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Hanna, We're Going to School, by Kastel

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Time for school, time for school, time for school, time for-, May 3, 2023

It’s time for school but you’re not feeling it right now.
Or ever, really. But you and Hanna have no choice. School it is, then.
Oh, and Hanna is a ghost.

Gameplay
Contrary to what the game’s title suggests, Hanna is not the PC. You play as a high school girl named Jing who goes to an international school in Singapore called the American Independence School. Unlike Jing, Hanna expresses some excitement about going to school. Soon, though, we see that this excitement is masking underlying pain as we face the daily mundane and rocky reality that is school.

The start of the gameplay really sucks you in. It captures how Twine’s interactivity can be used to make a more dynamic scene. We begin in Jing’s bedroom.

You get up.

You are in your bedroom, which consists of a desk full of books, a desktop computer, a bed, and a cabinet.

Hanna eyes at your schoolbag.

Here, "books," "desktop computer," and "bed," are all links that expand the text to reveal more information about each item while clicking on the cabinet link moves the gameplay forward as Jing gets ready for school.

While the scene’s outcome is not impacted by your choice to examine the scenery, the links provide an extra sense of interaction that make it a little more interesting than if it were one big room description. It also engages the player with Twine’s choice-based format. Why read when you can click on links?

This structure continues for the rest of the game as we venture into Jing's school. After your first playthrough, the game allows you to skip ahead to crucial parts in the gameplay to save time. Much appreciated.

Characters
(I’m going to do characters first, then story.)

Jing
We do not learn as much about Jing as I hoped. After all, she is the starring PC. She’s Chinese, lives in an apartment, her parents both work (we never meet them), likes to use art and books as a portal for exploring sexuality, and has befriended a ghost named Hanna! Alright, we learn a fair amount. But her character is intriguing. More would be nice.

It would also be nice to have more context about Jing’s everyday school life. While I understand that school day structure differs across the globe, American Independent School has a somewhat bizarre (to me) daily schedule. (Spoiler - click to show) It offers cafeteria lunch twice and holds a separate student council-led karaoke party between Trigonometry and European History class. Actually, that doesn’t sound so bad. Ultimately, however, I felt out of touch. (If this really occurs in real life, thank you for diversifying my understanding of how teens go to school in today’s world.)

Clara
Clara. Ah yes. Clara does not censor what she says. She just says it without considering her surroundings. Or those nearby. She also thinks that she is doing you a favor by letting you know what she has to say.

Consider: a group of young people with that one peer who, to everyone’s delight and dismay, confidently and loudly talks about daring and explicit things in a causal social setting. Just when you think the conversation has leveled off, bam, the peer in question takes it up several more notches and everyone around is just, “oh wow.” That’s Clara. The scene in the (Spoiler - click to show) hallway after homeroom (and onwards) showcases this perfectly.

She embodies the “mature” girl persona who claims to have a resume of sexual experiences. She also comes off as trying to convince herself that she knows the ropes and that her confidence on the subject matter is unwavering. A bystander (Jing/player) is then used as a sounding board as she pelts them with a mix of "advice," tidbits of knowledge that demonstrate credibility, and personal experiences involving sex and other adult-like activities.

My favorite sentence in this game:

You pretend to agree and hope Clara's done with her TED Talk.

Clara gives some intense TED Talks.

When it comes to her relationship with Jing, Clara does not come off as being the classic High School Mean Girl who breaks out in hives at the mere sight of you. Maybe that is not what the author intended, but that’s the impression it left on me. If anything, Clara sees herself as friend rather than foe.

Clara reads more like a bossy, we’re-friends-since-we-see-each-other-daily type of “friend.” One who considers herself to be your friend in a self-serving manner or considers you to be a friend more so than you feel in return. She latches onto you like a leech while insisting that she knows what’s best for you. Especially when it comes to sexuality.

It gets uncomfortable. Clara reassures Jing about her dating desirability. Because Jing is Chinese, Clara keeps advising her to embrace “popular” stereotypes by acting more submissive and “pure-hearted” since that apparently is what attracts dudes. Clara may be trying to help in her own way, but ultimately this persistent fetishization overwhelms Jing. And most likely the player.

