Reviews by Robin Johnson

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And Then You Come to a House Not Unlike the Previous One, by B.J. Best

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful:
Weird, sweet, nostalgic, metafictional, February 25, 2022
by Robin Johnson (Edinburgh, Scotland)

Firstly, I wish I'd played this before reading any reviews of it; even a few lines gave something away that would have been an amazing experience to discover firsthand. If you haven't played the game yet, go and do so. This is a spoilery review, including a major revelation in the ending I got, and ATYCTAHNUTPO is an extremely spoiler-vulnerable game.

ATYCTAHNUTPO is a game rooted entirely in text adventure nostalgia. It's a well deserved comp winner, and while innovative, it's probably one of the best counterexamples to the common complaint from nerdy middle-aged men that IFComp is getting too far removed from the puzzly parser text adventures they played as nerdy boys in the 1980s and 90s. It's a game about a nerdy teenage boy playing puzzly parser text adventures in the 1980s, or the idealised Stranger Things version of that time. That atmosphere is created skilfully by the prose -- you can almost hear the spinning wheel of your Raleigh Chopper carelessly parked against a Vote Dukakis yard sign outside. The nostalgia is mainly in the setting and story, but also from the storytelling form, which manages to be simultaneously traditional and highly inventive.

The first ten minutes or so are nothing but scenes from (fictitious) text adventures of that era, tiny two- or three-room fetch quests that feel procedurally generated. I've only played once, so I'm not sure if they actually are procgen, but they feel so much like it that I'm sure it's deliberate. These are interspersed with commentary from Riley, who is the best friend of the nerdy teenage boy protagonist, Emerson, who is playing games on Riley's parents' computer, in Riley's house, while Riley, your best friend, sits there and watches, I guess. It must suck to be your second-best friend. Anyway, after three or four of these mini-quests, Riley gets understandably bored and demands you play something else.

[EDIT: I later found out that the author deliberately never specified the protagonist's gender and Emerson is a gender-neutral name, so Em isn't necessarily a boy. Maybe I got a lot of male-coded vibes and/or maybe I made assumptions I shouldn't have. I'll leave the rest of this review as I wrote it.]

This opens up a small range of other minigames based on period-appropriate PC games and software: an OTT ye-olde-epic-quest roguelike RPG, a horrendous-quality edutainment program, and "strip poker" complete with squint-and-you-can-just-about-see-it ASCII boobs. All of these play out as mini-IFs in themselves, in a much more modern style, containing their own fairly deep characters, and they all cue revelations about the "real" characters' stories too, their families, their relationship, their out-of-shot lives, past, and hints of their future. The marriage of the shift to the modern, character-driven style with the continuation of almost parody-level "puzzles" that match the simplistic style of the introductory mini-adventures is interesting, and will give the nostalgia-loving players their fix while smuggling them into a more modern style of IF in a fairly subtle way.

As you play on, the lines between the various layers of fiction start to lose definition. The adventure games bleed objects and character knowledge into each other, then into the other in-game-games as well as the "frame" universe of you and Riley. This is expertly paced, not overwhelming at first, but by the end it's deliberately uncertain what layer of reality you're playing in at any time. Then a cut to an actual ending -- I've only played once, but I *think* there are multiple of these -- that (at least in the case of the ending I got) gives the character some closure, retroactively explains a lot of the seemingly prescient throwaway lines throughout the game about where the characters will be in the following years, and cements the nostalgic element by making this not just a game about being a teenager playing text adventures in the long eighties, but about being an adult *remembering* being that teenager. As one of those adults I can't help appreciating this... but we're not exactly people in desperate need of having our stories told.

Comparisons to both "Endless, Nameless" and "Photopia" are unavoidable: the former for the nostalgia and the gradual reality creep, and the latter for the fairly linear story and the main "perfect girl" NPC. [Mid-to-high-level spoilers for Photopia coming up.] OK, that comparison might not be totally fair: Riley is a *much* more solid character than Photopia's Allie, as low as that bar is, and -- in the path I got -- wasn't sent marching into a tragic ending because that's the inevitable fate of flawless female characters. In Riley's relatively few lines of dialogue and descriptive writing she gets far more characterisation than Allie, and even a few flaws in a "she's so uncool, isn't that cool?" sort of way. But I couldn't help wishing she had more agency of her own, and wasn't defined almost entirely by her relationship to the extremely audience-insert male player character. In my playthrough, the only point at which she seemed to have any significant control of the narrative was a short scene in which she took her top off. (To be fair, that scene didn't feel lascivious or inappropriate, another mark of skilful writing.)

The game is too well written for this stuff to bring it down, but for the same reasons, it's so well written that Riley feels like a missed opportunity. Often, following some revelation from the "games" universe, I tried to talk to Riley and see what she had to say about it, and got nothing but "1. Never mind" as a dialogue choice. If she's really my best friend, why can't I talk to her about stuff? The in-game-game protagonists frequently tell you "Don't worry, Riley can't hear us." If she's really my best friend, why wouldn't I want to share with her that I'm having a full-on paranormal experience in her house? Even towards the end, when I'm finally allowed to show her the cool stuff I've collected from the minigame characters, I'm happy to leave her thinking I thought of it myself. *My best friend.* I only hope I told her the truth some time before marrying her.

I can't compare this game to Photopia without noting that you and your character in ATYCTAHNUTPO have a lot more agency than the player/player character(s) in Photopia. (Or at least it felt like it -- after one playthrough, I can't be sure how much railroading was going on under the hood, but that hardly matters.) I've inferred from other reviews that there are multiple endings, and I found myself making choices out of genuine care for the characters. In a way it's doing some of the same things Photopia was doing, playing with expectations and using interactivity to explore a fairly static character piece, but much better. I also suspect that, like Photopia, ATYCTAHNUTPO will be better remembered for its innovative form rather than the story itself.

