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Sting, by Mike Russo

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
A life in six stings, December 2, 2021
by ChrisM (Cambridge, UK)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

[Note - I beta tested this game]

Sting is an autobiographical parser game that sketches a life through a series of six vignettes, each punctuated, as the author himself was punctured, by bee stings. Aside from the curious tendency of the author to provoke the ire of bees (the presumably pheromonal explanation for which is never satisfactorily explored Ė subject matter for the sequel no doubt) the underlying theme of the game is the authorís relationship with his twin sister Liz who, whether they are together or apart, remains a constant presence in his life. We follow Russo (as he is affectionately known by his half-a-minute-younger sister), from his early life through his awkward teenage years to early adulthood and onwards to the present day, where we discover him at the other side of the traumatic personal event that was the impetus to create this interactive memoir in the first place.

This is the sort of game that is bound to be polarising amongst players. Itís necessarily linear and puzzleless (comparison with Adam Cadreís Photopia seems inevitable), and deals with real life issues that many players who come primarily to IF for escapism will likely find off-putting. Iím that sort of player and yet Sting really did work for me. Iíll try to explore a little some of the reasons why I found it so successful.

For one thing, the decision to use a parser rather than choice mechanic was, I think, the correct one. Sting is a memoir and each vignette deals with a specific place and time in the authorís life, but this being interactive (non)fiction, the memories are lived, not static. It feels important that weíre able to run about and poke into corners, to try to pick the flowers and jump up and down on the scenery; the parser confers an impression of agency that couldnít be achieved to the same degree in a purely choice-based game. Of course, these being memories of actual events, our choices are still constrained and our freedom of action is illusory (even more so than in your average parser game) and that creates an interesting tension in the gameplay, exemplified in the second vignette, where the player finds themselves in the middle of a sailing race that they seem bound to lose Ė because, in the author's recollection, the race probably was lost Ė but the trying to win (a painful and prolonged fumbling and failure to competently execute various nautical manoeuvres beneath a constant tirade of scorn from Liz) become the driving force of the narrative. The author has described aiming for an Ďadversarial vibeí here, and he definitely succeeds: the familiar experience of the IF player fighting with the parser is employed quite deliberately, and cleverly, to simulate the experience of being in what feels like an inevitably losing situation (the author has pointed out that there is alternative path here, but it isn't easy to find; the uncertainty of the outcome is nicely reflective of the unreliability of memory). I canít imagine the episode having quite the same sense of urgency and immediacy with a choice-based mechanic. Similarly, I think the parser lends a tactility to the settings and situations elsewhere in the game (wandering around the backyard as a child, or the family home, or your shared apartment later in life) that it would be hard to achieve with choice selection. Of course, with a parser game implementation is the factor that can make or break the experience for the player and here the author doesnít let us down Ė pretty much everything is amply (and amusingly) described and works as it should, and the game has obviously been put together with a lot of care and attention, right down to the custom default responses that help maintain the tone of the piece throughout.

Aside from that fundamental design choice, there are other aspects of Sting that allow it to come off far more successfully than it otherwise might have done. Most of these are to do with the quality of the writing, which is very good throughout: lot of pleasing descriptive prose and wry, self-deprecating humour characteristic of the author (anyone who has had a game tested by MR and read his in-transcript comments will know what I mean). The characterisation of Liz, and the depiction of Russoís relationship with her, is excellently done and very effectively captures something of the tensions and antagonisms intrinsic to all, and particularly to sibling, relationships (people being, more often than not, rather difficult things to live with). Russo and Liz fight and bicker, and generally wind each other up but there is never any doubt about the strength of the affection underpinning their relationship. More often than not, those we are closest to are those with whom we have most conflict, and Sting depicts that very effectively.

