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Reviews by Victor Gijsbers

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View this member's reviews by tag: bleak brute-force Combat Comedy connect CYOA dungeon crawl fantasy horror IF Comp 2007 infocom innovative joke linguistic logic one-room parody phonebooth Political politics puzzle random death rogue-like short snack SpeedIF time travel unfair win on the first attempt
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Lime Ergot, by Caleb Wilson (as Rust Blight)

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Hallucinated reality, August 31, 2020
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Lime Ergot is a short game, but makes the most of its premise. You are one of only two surviving officers of a colonial military force; the other being the black-hearted and possibly insane general, who orders you to make her a drink. The game's central task is to find the ingredients for this drink. But rather than traversing a physical space through movement, we traverse a partially sensory and at least partially hallucinated space through use of the examine command. Examining things not only leads us from one object to others that were not initially described; rather, by making things present to our mind, it gives them reality and allows us to physically manipulate them. A fascinating mechanic that is combined with beautiful, evocative prose and a great atmosphere. A little gem.

Choices: And The Sun Went Out, by Tin Man Games: KG Tan, Alyce Potter, and Felicity Banks

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
A long but imperfect adventure, August 29, 2020
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
I've been playing "Choices: And the Sun Went Out" for several hours, having just finished the fourth 'story arc', and I don't think I'm anywhere near the end yet. That assessment is partly based on descriptions of the piece as containing 600k words, of which you'll apparently see 150k on any one playthrough; and it's partly based on the story I have experienced, which, frankly, hasn't gone anywhere yet.

Or rather, it has gone everywhere. It has gone to Canada, to Peru, and now to Japan. A lot has happened along the way: murders, shootouts, car chases, confrontations of secret cabals of scientists, human sacrifices, attempted kidnappings, frantic attempts to save an entire town from natural disaster, and more. But I am no closer to understanding anything about the game's central mystery (the fact that sun sometimes 'goes out'); rather, every story arc has given me some new 'leads' to pursue, sending me packing to yet another country where more action can happen. Emily Short called the prose of the game "urgent and weightless"; and it seems fair to apply that to its entire approach to story telling.

I was bored by the game's first two story arcs, but things got a little better when I came to Peru, where the writing picked up some personality and the NPCs were slightly more interesting. Still, we never move far past some rather trite set pieces for an investigative action-mystery; one goes to Peru, and lo and behold, there will be human sacrifice in an ancient but unknown Inca temple!

Furthermore, the story seems to be constrained more by what is convenient for the writers than by any sense of plausibility: if you need to be shipped off to Peru, then this tiny Canadian town turns out to have an international airport with direct flights to that country. If one of your enemies tries to abduct a friend and force her, at gunpoint, to board a commercial passenger air plane, then helpful local custom officials prevent this by planting some drugs in your friend's luggage. I think.

There are many paths through the game, it seems, and your choices about where to go appear to have serious consequences in terms of which content you will experience. But I find this a dubious blessing. Rarely have you any idea of what the effect of your choices will be. So what's the point of choosing, and what's the point of all the content I'm not seeing? One could say: replayability. But I would only replay a game like this if its world and story were truly intriguing, and replaying might allow me to achieve deeper and deeper understanding of something genuinely interesting. "Choices: And the Sun Went Out" is far too breezy and generic to inspire that wish.

It's competent, and I've had some fun, so I'm giving it 3 stars.

We Know the Devil, by Aevee Bee and Mia Schwartz

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Queerness and universal love, August 26, 2020
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
We Know the Devil is a relatively short visual novel, which takes perhaps one hour to play through once and two hours to play through exhaustively. It follows three teenagers -- Venus, Neptune and Jupiter -- who have been sent to a strange Christian summer camp for 'bad children' where it seems quite possible that they have to literally fight the devil. All three suffer from the fact that they do not fit the societal criteria for being a good person, and they have developed some rather unsuccessful coping mechanisms for dealing with this.

The piece is great at building atmosphere, coming with excellent writing, minimal but very appropriate art, and an unsettling sound track, all of which strengthen each other. Choice points are relatively rare, and always of the same type: you have to choose two of the three teenagers to do something together, leaving the third one out. This is also the main thing that the piece is exploring: the dynamics of a group of three people, and the results of being the one who is left out.

In order to truly experience and understand the piece, one has to seek out all four possible endings. This is no doubt the weakness of the game, since doing so requires one to revisit again and again text one has already experienced, and making rather mechanical choices in between. While there is a useful ad irresistible fast-forward button, using this is very detrimental to the reading experience.

That said, pursuing all endings pays off. The game wrestles with serious questions about relationships, acceptance & self-acceptance, queerness, and the universality of love. (I say much more about this in my spoilery video analysis.) It's a piece that I kept thinking about long after I had finished it.

