Reviews by Jim Nelson

IF Comp 2023

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1-5 of 5

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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