There’s an old chestnut in adventure games: the recipe. You’ve got to make a magic potion, and you have a recipe, and now you have to first collect the ingredients and then follow the steps of the recipe exactly… and you’ll get the potion. I’m pretty sure King’s Quest has that kind of stuff. Or maybe it’s a real recipe that you’re trying to make, as in Savoir-Faire. It’s not very engaging – usually the real gameplay is getting the ingredients, or getting things ready, and then actually following the recipe is more a little task you need to get out of the way before you get the reward. You don’t want too many of such tasks in your game. It bogs things down.
So it’s bold to build a game that is all about following instructions! Assembly is such a game, although its not recipes we’re following, but IKEA instruction manuals. It’s like having little walkthroughs in the game, telling you how to construct, and also deconstruct, many of the objects you meet. Our protagonist is good at following such rules. Indeed, they’re incredibly bad at not following rules, being unable to unscrew a light bulb without an instruction manual showing them how to do it.
This could have been very boring, but Assembly keeps the instructions short, gives us frequent rewards for successful assembly and disassembly, and, especially, gives us a series of nice puzzles around these mechanics. This is no doubt the only game where finding an IKEA instruction manual feels good – although, come to think of it, All the Troubles Come My Way has this too, so scrap that. The puzzles are good, starting with some simple ones, moving on to slightly more difficult (Spoiler - click to show)(such as the lamp puzzle), and ending with one that is both simple and over-the-top and yet completely logical, applying IKEA logic to IKEA itself, giving us the comic reward we deserved.
Well, I guess it ends with one that went the least smoothly for me, (Spoiler - click to show)because I didn’t realise there was a flatpack box in my location, and it felt a little bit like a regression after the great scene with the collapsing stacks… but that’s a nitpick. This game is fun and light-hearted. There are some Elder Gods involved, but it never goes to dark places… at least, not to dark places you can’t illuminate with a good STRÅLA.
Recent world events are fairly disheartening and would give a lot of comfort to those who believe that violence is the dominant force in human nature, if comfort were something that such people could be given. On my Mastodon account, I wrote:
The willingness of others to engage in massive violence and cruelty can make our own attempts at kindness seem so impotent and pointless.
That that is not so, that even the smallest human gestures are of supreme importance, that in some sense they redeem the world, that is the faith we need.
It’s not an easy faith, but there is no alternative.
I ended up liking The Witch quite a bit more than I started out liking it. It does a lot of stuff early on to make you bounce off of it, from having a map full of empty locations (most of them, unfortunately, in the beginning) to failing to implement prominent nouns.
What also made me consider quitting was the first puzzle I solved. (Spoiler - click to show)I get the sign, went to the beaver, brought it to the tree, get ten points… and then, happy as I was, typed ‘score’ and read that my puzzle solution had made the game unwinnable. As this was literally the first thing I did in the game, I found it rather discouraging!
But I persevered, and as I went on, I actually started liking the game more and more. The setting is more fun that it at first appears, with many neat little touches of world building and some good descriptions, especially around puzzle solutions. It also made sense, once I came across the mill, that my little adventure (Spoiler - click to show)with the beaver had the undesirable result it had. I came to appreciate the ‘score’ message as a helpful guide to what made the game unwinnable. And I started solving some of the puzzles, such as the mill and the mine, without hints, which made me feel good. These puzzles are not completely groundbreaking, but they are fresh enough to be fun. And the programming is very solid.
