Reviews by Jim Nelson

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The Sculptor, by Yakoub Mousli

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
What makes a sculptor a sculptor?, July 10, 2024
by Jim Nelson (San Francisco)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2023

The Sculptor is a brief narrative regarding age, art, and commercialism. You play a sculptor facing, on the one hand, a final assignment you hope will be your masterpiece, and on the other hand, money pressures from “the suits.” These are timeless themes with roots in antiquity, and this briefly told story hits all the expected notes.

One of the more successful aspects of this brief game—it’s listed as requiring fifteen minutes to play, and that was my experience—is that it strikes all those notes in such a short span. There’s only a brief page of two of language before the first suit arrives with her ultimatum. From there, the sculpting begins, and with it ruminations on age and the purity of art and the money pressures the artist is facing. The Sculptor is a reflective piece that uses interactivity to expand the ruminations, rather than having the player run around from place to place, or choosing who to talk to and where. That’s not a poor choice for a character who spends hours at a time before a cold block of marble with chisel and hammer in hand.

It’s a Texture game, and its interactivity is in the form of verbs at the bottom of the screen drag-and-dropped onto highlighted words in the narrative. This action serves to either expand the existing text or take you to another page in the story. I’ve played a couple of Texture games in the past, and I’m not particularly drawn to the user experience. It’s a personal peeve, and by no means the fault of the author. The more successful uses of this scheme is when the activation of a highlighted word expands the paragraph with more details, as though I’m filling out the story as my curiosity leads me.

Ultimately, I wasn’t enthralled with the poetry of the prose, which felt awkward in places and overwrought in others. The need to elevate every observation felt like it was keeping me away from the main character and his situation, rather than close to it. The poetry was all but shattered when the artist and a cohort began using expletives to describe his bind. I’m not against salty language, but it did knock some of the air out of the grandeur the author obviously worked hard to build up.

None of this is fatal to the game’s execution, but I was left wanting. I hoped for more concreteness when it came to the sculpting: Working with the marble, the arthritis in the artist’s hands acting up with each chip cut, the hours on a ladder covered in stone dust. The Sculptor could have been about painting or clay pottery with only a few changes to the prose. What makes a sculptor a sculptor?

The final decision the player must make was not a surprise at all—any story about art and commercialism must build to such a moment. Unfortunately, The Sculptor doesn’t stray far from expectations when it rings this note, either.

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Meritocracy, by Ronynn ʕ •ᴥ•ʔ
A sticky concept, July 10, 2024
by Jim Nelson (San Francisco)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2023

The packaging of Meritocracy is pure sugar to the likes of me. “A battle of the wits” over a topical philosophical concept—student vs. professor—with the cover art of two stylized ancients (Gods?) hovering over a chess board. I eagerly opened this Twine choice-based game thinking I was in for a real treat, an exploration of the virtues and failings of meritocracy, perhaps the most defining political idea of the 20th century (and one that shows no signs of flagging in the 21st).

You play a university student unsatisfied with your place in life, and thinking—as so many college students do—that there must be more to the education than what you’re receiving. You arrive at your philosophy class to discover the auditorium empty, save for your snoring professor. He reluctantly offers a lesson in ad hominem before breaking. A debate on the campus green over meritocracy sends you back to your professor to discuss this concept and consider its, ah, merits.

As I said, for a philosophically-minded player, this setup sounds like a sugary treat. The game has a lot of lush build-up to the final debate, this idealized campus unwavering in its dedication to higher education, where students gather on the grass for an orderly debate of the ideas of the day, while drowsy professors are ready at a moment’s notice to impart their learning to eager young minds.

Unfortunately, Meritocracy is too dreamlike, as shown by the main character’s sense of noblesse oblige:

…you have a purpose. A purpose that is noble and lofty, that is worthy of your efforts and sacrifices, that is dear to your heart and soul. A purpose that is to study. To study not only for yourself, but for others. To study not only for today, but for tomorrow. To study not only for knowledge, but for wisdom. To study not only for pleasure, but for duty.

Not only is the much of the prose shot through with this kind of repetition, it also suffers from a similar lack of nuance, a quality oh-so-needed in a story about as tricky a concept as meritocracy. I also have to wonder if the author understands how the above sentiment can come across as mawkish at best, and at its worst, paternalistic.