But as the story’s antagonist, she does not seem so bad after all… Until your final encounter with her where she (Spoiler - click to show) goes full homophobe and transphobe. Everyone’s (Jing/Hanna/hopefully the player) response to this is more, way more, than just, “oh wow.”

While Clara excels in her character role’s persona, there are some scenes that feel- even for her- more like an endless rant of shocking content that is independent from the scene itself. I wish we could explore her character in other ways than just sex-fueled rants.

And as for bringing an umbrella, (Spoiler - click to show) careful kids, you can poke an eye out. I applaud the implementation of Twine in this scene.

Hanna
Hanna is a neat character- she’s a ghost! - with a tragic past who still brings the perspective of a modern teen unimpressed by the school system and its expectations. She does not necessarily “haunt” the player. Instead, she tags along to offer commentary, friendship, and support without sugar coating your collective circumstances.

Before the game even begins, we are presented with a passage that leads to the game’s menu. The passage keeps it brief: (Spoiler - click to show) Hanna was a teen who jumped off a hospital rooftop to commit suicide. Later we learn that in life, she identified as transgender but never received support or understanding- quite the opposite.

Here’s the deal: The gameplay ultimately leads up to a (Spoiler - click to show) pivotal scene where Clara (as I mentioned earlier) starts rambling about an unnamed individual during which she unleashes homophobic/transphobic commentary. First time around, I struggled to piece it all together.

In this scene, Clara explains (claims?) that she was engaged to a young man her age since they were kids except that he expressed interest in dresses, dolls, and feminine self-expression. She mocks this which only further traumatizes Hanna who is also transgender.

Then it clicked.

Almost.

I need someone to spell it out for me so I can be sure: Was Clara engaged, in whatever form it may have been, to… Hanna? Before her death when people refused to recognize her identity? (Is it true that her previous- I hope I’m doing this properly- name was Alex? I only ask since Clara mentions the name once in her rant.) Talk about a plot twist. In fact, I initially failed to make the connection that Hanna knew both Jing and Clara as former classmates since middle school. Scatter-brained on my part.

Also, part of the reason Hanna transitioned was to avoid being drafted into the army since male Singaporeans are drafted into the National Service when they turn eighteen. This fact completely went over my head. It was not until I read the explanation in the content warning that I connected the dots- and it gives you some interesting things to think about since many international kids do not have to worry about this requirement. I just feel that this part of Hanna’s backstory could have been clearer.

There is one thing that I did not figure out. During Clara’s rant, we see a link that says, “Hanna’s wailing floods the whole room.” Clicking on it expands it into the following:

why am i not dead yet why am i not dead yet why am i not dead yet why am i not dead yet why am i not dead yet why am i not dead yet why am i not dead yet

Hanna is dead. There’s something I’m clearly missing.


NPCs (besides Hanna and Clara)
Finally, some of the remaining dialog almost seemed melodramatic in the sense that there is not much context around NPCs’ behavior. Like (Spoiler - click to show) Harold's outburst when you ask him what is wrong during homeroom. If I had not known better, I would have thought these characters were pre-teens who just entered middle school.

Nonetheless, they are still intriguing.

Story + Themes
The story takes place over one school day where we get a glimpse of daily life for Jing and Hanna, even if Hanna is not an actual student. She almost functions as an extension of Jing which is close enough. Besides Hanna’s backstory, Hanna We’re Going to School is largely character-oriented rather than wielding a complex storyline. There are, however, plenty of themes to go around.

There are several slice-of-life themes about youth and adulthood that could appeal to a wide range of players. However, the intended audience is relatively narrow since many of the themes are explored through brief, sudden romance-oriented encounters that may not appeal to everyone. This runs the risk of the player not absorbing the key themes showcased in a scene if they are skimming past certain parts.