I wasn’t able to finish the game without hints, though, and that had mostly to do with implementation – so I strongly suggest that Charles returns to the game and make some changes based on what I’m going to say now, because it can greatly improve the experiences of future players. (Spoiler - click to show)(1) The owl puzzle could be better clued. Showing the seed leads to death, okay. But the current behaviour of the seed is rather overwhelming: dropping it anywhere in the game leads to instant death. This does not suggest that it’s possible to throw it at the owl in its den, given that the owl can instantaneously move to the other side of the map to kill me! I wasted quite some time trying to protect myself with a bucket on my head and things like that. Perhaps the seed should simply do nothing outside of the tree; and perhaps it can be a bit better clued that you might have the time to throw it. (2) I had the exact right idea with growing the peach tree, but “put plant food on peach pit” gives an error message, and so I abandoned the idea. This should probably just work! I also think it would be good to have a more positive message for dropping the pit at that location, and maybe allowing something like “put peach in mud”. (3) I also got stuck with ‘apricot’, but that was more my own fault for not being a thorough enough old-school adventure player. But it might be a bit better clued that you need to say a password to the mirror. I spent time trying to show it different objects. (4) When I crossed the river for the end game, the game told me that it had become unwinnable. But it hadn’t! I could still win, using the exact chain of commands in the walkthrough. I had all the right objects with me. Not sure what was going on there. (5) I’m not sure if I would have ever solved the final puzzle, but I love the idea of it: the race through the maze and the final imprisonment. Perhaps it would have bee nice to put an object somewhere in the maze over which the player trips the first time they go there? That would be a great clue.
All in all, I think The Witch is a really neat game. It has gotten a fairly cold shoulder in the reviews, which is unfortunate. Solving some of the implementation issues in the early game, and improving cluing of a few of the puzzles, could go a long way though. You’ll never get the love of people who don’t like difficult parser games, but you sure can get the love of those who do. It’s all solid, well thought out, and with some seriously good puzzle ideas.
It had to be a printer. Printers are evil. I'm relatively tech savvy, but the one computer accessory that I look at with trepidation is the printer. There's so much that can go wrong, and it's all so unclear. I mean, it would have been easy for Geoffrey to focus on a tech issue that makes the protagonist's mother look like an elderly ignoramus. But the steps needed to solve this printer problem are completely realistic, and realistically maddening. (Spoiler - click to show)Why can't that stupid printer just tell you that the paper is missing from the second tray? God knows that I have desperately clicked options like 'deep nozzle clean' in the hope that it would magically solve whatever unfathomable problem I had in the past. Also, after I tried to clean a printer with a leaking ink cartridge, I've sworn an oath to never every buy another inkjet printer... but (a) I ended up with a laser printer that somehow got toner in the inner machinery, and (b) my wife later bought another inkjet printer anyway. So printers are stronger than oaths, is all I'm saying.
In a sense, the tech issue in Fix Your Mother's Printer is only there to give a framework for family conversations. That too is very realistic. The practical is the justification, and then of course your mother wants to talk to you -- and at least as I played the protagonist, they also didn't mind talking to their mother. I liked the conversations, which hit some good personal notes and add interest to the game. It seemed to start out a little silly, with the mother's obsession for topiary, but ended up at a slightly more serious level that seemed to fit the game as a whole quite well.
I have two points of criticism, one about what the game sets out to achieve, one about how it sets out to do so. The former kind of criticism is always a little fraught: shouldn't I just judge a game on its own terms? Maybe. But I think Fix Your Mother's Printer could have been more memorable if it had given up on its intention to stay at the level of the light-hearted. These people have a bond, but they also have problems, and it would have been interesting and possible affecting if their bond had actually helped them gain more insight into those problems. One does not feel that (Spoiler - click to show)reconciliation between the parents comes any closer, or that the protagonist has gained any real insight into their romantic hang-ups. I would have loved the game to be more ambitious in that regard, even if it would have meant straying from the current tone.
The more internal criticism has to do with the choices we are being offered. There are way too many moments when the choices come down to "(A) be mean, (B) be neutral, (C) be nice". It felt a bit like the unfortunate type of CRPG dialogue (far too prevalent even in otherwise great games like Baldur's Gate 2) where the dialogue options often come down to "(A) be evil, (B) be neutral, (C) be good". It's not very interesting. It's not very clear why anyone would choose being nasty to their mother. And crucially, it means that you're making exactly *one* choice: your attitude. And then the rest of the game is just you either choosing the option that fits your attitude, or turning the character into a tonally inconsistent mess. The dialogue could have been more interesting if the author hadn't felt the need to support three tones throughout the game, and had instead focused on more interesting aspects of characterisation.
All in all, this game is simply very enjoyable.
Let me come right out and say I don't like the title of this game. Sure, I get the The Lord of the Rings reference, but, first of all, this game has nothing to with post-Tolkienian fantasy (precisely not!) and second, the suggestion that this king is just out to loot is totally wrong. The title sets low expectations that don't do justice to the remarkably fun game we actually find.
