle game, June 17, 2012
by Emily Short
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In this short puzzler, you play a robot who has to deal with a massive bug invasion in his home. The puzzles are fairly straightforward, and are made more accessible still by a very constrained verb set.

While I did get very briefly stuck on one part of the story, it's because I had failed to notice a state change that was described in the text but that my eye had skipped over. (Spoiler - click to show)If you get stuck after you've done things you think should have solved the problem, note that both the window and the refrigerator will close automatically when you move away from them. Since I'd envisioned the window as the sliding variety, this is not at all what I expected, and I didn't notice when it happened.

The game is implemented in a homebrew system with several notable features. First, output is text-styled in blocky text with blue lettering for objects that are interactive. Second, it's possible to undo multiple layers using a clickable undo link beside each section of text.

And finally, the game accepts voice commands for input. I didn't play the whole game this way out of fear of annoying the people around me, but for the commands I did try, it was fairly effective at recognizing my instructions, especially if I did my best Dalek impression.

For that technical feature, this is worth a look; otherwise, it's a charming diversion of a few minutes.

leaves, by ed blair

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
Ultraminimal handling of grief, June 17, 2012
by Emily Short
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The protagonist is at a funeral. The deceased is already in the casket; the mourners have departed. There's nothing left to do, but the protagonist is still hanging about. The implementation here is extremely minimal, not even allowing for CRY, THINK, REMEMBER, or any conversation about the departed. So it's pretty much impossible to get any details about who died, how the dead person related to the mourner, and so on.

The main interesting quirk of leaves is that events are narrated by a viewpoint character who is not the protagonist. Commands like EXAMINE are carried out by the viewpoint character, but it is the protagonist who moves in response to movement commands.

I do have one possible theory about what's going on here that lends a little bit of additional meaning to its very static feeling: (Spoiler - click to show)Possibly the viewpoint character is actually the spirit of the deceased, and this explains why s/he can't do anything, or speak to the protagonist, or leave the gravesite when the protagonist drives away. If that's true, it at least makes the closing lines of the text a bit more poignant and significant than they otherwise would be.

On the other hand, occasionally the text gives hints that would seem to play against this theory, as in:

>x me
I take a good look at you. I try to hold my breath to keep you from noticing my staring. It's rare to see you so upset.

Surely this concern about being noticed, and the ability to hold a breath, mean that the viewpoint character has to have corporeal form?

So my alternative theories are possibly either that a) the viewpoint character is the deceased, but doesn't actually realize it and continues to behave as though visible and breathing -- in which case the game doesn't do nearly enough to make that clear -- or b) the viewpoint character is someone with a hopeless crush on the mourning protagonist, but isn't actually in a relationship that would make it appropriate for them to leave together.

Whatever the accuracy of those speculations, the limitations of the interaction and the near-total lack of information about the backstory make it hard to empathize too deeply with the characters.

Antifascista, by Greg Farough

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Slighter than the subject matter seems to demand, June 17, 2012
by Emily Short
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Antifascista presents several scenes surrounding an incident in which a violent thug attacks the (gay) protagonist's boyfriend and seriously injures him. It is at times melancholy or disturbing(Spoiler - click to show), particularly when, as the player, you're navigating through dark alleys towards what you are almost certain will be a horrible encounter. But the game as a whole is extremely short and linear, and the character of the boyfriend remains largely a cipher for much of the game, revealing little of what he's thinking or feeling.

Given where the story opened and how it was presented, I was expecting or hoping for more -- maybe more scenes from the lives of these characters, or more complexity in the reaction they have to this traumatic event.

As it stands, Antifascista presents the player with a starkly unpleasant incident, but refrains from offering much by way of additional perspectives or observations about it. As a story it feels slight. It takes its power from the fact that horrible things like this sometimes do happen in reality -- but it doesn't seem to have very much to say about that reality.

Sloth on a Stroller, by Juhana Leinonen

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Barebones race game, June 17, 2012
by Emily Short
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Sloth on a Stroller is a racing game in which you are competing against a tortoise on a tricycle. Play consists of applying gas, brakes, and nitro at appropriate times on a racing course; the status bar indicates where you and your opponent are, as well as your current speed of travel. It's possible to end the game in a number of ways, though my best outcome was a tie.

Simple-verb, mechanical games can work in IF, and at its best, this could have been something reminiscent of Textfire Golf or the racing minigame in Lost Islands of Alabaz.

I didn't enjoy Sloth as much as those other games, though, and I think that's because a) the writing and general atmosphere is comparatively bare, so I have less reason to invest in individual outcomes or derive enjoyment from non-winning states; and b) there wasn't much feedback about what I was doing wrong and what I might be able to improve. It was clear from the track layout that there were certain places where I really needed to be traveling at a particular speed, or applying gas or nitro. But even with careful notetaking and optimizing for speed against these restraints, as well as (Spoiler - click to show)solving a puzzle to oil my stroller wheels with olive oil, I am still unable to win the thing.

The same mechanics and puzzle enhanced with stronger feedback and more rewarding writing (even for the loss-state endings) would make for a much stronger game.

Olivia's Orphanorium, by Sam Kabo Ashwell

14 of 14 people found the following review helpful:
Dickensian parody, June 17, 2012
by Emily Short
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The core mechanics of Olivia's Orphanorium are more reminiscent of time management-style games than typical IF puzzle fare.

Your task, as orphan master, is to decide how to spend money on food and devices (such as treadmills, baths, et al) that will in some fashion alter the discipline, vigour, appearance, or morale of the orphans in your charge. Undisciplined but vigorous orphans are more likely to escape; attractive and well-disciplined orphans are more likely to receive good jobs. Orphans with terribly low morale are likely to die. Good orphan outcomes mean more money for the player, while there is no profit from orphans who die or escape.

Most of the active gameplay consists of moving through the orphanage's three rooms (junior, middle, senior); washing and/or beating certain orphans; and assigning orphans to tasks, such as walking the treadmill. The risks and difficulty ramp up gradually. You start the game with just four orphans, but new ones are steadily assigned to the place until you're managing a significant number of them at a time.

One help I would have appreciated is a tabulated way to inspect the well-being of all my orphans at once, in order to decide which could most profitably be scrubbed and/or beaten that day. As it stands, as far as I can tell, one must go around examining them all. I also would have preferred if gameplay weren't so front-loaded with the task of reading the manual. The game starts with the player carrying multiple explanatory items, introducing the major concepts of the game, the commands you can use, and the catalogue of items you can buy. Players with a habit of thoroughness will probably read every entry in each of these manuals before beginning play. They are entertaining reading, which helps, but I think I might have preferred to have the catalogue of purchasable items introduced after a few days of gameplay, since a) none of the items available for sale are going to be affordable sooner than that anyhow and b) this would have spaced out the amount of looking-up necessary, and made sure I received the catalogue *after* I already understood enough about the concepts of discipline, vigour, etc., to know what I might need.

To enliven the core play elements, Orphanorium also features a series of special tasks or missions that pop up every day or two. These typically involve some sort of amusing event, and require the player to do something slightly more puzzle-oriented than the main gameplay: search the grounds for a stolen treasure, for instance, or identify an appropriate orphan to perform a particular special task.

After you've processed thirty orphans, you will be subject to a Periodic Assessment, which tallies up your success so far and assigns you an ending. For me, that was just about right -- the Assessment occurred just at the point when I was slightly starting to wonder whether the game had an end, but before I had gotten tired of it.

Orphanorium might sound like the sort of game that ought to be graphical rather than textual. But most of the pleasure of the game comes from the rich genre parody and descriptions. The catalogue items you can buy to enliven your orphanage, the environment, and the orphans themselves are all described with a consistently tongue-in-cheek mock-Victorian voice, taking the line that children benefit from frequent beatings and near-toxic baths. The actual mechanics of the game are more humane, however, as it is generally most effective to (Spoiler - click to show)feed your children the best, most fattening gruel and to refrain from using The Box for discipline.

So the text-out aspect is definitely a strength for Orphanorium. I'm a little more uncertain about whether the parser is ideal; there were times when the typing got a bit longwinded. Most commands are of the same type and there is little occasion to try out new verbs except, occasionally, during unusual story events. To be fair, the potential tedium of assigning every orphan in a room to a task is considerably reduced by the fact that you can use ASSIGN ALL TO TASK -- but I didn't discover this point until late in the game. A note about this in the instructions might help, or (better, I think) the game could detect whether the player had assigned multiple characters in a row and issue a hint message about combining those into one command.

Overall, Orphanorium is an unusual construct for IF, but it's solid, engaging, and amusingly written. Do not expect difficult puzzles or a strong narrative arc, just a lot of exploration of a particular milieu and mindset.

IFDB Spelunking, by Joey Jones

14 of 14 people found the following review helpful:
Four-star implementation of a two-star experience, June 16, 2012
by Emily Short
Related reviews: cover stories

IFDB Spelunking replicates Joey Jones' experience playing (or trying to play) all ten games in a "10 random games" list from IFDB. Of the games on the list, two are in non-English languages, a couple are in obscure formats that are a challenge to play, and one is pornographic; several of the others are just really bizarre or really shoddy.

Joey's footnotes and hints make several of these games easier to get through: for instance, I was stuck in the playthrough of Minimum Wage Job (otherwise one of the more accessible of the games on the list), but was able to rely on nudges that presumably aren't in the original game. From time to time he also offers some amusing commentary, though not by any means at MST3K quantities.

On the other hand, the nature of the game means that you *can't* go on and finish the games that Joey himself didn't get through -- so even if you read French or German and would be curious to go further with those games, Joey quickly backs out, and you will have to do so as well. (At least it's possible to download the original games from IFDB and go on with them if you are intrigued.)

Spelunking also allows you to bring away your final inventory from each game and continue to carry it in the next. This is where a majority of the invention and entertainment come from. There are various gags that involve wearing inappropriate clothing in the wrong game, for instance, or having tools that a particular game isn't expecting you to possess.

These features are entertaining, but the overall experience still necessarily feels pretty haphazard. I think I might have derived more value from a guided tour of a series of games that the author thought fit together particularly well, or had some merits despite being low-rated -- but that would have missed the point entirely.

Given Joey's essential premise of committing to whatever ten games popped up on a random list, he managed to create a more accessible and enjoyable rendition of that experience than going through that list first-hand would have been. It's also pitched as an encouragement to other people to go IFDB Spelunking. I don't quite have Joey's patience -- I certainly wouldn't have downloaded some of those emulators just to be able to play games that had gotten negative reviews to start with -- but he certainly makes a case for the diversity of the IF back catalog.

baby tree, by Lester Galin
Emily Short's Rating:

The Twelve Heads of St. John the Baptist, by Jake Wildstrom
Emily Short's Rating:

Endless, Nameless, by Adam Cadre
Emily Short's Rating:

Muggle Studies, by M. Flourish Klink

17 of 17 people found the following review helpful:
Looking at magic from the outside, April 16, 2012

Muggle Studies is a Harry Potter fanfic in IF form, designed -- so far as I can tell -- as an introduction to IF for Harry-Potter-loving fans. To that end, it doesn't do anything terribly shocking from an IF perspective, but introduces a variety of common types of puzzle much in the way that Mrs Pepper's Nasty Secret does. To ease in new players, "Muggle Studies" comes with detailed instructions, a complete hint system, and a sample transcript (rather deliciously, one that riffs brutally on "Twilight"). Parser improvements via Aaron Reed's extensions correct common errors and clean up minor typos for the player, making for a smooth interaction experience.

There are a few odd decisions in the puzzle design. I ran into one guess the verb problem ((Spoiler - click to show)I tried PUT SCARF ON THESTRAL rather than GIVE SCARF TO THESTRAL, and this wasn't recognized as a solution at all; it's also a little strange that the scarf isn't marked as something you can wear, since this seems an obvious thing to experiment with.); several other puzzles are things you can solve by going outside the game before or instead of finding the solutions internally, which might or might not be considered a defect.

"Muggle Studies" also makes use of several outright riddles, something I haven't seen much in recent IF, saving one room in the esoteric "Ted Paladin and The Case of the Abandoned House". Riddles make somewhat tricky IF fare, because they tend to have no connection to an implemented world model and have no hinted feedback on partial failure states; you can't typically solve a riddle puzzle by progressive experimentation. Fortunately the riddles in "Muggle Studies" are confined to one particular puzzle area and are fairly consistent in concept, so the effect is fairer and more accessible than it might be.

These quibbles aside, however, "Muggle Studies" is solidly crafted: I didn't run into any obvious bugs, and it deals cleanly with flashbacks, conversation, and other potentially challenging elements. A nice set of feelies rounds out the package, and I was fortunate to get a copy of the Collector's Edition, in physical form: a handsome black envelope containing the letters and brochures that are also available by PDF.

As story, "Muggle Studies" feels somewhat limited. There's the shell of something here. It's not a story that would stand very well on its own. Too much is unexplained, I think, for a reader who doesn't know the Potterverse to follow, or to have much investment in it, but there's certainly a concept: the protagonist is a non-wizard introduced unexpectedly to the wizarding world, and the story involves the injustices of certain wizard laws, together with the protagonist's relationship with her ex-girlfriend. Questioning the rules of a well-known story -- and thus the preconceptions of the audience that accepts and admires that story -- is one of the more interesting functions of fanfic, from Eliezer Yudkowsky's "Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality" back to Euripides' Electra.

But "Muggle Studies" doesn't so much richly explore the question of muggle/wizard relations as raise it in a short essay at the end. Because the majority of the puzzle content takes place in an abandoned Hogwarts, there's not much opportunity to interact with the major characters except during framing elements at the beginning, in flashbacks, and at the conclusion. The end does give the player the chance to make significant decisions one way or another, but it doesn't necessarily feel very well connected to the more objects-and-puzzles substance of the midgame. In addition, there's a bit of a player-protagonist disconnect, as the player is likely to know quite a bit more than the protagonist. (Spoiler - click to show)Some of this is because the player may have read Harry Potter before and recognize all the characters; a large part, however, is that the protagonist is shown as failing to notice the clue-by-fours that the narrative is laying on the player. Thus it's clear to the player very early on that both the protagonist's grandmother and her girlfriend were witches, but the protagonist continues not to realize this officially until the end. And because we've spent so little time with the major characters, the player is unlikely to feel as strongly about the protagonist's girlfriend as the story deserves.

