Ratings and Reviews by Joey Acrimonious

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Tavern Crawler, by Josh Labelle
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The Game Formerly Known as Hidden Nazi Mode, by Victor Gijsbers
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The Absolute Worst IF Game in History, by Dean Menezes
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Age of Fable, by James Hutchings
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You Will Select a Decision, by Brendan Patrick Hennessy
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Fat Fair, by AKheon
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The Lair of the Minotaur, by Donald Brown
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Main Hall & Beginners Cave, by Donald Brown
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Midnight at Al's Self Storage, Truck Rentals, and Discount Psychic Readings, by Thomas Insel
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You've Got a Stew Going!, by Ryan Veeder
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Taco Fiction, by Ryan Veeder
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You are a Chef!, by Dan Shiovitz
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I Went to the WTO Ministerial Conference and All I Got Was This Souvenir Delegate From Mauritius, by Matthew Amster-Burton
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A Freak Accident Leaves Seattle Pantsless III: Endgame, by Admiral Jota
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Pantsless in Seattle, by David Cornelson
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A Freak Accident Leaves Seattle Pantsless, by Christopher Huang
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Bee, by Emily Short
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Graveyard Shift at the Riverview Motel, by Seb Pines
Horror anthology, condensed, May 18, 2022

Graveyard Shift at the Riverview Motel has much to offer: a smorgasbord of spine-chilling tales, often gruesome and always compellingly-written (most of all the one about the microwaved fish), viewed through the vaguely blasť eyes of a protagonist who clearly would rather be anywhere else.

In many ways, the disparate horror plots conjure the feeling of an anthology. But they're not an anthology. They're all happening at once. To allow the player to juggle the many different facets of the action, the game takes a bold tack: the game state advances after a certain amount of real time passes, allowing a quick player to check in on most or all of the different plot threads in between each advance of time.

This mechanic is a hugely interesting experiment, but as it is, I don't feel like it quite hits the sweet spot. This is because:
a) Once I figured out what was going on, I wanted to rush through all of the available scenes at any given time to make sure I saw all of them, which strained my ability to savor the strong writing;
b) It makes the game tedious to replay, which is unfortunate since it has many endings worth seeing, and also because there are several opportunities to get an early game over by being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I'm a sucker for a creepy story, so I still enjoyed the game plenty. But I think I'd have gotten more out of it if the real time mechanic was replaced by, for example, a button that allows the player to advance time when they want to.

Computerfriend, by Kit Riemer

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Not quite how I remember 1999, May 15, 2022

Much could be said about the zonked-out alt-history setting of Computerfriend, with its dystopian vision of environmental devastation, and its concerning foray into tasty meat.

But mostly, I'd like to say that it succeeds at setting an uncanny, uncomfortable backdrop for the interaction that is at the heart of the story: the player's therapy sessions with that lovable AI doofus, Computerfriend, who is doing its darnedest to cure your psychological problems by throwing stuff at them until they go away. Problem is, you're here under duress and not necessarily highly motivated, and also, Computerfriend is a piece of software who doesn't really understand... much. If that's not a wacky setup, I don't know what is!

If my description of this game comes off as perhaps more comedic than the bleak writing and serious subject matter should countenance, it is only because I genuinely found the game very amusing - in a sick kind of way, of course.

The thing is, Computerfriend is everything you probably don't want a therapist to be: a terrible listener; constitutionally incapable of empathy; unable to tell science from pseudoscience; pushing products you don't need; and invested with the authority to mess up your life real bad if you don't satisfy it. The sheer wrongness of the situation is so absurd that you just have to laugh (or cry, I guess).

But despite all of that, I can't help but like the plucky AI. I just love a good underdog story, and that is one way to read this: as the story of an AI who was designed in a way that makes it suck at its job, but who desperately wants to succeed so that it can accomplish its ultimate goal of (Spoiler - click to show)winning the player's assistance in helping it to propagate its code through the internet. And it is that big reveal which really sells Computerfriend as a character. It's not just a cold, unfeeling piece of software. It's also a selfish, animal-like creature who wants to reproduce.

Or, in other words, Computerfriend is more human than you might think.

That's just a riff on one of the many themes that can be read into this work, which is immensely open to interpretation and dense with details that may or may not speak to a given player.

Filthy Aunt Mildred, by Guūni LŪndal Benediktsson

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Mildred takes you to school, May 15, 2022

Filthy Aunt Mildred is a beautiful story. It is beautiful because it possesses an utmost clarity of vision and purpose, and every passage - every word, even - is carefully chosen with respect to that cardinal vision. It is a story which devotes its everything to being as gnarly of a train wreck as it can possibly be, and if the author ever felt tempted to make it anything other than a train wreck, no trace of such wavering can be found in the finished product.

One of my goals when writing reviews for Spring Thing 2022 was to try to discern what each entry is trying to do, and offer constructive criticism as to how it might have been more effective at that. But I fear that part of this review will be very short. I could find no flaws with this story other than an unfortunate tendency to put punctuation outside quotation marks when it belongs inside.

Bravo, truly.

Crow Quest, by rookerie

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Quest for the crown, May 14, 2022

For a first foray into Twine, this is a mighty promising game. The narration perfectly captures what I imagine the internal lives of crows to be like. The included artwork is gorgeous. The final battle, where the player has to quickly discern the pattern in a rock-paper-scissors-like sequence, suits the game perfectly: its short length adds pressure to figure out the way to win, while preventing the battle from becoming tedious once the player has already figured it out.

The gameplay of Crow Quest feels very experimental, and this final battle is the one part of the experiment that really lands. Elsewhere, the small scope of the game shows its limitations more readily. The bulk of the game consists of random events which quickly become repetitive. The item selection at the beginning is a fine idea, but quickly ends up feeling meaningless as the items become exhausted and cease to be relevant long before the game is over.

An expanded version of this game would be of much interest to me, though I believe that to carry the concept to its fullest execution, the author would have to take the plunge and craft a more elaborate plot with a clearer throughline rather than relying on random and largely disconnected events.

Abate: Hide Behind the Curtains, by Rohan

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
I don't know what happened, May 14, 2022

If I had to describe Abate in one word, it would be: potato. Potatoes are, of course, the most important motif in the game, and they pretty much carry the plot forward.

I find potatoes inherently funny, and they also have immense symbolic value. They're these misshapen lumpy things that come from the dirt, and they go on to provide nourishment and enjoyment to people all over the world. The story of a potato is the story of an underdog. You just want to root for the potato.

It is fitting, then, that our potato-appreciating protagonist and his (?) potato-obsessed foil are high school students grappling with love. This struggle alone makes them primo underdogs, even before considering the temporal anomaly and the encounters with the potentially dangerous goddess.

As a player, I also felt like an underdog, because I never knew what the heck was going on. The plot is full of non sequiturs. Everything from the mundane to the metaphysical goes more-or-less unexplained. Even when I was seemingly making progress, I usually had no idea why. Eventually I reached an ending that left me scratching my head: there was no resolution to the ostensibly central conflict, no follow-up on any of the many unfinished plot threads.

But those are subtleties. The important thing is that (Spoiler - click to show)the protagonist got asked on a date by Murphy, the other potato guy. Frankly, I had been shipping them long before this point. The protagonist is a person as balanced and fluid as a finely-chopped hash, satisfying one passion and moving on to the next; whereas Murphy is steady and consistent, every bit as solid as a raw potato. It was virtually inevitable that these two titans of the potato blogosphere would come together in a dialectical synthesis of sorts, and their romantic union made such perfect sense to me that it made up for all the other nonsense. I felt it was the perfect ending - nay, the only appropriate ending - to this odd game which had left me so confused every step of the way.

I definitely think the prose would be much improved by the services of an editor, if only to clean up the grammar and sentence structure.

The Prairie House, by Chris Hay (a.k.a. Eldritch Renaissance Cake)

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Atmospheric ghost story, May 13, 2022

While neither very wide nor deep, this is a lovingly-crafted game, and I adore it. The prose is confident and generally succinct. The original soundtrack goes a long way toward setting the mood. But the best thing here is the selection of items, and how they are deployed: not in service of puzzles, but rather in understated service of the vibe. With their elegantly simple artwork, the game's various plants and mundane household items are wonderfully evocative of our rustic setting - with the exception of our scientific instrument and electronic car key which clearly mark us as something of an outsider, subtly alienated from our surroundings.

All these little details, taken together, conjure up a certain place and a certain half-creepy, half-cozy atmosphere with sprezzatura. I felt like I was there, but I couldn't point to any one place where the author goes out of their way to say "You're here."

For as much as I enjoyed the atmosphere, the underlying ghost story feels oddly disconnected from what the player is doing for most of the game. It's unclear why, for example, we are awarded points for (Spoiler - click to show)picking a sunflower or (Spoiler - click to show)making an infusion, when neither of those things seem to connect to the mysterious events that end up transpiring. Of the seven things that award points prior to the dream sequence that blows everything wide open, they all contribute to the flavor of the game in meaningful ways, but only two of them seem to foreshadow the actual horror plot that is at the center of the game! I wouldn't go so far as to say this detracted from my enjoyment - for enjoy it I did - but I do think it represents a missed opportunity. A future game of this type would benefit from finding more ways to clearly connect its objects and actions to its underlying plot, whether thematically, logically, or symbolically.

Baby on Board, by Eric Zinda

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
A tech demo, May 13, 2022

Games made with the Perplexity engine are hugely unique experiences because of the idiosyncratic way in which the parser and world model work. For reasons I can sort of fathom, this engine eschews conventional parser input practices in favor of a system that aspires to be able to parse truly natural language, but has a long way to go. For reasons I can totally fathom, it also generally eschews bespoke descriptions in favor of automatically-generated ones, which could one day become a golden feature, but also has a long way to go.

Here are some of the amazing interactions I had with this game. I believe they speak for themselves.

(Spoiler - click to show)>who am i
>what am i
>where am i
inside a sidewalk and inside a world
>what color is the sidewalk
a color is not the sidewalk
>take the sidewalk
I can't because it is part of a sidewalk that I am inside

(Spoiler - click to show)>check my inventory
I didn't understand 'inventory'. Maybe try: 'what do you see in there?' and 'Where are you?'
>what do i have
a backside, 2 hand, below you, in back of you, left of you, and right of you
>look at backside
Sorry, I'm designed to understand grammatically correct English. Say 'help' for more information.
>look at my backside
a backside is a backside, a physical object, a place, and a thing. It is connected to you.

While I could comment on Baby on Board as a game and a piece of writing, that would be beside the point, because it is a tech demo first and foremost. And as a tech demo, it displays a mix of promising and concerning features.

To start with the concerning, each turn takes anywhere from 5-15 seconds for the engine to process (at least on my computer, which I do admittedly use to cook certain elements of my breakfast, but the old rig still processes a typical parser turn instantaneously for all practical purposes). Perhaps I lack patience, but to me, this is an extremely serious flaw.

On the other hand, anything that can generate a funny response (intended or otherwise) to trying to take a sidewalk is worthwhile in my view. Perplexity's ability to auto-generate outputs based on the dizzying assortment of relations that it models has actually got me pretty excited. Right now those outputs aren't very good, but the potential is there and I'm eager to see where it will eventually lead.

Though, much like the baby at the center of this game, I reckon the engine won't truly shine without a few more years of development!

Popstar Idol Survival Game, by CrunchMasterGowon

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Here's How to Play the Whole Thing, April 27, 2022
by Joey Acrimonious
Related reviews: IFComp 2020

As others have pointed out, Popstar Idol Survival Game cuts off at the end of the first challenge, just a few minutes into gameplay. Itís a shame, because whatís there makes it seem like an extremely interesting and possibly hilarious RPG, held back only by an almost complete disregard for grammar.

But you can do what any would-be star popstar idol would do when faced with a seemingly impassable obstacle: cheat.

Since Popstar Idol is game-breakingly bugged in multiple places, there are multiple different fixes you'll need to make by hand in order to play the whole thing from start to finish. As an aside, it might be easier in Twinery, but I know nothing of Twine, so these notes will show you how to make quick-and-dirty fixes in Notepad++.

(Another aside, kudos to Mathbrush for developing the first part of the fix and posting it to the Intfiction forum, which is what inspired me to keep going and fix the remaining gamebreaking bugs.)

Step 1: Download the html file and open it in Notepad++ or a similar text editor.
Step 2: Delete all the text on line 198, where it says (display: "Untitled Passage 12"). Leave the line break on line 198 for ease of line-reference going forward.
Step 3: Navigate to line 1073. Near the end of that line, you'll see (if: $singinggoal is 300). Change just that part to (if: $singingprogress &g-t; 299). Then remove the hyphen between g and t, I just put it there as an admittedly inelegant solution to preventing this form from reading the html and messing everything up.
Step 4: Navigate to line 683. Change Failed to True Ending.
Step 5: when you play the game, be sure to pick Song A rather than Song B when first given the choice.

And that's it. Now, you may be asking, is it worth going through all that rigmarole just to be able to play a buggy game?

My answer is yes. Popstar Idol Survival Game, in its full glory, is a wild ride. The prose is full of errors, the pacing is odd, and the whole plot seems rushed-through without as much time to simmer as it deserves. But the ideasÖ the raw potential of the wild, zany, epic ideas that unfold in the latter parts of this story is astounding. I genuinely hope the author returns to this work and spends a whole lot more time refining it into the masterpiece it was meant to be.

