Reviews by EJ

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The Fall of Asemia, by B.J. Best

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Signs and symbols, May 12, 2022
by EJ

The Fall of Asemia is a game about language, or a game about history and culture and the fact that these are necessarily mediated through language, which is something that can be lost. I suspect Asemia’s name comes from Greek: the negative prefix a- and the root sema, or “sign,” as in semantikos, “significance,” whence the English word “semantic.”

Asemia is not without signs, and those signs are not without meaning, but those signs are no longer legible to most people in the world in which the game takes place. The PC is charged with translating them, but seems unsatisfied with her ability to do so. Translation is always a challenge, but beyond that, the protagonist seems to be dragged down by the weight of the responsibility of serving as a conduit for the lost voices of the Asemians. Or perhaps not – we only see her in a few brief exchanges in between the translated journal entries that make up the bulk of the game, and though her stress and feelings of inadequacy are clear, the reasons for them are open to interpretation. But I did feel like there was a lot going on in between the lines.

The game is mainly played by clicking on glyphs to change them and reading the journal entries that result. The glyphs are lovely, aesthetically, and I was impressed by the fact that those of the five Asemian journal-writers managed to look like the same language in different handwriting, while those of the soldier of the invading force were immediately recognizable as a different language. I did find it somewhat hard to remember which glyphs I had chosen before and which I hadn’t, and I’m not entirely sure whether the texts I saw were sometimes quite similar because I was accidentally selecting glyphs I’d already seen or because changing glyphs doesn’t necessarily change sentences in the way I initially assumed it did.

I also have to admit that it bothers me a little that, although the conceit is that the player character is translating the glyphs, what the player is doing seems not to be interpreting, but rather changing the source text. Unless we’re supposed to take it that the player character has fragments that she’s trying to arrange in the correct order? Regardless, I would have liked a little more clear connection between what I was doing in the game and what the PC was supposed to be doing in-universe.

Regardless, the translated texts convey the Asemians’ sense of loss and displacement with painful clarity. They are often poetic (“The strange vowels of this province flood my mouth like chewing on leather. Someone has painted the sky a different color”), and even the blunter and more straightforward passages, mostly courtesy of a child diarist, sometimes contain surprising and effective imagery (“I don't even know the name of this town, but the clouds here make me want to punch them in the face”). The banal brutality of the invaders is also starkly apparent; one passage, after talking about mass executions, concludes with a complaint about the music tastes of the original residents of the writer’s stolen apartment (“The records are mostly jazz. Who likes jazz?”).

Ultimately, despite my complaints about the relationship of the interactivity to the narrative, I did find The Fall of Asemia to be an intriguing and memorable experience, and though the short length of the game meant that its exploration of the intertwining of language, culture, and history did not have room to be very in-depth, it was well-executed.

The Bright Blue Ball, by Clary C.

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Charming game about a dog, May 12, 2022
by EJ

I tend to find IF with animal player characters very charming, especially if the author really sells the idea that the character’s perception of the world is different from that of a human. The Bright Blue Ball does a good job here – I like that the PC experiences the world mostly through smells, as many dog breeds do. The descriptions of scents were simple, but well chosen, and since smell is a sense that IF usually does not do much with, it gave the game a fresh feeling. Parlaying this into a game mechanic of tracking objects by scent was also a fun and unusual idea, if a little under-used here. I also appreciated the hint system – something a lot of first-time authors don’t think to include.

(On a side note, I was delighted that “bark” was a recognized command, but my childhood dog would have been disappointed that “chew [noun]” was not.)

Unfortunately the game does have a lot of the problems common to first-time parser authors, such as under-implementation, missing descriptions, and accidentally unlisted exits, the latter of which led to a few instances where I had to figure out how to progress by repeatedly bumping into walls (which, to be fair, is not out of character for many Golden Retrievers I have known). But these things are fixable, and I think the fun concept and endearing writing speak to the author’s potential.

Thin Walls, by Wynter

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
The horror of renting a room in a shared house, May 12, 2022
by EJ

My favorite kind of horror fiction is the kind where supernatural horror elements are used to explore struggles that people face in the real world. Thin Walls takes this approach to a topic I haven’t seen explored in this way before: having housemates.