Another noteworthy aspect is the uncertain, dream-like quality of certain elements of the game that, along with occasional intrusions of the authorial voice, remind us we are playing through remembered events - with all the fallibility that implies. For example, examining the swing in the backyard of the childhood home elicits a confession that the authorís memory was cheating him: the swing wasnít there yet when the events happened. Similarly, if we try to examine something that isnít implemented weíre told you can't see that anywhere around (or maybe you just won't remember it being there). Elsewhere, the dream become darker as we find ourselves locked into events that weíd rather avoid: in particular, the happenings of the fifth episode have a nightmare quality as the player is carried along towards an inevitable and terrifying event and any attempt to take refuge is only to postpone the encounter for a little while. A sense of unease and insecurity is effectively deployed here to accentuate the failing relationship that is the main theme of the episode.

The game builds, in its own discursive way, towards the final snapshot set in the present, where Russo discusses baby names with his pregnant partner and reflects on the particular, terrible event which lies at the core of the whole story. There are many ways that this central subject could have been handled but the way it does play out amply demonstrates the authorís skill. Lizís illness could have been the dominant theme of the game, overshadowing every scene; it might have been dealt with in greater and more explicit detail. The author doesnít do that Ė quite possibly, and understandably, because such things are too painful to write about but also, I would venture, because the story is firmly and resolutely about life, in all of its colour, weirdness and mundanity, far more than it is about death. The effect, when we realise at the end that Liz is gone, is as impactful and shocking as it ought to be and the particular mixture of grief for the passing of a loved one, and happiness at imminent arrival of a first baby - polar events occurring in close proximity - is masterfully communicated through the dialogue in this final section. We spent so much time together, and knew each other so well, that I feel like I've always had a mental model of her living in my head, says Russo towards the end, highlighting a central truth of the game and of life in general: that weíre nothing so much as the memories we make, in ourselves and in others, that we never truly live in the present moment, only a forever receding past, and that often, people we know and love can seem as vivid and real Ė sometimes even more vivid and real Ė in our memories as they are in life.

Sting isnít a game for everyone Ė some will find the gameplay too linear, the fiddly parser wrangling (particularly in the sailing episode) too irritating, the tone too uncomfortably personal, the subject matter too melancholy. But for those prepared to engage with it there is a compelling story here, told with much love, humour, and honesty. In any case, there can be little doubt of the artistry on display in this finely crafted and unusually autobiographical piece and, taken on its own terms, I think it is entirely successful. I'd expect it to be remembered as one of the highlights of this yearís competition. It certainly was for me.

An Aside About Everything, by Sasha

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Noir, a shade too obscure, November 10, 2021
by ChrisM (Cambridge, UK)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

A heavily introspective, noir-styled choice-based game about a guy searching for a girl against a backdrop of surreal landscapes (presumably projections of his inner states) while encountering a succession of enigmatic women (presumably the splintered subconscious impressions of the one he is searching for). The story is narrated in the third person present throughout; we witness our reverentially capitalised protagonist (he is a He) from a distance as he works his way through (presumably) whatever persona trauma it is that has led him to retreat into the sanctuary of his mind; the viewpoint seems a deliberate means to dissociate himself from that trauma. Probably.

Thereís a lot of presumption there and thatís because, really, this game invites it: it is, in parts, wilfully obscure. The whole thing feels rich in allegory, but itís never quite clear what the allegory is or what, fundamentally, is going on aside from the central narrative thread of Him seeking the missing Her.

Interesting stuff happens. Characters come and go. One dreamlike location leads to another. The whole thing is divided into acts that shunt us ever onwards, bewilderingly, towards the climax and a denouement, of sorts. There are a number of literary quotations throughout that seem suitably apposite in their place, but, in hindsight, donít cast much light on proceedings. Itís all rather perplexing.