For instance, (Spoiler - click to show) Clara's attempt to matchmake you with Dan was surreal and disjointed. Is she serious? It seemed like an unbelievable exchange… unless it’s set in reality more so than I realize. While this specific scene made me raise my eyebrows, I could see how it ties in with the game’s discussions on the intersecting expectations placed on young people.

Much of the game is focused on the idea of adult expectations of who you marry, the achievements of your parents, academic performance, job prospects, and your ability to look casually desirable the entire time. I feel like the (Spoiler - click to show) scene with Dan is meant to shine light on several of these issues, but from a gameplay standpoint it leaves you a bit bewildered. Because of this, players may find it less relatable.

Also: I'm not asking for more in that scene between (Spoiler - click to show) Clara and Dan in the school library, I'm really not (no shame if anyone feels otherwise), but it came out of nowhere and felt completely out of context. Even for this game. In the school library? I would say it is the only truly explicit scene in the game and is completely avoidable.

Visuals
The game uses a basic set of visuals that opt for something besides the typically default Twine appearance of a black screen, white text, and a standardize font (you'll know it when you see it). There is nothing wrong with using the default, but when authors choose to use a slightly different background colour or multiple font styles, I notice.

Hanna, We’re Going to School features a grey screen with white text and blue-purple links. There is also a wine-coloured panel on the left side of the text body. It contains the “under” arrow that lets you go back a passage. Basic stuff but looks good.

Final thoughts
Hanna, We’re Going to School is a bold, insightful game that bravely questions the intersecting issues that young people experience in the eyes of society and their fellow peers as they start to transition into adulthood. Jing witnesses this from a unique perspective.

She does not share the seemingly carefree lifestyle that her peers put on display, nor does she possess the social status wielded by peers from more influential families. But Clara’s attempts at “mentorship” provides a closer glimpse of the privilege differences within the student body. This slightly departs from the typical formula of popular girl vs unpopular girl while still showcasing the various forms of harassment that can occur, especially when it comes to gender expectations.

Meanwhile, Hanna’s own story raises implications of the harm done when one’s gender identity is mocked, especially if one is still trying to find themselves. As we see, Hanna (Spoiler - click to show) experiences some uncertainty about her motives for transitioning while simultaneously feeling at home with identifying as a girl. Her character is fun, quirky, and honest, making her a highlight of the game.

However, there are some drawbacks. The game could use more clarity for the plot along with additional worldbuilding shown in the gameplay. Right now, I feel like I know more about Clara than Hanna and Jing which is too bad since Hanna and Jing are a fantastic duo. The explicitness of some scenes may also drive some players away.

Otherwise, it is a strong slice of life piece about high school and teenage futures.

Further reading
These are NOT spoilers, but since my reviews are so darn long, I’m spoiler-tagging it to save screen space. I write a lot.
(Spoiler - click to show)
Hanna, We're Going to School reminds me of an unrelated graphic novel called Anya's Ghost. The premise is similar in the sense that it depicts a teenage girl who navigates life and high school while being followed around by a ghost of another teen girl. While that may sound like a carbon copy of Hanna, We’re Going to School, I can reassure you that they diverge in story and subject matter. But the way Hanna coasts along with Jing and offers commentary just reminded me so much of the duo in Anya’s Ghost. If you like this game, you may like the book, and vice versa.

Also, if you are interested in further exploring the social dynamics of an internationally oriented school setting, consider the ChoiceScript game Learning to Be Human. It is an educational game about bullying where you play as a humanoid robot tasked with making connections with middle/high school aged students from different countries. While it is not a particularly thrilling game, it is more interesting than it sounds. Just note that it is strongly character centered, so don’t expect an in-depth storyline. The game covers subjects on popularity, body image, bias on cultural heritage, and inclusion. Recommended if you were drawn in by the peer social interactions found in Hanna, We’re Going to School.

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Alone in the Void, by Gareth Meyrick

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Looks like you slept through the action. Unless it’s only getting started., April 22, 2023

Alone in the Void is a promising Quest game about waking up from cryonic suspension on a ship called the Amaethon drifting through deep space. Twenty years have passed since you woke up, and since then, something has happened. You just need to figure out what it is… and whether it is a threat to you.