This probably sounds like a joke, especially if you’ve never lived in shared housing, but Thin Walls is very serious about this, and so am I. Like the characters in this game, I live in a very expensive city and I spent most of my 20s unable to afford rent on an apartment of my own, instead living with a series of housemates, most of whom I knew very little if at all before moving in. Having strangers in your space all the time can be draining, and for me, at least, housemates rarely became much more than strangers. It’s hard to be friends with someone when long before the point where you could really get to know them as people, you already know that they like to practice guitar in the living room at 1 AM, or that they refuse to touch anything that might be even a little bit dirty (thus leaving you to do all the cleaning), or that they keep using your dishes even though you put a sign on the cabinet saying “EJ'S DISHES, PLEASE ASK BEFORE USING.” Or, in the game’s own words:

“If you live with friends or with a partner, and something goes wrong, there is a relationship, a history, a memory to cushion you: the knowledge that, overall, this person is actually okay.

“But when you move in with people and there is no relationship, any little tension becomes all that you know of them, it becomes all that they are. Just a paper doll with ‘Noisy’ or ‘Makes a Mess in the Bathroom’ written on it.”

The house in Thin Walls is continuously growing of its own accord; it increases in size every time two tenants have a spat, but somehow never provides them enough room to get out of each other’s hair. The number of bedrooms may be endless – allowing ever more tenants to move in and exacerbate the existing problems – but there are still the pitfalls of shared kitchens and bathrooms, and of course there’s the issue of noise (see title). We see these problems through the eyes of a kaleidoscopic array of tenants, each with their own worries and frustrations, their own reasons for being here and for not being able to leave. (Some don’t in fact want to leave – but most do.)

However, while it may at first look like the game’s thesis is that hell is other people (a bookshelf that appears at one point contains a copy of No Exit, alongside House of Leaves and other relevant titles), as you progress it becomes clear that the real horror is the conditions that get people stuck in this situation to begin with: ever-rising rents, lack of opportunity, and, of course, unscrupulous landlords.

Eddie, the landlord of the uncanny house in Thin Walls, never appears onscreen, but his shadow looms large over its residents all the same (Waiting for Godot is also on the bookshelf). Tenants report sightings of him as if he were some sort of cryptid. His leather jacket appears by the door and then disappears again, but no one sees him enter or leave. (The game doesn’t get much into this, but I imagine his elusive nature would make it difficult to get in touch with him if you ever needed something repaired.) Nevertheless, somehow rooms keep on getting rented out, and someone’s collecting the rent money.

Many unscrupulous landlords I’ve had were doing things that were probably or definitely illegal, but they were essentially untouchable because anyone with the resources to get them in trouble for it wouldn’t be renting from them in the first place. Eddie, it seems, doesn’t even have a license to rent out rooms, but he is literally untouchable – how can the borough council do anything about the transgressions of a phantom?

Though the title page uses default Twine CSS, the game itself does not; the design is simple, but very readable, and makes good use of changing background colors to indicate different points of view.

My only complaint is that, while it’s obvious when a new chapter has opened up, it’s not always obvious what you need to do to trigger one, and generally just involved going into every available room until I found the one where something had changed. But that’s a minor quibble – overall, Thin Walls is a well-written piece of surreal (but also, very real) horror that resonated deeply with me.

The Legend of Horse Girl, by Bitter Karella

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
A quest for justice (sort of) in the Old West (sort of), May 12, 2022
by EJ

The Legend of Horse Girl is a gleefully absurd take on Western tropes, starring a heroine raised by wild horses and featuring a bar staffed by coyotes, apparently sentient tumbleweeds, snake oil farmers, dairy spiders, and more. It’s also pure, (mostly) unadulterated fun. I am not exaggerating when I say I laughed out loud multiple times while playing this game. I was unreasonably amused when the character Butch McCreedy turned out to have a twin named Femme McCreedy, for example. And then there’s one puzzle solution that involves (Spoiler - click to show)dunking bats in milk as if they were cookies until they get fed up with this treatment and fly away, the mental image of which just killed me. (I thought I was going to be (Spoiler - click to show)actually drowning them, which would have been ridiculous enough, but the way it played out was funnier.)