The other thing I found myself missing in "Muggle Studies" was an in-depth exploration of Hogwarts as a place and the inhabitants, present or not. The protagonist is a muggle and so cannot do any magic; none of the spells of Harry Potter are available in play. This is probably a safe design decision, since J. K. Rowling's concept of magic is so wildly inconsistent as to be a real bear to implement, and includes such puzzle-breaking powers as the ability to unlock any lock, to fetch any object from a distance, and to produce water from nowhere.

Even with those constraints, though, it would have been nice to see a little more about the personalities and history of the canonical characters. As it is, we get a peek in Lupin's diary and a visit to Snape's classroom, but in neither case are there many hints of the owners' personalities. (Spoiler - click to show)Another missed opportunity was Filch's catalog of detention cards. While it was fun to look through the catalog and find items at random, it would have been more rewarding to be able to look up specific characters and find their records: this kind of content rewards the in-the-know player for demonstrating familiarity with the series, but someone with less background won't even notice it.

All of this is not to say "Muggle Studies" is a poor game. On the contrary, it's well above average in implementation and polish, a substantial debut piece, and the extras show a lot of love and enthusiasm. But I consistently felt that it could have been significantly more impressive if the human content and the puzzle content had been better unified, and Hogwarts given a richer texture. Perhaps the result would have been less of a pattern card of typical IF interaction styles, but it would also have been a better interactive story.

I Palindrome I, by Nick Montfort
Emily Short's Rating:

Which Describes How You're Feeling, by Adam Parrish
Emily Short's Rating:

Dinner Bell, by Jenni Polodna

15 of 15 people found the following review helpful:
Surreal, in a good way, April 11, 2012

If you like escape the room puzzle games and you didn't get enough of Dr. Sliss in Rogue of the Multiverse, this game is for you.

According to the odd premise, you're the a subject in a pavlovian test being run by a dog, and must perform tasks meeting your training requirements. The tasks in question mostly require thorough searching and obedience to the game's not-very-subtle precepts, though there are a couple of puzzles that require a bit more sideways thinking to separate the quest objects from their surroundings. (Spoiler - click to show)I particularly enjoyed the solution to finding the one real pear in the bucket of wax pears. Though it's not an extremely long game, there's enough there to keep a player occupied for 45 minutes or so; this would not have been conspicuously undersized as a comp game.

Overall it's a very solidly made and tested piece. I didn't run into any bugs or situations where the parser patently should have been more intelligent, and there were many points where it was possible to refer to objects that were only figuratively present and still get some kind of interesting response.

What really sets this game apart, however, is its particular humor and narrative voice. Most of the game's major objects are things referred to in the They Might Be Giants song of the same name -- enough so that the song could almost serve as a walkthrough for most of the elements. More than that, though, the narration is often self-conscious and fourth-wall-breaking in order to deliver a payload of puns, references, and commentary. Those familiar with Polodna's blog posts and reviews will have a pretty good idea of whether they're likely to enjoy such asides. (I did.)

The game's final point is moderately noteworthy as well. (Spoiler - click to show)After a sequence of puzzles in which the player is railroaded into finding but not eating a series of foodstuffs, the game gives the player a chance to eat some cake; but rewards him with a final point and a different ending for choosing to follow his accustomed conditioning and setting the cake aside instead of eating it. It would probably be a stretch to claim that this is a serious commentary on agency and player conditioning, but it was a more memorable outcome than I had expected.

It Is Your Responsibility, by Tom McLean

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Some rough edges, but amusing, March 13, 2012

It Is Your Responsibility is a short(ish) puzzle game about your protagonist's wild attempts to accomplish a task whose purpose is never clear, in a dystopian futuristic bureaucracy. The puzzles are mostly about smashing things up and recombining objects in slightly startling ways.

There are a few rough spots: a hatch can be referred to or discovered by accident before the game properly introduces it, and a few verbs give misleading failure messages until you use them in exactly the right way. (Spoiler - click to show)If the game tells you that putting something on the shard is useless, persist anyway -- you just haven't found the right object yet. Many of the puzzles I solved in reverse order, first noticing that something could be done with an object and only later realizing why that might have been useful to do. The design does have its strengths as well, however: the game does a good job of pointing the player towards usefully interactive objects, and it is so compact that it's hard to get too terribly lost. As far as I could tell, it is not possible to put the game into an unwinnable state.

The presentation of the game adds to the appeal. The Quixe website is attractive and has a handy hint list, and the comments on the Youtube trailer suggest that a number of players enjoyed the game despite little previous exposure to IF. Customized fonts and cover art help dress the piece up.

It Is Your Responsibility reminded me a little of Ryan Veeder's You've Got A Stew Going! It's not as thoroughly polished as Veeder's work, but the scope of the story and the tone and style of the puzzles were similar. Overall, not a bad debut work.

Starborn, by Juhana Leinonen
Emily Short's Rating:

Out of Babylon, by Out of Babylon

18 of 18 people found the following review helpful:
Street preaching, October 28, 2011

"Out of Babylon" is an interactive version of one of those leaflets that you sometimes get handed at street corners when you haven't done a good enough job of avoiding eye contact.

It lays out a scenario in which the Pope is planning to change the world's calendar in 2012 so that one day a year is "World Day" and isn't a day of the week. That throws the whole seven-day cycle off, and when this happens, it becomes more difficult for people to celebrate the true Sabbath correctly. The player's choices all revolve around whether to worship and whether to do so on the new, Pope-approved Sundays. (Spoiler - click to show)Hint: worship yes; Pope calendar no. Get that wrong and you'll wind up in the Resurrection of the Wicked at the end, which appears to be some sort of zombiepocalypse event. Meanwhile, the end days are at hand, with lots of meteors and earthquakes and unexplained disasters. Did the calendar change bring this on, or is it just a coincidence?

There's a lot about this piece that I don't really understand. Is it sincerely meant? It felt to me like a spoof -- not least because I hadn't heard the slightest rumor of some kind of 2012 calendar normalization plan before I played this piece -- but then when you get to the end of the story, you can click through to a whole informative website full of Bible quotes and lunar phase diagrams that explain the author's theories about which days to keep as Sabbath. I suppose the website could be a giant feelie for the spoof, but overall I came away thinking that perhaps the author sincerely believes this line of argument.

That raises a secondary question, which is: if you actually think the world is under threat because of an imminent blasphemous calendar revision, why use choose your own adventure to get the word out? Pedestrian leafletting is probably a better bet. Possibly the thinking was that the interactive story about being eternally damned would be more persuasive than a leaflet, but, well, it really didn't feel that way to me, because the horrible events that happen to the protagonist are so lightly sketched in, and the choices offered are so heavy-handed.

In any case, I have the same problem with this piece that I do with most propaganda of its ilk: I just don't believe in a deity who would judge people in such a way that the only way to avoid eternal torture is to solve some tricky calendrical riddles embedded in Leviticus -- and if I did believe in such an entity, I wouldn't have a high opinion of its goodness and loving kindness.

It's not clear to me that interactivity adds much of value to the author's argument. If anything, I think it increases the moral disconnect. (Spoiler - click to show)Not least because the only options for reacting to the death of my whole family in a car crash are to thank God for sparing me, or to feel lucky.

Bonehead, by Sean M. Shore
Emily Short's Rating:

You've Got a Stew Going!, by Ryan Veeder

22 of 22 people found the following review helpful:
Small but effective, July 12, 2011

The premise: you're a rat trying to gather ingredients for a stew, since your friend has put together the broth but is too lazy to assemble anything else.

In gameplay, this is essentially a treasure hunt for food items, but the tiny, ratly world is entertainingly realized, complete with suggestions of internal rodent politics and their attitudes towards the world of humans. The narration breaks the fourth wall quite a few times, sometimes to give the player direct advice about how to play, sometimes just for amusement's sake. It works, though.

Overall, "You've Got a Stew Going!" is short and easy -- I don't think it took me more than fifteen minutes to win the first time -- but what's there is solid and reasonably polished, with snappy retorts to a number of odd attempted actions. It's possible to win with 5/6 points, and played that way, it's a lightweight charmer suitable for kids.

Getting the last point of the game changes the complexion of the whole experience a bit. (Spoiler - click to show)To get full points, you have to first rescue your friend Fran's pet cockroach, and then "borrow" it back... and stew it. So much for warm fuzzy happy fetch quests! Fran is broken-hearted, but your stew is de-licious. It's kind of genius the way this makes the game a sappy, frilly kids' game unless or until it occurs to you to act horrible. And then it rewards that horribleness. Considering that the piece contains a reference to 9:05, I think that's probably the real point of the thing. But you don't have to go there if you don't want to.

A Fine Day for Reaping, by James Webb (aka revgiblet)

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful:
Death a la Pratchett, July 11, 2011

A Fine Day for Reaping presents the player as a semi-competent Death. The game's puzzles turn on the idea that Death doesn't really have particularly supernatural abilities: your challenge is to make sure that the people who are supposed to die do so on time. This is a somewhat embarrassing predicament for Death to be in, and the game makes the most of it; the required actions are occasionally a bit goofy and undignified. Most of the puzzles have multiple solutions, however, which keeps the game reasonably playable.

What stands out about the piece is the humor and the flashes of excellence in the writing. Sometimes reminiscent of Pratchett, the text works in a number of fine jokes, especially on the topic of what it's like to be a very tall thin skeletal man.

Parsing issues were the most common problem when I played (and these may have been addressed in post-competition releases). Nonetheless, the game as a whole is entertaining light comedy of a flavor that's not terribly common in IF. Worth a try.

Sunset Over Savannah, by Ivan Cockrum

12 of 13 people found the following review helpful:
Early Slice of Life, July 11, 2011

Though listed as fantasy, this game departs from most contemporary fantasy tropes and focuses on the magical in the real world. Sunset Over Savannah is the story of a man disenchanted with his current life and work, spending some time at the beach and rethinking his situation. It's an almost entirely inward journey: the protagonist's mood changes over the course of the story, and he begins to think about ways to improve his life.

What makes this story so enjoyable is the lush, detailed setting and the sense of wonder with which it approaches seemingly mundane details. Savannah's beach, as seen here, is a surprising and beautiful place with surprising set pieces (Spoiler - click to show)such as a sandcastle made and apparently fused into glass by tiny sea creatures.

Supporting all this is a lot of hard technical work. Sunset Over Savannah allows the player interactions that most games would rule out because of the technical complexities of coding: there are passages set underwater, interactions with liquid and sand, ropes and tie-able objects. All of these things generally work, and work in a way that isn't fiddly or annoying for the player to specify; the result is the feeling of a very tangible, viscerally accessible world, where it is possible to affect the environment in precise ways. Few other IF games -- or other games of any kind -- offer quite this experience.

There's a lot of prose to read in this game, and the puzzles are not all easy, so it does require some commitment from the player. What's there is well worth exploring, though, rewarding the time you have to give it.

Deadline, by Marc Blank

17 of 17 people found the following review helpful:
The Foundation of an IF Mystery Genre, July 11, 2011

Deadline is one of Infocom's most difficult games, and requires a number of playthroughs to win. Important events happen at specific times of day, and you have to know about them and be in the right place at the right time to take advantage. It's easy to miss evidence or misunderstand it. There's limited time to complete your investigation. And, of course, you can ruin everything by arresting the wrong person. It's really best to approach the game by recognizing that you need to thoroughly explore it in four dimensions -- getting to know what is going to happen at different times -- before expecting to reach a happy solution.

The things that make the game difficult are also the things that make it great. Instead of offering an underpopulated world full of set-piece puzzles, Deadline challenges the player to make sense of a coherent reality full of active people and sometimes misleading clues. Characters move around the house, pursuing their own agendas. People have a schedule and plans of their own. There are more conversation options than in most old classics.

The sense of a solid and coherent world carries over into the game's feelies. These are some of Infocom's best, with police reports and evidence establishing the backstory of the case, and unlike the feelies for the Enchanter series or Hollywood Hijinx, they're presented straight, not as joking riffs on the situation of the game.

Deadline is the first IF I ever played at length on my own. I didn't solve it until many years later, but I returned to it over and over again as a kid. What captured my imagination then, and still has a certain appeal, is the recurring sense of excitement from observing without being observed: listening in on phone extensions, looking for secret rooms, following people. There was always the sense that important and significant secrets were hidden under every surface.

While the depth of implementation and the complexity of character reactions aren't quite up there with modern mysteries such as Make It Good and Varicella, Deadline is a foundational work. It established a number of traditional features, such as the sidekick, Duffy, who can run lab tests on your evidence, and the use of ACCUSE to accost suspects, and laid the groundwork for the still-popular genre of IF mystery that focuses on evidence collection and NPC interrogation within a compact map.

Light Of My Stomach, by David Fletcher

3 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Buggy but amusing, July 10, 2011

This is speed-IF, and like many of its ilk, it's short and doesn't make much sense. The premise involves a robot who is your opponent in an eating contest, but the story goes in some unexpected directions from there, and the whole thing is pleasurably surreal.

Implementation is rocky enough that it may discourage some players. It's possible to run into game-stopping problems with this piece, as the implementation allows the player to re-enter previous game states by accident, and an important event depends on asking a character about the right topic. Puzzles are fairly easy, though one in particular may be under-hinted for people not familiar with the work of IF it's riffing on.

These issues aside, though, Light of My Stomach is peppy and entertaining, and contains a poem of such astounding awfulness that it must be seen to be believed. Those features lift it above the run of the mill in speed-IF, even if it's really not solid or coherent enough to compete with more serious games.

The Erudition Chamber, by Daniel Freas

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful:
Interesting concept, not a strong story, July 10, 2011

The premise of the Erudition Chamber is that the protagonist is being put through a series of tests in order to determine which of four sects -- Warrior, Alchemist, Artisan, Seer -- he belongs to.

To this end, each chamber contains a puzzle with multiple solutions; each of the possible solutions is associated with a given personality trait. There's also some add-on effect, in that certain equipment can be lost or used up if you follow certain solutions. It's an experiment with the idea that the player is essentially defining a character through the way he chooses to act in the world. We see that in RPGs all the time (e.g. in games where you can earn melee experience points every time you swing your sword), but less frequently in IF.