But the stated core of the game is a “battle of wits” over the notion of meritocracy, and I’m sad to report that battle doesn’t really happen.

For one, it takes a surprising amount of time to reach said confrontation. There’s a lot of throat-clearing in the opening pages, including an episode where you wind up in the wrong classroom. The mentioned lesson on ad hominem follows, where the professor offers the beheading of Marie Antoinette as one example, in the sense that she was executed for the wrong reasons (she didn’t really say “let them eat cake,” etc.) I don’t think that’s a great example of ad hominem.

Many of the debates within Meritocracy are more like platitudes mouthed between opponents. One exchange between the professor and a colleague over the death penalty makes the colleague sound like a person who’s spent too much time on Twitter. A daydreamed debate on meritocracy between two idealized opponents has a sing-song rhythmic quality that sounds deep, but never really digs into the nuts-and-bolts of the topic. I had hoped that all these “warm ups” were intended to inform the player of the contours of meritocracy, so the final debate with the professor could go deeper. That may have been the intent, but that was not the result.

The promised mano a mano with the professor over meritocracy is unfortunately lopsided, mostly the professor talking and you listening, with the player making the occasional decision to label his opinion odd or fascinating, or to agree or disagree. Worse, the professor offers the Trolley Problem to suggest that meritocracy is concerned with deciding who lives and who dies. I have no doubt stringent opponents of meritocracy would love to frame the debate in those terms, but—considering the professor is defending meritocracy at this point—the Trolley Problem doesn’t seem a good fit for a primer on the idea, much like the Marie Antoinette example for ad hominem.

It does not help that the story is largely linear, with only a sprinkling of choices here and there to make. I was ready to overlook this in the earlier stages, but to have such little agency in the final debate was a letdown.

I realize this is coming across as an overly negative review. It’s plain the author invested a good deal of effort into creating this game. I applaud any work that grapples with legitimate philosophical questions like meritocracy—it’s a tricky topic to write a story about. The author doesn’t set their thumb on one side of the debate and shove a conclusion down the reader’s throat. That would have been truly fatal.

The resilience of meritocracy seems to stem from its inherent plea to fairness: People who are good at something should be rewarded for it. Sounds easy enough, right? Funny enough, that’s also meritocracy’s greatest criticism: That such a reward system is inherently unfair. Meritocracy is a political optical illusion, where one kind of person sees a duck, while another kind of person sees a rabbit. Focus harder, and the image flips between fair and unfair. Focus harder still, and it melds into both fair/unfair, and then neither fair/unfair.

The criticisms of meritocracy—such as holes with the just-world hypothesis, its buttressing of social stratification, the disease of despair, and questions surrounding meritocracy’s first principles—would have been great launching points for a debate. It’s interesting to me that two major works on meritocracy (Michael Young’s The Rise of Meritocracy and Laurence J. Peter’s The Peter Principle) started as satires, and wound up being turned around and used to study it in earnest.

Unfortunately, I exited Meritocracy feeling its namesake philosophical concept had merely been framed in some simple terms. Certainly I didn’t expect Meritocracy to hit all the above points, and I don’t fault it for not serving my personal curiosities. It’s a game with promise, and some of those promises it makes explicitly. The letdown is in the follow-through.

Sidebar: Meritocracy and IF Comp

One bit I’ll separate from my main review is how Meritocracy got me to thinking about how IF Comp is shot through with meritocracy. The judging, the reviews, and the final awards are couched, explicitly or implicitly, on the idea of rewarding merit. It’s so natural to us moderns, we don’t even realize that there was a time when it was unnatural. If someone today were to blatantly praise or damn an entry on unmeritorious criteria, such due the author’s family name, or their socioeconomic level, there would be outcry.

This is one area where Meritocracy is on the money. When asked by the student, the professor says (in effect), “Without meritocracy, how would I know what grade to give you?” This is the resilience of meritocracy I mentioned, a “stickiness” that helps perpetuate and anchor the idea in our culture. It turns out there are many alternatives to grading on merit. Like the optical illusion, those alternatives will seem fair to some and unfair to others, depending on how hard one focuses.