Speaking of the puzzle solutions, they’re generally just as absurd as everything else in the world of the game, but most of them are signposted well enough that it works anyway. Given that the gameplay is very straightforward (get items, use them on other items, repeat) and requires few unusual verbs, one could say that trying to figure out what might work per the internal logic (such as it is) of the zany setting is the puzzle, in most cases. And when that works, it’s tremendously satisfying. There were a few places in which the leap of logic the game wanted me to make was a bit too far for me; I don’t know if there were things in the game that I missed that would have hinted at these solutions, though.

I did wish a little bit for a built-in hints function, although the list of necessary verbs in the “about” text sometimes proved helpful – not so much for guess-the-verb issues, which I didn’t feel the game had many of, but because in some cases the very presence of a verb in the list hinted at an approach to a puzzle. Also on the subject of quality-of-life features, I did appreciate that the game usually removes objects from your inventory if you don’t need them anymore.

There was also one aspect of the structure with which I struggled a bit: you can, essentially, encounter the introductions to the majority of the game’s puzzles right off the bat, without even beginning to solve anything. This made it sometimes unclear to me what order I should be trying to solve the puzzles in, and whether I didn’t have what I needed to solve a particular puzzle yet (probably because it was gated behind the solution to some other puzzle) or whether I did but hadn’t figured out how to use it. But this is, I think, not an objective flaw but a matter of taste – I personally get a little overwhelmed by having a ton of "open" puzzles at the same time, but others might prefer that to a more linear approach.

And in the end, the charm of the writing carried me through these minor frustrations without much difficulty. Despite any nitpicks, I had an absolute blast playing this game, and that’s the important thing.

Depression Quest, by Zoe Quinn, Patrick Lindsey, Isaac Schankler

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful:
Accurate, but weirdly generic at times, May 2, 2014
by EJ

Don't let the flippant-sounding title fool you; Depression Quest is in fact quite serious. The game goes through a series of vignettes in the life of a twenty-something depression sufferer, allowing the player to make various choices in an attempt to drag themselves out of the pit of horrible gloom and become (hopefully) a functional human being. However, often the "best" choice is struck out and, though the player can see it, they cannot actually select it; depending on the character's level of depression, other decent-to-good choices may be struck out as well, and the player may be left with only bad or unhelpful options.

According to the authors, the two goals of the game are as follows:

"[F]irstly, we want to illustrate as clearly as possible what depression is like, so that it may be better understood by people without depression. Hopefully this can be something to spread awareness and fight against the social stigma and misunderstandings that depression sufferers face. Secondly, our hope is that in presenting as real a simulation of depression as possible, other sufferers will come to know that they aren't alone, and hopefully derive some measure of comfort from that."

Well, they're set up in such a way that no one person can actually speak to the effectiveness of both of them, and in my case goal #1 is the one I don't know about. I would actually be really interested to see some reactions to the game from people who don't suffer from depression; thus far I think all of the reactions I've seen have been from people who do, who are obviously going to respond very differently.

As for goal #2, though? At least for me, it was a success. In a public venue like this one, I'm not going to go into too much detail about my experiences, but there were definitely many things in the game that felt familiar. There are all the large and obvious things, of course, like feeling unable to go to work or go out and socialize, insomnia, general feelings of worthlessness, negative thought spirals, and all that jazz, but the game also included a number of smaller details which are not typical to fictional depictions of depression. Some of them were things that I had not previously related to depression—one that I remember particularly is the scene which depicts the feeling of being restless and wanting to do something but being unable to enjoy or maintain an interest in any of the things you usually do, describing it as "like an itch in your brain." Which may not actually be an experience unique to people with depression, but it's not something I've seen much mention of in general, and coming across it in the game was definitely one of those moments of recognition, of "hey, I'm not the only one who feels this way sometimes!", that the writers have said they were aiming for. It would be easy for this sort of thing to come off as a run down a clinical checklist of symptoms, but in general I think there's enough human detail, enough insight as to how all of this looks and feels from the inside, that it feels real and affecting, at least for the most part.