All this said, I'm not sure how well the game actually works as an assessment of personal problem-solving skills. Some of the puzzle solution styles are much more obvious than others, and I found that rather than play through the puzzles as a personality test, I quickly started to try to game the system. Getting the Warrior sect point by bashing through something was usually the easiest option, but also therefore the least satisfying, and it was more fun to try for some other approach. Completist players will likely want to find all four solutions to every puzzle.

The writing is not as interesting. The story, such as it is, is all about being tested. It feels pretty artificial, both in the idea of setting up this test in the first place and in the lore that goes with the various puzzle-solving styles. There's a lot to read about, say, what it means to be a Seer, but very little sense of characters or of the broader setting that would make this kind of world possible.

Personally, I found this piece more interesting as a kind of essay about interactivity and the ways a game might detect and adapt to player preferences than as entertainment. But that's still definitely worth checking out for people who are interested in those questions.

Balances, by Graham Nelson

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful:
Bite-sized entry in the Enchanter universe, July 10, 2011

Balances is a relatively short, old-fashioned puzzle game set in the world of the Enchanter series and riffing on Spellbreaker in particular: the player must find scrolls, learn their spells, and cast them in order to collect white cubes. It shares a number of design characteristics with those games: rooms represent fairly large open spaces, there are more animal NPCs than humans to interact with, and a loose, playful approach to world-building means that the various areas don't have a great deal to do with one another.

The puzzles are not all fair by modern standards, and it's easy to lock yourself out of winning by doing things in the wrong order. (Spoiler - click to show)In particular, avoid taking any lottery tickets from the barker until you're sure you've found out everything from him that you need to know. One or two discoveries also require the player to act in somewhat counter-intuitive ways. (Spoiler - click to show)The fourth cube can only be found if the player casts a spell he has reason to think will be dangerous.

Fairness was arguably not the game's paramount concern when it was written, however. Balances was released as a source example, showing how to do tasks that were technically virtuosic at the time, such as allowing the player to name objects and subsequently refer to them by name and usefully parsing numbers from a wide range. (Modern systems make most of these very much easier, but at the time these effects were not easy to accomplish.)

For players who have fond feelings towards the Enchanter series, however, Balances offers good value as a game. Several of the puzzles are quite clever, the effects of the various spells are entertainingly applied, and there's a very satisfying twist on the spellcasting mechanic from the original games. (Spoiler - click to show)The lleps spell reverses the effect of any existing spell, so your spell book is essentially twice as effective as it seems. Moreover, the unfairness is mitigated somewhat by the fact that the game is so small and there are only so many things the player can reasonably try to do.

Pale Blue Light, by Kazuki Mishima

12 of 12 people found the following review helpful:
More meditation than game, June 2, 2011

Pale Blue Light is a curious, meditative story composed of very disparate scenes: in one you're exploring a mysterious ruin, in the next interacting with poetry by choosing keywords to explore. The effect is at first a little bit disconcerting. Pieces of the story are present tense, other pieces past; first, second, and third-person voices appear in different places. Protagonists come and go. It isn't always clear what the immediate goal might be.

It's only towards the end of the work that the significance of the time shifting and narrative fragmentation becomes entirely clear: which character is "you", which is "I", and what the third-person segments are (and are about).

Certain themes do appear even early on, however: problems of speech and communication, the struggle to recognize the people you are close to, the threat of death, and especially the loss of a sibling. In this it resembles Kazuki Mishima's other works, which have a consistently allusive quality. They do not so much tell a traditionally plotted story as juxtapose a series of ideas for an evocative result: an effect more poetic than narrative.

Ultimately what emerges is a meditation about writing and readers: one character is the reader of another character's manuscript, and is concerned with both the original author's biography and the symbolism of his fictional writings. The player is also invited into this relationship of reading and response. The use of keywords and free-form input alongside more traditional IF commands encourages the player to think about symbolism and personal reactions to the story fragments, not just to try to solve each scene. It's a technique we have seen in Blue Lacuna and in a handful of other places, but it is used to good effect here. I found the ending especially strong.

Recommended, especially for players interested in non-standard forms of interactive storytelling or interactive poetry.

You Find Yourself in a Room., by Eli Piilonen

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful:
A small concept, effectively executed, June 2, 2011

You Find Yourself in a Room explores the concept of text adventure as a mode of abuse. The parser is sinister and overtly hateful. It tells you that it doesn't always understand you because it "likes making you guess." It places you in testing rooms and then mocks you for having trouble, in a way that's vaguely reminiscent of Portal's GLaDOS. The puzzles themselves start very simple and grow progressively more laborious, though they mostly stick to very standard tropes of escape-the-room games, with a lot of hunting for keys or codes.

This may not sound like an especially enjoyable concept, but it does actually work pretty well, for a couple of reasons. First, the scope of action is so tightly confined that it's impossible to get distracted by red herrings. Second, there's no time-wasting. The parser's jeering provides some hints and guidance, and also makes your fumbling part of the story. I at least found that I always figured out how to move on to the next room just before losing faith in the game's fairness.

It's short (I think it took me all of five minutes), and I'm not sure I would call it either fun or deep, but it does an excellent job of what it sets out to do.

Smoochiepoodle and the Bastion of Science, by Carolyn VanEseltine

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Violet meets Fail-Safe, April 26, 2011

This game adopts a rare narrative approach: all of the action takes the form of dialogue between the protagonist and his/her significant other. The SO is exploring the protagonist's apartment; we guide the SO's behavior, giving instructions in the protagonist's voice that are then rephrased as direct dialogue.

The result is intentionally cloying and over-the-top: this couple is heavily into endearments (or, just as bad, criticism disguised by lots of treacle). In a longer game this would be a problem, but this one is short enough that the joke doesn't wear out its welcome.

The two puzzles here aren't especially challenging except that it's possible to get into some difficulties over command phrasing -- a bit more testing and polish would have addressed this, but of course it's Speed-IF, so that type of flaw is to be expected. The ending is truly groan-worthy. But as a narrative experiment, this one may merit revisiting.

Love, Hate and the Mysterious Ocean Tower, by C.E.J. Pacian

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful:
Curiously evocative, April 26, 2011

Like much Speed-IF, this one is a little under-implemented if you try to interact with scenery too much. Working in its favor, though, is a very clear and straight-ahead plot, so that it's easy to stay on track and avoid getting stuck. There are several possible endings, but in retrospect at the end of the game it's pretty easy to tell what might have changed the outcome.

The story is a snack-sized piece about threatened love in the context of a supremely bizarre universe with zeppelins, archaeologists, savage deities and squid-men. The few locations we get to visit are vividly drawn and suggest an entire larger culture. (Possibly even the same culture as in "Walker and Silhouette"? Both feature an identifiable England continuous with lands of unidentifiable strangeness and fantasy.)

Definitely worth a try, especially for those who already know they enjoy Pacian's style.

The Game Formerly Known as Hidden Nazi Mode, by Victor Gijsbers

19 of 21 people found the following review helpful:
A cute little game and an interesting argument, just not in the same place, September 15, 2010

The game here is a cutesy piece about finding rabbits and feeding them carrots. It takes maybe five minutes to play. Probably the most interesting thing about it is the way it has tutorial commentary folded in with the gameplay, an approach that might work for other larger and more serious games (especially if the tutorial comments could be turned off).

As the title suggests, there was originally going to be a hidden mode in the game that would spew nastiness of some sort. Instead the game now comes with an essay about why open source is important for games that are going to be assigned for classroom use, so that teachers can be sure they're not giving their students something that might be triggered into showing inappropriate content.

I can see the concern, but am not completely convinced that this is practical. Unless the teacher is not only going to read and understand the source but recompile the game himself, he can't be absolutely certain that the compiled version he's given was actually generated by the same source code.

(For that matter, I find myself wondering whether this is an elaborate double-bluff on Victor's part and there *is* a further hidden mode to the game, and the included source code is truncated from what he actually compiled. If so, I didn't find it.)

So some amount of trust is probably required somewhere along the line, either in the author himself or in the community that has provided feedback about the game file.

Cold As Death, by Gorm

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful:
Strange, not completely successful experiment in realtime IF, July 31, 2010

This is an oddity -- not made with any of the standard systems, and entered in an experimental gameplay competition that asks how much a player can do in 10 seconds. The author of Cold As Death doubled that limit, but the player is required to do a warming-up action (running, jumping in place) every 20 seconds, or else freeze to death and lose the game.

That mechanic might just conceivably have worked out under the right circumstances -- perhaps with very stripped prose and easy-to-grok puzzles. Cold As Death makes some of the necessary concessions, for instance by sticking to a very small list of actions, so that there are only so many things you could possibly try to do at a given time.

Unfortunately, the environment is fairly surreal and sensible actions are badly hinted. To make matters worse, the anxiety about keeping warm keeps the player from having time to read the text in a leisurely way. The parser is extremely finicky, too: you must type every object name in full, including the adjective and noun in the order given, or the object will not be recognized. I did eventually win, after several tries, and it was gratifying in an odd way, but I can't claim it was a great IF experience.

Still, it's interesting that someone tried something like this.

Hoist Sail for the Heliopause and Home, by Andrew Plotkin
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One Week, by Papillon
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Bolivia By Night, by Aidan Doyle
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Fragile Shells, by Stephen Granade
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Hoosegow, by Ben Collins-Sussman, Jack Welch
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Dual Transform, by Andrew Plotkin
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Ka, by Dan Efran

14 of 15 people found the following review helpful:
Egyptian-style puzzling, February 20, 2010

I had a lot of fun with this, and got stuck enough to check the walkthrough only once. It's a nearly pure-puzzle work, in which you play a soul moving towards the afterlife after a ceremonial Egyptian burial. The setting combines plausible historical detail with some surreal mechanisms and imagery; the writing at times feels a bit zarfian. The first few moves and environments are not actually the game's strongest and may feel somewhat underdeveloped, but the setting becomes more interesting later on.

The puzzles are neat set pieces, self-contained and linear; they are mostly not terribly hard. Early puzzles may seem almost *too* easy, but they teach needed techniques to solve the later ones, and should possibly be regarded as something of a tutorial.

There were one or two solutions that I thought could have been better clued or could have accommodated a larger range of vocabulary. Most are really rather elegantly imagined, however, and most suggest some kind of metaphorical or spiritual progression of the soul as well as the manipulation of physical objects.

I also noticed that there were some scenery objects that were unimplemented. However, when I played, Ka was undergoing some upgrades and polishing to make up for some remaining awkward bits, which may resolve my other objections.

Overall, Ka is an enjoyable lunchtime-sized puzzle fest with a coherent concept and some memorable details and imagery.

Walker & Silhouette, by C.E.J. Pacian
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Spelunker's Quest, by Tom Murrin
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Snowquest, by Eric Eve
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Rover's Day Out, by Jack Welch and Ben Collins-Sussman
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Resonance, by Matt Scarpino
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Interface, by Ben Vegiard
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Grounded in Space, by Matt Wigdahl
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Eruption, by Richard Bos
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Earl Grey, by Rob Dubbin and Allison Parrish
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The Duel That Spanned the Ages, by Oliver Ullmann
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The Duel in the Snow, by Utkonos
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Byzantine Perspective, by Lea Albaugh
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Broken Legs, by Sarah Morayati
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The Believable Adventures of an Invisible Man, by Hannes Schueller
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The Shadow in the Cathedral, by Ian Finley and Jon Ingold

18 of 19 people found the following review helpful:
Well-paced adventure with visionary moments, November 15, 2009

The Shadow in the Cathedral doesn't feel surprising or blatantly experimental. It's mostly using well-known techniques effectively, rather than charting new territory. Nonetheless, it succeeds where lots and lots of IF has failed: it's a big plotty work with lots of events and lots of action, full of energy and adventure. There are twists you guess might be coming, and other twists you don't. There are chase scenes that don't suck.

It goes out of its way to be fair, but without becoming dull. There are many potentially frightening moments in the game, but as far as I can tell no ways to get to a no-win situation. And despite the intended audience of middle-schoolers, I also didn't feel that the game condescended to me. It was, perhaps, a little less violent than the same plot might be if pitched for adults, and sexuality doesn't come into the story much at all, but the language, the puzzles, and the characters are all sufficiently sophisticated to hold an adult's attention.

Shadow takes place in a steampunk world, but one more individual and deeply thought-out than the average steampunk. This affects everything from the protagonist's attitudes towards mess (clockwork precision is the ideal) to the setting details (the glow of gaslight, the huge clock faces) to the puzzles. These are of easy to moderate difficulty, and most of them involve machinery in some way -- and often not "figure out which button to push" machinery puzzles, but "crack open the front panel and tweak the machine itself" puzzles, or "apply basic principles about levers and counterweights." They're mostly things I haven't seen before, they're a great fit for the setting, and I really liked them.

One small gripe: there are more non-reciprocal pathways than I'd like, where you go north one way but you have to go east to return. I had to make a map. That's rare, for me. But it's totally worth it.

The design is smooth. The story is fairly linear and there isn't a lot of scope to change the outcome of anything, but I played for seven or eight hours and was rarely at a loss for long. With a small handful of exceptions, interaction is well-clued without being too horribly blatant. It's one of the best-paced long IF works I've played.

The ending is a cliff-hanger, looking forward to sequels. In spite of this, there's enough of a shape to the story that I was content for the time being (mostly; I would have liked a little more wrapping up).

Bottom line: this is extremely accessible and very satisfying. I ran into a couple of cosmetic bugs (now reported and, I believe, already ironed out by Textfyre), but overall it feels solid. There are fun things to play with, surprising and memorable images, and neat turns of phrase. I keep going back over the good bits in my head. I'd especially recommend it to people who enjoyed the plottiness and period-specific puzzles of The King of Shreds and Patches.

Obligatory disclosure: I played a free review copy of this work; and, because I run MacOS X, it was necessarily the Glulx version. I haven't worked with the Standard UI for Windows. I can say that the Glulx game file played smoothly, without the delays that some people reported in Jack Toresal and The Secret Letter. It did take a long time to come back after saving the file, but that was the only significant slowdown I noticed.