I only bring this up because, as negative as my review is, Meritocracy succeeded in getting me to think hard about the concept, and left me with a bone to gnaw on. That merits an additional point or two when it’s time to vote in the competition.

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Milliways: the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, by Max Fog

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Don't panic, July 10, 2024
by Jim Nelson (San Francisco)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2023

In some ways, the author of Milliways has put themself into a bind. The original Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy might be the most popular and cherished of the Infocom canon, and so any sequel has a lot to live up to. On the other hand, so much time has passed since the first game’s release—and expectations of an official sequel all but dashed decades ago—no one really expects this new effort to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with a video game legend. (Starship Titanic, the closest we’ll see to a Douglas Adams sequel, paled in comparison to Hitchhiker’s, and it had graphics, a music score, and a full development team.)

Up front, I’ll say this: Having some familiarity with the source material is a basic requirement to play Milliways, be it the Hitchhiker’s books or radio shows or the 2005 movie. Neophytes will probably find themselves rather confused as they’re thrust into situations that Douglas Adams fans are all too familiar with.

The game opens on Magrathea, the planet-building planet. As with the first game, you’re there with the usual gang—Ford, Zaphod, Trillian—but they’ve left you alone with Marvin while they stay busy elsewhere. You start with a copy of the Guide, your dressing gown, and a Babel fish implanted in your ear while standing before a giant crater filled with whale guts. (Again, this all makes perfect sense if you’ve read the books.)

The game is organized in spoke-wheel fashion. You’re transported from scene to scene (each opening in darkness that gradually fades to a blur) where you must solve a puzzle or six to move on. The game gleefully self-declares as old-school Cruel on the Zarfian scale, and you do have die several times in several places before the shape of certain puzzles begin to make sense. Fortunately, UNDO is available. Saving the game periodically is a must.

What’s working here? Hitchhiker’s fans will find most boxes checked. The game touches on the major elements of The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. Marvin is your recurring companion, as is the Guide, although I wish the repertoire of responses for both was a bit larger. The scenes move briskly enough. If I found myself jammed up on a puzzle, the in-game Invisiclues-style hints pointed me on my way.

Asking a game whose source material deals in Improbability Drives to have “logical” puzzles sounds like a failure on my part to get the point of the joke, but a few of the set-ups and solutions left me scratching my head.

More decisively, I found the game lacking in tone and humor. The Infocom game wasn’t a substitute for reading the book, but it gave you the chance for a few hours to be Arthur Dent, Douglas Adams’ walking, talking dunk tank.

Milliways is more business-like in tone, mostly concerned with giving you enough information to move around and play through the puzzles. There are a couple of moments that gave me a laugh, such as when carrying a towel granted access to higher class areas…because it made me look like a waiter. (Again, it helps to have read the books to fully appreciate the joke.)

Other details came off as missed opportunities, such as the menu of the eponymous restaurant:

… There is nothing left on it. Hmm.

So much could have been done here! After all, this game was inspired by the same books that laid out bistromathics, the number-bending relativity found only in gastro-pubs. The menu response in Milliways could likewise have been a great chance to riff.

I’m not expecting the author (or any author) to match Douglas Adams’ wit. But I did expect a fuller nod toward Adams’ acerbic satire of our status-obsessed, techno-laden culture (which today, if you think about it, makes the early 1980s look like The Flintstones).

There were a few polish problems, mostly typos and disambiguation problems:

It leads to the car.

In particular, it appeared that if I could not carry any additional items, it would botch a convoluted puzzle concerning kitchen cupboards. (I didn’t fully diagnose the problem, but had to resort to using a save point to get past it.)

It was wistful to hang out with Marvin again. It’s been so long since I’ve read the books, I’d all but forgotten about the Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster, one of those Adamsian devices that is of the ages. He built a rather colorful universe. Milliways offers a nice peek back into Adams’ creation, but is shy of actually living within it.

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LUNIUM, by Ben Jackson

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A Victorian escape room, July 10, 2024
by Jim Nelson (San Francisco)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2023

I thoroughly enjoyed Ben Jackson’s Spring Thing effort, The Kuolema, and deduced from Lunium’s cover art that he’d produced another top-notch graphical puzzler. Kuolema’s calling card is that it was fully implemented in Google Forms, which I’m still wrapping my head around. This time Jackson used Twine, which appears to have served him well.