The crossing-out of "better" choices, and the way the blocked-off options increase as the character's feelings of depression do, seemed like an appropriate mechanic to demonstrate how these things can feel sometimes: it's not that you don't know what the best thing to do would be, it's that you cannot actually make yourself do it, as hard as you might try. (That being said, I still found myself making better choices than I probably would in the same situations in real life, because when all it takes is clicking one link instead of another, it's easy to make the choice you logically know is best. So, okay, it's not perfect mimesis, but, hell, for a choose-your-own-adventure game it's pretty damn good.)

I appreciated, also, the variety of paths to the best ending. Therapy might help and medication might help, together or individually, but neither one is absolutely required; you can also reach Functional Human Being End simply (well, "simply") by building up a strong support system of friends and family (and maybe getting a cat for those days when talking to humans is just too much to handle). It's nice to see a work of fiction that does not demonize psychiatric drugs (or tout them as The Best Thing Ever, although that's much less common in my experience), and it's also nice to see a realistic portrayal of therapy which also acknowledges that it is not for everyone. In general, different strategies work best for different people, and the game does a good job of portraying these different strategies even-handedly.

However, despite my appreciation of the game as a portrayal of depression, I have some qualms with it as a piece of interactive fiction. Or rather, just one qualm.

IF has the eternal issue of how to handle "you"-the-character-in-the-narrative vs. "you"-the-player, and in general there are two ways to approach this: make "you"-the-character as blank and transparent as possible so that the player can effortlessly self-insert, or make "you"-the-character a distinct character who is very clearly not supposed to be the player.

In a game like this, the former approach obviously is not going to work; besides the fact that not everyone who plays the game is going to be a depression sufferer and that even those who do have depression experience it in different ways, the various vignettes of the character's life wouldn't work without some specificity. However, despite giving the main character a number of distinctive traits, Depression Quest still seems to be trying to make the character an everyman to some extent, and it ends up in an awkward middle zone where the character is neither one thing nor the other.

The authors mention, on the first page of the game, that the game is based on their own experiences, and that they are aware that different sufferers experience different symptoms and that not everyone with depression has access to or is willing to seek out therapy and medication. Those aspects were not what I had a problem with. Rather, it was the other parts of the character's life that seemed to vary oddly between detailed and sketchy.

We learn, in the course of the game, a fair amount about who the character is. They're a 20-something middle-class vaguely WASPy American with a boring white-collar job and creative ambitions. They have a mother and a father, both alive and still married, and an older brother who is more successful than they are. They have a girlfriend. They watch a lot of movies. They have some close internet friendships. These aren't the most fleshed-out of details, but it's enough to make this character clearly not "you"-the-player for some people, to make seamless immersion impossible unless these things also apply to you. (Many of them apply to me, which may be why I found the game so eerily accurate in places.)

Some of these things get fleshed out further. We learn a lot, particularly, about the protagonist's relationship with their girlfriend and their family. Other things get left oddly blank. We never get any kind of idea of what the PC's job actually is, nor what the big creative project that they've been working on in their spare time is (a novel, a D&D campaign, a cooking blog, an elaborate knitting project, a text adventure game?). The vague circumlocutions about "your job" and "your project" are fine when the focus is on something else, but in events which focus on these aspects of the character's life, it gets a little cumbersome and awkward.

The PC's girlfriend, Alex, also suffers from the vagueness/specificity divide a bit. Not so much in her characterization, but in that the character is referred to 60% of the time as female and 40% of the time in gender-neutral terms. It reads as though Alex was originally "your gender-unspecified SO (project onto them whatever you prefer)" and was sloppily changed, somewhere late in the process, into "your girlfriend".

I found these things irritating distractions in what was otherwise an interesting and well-done game, and would have been happier if the writers had just given the character a job and a hobby, even if the game didn't go into too much detail about it. Would my identification with the character have suffered if they had done that and the job and hobby proved not to be similar to my own? Perhaps a little bit, but I also don't have a successful older brother or an evil boss, and yet I still managed to sympathize with the PC's problems with them. I feel like in this case, the emotional honesty and the general sense of "yes, I've been there" were more important than the details of the PC's life in terms of how well I related to them. Of course, that's going to be different for players who aren't/have not been depressed, which is one of the reasons I'd be curious to hear from them.