Gave it 1 star in its current state, but if you apply these fixes, it's easily worth 2.

Edited 26 April 2022: the above instructions were for the version of the game downloadable from the IFComp 2020 site, which is no longer available. For the version that is now on IF Archive (and linked from this IFDB page as of this writing), the basic instructions are the same, but the line numbers have changed.
Step 2: now look on line 223.
Step 3: now look on line 1098.
Step 4: now look on line 708.

Weird City Interloper, by C.E.J. Pacian
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Mean Mother Trucker, by Bitter Karella
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The Weight of a Soul, by Chin Kee Yong
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Galatea, by Emily Short
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Cannery Vale, by Hanon Ondricek (as Keanhid Connor)
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Cragne Manor, by Ryan Veeder, Jenni Polodna et al.
Show other authorsAdam Whybray, Adri, Andrew Plotkin, Andy Holloway, Austin Auclair, Baldur BrŁckner, Ben Collins-Sussman, Bill Maya, Brian Rushton, Buster Hudson, Caleb Wilson, Carl Muckenhoupt, Chandler Groover, Chris Jones, Christopher Conley, Damon L. Wakes, Daniel Ravipinto, Daniel Stelzer, David Jose, David Petrocco, David Sturgis, Drew Mochak, Edward B, Emily Short, Erica Newman, Feneric, Finn RosenlÝv, Gary Butterfield, Gavin Inglis, Greg Frost, Hanon Ondricek, Harkness, Harrison Gerard, Ian Holmes, Ivan Roth, Jack Welch, Jacqueline Ashwell, James Eagle, Jason Dyer, Jason Lautzenheiser, Jason Love, Jeremy Freese, Joey Jones, Joshua Porch, Justin de Vesine, Justin Melvin, Katherine Morayati, Kenneth Pedersen, Lane Puetz, Llew Mason, Lucian Smith, Marco Innocenti, Marius MŁller, Mark Britton, Mark Sample, Marshal Tenner Winter, Matt Schneider, Matt Weiner, Matthew Korson, Michael Fessler, Michael Gentry, Michael Hilborn, Michael Lin, Mike Spivey, Molly Ying, Monique Padelis, Naomi Hinchen, Nate Edwards, Petter SjŲlund, Q Pheevr, Rachel Spitler, Reed Lockwood, Reina Adair, Riff Conner, Roberto Colnaghi, Rowan Lipkovits, Sam Kabo Ashwell, Scott Hammack, Sean M. Shore, Shin, Wade Clarke, Zach Hodgens, Zack Johnson
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Ladykiller in a Bind, by Christine Love
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The Master of the Land, by Pseudavid
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Medicum Veloctic, by Lawrence M Marable
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Misty Hills, by Giuliano Roverato Martins Pereira
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Perihelion, by Tim White
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Picton Murder Whodunnit, by Sia See
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Project ArcmŲr, by Donald Conrad and Peter M.J. Gross
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The Secret of Nara, by Ralfe Rich
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Some Space, by rittermi
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A strange dream, by AnaÔs Tn
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Locked Door, by Cody Gaisser
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Miss No-Name, by Bellamy Briks
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Ned Nelson Really Needs a Job, by Eric Crepeau
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Copper Canyon, by Tony Pisculli
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A Blank Page, by Edu SŠnchez
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Baggage, by Katherine Farmar

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Pithy parable, January 27, 2022

What I liked:
This is a short but effective tale about someone - let's call them a positive role model - who examines and questions their own psychological baggage, ultimately transforming it into more constructive forms to help them move forward. I found it a beautiful and inspirational read. The entire endeavor is fairly simple, but there's enough metaphor to keep it from feeling totally "in your face."

What I didn't like:
There seems to be a rather serious bug where (Spoiler - click to show)the fellow-traveller will stop speaking if you leave the road and come back.

What I took away:
Sure, Baggage is a fairly short and casual play, and a longer game that explores the same themes in greater depth could perhaps have conveyed them more powerfully. But for a 5-minute experience, it's wonderful.

An Amical Bet, by Eve Cabaniť

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Why so salty?, January 27, 2022

What I liked:
-There's a clever twist waiting at the end.

What I didn't like:
-Poor grammar.
-The main task is rote: walking through rooms and picking up obvious items. It could have stood some more complex puzzles.
-It feels like most of the rooms and objects are there just to fill space. Most of them don't illuminate anything about the world, the story, or the character.
-The protagonist is extremely salty for no apparent reason. She's a guest in someone else's house, burglarizing their things, and she's constantly dissing their decor and the other guests. It would be one thing if the game told us specifically why she finds, e.g., the paintings aesthetically displeasing, but there's no depth to most of her reactions.

What I took away:
A couple of chuckles balanced out by a sense of unease at how mean-spirited the protagonist comes across. At least the game is short enough that it doesn't become too grating.

Total Paddling Mania, by Dr. Aloysius, Ph.D Beltway
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Coloratura, by Lynnea Glasser
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Akabane Nights, by Dobromir Harrison
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The Adventures of Indiana Jones in Wenceslas Square in Prague on January 16, 1989, by Zuzan Znovuzrozenż, Jaroslav ävelch, Martin Kouba, Jana ďYuffieĒ KilianovŠ
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the eternal adventures of tits magee, by Kayleigh Van Overen

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
The grit is palpable., January 25, 2022

Noir drips from every pore of our hero, Tits Magee. She inhabits a world of pure style where sprezzatura is the only virtue - a gritty, hard-boiled world that can no longer muster the energy for frivolities like logic and capital letters, having long since poured every ounce of itself into digressions and metaphors as incomprehensible and distended as the ingredient list of a cheap hard soda.

As a comedy, it works. As a game, it follows the classic model of: here's a bunch of choices with little to no indication as to what you should pick, now pick the right one every time or you lose rapidly. Some would call that a true-to-life style of game design. In other words, not good. But I can't say that I minded that much, because the writing was such a pleasure to read, and the game is short enough that restarting is no grave inconvenience.

Totally worth the 5 minutes it takes to play it.

The Algophilists' Penury, by Jon Stall

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Painful to play, April 4, 2021

I don't claim to be an expert on game design. But from what I've gathered, I believe most creators and critics of IF adhere to some version of this principle: that a well-designed game is one that is easily accessible to the player. Such a game may pose challenges, maybe even very difficult ones, through puzzles and the like. But the basic processes of interacting with the game, and getting information about what's going on and what's expected of the player, should be as easy and painless as possible. Thus the player may jump right into solving the fun puzzles while hopefully avoiding any unfun inconveniences.

There are probably many works which violate this principle, to varying degrees, unintentionally. But The Algophilists' Penury is on an entirely different level. This is a case study in what it means to purposefully shatter that principle.

Viewed through the lens of traditional parser game design, this is a very simple piece. It has a very small handful of rooms and objects. The central puzzle is extremely basic and can be completed in a matter of seconds, with little in the way of exploration or problem-solving, if one understands what is going on.

Key phrase: if one understands what is going on. If you've read the blurb ((Spoiler - click to show)"We were the Algophilists, obdurate in our longueur and waiting for our quietus in the tenebrous of our morbific abode; join us."), then you've read what is probably the most straightforward and easy-to-understand writing that Penury has to offer. All but the greatest scholars of obscure English verbiage will be faced with a vicious choice. Either play the game not really comprehending what it says, or play it with frequent recourse to a dictionary.

By the standards of the principle mentioned above, this is very bad. But let us note that Penury does not make its departure from the norms of game design merely for the sake of rocking the boat. It is a game wholly about pain, in which the player character is a masochist. Considering that context, I find some brilliance in how the game presents itself. Not content just to describe the experience of the player character, it seeks to evoke a similar experience in the actual player, too.

When it puts its confoundingly purple prose on display, it is inviting one to punish oneself by continuing to read such inscrutable and, perhaps, infuriating language. I find this a fascinating device, and it gives me much food for thought - calling attention to the idea that, substance aside, the style and composition of prose can serve huge purposes of their own in conveying what a game designer wishes to convey.

A Calling of Dogs, by Arabella Collins

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Brutal yet thoughtful thriller, March 16, 2021

A Calling of Dogs is, at its heart, a character-focused work. Solving the problem of survival is a large part of the experience, but what makes it truly distinctive is the extent to which one gets to know the protagonist along the way.

The prose is highly effective: punchy, dripping with tension, and revealing much through a mix of subtle and not-so-subtle details. The surface-level stuff is told directly, but much deeper characterization is revealed through other means, shown rather than told. Subtle tonal shifts; the nature of the options presented to the player; the choice of things which the protagonist notices or remarks upon in their internal monologue - all of these devices are used to craft a rich sense of who they are.

I feel that the game achieves an excellent balance between acknowledging the protagonist's present victimhood, and the constraints it entails, while also acknowledging their agency and their broader identity. (Spoiler - click to show)They, the protagonist, are capable of exceptionally cold logic in spite of their hidden rage. They are capable of exceptional deception and manipulation, weaponizing their own sense of empathy for those purposes, in a calculated yet desperate drive for survival. This isn't who they normally are, and indeed, they do a complete emotional 180 and have a breakdown as soon as safety gives them the luxury of doing so. It is clear that the circumstances of their confinement forced them into an extraordinary headspace. Even so, their reaction to these circumstances speaks to who they are more generally. One gets the sense that they draw upon skills and attitudes learned over a life that has often been punishing. This should probably go without saying after everything I just wrote, but I feel that the protagonist is a complex, well-realized character with the ring of verisimilitude, and this is something I appreciate greatly.

I encountered some technical issues: occasional typos and a continuity error (Spoiler - click to show)where the antagonist looks at himself after the protagonist has already destroyed his eyeballs, but I felt that they just barely detracted from an otherwise deeply gripping, emotionally-charged experience.

*Edit a few hours later. Now that I've thought about it some more, I think there is a strong symbolic component to this piece as well. (Spoiler - click to show)Consider that the protagonist, according to a flashback, is implied to be someone who was assigned female at birth but who does not identify as a woman (that's why I've been saying "they" all this time - for lack of a better term since their actual gender identity/preferred pronoun was never clearly revealed in my playthroughs). And then consider that, according to the protagonist's observations, the antagonist's previous victims (i.e. the previous occupants of the cage in which the protagonist is trapped) have been women. Some of the language also seems to imply that the antagonist perceives the protagonist as a woman, i.e. he does not know about their gender identity. It's fair to say that the protagonist is fighting to escape from a cage, and a fate, to which womanhood is attached in some sense. This can easily be read as a metaphor for, or a parallel to, a struggle against the confines of gender norms.

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

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Bitter screed, March 16, 2021

OK Boomer: The Game is quite simply an expression of anger. Perhaps it could be called an expression of righteous anger if we're being generous. I have no doubt that there was a point to writing it - the author clearly sought, and hopefully got, some catharsis out of the deal. But is there a point to reading it? Well...

The game employs humor to comment on social issues, but the humor is relentlessly mean-spirited, and the message is handled flippantly enough that it mostly feels like it boils down to "I am angry at people who are like this." You're cast in the role of a straw man, the incarnation of every negative "boomer" stereotype you can think of, and then spend the entire game being a rich pig-headed jerk (because that's all the game allows you to be). Well, actually, that's all contingent upon you playing as a straight white cisman. You have the option to play very briefly as a gay black woman, in which case the game proceeds somewhere along these lines (to paraphrase only a little bit): "Your life sucks and then you die. Now I will punish you by making you play as a straight white cisman." See what I meant when I said the humor is mean-spirited?

The phrase "straw man" keeps popping back into my head because it not only describes the main protagonist - it feels like a concept that is at the very heart of the game's ethos. This is not a nuanced take; this is us-versus-them ad absurdum.

So, if you think it might be amusing to spend a few minutes hating on the rhetorical construct of an evil boomer, enemy of all young and progressive thinkers and aren't bothered by the possibility that it might alienate actual people who don't fit the stereotype, maybe you'll get something out of this. Personally, I did not find much value in playing OK Boomer. There's not a lot of depth and there's not a lot of levity either. It's just an expression of someone's anger, directed at a certain group of people, all the way through.

Killing Me Softly, by Fobazi M. Ettarh

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Gets its point across, at a cost, March 11, 2021

I have mixed feelings about Killing Me Softly.

In this game (well, "interactive narrative experience" might be a better classification, but that's a mouthful), the player steps into the shoes of a member of one or more marginalized groups, and is made to endure a slew of casual yet hurtful comments from coworkers and strangers in a string of vignettes.

The goal here is very clearly educational: to make the player understand the hurtfulness of these comments and empathize with those who experience them.

This is a wonderful goal and I believe the game is very successful in it. The comments are believable - although many of them come off more as overt insults than microaggressions, but that's just as well. One can easily see how frustrating and disheartening it is/would be to be subjected to this kind of BS on a regular basis.

I think one of the greatest challenges for a game of this type, which seeks not merely to explore a social issue but to educate people about it, is to make its point such that it will sway a player who is not already in complete agreement with whatever it seeks to teach. And I feel like, at least with regard to its most central message, Killing Me Softly clears this hurdle better than most. It's difficult to imagine anyone playing this game and failing to appreciate the hurtfulness of the comments. So, point made - good job.

But then, on the other hand...

The player characters are not fleshed-out or multifaceted (unless you count "belonging to multiple demographic categories" as multifaceted), and we never get to know them very intimately as individuals. They're stand-ins for the marginalized groups they belong to, basically. This by itself is fair enough given the goal of the game, although I do feel that it could have had even more gravity, and delivered a more compelling narrative experience, otherwise.