Flygskam Simulator, by Katie Benson

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A nice little tale to relax with, June 19, 2020
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
I hadn’t come across the term ‘flygskam’ before, but apparently it is Swedish for flight shame. This is going to be a short story about taking the bus from London to Hamburg. Sounds nice enough, although the casualness of the blurb’s final sentence is perhaps a bit overdone: “Just, you know, don’t forget your passport, okay?” Do you even need a passport to enter or leave the UK? Wait, yes… they never joined the Schengen zone, just like they never adopted the Euro. Brexit is not a sudden eruption; it has been in the making for decades. But that’s neither here not there. Flygskam Simulator is!

This is the pretty laid-back story of someone who travels from London to Hamburg by bus. The decisions are very realistic: stand in line by the door or remain seated? Try to sleep or read a book? Talk to the person next to you or play a game on your phone? The trip can take an unexpected turn, for instance when you get to know a guy who leaves the bus in Rotterdam and you decide to hook up with him. (Rotterdam! Of all places!) But it is also possible to just travel to Hamburg. The trip seems to be based on personal experience; at least little details, such as the difference between English and Dutch bus waiting zones, are correct.

It’s a nice little tale to relax with. But there doesn’t seem to be much to it, not much of a point beside sharing an impression of travelling by bus. Perhaps the branching narrative is meant to evoke the sense of possibility that belongs to a journey? On the other hand, the game focusses precisely on the mundane and expected. So I end up not being precisely certain what the author intended, and not truly able to recommend people to either check it out or leave it alone. It’s, you know, okay?

Eye Contact, by Thomas McMullan

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Look at me, June 19, 2020
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Eye Contact is a short, experimental choice-based game that allows you to play through a single conversation. Most of the talking is done by your conversation partner, who is worked up about something her brother said to her. It turns out that he had the audacity to criticise the filo pastry for her samosas. You can be sympathetic, non-committal, or overtly critical about her (over)reaction. Depending on your choices, some backstory may be revealed – there has been a death in the family – and you may end up helping your friend move along, or not. All this takes a few minutes at most, so it’s easy to replay a few times, and the writing is snappy and to the point. An enjoyable light snack; better executed than the samosas were.

There’s one more crucial ingredient to the game: the eyes. A large picture of your friend’s eyes is always at the top of the screen, looking at you (or away from you) with different expressions as the conversation moves in different ways. The game labels itself as ‘experimental’, and this is clearly the experiment: to see what impact these eyes have on our experience. Will they increase the emotional impact? Will they create a sense of intimacy? Certainly, they were very present. I was sitting behind my computer late at night, in my pyjamas, slumping in my chair… and I felt the urge to straighten up and make sure that my dressing gown was closed; then felt the urge to resist that urge, because I’m not going to be manipulated by a picture of two eyes; and then gave in to the urge anyway. So, yes, I think it did enhance to some extent the feeling of realness. I’m not sure what we gain from the experiment, since a longer game with the same lay-out would get old very quickly, I think. But I can imagine a game in which this only happens occasionally; a re-make of Spider and Web, for instance, in which the interrogator stares at you. That could work.

IFComp 2019 contained quite a number of very short games built around a single idea. Eye Contact didn’t quite have the impact on me that The Surprise and Out had, but it’s nevertheless a worthy addition to this category.

For the Cats, by Lei

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
More interesting than the title suggests, June 19, 2020
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
I believe this game is made in ink, and it looks good… but it looks utterly different depending on whether I play it in Chrome on my Android phone, or in Firefox on my Windows computer. In my phone, the type is a very curly handwriting, beautiful, although it does not match well with the blocky sans serif type of the choices. On my computer, the main font looks more like Comic Sans. I wonder how this is possible?

The game itself is not at all what I was expecting based on the blurb. The basic premise is indeed that you want to save a bunch of cats. But we are thrown into a world of unexpected aesthetics – everything is grey, the unit of exchange is coals – and unexpected possibilities – there are sell-your-soul type corporate agents at work, and you can enlist a sort of semi-scientific environmental resistance to rescue all the cats. This means that it’s a lot more interesting that I had originally expected, and I found myself reaching most of the endings as I was investigating the different paths opened up to the different characters. For the Cats is not a moralistic exhortation to take care of your pets, as I had feared. Rather, it is an almost poetic short story about humanity in the midst of bleakness.

Well done, would play again.

Are you Too Chicken to Make a Deal?, by Mitchell Taylor

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Win Stiffy's phone number, March 16, 2020
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
I decided to gamble and have the IFDB generate a list of ten random games for me. Appropriately, the first of those was this little Speed-IF that asks you to gamble -- sort of. You can choose to cross the road or not, and if you don't, new prizes become available that might be either better or worse than the original. Given the slightness of the piece, you won't care either way.