In general, I thought it was a solid game and one of the better fictional portrayals of depression I've seen, although it could probably stand a bit more polishing, at least to fix Alex's "they" vs. "she" issue and the handful of SPaG errors that crop up in some sections of the game, if not to fill in the vagueness surrounding some aspects of the PC's life.

The House of Fear, by Gwen Katz

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
A lovely and unusual game, May 1, 2014
by EJ

"The House of Fear" is an entry in a genre I haven't seen much of in IF: pure historical fiction (no speculative-fiction twists here), populated by people who actually existed. The PC is Leonora Carrington, novelist and Surrealist painter, and the characters who appear in her memories are mostly other artists from the WWII-era Surrealist circle. There is something a little uncomfortable, at least for me, about stepping into the shoes of a real person who was, in fact, alive until just a few months ago, but "The House of Fear" is respectful and seems to be well-researched, so my qualms quickly faded.

The game is, in a way, standard "wander around, receive plot through flashbacks" fare, but the historical twist and the quality of the writing make it feel fresh and engaging. The characterizations of Leonora Carrington and Max Ernst are well-defined in just a handful of brief vignettes, and the descriptions of the environment are lovely, if a bit sparsely implemented. That much of the imagery in the game is taken from Carrington's paintings is a nice touch as well. That being said, I don't believe it's necessary to have any knowledge of early 20th century Surrealists in general or of Carrington in particular to enjoy the game. (Before playing this game, I had only vaguely heard of her via her connection with Remedios Varo, whose work I've long been fond of.)

The puzzles can be a bit obtuse and arbitrary in a dream-logic way, but for the most part they make their own kind of sense. The penultimate puzzle tripped me up and, when combined with an unfortunate error in the walkthrough (now corrected), led to me throwing up my hands and unfairly concluding that the game was broken, hence my previous review. Upon coming back to it a little later, though, I found that the actual solution was blindingly obvious and I wasn't sure how I'd missed it, so I'm willing to put that one on myself (and the walkthrough), not the game.

All in all, this is an excellently-written game with an interesting and unusual angle on the dreamscape/flashback mode of IF, and well worth playing.

howling dogs, by Porpentine

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Stories within stories, June 29, 2013
by EJ

(This review was originally posted as part of the 2012 Semi-Official Xyzzy Reviews series, and focuses on the game's nomination in the Best Story category.)

howling dogs is an interesting choice for Best Story, because at first glance it doesn’t precisely have a story. Not a single story, at any rate. Rather, it has several disparate narratives contained in a fairly loosely sketched frame.

The frame concerns a person trapped in a cell of some sort experiences the other stories as virtual reality scenarios while their (her?) real-life surroundings slowly decay. For company, the protagonist has only the photo of a woman–a former lover, perhaps–who becomes harder to remember with each passing day. Besides the gradual deterioration of the cell and the protagonist’s memories, not much happens in this layer of the story–which is probably the point.

The VR-scenario stories start short and simple and get longer and more involved as they go. The first, in which the player must choose to describe a garden from one of several different perspectives, is almost more the kind of thought-experiment you’d expect to find in a philosophy text than it is a narrative. Then there’s a memorably chilling piece in which a woman decides to kill her romantic partner (having been driven to the act by an incident a year before which is never specified) which takes an interesting approach to the question of player complicity. The narrator in this section is an “I”, not a “you”, and while the player may choose to condone her actions or not, she’ll carry out her plan regardless. The next is an especially odd piece involving a soldier involved in a surreal battle who may reject this reality in favor of an equally surreal peaceful teatime; after that is a well-written if somewhat standard take on the trial of Joan of Arc (or someone very like her).

The stand-out, though, is definitely the last and longest one, the tale of an empress who has been trained all her life to eventually die in an aesthetically pleasing manner. This story manages to fit a lot of worldbuilding into a small space gracefully enough that it doesn’t feel forced or confusing, and the world it paints is fascinating. It is a world of living cities that grow like plants and plains full of buried gods and bone-footed empresses who seem to wield supreme power but ultimately do not own their lives or their deaths. We follow one of these empresses through her youthful lessons in how to be beautiful in the face of her inevitable assassination. We see her come into her power and decide how to deal with several situations that require her attention. Then we are transported to the eve of the assassination–which, as it turns out, is not quite so inevitable as one might think, as long as the player is paying attention. If you play your cards (or click your links) right, the empress can decide to go against the fate that has been determined for her since birth and fight back against her would-be assassin. It’s a storyline that’s exciting on a surface level, but also laden with all kinds of deeper resonances regarding women and power and appearance and societal expectations, and the execution is fantastic on both (all?) levels.