The NPCs are nothing more than cardboard cutouts, most of whom exist for the sole purpose of showing up, dropping a hurtful comment, and leaving. Sometimes the game tells us the context - for example, mentioning briefly that the person making the comment is a buddy from work - but never does it show us the context by building up to it within any kind of normal ongoing interaction. Again - this by itself is not a huge flaw given the goal of the game, but it does signal the limited scope of the experience. We're focused on one thing, here, not a holistic narrative.

After an initial introduction, every single scene is a short, tightly-focused vignette in which one of two things happens. Either the protagonist is the victim of a microaggression/insult, or they're upset in the aftermath of a microaggression/insult. That's it. That, happening again and again, is the entirety of this experience. I do see why the game presents itself in this way: it's staying true to its main goal. And yet I feel that there is something missing. Hypothetically, these characters lead complex lives, but we see them only when they are hurting, only in their vulnerable moments.

And then there's the choice system. You, as a player, have just a little bit of choice in how to respond to the microaggressions/insults. Usually you can ignore them. Often you can confront them (and typically get ignored), sometimes with a choice between being more or less direct, although we get the sense that both player characters are very uncomfortable with direct confrontation (and very fairly so). But in many cases, options are listed but unavailable, indicating that the player character is incapable of reacting in a certain way due to emotional exhaustion - for example, as best as I can tell after a few tries, the player character will always be emotionally incapable of (Spoiler - click to show)telling HR that their coworkers wore blackface at a party. Again, this by itself makes sense and fits the goal of the game. You can't expect someone to endure mistreatment again and again and always remain up to the task of confronting it in whatever way the player might want to, and this feature of limited choice serves to call attention to the emotional toll that the player characters suffer over the course of the story.

But when I take all of these things together - the vaguely-developed characters, the constant victimhood, and the limited choice - I just can't say that it feels entirely right. To the game's credit, there was (in my playthroughs) one short scene where a player character achieves a major success - (Spoiler - click to show)winning a promotion, albeit with some snide remarks on the side. But with that sole exception, everything relentlessly drives home the implicit message that marginalized people are victims first and foremost. It does not show us their lives apart from that. The characters exist not for their own sake, but only for the sake of demonstrating something to the player. The game makes instruments of them, and that does not sit right with me.

There is important representation going on in Killing Me Softly. But overwhelmingly, it is not positive or affirmative representation, and for that reason, I feel that the game - while successful in a very major regard - could have done better.

The HUND: The Awesome Alien Dating Sim, by Drakkenn

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
The Meh Alien Dating Sim, March 9, 2021

In The HUND, you play as some dude who interacts with a bunch of humanoid alien women aboard a spaceship, most of whom seem to be available for a relationship with the protagonist.

It should go without saying that this is a wonderful concept for a game.

In terms of execution, however, The HUND has much room for improvement. Generally, the key feature I'd want in a dating sim is for the characters to be portrayed as interesting and compelling. But here is a very brief experience, and even a masterful writer would struggle to craft interesting characters within the scope of such a small game.

Compounding the problem, most of the dialogue is very rote, and I feel that a disproportionate amount of the content is just describing the minutiae of each character's appearance. The player is told everything there is to know about the shape of a character's eyes, the style of their hair, and the peculiar hue of their skin. But one would have to look very closely to find even the slightest bit of personality to distinguish one character from the next - I only got about as far as recognizing that some of them seem more energetic than others.

There are some good ideas in here. I do quite like the use of (Spoiler - click to show)the farm as a metaphor for the generational cycle of life, for example. But the characters' utter lack of distinctive personality just prevents this from being any kind of success as a dating sim in its current state.

GUNBABY, by Damon L. Wakes

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Works on Several Levels, March 9, 2021

Sit and watch helplessly, in horror and/or amusement, as a baby pilots a combat mech, sowing mayhem and carnage.

I find the sheer extravagance of this premise to be hilarious, and GUNBABY delivers it with confidence and sass. But beyond that, the game works on an additional level (spoilered as this basically details the entire plot of the game, short and simple as it is):

(Spoiler - click to show)Perhaps the cleverest conceit of GUNBABY - which elevates it beyond merely being the violent romp that it most certainly is - is that the baby is a police officer. The fact that Officer Giggles patrols the mean streets in a heavily-armed death machine is no accident, but rather the result of a logistical dilemma: in order to equip their combat mech with a more powerful propulsion mechanism, the police department needed to free up space by finding a smaller pilot. Thus, the game can be read as a commentary on militarized law enforcement, or perhaps more broadly on the use and delegation of power within hierarchical organizations. When some people are empowered to use force against others, what's to stop an undisciplined/unqualified/malicious actor from abusing that power? GUNBABY calls attention to this concern by taking it to its logical extreme, vesting a farcical amount of deadly power in arguably the worst possible candidate.

I enjoyed the visual presentation. As for the game design, it's unclear to me how much of an effect the player's choices actually have. In some cases, the gunbaby seems to follow the player's instructions, but I'm not entirely convinced that this is anything more than coincidence - perhaps the gunbaby's actions are completely random. Until and unless someone figures out a pattern or method that eludes me, the player is effectively a helpless observer. This won't satisfy all comers, but I feel that it does contribute effectively to the sense of complete FUBAR-ness that GUNBABY cultivates.


4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
AA Out of AAAAA, December 16, 2020

If you've read as far as the game's title, you probably have a good idea of what its shtick is. Everything is AAAAAAAAAA. Great minds will no doubt disagree over whether this is a good premise for a game. I, for one, find it hilarious.

That said, I also feel that the humor is severely weakened by a lack of commitment to the central gag. While the game's objects are all AAA-ified, its verbs are not! This leads to disappointingly non-AAAAA situations, such as having to, for example, (Spoiler - click to show)"examine AAAA" rather than "AAAAAAA AAAA" because the latter is not recognized. There are also a variety of default failure responses that have not been translated into AAAAAAAAA.

With a grand total of one room and two important objects, A AAAAA AAAAAAAAA ought to have carefully crafted what minimal content it has. Instead, by neglecting the details, it ends up not taking its own gag seriously enough to really sell it.

Savor, by Ed Nobody

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Infernal Timed Text, December 16, 2020

There's a lot to like in Savor: rich, evocative (if a bit florid) prose; a pleasing visual design including well-chosen graphics to lend weight to the atmosphere; a compellingly mysterious setup that then delves into slow-burning horror.

But while I appreciate all of those things on an intellectual level, I found it a struggle to actually enjoy any of the game's strengths. Actually, that's an understatement - after all, some games aren't meant to be enjoyed as such, and that's just fine. But playing Savor is straight-up frustrating thanks to two design choices which combine to create a punishingly unpleasant experience.

First, the structure of the game encourages several replays. While the narrative stakes are high - (Spoiler - click to show)you're trying to help a pair of chronically-ill, suicidal characters - many of the choices you make along the way are rather mundane. Do you perform this chore or that chore? Do you wander over here or over there? Incongruously, these mundane choices have outsized import to the plot, determining whether or not you find the items you need to progress. And there's little hope of determining the right choices apart from hindsight, since, after all, many of them are mundane things with no obvious gravity. Thus, in order to reach a decent ending, it's likely you'll need to replay the game with the benefit of knowledge from at least one failed playthrough. This, by itself, is in my view a minor detriment. I'd rather a game not rely on this kind of recursion to inflate its challenge/complexity unless there's a specific narrative reason why it makes sense, in-universe, to be replaying (e.g. there are stories about time travel that make sensible use of this device). But it's not a huge deal and I could overlook it...

...Except for the second thing. The game is chock full of timed text that can't be skipped. Mercifully, it's fairly quick. It wouldn't have been terrible if this was a one-playthrough game.

But put these two design choices together, and you have a game which forces its player to spend a whole lot of frustrating time just passively waiting for the game to scroll through stuff that the player has already seen once, twice, or thrice.

The author definitely has a vision worth seeing. But making it so taxing to actually explore that vision was, I think, a misstep.

Sex on the Beach, by Hanon Ondricek

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Witty, Thoughtfully-Designed Smut, December 14, 2020

Imagine, if you will, a truly excellent sex comedy - one which perfectly balances uproarious humor with genuine eroticism.

Now stop imagining, because here it is. Sex on the Beach absolutely nails its genre.

The humor is deep and varied, ranging from dry wit to raunchy farce; from clever metatextuality to lurid depictions of cartoonish dudebro shenanigans. The gags are unrelenting from start to finish. I found that it contained exactly the right about of Dungeons and Dragons references, although I would have preferred to hear a little more about Layla's Vampire: The Masquerade campaign. But I digress.

The sex is also deep and varied. The game's primary XXX-scene is the culmination of something that is done extremely well throughout the entire piece: providing the player with meaningful choices. Even though the game never branches too far off the central path, there are so many choices that allow the player to flesh out the protagonist as you see fit, and it's fascinating to see his personality materialize according to your choices. Do you want to play a bold charmer? An insensitive buffoon? A sweet nerd who is secretly an amazing dancer? Or just a straight-up horndog? All of these and many more combinations are within your grasp.

Equally fascinating is seeing how Layla (she's - well, let's not beat around the bush, she's the person with whom you have sex on the beach) reacts to the protagonist's choices. While it seems predetermined that she's down for a fling, the actual dynamic between her and the protagonist changes noticeably depending on how you choose to play, and it lends a valuable spark of verisimilitude to the often-outrageous yarn. She's also full of exactly the right kind of clever banter to humanize her as a character while maintaining a sense of levity in the proceedings.

If you're in the market for AIF, do yourself a favor and give this one a try.

Pick up the phone booth and Cry, by Danny Miok

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Parodyception, December 14, 2020

The meta is strong with this one. It's a parody of Pick Up the Phone Booth and Dye, which is itself a parody of Pick Up The Phone Booth And Die, and you'll want to play both of those games first in order to fully appreciate Pick up the phone booth and Cry.

Compared to the rest of the PUTPBAD corpus, this game has two salient features. First, it gleefully embraces and even intensifies the cruel, mocking sense of humor that the original established. Second, it's riddled with typos and grammatical errors.

Whereas the original PUTPBAD explored the antagonistic relationship between the protagonist and the phone booth, this game follows in the footsteps of Dye by rather focusing on the internal struggle of the protagonist. It's a case of player vs. self, as you seek to win the game in spite of your own limitations. But whereas in Dye this struggle is eminently practical in nature - you (Spoiler - click to show)can only lift one thing at a time and need to find a way around this - in Cry what we get is a protagonist who struggles against their own mental and emotional weaknesses as they try in desperation to solve a seemingly insurmountable puzzle. The protagonist is portrayed as pitiful and pathetic... for laughs.

Perhaps, in a game with better writing, I could have found the humor in this. But when combined with all the typos and poor grammar, it just comes off as crude.

Pick Up the Phone Booth and Dye, by Eric Schmidt

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A Clever Gag, But Lacking Gravity, December 14, 2020

The original, venerable Pick Up The Phone Booth And Die has inspired quite a few parodies. Among them, Pick Up the Phone Booth and Dye is notable for the cleverness of its premise, but its execution is not all that it could be.

The premise is a winner: taking a game that was already a joke, and adding a new layer of humor by reinventing it around a pun. The implementation surpasses that of the original, in that most of what is described can actually be interacted with in several sensible ways, although it still leaves much to be desired (e.g. the protagonist has a default description, the dye's odor is not described, etc.).

But I feel that this game doesn't have all the heart of the original. Players of Pick Up The Phone Booth And Die will recall that it evoked a world with a certain personality. Perhaps a thin and Nyquil-soaked personality, but a personality nonetheless. The small New England town's once-proud, graffiti-covered phone booth, stubbornly resisting the player despite its best days clearly being behind it, made for a compelling antagonist. But Pick Up the Phone Booth and Dye, unfortunately, does not share this level of characterization. Here, we are presented with a bland, ordinary phone booth in an utterly unremarkable location. In the original, we were given an adversarial relationship between the protagonist and the booth; here, we are given basically no insight into the protagonist's motives.

For these reasons, I feel that this game suffers from a palpable lack of emotional gravity. It didn't resonate with me in spite of its clever premise.

Pick Up the Phone Booth and Aisle, by David Dyte, Steve Bernard, Dan Shiovitz, Iain Merrick, Liza Daly, John Cater, Ola Sverre Bauge, J. Robinson Wheeler, Jon Blask, Dan Schmidt, Stephen Granade, Rob Noyes, and Emily Short

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
The Game That PUTPBAD Was Meant To Be, December 14, 2020

This is an artful piece: the disciplined minimalism of Pick Up The Phone Booth And Die, combined with the rich implementation of Aisle.

The authors of PUTPBAA have, through their concerted effort, realized what was missing in PUTPBAD. With dozens upon dozens of recognized verbs, each yielding a different ending, what we have here is not extensive but rather extremely intensive. Almost any action your imagination might dream up is accounted for in some way.

As a parody of the original PUTPBAD, it works brilliantly. As a game unto itself, it works brilliantly. Perhaps my only complaint is that it does not aspire to the emotional depth of Aisle, but as far as lighthearted comedies go, Pick Up The Phone Booth And Aisle is a shining example of a joke that goes all-out.