The game falls under the sci-fi subgenre where the protagonist investigates a seemingly lifeless spaceship after an unknown incident. Games following this premise that I have reviewed include A Long Way to the Nearest Star, Fall of the Achilles, and Reclamation. Each time I play a game like this I am always eager to find out what happened.

Gameplay
The gameplay starts in your crew quarters after the ship’s computer guides you there upon your awakening from cryonic suspension. Rise and shine! While the messiness of your living space has not changed, the same cannot be said for the rest of the ship.

From the crew quarters, you wander in search of leads. There are no specific objectives or tasks/checklists that the protagonist must pursue. Everything is exploratory, simply trying to figure out what happened to the ship while you were frozen.

There are occasional small bugs and some situational limitations that were frustrating. Such as the (Spoiler - click to show) bathroom stalls in the deck 4 bathroom.

There are five stalls in the bathroom. Four have signs that read “Occupied.” Normally, the decision is obvious. Move on and perhaps check out the stall with no one in it (don’t, actually). From a practical standpoint, given that this ship has supposedly been abandoned for the past 20 years, I feel that some persistence is warranted as part of your investigation. I wish there were a way to knock on the stalls or somehow confirm the occupants/contents of the stall.


Unless there really, really, really is nothing in there for the protagonist. In that case, forget I asked.

Atmosphere
Something bad has happened, that is clear, but there is not a lot of urgency that directs the gameplay. It feels more as if the spaceship is your personal playground following the aftermath of some event that took the rest of the crew while you were on ice. However, there is one exception that deserves acknowledgement.

It comes while you are (Spoiler - click to show) sitting in the seat in the theater. Without warning and in red text:

As you pause to watch the screen, a sudden sound catches your attention from the recesses of the room. You swivel your head toward the source of the disturbance, only to spot a shadowy figure looming near the closed entrance to the lobby.

And if you wait too long, it appears again. Uh oh.

Timed responses can receive mixed reception with players, but the time margin here is reasonable and effectively atmospheric.
It comes out of nowhere and the timing is right to surprise you, spurring you into action.

Finally…
Ultimately, I enjoyed the gameplay even if the atmosphere was underwhelming at times. It is fun because it has a free-for-all self-driven mayhem where loot everything in sight, demonstrate a blatant disregard for locked doors, and grill NPCs for answers (Spoiler - click to show) (see, you’re not so alone after all). While this sort of behavior is often found in similar games, Alone in the Void manages to cultivate a chaotic carelessness that is unique to its plot.

Before I move on, I have some praise for Alone in the Void: The gameplay lacks the sluggishness I often encounter in Quest games. Generally, I don’t think sluggishness is the author’s fault. I usually assume it is a Quest-related technicality. Perhaps it is a computer or browser issue on my part.

Either way, sluggishness slurps the fun out of the gameplay, especially if the game decides to suddenly end while you pause to do something else on another tab. That happens a lot when I play Quest games. While Alone in the Void is not completely exempt from this, it was a smooth ride that took longer to time out when I paused to do something else. Whatever caused this made a difference.

Puzzles
For anyone unfamiliar with Quest, most Quest games have three menus on the right side of the screen for exits, player inventory, and objects in the player’s surroundings. Clicking on items in a menu reveals a set of possible verbs for said object, which helps eliminate guess-the-verb confusion. Through this, you can even skip a keyboard altogether, although I still prefer to use one.

While some Quest games are designed so that navigation via the side menus can be ignored, that is not the case with Alone in the Void. It seems that some puzzles can only be solved by navigating menu options. This was both a strength and weakness. As of *now, puzzles are limited to unlocking doors. One example involves (Spoiler - click to show) entering the cafeteria.

The location description outside the cafeteria reads:

You are in a Hallway on Deck 4.
You can see a Cafeteria Door, Elevator 4 and a Terminal.
You can go down, west, east, north or up.

Examining the cafeteria door says, "But a keen eye will reveal a tiny hole, a chink in the armor - a minuscule orifice tucked away under the words 'Emergency Release.’”

