Reviews by ChrisM

IF Comp 2021

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Sting, by Mike Russo

10 of 10 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.

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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.

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Kidney Kwest, by Eric Zinda, and Luka Marceta

4 of 4 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.

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AardVarK Versus the Hype, by Truthcraze

4 of 4 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.

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