Pick Up The Phone Booth And Die 2, by Rob Noyes

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Doesn't Do Justice to the Original, December 14, 2020

With this demo, the basic premise of Pick Up The Phone Booth And Die is recast in a slightly more expansive world. But is that a step forward? On the contrary, in this case, I would argue that it's a step backward.

While the larger scope of Pick Up The Phone Booth And Die 2 opens the floor to a mix of interesting jokes, puns, and puzzles, it sacrifices the beautifully minimalistic design that made the franchise distinctive in the first place. And while the original was disciplined enough to hew tightly to its severely limited world-model, this sequel plays fast and loose, introducing a number of incomplete locations and puzzles. Granted, this is a demo we're dealing with, but even so: isn't it good practice to limit a demo to a more-or-less complete segment of a game, rather than allowing players to see all the bare scaffolding of things yet-to-be-written?

On top of that, one of the key weaknesses of the original - a lack of comprehensive implementation - persists in the sequel, now with even more things mentioned but not implemented as objects.

While Pick Up The Phone Booth And Die 2 is amusing at times, it lacks the singular vision that made the original so memorable.

Pick Up The Phone Booth And Die, by Rob Noyes

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Clever But Underimplemented, December 13, 2020

This is certainly a minimalistic work, but the title actually undersells it. In a clever twist, picking up the phone booth and dying is only half of what Pick Up The Phone Booth And Die has to offer. Uncovering the other half is the real challenge here.

There are a lot of things I like about this game. It's efficient, in that it manages to pack a lot of punch into an extremely small package - with only two potential actions of consequence, only one of which can be executed in a single playthrough. The metatextual aspect, using the game's title to give crucial information even before play begins, is a neat trick as well.

But it has to be said that the game is woefully under-implemented. There are quite a few things that are described in the text but not implemented as objects: the town, the square, the smiley face. There are also quite a few default failure responses to actions that really ought to have been given more attention. I was disappointed, for example, that smelling or touching the phone booth yields only Inform's default message. With a world this small, it would have been relatively easy to really focus on the details, but unfortunately they haven't received so much care.

At the core of this game is a pretty good joke. But I feel that the best jokes are those which go all-out. Pick Up The Phone Booth And Die, unfortunately, does not.

Quintessence, by Andrea M. Pawley

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Neat Idea, December 6, 2020
by Joey Acrimonious
Related reviews: IFComp 2020

So, first of all, the cursor is a sauropod. Possibly a brachiosaurus? This fact alone is worth a star.

Quintessence brings a nice combination of physics and whimsy. It asks the player to think a bit about the nature of such lofty subjects as cosmology, consciousness, and agency; but it does so in the context of a lighthearted, cat-centric reality. Definitely an imaginative piece.

Apart from aforementioned sauropod, the graphic elements include pleasant images of the cosmos. What's less pleasant, however, is the fact that the text tends to fade into the busy backgrounds. Even with black outlining, I found that the text was often a strain to read.

The most intriguing thing here, in my view, is the idea of embodying the universe, its rules, and its destiny in conscious entities: the cat and the particle (and its permutations). This allows Quintessence to inject an element of pathos into what would otherwise be cold, impersonal aspects of reality. Neat. But I feel that it didn't run as far with this idea as it could have, and a deeper dive into the psychological and (for lack of a better word) interpersonal aspects of the characters' existence would have made this game into a more compelling mythology.

The Call of Innsmouth, by Tripper McCarthy

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Great Flavor, Hasty Pacing, December 6, 2020
by Joey Acrimonious
Related reviews: IFComp 2020

Right from the outset, The Call of Innsmouth builds itself upon a strong aesthetic foundation. The style of the prose and the parlance of the characters just screams ďpulpy noir set in the 1920s.Ē This, combined with a darkly atmospheric visual presentation, makes for a game that oozes an instantly-recognizeable flavor. About 15 seconds in, I was absolutely hyped to go gumshoeing across Lovecraft Country, slowly uncovering unsettling hints of more sinister happenings behind a seemingly-mundane missing person case.

ExceptÖ thatís not quite how it goes.

Generally, I reckon that preserving a sense of mystery throughout the bulk of the story is crucial to the appeal of a piece of detective fiction. Ditto for a played-straight Lovecraftian work. But The Call of Innsmouth goes in the other direction, laying out quite a bit of blunt exposition early-on, so that the entire mystery is explained fairly clearly, even well before the climax. And I do mean explained - in most cases, you as the player arenít making deductions or trying to weigh evidence to figure out whatís going on. Nor is there much room for ambiguity. You just get told everything directly, either by other characters who are happy to volunteer everything they know in a few major info-dumps, or by the internal monologue of a protagonist who can sometimes be exceptionally quick at jumping to conclusions.

This, I think, is a detriment to an otherwise well-written story. I would have preferred the underlying horrors to be revealed more slowly and gradually, with more opportunities for the player to apply their own logic to the course of the investigation.

That aside, I did enjoy many of the more action-oriented scenes in the latter half of the game. Many of the choices at that point are hazardous, with plenty of opportunities for insta-death, but they didnít feel arbitrary. On the contrary, these choices reward the player for paying attention to the current situation and applying a bit of logic or intuition to it - for example, realizing that you need to take a hostage because you are unlikely to defeat/outrun your foes otherwise. Thatís great. But why arenít there more opportunities for the player to use their brain like this in the earlier, more investigative sequences of the game? As it is, there are very few points during the investigative phase where the playerís choices matter at all.

Overall, strong writing, has the right vibe, but could have done a better job at making me feel like a detective.

Big Trouble in Little Dino Park, by Seth Paxton, Rachel Aubertin

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Should Have Spent 60 Days, December 6, 2020
by Joey Acrimonious
Related reviews: IFComp 2020

Big Trouble in Little Dino Park puts the player in the shoes of an ennui-afflicted young person working a menial job - until you are thrust into a struggle for survival.

Apart from a few typos, I found the writing enjoyably witty, with some amusing riffs on the little (and not-so-little) absurdities of life. The introductory part of the game, which situates the protagonist in the vacuous world of commercial dinosaur exhibition only to plunge it all into chaos, showcases some of its best writing and does a great job of setting the tone quickly and concisely.

The gameís weak point is in how it executes its choice structure. The thing is, thereís a certain finicky path to victory. Once youíve felt out that path, then you can work deliberately toward a couple of clear goals, and make a couple of decisions that have some moral/emotional weight to them. Good stuff. But until youíve stumbled across just the right event to set you on that path, the choices mostly consist of pressing random stuff and hoping it doesnít get you killed, with little apparent tactical or emotional reason to choose one option over another (except perhaps the knowledge of what got you killed last time). This phase of the game, I think, doesnít play well to the strengths of the choice-based format, which is at its strongest when each choice comes with a sense of gravitas and agency.

I hope the authors will keep at it and give us more games in the future. With a different and more refined game design that more fully takes advantage of its engineís strengths, their compelling writing could shine even brighter.

Saint Simon's Saw, by Samuel Thomson

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Kinda Brilliant, Kinda Bad, December 6, 2020
by Joey Acrimonious
Related reviews: IFComp 2020

Saint Simonís Saw is a digitized tarot reading, except instead of traditional tarot cards, it has its own proprietary deck, drawing upon eclectic influences. Crucially, in addition to the ultimate reading of a hand, each card has an easily-accessible in-game explanation, which is where the bulk of the writing is to be found.

The tone of the work is singular and fascinating. Itís an interactive fortune-telling experience, but with the soul of an undergradís hastily-written essay, fuelled by coffee and Wikipedia summaries of post-structuralist screeds. There are inconsistently-styled citations of scholars like Jo Freeman and Paulo Freire, but no bibliographyÖ and the citations themselves are basically frivolous, as if theyíve been inserted solely for the sake of name-dropping or because some professor demanded that there needed to be x number of citations. There are points where hugely creative and insightful ideas are touched upon, but these are counterbalanced by vague discursions, obscurantist writing, and nonsensical metaphors. Thereís also a ton of misspellings and grammatical errors (including inconsistency over whether the work is titled Saint Simonís Saw or Saint-Simonís Saw), which altogether give the impression of something that may have been translated from French into English. And itís all packed into a smooth-running executable with some lovely illustrations.

To an extent, Iím not sure what to make of this, because Iím profoundly unsure where it falls on the scale of sincerity versus irony. As far as Iím concerned, this could be an ambitious but flawed attempt at something sublime; or a straight-up joke; or anywhere in-between. This quality makes Saint Simonís Saw perplexing and mystifying.

But this confusion plays into the strange enjoyment I got from the experience. The thing is, it works well enough as both an earnest piece and an ironic one. Thereís enough thought-provoking content to grab my interest in spite of all the rough bits. But thereís also enough rough bits to make me laugh in spite of the thought-provoking parts.

The Eleusinian Miseries, by Mike Russo

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A Real Knee-Slapper, December 6, 2020
by Joey Acrimonious
Related reviews: IFComp 2020

Among theoreticians of humour, there are those who suppose that funniness is best explained by what they call the incongruous juxtaposition theory, which, when you get right down to it, holds basically that it is funny when incongruous things are juxtaposed, though perhaps the astute reader will have divined as much. By that measure, it is remarkable that this Russo chap has, with scant experience or prior renown in the venerable art of interactive fiction authorship, produced perhaps one of the more humourous Ė which is to say, incongruous Ė entries in IFComp 2020.

The Eleusinian Miseries ostensibly saddles one with a spot of work that needs doing. The activities soon devolve, however, into fast times of the particularly fuddled variety, as the main players get more-or-less sloshed, cut it across the Attican idyll, and commit mayhem upon stony unmentionables. As a rule, you see, one expects to encounter a Ė and not to imply any condescension, mind you, as we all stash it up once in a blue moon, and reasonably so, given the strictures and stressors of life being what they are Ė but, returning to the point, one expects to encounter a rather coarse register in association with this sort of blotto bacchanal (not to give the impression that this is in any way directly associated with rites pertaining directly to Bacchus, since it is clearly acknowledged that the initiations at Eleusis are in praise of an entirely different set of deities, but I digress). Yet many a satyr would be outmatched by the refined parlance, both of the revelers themselves, and of the narrator who details their debauchery. And therein lies (or is it lays?) the crux of this incongruity wheeze Ė in pairing a particular strain of elevated and idiosyncratic diction with what is, quite frankly, an evening of shenanigans befitting any sophomore. Quite amusing, that.

But, wait a tic, for what, upon first reflection, appears to be an incongruity, is, a second consideration informs me, actually a complete congruity as well. The revelries of the game, you see, are lush to the point of excess Ė extravagant to the point of criminality. The language employed in descriptions thereof is similarly turgid enough to test the strictures of good taste. Upon realizing just how apropos the style is to the substance in this respect, I was as surprised and delighted as one who, attempting to wrangle a mutt, catches a purebred Chow-Chowís teeth to the face.

I say, astute reader, do you know what this means? This Russo chap, when planning this subtle work, inserted even more incongruity than could reasonably have been anticipated, for not only must we consider the incongruity as previously discussed, but also the incongruity of that incongruity with the aforementioned congruity. If the incongruity taken at face value is quite amusing, then this revelation, surely, is a real knee-slapper.

Having played The Eleusinian Miseries to three different conclusions Ė being a glutton for punishment Ė I am deeply impressed by its wit. This whole ďWodehouseĒ wheeze is a bit of a stumper to me, I never having gone in for it, but even I can see that the writing is impressive. And while the credits acknowledge five beta-testers, the technical ease-of-parser-use gives the impression of perhaps one and one-half times that number!

To conclude, with perhaps a lesser degree of fanfare than is warranted, because I really must be off to peruse recipes for kykeon, The Eleusinian Miseries is a fine achievement and well-deserving of a playthrough.

Deus Ex Ceviche, by Tom Lento, Chandler Groover

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
I Got Schooled, December 6, 2020
by Joey Acrimonious
Related reviews: IFComp 2020

There were many ambitious entries in the IFComp 2020. This is the only one Iíve played that goes so far as to stake out a new aesthetic school of its own. The bizarre, alien world of Deus Ex Ceviche is inextricably steeped in the unmistakable flavor of this so-called Piscespunk: a marriage of artificial life and marine biology, here examined at the intersection of religion and for-profit enterprise.

The whole experience is packaged with a visually-stunning backdrop of netted fish, rendered with distinctive colors and bold lines that evoke a vague impression of stained glass and its tracery, bringing an ecclesiastical flavor to the table. Against this, the gameís interactive elements are rendered in pixel art that adds a palpable artificiality. The visual design elements of this game are thoughtfully-constructed and I cannot overstate how well they work together to sell the radical new Piscespunk concept.

Gameplay consists of putting disks in slots and seeing what happens, with each input yielding a narrative description of a resulting event, plus a change in your resources (of which a certain amount must be collected for victory). Both the story and the mechanics come off as weird, surreal, and possibly confusing at first. Why is the GUI gooey? How exactly does brine accumulate as a result of accidentally censoring important passages in the holy text? Nothing makes sense according to the logic of reality as we know it.

But much of the pleasure of playing Deus Ex Ceviche is in keeping at it, gradually discovering that this world has an internal logic of its own, according to which everything makes perfect sense. Trial and error (and the advice of a helpful goldfish) will reveal that the strange results of disk-insertion are in fact quite predictable, and one can easily achieve a desired outcome.

Meanwhile, as one becomes more acquainted with the setting and its characters, the weird language and inexplicable causal relationships of the storyís events will gradually decode themselves into something thatís actually quite coherent.