Lunium could be described as a Victorian-era escape room with elements of a crime mystery lurking in the shadows. You awake chained to a wall in a candlelit room. The only door out is wrapped in chains and padlocked. Some mysterious contraptions line a side desk. What’s going on here?

Still images with prose descriptions guide you through the room. Unlike Myst-like slideshows, the page will often display multiple images interspersed with text when you “drill down” to examine details closely.

I found the puzzles straightforward, but not overly simple. Once or twice I felt jammed up, walked away from the computer, and came back knowing what my next step would be. I highly recommend reading the descriptions carefully. There are a couple puzzles where one cannot mechanically take information X and apply it to Y to make progress. You must consider the context of the clue and extrapolate.

While the main focus is to solve the puzzles that will lead you out of this room, Jackson lays over that a murder mystery ongoing outside its walls. Clues, notes, and photographs in the room accrete to the details of the crimes. All this is not mere window dressing; deducing the criminal is part of the endgame.

As with Kuolema, the graphics work is superb. Fans of Victorian intrigues will love the careful attention to detail, particularly of the brass-and-wood contraptions and the daguerreotypes of the suspects. Games can be saved, and context-sensitive hints are available. From a presentation perspective, this feels like a professional effort.

Are there problems? Escape room puzzles lean toward the contrived, and that’s often the case here. The setup of an amnesiac player is stock, but hey, it’s an effective way to start a game. Early on, the prose is fairly stark, but becomes more engaging as the player sees more of the room and begins to grasp the connective tissue between its elements. I do wish some of the crime suspects were more fully fleshed out by the game’s ending.

I will say, the ending surprised me. I needed a hint or two before I correctly named the criminal. One plus is that the game is very forgiving; I found no way to die or lock yourself out of an ending. Even when you do reach an end, you’re given a second chance if you feel unsatisfied. It’s a good design choice in an exceedingly well-designed game.

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Barcarolle in Yellow, by Víctor Ojuel

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
A stylish and ambitious miss, July 10, 2024
by Jim Nelson (San Francisco)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2023

Film noir and gritty crime movies are a passion for me, and so the cover and blurb for Barcarolle in Yellow hooked me. The cover is a gorgeous red background superimposed by large haunting eyes and a yellow line falling from one eye to a police chalk-outline, reminiscent of the film posters of Saul Bass. The blurb tells of Barcarolle in Yellow as a lost exploitation flick with an ill-fated production and alternate endings only found on Betamax. (The blurb is so deadpan, I Googled to see if it was a real movie.)

The game itself is an homage to the Italian giallo films of the 1970s, stylish entertainments of beautiful women, fashionable set and costume design, sensuality, and violence. The first scene opens with the police grilling the protagonist, who finally launches into a flashback: “From the beginning? That was a long time ago…”

You are Eva Chantry, a British B-movie actor seeking your big break. You’re phoning in a bit part in a film of another infectious Italian genre, the spaghetti Western. News of a starring role in a giallo sends you to Venice, where the intrigue proper begins.

Barcarolle in Yellow toys with the line between reality and script. It is difficult at any point to know if you’re in-scene or in “reality.” Illusion, film, and photography are thematic elements, which draws to mind movies like Antonioni’s Blow-Up and Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. Still, the game always remains closer to it’s giallo roots—there’s at least three scenes where Eva’s clothes come off, and one span where they remain off for a surprisingly long time. Some of the notes in the final scenes are psychically jarring, and not mere horror-movie gore.

The blurred line between reality and script is most visible in you, the player, being coached—and often forced—through game scenes. The restrictions are usually framed in terms of Eva remaining in her movie part, although it’s hard to know when the cameras are rolling in front of her, or only rolling in her head. At first, I found playing the actor directed to stay on script an interesting choice for interactive fiction. As the game progressed, the novelty wore off.

There’s so much that could have been expanded upon—after all, you’re in Venice, a beautiful city of so much history. Straying off the dictated path will get you scolded by the narrator urging you on to your next goal (which I took as Eva’s psyche, and the dissociative disorders actors sometimes experience off-stage).