The empress story is also the only one to explicitly relate back to the main storyline, as towards the end (in the “good” ending) the lines separating the VR scenario from the frame story’s reality begin to blur; the empress is identified with the frame story’s PC, and the woman who aids her in escaping assassination is identified with the woman in the photograph. The empress’s escape becomes the protagonist’s escape.

So the parallels in these two stories are made fairly explicit, but what about the rest? Do they hang together, or is howling dogs really as fragmentary as it first appears? Well, some of them are a little harder to figure out than others (I’m still not sure quite what’s going on with the battle/teatime episode), but there are strong thematic connections running through all the disparate parts of the piece. Gender and the position of women in society is one of the most explicit concerns of the piece, clearly visible in the stories of the empress, Joan of Arc, and the woman who kills her partner. In addition, there are themes of figurative and literal confinement present to some extent in nearly all of the stories (including the frame, but excluding the bit about the garden), appearances versus reality (which is inherent in the entire concept of VR as well as appearing in many of the sub-stories), death and decay, and probably many other things I haven’t noticed yet. For all that it’s short, it’s a dense piece of work, the kind that offers up new discoveries each time you go through it.

The individual parts of howling dogs are fascinating and they come together into a cohesive whole better than one might expect. The game may lack an overarching plot in the traditional sense, but it still feels like it’s telling a single story through different lenses. The fact that its approach to story is unusual for IF only makes this layered and thought-provoking work that much more memorable.

First Draft of the Revolution, by Emily Short, Liza Daly and inkle

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Blending the personal and the political, June 29, 2013
by EJ

(This review was originally posted as part of the 2012 Semi-Official Xyzzy Reviews series, and focuses on the game's nomination in the Best Story category.)

It’s not all that common to see alternate-universe or secondary-world fantasy stories that deal primarily with small-scale personal dramas. Plots centered around a woman dealing with a troubled marriage and learning to stand up for herself are not very often found in worlds that also have tensions between magic-using aristocrats and generally non-magical commoners about to erupt into revolution. First Draft, however, combines these elements very deftly. The family drama is interwoven with the larger political goings-on of the setting in a way that feels believable. Rather than trying to tell a sweeping story about the whole of society, it focuses on one incident in a way that hints at the underlying broader issues: the protagonist, Juliette, is the low-born, non-magical wife of a magic-using nobleman, and one of her husband’s youthful by-blows has just turned up in the company of a charismatic friar with heretical ideas about the magic-using class’s supposed God-given right to dominate everyone else. Juliette is drawn to the friar, but he, it transpires, has ulterior motives for getting close to her. In recounting Juliette’s interactions with the friar and the boy, the game never goes into any depth about what kind of movement or organization the friar might be involved with, why exactly they might want to assassinate Juliette’s husband, and what their larger plans are, but it’s clear that the friar is not some lone maniac; there’s some unrest here that goes far beyond that.

Juliette’s story has a climax and a resolution: she decides of her own accord to get her husband’s illegitimate child away from the radical friar by forging a letter the boy from her husband, and then writes her husband to tell him what she’s done, and what she expects him to do now, in terms that brook no argument. It’s satisfying to see a character who at the beginning seemed to feel powerless to do anything about her own situation find the courage to take that kind of risk to protect her family, standing up to her somewhat domineering husband in the process. It adds a positive note to the ending, which is otherwise rather ominous (for Juliette and her family, at any rate): the boy seems to still have radical sympathies, and the friar has gotten away to continue fomenting revolution elsewhere.

The political situation, on the other hand, never really comes to a head, but having it loom threateningly in the background works well, and was probably the best decision for a story of this length. The story builds a convincing sense of inevitability, so that even though the setting is fictional, it has the feel of one of those stories set on the eve of a world-changing historical event, like World War I or, well, the actual French Revolution. One gets the impression that the revolution will happen sooner or later; it’s just a question of when.