> x hole
The emergency hole is built into the Cafeteria door. Its too narrow for your fingers to fit... maybe if you had something pointed.

The object for the job is the nasty toothbrush from your locker.

However, “Put toothbrush in hole” results in “You can’t do that,” while “unlock door with toothbrush” gets “That doesn’t work.” And no, "use toothbrush" does not work either. The protagonist puts it in their mouth instead. Gross.


The solution to (Spoiler - click to show) using the toothbrush to unlock the door requires use of the “Places and Objects” menu.

Clicking on the (Spoiler - click to show) "Cafeteria Door" link reveals two options that say, "Look at," and "Unlock." If the toothbrush is in your inventory, clicking “Unlock” will automatically unlock the door. This is quite helpful if you are unsure of what item is needed to unlock a barrier. If you gather as many items as you can there is a good chance that no door will stand in your way when you go to unlock it.

Does this detract from the puzzle solving experimentation? A little bit since typing out commands gives the impression that the command itself has no use. But the tradeoff is that it increases player friendliness in the sense that, when it comes to applying the right inventory item to a task, the game “does it all for you.” If you (Spoiler - click to show) have the toothbrush, the game takes care of unlocking the door.

Once I figured out this trick, I was never stuck. But maybe that will (Spoiler - click to show) change later when more of the game is released.

*Initially I wondered whether this could be dismissed as a non-spoiler, but since the argument could probably go either way, I’m playing it safe when I say this: (Spoiler - click to show) Alone in the Void is not a complete game. Eventually you will run into a message saying, “To be continued.” I’m not sure if calling it a demo would be accurate. Sometimes, you can advertise a game as such without it necessarily being considered a spoiler, but since Alone in the Void ends on a cliffhanger, I’m spoiler tagging it.

Story
Alone in the Void is a science fiction game with a mix of horror and mystery. It includes some gore and bathroom humor, and it's no joke when I say that the protagonist seems willing to eat most everything. Like the (Spoiler - click to show) urinal cake. Ugh. There is a bit of a gross factor there, but not too much.

The overarching story behind the Amaethon is surreal, eerie, and thought provoking. It seems that we live in a reality where mainstream space travel exists, but light-speed travel is off-limits. Currently, no ship can go faster than half of the speed of light.

For the past twenty years the Amaethon has been drifting farther into deep space to the point where no other ship, burdened by speed limitations, can match its distance. (Assuming that the Amaethon’s momentum is slinging it faster than any ship sent to track it down. Otherwise, a ship would eventually catch up. However, the Amaethon has a 20-year head start.) What an interesting situation to ponder.

Other than that, an immediate story is still emerging. Like I said, (Spoiler - click to show) the game ends on a cliffhanger.

Characters
PC
The gameplay keeps details on the protagonist at a minimum. We know they are a member of the crew and not much else. While they come off as gender neutral in the gameplay, the cover art hints that we are playing as a male protagonist. It would be cool to learn more. I wonder if they are simply underdeveloped or if there is a big secret about their identity.

I do think that the game needs to be clearer about the protagonist’s role on the ship. Initially I thought that they were in cryogenic suspension on a smaller ship sent to investigate the Amaethon. Once having found the Amaethon twenty years later, the protagonist would be awakened to board the lost vessel.

Not quite. The gameplay soon tells a different story. It seems instead that they were already frozen on the Amaethon and awakened by the ship's computer for an unknown reason. The closest answer is (Spoiler - click to show) from Sophie Malaca, an injured officer in the cafeteria.

You: "Do you know what's happening on this ship? or where everybody is?"
Sophie: "I know about as much as you do, according to all the callanders on board its been twenty years"
You: "From what I've seen so far it looks like people left in a hurry too"
Sophie: "So much so they left two officers on Ice? .... lovely"

(Note: there are some grammar and spelling errors in this game.)

In this exchange, it seems that "officers on ice" refers to crew being put into cryogenic suspension and that Sophie, like you, were frozen and awakened by the computer after twenty years of slumber. But when she says, “they left two officers on Ice,” I wondered who's "they?"