However, in spite of the obscurity there is actually a lot I like about this game. The writing is good throughout: the prose is moody and evocative and just off-kilter enough to lend a slightly unsettling atmosphere to the whole, and the characters are interesting and their differing personalities distinctly drawn. I did enjoy the story overall. The implementation in Twine is effective: an appropriately subdued black and white theme and sporadic sound effects which could be easily missed (I did miss them, before I played with sound on the second time round), as well as an inventory system and continually updating list of Ďpeople of interestí. I found myself engaged and entertained throughout. I found a few minor typos and there are a number of bugs, also reported by others, that meant I became trapped in a loop and had to restart on three occasions (once during conversation at the bar, another at the mine and a third time when looking up things in the inventory followed by consulting the Ďpeople of interest listí). I was also able to seemingly use an object before discovering it on a couple of occasions: ((Spoiler - click to show)the phone and the beer, both of which I could trade for pills before they were in my inventory). I hope these minor wrinkles will be ironed out in a post-comp release.

One wonders, with something like this, if the obscurity is explained by the private nature of the work (this is a personal story that only the author could truly understand), or if it is merely affected (itís just an authorial device to make a more interesting story). The latter seems less forgivable and, I suspect, it the case here Ė it feels like a deliberate stylistic decision to make the story difficult to decipher in this sort of way and, I think, it is only a partially successful one. Ambiguity and allegory are fine but only if the reader can have some confidence that, overall, they know what is going on; a little more exposition is generally required before an audience becomes sufficiently engaged to fill in the detail for themselves rather than letting it simply wash over them as most players would with this (and as, ultimately, I did).

As it stands, An Aside About Everything feels as though it is about everything and nothing. Thatís a pity, as some considerable skill has gone into this piece, and it is worthy of a playerís attention. But it would benefit from a layer of enigma being stripped away; a shade less obscure and it would be a solid four-star game. As it stands, itís a respectable if slightly disappointing three stars from me.

Kidney Kwest, by Eric Zinda, and Luka Marceta

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Renal Perplexity, October 30, 2021
by ChrisM (Cambridge, UK)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

Well this is unusual: an educational text game designed to reinforce key messages for young kidney patients about the regimen they need to follow to stay healthy, created in a new and experimental Ďnatural languageí game engine called Perplexity. You play a young person with a dilemma: you have an audition to go to but no costume to wear! A quick look around your schoolís drama room yields not much of use but then, lo and behold, the Kidney Fairy appears to give you a helping hand by transporting you to a magical place where some puzzles and the continual need to manage your medical condition with appropriate medication are all that stand between you and a part in the school play. A little wandering around, some untaxing exploration and a quick, if slightly queasy, trip inside your own body should be enough to solve this one. So far, so interesting. But does the game live up to its rather intriguing premise?

Sadly, no. The problem here isnít so much the slightness of the gameplay (the puzzles, few and simple as they are, donít offer much in the way of challenge) or the annoyance of having an inventory limit and a hunger timer (youíll find yourself forever fumbling to drop items so you can pick up other items, while expecting any second to expire for want of food) but the engine itself. Itís a little hard to understand what the authors are trying to achieve here Ė Perplexity is heralded (to quote the blog of one of the authors) as "a natural language AI experience that uses deep linguistics processing to fully understand every word you type", but judging by this demonstration, it falls very short of that mark. Not only does it appear to understand very little of what you type, it is also very buggy and prone to produce strange and unintentionally comical responses (for example, LOOK AT THE DOOR = "a white door is north, open, and white. It is connected to an opening, an opening", EXAMINE ME = "You are a person that looks like they need a costume for the audition. It also has a hand, a hand, a body" and CLOSE BAG = "The on top of a bag of potato chips is now closed."). Itís also pretty fussy about the limited range of commands that it is prepared to accept - itís rather wearing to be continually told to use articles in sentences even though itís quicker to enter e.g. OPEN DOOR or EAT HAMBURGER, and furthermore itís not even consistent: when handling a bag of chips (i.e. crisps, for us Brits), GET BAG prompts the usual nag about using the definite article but GET CHIPS is accepted without such fuss. The authors seem to believe that forcing players to enter commands in full sentences like this will lower the bar for entry to those unfamiliar with text games Ė but Iím not convinced thatís true. It strikes me that the simplified set of commands and abbreviations conventionally used in interactive fiction are a) not very difficult to learn and b) make interaction with a game a lot more straightforward than trying to use the messy, ambiguous and heavily nuanced thing that is the English language. Even if itís accepted that Perplexity is a prototype system and there is still a lot of work to do to bring it to maturity, Iím unconvinced that asking a game WHAT AM I CARRYING? is more straightforward or easier to remember that simply typing INVENTORY or I, or that LOOK AT THE DOOR is more satisfactory that EXAMINE DOOR or X DOOR, conventional commands that are not difficult to master, even for young people. Itís difficult to imagine your average child spending more than a few minutes with a game like this before giving up, even (or especially) if foisted upon them by their doctor (how the real-life kidney specialist Dr. Sangeeta Hingorani got involved in this is anyoneís guess); kids generally donít have the patience for text games at the best of times and this falls very short of providing such times. Itís just too frustrating and unforgiving. Personally, I did play to the end, but I wouldnít have done if I hadnít felt obliged to (this ended up on my IF Comp random shuffle list).