Love Is as Powerful as Death, Jealousy Is as Cruel as the Grave, by Conrad Cook (as Michael Whittington)

13 of 14 people found the following review helpful:
Disconcerting stuff, November 4, 2009

Set in Cambodia from a westerner's eyes, this ghost story is creepy long before anything supernatural turns up: the environment feels hostile a lot of the time, and your fellow westerners haven't always come to Cambodia for very admirable reasons. There are some hints of why the protagonist was drawn here, and suggestions of what may be gained by reaching across the cultural divide to understand one's fellow humans; but that kind of connection is shown as pretty hard to achieve in practice, and the predominant sensation is of powerful alienation from one's surroundings and the other people.

To some extent that comes out as an function of the protagonist's personality: he seems to be easily bullied by the other characters, not always to know very well what he wants, and to have trouble meeting the girls who interest him on their own terms.

The first several scenes are all conversations with other characters, setting up the story's main problem. It often feels as though the author is more interested in exposition than he is in the plot: for instance, you can spend a dozen or so turns having the protagonist monologue to another character about Cambodian history and economic problems. I was very interested in the environmental details, which are clearly observed at first hand. And, exposition aside, the plot machinery generally does move forward when you've completed the necessary tasks (usually asking questions, though there is one task in the mid-game that approximates a simple puzzle).

By the time the ghostly events turn up, one is really kind of rooting for the ghost, which is an interesting experience.

So in favor of this game are a protagonist struggling past the features of his own personality; a novel setting; and good integration of the horror elements with the real world.

That said: this game needs a LOT more polish. Conversation sometimes suggests options that don't actually work, or loops around on itself implausibly. It's easy to get into a state where you're struggling with the parser in attempts to say something and simultaneously being berated by your interlocutor for your silence. There's also a point where the game seems to offer you a choice ((Spoiler - click to show)which of two girls to date) but your selection doesn't actually determine any outcomes. Many objects are mentioned but unimplemented, which is a pity because the experience of exploring would be especially compelling in this novel environment. Eventually it peters out so that many of the room descriptions themselves are very curt, not even mentioning specific items, and there are assorted typos and missing punctuation marks. Overall it just feels like a game that isn't at all done yet.

This problem becomes more evident as the game goes on, until I found myself in a scene I couldn't figure out how to end, which was largely unresponsive to anything I tried to do. So I never saw the actual ending.

I really wanted to like this game because the setting promised so much. The game does live up to part of its promise, but is let down by its implementation. I hope the author will consider reworking this piece substantially: to flesh out the end-game and hint certain scenes better, to make the setting more explorable, and to tighten up some of the pacing in the early game. If extended this way, I think it would still be an uncomfortable piece to play, but uncomfortable in the ways the author intended.

Infidel, by Michael Berlyn

12 of 13 people found the following review helpful:
Very early Infocom, September 1, 2009

Despite the presence of some modern(ish) equipment, Infidel is set in the world of fantasy archaeology, like Indiana Jones or Tomb Raider, in which ancient monuments are storehouses of fantastic treasure waiting to be picked up, and the archaeologist's task is simply to dodge all the antique mechanical traps that lie in the way.

Infidel can be rough going for a player used to gameplay refinements introduced even a few years later. It doesn't understand many common abbreviations -- most painfully, it misses X for examine. The opening phase of the game features both hunger and thirst timers. Guess-the-verb problems make at least two of the puzzles significantly harder. (Spoiler - click to show)(If you're having trouble breaking the lock on the chest in the prologue, or throwing the rope down the north staircase in the pyramid, you're probably on the right track but using the wrong wording.) The knapsack you need to carry around your possessions is especially irritating, since you'll have to wear it and take it off again dozens of times over the course of play. There is also some justice in Andrew Plotkin's spoof Inhumane: Infidel will kill you a lot, and not all of the deaths are well-signaled in advance. You'll need to keep a lot of save files, and examine everything carefully before you interact with it.

To balance this, though, there's quite a lot right with the game as well, especially once you're past the prologue. The meat of most of the puzzles involves deciphering the meaning of hieroglyphics, which instruct the player in how to get past traps. There's a lexicon in the feelies for a few of these symbols, but the rest you'll have to work out as you go along, by comparing the labels on objects or making guesses based on their pictorial quality. (The hieroglyphics are in ASCII; make sure you've set your interpreter to a fixed-spacing font in order to read them properly, because Infidel unlike many later games is not able to set the font automatically.) These puzzles give the game a feeling of thematic coherence lacking from the Zork trilogy; while the effect is not exactly realistic, Infidel at least seems to take place in a self-consistent universe.

Space was at a premium in these very early games, and that shows in Infidel in both good ways and bad. Descriptions are often terse and not every possible object is described. On the other hand, what descriptions exist are sometimes rather evocative, and the constraints make for a fairly compact game with multiple uses for some of the objects.

Infidel is famous for not following gamers' expectations for a game narrative, and opened up some new possibilities in interactive storytelling. (Spoiler - click to show)The game ends in the protagonist's death, a punishment for having been selfish and cruel to his colleagues and workers, and having driven away everyone who could potentially have saved him. This follows naturally from the premise: the feelies and the prologue of the game clearly establish what kind of person the protagonist is. In my opinion the ending works a little less well with the puzzle-solving midgame of Infidel, however; in particular, the player experiences so many meaningless deaths before the game's end as to make it hard to regard the final "winning" death as narratively significant. Later work has gone much, much further in this direction, but it's worth looking back at early efforts.

Note: it is impossible to get past the game's prologue without information from the feelies. (Spoiler - click to show)(Specifically, the dig coordinates for the pyramid.)

Cacophony, by Owen Parish

9 of 10 people found the following review helpful:
Tripppppy., August 13, 2009

The opening sections of this game I found extremely evocative. The player is in a dreamlike environment full of unnerving scenery that can't be real. That's been done plenty of times already, but Parish's surreal vision is more menacing than most -- not for the bloodstained room in which the game starts, but for the way even seemingly harmless and everyday objects take on personality and voice.

Unfortunately, there's not a lot of direction about what you're supposed to be doing in this nightmarescape, and after a little wandering around and feeling creeped out, I had to admit to myself that I was just stuck. So I went to the walkthroughs for a clue, and the things they suggested were so surprising and (as far as I could tell) arbitrary that instead of trying to play further I just followed the walkthroughs word for word.

There does appear to be a kind of logic behind some of the surreal features, and I gather that some players have finished the game (by giving it a lot of playtime and working as a group to figure out its stranger bits). So perhaps I was wrong to give up so quickly on solving it on my own. The problem is that the game doesn't do a lot to foster the player's trust in its own fairness. On the contrary, important entities appear and disappear apparently capriciously; descriptions don't always lead the eye to the most important items in the room; rigorous searching and examination is required throughout.

I still don't think I understand the story, though I've been through all the recommended steps. I have the vague outline of an idea of what it might be all about, but it's pretty messy. (Spoiler - click to show)Like, I might be a human, but all of humanity's been caused/invented by some huge alien experiment gone wrong. Or some other lifeform entirely, and the people experimenting are human. Or I might be an awakened AI and the machine of which the researchers speak is some kind of computer model or internet. I'm pretty sure it's one of those, unless it isn't.

At the end I came away with the feeling that Parish's starting premise was to make a lot of creepy stuff happen and then come up with an explanation for it later. That's the same starting premise I think they had for Lost and The X-Files, so he's in good company. (Or, well, he's in some company.) But I'm bewildered enough that I don't even have the conviction to say the game doesn't make sense. Maybe it does, and I just didn't get it, or I played it wrong.

I do think that the game would've been a lot stronger with a clear goal for the player at the outset and stronger hints about where to direct one's attention and efforts. That doesn't have to mean spoon-feeding, exactly; just more to keep the player from being wholly lost.

The King of Shreds and Patches, by Jimmy Maher

28 of 29 people found the following review helpful:
Not flawless, but ambitious and substantial, July 20, 2009

King of Shreds and Patches appears in a genre, Lovecraftian horror, that already contains some of the best IF out there -- perhaps because IF is such a good medium for telling a story of exploration, hidden rooms, and dark secrets. What sets this particular game apart is its setting, Elizabethan London in 1603, which is vividly researched.

As a game, King has some real strengths and some annoying weaknesses. Positives include the THINK command, which allows the player to review what quests he might work on next -- a valuable feature in a game with such a large map and so many characters to interrogate; the game map, which provides an overview of what London looks like, and expands with new locations whenever the player receives a commission to go to a new place, which conveys well the experience of moving around a city the protagonist already knows; and a number of puzzle solutions that build on previous solutions, giving the impression that the protagonist is gaining certain skills and habits as the story goes on.

Several of the puzzles, however, turn on precise, fiddly manipulation of what I assume are realistically implemented Elizabethan objects. On the one hand, this makes the player engage more completely with the period, which is not a bad thing; on the other, the experience could be frustrating, especially when the proper use was under-clued or a timed scene was in progress. (Spoiler - click to show)In one case, the object I was struggling to learn to use was the printing press the protagonist used for his livelihood -- surely something he would be able to manipulate with confidence.

Another issue is that the game relies heavily on knowledge flags to determine what the player is allowed to do, and sometimes these triggers are more finicky than I would like. On several occasions I found myself looking for a building I knew should be present in a location, but because the game didn't think I'd "learned" about its presence yet, the parser stubbornly disclaimed all knowledge.

As story, King of Shreds and Patches is again somewhat mixed.

There are some very memorable scenes, and (as often in horror IF) the first hints of the truth are genuinely creepy. It also uses very effectively the idea that the player constantly risks madness by too great a contact with the cult he's investigating. IF provides a great context for that, too -- every time the game hinted that I was on the verge of knowing Too Much, I'd go ahead and do the fatal action, and then UNDO: both succumbing to my own temptation and allowing the protagonist to remain innocent.

I was less satisfied with the ending, where unspeakable horrors become speakable and in the process turn out more banal than their earlier manifestations.

This said, King offers a rare depth of experience, with a long and eventful plot, detailed historical setting, and a large cast of characters. Conversation sometimes becomes a bit longwinded (characters have a lot of backstory to disclose, and you really need to ask about every topic that is listed as an option), but the extensive character interaction provides a feeling all too rare in IF, that of being in a heavily-populated area. Like Anchorhead, King also implements days and nights, giving the player a better sense of passing time than most IF offers. King of Shreds and Patches is a substantial work and well worth playing.

Shelter from the Storm, by Eric Eve
Emily Short's Rating:

Sam Fortune - Private Investigator, by Steve Blanding

10 of 12 people found the following review helpful:
Mildly entertaining, with some rough edges and an interesting narrative frame, May 18, 2009

This is the second noir IF game to come along in the last couple of months, but "Sam Fortune" is deeply unlike Make It Good. Some of the same conventions show up -- the obligatory bottle of whiskey, the double-crosses, the general shabbiness of the protagonist's environment, the women virtuous and conspiring -- but instead of deep and sometimes frustrating freedom of Make It Good, we have a highly directed, scene-based game that spoofs radio drama.

Each scene offers just a puzzle or two of sneaking around, and though the game bills itself as "nasty", this is not really a reflection of how hard those puzzles are. It's possible to lock yourself out of victory by not taking everything that you should take at a certain point, which is awkward and could (I think) easily have been designed around; but most of the solutions are not too difficult. The game provides built-in hints, as well.

There are some cosmetic flaws -- for some reason, Blanding doesn't always make things "scenery" when they ought to be. Or perhaps he just prefers the effect of having all the important objects listed on their own line even when they're also mentioned in the room description. In other respects the game often privileges function over immersion in the prose: there are exit listings in the status bar, the game periodically prompts you when it's a good idea to save, and conversation is handled with a standard menu system. Object descriptions are minimal unless the object is important to play.

Probably the most unusual aspect of the game is the way it's framed as a radio drama, complete with explicit commercial breaks and a sponsored product that shows up during play in Coke Is It! fashion. If you do something that loses the game, the story cuts away to a listening kid, whose mother comes in and abruptly turns off the radio. The narrative voice also swaps between first and second person, which may be a little disconcerting; but I took it to mean that the first person portions were voice-over narration from Sam's point of view.

The writing tries for hard-boiled wit and sometimes succeeds, but equally often comes off as corny -- a fact that is weakly lamp-shaded in one of the endings when the mother complains of the decreasing quality of radio drama these days.

So overall, it's hard to take very seriously -- but it isn't trying to be taken seriously.

Dead Like Ants, by C.E.J. Pacian
Emily Short's Rating:

Make It Good, by Jon Ingold

24 of 25 people found the following review helpful:
A slightly scuffed masterpiece, April 21, 2009

"Make It Good" is oddly-flavored detective noir. Though nominally set in the US in an unspecified year (but one in which a television is a luxury), it uses British spellings and cultural conventions throughout. The protagonist is a down-on-his-luck cop one drink away from being kicked off the force, who made a fool of himself with the Michaelmas liquor. One of the keen-eyed, not-to-be-trusted suspects is... a vicar. This sort of thing makes the game feel, from the beginning, as though it is somehow askew from the normal genres and normal reality.

That feeling only deepens as play goes on. What starts out seeming like a fairly straightforward mystery of looking for evidence and interrogating suspects quickly turns into something more: it's easy to begin to assemble a case, but a lot harder to know what you want to do with that information. The protagonist needs to make a careful plan and stick to it in order to bring the investigation to a satisfactory conclusion -- and that includes manipulating just what all the NPCs know, and when they learn it, and how they feel about him and about one another.

Ambitious coding underlies this design. There are five NPCs. Two of them walk around and perform somewhat complex tasks; all five talk, observe, and remember. This is not the sort of game where you can blithely carry evidence past someone and have him not notice. They will even, on occasion, talk to one another in your absence-- a dangerous matter. There are still some bugs in the implementation I played, but the astonishing thing is not their presence but how well most of this enormous machine does work.

The need to plan around these NPCs makes for an intensely difficult game. Like "Varicella" or "Moebius", "Make It Good" needs to be played over and over to be solved; and there are times in this process where the design is not quite as helpful as it needs to be, and it is hard to figure out just exactly what should change in order to make the next iteration more successful. It can, especially in the late-middle section, become a very frustrating play -- though releases after the first have become more generous with clues and somewhat fairer in scoring what the player has done.