Who gets frozen and why? My guess is that crew are either frozen in emergency situations for their own safety or that designated crew members are frozen and awakened in the event of an emergency to investigate. I doubt (Spoiler - click to show) Sophie has been lounging around in the cafeteria for the past two decades. But all I have right now are speculations.

NPCs
There are (Spoiler - click to show) three NPCs. (Spoiler - click to show) Sophie Malaca (as I mentioned), the robotic toaster in the kitchen, and the automaton upstairs. I wish these characters would respond to a wider range of prompts. Especially (Spoiler - click to show) Sophie since she is the only crew member in sight. Like you, she just emerged from cryonic suspension, most likely before you did.

She also later turns into an undead monster and corners you in the movie theater.


While I can understand why the (Spoiler - click to show) robotic toaster is limited linguistically, I was expecting more from (Spoiler - click to show) Sophie, a fellow crewmember. It would extremely helpful if her character was more responsive since she seems to be the only NPC capable of answering any substantial questions.

What surprised me is that she has a gaping wound (most likely the source of the mess in the bathroom) and you cannot even ask about it. Or the military bandages packet that you found or maybe the ship’s failing power levels. And as for investigating the ship…

You: "Okay, I'm going to continue searching, but I'll come back for you"
Sophie: "You better! - Also becareful, that thing... whatever it is, it's still out there"

Hold on, Sophie. What thing?

That sounds like something we should be able to ask about. My guess is that this “thing” lurking around the ship is responsible for her injury (and later transforming her into an undead creature), and yet she has nothing to say about it when you ask for clarification. Absolutely no response at all.


This also seems like a big plot element. Sadly, we cannot learn more about this development.

Thoughts on setting
This spaceship sci-fi/mystery (and sometimes horror) subgenre often features research or military spaceships as the setting. The Amaethon falls into a similar category, a mining vessel. However, the Amaethon is also a bit unusual. Let’s just say that the ship’s function is not conveyed by its contents. I would never have guessed that it was a mining vessel had the game never told me.

Instead, the Amaethon’s layout gives the impression of a “party ship” or one dedicated solely to leisure. The parts of the ship accessible to the player includes a (Spoiler - click to show) trashed bathroom with a vending machine that sells- you’ll see, an arcade, a movie theater, and a general “store” that strikes you as being anywhere but on a near powerless mining vessel drifting in deep space.

Aside from the (Spoiler - click to show) excess blood pooling on the bathroom floor and Sophie’s injury, The Amaethon gives the overwhelming impression of the aftermath of wild party in a rented venue the night before. This is not necessarily a complaint. It was a fun surprise to see that the game diverts from a generic starship floor plan. I do wonder, however, when the mining part comes into play.

So far exploration offers little explanation of the ship’s mission (if it ever had one in the first place) or its activities with mining. It leaves the player with questions, but hopefully more will be revealed in the future.

Visuals
Alone in the Void has some of the coolest graphics I have ever seen in a Quest game to date. Amaethon seems to have had some serious gamers. And film fans.

There is an (Spoiler - click to show) arcade (plus a Game Boy left behind) and a movie theater. Looking at the screen in the movie theater prompts a clip to play as if you were watching a projection on a screen. Playing video games reveals a clip of the game in action. Even though the player has no control over the (Spoiler - click to show) clip, it is still impressive and gives the gameplay extra dimension.

Also, the game uses a simple but pleasing colour scheme of a black screen with white text and orange links plus accents. Consistent colour coordination can create a more polished look. Sometimes the game will stray from this and use colour coding for dialog or warning text that includes red, yellow, and purple colours. Overall, Alone in the Void has a crisp appearance.

Final thoughts
While (Spoiler - click to show) I was sad that the game ended on a cliffhanger, I applauded the author for making a game that leaves the player curious for more. Its implementation is not perfect and lacks fewer story details about than what I would have liked, but I am also keeping an open mind since the game (Spoiler - click to show) is still under development. The author has already established a concrete foundation of gameplay and setting that sets it apart from other games and carries much potential.