The story’s epistolary format works well for it, and its handling of the climax. These can be tricky to do in epistolary works, since the constraints of the form usually demand that any big decisive action must take place “offscreen” and be reported after the fact in a way that can feel anticlimactic. First Draft neatly sidesteps this by having Juliette’s decisive action be the actual act of letter-writing. The game’s “editing” mechanic, which gives the impression of the player peering over her shoulder as she writes, adds to the effectiveness as well.

It’s a short and linear game, but in twenty-odd short pages it accomplishes a lot, and the gameplay mechanic and epistolary format both serve the story–the unique format never feels like a gimmick. It’s a well-crafted thing, and my only real complaint is that there isn’t more of it.

Eurydice, by Anonymous

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
A new life for an old myth, June 29, 2013
by EJ

(This review was originally posted as part of the 2012 Semi-Official Xyzzy Reviews series, and focuses on the game's nomination in the Best Story category.)

Writing a retelling of an ancient myth, especially one as widely known as that of Orpheus and Eurydice, may seem on the surface like an easy route for a storyteller to take. After all, it gives you a certain framework to follow for the plot and the characters. Furthermore, you can rely on the audience to have a knowledge of the shape of the story you’re trying to tell to a much greater extent than is usually the case. You don’t, for example, have to directly tell the player “this is Hades, King of the Underworld, and this is his queen Persephone, and this is the way their relationship works due to this aspect of their backstory.” You can just put in a character who evokes Hades and a character who evokes Persephone, without ever naming them, and the player’s existing knowledge of the story will do the rest. This applies to thematic elements as well–the title Eurydice alone should give the reader some idea of the ground that will be covered here.

This knowledge on the part of the player is, however, a double-edged sword: they already know how the story goes, so the writer must work that much harder to keep their attention, to convince them that there is something here that they haven’t seen before. Fortunately, Eurydice puts in that necessary effort. Yes, the plot hits most of the expected notes–the loss of a loved one and the journey to the underworld to get her back, dealing with a ferryman and a three-headed dog and an authority figure whom the protagonist must convince to give up the spirit of the dead loved one–but underneath the mythological trappings is a real, raw, meticulously-observed portrait of grief that keeps the game feeling grounded even when the narrative is at its most fantastical. The underworld in this case takes the form of the mental hospital in which the deceased loved one, Celine, seems to have spent the end of her life, and as the protagonist journeys through it in search of her, memories of her arise. The underworld-hospital is full of small details which build up a very human portrait of both the protagonist and Celine–but which also create a general sense of helplessness. The protagonist plays Celine’s favorite card game with her, buys her a radio and a houseplant for her room, promises to rewatch a forgotten television show with her; Celine gamely goes along with all this, but it’s clear to the protagonist and the player alike that her heart’s not in it, that none of this is really helping at all. These scenes do an excellent job of getting the player on board with the protagonist’s drive to save Celine. The sympathy for the protagonist and Celine and the desire to do something to make things better for Celine draw the player on even though we all know what’s coming.

Or do we? The game has four endings, each of which provides a different conclusion to the emotional arc of the story, and here is where the game begins to subvert the player’s expectations. If you follow the myth to the letter, playing the lyre at every opportunity and turning around as soon as the game suggests that Celine might not in fact be following you, you’re likely to get the accurately-named Failure ending, the least satisfying of the four. In this ending, the protagonist simply gives up and goes home, having failed to confront their feelings or come to terms with anything–the whole journey has been utterly pointless. The stated reason for these actions leading to this ending is that playing the lyre signifies seeking an easy, “magical” solution to real problems that can’t be fixed that way, but in a way it may also reflect the player’s refusal to engage with this specific iteration of the story, going through the mythological motions without really thinking about what it all means for these particular characters.

What if you play the lyre and then don’t turn around? Well, then you’ve really lost touch with reality: this earns you the slightly puzzling Fable ending, in which the protagonist seems to lose the ability to distinguish between their own life and the Orpheus myth altogether and descend into delusion out of unwillingness to deal with the fact of Celine’s death. This ending is at least somewhat more interesting than Failure, but it’s not terribly hopeful. The player is still relying on their knowledge of the myth here, although they are at least trying to change its outcome.