I'm better at writing about flaws in things I like than I am at writing about their good qualities, so I'll stress again that I really enjoyed this game. The writing is excellent; the characters, including Riley, all have a lot of depth squeezed into their limited screen time; the story is charming; and the form is original and artfully executed.

Amazing Quest, by Nick Montfort

6 of 8 people found the following review helpful:
Boundary-pushing, but not in a good way., January 1, 2021
by Robin Johnson (Edinburgh, Scotland)
Related reviews: IFComp 2020

Look, I pride myself on not being a gatekeeper. I'm not up for arguments about what is or isn't IF, or a game. This is a game that tests that tolerance.

As far as I can tell, it's an infinite series of yes/no questions created procedurally from a small pool of random words ("you $ENCOUNTER_VERB a $ADJECTIVE $PLACE", do you $ACTION? (y/n)"), and your answers make no difference to it. It comes with a rather pretentious "introduction" and "strategy guide" which apparently serve to try to convince you that there's a deeper game in there, or that if you're good enough you'll enjoy this one.

It would be kind of cool that it was made for C64, and the documentation made on a mechanical typewriter, except that it doesn't make any use of the unique features of either technology.

EDIT, JANUARY 2021: I came across this gem of wisdom in a book about IF, and I can't help quoting it here -
"A program is not interactive fiction if it simply prints the same series of texts, or a random series of texts, in response to input, or if it outputs some transformation of the input string without understanding that string."
- "Twisty Little Passages", by Nick Montfort

OK Boomer: The Game, by E.I. Wong

9 of 11 people found the following review helpful:
About the size of it, December 3, 2019
by Robin Johnson (Edinburgh, Scotland)

I played this game because of the apoplectic one-line reviews it was generating here. It's not exactly nuanced but it expresses its anger skilfully and humorously enough. If you took the trouble of creating a homophobically-named troll account just so you could rate it one star, it's probably about you.

Roberta Williams Eats a Sandwich, by Bitter Karella

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Does what it means to do, May 2, 2017
by Robin Johnson (Edinburgh, Scotland)

This is a funny parody of convoluted puzzle adventures, in which you have to go through bizarre plots in order to make a sandwich, only to be killed arbitrarily by dwarfs demanding you answer wordplay puzzles and so on. It has a similar feeling to the ClickHole games.

Inside the Facility, by Arthur DiBianca

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful:
Clever, funny, unashamed puzzler with reduced parser, November 16, 2016
by Robin Johnson (Edinburgh, Scotland)

The only commands this game accepts are NORTH, EAST, SOUTH, WEST, WAIT, LOOK and STATUS, with actions like picking things up and giving them to NPCs triggered automatically. This is surprisingly effective, and the game contains a variety of puzzles of different types: lock and key, darkness, bribery, manipulate the NPC, figure out the machine, navigation.

I was initially put off by the request to print off a map to fill in as you go, but found it added to the fun, like solving a crossword, and there are certainly puzzles that would have been both harder and less enjoyable without it.

The author knows how to use brevity of writing to good effect with such a large map, longer descriptions would have made the game more tiring. But they managed to squeeze every drop of clarity and characterisation out of the one-sentence descriptions. Some characters made me laugh or feel sorry for them, and some I took an instant dislike to.

Sisyphus, by Theo Koutz

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Doesn't quite work, May 19, 2016
by Robin Johnson (Edinburgh, Scotland)

A one-room, unwinnable joke game. With a few more easter eggs and some typos ironed out, there could be an amusing small game here, but it feels too much like the joke's on you for playing it.

Pirate Adventure, by Scott Adams and Alexis Adams

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Best Scott Adams game, April 28, 2016
by Robin Johnson (Edinburgh, Scotland)

This is the best of the Adams adventures, and worth playing to see what can be done under extremely constrained writing and programming conditions. The fact that the setting and characters are hackneyed actually works in its favour combined with the ultra-tersed descriptions: if you spend three paragraphs describing an eye-patched, hook-handed, wooden-legged scurvy buccaneer, you're just indulging in cliche, but if all you have space for is "You're on a desert island. There is a pirate here", the fact that those things already exist in full colour in the player's mind makes it a much more vivid experience.

The Golden Voyage, by Scott Adams and William Demas
Good example of bad design, April 27, 2016
by Robin Johnson (Edinburgh, Scotland)

Even for a Scott Adams game, unwarned deathtraps and unwinnable states crop up almost everywhere in this game. Most new players will die within a few moves by picking up an item and having their throat slit by a jealous merchant (with no indication that the item even belonged to the merchant.) Still it has some fun to it - Adams' trick of making the familiarity of the setting and the sparsity of the prose work together - and a nice early example of a pilotable vehicle, the sailing ship.

The Veeder, by Christopher Brent

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Fun for Ryan Veeders and non-Ryan-Veeders alike, March 18, 2016
by Robin Johnson (Edinburgh, Scotland)

Very well written, atmospheric short story about a weird ritual and a harrowing underworld. It gives the impression of having been made specifically for Ryan Veeder (which was the brief of the RV Expo, after all) but, as someone who is not Ryan Veeder, I enjoyed it too.

Cheesed Off!, by Hulk Handsome

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Cheese and puns, March 16, 2016
by Robin Johnson (Edinburgh, Scotland)

If you like cheese and puns, you will like this game. It is a series of fairly simple puzzles involving (some rather contrived) cheese homonyms. Just missing a few classics - for example, you have Mascarpone, but you don't get the chance to hide a horse behind it.

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