Ironically, since the game engine is billed as something new and progressive in the world of text games, the overall effect is actually very retro. The hunger and inventory limits bring forth fond memories of the rage-inducing text games of my youth (all that is lacking here is an inescapable maze) and the frequent lengthy waits while the game digests the playerís input before finally spitting out a response that may or may not make any sense remind me strongly of many adventures of the 8-bit era. Odd then, that something that aspires to be at the cutting edge should in some ways hark back so strongly to that long ago era (unless there is some sort of meta-joke here that Iím not getting).

Probably I sound a little harsh, and I do accept that here, perhaps, the system is not being shown off to its full advantage: perhaps there is another game waiting to be presented that will demonstrate unequivocally the power and potential of Perplexity Ė but sadly Kidney Kwest is not it and, as a showcase for a new game engine, as a pedagogical tool intended to appeal to young players, and simply as a reasonably fun game to play, I'm afraid it falls considerably short of its aspirations.

AardVarK Versus the Hype, by Truthcraze

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Donít drink the Zombie-ade!, October 23, 2021
by ChrisM (Cambridge, UK)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

A crazy adventure about the four members of a high school garage band named AardVark and their antics as they try to thwart the purveyors of 'Hype', a weird new soda that has the property of turning ordinary teenagers into monosyllabic, shuffling zombies (whose parents might not be able to tell the difference). Itís variously madcap, silly, and comically horrific with a B-movie flavour, some witty writing and a cast of likeable characters whose relationships, insecurities and obsessions (sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll and all the rest) accurately depict those of the average rebellious teenager. The game has a strong, linear narrative bookended by an early flashback sequence and an epilogue; the gameplay in-between is neatly compartmentalised into short episodes that need to be completed to progress and that flow fairly logically from one into the other. Altogether, the story works pretty well and kept me entertained throughout, although I found the ending a bit abrupt - a bit more could perhaps have been made of the final denouement, but curtailing the story at that point does at least ensure it falls neatly into the 2-hours-or-less bracket, playtime-wise (this being an IF comp game). A shame, perhaps, as I enjoyed it and would have been happy to play for longer.