The largest problems, by far, are parser-related. Too often I found myself struggling to find the right term, when some basic programmed synonyms and clearer descriptions would have saved me some hassle. It’s surprisingly easy to die in places. The tight timing of some scenes mean that you have not a turn to waste or be killed. In other places, I found myself flailing around trying to find the right trigger to move the scene on to its next beat.

I really wanted to love this game. It opened with great promise. Eva could have been developed more, the scenes allowed to breathe, and the parser problems cleaned up. Barcarolle in Yellow feels like an early draft of an ambitious interactive fiction that needed more time in development.

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Red Door Yellow Door, by Charm Cochran

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Like a David Lynch film in its most unsettling moments, September 3, 2023
by Jim Nelson (San Francisco)

Looking over my review of the last Charm Cochran game I played, You May Not Escape!, I now think I may have lowballed it: While I maintain that the maze navigation was a bit of a slog, as the months have passed I’ve found myself thinking back on the striking imagery found in the labyrinth. There’s the patronizing LED signs, for example, and the grim gravesite markers, not to mention the “off” dialogue between the player and the maze-keeper at the start.

So, I’m not surprised to have experienced a similar set of odd resonances and striking imagery in Red Door Yellow Door.

The game launches into the thick of things. You are teenager Emily, older sister to Claire, and joined on the living room floor with friends Jen and Tiffany. The sleepover centers on a game, something like Ouija but more invasive. After you’ve explained the “rules” to Claire, you rub her temples and send her into a lucid dream state. From there, the game places you in a liminal space between the reality of the suburban living room and the netherworld Claire explores at your behest.

From a narratological perspective, RDYD operates much like the superb Closure. In that game, the command parser acts as text messages between you and your friend. In RDYD, you are feeding instructions to sister Claire, who reports her dreamworld to you while bored Jen and Tiff look on and check their phones.

RDYD operates on a more symbolic and psychological level, though, approaching something like a David Lynch film in its most unsettling moments. Much like science fiction’s acts of defamiliarization, Lynch’s horrors often work by his characters mildly accepting something utterly unsettling to the viewer—or, his characters being devastated by an image otherwise plain and unremarkable to us.

RDYD has a number of these moments, including a character speaking in voices, moments of calm suddenly turning to terror, and—weirdest of all—activating a device in the dream world causing one of the real-world teenage onlookers to speak gibberish. The rules offered at the start are equally strange and Lynchian (“Avoid any room with clocks, because they can trap you”). And, of course, there’s the power dynamics of an older sister guiding her younger sibling down this rabbit hole. (There are moments when the other girls urge you to end the session. It was unsettling as I talked them out of it so I could keep playing.)

Part of me wishes the dreamworld was described in a voice more unique to Claire, but I admit, the matter-of-fact tone IF is so famous for (“A sturdy door is to the north, while the kitchen is to the east”) plays well against the heightened sense of terror that pops up at you. The hoary problem of dark rooms requiring a light source is here, but unlike Zork et al., bringing a light into those spaces is used to devastating effect.

I had to stick with this one; there were long stretches of exploration where I felt untethered from any sense of forward motion or purpose. I played through to two endings, one horrible (and a little sudden—I’m still unsure what happened), one mundane and happy, if unsatisfying. I’m certain there’s at least one more ending, but I ran out of time and need to move back to the Spring Thing list. Perhaps I’ll get back to finding that third path.

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Marie Waits, by Dee Cooke

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Truly torn, September 3, 2023
by Jim Nelson (San Francisco)

I have a pet theory that Americans who call themselves Anglophiles are kind of like people who say they love movies: We all love movies in some way. The question is the kind of movie that draws you in. Likewise, I think all Americans are Anglophiles in some capacity, it just depends on what element of British culture you’re attracted to. For some, it’s British popular music. For others, it’s the glamour and gossip of the royal family.

It’s the English village crime/mystery story which fascinates me. At one point or another, every British sleuth, from Sherlock Holmes to Poirot to Inspector Morse, finds themself facing an English village shopkeeper, or snooping through an English manor’s overgrown garden, or at the village pub buying a pint for the local wag. The folksy and cheery charms of the village mystery is uniquely English, even if the subject matter is morbid.