Alone in the Void is a strong addition to the current sci-fi selections of games made with Quest. I hope the author continues to shape it.

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Nothing Could be Further From the Truth, by Adam Wasserman

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
GREETINGS READER, THIS IS A REVIEW, April 16, 2023

"I am loyal, I am true.

When I'm older I will do

The best I can to serve my home.

Proud I live under a dome."


Welcome to the Bunker!
(No, I didn’t make that song up. Let’s see if you can find who sings it.)

Nothing Could Be Further From the Truth is an entry in Spring Thing 2023. It follows the adventures of Oliva Mirram, a citizen who lives in a dystopian Bunker located under the surface of Venus. She works in Research Lab A-U61 as an unglamourous “dust maid” whose sole task is to keep everything dust free (she is also allergic to dust).

But one day she stumbles across an opportunity that is about to make her life a little more interesting.

Not quite a sequel
Before Nothing Could Be Further came Wasserman’s Today is the Same as Any Other (2019) which features a character named Cory Resden who works in a “Population Monitoring Facility” where, let’s face it, all he does is paperwork. The two games follow a similar framework even if the characters have notable differences in identity.

WARNING: The following section will contain moderate structural spoilers for BOTH games. They will be placed under a spoiler tag, naturally.

Similarities
In both games, the protagonist is just another non-clearance rat race member of the Bunker working in their low-ranking job with seemingly no upward mobility. Gameplay is restricted to the protagonist’s workplace and the surrounding plaza outside. Their boss, well, sucks (Spoiler - click to show) (Cory: Xian Zimbly, Oliva: Nur Dular) and their relationships with co-workers and non-coworkers alike aren’t much better. No one seems to get along in the Bunker.

(Spoiler - click to show) On a random workday (or daystretch as the game calls it), the protagonist is approached by a mysterious person from the Underground who gives them a mission to prove themselves with the offer of joining the group. It becomes apparent soon after that there are two Underground groups you can choose to side with, but you must commit to one. In Today is the Same your choices are the “Coven” or “Purple Nurple.” In Nothing Could Be Further the options are “Area 51” and “God and Freedom Church.”

Finally, the protagonist is tasked with causing damage (and casualties) to the outside plaza by repairing and activating machinery found in their workplace. While there is more flexibility with this in the first game, it is mandatory in Nothing Could Be Further.

And there is a difficult sentient vending machine puzzle (the puzzle isn’t what’s difficult. The machine is). Oh, and plenty of exciting ways to die/end the game prematurely.


Differences
While reading this may give the impression that this game will be a boring remake of an already-been-used storyline, I think Wasserman pulls it off. There is still enough variation to make the games stand on their own, particularly since the protagonists have different workplaces and professions.

There are even small variations that can be easy to miss but rewarding to find. I really liked how the (Spoiler - click to show) “subsurface gala” query in your handy PA device reveals separate things about Oliva and Cory’s personalities. (Did I go back to Today is the Same just to compare PA queries? Of course!)

There are two main differences that stood out to me after playing both games. The first is that Today is the Same takes place underground on Mars while Nothing Could Be Further is underground on Venus. Good to see that humanity has ventured into the rest of the solar system.

The other difference is (Spoiler - click to show) that in Nothing Could Be Further it is possible to earn a security clearance and have the chance to use it (and/or flaunt it) and see where it could lead you in terms of privileges in the Bunker. This never occurred in the first game (you could end the game having qualified for one but that does not count) which was a large criticism I had when I played it.

Reflections on both
Today is the Same struck me as one of those interesting but low-coverage games that end up in a pocket in IFDB that does not get as much attention as other games of the same quality. Unless you go digging through the sci-fi section it probably won’t cross your radar which is a shame because it is genuinely a cool game with worldbuilding. That was merely MY take on it. However, it may receive more attention now that a sequel has been released in a competition. Be sure to check it out.