I don't think the main character is ever named, but we're obviously playing Conan the Barbarian as written by Robert E. Howard. It's perhaps important to emphasise that Howard's Conan is not stupid and does not overcome his foes through brute force alone. He's a cunning guy who manages to become king and isn't at all bad at ruling, even though some of his subjects resent his origins among the barbarians. Brouwer follows these ideas to the letter. I'm almost certain that there's a Howard story that starts exactly like One King to Loot them All, with Conan as king being surprised by some magical assassin whom he defeats; but even if I'm wrong about that, our game is pitch-perfect Howardian Sword & Sorcery. Even the prose is Howardian, which is admittedly not an unreserved compliment -- Howard tends to indulge a bit too much in long sentences and rare words that do not quite add up to great prose (although not as much as his friend and fellow writer Clark Ashton Smith). There's something of that here too, which is especially noticeable in the error messages, that are too long to be easily scanned and mentally discarded.
It's almost impossible not to be reminded of Treasures of a Slaver's Kingdom when playing One King to Loot them All, because both are restricted parser games with a barbarian protagonist. But actually they do not have much in common. S. John Ross's game is a geographically open puzzler involving quasi-RPG-style character progression, whereas Onno Brouwer's game is a tight story-line with no real puzzles to speak of. Perhaps even more importantly, Ross' barbarian really is stupid, and the limited verb set is used to streamline puzzle design. Brouwer's Conan is pretty smart (he has no trouble explaining the logic he used to get through the paths of order and chaos) and the limited parser is used to... yeah... mostly to tease the player with some intentional parser frustrations, actually! (Spoiler - click to show)One's inability to open the wine bottle is pretty funny, as is the fact that this puzzle solution if given away in the Help text, where you probably won't notice it. (Though I did. Right when I was about to give up in the Pit.) There are some real parser frustrations, though, which don't help. (E.g., "water" is not a synonym of "waters", the two guards cannot be disambiguated by the adjectives the game itself applies to them, etc.) I can imagine that some players hit their head against a wall. A pit wall, perhaps.
But they really should keep playing. For what had been an entertaining if far from perfect sword & sorcery romp, suddenly turned into a game that had me play it with a giant grin on my face, (Spoiler - click to show)a grin that grew bigger and bigger when I realised how far I could undo, and then, that I could save the priestess, and then, that everything after that also subtly changed (including the nice scene where the priestess points out that she should be the sacrifice), and... well, yes, it was just lovely. The final fight with the necromancer was a tad confusing (I never really understood how the interception worked), but otherwise it was so much fun. Including the revelation about the three chosen ones.
The one thing I think is a little sad is that you can't actually (Spoiler - click to show)start UNDOing when you've just opened up a new game. Famously, you can win Slouching towards Bedlam on the first turn, but by taking an action that you only have reason to take once you've finished the game and know what's going on. One King to Loot them All could also allow the player the freedom to start on the winning path immediately; if anyone stumbles upon it without preparation, that's fine too!
Anyway, really nice game.
It’s pretty clear from, well, everything that the protagonist is going to be lured into a Battle Royale style game involving real death. So I guess it’s a Battle Royale battle royale game, where the italicised & capitalised phrase is the title of the 2000 Japanese movie about a high school class that has to fight to the death, and the second phrase is the name of the gaming genre named after the film, which usually does not involve real death. Turning a battle royale style game into a Battle Royale style game… yeah, that’s kind of meta. But GameCeption is not afraid of being meta.
(Spoiler - click to show)I didn’t quite guess the plot development where we are actually playing our partner and then have to go out into the world to rescue him. Maybe that’s in part because it makes no sense. How exactly did we control them? And how is it possible that all these players that were originally in the physical arena didn’t die instantly when they were chopped down with an axe / exploded / were overrun by a car, but all had the chance to phone their partners? To your questions there will be no answers. Better to revel in the terribly clichéd but still satisfying survival part of the game, and then the ultra obvious and nevertheless also satisfying dynamite scene. Oh, and the “you are the player” meta joke at the end. You really must turn off your critical thinking and just go along, but if you do so, it’s great fun. And I think that’s what GameCeption wants to be: great fun. It’s not so bad to be the player.
