Reviews by Emily Short

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The Subtropical Server Room, by Andrew Schultz

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
You (Still) Hate Your Office, July 7, 2012
by Emily Short
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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

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Lightweight fluff, some polish issues, June 18, 2012
by Emily Short
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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
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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
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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
Related reviews: cover stories

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

2 of 2 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

13 of 13 people found the following review helpful:
Dickensian parody, June 17, 2012
by Emily Short
Related reviews: cover stories

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.

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