Nor is the result of all the careful NPC code anything like a naturalistic portrayal of character. It would be more accurate to say that it is in support of allowing the characters to behave according to certain genre conventions, in which everyone has a secret and the best people are often the weakest and the most easily destroyed.

The PC, too, is an odd duck. "Make It Good" definitely uses what Paul O'Brian dubbed the accretive PC (in reference to "Varicella" and "Lock & Key"): the player starts out not knowing much about the protagonist or his motives, but after many playthroughs is playing a very specific role to specific ends. And yet even then, there is a touch of distance and strangeness; corners of the protagonist's mind that are never quite illuminated, trains of thought that are intentionally ambiguous.

In the end it all does come clear, in a breathless, vivid epilogue, and the player is left victorious, exhausted, and alienated all at once. But then a mystery of this genre never leaves everyone comfortable.

So: a little imperfect, but nonetheless brilliantly conceived and ambitiously executed.

The Tale of the Kissing Bandit, by J. Robinson Wheeler
Emily Short's Rating:

Blue Lacuna, by Aaron A. Reed
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The Endling Archive, by Kazuki Mishima
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White House Escape, by iAdventureGame

8 of 10 people found the following review helpful:
Minimal story and puzzles; interesting UI, February 15, 2009

"White House Escape" takes a totally implausible premise (that during an emergency lockdown at the White House, you'd be free to wander around until you found the red telephone to call out) and combines it with basic lock and key puzzles and a vast, mostly empty map. Prose is serviceable at best, with many passages that sound like guidebook parody. Many rooms do not allow interaction with any of their contents, even when it might seem that the scenery would be useful in some way. The stripped-down aesthetic is reminiscent of an amateur work from the 80s -- not a Scott Adams product, but something produced by one of his admirers.

That's not to say that the game is unambitious or careless; it's just that the designer's effort went into other things. The interface has been heavily customized for the iPhone. Room descriptions appear in text, but are kept to a couple of sentences to make for easy on-screen reading. Scrolling verb/noun menus replace a keyboard for input. The inventory is supplemented with images of the objects carried, and there are overhead map views of the White House to aid in navigation. It would look better with a little more attention to graphical design, as the maps are a bit on the garish side, but on the whole it is an interface deliberately tuned for its device.

Clearly some of the emptiness of the map is also dictated by the designer's wish to represent the White House as it really is: the layout appears to be extremely accurate. Nonetheless, the descriptions are too sparse to allow the piece serve as an engaging diorama or educational virtual tour of the building.

It's a pity that the effort and enthusiasm are not in service of a somewhat more compelling, playable game.

Folkar Station, by Doug Jones
Emily Short's Rating:

Jack in the box, by Marius Müller
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Trainstopping, by Ben Collins-Sussman
Emily Short's Rating:

Tin, by Jim Aikin

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Long on attitude, January 6, 2009

The bad news first: this is an unfinished introcomp game, so you won't get too far in the story before it all ends.

The good news is, the game offers a warped, satirical take on Oz as seen from the perspective of the disillusioned Tin Man -- even though it's incomplete, there's enough attitude here to let you fill in for yourself what the rest would probably be like.

Brief but memorable.

Deadsville, by William McDuff
Emily Short's Rating:

Southern Gothic, by Mordechai Shinefield
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Last Ride of the Night, by Mordechai Shinefield
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Neon Nirvana, by Tony Woods
Emily Short's Rating:

Winchester's Nightmare, by Nick Montfort
Emily Short's Rating:

The Knapsack Problem, by Leonard Richardson

8 of 9 people found the following review helpful:
Tiny logic-puzzle game, January 6, 2009

This very tiny game is an optimization puzzle about what you can fit into your knapsack, given weights and values for the objects in front of you. It's reasonably entertaining (if you like that kind of puzzle to start with) but not very ambitious -- there's nothing there besides the one challenge.

The interface has been simplified to accommodate the parameters of choose your own adventure-style interaction, so you only have to type the numbers of treasures in order to add them to your holdings or drop them again.

The Waterhouse Women, by Jacqueline A. Lott
Emily Short's Rating:

Nothing More, Nothing Less, by Gilles Duchesne
Emily Short's Rating:

Hey, Jingo!, by Caleb Wilson

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Highly atmospheric; incomplete, January 6, 2009

One of my favorite introcomp entries of all time, Hey, Jingo! has an oppressively present jungle setting and sinister hints of some horrific mystery going on.

That said, it is an introcomp game, and no finished version was ever posted -- so what's there is brief and short on gameplay, and the cliffhanger is necessarily disappointing. Not really a game in its current state, just a stub of something that might've been pretty nifty.

The Art of Deception, by she's long gone
Emily Short's Rating:

Phoenix's Landing: Destiny, by Carolyn VanEseltine
Emily Short's Rating:

Negotis: Book 1, by Robert DeFord
Emily Short's Rating:

Snack Time!, by Hardy the Bulldog and Renee Choba
Emily Short's Rating:

Piracy 2.0, by Sean Huxter

12 of 13 people found the following review helpful:
Old-fashioned concept, but cool puzzle structure, November 19, 2008

Piracy 2.0 takes a not-especially-novel premise about a ship attacked in space (see also Orevore Courier, Across the Stars, et al.) and makes something better-than-average out of the results. As the captain of the Ceres, you have to escape the brig and find a way to regain control of, or at least neutralize, your ship before the pirates have a chance to use it as a pirate vessel.

What makes the game a standout is how many and interesting are your options once you've escaped confinement. The ship has a lot of different features -- weapons, navigation, abilities to shut off parts of the ship from one another, etc. -- and there are a number of different ways to use all those features to produce different outcomes. So the main part of the game feels not so much as though you're working through a stack of set puzzles, but as though you're really coming to grips with a complex system and then inventing ways to use it against the pirates. This is hugely satisfying. To make this work, the Ceres has been designed in a lot of detail (feelies for the game include a very classy-looking diagram of the ship, which is useful).

Detractors have noted some lack of polish in certain areas (actually, the game gets sturdier after you leave the first couple of rooms, contrary to the general trend of IF games), and there appear to be a couple of puzzle solutions that produce buggy results. (Spoiler - click to show)In particular, trying to escape in the lifeboats may kill you even though by rights you ought to be getting away, or so it seems -- and you can still be killed by the pirates in person if you rig the sleeping gas then escape by lifeboat, even though you should have left them far behind. With luck, these aspects will be improved in a future release of the game.

Even with more polish, Piracy will always be a bit derivative as a story. The world-building relies a lot on tropes from popular SF, and at that it's more Star Trek than Firefly. Your crewmates get some passing attention, enough to make them seem less like ciphers, but you won't be interacting too much with most of them.

But then, story isn't the main point of this game. It's meant to be fun and challenging, and it is. I found myself constantly on the edge of getting stuck... and constantly having that "well, let me just try THIS ONE THING" thought before I completely gave up. Despite some gameplay remnants of a much earlier age (an instant death room, randomized combat sequences), overall Piracy 2.0's design works very well. I would love to play more games that had a similarly rich, open-ended challenge -- one that didn't really feel like a "puzzle" (with all the artificial implications) at all.

Nightfall, by Eric Eve

14 of 16 people found the following review helpful:
Beware the Enemy, November 18, 2008

It should not surprise anyone that a game by Eric Eve is meticulously tested and player-friendly -- or that it allows a wide range of options in a spacious environment -- or that it features Biblical references and an elusive, unsettling female character.

I think Nightfall works better than Elysium Enigma, though: the atmosphere is more consistent, the puzzle elements more plausibly suited to their setting, the story is ultimately more thematically coherent and focused more deeply on personalities. The essential premise is hauntingly tied to things actually happening in the world, and the abandoned spaces feel plausibly chilling. Moreover, Eve takes full advantage of his medium. Implied time limits rush you along, built-in pathfinding allows you to navigate a city that the player character knows much better than the player, and a host of small design choices guide the story without making it feel too linear.

Nightfall is a competition game, but deserves more than two hours. The basic mystery of the game can be resolved in a single playing, but to understand the characters properly, and to get a happier ending, will probably take a second try, with more exploration. In a way, it is like the inverse of Varicella: where the player of Varicella must play many times in order to achieve the perfect Machiavellian plot, the player of Nightfall starts off in the middle of a situation planned by others, and may need to replay in order to escape it.

The game is not perfect. I was not always completely convinced by the motivations of the characters, who have to do some fairly extraordinary things. Nonetheless, it's a creepy and memorable work displaying superb IF craftsmanship.

Everybody Dies, by Jim Munroe
Emily Short's Rating:

Violet, by Jeremy Freese
Emily Short's Rating:

Spellbreaker, by Dave Lebling
Emily Short's Rating:

The Phoenix Move, by Daniele Giardini

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
Needs proofreading, August 26, 2008

I wanted to like this curious little game: the opening situation is surreal but described with a certain amount of appeal, and one-move (or fake-one-move) games are an interesting subgenre with more room for exploration.

Unfortunately, the prose in Phoenix Move is full of errors and infelicities -- some of them as simple as it's/its errors, some of them more complicated abuses of English idiom. It wasn't always clear where the author was trying for a deliberately poetic or peculiar description and where the language had just gotten out of hand. Soon I found the effect off-putting enough that I stopped playing.

There were also some rough spots where quite obvious actions (most surprisingly, GET EGG) were unaccounted-for.

So this might be something fairly evocative, but it might be a good idea for the author to collaborate with a native English speaker to check through the text.

Child's Play, by Stephen Granade
Emily Short's Rating:

Werewolves and Wanderer, by Kristopher Neidecker (Based off of BASIC source by Tim Hartnell)

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful:
Hugely old-school, July 8, 2008

Considering the source, one should expect this to be very old-fashioned -- and it is. Descriptions are minimal. The setting is stark and lacks atmosphere. There is no particular explanation for how things got to where they are. Combat is randomized, and is affected by the weapons the player happens to be carrying when he attacks a monster, but otherwise uncontrollable once it starts. There's also not much one could describe as a puzzle here. One wanders from room to room, picking up treasures and killing monsters, until one reaches the far side of the castle and has one's final score totted up.

Looked at another way, the whole game could be an optimization puzzle, to find the best route through the game to collect all the treasures and kill all the monsters while spending as little as possible on supplies and rations. (Hunger is implemented in this game, but in an unusual way: instead of counting down per turn, the player loses strength each time he travels from room to room, and can regain it only by eating rations, which cost $2 each.)

Personally, I didn't find it enough fun to want to play over and over in search of a best path, but some people might.

If this were a modern game, I'd give this two stars; considering the source, I'm leaving it unrated.

La route des vins, by Eric Forgeot

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful:
Tiny but charming and accessible, July 6, 2008

A silly and rather far-fetched scenario about how you get rolling again when your car breaks down in Portugal. I give it three stars only because it is quite a small game, with only a couple of puzzles: this one is good-natured and charming, with some sly humor. It is roughly the size of a speed-IF, but more coherent and better polished.

The game is also written accessibly enough that non-native speakers of French will probably not find themselves too baffled by slang or idioms. For those who can follow along but get stuck figuring out what to type, standard IF commands in French can be found in PDF form here: http://ifiction.free.fr/fichiers/Introduction-IF-fr.pdf [look for the page with the puppet on it]. Many standard English abbreviations also do continue to work in the game alongside their French equivalents. Since the game also includes contextual hints and a complete solution on demand, it is unlikely to leave the non-native speaker stranded.

Vespers, by Jason Devlin
Emily Short's Rating:

The Abbey, by Steve Blanding

9 of 10 people found the following review helpful:
Bewildering and possibly buggy, July 2, 2008

I had high hopes for this, since I enjoyed both the book and the board game from which it takes its inspiration. In practice, though, I find it completely bewildering. During the first part of the game, there's not much to do other than sleep and attend holy services; there's some interesting coding at work here so that whenever bells ring for Matins, Lauds, etc., the player will automatically zombie-walk to the church to attend, but that makes the game somewhat uninteractive at the beginning.

After a couple of services, one of the monks turns out to be missing, and I'm directed to look for him. I assume (given the premise) that he's supposed to turn out to be dead -- but I can't seem to find a corpse, nor do any of the other monks seem especially concerned about looking. So the game continues for quite some time with my aimless exploration of the abbey, interrupted by service after service. (Time passes quickly here, with the result that one is called back to the church extremely frequently. While this mechanic makes some sense in the original board game, it's frustrating in IF form.) At this point I've used up nearly a whole day without having found any clues or having any better idea what I'm supposed to be doing than I had at the outset.

On the one hand: a reasonable amount of work seems to have gone into animating the characters and programming the player to return to the church on schedule, and there are a number of touches where the author seems to have done period research in order to flesh out the settings with appropriate furniture and room descriptions. I'm all in favor of historical IF, so this is nice to see. And from the evidence of the other review, there is obviously *sometimes* more to see than I got a chance to experience.

On the other hand, the gameplay is either buggy or very badly-directed. The story side doesn't do much better, either. The game encourages the player to go around asking the characters about one another, but quite often they have almost nothing to say; responses such as "I don't know him well" are common, which is strange given that this is a very small community of monks who live and work together, and who would be likely at this point to be all too intimately aware of each other's personality quirks. Furthermore, characters show no discomfort discussing third parties who happen to be in the room.

In short: this is an interesting concept that deserves a better execution. "An Act of Murder" shows that the randomly-selected-murderer scenario can work in IF; "The Abbey" doesn't appear to have pulled it off, though.

Ecdysis, by Peter Nepstad

14 of 19 people found the following review helpful:
Very brief, but effective, June 27, 2008

Ecdysis is a compact bit of horror. Summarizing the plot too much would only ruin it, but it's worth knowing that this is one of several games based on snippets from H. P. Lovecraft's "Commonplace Book", and that the premise is a weird and disturbing one.

Ecdysis is fairly linear up until the late stages of the game. I found that the first release of the game had some awkward moments, but the later release is smoother and easier to play. Puzzles are mostly a matter of figuring out the one next thing you can do, and are not too hard -- but all the same this does make some good use of its interactivity. Worth a look.

The Gallery of Henri Beauchamp, by Mike Vollmer

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
Somewhat underimplemented, June 19, 2008

This is a short-short horror game, surreal and suggestive without quite coming out to say what is truly going on. The plot might appeal to people who also liked, for instance, All Alone, or the entries in the Commonplace Book Project. It also shows a certain amount of effort and care, especially for a first-time outing: it comes complete with hint and help menus and cover art.