However, there are a couple of problems with the game that, for me, took some of the shine off it. Firstly, the puzzles are sometimes a little illogical and / or poorly clued. This is game that really wants you to win: not only are the goals for each section helpfully listed in the status bar but also unsolicited nudges are liberally thrown at the player as soon as signs of hapless flailing are detected. In spite of that, I still found myself unable to divine that I needed to e.g. (Spoiler - click to show)insert the hot dog sausage into the crevice to distract the convenience store attendant, or (Spoiler - click to show)WEAR CONDOMS (really) to get past them and out of the store. Secondly, there are numerous implementation problems that are not only cosmetically displeasing but in some instances, negatively impact the gameplay. There are numerous typos, minor formatting errors and other oddities such as should-be-openable boxes and windows that arenít "something that you can open", (Spoiler - click to show)a cord that canít be tied to anything, even though you need it to climb a tree (just CLIMB TREE works) and null responses when trying to interact with a can of soda, amongst various other issues. In addition, there are a couple of places where such problems almost scupper the game altogether: namely (Spoiler - click to show)the shelf in the bedroom, that you are directed explicitly to search but canít (it was only by looking at the hints that I learnt what was on there and could then get it, even though I hadnít actually discovered the item by LOOKING ON or EXAMINING the shelf) and (Spoiler - click to show)the coffee-switching sequence in the GasíNíStuff where, somewhat infuriatingly, not only are more logical commands such as PUT HYPE IN COFFEE or POUR HYPE INTO COFFEE not implemented but the actual solution given in the in-game hints (SWITCH HYPE FOR COFFEE) is wrong! Itís actually SWITCH HYPE WITH COFFEE, as given in the walkthrough (if I hadnít come across the answer there then I would probably have abandoned the game altogether at that point). Looking at the in-game credits, I see that some reliable people were involved in testing it, so I have to admit Iím slightly surprised that such issues made it into the final game. I can only assume that there were a lot more bugs in the beta version and what remains are the ones that werenít picked up amongst all the others, or that the author ran out of time to fix everything. Whatever the case, itís a shame that the conspicuous lack of polish makes the game a definite three stars for me, where it could so easily have been a solid four stars.

That being said, the game does have a charm that makes up for its infelicities and it delivers a satisfying experience overall. As a piece of amusing and silly escapism, itís well worth the playerís time.

Tristam Island, by Hugo Labrande

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Robinson Crusoe for the Atomic Age, October 10, 2021
by ChrisM (Cambridge, UK)

A bit of fanfare preceded the release of Tristam Island which meant, unusually, that Iíd actually heard of it before playing it (it got a couple of mentions on a well-known community forum; relatively speaking, a blaze of publicity) Ė so advertising does work, a bit. In any case, Iím glad that I was thus induced to play it, as it is pretty good.

The game is made with PunyInform which, my scanty research suggests, is a version of Inform optimised for 8-bit computers that would otherwise struggle to run a full-fat Inform game Ė something that appeals to the nostalgic, the curious and those who believe they are still living in the 1980s (which more or less covers the whole contemporary IF audience, I think). One feature of that is the ability to target lots and lots of different retro computer systems, which the author has exploited to the full: there are dozens of different versions of the game available, so players are free to run it on the obsolete hardware of their choice. I played the Windows version, but even there the retro vibe still shines through in the implementation: more sparse, perhaps, than the average Ďmoderní IF game but richer than a lot of the games of the period to which this harks back. I guess that a general sort of Infocomy feel is what is aimed at here, and I think it succeeds (although I havenít played any Infocom games, I more or less know what theyíre supposed to look like) Ė the parser is very capable, but doesnít require too much of the player in terms of long and complicated commands, the descriptions are just long enough to fit comfortably within memory constraints, etc. There are also some explicit Infocom references in the game too (having done my research, I recognised a couple of them; there are probably more) which indicates quite clearly where the authorís heart lies, in case there was any doubt. Overall, the attempt to present an authentically retro-flavoured text adventure whilst avoiding authentically retro-flavoured frustrations is quite successful: which brings me to the game itself.