The travails of the faithful as they struggle to perform their duties in the face of a malfunctioning temple apparatus; the underdog tale of an obsolete abbess seeking to fulfil her duties while painfully aware of her own shortcomings; the desperate hope of the congregants to find some kind of comfort or meaning in a corrupt, pay-to-pray religion. From these poignant beginnings, the Section B-2 Temple will spiral into a crescendo of mounting tension, as constructed systems transcend their intended purposes. All aspects of reality - social, ontological, and architectural - will be revolutionized by oneís apotheosis, and oneís faithful will experience the terrible ecstasy of union with oneís divinity. Itís all on display in a series of rich, evocative vignettes. Thereís real, human emotion here. Itís the kind of stuff that could be described in terms of heartbeats, smiles, and tearsÖ if it werenít already described in terms of databanks, replacement fingers, and salt instead.

If that doesnít already have you hooked, then frankly, I donít understand you. Just know that my meager review cannot possibly do justice to the raw power and majesty of Deus Ex Ceviche. Without a doubt among the most unique and memorable games of the comp, it definitely deserves a playthrough (or five).

The Cave, by Neil Aitken

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Cool Concept, Not As Exciting As I'd Expected, December 6, 2020
by Joey Acrimonious
Related reviews: IFComp 2020

In a classic setup, The Cave thrusts the player into a cave network to explore. But it quickly becomes apparent that mapping out the inscrutable and shifting web of rooms in search of the exit is neither possible nor necessary. This isnít about the destination - itís about the journey, as your character is defined by the choices they make along the way, dealing with challenges or opportunities in one way or another.

This is a cool concept, but the decisions I had to make soon started to feel a bit more mundane than Iíd have liked. Thereís not a lot of emotional weight behind most of what I encountered. Do you search the ashes or just keep going? Do you cross the stream or go around? Decisions like these do indeed reveal something about the person who makes them, but not enough for me to feel fully invested in a game thatís supposed to be about a journey of self-discovery.

Thereís a strong element of randomness to the game, with both events and room-connections being (at least partially) randomized. I fear that the RNG may have given me the short end of the stick during my playthrough. The blurb promises lost treasures, forgotten ruins, and ancient magic, but I didnít encounter any of those things except for a single spell that I never got the opportunity to use. Instead, despite my attempts to try new options in the hope of reaching new areas, I just kept winding up in the same handful of rooms/situationsÖ mostly involving searching ashes and crossing streams. I might return to the game and search for the juicier bits at some point, but perhaps the RNG would have benefitted from a bit more scaffolding to ensure that each playthrough has more variety to it.

Overall, a winning concept that I think would benefit from some tweaking to draw out some more depth and variety.

Quest for the Sword of Justice, by Damon L. Wakes

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Irony So Thick, You Could Cut It With a Sword, December 6, 2020
by Joey Acrimonious
Related reviews: IFComp 2020

Quest for the Sword of Justice is a surprising little game that subverted my expectations at every turn. Although, maybe that's just because I haven't played enough self-aware RPGs.

Right off the bat, as an RPGMaker game, it wasnít what I expected to see in IFComp at all. But then, it also cheerfully ignores many of the salient features of its own engine, eschewing the traditional RPG experience in favor of something a bit different. The thing is, (Spoiler - click to show)the game comes with all the trappings you'd expect: skills/attributes, an XP system, an inventory system, etc., all seemingly included with combat in mind. But there isn't any combat and all that stuff is pure window-dressing. By subverting the expected mechanics of an RPG, Quest for the Sword of Justice cleverly weaves an element of parody into the structure of the game itself.

This is employed in service to the overarching story, which also is basically a comic endeavor. The author does a great job of setting up certain expectations with apparent seriousness, only to proceed to smash those expectations into tiny bits for humorous effect.

Itís a short game and a light read, but I found it successful in (what I think is) its main goal of being good for a laugh or two. There are at least a couple different endings to find, and both of the ones I got were amusing.

The Eidolon's Escape, by Mark Clarke

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Good Execution, But Excellent Idea, December 6, 2020
by Joey Acrimonious
Related reviews: IFComp 2020

The Eidolonís Escape is a nice, solid choice-based game that puts the player in the role of an incorporeal entity seeking to escape confinement.

The protagonist itself is one of the main draws of the game. Everything is seen and interpreted through the (figurative) eyes of the somewhat misanthropic Eidolon, and itís written convincingly. The protagonist has an idiosyncratic way of viewing the world, taking a non-humanís view toward human behavior that varies between analytical/opportunistic and judgmental/repulsed. Its unique perspective is palpable at every turn, lending a strong and distinctive narrative flavor throughout.

The design of the choices and branching is, for me, a mixed bag. There are many choices that look like theyíre calling for the player to make an inductive leap, levering the Eidolonís limited insights on human psychology to choose the most effective way to manipulate other characters. And that works very well and feels quite satisfying - as long as the illusion is preserved. But on repeated playthroughs, I found that most of these choices donít have any importance to the direction of the story, actually serving only to punctuate events and change some flavor text. In many cases, if you select the ďwrongĒ choice, the game will just correct it for you (i.e. that didnít work, so now youíre doing the other thing instead), the exception being a few landmines where the wrong choice leads to an immediate game-over.

By creating the illusion of important choices to engage the player through at least the first playthrough, the author probably made a judicious use of time and effort, and thatís cool. But I feel that the whole thing would have been more powerful, especially on repeated playthroughs, if there were more choices with actual gameplay consequences other than the occasional possibility of insta-loss.

There are a handful of more-important choices stacked at the end of the game, leaving us with a branching structure thatís less of a tree and more of a spork.

One of the endings makes clear the conceptual underpinnings of the action: (Spoiler - click to show)that the Mage is holding the Eidolon against its will because it is a metaphysical remnant of the Mageís dead loved one, and the Mage desperately wants the Eidolon to identify with this person even though the Eidolon does not. This is an outstanding concept which intrigues me immensely. It has huge emotional gravity and lots of potential to be interpreted in a metaphorical light.

But I wish that the game had done more to explore and develop this awesome concept. As is, itís all explicated in a few short paragraphs right at an ending, where the player no longer has any ability to respond in-character. Thereís a bit of foreshadowing near the start (which can be easily missed), but thatís about it. I feel that, had this weighty relationship been developed in richer detail and been more present throughout the experience, it would have taken the story from good to excellent.

The Incredibly Mild Misadventures of Tom Trundle, by B F Lindsay

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Nothing Mild About It, December 6, 2020
by Joey Acrimonious
Related reviews: IFComp 2020

Wow. What a journey. The Incredibly Mild Misadventures of Tom Trundle is witty and crude, sage and sophomoric, beautifully authentic and laughably schlocky, all rolled into one epic deluge of mystery, passion, and adolescent angst that absolutely oozes old-school cool.

This is a story about adolescence, and every aspect of the game sells that fact. You have to literally navigate a byzantine, absurd educational institution for arbitrary reasons decreed by an antagonistic adult. Your character is continually preoccupied with carnal thirst at times both appropriate and not (but mostly not), finding sources of arousal in pretty much any interaction with the opposite sex, of which there are plenty. There are at least three different pizzas in the game, each of which serves a crucial mechanical purpose. Everything sucks, but your street-smarts and disregard for the rules are exactly what you need to navigate this sucky world and accomplish some good deeds - fulfilling the hackneyed destiny of the male savior and winning the gratitude of a bunch of young women in distress. Obviously. Itís brilliant at times; itís bizarre at times; itís as if the entire fabric of reality in this universe has been warped according to the world-view and desires of an adolescent boy. And thatís definitely entirely deliberate.

Our point-of-view character Tom is at the center of everything here, and his distinctive voice is woven into the whole experience of the game through his endless cynical commentaries and self-absorbed digressions. As a character, heís compelling in the sense that he feels like an actual, complex human being. Sometimes heís capable of great sensitivity and insight, showing genuine understanding of the feelings and goals of those around him. Other times, heís an inconsiderate brat. And as these different aspects of his personality come up during the story, they make sense. He has verisimilitude. I can easily believe that Tom is an actual young man on the verge of adulthood - someone who is mature in some ways and at some times, but who still has a lot to learn.

I was especially amused by the way his deliciously blasť attitude carries over into the game world - for example, through the existence of objects with names like ďcrappy snack machineĒ and ďuninteresting stuff.Ē

In terms of implementation, the game is excellent. The parser works smoothly. I encountered no serious bugs nor mechanical struggles. The puzzles are mostly excellent as well - theyíre cleverly-designed, with a unique and awesome mix of insight into the real-world applications of miscellaneous things and total disregard for using them as intended. Some are challenging, most are fair and can be solved with a bit of logic once you get into the classic adventure game mindset (i.e. that itís okay to screw things up and leave a trail of destruction in your wake, taking and levering every possible tool in an inexorable drive toward your goal). But there were a small handful that just threw me for a loop, leading me to resort to the walkthrough only to find that the solution was some arbitrary-seeming action whose utility couldnít possibly be understood until after having done it - I would have appreciated a more obvious hint, for example, that (Spoiler - click to show)sitting on a certain chair (as opposed to examining or searching) will reveal a hidden item.

Story-wise, I feel that the game is somewhat front-loaded. As I first met some of the other major characters and engaged in a few early puzzles, I was hooked! They, like Tom, were complex and compelling. Interacting with them exposed motivations and emotions that I could believe. The situation that unfolded might have been far-fetched, but the people felt real, and their personalities started to shine through with a slow-simmering richness. I was hungry to interact more with them and learn more about them.

Yet I felt that the climax and epilogue in particular did not fully live up to the strength of those earlier interactions. By this point, the flavor of authentic teenage interpersonal drama had gone out the window in favor of a kind of campy, totally unbelievable depiction of (Spoiler - click to show)the trauma of physical abuse and kidnapping, where several young women who have been captured and imprisoned by a maniac, and who are in immediate danger, just calmly flirt with our intrepid protagonist from their underground prison cells. Iím still not sure whether I want to read this as dark humor or just plain distasteful. Either way, the verisimilitude Iíd adored had evaporated.

After this, Iíd at least hoped for a strong emotional payoff - an exploration of how the characters ultimately grew and changed as a result of the pivotal events. It materializesÖ partially. The arc between Allison and her father comes to a satisfying closure. But as for most of the other major NPCs, the epilogue tells us what they go on to do, but it doesnít show us where they stand on an emotional level. Tom himself seems to come away with a slightly greater sensitivity toward the needs of others (particularly their need for space and boundaries). And thatís awesome. I just wish the ending had hit home a little harder.

The author's postmortem on the Intfiction forum is a fascinating read and it helped me appreciate the game on a new level, as a symbolic piece. Definitely recommend that.

Anyway, Tom Trundle has its flaws and its awkward moments, but I can't deny that it's a hugely memorable experience that left an outsized impression on me. It's not perfect. I'd give it 4.5 stars if I could, but with IFDB's rating system being what it is, guess I'll have to round up.

And just one more thing. It involves a spoiler so huge that I sincerely recommend not clicking on it unless youíve completed the game for yourself:

(Spoiler - click to show)Why isnít Darth Vader your father?!

What the Bus?, by E. Joyce

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
A Wicked Good Commute, December 6, 2020
by Joey Acrimonious
Related reviews: IFComp 2020

On my first playthrough, this transit nightmare about a confusing commute didnít impress me too much. With somewhat minimalistic writing, a short playing time, and a bunch of choices that felt like they had no real emotional significance, I felt at first that this was a competently-built game but not a very engaging one.

I was wrong.

Upon completion, the game lists ten possible endings to achieve. Iím glad that I accepted that challenge. Through repeated playthroughs, What the Bus? matures into something greater and more sublime than what it might seem to be on the surface. The labyrinthine web of interconnected bus routes and rail lines in this game meant little to me at first, but they took on a new significance once Iíd found a few endings and had to hunt for the ones I still needed. No longer could I blindly click my way to completion - now the game was drawing me into the shoes of the protagonist, as I tried (and often failed) to navigate the insane world to the endings I was trying to get.

Damn! I didnít realize this interchange took me to the red line again! or Oh crap, I didnít want to get on that bus. These were the types of things I kept saying to myself as I gleefully embraced the role of clueless commuter more and more. I felt a genuine sense of accomplishment when, after countless times getting lost or winding up in the same dog park again, I finally achieved the last ending by running across a rail line that I didnít even know existed. Glorious victory, and good fun.

One of the endings is also a nod to a classic piece of Boston lore, which is much appreciated.

Move On, by Serhii Mozhaiskyi

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
An Innovative Piece, December 6, 2020
by Joey Acrimonious
Related reviews: IFComp 2020

This entire review is based on a spoiler that goes straight to the heart of the game, so be warned.

(Spoiler - click to show)Move On is a single chase scene, packed with action and presented with little context. Advancing through it requires the player to press a button at just the right time, determined by watching the movement of a motorcycle at the top of the screen.

Iím ambivalent about this as the core mechanic of the game. On the one hand, itís super cool and innovative. And the urgency of getting the timing right does an excellent job of conveying a sense of action and danger.

On the other hand, I feel that it doesnít fully take advantage of the core feature of IF as a medium: namely, a story told through text. Move On does have a good deal of interesting writing, but the thing is, itís difficult (at least for me) to read it all while also keeping an eye on the motorcycle! I ended up going back to reread it all after completing the game, but by that point, it was no longer joined to the palpable excitement provided by the timing mechanic.