Several reviewers said they wanted to see more depth to the relationship between the characters. But I don’t think that would work. It’s camp! Embrace the cheesiness! Take that car and go full Carmageddon! More emotional depth is something for a different game, is what I think. And if you disagree with me, please hold this bundle of dynamite while I hide behind the corner with this remote control.
I'm still not sold on Texture. There's the weird bug with the extremely small button text, but let's ignore that. Then there's still the problem that the affordances of the text are hidden; that is, you cannot see at a glance how you can interact with the screen; you have to grab each button in turn just to find out what your choices are, then go back to grab the button you want and go to the place where you can drop it. It's so much more laborious than link clicking, that there should be a large upside to make it worth it. But I'm not yet seeing it. All Hands, for instance, could just as well have been done in Twine.
Now we'll talk about the game itself. No, I'm lying! I first want to make a completely random comment about the blurb. This is the entire blurb: "The sea is calling you. Its voice is getting louder." And that is such pitch perfect Fallen London / Sunless Sea prose that I was surprised to find out that the game is not Failbetter Games fan fiction! But it's really not.
So let's finally talk about All Hands. It's a short story about someone who enters what it for all intents and purposes a ghost ship. They've always been drawn to the sea, but their farmer father forbade them to so much as think about anything nautical. And perhaps with good reason, because their sister drowned in the sea; more than that, was pulled under by waves that seemed hungry for her. Now the mysterious ship that has been sailing in this neighbourhood has come to shore, and of course you enter it, drawn in by the fascinating woman who owns it. Once you're on board, there's a geographically organised exploration section in which you can find several songs. When you are finished, you return to the woman in charge, dance with her, choose a song to sing... and depending on that song, you get one of several endings.
All Hands is nicely atmospheric. (Spoiler - click to show)I think it might not have been a great design decision to hide the room which explains the backstory most behind a lock that can only be opened if one has picked up the compass in the beginning; especially because it is extremely easy to miss this compass. After my first playthrough, I thought the story made no sense. Only on my second playthrough, when I got the compass, did things click. (I especially enjoyed the fact that you get a puzzle and then the protagonist just solves it without your input.) The 'good' ending, where the magic is dispelled and the characters embrace each other, was a fairly nice surprise.
I enjoyed this snack sized game, and would gladly play something more substantial by the author.
So here's a strange autobiographical fact, or at least, a fact that felt strange when I started playing The Whisperers. I once made some plans for an IF in the form of a play. The players would not play any particular role, but would only make choices only at the end of scenes, choices that decided the final outcome. I can't at the moment remember the title I had in mind (though I suspect I have plot sketches somewhere in a drawer), but I certainly remember the setting: that would have been Russia during the time of the Stalin purges. So... I guess those sketches can remain where they are, because Milo van Mesdag has very much beaten me to it!
Now my game would have been a piece of interactive fiction. Milo's piece, on the other hand, very much wants to be a play, and one feels that he mostly put it in interactive fiction form because it's hard to find a theatre group to performs one's script! This is not to say that it doesn't work as a piece of IF. But there are certain aspects of The Whisperers, including some of its most intriguing ones, that don't translate well to the medium in which we currently experience it.
The most obvious of these is the whispering. Most of the characters are whispering most of the time (and should be heard through microphones -- not sure if that really works to be honest, but maybe it does). That's in part because this is Stalinist Moscow, and the secret police is everywhere. But it's also because they're all living in the same 'paper wall' apartment, where everyone hears everything. And they're living in that apartment with a member of the secret police. A not insubstantial part of the characterisation is done through voice volume. Sergei speaks up, especially in the beginning, when he's still a confident young officer of the NKVD. The Guide always speaks at full volume. But most of the other characters do not, or only when they forget themselves.
The main plot is fairly simple, and the choices of the audience don't make that much difference. Young Agnessa has followed her brother Sergei to Moscow. But she's not a Stalinist; in fact, she's a secret Trotskyist who believes that Stalin has betrayed the revolution! She falls in love with the young architect Nikolai, and he with her, and gets pregnant. Her dream is to strike a blow against false ideology, and Agnessa and Nikolai conspire to bomb the foundations of the new Palace of the Soviets. (In reality, this megalomaniac construction project was dismantled and abandoned during WW2.) Depending on the audience's choices, this may or may not succeed, but either way, they end up getting caught.