The main problem is that it hasn't been tested as much as it should: missing synonyms, some sensible actions not accounted for, and so on. The room descriptions also sometimes feel rather minimal. Better pacing of exposition and exploration would make the game more suspenseful and deliver the story better.

A future version of the game could improve on many of these things, leaving a substantially stronger effort.

Pascal's Wager, by Doug Egan

18 of 20 people found the following review helpful:
Pascal's wager by nature assumes a Christian worldview, June 16, 2008

"Pascal's Wager" is a philosophical thought-experiment in which Pascal's wager is extended to include betting on which of several deities controls the universe, and therefore which one you should worship.

At first blush, it might appear that this is an invitation to explore or express one's own personal morality through the player character, by choosing and acting out an alignment. In practice, PW doesn't work this way. A specific god is selected as the true god on any given play-through; this is really a re-playable puzzle game where the desirable goals, and the correct solutions to puzzles, depend on which god currently rules the universe. Even if you pray to the right deity, he won't accept you as a true worshipper unless you've also lived by his precepts -- i.e., accomplished the correct goals in each scene, and performed them in the correct way. Viewed as a puzzle game, it's lightly amusing; the puzzles themselves are not usually very difficult in concept, but require rigorous exploration and occasionally feats of successful guessing, because the game does not always point the player at the relevant elements of a given scene. (I particularly had to rely on hints during the third of the game's three scenarios, because there are several items that are under-implemented and don't give the player enough feedback about what's there and how it can be used.) There are also some cosmetic flaws, such as erratic spacing, missing punctuation, and typing errors, which are occasionally distracting. The implementation in general is of a spare, old-school variety, with a few items per room, and the expectation that the player will explore a lot before expecting to resolve any puzzles.

Even so, I found Pascal's Wager moderately entertaining as a puzzle game, and increasingly so as I replayed the scenario a number of times and became familiar enough with the environment to guess what I should be doing.

I had a bit more trouble with it as a philosophical experiment. Pascal's wager is firmly grounded in the Christian idea that one will be judged in the afterlife on the basis of one's faith and behavior. Other religions and philosophical systems have very different ideas about the soul's journey; early Greek thought, for instance, tended to assume that only very major sinners were actively punished in the afterlife, and that one didn't dishonor the gods by worshipping the wrong ones, but by leaving some out. Greco-Roman religion was syncretistic and inclusive; it tended to accept foreign gods as versions of members of its own pantheon, and to blend and combine cults extensively.

The game also reveals its strong ties to Judeo-Christian tradition when it insists on assigning every religion a sacred text, and assumes that private prayer is a chief measure of devotion. Neither is especially true of classical paganism, at least: there was no sacred text about the Greco-Roman pantheon; priests did not have the job of interpreting and expounding dogma or giving worshippers instructions about how to live; and religion was a highly public affair, involving participation in the public sacrifices and festivals. (Spoiler - click to show)And arguably Mammon and Cthulhu work in quite different ways as well.

Finally, there's a lot more to the specific deities than these caricatures suggest. I don't know enough about Tenjin or Hanuman to have opinions about the way they were treated in the game, but it shortchanges Bacchus quite a lot to depict him as a god who simply wants to see humans drunk/stoned as much as possible (though I admit that this made for some mildly subversive gameplay). (Spoiler - click to show)Among other things, Bacchus is a god of escape; I felt that by rights I should have been able to pray to him in the prison section and have the doors of my prison fly open. I realize this goes against the idea that god never tips his hand to humans, implicit in the original Pascal's wager -- but on the other hand, I have this handy ivory die that is apparently a foolproof method of aleatory divination. So...

This may all be needless nit-picking, depending on what you are looking for in "Pascal's Wager". It is not an effective exploration of what it would mean to live by the religions it depicts (and, indeed, for all I've been complaining about the Christian assumptions applied to non-Christian cultures, even its version of Christianity is caricatured -- what happened to all the forgiveness and redemption business if you can only get into heaven by having lived a sinless life?).

It is also not a highly polished piece of interactive fiction. People who get bothered when some of the furniture can't be sat on will be unhappy with this game; it could have stood some more beta-testing, I think, especially in the last section.

It is entertaining as a re-playable puzzle game, and one which occasionally leaves the player with the pleasant sense that he's allowed to do whatever he wants, in accord with whatever morality he chooses.

That sense wears off again once you've explored enough of the game to understand how the mechanisms work -- but for a while it's good fun.

Pieces of eden, by Nicodemus
Emily Short's Rating:

Beanstalk the and Jack, by David Welbourn

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
One trick, but an interesting one, June 10, 2008

The content of this story won't be a surprise to anyone, and it's pretty light on puzzles, too: this is Jack and the Beanstalk told backwards. At each turn, you have to guess the move that Jack took to get to the present situation.

The resulting game is necessarily pretty linear, though not quite as straitjacketed as you might expect -- it's possible to wander around looking at things and taking other non-world-changing actions, as long as your next significant act is the correct one. The actual puzzle of figuring out what to do next is usually not that hard, given (a) the knowledge of the game state it produced and (b) familiarity with the original story, which means that the story goes by quickly and doesn't wear out its welcome. The peculiar reverse-causality remains entertaining throughout.

The implementation is pretty smooth overall -- I ran into only one or two moments where I had trouble with unrecognized commands that I thought ought to make sense. (Spoiler - click to show)In particular, I tried a bunch of variations of >ENTER OVEN, GET IN OVEN, OPEN OVEN, and the like, before realizing that I needed IN to hide there.

On the whole, this game doesn't have much to offer beyond its gimmick, but that's enough to amuse for the fifteen minutes or so it takes to play. And it's definitely an interesting take on treatment of time in IF.

Reverberations, by Russell Glasser

6 of 8 people found the following review helpful:
Amusing and lightweight, June 6, 2008

Reverberations combines a silly (but functioning) plot with some fairly old-style gameplay. Room descriptions are sparse, objects are few, NPCs are terse, and the puzzle solutions tend to be very much of the "because the author said so" variety. Fortunately, there are some hints, as well as an available walkthrough, so it's possible to get through without too much frustration -- and a couple of the puzzles do feel pleasingly natural.

As for the story, well, it's not fabulous, and there are times when the game pokes fun at its own implausibility: the main character is a surfer/pizza delivery boy who just sort of stumbles into solving a high-profile mafia case, and has a bit of a romance with the district attorney as well. The events that contribute to this plot are all very thinly developed, too: searching for clues is usually a matter of wandering into the relevant room and noticing the one object there that is remotely interesting. And the DA is much too sketchily drawn to come across as much of a personality.

Reverberations is entertaining if you're looking for a way to kill forty-five minutes or so (more if you don't look at the hints), but it's not likely to stick with you long, either for the story or for the puzzles.

Murder at the Diogenes Club, by Gerald Lientz

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
Choose Your Own Inaction, June 2, 2008

This is a converted game book or "solo adventure", turned into Z-code, so I wasn't expecting exactly the same things I might have expected from a different piece of IF. I was looking for something I could compare to other choose-your-own-adventure style offerings in the IF world, such as One Week, Desert Heat, and When Help Collides, The Geisha Section.

The game has an RPG element, which is to say that you're allowed to adjust some basic skills up or down for your character. Later, these affect the success or failure of your attempts; the calculations are done automatically by the game and you are told whether you succeeded or failed and what the outcome was. (I presume that in the paper version of these game books, the reader/player would have had to perform some dice-rolling at these points.)

What this left was a handful of decision points with a lot of intervening text (in which there would occasionally be a bold-faced You attempted a Communication roll, and failed. [I paraphrase.]) This was, frankly, more reading than I really wanted to do. Then, the writing was nothing terribly stand-out, and most of it consisted of pointed plot exposition, rather than action. Many of the decision points consisted of the choice:

(a) Do [interesting action]
(b) Otherwise

On the whole, a lot of binary choices like this, especially when one of them is "do nothing," doesn't seem to present even the basic level of challenge and interest I expect out of a choose-your-own-adventure scenario. I gave up before the actual mystery really got off the ground.

Serving Your Country, by Fletcher Smyth

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
Sparse and unengaging, June 2, 2008

Entered in the ifLibrary's competition for 2003, this game bills itself as a work of Adult Interactive Fiction. I don't play many such games, but I thought that I would try this one since it was part of a mainstream competition.

Alas, it suffers from many of the things that put me off of other AIF games: not the presence of sexual content, but the absence of much else. Room descriptions are sparse to the point of non-existence, which is a pity; I've been told to investigate this man's home for evidence of certain shady dealings, but there doesn't seem to be much for me to pick through. Where objects are described, their descriptions are likewise brief: one frequently has exchanges of the type,

On the table is a glass.

It is a very fine glass.

The table is exceptionally well-made and luxurious.

Everything is given this same gloss of vague luxury, not specific enough for me to envision it. (Which seems odd to me: if this is a game aimed at providing/evoking a, well, sensuous experience, I would expect it to be more vividly descriptive of the sensual enjoyments at my PC's disposal, whether or not they are sexual. But no matter.)

What made me actually quit the game, though -- or rather, fail to restart -- was that I got to a point where I was doing something that I thought was going to get me closer to the revelation of the mystery, and it turned out to result in a total loss of the game. Moreover, it was an action that I thought was one of the main goals of this particular genre. So, as a player, I felt rather cheated; I didn't know what I was supposed to be trying to do if that wasn't it, and I gave up rather than try to guess what was in the author's mind.

Unease, by Brendan J. O'Brien

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
...Huh?, June 2, 2008

My major problem with this game: too much seemed to be going on, and I didn't understand very much of it at all. There is a fantasy setting -- maybe -- except that some of the objects appear to be technological, rather than magical, so perhaps it is really an odd piece of SF, instead. There are peoples and individual persons with strange Fantasy Names, many of them at a time, whizzing past my head in conversations I only nominally exert any control over. There is conspiracy, disguise, revelation, a blatant pass from a serving wench, all crammed into a couple of moves, before I have had a chance to really get my bearings.

Then I wound up locked in a cell and drunk; the hints didn't give me enough information to figure out how to rescue myself from this problem; and after enough turns of swaying to and fro in drunken abandon, I gave up.

Again, the basic problem is that I know too little to be able to guess what my goal in the game is-- even in the short term, I know I want to get out of this cell and rescue my friend/girlfriend/potential lover/whatever, except that I have no clue how to go about this or why I was even locked up in the first place. Character involvement is also not deep enough, because I understand too little of what's going on with my PC to care a great deal about his dilemmas and desires. If I had a sufficient understanding of my goal, I might find it easier to keep playing; if I cared enough about my PC, I might keep going despite the difficulties. The combination of problems is what made me stop.

There might be something interesting going on here, but so far all I can really tell is that things are Weird. More time on the establishing material might have helped.

Adventures of Helpfulman, by Philip Dearmore

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Ambitious but not always successful, June 2, 2008

I wanted to like this one, really I did. It was clearly trying to do some neat things, using the HTML-TADS options, but they didn't work perfectly for me. For instance, there's an option to put a menu in the left as a kind of sidebar, but when I scrolled the menu would vanish from view. It only offered a handful of commands, anyway -- a LOOK command, which I presume is no different from typing LOOK myself, and a COMMANDS that would list all the verbs I could use. The latter might have been useful, since some of the game's commands seemed to be a bit esoteric, except that it happened all at once in a scary single-column infodump to my screen.

There were also some illustrations; I approve of this. On the other hand, some of them reminded me of things I did in Hypercard ca. 1986: dithered black-and-white images of simple objects. Eep.

Another interesting thing the game did was to use an oft-suggested but seldom-implemented approach to conversation. When you spoke to an NPC, certain words were highlighted as links, and clicking on them equated to >ASK NPC ABOUT HIGHLIGHTED TOPIC. This avoids any fishing around for things to talk about, I suppose, without going all the way to having a menu. I thought it was a valuable experiment, though I am not sure I'm totally crazy about the effect.

In atmosphere, the game reminded me a bit of Heroine's Mantle, which I liked despite various drawbacks. Unfortunately, it shared a few of Heroine's problems, as well. The puzzles weren't quite as unfair, but it was still entirely possible -- even easy -- to render the game unwinnable, as far as I could tell. In particular, a certain sequence involving a telescope seemed to give the player too little warning. I did my best with it, but it was this sequence that ultimately caused me to give up on the game without really getting past the prologue: I couldn't figure out how to get past a certain point, I kept ruining my options, and the actions recommended by the hints were not successful. Plotwise, the logic of this sequence also seemed a trifle obscure.

The game otherwise could have used a bit more polish. I noted several places where there were typos or misspellings, or where the author had put in a non-default response but the default response was subsequently printed as well. I would probably have played at least a while longer if I hadn't run into the puzzle difficulties, however.

The House, by Owen Parish

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful:
More of a programming exercise than anything else, June 2, 2008

Considering that the Help text tells you this is a practice game, the various problems with it should not come as a huge surprise. There are several overt programming errors, but a lot more of what's wrong is lack of beta-testing. Many synonyms aren't handled, and obvious actions aren't anticipated. There's a stethoscope you can't wear or listen to, for instance, and stinky items you're not allowed to smell, and containers which do have contents but which describe themselves as empty if you try to LOOK IN them. I liked the solution to the maze, but that's just about the only thing I really liked much -- the game is otherwise pretty uninspiring on the design side, I'm afraid. The game needs a clearer sense of purpose. No, not a goal for my player character -- I think I've figured out what that's supposed to be -- but a sense of what it's trying to do, as a game. Is it supposed to be puzzly and challenging? If so, the descriptions need to be sharper and more evocative. Is it supposed to be creepy? Then there ought to be more effort put into the atmosphere. Heck, maybe it's even supposed to be a parody of bad beginner IF through the ages, but if so, the humor also needs to be more honed. Whatever this is, it doesn't have a very strong sense of itself.

Legacy of a Princess, by Hiyazuki Sakamora

3 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Zelda reborn, June 2, 2008

This appears to be largely a parody/expansion/fanfic/something based on The Legend of Zelda. As I never played the original, it didn't mean much to me. There were a number of rooms where there was nothing to do, and the initial several moves of plot were of the variety where X tells you to go somewhere and see Y, and then Y tells you to go and see Z, and Z tells you to visit X again. So I wasn't terribly enthralled, and quit. Someone with nostalgic feelings towards Zelda might have a different experience. Or not.