That’s why I looked forward to Dee Cooke’s latest. Previously I was wowwed by Things that Happened in Houghtonbridge for all those Anglophilic reasons described above: A decaying family home, a cast of local busybodies, and the submerged secrets stirred to the surface by a plucky young protagonist. The mystery had a lot of character and a lot of personal moments mixed in with the usual adventure game fare of snooping around and collecting details. There’s good reasons Houghtonbridge took third place in last year’s ParserComp and claimed a clutch of prizes in the recent IFDB Awards.

Marie Waits offers similar fare: You are Marie, a young woman from the (fictional?) town of Crossley, England. You’ve been captured by a group known as Farr North after your investigation draws a little too close to them and their operations. The game opens with you tied up at the bottom of a pit “in a small hut in the middle of Nowhere, Essex.” Your captors vow to return in two hours and thirty minutes to finish you off. Your goal is fairly obvious: Get the hell out of there.

According to Cooke’s notes, this game is part of a currently incomplete series that starts with 2020’s Pre-Marie. As such, the story line feels ragged when played standalone. It’s apparent there’s a lot of backstory here, but even upon completion of the game, I didn’t feel I truly understood the import of all that transpired. It pretty much is an escape game with a turn limit, which blunted the emotional impact of the final winning moment.

Alas, the English village charms I looked forward to didn’t materialize. The game is heavily restricted to escaping from said hut and reaching civilization by way of a dark forest. You bump into dead bodies along the way, but their relationship to Marie and her plight were less-characterized than one would hope. (One unlucky soul was apparently a rando in the wrong place at the wrong time.) The room descriptions are perfunctory and sparse, and the puzzles are solved in serial fashion. The most human moments come from a series of notes you find along the way.

The first play-through, I ran out of time. I believe most moves count as a minute, meaning I chewed up a lot of free time with my nervous tic of typing >X to look around when I’m fishing for ideas. My second attempt, I managed to finish with time to spare, although I was basically speed-running through the first two-thirds of the game. The timer obviously imparts a sense of urgency to the situation, but it wound up feeling forced. The use of time was much better managed in Houghtonbridge, where its passing was used for appointments with characters and events transpiring elsewhere in town.

I found myself playing guess-the-verb on a few occasions. Reliance on default messages and the like gives the game an unfinished feel, such as how the usable items in this location are described twice:

You are in a small, high-walled yard. To the north is one side of the standalone hut that comprises the wooden room, including its door. To the west is a rickety-looking shed, also with a door, painted green. The other two sides of the yard are blocked by high stone walls, with a high, solid gate in the southwest corner between the wall and the shed.

You can also see a green door, a wooden door and a gate here.

There’s a surprising number of keys, doors, and locks considering how small this game is. It left an aftertaste of adventure games from my youth, where blue keys opened blue doors, and so on.

I’m truly torn; this is a title I definitely wanted to like. I still think it could have been more than the sum of its parts if the emphases had been different. But the reliance on old-school puzzle mechanics, a constrained vision of story scope, and a lack of polish left me flat. Marie Waits feels rushed, much like the protagonist is in her escape, which is too bad.

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The Kuolema, by Ben Jackson

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A high-quality effort in spite of its limitations, September 3, 2023
by Jim Nelson (San Francisco)

The calling card of The Kuolema is how it’s authored in Google Forms, which is nutty and impressive in its own right. However, it’s no novelty act—this is a high-quality effort that doesn’t let up until the very last page (er, form). The Kuolema hearkens back to the great graphic adventures of the 1990s, but without changing CD-ROMs between acts. I needed two sittings to play through to the end, and found myself looking forward to getting back to the game in-between the sessions. It grabbed me.

You take the role of an agent dropped by helicopter onto the bridge of a science research ship in the stormy South China seas. The Kuolema, owned by a European corporation, is no longer answering radio hails and drifting into Chinese waters. You soon discover the ship is all-but-abandoned, and you’re locked out of the navigational controls.

It’s a tried-and-true setup: A lone adventurer in a compact map exploring their surroundings and piecing together the backstory via notes, memoranda, diaries, and so forth. The game offers a combination of solid, if workmanlike, prose, complemented by high-quality still graphics depicting rooms, found items, and other details. Together they create an atmosphere that is creepy and claustrophobic. Suspense drips out gradually, a steady accretion of developments that suggest all is not as it seems on this research ship.