The setting is an abandoned island on which the player finds themselves stranded. There is, inevitably, a mystery here which is slowly uncovered during the course of the game through the playerís attempts to escape. The parser is reassuringly understanding and there arenít any real guess-the-verb frustrations. The map is fairly large, with new areas becoming accessible as the game progresses, and there is a lot of exploring and puzzle solving to do in this solitary wilderness. There are no NPCs in the game (well, perhaps there is one Ė but you canít talk to it), which works well to enhance the feeling of loneliness and isolation, while also handily avoiding the memory constraints and other difficulties involved with implementing NPCs effectively. The puzzles are generally well thought out, sensible and just challenging enough to feel satisfying Ė for me, they hit a perfect sweet spot between too easy and too hard that meant (much to my own astonishment) that I managed to complete the entire game without any external help at all (albeit with an imperfect score: I got 135/150). Some of the more complex actions in the game are implicitly handled (by MAKE or REPAIR etc.) which is a good idea for those players who canít be bothered to spend endless turns entering each individual action involved in e.g. sewing a button on a shirt, and for the ones that arenít, a bit of careful interrogation of things (especially the scenery) and lateral thinking is usually enough to put you on the right track. The most complex puzzle comes about halfway through the game and one senses the author struggling adequately to describe exactly what the set-up is here - he almost, but not quite succeeds. But for all that, itís still not too difficult to figure out what to do especially as the required items are relatively close at hand, as with all the puzzles (a design of which I approve: who wants to get to the end of the game only to have to traipse all the way back to get the sea shell that they stumbled across at the start?). A surprising feature is the number of hints scattered throughout: surprising as we are told at the start of the game that help is not available (due to memory constraints). In fact, more often than not, careful examination will yield pointers as to what you need to do, which are generally helpful nudges towards the solutionÖso the help is there, you just need to go hunting for it.

The game strikes a decent balance between open-world and on-rails. There is a reasonable amount of wandering around and exploring to do, but the game is clearly compartmentalised into different sections that need to be traversed in order to progress (literally in one case towards the end of the game, where you pass a point of no return). Thatís fine with me: I much prefer to be moving forward through a narrative to wandering around aimlessly. Each bit of the game is likely to take some time to complete. I never play these things in one sitting, but Iíd estimate that it might have taken me around 3 or 4 hours to get through it all if I had Ė so there is a decent chunk of game here.

Overall, Iíd say the game is a pretty good investment of your time and money Ė but itís not perfect by any means. For one thing, the plot is quite hackneyed: the grand revelation about the mystery of the island towards the end of the game was no revelation at all, and I was left feeling that something more original might have been attempted. There are also several bugs in the game, including a couple of fatal ones, that I would have expected to have been picked up in play-testing especially as the game is being marketed commercially (albeit for pin money). Iíll report them back to the author but itís disappointing to come across them.

Those negatives aside though, this is a very well done and enjoyable game that I would certainly recommend. Iíll be playing more by this author.

The Miller's Garden, by Damon L. Wakes

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Potamological potterings, October 9, 2021
by ChrisM (Cambridge, UK)

Curious, impressionistic piece about time, impermanence, and Ďnet channel incisioní (to use a technical term concerning the effect of water mill construction and demolition on the topography of river beds of which I was previously unaware; one learns something new every day).

You play a visitor to the garden of the title, the mill itself having long been demolished, where you can wander through a small number of locations and spend time pruning, tidying, shoring-up and generally fighting entropy while, hard on your heels, time stalks you like a jealous ex-lover and unravels all of your good work as fast as you accomplish it so that you have to continually loop back and start all over again. And all this to the soothing (if bathroom-visit inducing) accompaniment of running water and some pleasing poly art graphics.

As both a game and a story, itís rather slight, if not unpleasing. One could spend more time than the 20 minutes or so that I spent with it contemplating what it shows us about the futility of existence and suchlike, but it doesnít really justify the effort (or at least it didn't, for me). ďIs this really how you wish to spend your days?Ē the game asks pointedly, after a few cycles of building up and knocking down, and the answer has to be: no, not really. But as something to while away a quick tea break, it will do just fine.