Reefer Island, by Steve Barrera

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
Alternative Smoking Products, June 2, 2008

This is interesting. To the best of my knowledge, the author didn't announce this game on the newsgroups; I hadn't heard of it at all until a friend and I looking for something to play stumbled across it on Baf's.

As you might guess from the title, it's a game about the quest for your next bong hit. With a premise like that I expected a rather half-baked short comedy game, but in fact it's an old-school puzzle-fest with a spacious map. We ran into some weird moments in the coding, but it showed a reasonable amount of work.

The puzzles themselves are very old-fashioned in character: a lot of them (at least in the portion I saw) seemed to entail finding the right object to give to the NPC to get another object to use to get a key... [etc], often through fairly long and convoluted chains. There is what appeared to be a genuine maze, though we didn't persist long enough to get it fully mapped. There are improbable leaps of logic and NPCs who seem able to teleport across the map just in order to prevent you from doing things. It's that sort of game, and you either get into the mood and enjoy it, or you don't.

I mostly did, actually, and we might have finished it, or at least gone further, if it weren't for the bewildering openness of the game. Many many locations and puzzles are simultaneously accessible from the outset, so we wandered around for a long time before deciding that we were either stuck or insufficiently directed. And the game has both hunger and sleep timers turned on, as well as the occasional message about how long it's been since you last had any marijuana. It's very easy to die before you've really gotten your bearings or figured out how to get your food source. When this happened to us, we became discouraged and gave up. I could easily see someone enjoying this piece if they were on an old-school nostalgia kick (and not too hung up about the drug-use messages). The writing is good-spirited. There are monkeys.

Accuse, by David A. Wheeler
Emily Short's Rating:

Little Blue Men, by Michael S. Gentry

14 of 14 people found the following review helpful:
The whole is less than the sum of the parts, May 26, 2008

Mike Gentry is a terrific writer, and specifically a terrific writer for IF: his descriptions are evocative without being longwinded, and his viewpoint character gets plenty of attitude. He is also good at getting the player go to along with actions that seem more and more likely to lead to bad places, just because the curiosity to find out what is going on is so strong.

Little Blue Men shows off all these things to advantage. Unfortunately, it also has a couple of things going against it. One is the puzzle design: this game is genuinely cruel on the zarfian scale, and I had to restart three or four times in order to make sure I had everything I turned out to need in the end game. A few actions aren't clued as well as they could be, either. There are some hints, but they don't go all the way to providing specific instructions if you get stuck, and they're not enough to save you from losing objects you're going to turn out to need. In some games this might not matter so much, but I found the disruptions and replaying annoying precisely because I was so interested to find out what was going to happen next. But then, I tend to think that making the player replay from scratch (except in games specifically designed to be understood this way, such as Varicella or Rematch) is a great way to screw up the pacing of an otherwise gripping piece of IF.

My other complaint is a little more subjective: there's lots of creepiness going on here, and sometimes I start to think that I understand the intended reality, only to have that understanding ripple and become mysterious again. I do not absolutely demand that my stories tie everything up with a nice neat bow, but LBM leaves things a bit more confused than I would have liked.

For all that, though, it's definitely worth playing, especially for horror fans.

Conan Kill Everything, by Ian Haberkorn

12 of 14 people found the following review helpful:
Lightweight, May 26, 2008

This is one of those games, like YOU HAVE TO BURN THE ROPE or Pick up the Phone Booth and Die, where the title could double as the walkthrough. Killing everything does entail a few very minor puzzles, but essentially you just do what it says on the box. Thoroughness is rewarded.

So it's not very ambitious. Is it fun? Yeah, more or less, but I found that the implementation wasn't quite smooth enough and I actually got hung up on stupid things midway through the game. You have to kill things in a specific order, and if you try to deviate from this order, the game won't let you go forward; since I had completely the wrong idea about how to solve one of the puzzles, this left me stuck for longer than the game really deserved.

Then, too, the humor wasn't quite to my taste. It's supposed to be broad, I realize, but the one-note joke had worn out well before the game ended.

The Act of Misdirection, by Callico Harrison

10 of 11 people found the following review helpful:
Revising my opinion, May 7, 2008

The first scene of this game is a favorite of mine: the player is called on to do a magic trick in front of an audience, though (of course) as player he does not know how the trick is done. But there's more to the scene than simply getting the trick right and solving the puzzle: on a replay, it's possible to turn the scene into a real performance, by hamming things up, tantalizing the audience, and making the most out of each stage. This allows for expressive play -- getting into the character of the PC and making the most of it -- to a degree I have seen in few other games.

When I first played, I found the pacing broke down a bit in the later scenes, and the writing became more overwrought. Replaying later, I found the later pieces of the game much more successful. I'm not sure whether this is because I was playing a later version of the game (these notes are based on version 6) or whether I was just luckier with my subsequent play-through. But on review, this piece impressed me quite a bit more than it did the first time around.

You Have To BURN ROPE WITH TORCH, by Michael Cook
Emily Short's Rating:

Voices, by Aris Katsaris
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The One That Got Away, by Leon Lin
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Snowblind Aces, by C.E.J. Pacian

18 of 18 people found the following review helpful:
Flawed but also heaps of fun, March 17, 2008

Snowblind Aces is a game of conversation between two long-time opponents who meet at last under survival circumstances. It plays with the idea that your enemies often understand you more completely than your friends, a theme I've always found rather fascinating.

I waver over whether to give this three stars or four. If I were rating it purely on how much I enjoyed it, four would be in order: romances are rare in IF, I tend to have fun with them, and this one is no exception. I like the setting, too -- an alternate history full of zeppelins and mountain-top retreats, with plenty of 1910s/20s style. It's no mistake that the game implements the aviator scarf and goggles, even though they're not strictly needed for anything; this is partly costume drama, and the game gives the player a chance to dress up and enjoy the part. And the main NPC is spunky and sassy and while this sort of flirty, defiant adventure heroine is a bit of a cliché... well, again, I thought she was fun.

On the other hand, there are some issues of construction and pacing that make me knock it down a star again. The characters will easily repeat entire swathes of dialogue verbatim, and while that might be less problematic in a different kind of game, it does a bit of a disservice in one which is primarily about conversation. There are also spots where it's hard to trigger the appropriate conversation topic, because sensible synonyms for the conversation aren't implemented. In particular, sometimes the conversation prompt is named something like "show you are interested", but "show I am interested" is not accepted when the player types it; one has to type literally "show you are interested". (This exact example is invented, but the principle applies.)

It's possible for sections of the work to drag a little longer than quite makes sense, too. While I found it easy to talk for quite a while, I didn't find the trigger to make the game *end* until I looked at the hints. That's partly because I forgot about the TOPICS command, but I think it would have been better if the game moved itself towards a conclusion once the player seemed to have run out of things to say, or if there were at the very least some hints toward getting a move on. Otherwise, the momentum of the conversation peters out and then the player spends a little while tinkering around to figure out how to make the game conclude, which is perhaps not the most effective way to pace this story.

Finally, on the characterization side: I wouldn't have minded there being just a little more of a challenge to getting Imelda to open up to me. And while I enjoyed the endings I saw, if you make the right choices, it's possible to get quite a long string of cut-scenes as the conclusion -- more than the game needs.

So the game could have been a little tauter, better polished, and more disciplined in a couple of respects. On the other hand, considering it was written in two weeks, this is hardly a poor showing. It's also an entry in a nearly-unpopulated genre, with quite a bit of charm. Between this and Gun Mute, I am looking forward very much to more work from Pacian.

Little Falls, by Alessandro Schillaci, Roberto Grassi, Simonato Enrico
Emily Short's Rating:

Gun Mute, by C.E.J. Pacian

22 of 22 people found the following review helpful:
Shotgun Shack, March 12, 2008

In the world of linear game design, it would hard to get much more linear than this: your travel options are limited to f (forward) and b (back), as you follow a path to your appointment with destiny. At each stage, you confront those who would stand in your way, which usually means relying on your six shooter.

I would expect Gun Mute to appeal to people who enjoyed the recent combat-puzzle games Slap That Fish or Attack of the Yeti Robot Zombies, but I think it is a bit better-designed than either of those. The puzzles generally seemed fairer than the ones in Slap That Fish, and it's clearer from the outset what the player is supposed to be doing. Meanwhile, the environment is more richly imagined than AotYRZ, not only because the player is allowed to look around and examine objects, but also because some care has been put into developing a coherent setting. This is a strange vision of a post-nuclear society which has gone back to old-west manners and mores, except with a somewhat more modern view on acceptable romantic pairings. There's also more of an overarching plot: nothing very complicated, but satisfying for the size of game this is.

It's not a long game (and the gameplay premise would probably wear thin if it were), but I found Gun Mute novel and enjoyable.

Treasures of a Slaver's Kingdom, by S. John Ross
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Dead Cities, by Jon Ingold
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Deadline Enchanter, by Alan DeNiro

15 of 15 people found the following review helpful:
A strange case, February 22, 2008

Deadline Enchanter falls into an unusual category: it is a work I found frustrating, flawed, and incomplete -- one which I nearly didn't finish myself -- but which I nevertheless would recommend more people play.

DE deservedly received mixed reviews and ratings in the IF Competition. The environment is sketchy; many objects are unimplemented and don't respond to investigation; the plot is mysterious and takes some time to unfold; the writing is highly stylized and may annoy or put off some players; and there is very little by way of puzzle, except perhaps for the meta-puzzle of understanding what is going on and why this work is interesting in the first place.

On the other hand, DE also features many strange and memorable images and a genuinely novel setting; it plays new and interesting games with the relationship between the player and the work; it does ultimately have a good reason to be interactive fiction rather than a story on the printed page (however long it may take you to understand this point); and the oddities of writing eventually prove to be part of a strong characterization within the work. What's more, the final state of the work is surprisingly moving and even beautiful, I thought.

So: absolutely not everyone's cup of tea, but a piece well worth exploring, especially for people who are interested in the boundaries of interactive fiction.

Degeneracy, by Leonard Richardson
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Nord and Bert Couldn't Make Head or Tail of It, by Jeff O'Neill
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Enchanter, by Marc Blank, Dave Lebling
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Wishbringer, by Brian Moriarty
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Sorcerer, by Steve Meretzky
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Pirate Adventure, by Scott Adams and Alexis Adams
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Plundered Hearts, by Amy Briggs

25 of 25 people found the following review helpful:
A favorite, February 20, 2008

Plundered Hearts is an almost pitch-perfect interactive romance novel, complete with pirates, swordfights, disguises, dances, swinging from ropes, and more. There are moments when it seems to tip over into the realm of parody; some of the lyrical descriptions of the player's feelings for her romantic interest are, well, a bit silly, and perhaps more conscious of their silliness than the equivalent passages of a romance novel. Perhaps this is an attempt to solve one of the fundamental challenges of IF romance: how do you make the player have romantic feelings for a character? Plundered Hearts doesn't entirely try; instead, it provides slightly distancing, slightly self-aware cut scenes, sketching the hero as a romantic figure without forcing the player to act out too many steps of a romantic attachment she might not really be feeling. It's in the adventure portions -- the plotting and sneaking around, the dressing up and the blowing things to bits -- that the game comes into its own.

Even setting aside my guilty fondness for the pirates-and-ballrooms setting, Plundered Hearts has plenty else to make it a real favorite. A few of the puzzles are difficult or unfair by modern standards; especially at the beginning, it can be hard to beat the timing of the game. But many of the rest are not only fair and intuitive but dramatically powerful: the moments where your character uses her pluck and ingenuity to overcome the villain are especially gratifying.

Plundered Hearts also has a lot more plot than most other Infocom games, and often feels surprisingly modern, more like the product of late 90s design than of the late 80s. The landscape is not mysteriously empty, but crowded with characters, many of whom have lively personalities. And some flexibility about the ending is available, as well.

PH is a remarkable bit of interactive storytelling for its time, and there are still some techniques worth our reviewing and learning from now. And if, like me, you read a lot of Georgette Heyer, Baroness Orczy, and Rafael Sabatini at an impressionable age, you'll probably love it.

Hollywood Hijinx, by Dave Anderson, Liz Cyr-Jones

8 of 9 people found the following review helpful:
Not Infocom's best, but fun, February 20, 2008

Hollywood Hijinx is not one of Infocom's best games on any of several counts: the setting is comparatively mundane, the puzzles are mostly very implausible, and the plot is thin. It's also considerably shorter to play than some of the old standards.

Despite all of which, it remains a solidly entertaining entry in the basic genre of Treasure Hunt in a Relative's Weird, Puzzle-trapped House. (See also: Finding Martin, Letters from Home, The Mulldoon Legacy, Mystery House, etc.) There are a couple of very ingenious set piece puzzles that are worth playing the game for all by themselves; and the tone is upbeat and engaging throughout.

Mystery House Possessed, by Emily Short

From the Author

An ambitious but seriously flawed experiment with NPC behavior, using a primitive early version of Inform 7. It's mostly interesting (if in fact it's interesting at all) for technical reasons: the other characters wander around the house, looking under things and destroying objects in their quest for the family jewels, while one of them systematically commits murders and leaves clues behind. Because of the amount of randomization involved, not all playthroughs are equally fair.

The Tower of the Elephant, by Tor Andersson
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Sting of the Wasp, by Jason Devlin

8 of 12 people found the following review helpful:
Darkly entertaining, December 30, 2007

The puzzles in Sting of the Wasp vary in fairness, and none of the major characters are really sympathetic: this is dark comedy, with a scheming, cheating social climber as its protagonist. For general awfulness she falls somewhere between Varicella and the Bastard Operator from Hell.

The modern country-club setting is a refreshing change from the usual, the writing has some high points, and the game plays with a certain self-assurance.

shadows on the mirror, by Chrysoula Tzavelas
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Möbius, by J.D. Clemens

7 of 9 people found the following review helpful:
Solid replay puzzle, December 24, 2007

A solid and entertaining puzzle game requiring multiple play-throughs and an inventive twist on classic time travel. The framing of the game is maybe a little disappointing -- there's less of a story here than it originally appears, and so much effort goes into the solution that it would be nice if the ending offered more narrative reward.