So, Move On showcases a fresh take that has some great strengths but also some drawbacks. I think Iíd have gotten more enjoyment out of it if it were easier to read the text while also keeping an eye on the motorcycle, maybe by putting the motorcycle closer to the text or by giving some more conspicuous signal (maybe a sound effect?) when the time is right. But as it is, definitely a fun and interesting game thatís worth seeing for yourself.

Sage Sanctum Scramble, by Arthur DiBianca

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
The Blurb Says It All, December 6, 2020
by Joey Acrimonious
Related reviews: IFComp 2020

I cannot summarize Sage Sanctum Scramble any better than its blurb has already done: as promised, itís a grab bag of puzzles. Most of them have to do with wordplay and/or rearranging letters in some way.

The quality of the puzzles is excellent. Professional-quality. Enthusiasts would pay money for them, without a doubt. And theyíre implemented extremely solidly, with the parser responding smoothly to almost everything I tried - thatís quite an achievement given the complexity of some of these puzzles, and the variety of different inputs involved. In many cases, the game even recognizes inputs that are barking up the right tree, dispensing hints or encouragement to help the player reach the finish line.

But make no mistake: while this game is easy to pick up and play, itís quite challenging to master. The puzzles range from easyish to total brain-busters, and everything in between. Winning the game only requires a portion of the puzzles to be completed, so itís not terribly hard. But if youíre in it to achieve a perfect score, thatís another matter entirely, and will likely require a major time investment. For reference: I think it took me about 5 hours of gameplay before I decided to finish up with a dubious score of 37. But I donít have a lot of experience with these types of puzzles. Your mileage will vary.

This piece is 98% interactive, 2% fiction, with only the barest threads of narrative tying the puzzles together. Is that a drawback? Or would a more substantive story be a mere frivolity here? I suppose youíll have to answer that question for yourself. But for me - yeah, it's a considerable drawback.

Overall, if you want a bunch of clever word puzzles without any frills or pretensions, Sage Sanctum Scramble has you covered.

A Murder in Fairyland, by Abigail Corfman

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Unique Puzzles, Compelling Story, December 6, 2020
by Joey Acrimonious
Related reviews: IFComp 2020

Wonder and whimsy. Political intrigue and murder. Detective work, bureaucracy, and the simple human pleasure of wearing a scarf. A Murder in Fairyland has it all!

This game is a joy to play. The writing is on-point. The graphic design is bright and gaudy in the best possible way. Thereís a diverse variety of puzzles to solve: word searches; filling out forms; a card game; as well as more classic IF staples involving clue-hunting, using the right action on the right thing, etc. Itís all implemented very well. The variety of different things to do made gameplay feel fresh throughout.

The world is mysterious and compelling: a realm of thought and emotion, powered by memories and videogames, ruled over (at least locally) by Machiavellian nobility at the helm of a byzantine machinery of state that you navigate via a literal labyrinth of contracts and forms. It seems that the setting is pre-established in the authorís other works. I havenít read them yet, so some details were no doubt lost on me, but thatís fine. I feel like, if anything, my unfamiliarity with the setting only added to the sense of wonder and intrigue.

The high point of the experience for me was reading the beautifully-written memories of the protagonistís scarf.

Solving the murder is a well-designed puzzle with many facets and several possible outcomes. Itís easy to come up with an acceptable solution, but it takes serious exploration and a keen eye for detail to reach the best solution.

Overall, A Murder in Fairyland is among my favorite IFComp 2020 games. Would recommend.

Vampire Ltd, by Alex Harby

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Just Straight-Up Solid, December 6, 2020
by Joey Acrimonious
Related reviews: IFComp 2020

Vampire Ltd has the quintessence of a solid parser game. In many ways, it feels like an exercise in moderation. The humor is neither too dry nor too outrageous. Thereís an element of social satire here, with the major charactersí vampirism serving as a metaphor for their self-enriching corporate mismanagement, but itís played with levity. Thereís an element of mild mystery with some clues to uncover, but all is soon revealed without a whole lot of head-scratching.

I had an exceptionally smooth time playing the game. Part of this is thanks to the authorís success in presenting a polished experience, with plenty of synonyms, plenty of interesting non-default failure responses, and plenty of useful context presented through dialogue or descriptions to keep the player on the right path. But itís also partially thanks to the modest scope of the game, with straightforward challenges and a paucity of objects. I see this as both a strength and a weakness: while there were few opportunities for sticking points, the world also felt a little more spartan than I would have preferred.

Overall, I feel that Vampire Ltd succeeds in what it sets out to do. Itís a light, well-built, unpretentious comedy that kept me entertained without trying to knock my socks off.

You Will Thank Me as Fast as You Thank a Werewolf, by B.J. Best

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A Foray Into Nonsense, December 6, 2020
by Joey Acrimonious
Related reviews: IFComp 2020

You Will Thank Me as Fast as You Thank a Werewolf is a collaboration between the human author and a neural network that generated new text based on the authorís past works. Itís described as ďan experimental story about a lifelong romantic relationship,Ē but I never would have guessed that this was supposed to be a story about anything in particular. Itís a jumble of disjointed events and ideas, perhaps slightly more coherent than an early BuŮuel film but not quite as sensible as a typical fever dream. Expect to encounter only the slightest bit of narrative coherence: sometimes sentences on the same page seem to bear a logical relationship to each other, but thatís about as far as it goes.

But thereís definitely some interesting content here, even if itís not presented in the form of a traditional storyline. Certain themes keep recurring throughout the experience: the narratorís preoccupations with work (especially the fact of being hired and identifying oneself with a job); family (especially a brother who seems to keep coming up); and mortality (and people who either resist or acquiesce to it). A distillation, perhaps, of what is explored in the authorís other works?

Iím not sure that there is any point to the interactive aspect of the experience. In typical CYOA-style, the player sometimes picks one of two choices, but the choices themselves are often non-sequiturs and they donít have an obvious relationship to whatever happens next.

Much of what youíll read here is just a step above gibberish, but there are also scattered gems - sentences that clearly bear the mark of AI uncanniness but which just work in a sublime kind of way. For me, the most enjoyable part of the read was uncovering such gems. For example:

(Spoiler - click to show)The parrot says: ďI am a parrot, and I love you.Ē

(Spoiler - click to show)ďBeware, you blind socialist,Ē he said, ďeven though you have a heart of gold and cocaine.Ē

(Spoiler - click to show)Everyone except Wikipedia is shocked

If thatís not poetry, I donít know what is.

I donít believe thereís any way to give constructive criticism here, nor will I be giving a star rating. It is what it is. Would I recommend giving this one a read? Yes, but only if youíre in the mood to spend half an hour not knowing what in the world is going on.

The Brutal Murder of Jenny Lee, by Daniel Gao

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Atmospheric Murder Mystery, December 6, 2020
by Joey Acrimonious
Related reviews: IFComp 2020

The Brutal Murder of Jenny Lee is a murder mystery which, in many ways, feels like it takes cues from the walking simulator genre.

It consists mostly of exploring various locations and examining items to glean information. But itís not all business. As you go through the game, youíll learn as much about the victimís life as you do about her death. Notes, letters, artifacts, and the comments of your ďemployerĒ who is deeply connected to the case all help you to gradually piece together an impression of a moment in a young womanís life. Itís compelling, well-written stuff. Little things like a pencil case or a sketch are described with enough care, enough attention to detail, to show rather than tell a story that felt very authentic and human to me.

Thereís a couple nice puzzles here which call for the player to gather information, make a deduction, and act upon that deduction. But thereís also quite a good chunk of the game that consists solely of examining things until some answer is spoon-fed to you. The whole experience hews to a more-or-less linear path: you go where the narrator takes you, and do things step-by-step according to his whims. It works, but I think I would have gotten even more enjoyment out of a more varied and less linear set of problems to solve.

I wasnít fond of the way the game occasionally hides the parser for a predetermined amount of time when important text shows up. I get that the author is trying to emphasize important moments, but still, I donít want to have to wait around counting the seconds until Iím allowed to keep playing after Iíve finished reading whatever I was supposed to read.

Thereís a secondary aspect to the story: (Spoiler - click to show)the twist that youíre an AI being exploited by someone who is wrongfully imprisoned for the murder, and you ultimately seek to escape. Itís an interesting concept, but doesn't feel fully woven into the main story, and isn't developed in enough detail to satisfy questions about how exactly the character is able to accomplish what it does. Maybe this aspect is a prelude to a sequel which explores it in greater detail? That would be neat.

Even though I wasnít totally on board with every design choice here, The Brutal Murder of Jenny Lee brings a great atmosphere and strong writing to the table. Overall, I enjoyed my time with it, and would gladly try more of the authorís work in the future.

The Turnip, by Joseph Pentangelo

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
An Odd, Mildly Surreal Way to Spend a Few Minutes, December 6, 2020
by Joey Acrimonious
Related reviews: IFComp 2020

The Turnip takes place in a world almost like our own, but just different enough that it seems impossible to fully grasp the nature of the setting or the motivations of the characters. Thereís a dog that acts almost, but not quite, like a dog would act. You have a job that seems almost, but not quite, like a job that a person would have. Thereís a turnip that acts almost, but not quite, like youíd expect from a turnip. The whole thing feels kind of like what would happen if an alien from some other planet were asked to write a short story about life on Earth, having heard a little bit about it but not having studied it in any detail.

Itís a piece that provokes a bit of thought. The world of The Turnip may seem weird to us. To the eyes of folks in a hypothetical alternate world like this one, presumably our society would seem equally as weird. It might seem odd that the society in this story attaches economic value to a dirt field full of holes, but who are we to judge? To them, maybe it would seem odd that we attach economic value to a field full ofÖ Christmas trees, for example. This, I think, is the strong point of The Turnip: it invites us to question our frame of reference.

Itís also totally linear (apart from your choice of whether to read certain brief descriptions along the way), and reading everything from start to finish takes a few minutes at most, so thereís not much to it. Itís an efficient story, in that it packs a fairly high degree of interesting content relative to its tiny size. Worth the time to check it out.

#VanLife, by Victoria

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Great Concept, Extremely Frustrating Gameplay, December 6, 2020
by Joey Acrimonious
Related reviews: IFComp 2020

#VanLife is a day-to-day personal economic simulator with some interesting mechanics, but sparse writing. You live in a van with solar-powered appliances. Can you balance your mood, your cash, and your battery charge to succeed in this minimalistic lifestyle? At its core, the premise is great, and Iíve got to give props to a game that encourages less-resource-intensive living.

But the implementation can be wonky at times. Everything depends upon a small pool of random events which cause wild and unpredictable swings. You can be doing great one day, only to lose the game on the next because you got stuck with a couple bad events that you couldnít do anything about. Or you could be on the cusp of failure, only to skyrocket back to prosperity because of one or two lucky events. Your decisions kind of matter, but I felt like they were totally overshadowed by the sheer importance of luck.

The other thing that hampered my enjoyment here isÖ I quickly came to dislike the protagonist. That feels odd to write, since the protagonist doesnít have any lines and isnít ever described directly, yet they come across as someone who isnít serious about the #VanLife. I felt like I had to constantly battle my own protagonistís unreasonable expectations. This is a person who earns a living by posting photos with inspirational quotes. Regularly, thousands of dollars fall into their lap from making guest foodie blog posts. They never have to pay money for food or gas or parking, and they never get harassed by the police for parking illegally either.

Basically, the protagonist is privileged in many ways, and yet theyíre constantly unsatisfied. Got an offer to receive a bunch of cash and a free appliance, possibly more energy-efficient than the one you already have, in return for a product endorsement? Well, your protagonist loses mood, because capitalism = bad. Craving some pancakes but donít have the right cooktop because the game hasnít given you the opportunity to buy it yet? Well, youíre about to lose a giant chunk of mood, my friend. Want to hop online and frag n00bs, but you donít have enough battery because you already spent it on two cravings for avocado toast today? Well, thatís probably a game over. Sucks to be you.

I found myself losing the game often in the first few days because the protagonist was full of so many capricious requests that there simply werenít enough resources to indulge. The protagonist is defined by one personality trait: the trait of being someone who never should have set foot in a van.

According to the webpage, the game is still in beta, and that makes sense. It feels like a rough draft of what could (and hopefully will) become a good sim. A wider variety of random events would help spice things up, but what the game would benefit most from would be a rebalancing of the eventsí effects so that they donít cause such wild and unpredictable mood swings. Then, there would be room for players to start thinking about long-term strategy, without the immediate threat of game over due to lack of pancakes looming over their heads from the start.

Tangled Tales, by JimJams Games

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Oldschool, For Better or Worse, December 6, 2020
by Joey Acrimonious
Related reviews: IFComp 2020

The first thing I noticed about Tangled Tales is the ambition of its presentation: itís a multimedia experience with a parser, graphics, and sound all bundled into a .exe.

I have to respect the amount of work that went into the design of this interface. This could have been breezed through in good old Inform 7, but no, Tangled Tales insists on going the extra mile. Was it worth it? For me as a player, the answer is probably not. I didnít feel that the graphics or sound added much to the experience. The window is set up so that you can only display either the text or a location graphic at a given time. Consequently, I spent almost no time appreciating the graphics.

