Reviews by Joey Acrimonious

IFComp 2020

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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.

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