You are SpamZapper 3.1, by Leon Arnott

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
The private lives of plugins, October 9, 2021
by ChrisM (Cambridge, UK)

I went into this game not expecting to get out of it as much as I did - its blurb doesn't do it justice. But I found it completely absorbing. It starts off as a cute little story about the secret lives of software plugins - youíre a spam filter, tasked with reading an endless procession of emails and deciding whether or not theyíre worthy to pass into the inbox of the human whose computer you inhabit - and then develops into a fascinating journey through time, space, memory and the entangled relationships of sentient beings (both human and artificial).

At its heart, itís a love story, and a very well-written and frequently very funny one at that; if that wasnít so then I could imagine the earlier section of the game, in which you read your way through a steady stream of faux emails and simply have to decide whether to Ďzapí or approve them, would become rapidly quite wearing - but I found that the writing was skilful and entertaining enough to avoid that. After the preliminaries, the game opens out and the story and characters come to the fore, the non-human protagonist and their friends being, for the most part, a far more likeable and interesting bunch than the humans they serve; its their attempts to influence events in the outside world that drives the narrative along but their interactions with one another that provide the lionís share of the entertainment. Itís a hard task to elicit empathy with a spam filter and the equivalent of Clippy, but somehow this game manages to do it, while offering up a thoroughly entertaining story and a few (very easy) puzzles along the way.

This is an author who knows how to spin a rattling good yarn and keep readers along for the duration; I took me around three hours to get through the game and I felt it was time well spent. Linearity seems quite high and the sense of player agency quite low - that might bother the sorts of players who are inclined to replay choice-based games to explore different branches, but I tend to play games like I play life, largely blind to the paths not taken, so it didn't worry me. The implementation in Twine is carefully done with a few different backgrounds and sparing use of text effects - simple and very effective.

Altogether I found it completely enjoyable. Iíd certainly recommend this to anyone looking first and foremost for a good story.

Excalibur, by J. J. Guest, G. C. Baccaris, and Duncan Bowsman

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
A ghost from the archives, August 12, 2021
by ChrisM (Cambridge, UK)

Wonderful. A fabulously detailed, beautifully written and altogether very clever tribute to the greatest TV series that Terry Nation never wrote, in fake-Wiki form.

In a parallel reality where Nation became trapped in a lift on his way to the BBC canteen with only Bob Baker and Dave Martin, Dennis Spooner and Robert Holmes for company (and then sold the resulting story idea to Patrick Dromgoole at HTV), Excalibur would have been the inevitable result.

I lost myself in this for hours and I'd urge anyone else to do the same. Even for players not quite as steeped in the milieu from which this thing emerges as I am (it does feel rather like it's been written specially for me) there is an enormous amount to enjoy in this lovingly crafted and immersive account of the making of a television series that one cannot help but regret never actually existed. There's even a game, of sorts, to play if one feels the need to do anything more than just drink in all the delicious detail.

Highly recommended.

The Golden Apple, by Simon Wadsworth

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Unguessably hard retro 'fun', February 24, 2021
by ChrisM (Cambridge, UK)

Picture the scene: it is a Saturday afternoon in 1983. Thatcher has just won her second term in office, TV-AM has awoken a startled British public to the UK's first breakfast television service, and the Queen has bestowed a knighthood on Clive Sinclair for inventing the means by which Ant Attack and Manic Miner can be bought into being, at last. But you shun the empty calories of such vulgar arcade-stuff: you want something more wholesome and cerebral, something that will engage your critical faculties and lateral thinking skills. In short, you want to play a text adventure. Happily, you have such a thing to hand in the form of The Golden Apple, from Hull's illustrious 'Arctic Computing' software house. You pop the cassette in the tape recorder, adjust the volume to 7.5, and crack open a bottle of Panda Pops and a packet of Monster Munch while you wait for your afternoon's entertainment to load. You hope to have made good progress by tea time, maybe have it finished in time for Sunday dinner. You're not expecting it to be a walk in the park, but you're a clever young man and you've had previous form with these sorts of games. How difficult can this one be, authored as it is by a bookish A-level student with an interest in computer programming (perhaps one day you'll be just like him)? The tape has finished; you admire the colourful loading screen and then, with baited breath, press a key to begin...