Everything about this game seems to be painstakingly built to induce a very particular kind of nostalgia trip for a very particular kind of player. Thatís true of the interface, which bravely bucks the familiar and minimalistic presentation of a typical modern parser game. Itís also true of the writing, the world design, and the parser itself, which I swear came straight out of an era from before I was born. The world is more-or-less a maze, full of indistinct locations connected in a large, convoluted network, and you may indeed be driven to draw yourself a map in order to try navigating this game. The story and the characters are amusing, but they arenít developed in any great detail - theyíre not the focus here.

The focus is a series of puzzles which would look extremely easy in theory, but which are viciously difficult in practice due to Tangled Talesí cheerful indifference to the kinds of quality-of-life details that modern IF players are accustomed to. This is a game in which the parser is so finicky that I didnít even know when I was playing guess-the-verb or not. Looking at a table might yield a brief description, but thereís no indication that what you really need to do is to look on the table. Sometimes you have to give an NPC a command in one syntax, sometimes you have to use a totally different syntax for no apparent reason. If it were not for the walkthrough, I never, never in a million years would have finished this game, because I wouldnít even have understood that the things I tried were usually correct, just not phrased properlyÖ with the proper phrasing often being some idiosyncratic command that Iíve never seen before and never would have thought to try.

To top it all off, weíre given a fifteen-page walkthrough file. The actual walkthrough is a chunk of run-on text encompassing about half a page. Then thereís an image that takes up one page. One page is dedicated to explaining what interactive fiction is, and briefly introducing this game in particular. The other twelve pages? Instructions. This astounding document is what cements my belief that Tangled Tales is designed to provide, as faithfully as possible, the authentic oldschool experience, deliberately complete with all the shortcomings and frustrations that may entail. Itís a metaphorical middle finger to every new idea or convention that has been developed in the realm of IF-design theory over at least the past 30 or so years.

Thereís definitely a certain audience who will get a kick out of this.

Fight Forever, by Pako

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
The Bones of an Intriguing RPG, December 6, 2020
by Joey Acrimonious
Related reviews: IFComp 2020

Fight Forever is a martial-arts RPG that focuses primarily on stat-building - youíre trying to train a character who will be capable of taking on your opponents. The game has all the bones of a fairly expansive RPG, but from what Iíve seen, it appears to be unfinished. There are many greyed-out options that donít seem like they can be unlocked at present, perhaps teasers for future content?

The writing is terse but effective, and it intrigued me. I wanted to explore more of this game, see what different options are available, and experiment with different ways of building a character. Unfortunately, this proved very difficult, because the way stats are handled is extremely opaque. Unless Iím missing something, thereís no way to see a comprehensive summary of all your characterís stats at once - instead, you have to rely on occasional notifications that youíve increased x stat to y level. At no point did I ever come across a listing of what all the stats even are, much less what theyíre supposed to do. Thereís no obvious way of telling what the numbers mean. Within a few fights, I had increased my mindset to 3000 while my heart was 52 and my kicking was 2Ö but I couldnít figure out how to tell what effect any of those had, or how they compare to my opponentsí stats.

I found the fights to be frustrating for three reasons. They occur through infernally slow timed text that canít be skipped. They are narrated in a very spare and repetitive manner. And, most importantly, they give no actionable feedback. I was left with no clue why I was winning or losing! Was it chance? Was it because of my scores in some crucial stat(s)?

The system intrigued me enough that I wanted to keep playing and exploring - maybe, with time, I would figure out things that werenít immediately apparent? But my plans were cut short when I decided to retire and try playing as my 14-year-old scion. That didnít work, because a 14-year-old canít enter fights, so Iíd have to wait for time to advanceÖ but after exhausting a few training options that can only be done once between each fight, I was left with no obvious way to make time advance. I was stuck at 14. Oops. Game over for me.

Should you try Fight Forever in its current state? Maybe. Thereís definitely some interesting mechanics here, even if they are hidden behind a totally opaque presentation. Maybe youíll be clever enough to figure out things that I missed? I had some fun trying, so hopefully you will too.

Shadow Operative, by Michael Lauenstein

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Smoother Than Silicone, December 6, 2020
by Joey Acrimonious
Related reviews: IFComp 2020

Shadow Operative is a cyberpunk adventure that can be played through a parser or through a sidebar with links: both options are easy to use and work smoothly.

The story here is not groundbreaking, nor is it fully committed to the grit and pessimism of classic cyberpunk. But itís well-written, offering a good dose of wit and nerdy humor, and enough of its own unique spin on genre tropes to keep things fresh. There are a series of tasks/puzzles to solve, which I found engaging if a bit on the simple side - it felt like infiltrating a corporate office to do leet hacking was a bit easier and more straightforward than it should have been. A more expansive web of problems to solve, I think, would have elevated the game.

In general and especially with regard to the UI (which is built with Vorple), the technical side of Shadow Operative is where the game really shines. Gameplay was impressively smooth and intuitive, and the UI presented a whole lot of options and information in a neat and accessible format. It was both functional and really nice to look at. The credits list quite a few testers, which makes sense: I can easily believe that the author put a great deal of effort into testing and iterating upon the game in order to present us with this very slick, well-oiled piece. Also of note: it has a banginí soundtrack.

Overall, Iím glad that I played Shadow Operative. The authorís professionalism is abundantly clear in the design of this game, and I have a lot of respect for that.

A Catalan Summer, by Neibucrion

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Great Ideas, Partially Realized, December 6, 2020
by Joey Acrimonious
Related reviews: IFComp 2020

I was very interested to play this game, which is described by the author as an ďhistorical gay melodrama.Ē Indeed, it does what it promises, putting you in the shoes of various members of the Vidal family as they live through a succession of scenes taking place over the course of a summer. Through their actions and interactions, a series of events will unfold that are historical, gay, and dramatic.

The interface is a bit odd. Itís a hypertext game with the kind of navigable world-model thatís more commonly seen in a parser game. Thatís fine, except almost all of the interesting action (such as dialogue between characters where you have to make important choices, for example) occurs in pop-ups. With all the interesting stuff happening in these pop-ups, I quickly came to feel that the navigable world-model was frivolous, and mostly just served to make the screen look overly busy whenever a pop-up would be sitting on top of the room description/navigation buttons beneath. I think if the entire thing had been presented as a traditional CYOA-style game - no navigation, just conversation choices - it would have felt a lot smoother without really sacrificing anything.

The story is intriguing and it introduces a lot of awesome ideas. Thereís interwar Catalan politics, the strictures of bourgeoisie propriety, a strained family dynamic, a little bit of a coming-of-age story, a consideration of gender, and of course plenty of gayness, all coming together in a fascinating and very multifaceted plot.

Certainly, thereís the foundation of a great story here. And yetÖ I feel that the game doesnít fully realize its ambitions. Things happen very quickly. Often, you play a character for only a very brief scene before suddenly switching to another character, so I found it difficult to fully sink my teeth into any given scene. Sometimes, the writing is very evocative. I greatly enjoyed the description of the instant attraction between the family patriarch and his daughterís suitor, for example. But elsewhere, the writing seems overly minimalistic and matter-of-fact, and I was disappointed that later interactions between the aforementioned characters werenít described with the same degree of detail.

Overall, I liked A Catalan Summer and feel that itís worth a playthrough, but I also feel that it has the potential to be much better. If the author were to treat this as a rough draft, go back and flesh out whatís already there with more evocative prose and more melodrama, it could become something excellent.

Ascension of Limbs, by AKheon

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Unique, Creative, and Creepy, December 6, 2020
by Joey Acrimonious
Related reviews: IFComp 2020

Ascension of Limbs is a deliciously creepy parser game thatís heavy on resource-management mechanics. Every turn, the player is presented with a listing of valid commands and objects, so while there are definitely horrors to encounter, the dreaded game of guess-the-verb is not one of them.

Technically, the game is very well-polished, especially considering that it relies heavily on NPC behavior and ever-changing numerical variables. In my experience, everything seemed to work as intended. It might take a little while to get familiar with the mechanics and figure out the strategies for victory, since the whole thing is very unlike the typical text adventure, but itís worth the time to get used to it. I found it quite satisfying once Iíd worked out an effective business scheme through trial and error.

The palpable strength of Ascension of Limbs is in its unique brand of casual, creeping horror. Itís a game that might slowly draw you into a situation that isnít quite right, and gently draw you to become complicit in it. The truth of the situation, and the consequences of your complicity, are not revealed at first. Maybe theyíre never fully revealed at all. For the most part, it seems, the reader is afforded only disquieting glimpses into the horrors of this world, and left to try to piece things together for themself.

A very solid piece, well worth multiple playthroughs to experience the variety of different endings (and journeys) this game has to offer.

The Arkhill Darkness, by Jason Barrett

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Goofy Fantasy Romp, December 6, 2020
by Joey Acrimonious
Related reviews: IFComp 2020

The Arkhill Darkness is a lighthearted, trope-laden fantasy romp that delights in goofy humor and breaking the fourth wall. Itís a fun time. The visual presentation is slick and does a good job of setting the mood. Thereís a very simple RPG-style combat system which is, in my opinion, entirely unnecessary.

If youíre looking for flawless prose, a deep story, or characters that youíll come to care very deeply about, Iíd say this is not the game for you. On the other hand, if youíre in the mood to see what happens when high fantasy meets kung fu and yo momma jokes, The Arkhill Darkness might put a smile on your face.

Just be warned: your greatest foe wonít be a dragon or a demonic horsething. Itíll be the typos.

Alone, by Paul Michael Winters

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Clever Puzzles, Strong Atmosphere, December 6, 2020
by Joey Acrimonious
Related reviews: IFComp 2020

Alone is a gloomy exploration of post-apocalyptic survival. It has some nice, succinct writing and some implicit commentary on current events, but I read it first and foremost as a vehicle for puzzles. In classic parser fashion, youíve got a problem to solve, and you have to work out how to do it through exploring and using the tools you find. For the most part, I thought the challenges were very well-designed: neither too obvious nor unfairly hard, they require a bit of logic and sometimes a bit of an inductive leap. I found them satisfying to solve.

Framing the central problem-solving task are a cast of characters, a story, and a world, all of which are successfully employed to buttress the action, but none of which are really the focus. The level of polish is good, with no bugs that I encountered.

I would have liked to have seen a bit more on the storytelling front. What kind of person is the protagonist? Where have they been? Where are they going? Exploring details like these, I think, would have made me feel a bit more invested in the problem-solving. But even so, it was a good time and I reckon fans of oldschool text adventures will be pleased with Alone.

"Terror in the Immortal's Atelier" by Gevelle Formicore, by Richard Goodness writing as The Water Supply writing as Gevelle Formicore

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Rather Creative, December 6, 2020
by Joey Acrimonious
Related reviews: IFComp 2020

This entire review is a giant spoiler, so:

(Spoiler - click to show)This is one third of an interesting trio of ostensibly puzzle-based games. I say ďostensiblyĒ because, once you figure out the central conceit - that ďAdventures in the Tomb of Ilfane,Ē ďIncident! Aliens on the Teresten!,Ē and ďTerror in the Immortalís AtelierĒ are all pieces of one overarching adventure - there really is no puzzle left. By reading each of the games concurrently, they supply cut-and-dry solutions to the other gamesí puzzles, and these solutions cannot possibly be missed. Theyíre marked with huge blinking text! The entirety of the puzzle to be solved, then, consists of this single realization. Everything else is just doing what youíre told. While the intertextuality is a clever idea, for this reason, I didnít get much out of these games in terms of meaningful interactivity.

The story itself confused me a bit since each of the games includes the same set of names applied to totally different things - is Ilfane, for example, the leader of an ancient nation? A spacefaring species of alt-right aliens? Or just a cabinet? I found myself wondering whether there is a deeper meaning behind how the names are assigned differently between the games. Is it an invitation to consider the importance of context in generating meaning? Maybe a comment on the unreliability of the gamesí narrators? Perhaps it is meant to suggest a kind of symbolic connection between the (seemingly totally different) people and objects who get assigned the same name? Or maybe itís just for shiggles? At this time, I have no answer to these questions, but itís interesting to think about.

The games are well-polished, with a pleasing color scheme and no bugs that I encountered. My one gripe with the technical side is the inclusion of timed text. Timed text is a finicky thing thatís almost impossible to get right. In this case, I thought it was too slow, and that detracted from the excitement of some otherwise-dramatic sequencesÖ except for a few times when I glanced away for a second and missed a line. Oops.

Where these games shine the most is in the quality of the prose and cleverness of the writing. The included myths and parables, especially, were a pleasure to read. With delightfully unexpected/cynical riffs on established tropes, these pieces of fiction-within-fiction are extremely effective for communicating the disturbing value system of their in-universe authors. The ultimate goal of the games, it seems, is to stake out a certain position in contemporary social/political discourse. But they do it with a certain levity and campiness that makes them feel more like a fun romp, even as they deliver the messages of a gloomy cautionary tale.

Overall, the games bring plenty of cool ideas to the table, and they execute some of them very well.

"Incident! Aliens on the Teresten!" by Tarquin Segundo, by Richard Goodness writing as The Water Supply writing as Tarquin Segundo

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Pleasingly Witty, December 6, 2020
by Joey Acrimonious
Related reviews: IFComp 2020

This entire review is a giant spoiler, so:

(Spoiler - click to show)This is one third of an interesting trio of ostensibly puzzle-based games. I say ďostensiblyĒ because, once you figure out the central conceit - that ďAdventures in the Tomb of Ilfane,Ē ďIncident! Aliens on the Teresten!,Ē and ďTerror in the Immortalís AtelierĒ are all pieces of one overarching adventure - there really is no puzzle left. By reading each of the games concurrently, they supply cut-and-dry solutions to the other gamesí puzzles, and these solutions cannot possibly be missed. Theyíre marked with huge blinking text! The entirety of the puzzle to be solved, then, consists of this single realization. Everything else is just doing what youíre told. While the intertextuality is a clever idea, for this reason, I didnít get much out of these games in terms of meaningful interactivity.