More satisfying are the Flowers and Friendship endings, which show the protagonist remembering the good times with Celine but accepting that she really is gone and beginning to think about moving on, possibly through renewing connections with their still-living friends. These endings require the player to find alternate solutions to dealing with the underworld’s various obstacles, using everyday objects from the protagonist’s house rather than a magical lyre that appears out of nowhere and may not be real. The idea, according to the writer, was to reward the player for finding more practical, real-world solutions to problems, though unfortunately this does not work out quite as well as might be hoped: the alternate solutions are still very adventure-gamey. It’s a different kind of unrealistic, but it’s unrealistic nonetheless. That said, this still rewards the player for engaging with the specifics of this story rather than following a pattern they think they already know. Even if the execution isn’t perfect, the decision to have breaking from the established story lead to more interesting and satisfying results than following it is an interesting one which makes the story aspect of the game more compelling.

All in all, despite a few missteps, Eurydice is a very solid take on the Orpheus & Eurydice myth, with a deft personal touch and some interesting ideas behind its multiple endings. It is well worth playing, and certainly deserves the recognition it has gotten as one of the stand-out games of the past year.

shadows on the mirror, by Chrysoula Tzavelas

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful:
YA supernatural romance, IF style, April 2, 2012
by EJ

When I was in high school, there was a certain type of young adult fantasy novel that I read quite a few of. These books always contained (a) Ordinary Teenaged Girls who also happened to have Awesome Supernatural Powers, possibly with an attendant Special Destiny, and (b) Brooding, Aloof Male Love Interests who were often on the opposite side of whatever the main conflict was, but who were, deep down, Really Nice Guys.

"Shadows on the Mirror" feels very much like an entry in that genre. The heroine's Awesome Powers are only hinted at, but are undeniably Awesome, and also Unique ("Are you... like me?" she asks the hero, Galen, at one point, to which he replies, "No one is like you."). There are also tantalizing hints of ways in which the world of the game is not quite like our own, references to things unfamiliar to the player that the characters seem to view as so ordinary as to warrant no explanation. This could easily become frustrating, but it's done sparingly enough that it remains simply intriguing. That said, at times the game feels like almost too small a fragment of a larger story, a teasing glimpse of something that deserves a novel-length exploration.

Make no mistake, though: the real focus of the game is the Brooding Love Interest and the heroine's interactions with him. This was never quite my cup of tea (I was in it more for the power-and-destiny bit), but it's done fairly well here; the heroine is well-characterized, and the love interest, while a bit more of an enigma, is at least interesting. There's the possibility for some playful, fun interactions, and while Galen is not exactly warm and outgoing, (Spoiler - click to show)once the necklace comes off he's not such an unbearable jerk that it's impossible to understand why the heroine likes him.

The gameplay mostly consists of talking to Galen about various topics; the mechanics of this were a little hit-or-miss. Most of the topics I thought to ask about were implemented, and often asking or telling about a term that came up in response to the previous topic resulted in a conversational flow that seemed logical and natural -- no easy feat in IF. On the other hand, with the way that certain conversational responses are "unlocked" by pursuing other lines of questioning, it was sometimes unclear when Galen really had nothing, or nothing more, to say about a subject, and when I simply needed to talk about something else for a while to unlock more information about that subject. The "topics" command was also less useful than one might hope -- it seemed to return four or five topics in random rotation, regardless of whether that topic had been exhausted or not, and sometimes would return "You can think of nothing to say to Galen" even when there were topics remaining to be discussed.

After playing once, I immediately restarted the game to see if I could get a different ending, but was quickly frustrated by the fact that I was unable to discuss topics I had discussed in the previous playthrough and I wasn't sure why or what I had to do to unlock them, and I couldn't tell if the game was progressing especially differently to the first time. I did get a different ending the second time through, but I couldn't quite figure out why I had. At that point I gave up on replaying to find other endings--kind of a shame, as I don't think I even saw the "best" one, but replaying the game had become more irritating and confusing than fun.

For all my complaints, the conversational system was pretty strong overall, and I did enjoy the game as a bit of nostalgic fun. However, I'm not sure it would hold the same appeal for anyone who has never been the particular sort of teenaged girl who reads that particular sort of fantasy novel.

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