I am on the road, near a mansion

Time passes...

You play for a while. Quite a long while. In fact, a very long while. 37 years later and the Panda Pops has run out, the Monster Munch has all gone. The Berlin Wall has fallen, electric cars are on the roads, your fridge-freezer has become quasi-sentient, and the Tories are back in power, again. You should probably have left home and had a family by now; you vaguely remember your parents moving out and leaving you to it. You've grown a Methuselean beard and you haven't looked away from the flickering TV screen in over three decades. And yet, you still haven't got all the treasures! How can the game be so difficult? The parser is a quite adequate two-word affair, the locations are concise, the map easily navigable, the objects more or less commonplace. And yet, somehow, from the mind of a 17-year-old youth has sprung a game so difficult, so utterly intractable, that it is formally impossible to complete without the aid of a walkthrough: mathematicians have proven that even an infinite number of monkeys pounding the rubber keyboards of an infinite number of ZX Spectrums could not do it. They would give up in frustration before even the final heat death of the universe had occurred. You type HELP, desperately, for the 10,000th time and still the same mocking message appears (how could it have changed?): a help sheet is available from (a residential address in Hull). Perhaps you should have bitten the bullet and sent off that self-addressed envelope after the first 6 months. Was three and a half decades leaving it too late? It must be worth a try. But maybe you'll do that tomorrow, after a final attempt. The answers must be here somewhere, you just need to look more carefully (although not much can be EXAMINEd, it is true). You've got the orb and the tin of paint, you've sung the glass case into fragments, the parrot is squawking Hamlet at you, and you've fed salmon to a crocodile. All you need is a little more time to figure it all out. Now, concentrate...

Crocodracula: The Beginning, by Ryan Veeder and Harrison Gerard

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Resurrected reptilian runaround from early '90s, January 27, 2021
by ChrisM (Cambridge, UK)

An entertaining runaround with a silly story and no pretensions beyond being a bit of harmless fun, this retro game is decidedly my kind of thing. I havenít played any of Ryan Veederís self-authored games, but from what I can gather the style here is, coincidentally, not dissimilar: itís light-hearted and frequently quite funny, the writing is witty and concise, the puzzles are relatively merciful, there is a large map to wander around and explore and plenty of characters to chat to. I havenít finished it yet Ė games of this length I tend to play on and off, so it will take me a while Ė but from what Iíve seen so far, I would highly recommend it.

If that was all there was to it, then this review might end here Ė but there is a real-world backstory attached that is as interesting as the game itself. The game is a long-forgotten relic, based on and contemporary with the spooky Crocodracula US kids TV series from the early 1990s, a copy of which was discovered by prolific IF author Ryan Veeder and ported to Inform for the convenience of present-day IF aficionados. UK TV historians (there are a couple of us) and players of a certain age (there are many more of us) may recall that, in 1993, this quirky series did air briefly in the UK on Tyne Teesí Saturday morning childrenís show Gimme 5, before it was pulled after a complaint from Thames Television citing the 1990 Broadcasting Act (an obscure stipulation of which was that all childrenís TV shows broadcast on the ITV network before 12pm on Saturdays should have a minimum 15% UK production stake). The show was replaced by the homegrown Danger Mouse after just three episodes. It could therefore reasonably be claimed that Margaret Thatcher killed Crocodracula, at least in the UK Ė after chewing up the nationalised industries and eating the NUM alive, she had this show for afters, and no more was heard of it ever again.

We should be grateful to Mr Veeder for unearthing this obscure but entertaining cultural artefact and resurrecting it for the pleasure of nostalgic oldies Ė and, perhaps, for introducing a whole new generation of fans to this most obscure of TV franchises.

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