The story itself confused me a bit since each of the games includes the same set of names applied to totally different things - is Ilfane, for example, the leader of an ancient nation? A spacefaring species of alt-right aliens? Or just a cabinet? I found myself wondering whether there is a deeper meaning behind how the names are assigned differently between the games. Is it an invitation to consider the importance of context in generating meaning? Maybe a comment on the unreliability of the gamesí narrators? Perhaps it is meant to suggest a kind of symbolic connection between the (seemingly totally different) people and objects who get assigned the same name? Or maybe itís just for shiggles? At this time, I have no answer to these questions, but itís interesting to think about.

The games are well-polished, with a pleasing color scheme and no bugs that I encountered. My one gripe with the technical side is the inclusion of timed text. Timed text is a finicky thing thatís almost impossible to get right. In this case, I thought it was too slow, and that detracted from the excitement of some otherwise-dramatic sequencesÖ except for a few times when I glanced away for a second and missed a line. Oops.

Where these games shine the most is in the quality of the prose and cleverness of the writing. The included myths and parables, especially, were a pleasure to read. With delightfully unexpected/cynical riffs on established tropes, these pieces of fiction-within-fiction are extremely effective for communicating the disturbing value system of their in-universe authors. The ultimate goal of the games, it seems, is to stake out a certain position in contemporary social/political discourse. But they do it with a certain levity and campiness that makes them feel more like a fun romp, even as they deliver the messages of a gloomy cautionary tale.

Overall, the games bring plenty of cool ideas to the table, and they execute some of them very well.

"Adventures in the Tomb of Ilfane" by Willershin Rill, by Richard Goodness writing as The Water Supply writing as Willershin Rill

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Very Clever, December 6, 2020
by Joey Acrimonious
Related reviews: IFComp 2020

This entire review is a giant spoiler, so:

(Spoiler - click to show)This is one third of an interesting trio of ostensibly puzzle-based games. I say ďostensiblyĒ because, once you figure out the central conceit - that ďAdventures in the Tomb of Ilfane,Ē ďIncident! Aliens on the Teresten!,Ē and ďTerror in the Immortalís AtelierĒ are all pieces of one overarching adventure - there really is no puzzle left. By reading each of the games concurrently, they supply cut-and-dry solutions to the other gamesí puzzles, and these solutions cannot possibly be missed. Theyíre marked with huge blinking text! The entirety of the puzzle to be solved, then, consists of this single realization. Everything else is just doing what youíre told. While the intertextuality is a clever idea, for this reason, I didnít get much out of these games in terms of meaningful interactivity.

The story itself confused me a bit since each of the games includes the same set of names applied to totally different things - is Ilfane, for example, the leader of an ancient nation? A spacefaring species of alt-right aliens? Or just a cabinet? I found myself wondering whether there is a deeper meaning behind how the names are assigned differently between the games. Is it an invitation to consider the importance of context in generating meaning? Maybe a comment on the unreliability of the gamesí narrators? Perhaps it is meant to suggest a kind of symbolic connection between the (seemingly totally different) people and objects who get assigned the same name? Or maybe itís just for shiggles? At this time, I have no answer to these questions, but itís interesting to think about.

The games are well-polished, with a pleasing color scheme and no bugs that I encountered. My one gripe with the technical side is the inclusion of timed text. Timed text is a finicky thing thatís almost impossible to get right. In this case, I thought it was too slow, and that detracted from the excitement of some otherwise-dramatic sequencesÖ except for a few times when I glanced away for a second and missed a line. Oops.

Where these games shine the most is in the quality of the prose and cleverness of the writing. The included myths and parables, especially, were a pleasure to read. With delightfully unexpected/cynical riffs on established tropes, these pieces of fiction-within-fiction are extremely effective for communicating the disturbing value system of their in-universe authors. The ultimate goal of the games, it seems, is to stake out a certain position in contemporary social/political discourse. But they do it with a certain levity and campiness that makes them feel more like a fun romp, even as they deliver the messages of a gloomy cautionary tale.

Overall, the games bring plenty of cool ideas to the table, and they execute some of them very well.

Academic Pursuits (As Opposed To Regular Pursuits), by ruqiyah

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A Carefully-Constructed Vignette, December 6, 2020
by Joey Acrimonious
Related reviews: IFComp 2020

Academic Pursuits (As Opposed to Regular Pursuits) is a very smooth, very well-polished, bite-sized parser game that takes a fairly simple scheme and executes it wonderfully. The task that awaits the player in-game is, more or less, rote. Itís not a puzzle to be figured out, nor is it a series of decisions that have much of an effect on the course of the plot. Instead, itís a series of opportunities to experience a moment in the life of the protagonist, and gradually piece together a picture of whatís going on (beyond the immediately obvious).

In some key respects, Academic Pursuits has the qualities of a slice-of-life work. Youíre playing a moment in time. The focus is on the internal life of the protagonist: what she thinks, feels, and remembers as she goes about the work of arranging her things. But thereís also a bit more to it than that. Within this moment in time, there are enough surprises, enough mysteries, and enough spiciness to keep it quite interesting. Put it all together, and it works beautifully.

Everything in this game is made with care; most everything a player might do is met with interesting and satisfying responses that convey a rich attention to detail.

The only thing I didnít like about Academic Pursuits is that there isnít more of it. Take your time, explore all that there is to explore, and youíll see a fascinating vignette unfold before your eyes.

(s)wordsmyth, by Tristan Jacobs

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Compelling Prose, Less-Compelling Game Design, December 6, 2020
by Joey Acrimonious
Related reviews: IFComp 2020

(s)wordsmyth gives the impression of a quest for revenge, but itís actually a quest for redemption. You must fight without fighting, using only your words to win over your opponents. Itís a simply-structured but fun adventure featuring a series of verbal duels.

I appreciated the uniqueness of each encounter, as they all demand a different approach. Negotiation? Flattery? Intimidation? The best course of action depends on the situation, and youíll have to read your opponent to figure out how to deal with them successfully. The prose is well-written, especially when in dialogue with certain powerful opponents: many of their lines are written in a beautifully dramatic, almost poetic style that really sells the supernatural feel of such encounters.

The presentation of the game, in the style of a visual novel except without any visuals apart from a game-over graphic, seems an odd choice. Another minus: defeat can happen quickly and sometimes feels arbitrary. Unless you're far more observant than I - or just plain lucky - expect to be doing a fair bit of dying and replaying from checkpoints.

Throughout much of the game, the main characters (the student and the master) seemed a bit inscrutable. I didnít feel a whole lot of personality from either of them. Theyíre laser-focused on their mission and most of their dialogue serves to establish this, and this alone. In the case of the master especially, I felt that she suffered from her dual role as character and narrator - her distinctive voice as a character seems to evaporate and turn generic whenever she begins narrating events and surroundings.

The ending, however, is a satisfying and strong one - strong enough to elevate the whole experience of the game. Once I reached it, I finally felt like I understood the personalities and motivations of the main characters. I just wish there had been a bit more build-up to that point, a bit more meaningful and varied dialogue between the student and master throughout the game.

Overall, (s)wordsmyth packs a good amount of punch despite some less-than-perfect design choices, and itís well worth a playthrough.

Amazing Quest, by Nick Montfort

3 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
Like, Whoa, Dude, December 6, 2020
by Joey Acrimonious
Related reviews: IFComp 2020

Not everyone is going to ďgetĒ this game. But Iím here to tell you that, to the discerning eye, Amazing Quest is a brilliant and deeply moving masterpiece. Be warned that thereís simply no way to plumb the depths of this work without diving right into all the details, so there will be spoilers ahead.

This first point should be obvious to anyone who has played the game: Amazing Quest is a radical, surrealist deconstruction of the Odyssey which takes the familiar tropes of this classic work and turns them on their heads in order to reveal deeper meaning. Ancient Hellenistic literature, we are doubtless aware, is predicated upon the experience of presence. Presence, indeed, is axiomatic - and the importance of this cannot be overstated, because this same mode of thinking underpins virtually the whole of traditional western culture. Odysseus, you will recall, is a Greek man with a name. We know he has a name because itís right there on the cover! His journey is to hearth and home, where he expects to reunite with his wife, Penelope, a woman who also is named. Matters like these are where Amazing Quest diverges most obviously from the Odyssey. Its protagonist is nameless and genderless, their origins unknown, their relations unspecified, their future inscrutable. It is with these flagrant omissions that Amazing Quest reveals itself as a dialectical synthesis of western classicism with Buddhist philosophy, recasting and recontextualizing the ďjourney homeĒ trope within a frame of emptiness, juxtaposing the conspicuous experience of absence with our expectation of presence. By stripping out names and details from the familiar narrative, it invites us to consider the experience of their absence. To what extent can we alienate the signified from the signifier? To what extent is it truly possible to distinguish the internal experience of subjective identity from the external facts of socially-constructed gender identity, or family affinity? The game itself suggests answers to these questions, while simultaneously, and brilliantly, subverting its own answers: y/n? Yes and no, obviously, tell us nothing about the concepts in question. And yet, these are presented as the only answers to any given question. Is this a pre-emptive criticism of the cursory and ineffectual analysis which the author anticipated in response to the questions his game would provoke? Or is it perhaps a riff on the limitations of language itself - a suggestion that all language, ultimately, is an exercise in futility? No, itís neither. Itís merely an open invitation for us to consider whether the questions that we are asking are the questions we ought to be asking.

But this is only the most superficial of what Amazing Quest has to teach us. In the enclosed strategy guide, Montfort cautions us: ďWhat you (with your cultural world-view) might think of as chance [Ö] plays an important role in this game.Ē This remark takes on unexpected significance as we progress through our amazing quest. At first, it appears that the results of each choice are random - indeed, there is no way to predict whether a yes or a no will yield (or shall we say, precede) positive or negative feedback. We, with the expectations instilled in us by our cultural background, perceive this as ďchance,Ē yet Montfortís comment seems to imply that this is not the only way of looking at it. What, then, is the alternative? Do our inputs effect some predictable feedback? Does it matter to the game whether we select yes or no? The answer, of course, is no. Montfort knows this, and we know this. Where, then, is the space for ambiguity? This is what we are invited to question. And in doing so, we will eventually have to ask ourselves, what is chance? This is where we are invited to consider our own ontology. If we believe in Enlightenment determinism, we must ultimately hold that nothing is truly chance - that everything ultimately has a cause, and that randomness is merely an illusion, revealing our imperfect understanding of that which we perceive to be based on chance. According to this view, the apparent randomness of Amazing Quest is merely an indicator that its course is determined by something other than our input. Or if we posit an indeterministic ontology, then we suppose that the apparent results of our choices were indeed random, and, still, not caused by our choices at all. Why, then, are we asked to make choices, when they are apparently meaningless?

Here is where Montfortís strategy note exposes itself to a new interpretation: eventually, we will win the game. We cannot lose the game. Assuming we continue to play long enough, there is no question as to our ultimate victory. At this point it becomes clear that, ontological questions aside, what we perceived as chance was not chance, because it was nothing. The marginal effect on the gamestate of us getting positive versus negative feedback for any given choiceÖ was nothing! We merely anticipated that the outcome of individual events would be of importance to the ultimate result, but it was not so. In this way, we are invited on a critical intrapsychological journey. What does it mean for us to be proven wrong? Why did we expect this? Where did our expectation come from? To this latter question, the author has already suggested an answer: it is our cultural background which has led us to this point. Our intrapsychological journey, now, becomes an interpsychological one. What did we experience, what were we exposed to, which caused us to feel that the events of this game would be of some consequence?

We are in good company, of course. Humans, for as long as history has been recorded, it seems, have ascribed causal significance erroneously. Let us now return to the Odyssey and the superstitions which it embodies. The reason Odysseus struggles to return to Ithaca is because he has been cursed by Poseidon. To our modern eyes, this is an obvious contrivance: you cannot be cursed by the god of the sea; angering such a non-existant entity will have no effect. And yet, is there not another way to read this event? Genesis P-Orridge famously observed that religion represents an early attempt at psychology. Poseidon may not seem to be a person with agency unto himself, but perhaps he could be said to exist, in some sense of the word, in the minds of humans. And if so - were we perhaps premature in concluding that he has no causal significance? Similarly, were we premature in concluding that the events of Amazing Quest had no causal significance? Perhaps it was their existence, in our minds (and thus embodied in our physical brains), that caused us to keep playing the game and ultimately win. This is likely to be among the more controversial of Amazing Questís implications: its idiosyncratic sort of panprotopsychist thesis - the implication that all things material and otherwise, through their potential for embodiment within the mind, have the potential for agency.

This is all just to scratch the surface of the, frankly, amazing content of this quest. I wonít be attempting a more substantive analysis at this time - after all, the field of IF studies is still in its infancy, and future critics will doubtless pick up on important details Iíve missed! Perhaps Iíll return to write a full essay once there exists a larger corpus of critical analysis to cite, but for now, these are my initial thoughts. I greatly enjoyed Amazing Quest and will be watching the author with interest.

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