Although the setup is a bit stock—echoes of Babel, or The Stanley Project, or numerous other adventures set in creepy abandoned laboratories, space stations, and so on—the pace of the game, the quality of the writing and stills, and the mild difficulty of the puzzles stoked my interest. There were a couple of unexpected plot twists along the way, which kept me on my toes. While the bulk of the game is exploration and solving puzzles, the endgame is more character-based, and asks the player to consider what they’ve seen and read since the beginning.

Google Forms is not an ideal authoring tool, but the author proves how much mileage can be had from it. That said, there’s a good deal of information that’s best tracked manually. You’ll want to have a notepad or a separate window open to keep notes. Fortunately, mapping is not an issue, as the game provides superbly-rendered maps to ease navigation.

I managed to set my progress back—twice—by pressing the browser “Back” button rather than use the back button provided within the forms. It wasn’t catastrophic, just slightly annoying (and required me to curb some browser muscle-memory while playing). Maintaining a full game state in Forms must have been crazy-hard to design, but it’s not perfect, and so some descriptions do not change to reflect changes to the game world. (Still, the fact that the game is thorough enough to maintain as much state as it does shows the amount of work the author put into it.)

From a story perspective, while there were some nice twists and turns, I found the ending to be telegraphed. There’s a side plot about evil corporations against a backdrop of world superpowers vying for technical superiority—it adds a little depth, sure, but unfortunately it’s all been done before. The ramifications of the research ship’s science is more novel, though, and reminded me of (Spoiler - click to show)Ice Nine from Cat's Cradle.

What can I say? I was enthralled. The Kuolema offers a ripping story about the best laid plans of men, and even ends with a blockbuster conclusion. It also asks for you to make a couple of thoughtful decisions along the way, which is refreshing too.

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Beat Me Up Scotty, by Jkj Yuio

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A lighthearted word-oriented game, September 3, 2023
by Jim Nelson (San Francisco)

A lighthearted word-oriented game where you, a captain of a starship and dressed in “wussy yellow,” find yourself in vaguely uncomfortable situations you must extricate yourself from by uttering an iconic sci-fi TV catchphrase.

Although it presents itself like a parser game, this effort really doesn’t have much in the way of parser mechanics. The solution for each situation is merely to type in the iconic catchphrase but replacing its first word with another that starts with the letter ‘B’.

Although I’m a diehard fan of the TV franchise the game’s opening claims it has no connection to, Beat Me Up Scotty isn’t my cup of raktajino. The humor is light; the pace is brisk; the sound effects are used sparingly, mostly as correct/wrong buzzers, much like a game show. Those elements keep it amusing, but it’s pretty lightweight otherwise. The solutions range from fairly obvious to at least one word I never heard of before (I only found it by checking a thesaurus). That’s a plus, I suppose.

In fact, the best hint I can offer anyone who plays this (and is more or less suggested by the in-game HINT command) is to have a thesaurus handy.

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The Only Possible Prom Dress, by Jim Aikin

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Just the ticket for those who yearn for the IF of yesteryear, January 7, 2023
by Jim Nelson (San Francisco)

Adapted from a review on

As a TADS writer myself, I was happy and relieved to see another TADS game make it into IF Comp 2022. (There was only one in 2021, the atmospheric Ghosts Within.) On top of using the venerable authoring system, Aiken’s entry is also a sequel to his 1999 Inform-based Not Just an Ordinary Ballerina (which I’ve not played). Prom Dress is very much a throwback game, and the author’s notes indicates he meant it to be seen as such.

The premise is one of domestic plight: At the last minute, your seventeen year-old daughter needs a new prom outfit to replace the one damaged by her younger brother. As fate would have it, the shopping mall is all-but-closed due to a downtown parade. Dutifully you drive to the mall praying you will find something for your daughter to wear.

The premise is particular, but the setup is generically familiar to text adventure fans. The deserted shopping mall—a rat’s nest of passages and walkways—and it’s numerous locked storefronts reminds of any number of crawlers, whether they’re set in a dungeon, a haunted mansion, a space outpost, or a jungle island. The few shops remaining open are manned with the requisite NPC providing key information and hinting about their highly-specific unmet need. They’re sufficiently implemented, but none I encountered popped off the screen character-wise.