There's a subplot about a middle-aged couple, a Russian man and a Ukrainian woman. The woman's entire family has starved to death in Holodomor, the famine in Ukraine that Stalin intentionally exacerbated. She has taken to the dangerous practice of icon worshipping. And there's a very minor subplot about Sergei's ability to find enough traitors to condemn to death.
It's all interesting enough, and the underlying research is immaculate. But I'm not entirely sold on the plot or the characters. There's something nihilistic about it. The three men have all found ways to submit to the state. It's only the women who dare to have any individuality: Dariya through her religious parctices, and Agnessa through her political action. But surely Dariya's husband, Georgy, is right when he points out that God will also listen if you don't endanger yourself with the possession of physical icons. As for Agnessa... in another review, I read the suggestion that we are supposed to empathise with her political ideals. But I don't believe that. Sure, Trotsky looks pretty good when you compare him to Stalin's terror and remind yourself of the fact that Stalin had him killed with an axe. But Milo has no doubt very carefully chosen to highlight one particular episode from Trotsky's thinking in the play: his stance on the 1921 Kronstadt rebellion. In that rebellion against the Bolsheviks, sailors and civilians demanded, and I'm quoting Wikipedia:
reduction in Bolshevik power, newly elected *soviets* to include socialist and anarchist groups, economic freedom for peasants and workers, dissolution of the bureaucratic governmental organs created during the civil war, and the restoration of civil rights for the working class.
*To Sea in a Sieve* is a prequel to *To Hell in a Hamper*, J. J. Guest's 2003 game where you find yourself in a hot air balloon with a crazy person who has brought way too many heavy items. That game was a sequence of puzzles about getting rid of all these objects; because if you don't, you're both going to die. The setup of *To Sea in a Sieve* is... more or less identical, except that this time you're in a boat, and your companion is a pirate captain who wants to bring all his treasures. I wonder if the character of the pirate captain was inspired by the captain from Ryan Veeder's game *Captain Verdeterre's Plunder*, or whether Veeder and Guest are just both leaning into standard pirate tropes.
I looked up my review of *To Hell in a Hamper* and found this final paragraph:
My single complaint is that the game doesn't actually contain that many *jokes*. It has a good comic setup, and some of the stuff you discover inside Booby's coat is hilarious; but there are few events or descriptions in the rest of the game that make one laugh or smile. This game would have benefited from having Admiral Jota as a co-author; his gift for stuffing a game full of funny remarks would have been very effective here.
Heist games are well-known genre, and with good reason. There's a clear goal that requires ingenuity to achieve; there's a spatial and temporal element that fits IF world building well; and of course here are opportunities for puzzles and suspense. As others have noted, The Finders Commission starts of with some pretty bizarre world building (and a weird choice between what seem to be five indistinguishable characters). But then it quickly turns into a fairly standard heist game. There's the museum; there are some people to either manipulate or watch out for; a few opportunities for puzzle solving; and if it all goes well, you walk out with the loot!
Apart from one possible bug (the box that I believe I needed to turn off the alarm suddenly disappeared from my inventory), everything was solidly implemented. It's bit strange that you cannot investigate the display before launching the chariot -- the first few times I tried, I got interrupted, but later on the room was empty and I still wasn't allowed to read the label. This threw me for a while. But I ended up solving the puzzles without too much trouble, felt some nice tension as I had to defeat a timed sequence, and was satisfied. There's nothing truly memorable or innovative about the game, but it succeeds at being what it wants to be.
The biggest mystery of all was the breakfast my character claimed to be their favourite: buttermilk biscuits with sausage gravy. This sounded like the worst and most implausible thing in existence, so I did some googling, and found recipes in which I saw: biscuits that did not look like biscuits; sausages that did not look like sausages (but more like the minced meat you might put into a sausage); and most of all, gravy that really, really did not look like gravy. From what I gathered, it was more something like minced meat in a creamy sauce. All of which left me only more flabbergasted. Cookies served with meat and cream? As a breakfast? Now this is a mystery someone should make a game about!