Most notable, I would say, for being a game in which you can win the phone number of Stiffy Makane. Alas, said number cannot then be called.

LET'S ROB A BANK, by Bethany Nolan

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Squad-based diversion, July 17, 2019
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
There is a tradition of games in which you can select different squad members for different missions, the aim being to maximise the match between your squad’s capabilities and the challenges you will face in this particular situation. The Syndicate/X-Com games do this, as do some of the Mass Effect games, if I’m not mistaken. There’s something like this in LET’S ROB A BANK, except that here you are doing only a single mission, which makes sense, since you’re planning to make so much money that you’ll never have to work again.

The bank robbery will unfold in a variety of different ways depending on whom you put in your squad and which choices you make during the robbery itself. (The latter are in general far less consequential than the former.) Some of these differences make perfect sense: take the muscle guy who hates drivers and the irritable driver, and infighting will doom your effort. Other differences make absolutely no sense at all. There’s one squad member whom you cannot really choose, because taking her on board will always coincide with the total destruction of the world. Frankly, this feels less like a serious possibility and more like something put in at the last moment when the author realised they wouldn’t have the time to develop content involving this character.

The different ways in which the robbery can develop are often pretty entertaining, and you’ll probably see a few losing ones before you hit on a winning ending. A fun diversion, but I didn’t feel compelled to hunt for all the endings.

Into the Lair, by Kenna

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Vampire adventure, July 17, 2019
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
We’re in vampire territory here, and it’s the “living in a sewer and keeping herds of thralls and human cattle” kind of vampire. Clan Nosferatu, maybe, if we’re thinking in terms of Vampire: the Masquerade, which the author is probably not. There’s some in-game indication that not all vampires live this way, since both the protagonist and their rescuer are or can be animated by much less selfish desires. Indeed, the game starts out by giving us a choice of goal: freeing the other thralls, avenging ourselves on the elder vampire, or obtaining an amulet that will allow us to withstand the light of the sun. The game might have been more interesting if we had actually been forced to choose between these three goals – as it is, we can simply do all of them. It’s not so much a choice as a list of goals, then, although we can decide to murder the thralls if we so prefer.

The caverns that we traverse are a curious combination of good and not-so-good world building. The dungeon is especially effective, conjuring up images of horror without descending into gory details. But there are also numerous points of the “you’re at an intersection and can go in these and these directions”-type. I did enjoy traversing the catacombs, but it seems there was a lot more potential here for atmosphere and memorability.

There did seem to be a bit of a mismatch between the way the game tells us that the elder vampire is really scary and powerful, and the incredible ease with which one can depose of him. How did this guy ever earn his fearsome reputation if a newly freed thrall can kill him with no trouble at all? I certainly didn’t dislike the ending, but I again felt that there was untapped potential here. (What if you could only become strong enough to defeat the enemy if you first sucked every last drop of blood from the two human prisoners? Okay, I realise that that is the kind of game design that takes us squarely into the realm of my own obsessions, and the current author might not be interested in it at all. Still, it’s one way to make victory feel more costly and more consequential.)

I ran into a couple of bugs – a game-ending one if you tried to avoid the pit trap for the second time, and a bug where you can repeat the fight with the elder vampire as if it had never happened before – but those can easily be fixed.

All in all, enjoyable, with some strong moments, but more could have been achieved.

Linear Love, by Tom Delanoy

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
The boundaries of a work, July 17, 2019
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
I have little interest in policing the boundaries of IF. Yet I'm willing to state that Linear Love should not have been entered into the interactive fiction competition, since it is not interactive by any reasonable standards. The piece is simply a short story about a guy(?) who falls in love with a French girl until their very happiness weakens the attraction. The text is presented in a rather unusual way: rather than scrolling down to read more, in this particular piece you have to scroll up. (You can also scroll sideways indefinitely, but this serves no purpose.) The difference between scrolling up and scrolling down surely does not map onto the difference between traditional and interactive fiction.

However, there was one, perhaps unintended aspect of the piece that actually made reading it an interesting experience to me. If you right-click and press “Escape”, you are suddenly in an environment where you can select different portals to different stories. I quickly got stuck in the steel door of a Panopticon, unable to move any way. This wasn’t particularly entertaining, unless one interprets it as a parable about getting through the prose of Foucault. (For the record, I like Foucault. I just don’t always like his prose.) But what interested me was that I wasn't entirely sure where the boundaries of Linear Love lay. Was it just the original story, and was using the escape option a way of leaving the work and entering other works? Or was it all one whole, an entire universe of stories hidden behind the tale of linear love? It made me realise that the IF community still has a relatively traditional conception of a work, even though digital environments allow for much more vagueness and flexibility.


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