A few nice touches separate Prom Dress from standard maze-grinding fare. For one, guards on the bottom floor man a video surveillance system. This limits where you can explore without being caught. Another nicety is your daughter at home texting what her Ouija board is spelling out, giving you automatic in-game clues on where to focus your attention.

The map is enormous. Even after two hours of play, I was still finding new locations, and no, not all had been unlocked by solving earlier puzzles—I’d simply not explored every available exit from all rooms. More than once I felt utterly lost. (Fortunately, a link to a downloadable map was added to the game after the comp started. I highly recommend getting it, unless you’re the type of person who likes drawing maps while you play.). Fans of nonlinear adventure games will feast on this game.

One gripe: A number of paths are asymmetrical, that is, going east will take you to a location where you have go south to return to your previous location. The logic for this can be teased out from the descriptions (“East and around a corner, the mall continues…”), but these twists really mess with keyboard muscle memory when you’re hot to solve a puzzle.

While one might not expect much commentary from a game of wander-collect-unlock-repeat, the twisty-promenades-all-alike layout does paint a compelling picture of brutalist American commercial architecture and its rapid decay due to rentier maintenance practices. This mall is the same setting as Aiken’s earlier effort, and references back to it highlight years of neglect and a crumbling infrastructure. Although not described in-game, I could "see" the mall's scuffled flooring and battered kick-plates, and smell yesterday’s Cinnabon in the air. It’s Thomas Cole’s Desolation in suburban miniature.

The map’s enormity is only matched by the inventory to be collected. A discarded shopping bag rapidly goes from a convenience to a necessity. The game is configured to permit only so much be held in-hand, leading to lots of automatic inventory juggling by TADS. One extreme example:

> get belt
(first putting the old-fashioned army helmet in the shopping bag
then putting the flashlight in the shopping bag then putting the gold
coin in the shopping bag)

Norms-bending is the norm here. Gaining access to the closed storefronts—that is, breaking and entering—is a major part of the game. General tomfoolery is performed, all under the guise of securing a prom dress. At one point, in order to advance, (Spoiler - click to show)I found myself waving a fresh pack of Marlboros under the nose of an NPC desperate to kick the habit—that one made me question myself. This is on top of the usual kleptomaniac shoplifting so central to most interactive fiction. (Did I mention the shopping bag?)

In counterpoint is a general levity. This is not a game that takes itself too seriously. The rent-a-cop guards are enraptured by a Law & Order marathon; the military recruiting office’s posters are a touch too jingoistic. It’s not hacker humor a la fnord and the number 42, but a subversive, smirking skepticism that pokes its head up now and then.

Most of my criticisms regard polish. The expansive map means many location descriptions are little more than prose enumerating all exits. It also means a surplus of unimportant decoration objects, with most returning stock replies to actions. Combined, this creates an unfinished feel in places. A few disambiguation problems made me stumble (such as rooms with multiple indistinguishable doors, or a golf ball / golf balls situation). And while it’s obvious the author was having fun with the regrettable puns so ubiquitous to mall shop names, some were stretched thin. (Which might make for another puzzle, but I did have to wonder: Would anyone call their store “The Finest in Taste”? Perhaps in a different part of the country than where I’m from.)

My largest gripe, though, is a bit of a spoiler: (Spoiler - click to show)Once you’re in possession of the shopping mall’s skeleton key, you can enter any store’s front door without explicitly unlocking it. This led to numerous times I tried a location exit thinking it led to an unexplored area, and then being instantly nabbed by the security guards watching the security monitors downstairs. UNDO is available, but to "die" by simply traveling a direction was wearing.

My meager score when I broke away tells me I barely scratched the surface. My first two hours, I was almost drowning in options to pursue. It’s a highly nonlinear game. Puzzle difficulty gradually ramps up as you advance through the mall. The nostalgia of navigating the quasi-maze in solitude, and the micro-bursts of dopamine when solutions are discovered, is just the ticket for those who yearn for the IF of yesteryear. If you’re looking for thoughtful story arcs or expressive characters, this might not be your bag of oats—but that’s not what the game set out to achieve. What it does want to achieve—an expansive puzzle-fest set in a non-traditional location—it does quite well.

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