All the same, a polished and technically accomplished piece of work, with some inventive game-play.

Aunts and Butlers, by Robin Johnson
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The Cabal, by Stephen Bond

14 of 16 people found the following review helpful:
Ages badly, December 23, 2007

This game has a lot going for it in respect of craft: it's well-written by someone with a keen sense of humor; the characterizations are often amusing; though the game is quite linear, the pacing works pretty well and I rarely felt bored.

The problem with it is its huge self-indulgence. This is a work, now several years old, about contemporary rec.arts.int-fiction politics. It is peppered with endless references to newsgroup personalities and squabbles that people outside the IF community are unlikely to understand, and even for those of us who were around at the time, it ages badly. A few years down the line, it's likely to need a critical commentary to make sense.

Everybody Loves a Parade, by Cody Sandifer
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The Puzzle Box, by Richard Otter

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Dull structure and repetitive puzzles, December 23, 2007

The premise is that the protagonist is locked into a haunted room with the puzzle box of the game's title. The hauntedness of the room is not especially important and the framing story barely affects play, though: instead, we spend the entire game entering a series of combinations into the puzzle box, each combination leading only to the opportunity to enter another one.

We discover the combinations, for the most part, by examining the environment, especially a highly detailed oil painting on the wall. There are a couple of puzzles that require some sort of leap of intuition to work out how an element of the painting reveals a combination for the lockbox, but quite often it is simply a matter of finding an appropriate sequence of colors and numbers and laboriously entering them into the box.

Marika the Offering, by revgiblet

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Sometimes florid writing, but fun, December 23, 2007

A mostly puzzle-oriented game about a girl locked in a tower as a sacrifice to the vampire who terrorizes her town. The challenge is to proof the room against the vampire's entry: this premise gives rise to a reasonably diverse but connected set of puzzles.

There are some flaws and frustrations, though. The ADRIFT parser lets the game down at odd times; the writing tends towards the melodramatic or faux-archaic, and doesn't set a consistent tone.

Still, I basically enjoyed playing this piece. It is short and relatively easy.

Urban Conflict, by Sam Gordon

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Conversation with the enemy, December 23, 2007

The premise of this piece is brave and ambitious: the protagonist is trapped in a building, pinned down by enemy fire, with another soldier not on his own side. It's up to him to overcome the soldier's suspicion and develop some kind of fragile rapport.

This is a intriguing idea, and it starts out well, with several neat exchanges and revelations. But ultimately the conversation is not entirely satisfying: the protagonist is under-characterized, the enemy soldier a little too unsubtle in certain respects. Some pieces of the dialogue could have stood to vary more with repetition or context, too: not all of the lines are equally appropriate in all the contexts in which they can arise.

Still, an interesting piece of work, especially for those with a taste for character-focused IF.

Suveh Nux, by David Fisher

21 of 22 people found the following review helpful:
Small, elegant puzzle game, December 23, 2007

A brief, charming game with puzzles centered on a neat magical grammar. The system is well-designed and internally consistent, the puzzles are fun to solve, and there are lots of rewards for experimenting. For the most part the solutions are not too difficult, either, but there's a hint system, just in case.

Not long on story or characterization, but excellent for what it sets out to do.

Delusions, by C. E. Forman
Emily Short's Rating:

Shrapnel, by Adam Cadre

8 of 14 people found the following review helpful:
More interesting than great, November 17, 2007

Adam Cadre constantly experiments with the formal limits of IF, and shrapnel is another such experiment: it plays against the standard ideas of where the game begins and ends, and what a player should be allowed to control. It's worth playing if one is interested in the history of the form, or fond of Adam's writing; and it's short enough that it's not likely to feel like a waste of time, even for people who decide they don't care for it.

As far as content goes, though, shrapnel doesn't have a huge amount to recommend it. The story-line is a mess; the characters are brutal and largely unpleasant; the themes have been better and more richly explored in Adam's other work. As for the setting, it's a parody/re-envisioning of the infinitely-rehashed white house; and while Adam's version is more memorable than most, it isn't the kind of setting one wants to settle into and enjoy.

Beneath: a Transformation, by Graham Lowther
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My Name is Jack Mills, by Juhana Leinonen
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Reconciling Mother, by Plone Glenn
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Wish, by Edward Floren
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Varkana, by Maryam Gousheh-Forgeot
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Packrat, by Bill Powell
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Press [Escape] to Save, by Mark Jones
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In The Mind Of The Master, by David Whyld
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Lord Bellwater's Secret, by Sam Gordon
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The Chinese Room, by Harry Giles and Joey Jones
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An Act of Murder, by Christopher Huang
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Fox, Fowl and Feed, by Chris Conroy

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
A little charm, but no ambition, November 17, 2007

This game is an expansion on the classic logic puzzle hinted at in the title, expanded with a few extra challenges along the way. Even with those additions, though, it offers only about fifteen minutes' worth of play, in an unambitious setting, without much by way of story or characterization. There are a few cute moments in the descriptions, and the narrative tone is good-humored and pleasant; but it's nothing very memorable either.

Lost Pig, by Admiral Jota
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Orevore Courier, by Brian Rapp
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Six Stories, by Neil K. Guy
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Jacks or Better to Murder, Aces to Win, by J. D. Berry
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Constraints, by Martin Bays
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Eric's Gift, by Joao Mendes
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Identity Thief, by Rob Shaw-Fuller
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Moon-Shaped, by Jason Ermer
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Delightful Wallpaper, by Andrew Plotkin ('Edgar O. Weyrd')
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The Legend of Lady Magaidh, by Daniel Freas

5 of 8 people found the following review helpful:
Charming but very short, October 23, 2007

A brief pirate-romance scenario in the general spirit of Plundered Hearts.

It's really more of a single scene than a complete story (more is implied than explained), but it's rather charming. I would rank it higher if there were only more of the same.

Rameses, by Stephen Bond
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The Frenetic Five vs. the Seven Deadly Dwarves, by Neil deMause
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Earth and Sky, by Paul O'Brian
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Doomed Xycanthus, by Eric Mayer
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De Baron, by Victor Gijsbers
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Carmen Devine: Supernatural Troubleshooter, by Rob Myall
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Beat the Devil, by Robert M. Camisa
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Arrival, or Attack of the B-Movie Clichés, by Stephen Granade
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1981, by Anonymous
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Return to Ditch Day, by M.J. Roberts
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The Primrose Path, by Nolan Bonvouloir
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Narcolepsy, by Adam Cadre
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Madam Spider's Web, by Sara Dee
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The Gostak, by Carl Muckenhoupt
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Ekphrasis, by FibreTigre
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Blue Chairs, by Chris Klimas
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Aisle, by Sam Barlow
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Common Ground, by Stephen Granade
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A Bear's Night Out, by David Dyte
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The Elysium Enigma, by Eric Eve
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Photopia, by Adam Cadre

33 of 34 people found the following review helpful:
Canonical, October 21, 2007

This is a work so hugely influential to IF development that anyone interested in the history of the form should try it: it experiments with non-linear presentation of time, menu-based conversation, and constrained game-play to support a specific plot. A number of its features look perfectly ordinary now, but were ground-breaking at the time. Photopia's particular form of menu conversation, for instance, was spun off into a library used in a number of other works.

How well does it work, beyond that? Opinions vary. Some people consider it the most moving piece of IF they've ever tried. I personally found it wavered between effective and manipulative, with the main character too saintly to be true. While it was worth playing, it is by no means my favorite piece of character-oriented IF story-telling.

Not Made With Hands, by Emily Short

From the Author

This is a piece I sketched up one evening apropos of a rec.arts.int-fiction discussion on simulation and puzzles. As a game, it doesn't have much to recommend it, unless you really enjoy coming up with diverse ways to destroy various materials.

Chicken and Egg, by Adam Thornton

6 of 10 people found the following review helpful:
Entirely parody, October 21, 2007

This is a pretty entertaining send-up of the later portions of Spider and Web. It is spoilery and incomprehensible if you haven't played the original game; worth the five minutes of amusement if you have.

Lock & Key, by Adam Cadre
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For a Change, by Dan Schmidt
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There's A Snake in the Bathtub, by Edward Griffiths
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Necrotic Drift, by Robb Sherwin
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Kaged, by Ian Finley

8 of 10 people found the following review helpful:
Orwellian darkness, October 21, 2007

Not all of the puzzles in Kaged feel fair or well-clued, and this is a pity, because the game is otherwise very effective. You play a minor bureaucrat in the justice system of a vast and overbearing state, trying to understand a series of recent disturbing events. The architecture of the setting, the behavior of the other characters, and the unfolding of the plot all work together to create a sense of oppression and fear, which only grows stronger as the game plays out.

Kaged is illustrated with a handful of surreal images, which do more to strengthen the mood than to explain anything.

The Fire Tower, by Jacqueline A. Lott
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Textfire Golf, by Adam Cadre
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The Retreat, by J.D. Clemens

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
>WAKE UP, October 21, 2007

An entry into a competition for games based on dreams, The Retreat feels just a bit off-kilter from our reality. Many elements of the backstory go unexplained for the whole game -- which is not very long.

Despite the relative slightness of the piece, though, it has evocative moments, and there was one action in particular that I felt guilty about when the game was over.

Slap That Fish, by Peter Nepstad

10 of 11 people found the following review helpful:
Smack!, October 20, 2007

This is a combat game about fighting fish.

The opening of the game is probably its weakest point: there’s not much information to ground the absurd set-up, and it’s also possible at first not to realize that you can do anything but PUNCH, SLAP, KICK, and BACKHAND the various fish. I went through a few rounds of that and found myself wondering whether there was more to the game than randomized combat. (It’s not really randomized, either, but I didn’t recognize that at the very outset.) So I came close to quitting, before I realized that there were both puzzles and a (slight) story in there; I just hadn’t really gotten to them yet.

Things pick up in the midgame, as new props become available to fight with, we learn a little more about the premise, and the fish start to fight back. The final fight ends with a fanfare and flourish that make the earlier fights seem more significant.

It’s still not what you would call a great game -- the game-play is too repetitive, and there is not enough feedback on puzzle solutions -- but it has a certain quirky charm.

The Lurking Horror, by Dave Lebling
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Unauthorized Termination, by Richard Otter

5 of 8 people found the following review helpful:
Murder Mystery, with Robots, October 19, 2007

This had a bunch of rough edges, implementation-wise — some problems typical of ADRIFT parsers, and some others. It also has a somewhat railroady presentation: though it's a mystery, the player's opportunities to explore and solve are tightly constrained and directed at all times. There was also one puzzle involving finding an object that I don't think I would ever have gotten without a walkthrough.

All the same, I found this strangely enjoyable. The robot protagonists develop personality and humanity as the game proceeds, and there were some unexpectedly touching moments.

So Far, by Andrew Plotkin
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Muse: An Autumn Romance, by Christopher Huang
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Anchorhead, by Michael Gentry
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Worlds Apart, by Suzanne Britton
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Blighted Isle, by Eric Eve
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Curses, by Graham Nelson
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The Mulldoon Legacy, by Jon Ingold
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To Hell in a Hamper, by J. J. Guest

16 of 16 people found the following review helpful:
Comedy that works, October 19, 2007

The premise is that you are trapped in a hot-air balloon, drifting perilously towards a volcano, accompanied by an uncooperative NPC who is carrying entirely too many heavy objects. Your task: get rid of everything that is weighing down the balloon so that you and your companion do not become one with the lava.

This is a very entertaining one-room puzzle game with a Weird Victoriana theme. It avoids some of the claustrophobia of other one-room games because the balloon is constantly in motion and the view outside changes as you go; the chief NPC is grumpy and untalkative, but in a convincing way; the puzzles are well paced.

The original version had some annoying parsing errors, but these may have been rectified in later releases.

The PK Girl, by Robert Goodwin, Helen Trevillion, Nanami Nekono, and Oya-G

8 of 13 people found the following review helpful:
Blame the genre?, October 19, 2007

This game concerns a male character called in to assist some beautiful girls who have unusual abilities and ought to be much more powerful than himself, but who somehow can't get anything done without masculine direction.

The male-wish-fulfillment aspect may come from the dating sims PK Girl partly emulates. All the same, I found the premise fundamentally unappealing and did not want to play to the end.

Jigsaw, by Graham Nelson
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Varicella, by Adam Cadre
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Spider and Web, by Andrew Plotkin
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Fate, by Victor Gijsbers

14 of 16 people found the following review helpful:
Fate and Decision, October 17, 2007

Fate is an exploration of player choice and moral dilemma in interactive fiction, and as pioneering work, it's worth a play.

I’m not sure how much “Fate”’s moral dilemmas worked for me, though. The central question always comes down to balancing suffering — are you willing to hurt X in order to save Y? — and while there are many permutations and many outcomes possible in the game, the choice often felt essentially arbitrary. Gijsbers does attempt to sketch in story, to provide weight and characterization to some of the characters, but I felt there was not enough meat here to make the major decision points really powerful.

So I enjoyed the game, and I thought it was an interesting essay in designing IF. I also thought it did not quite accomplish what it could have if it had framed its dilemmas a little differently (pitting different principles against one another) or else developed its characters more deeply (to make more interesting the choice of who has to suffer).

Adventurer's Consumer Guide, by Øyvind Thorsby

15 of 15 people found the following review helpful:
Solid puzzle game, October 17, 2007

ACG is a moderate-sized piece, well-tested, with a wide variety of responses to unusual conditions. It's unabashedly a puzzle game -- the premise is a bit thin and the story is minimal -- but what it does, it does very well. The puzzles are generally fair, and many are quite ingenious: the objects you've been given at the beginning of the game can be used in a satisfying variety of ways. Very few of the puzzles felt at all shopworn or perfunctory.

The attention to detail is also excellent. There are a number of easter eggs and special endings -- while there's only one way to really win, the alternate semi-loss conclusions are great fun to read.

One thing that many players are likely to find surprising is the absence of response to EXAMINE: Thorsby eschews object descriptions entirely. Everything you need to know about a thing will be evident from its room description and inventory listing. (On the other hand, this makes for some very long inventory lists...)

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