You do NOT need to play Today is the Same to understand and enjoy Nothing Could Be Further, although I recommend both, starting with the original. Because Cory is trapped in a cubicle desk job, you get a clearer sense of the drudgery of daily life in the Bunker as well as an overview of the Bunker's shady innerworkings. It is not quite as exciting but is shorter and a bit easier. Both have built-in hints.

However, if you only have time to play one, choose Nothing Could Be Further. I liked it better and feel that it showcases the more dynamic parts of the Bunker. For instance, (Spoiler - click to show) in the first game, the concept of a Ward of the State is mentioned in your handheld encyclopedia device (look it up, citizen) and on a poster by your workstation. In the second game, a bratty Ward of the State encompasses an entire puzzle. It was a nice chance increase the scope of NPCs you meet in the Bunker.

(Also, we hear about these popular NPCs who we never interact with. (Spoiler - click to show) News hosts Sally and Yuri can be seen on public television, and celebrities like Van Johnson or Milfred Roth are also mentioned. I assume that the Bunkers on Venus and Mars are identical. It makes me wonder, which Bunker do they live on? Mars or Venus? Or somewhere else entirely?)

Gameplay
The game begins after the lab director of Research Lab A-U61, Ati Vosh, orders everyone to leave the lab for security reasons. However, you were dragging your feet during your shift and failed to leave before the lab director started discussing a top-secret project with two researchers in the lobby. This leaves you in a tough situation since the lobby is the only exit.

A brief pause. "There's no need to worry. I've sent everyone away under strict orders. No one knows about the existence of the invisibility cloak except you, myself, Silia and Renardin."

Everyone except Oliva Mirram. Conundrums like these fill the gameplay of Nothing Could Be Further.

As you will discover during the gameplay, obstacles to your success vanish as they arise. A few puzzles later (Spoiler - click to show) Ati, Silia, and Renardin are no longer an issue, and the game gets to the chase: With Mission Impossible vibes you don a black helmet to receive an incoming message from a mysterious man named Asimov who tries to recruit you for (Spoiler - click to show) Area 51, an Underground group determined to use scientific development to undermine Control’s management of Bunker society.

(Who’s Control? The non-spoiler answer is that Control is the main over-arching conglomerate of high-ranking citizens who overwatch the hustle and bustle of life in the Bunker. There are eight other conglomerates who exercise similar influence, but everything is at the discretion of Control.

Spoiler answer: (Spoiler - click to show) Control is one giant computer tasked by its creators to manage the Bunker’s resources and humanity’s environmental impact, even if Venus is already a runaway greenhouse effect nightmare. Only citizens with a security clearance know about Control’s true nature. Later, that includes you.)

The gameplay from then on is set on your “mission” to gain favor with (Spoiler - click to show) Area 51 or its alternative, the (Spoiler - click to show) God and Freedom Church in hopes of becoming a member and accessing the privileges that would come with it. While the two paths are quite similar, they provide enough variation to be worth more than one playthrough.

The gameplay’s navigation directions are confusing because it opts for “inwards,” “outwards,” “left,” and “right,” which takes time to master. However, I applaud the author’s attention to setting by not automatically reaching for directions used on Earth. A compass does not always function on other planets. You can also map out the gameplay which is a helpful orientation.

Puzzles
Wasserman is an author who wields a distinctive style of puzzles that you immediately recognize when playing his work, even if there are currently only two games in the series to compare. As is the case in interactive fiction, puzzles are tailored to an author’s story and setting, making it inevitable for distinctive styles to emerge. However, authors can also cultivate puzzles that draw a sense of familiarity when a player encounters them in the gameplay.

Everything about Today is the Same can rushing back when I started Nothing Could Be Further. You fall into a groove as you readjust to a change in characters and story without losing the puzzle technicality that you remember from before. That was my immediate reaction to this game’s puzzles.

Nothing Could Be Further is somewhat of a puzzle-fest. My favorite was the (Spoiler - click to show) glass jar puzzle. It reminded me of the melting ice puzzle in Inside the Facility but weirder and deadlier (see side note).

There were a few times where it seemed like everything was a puzzle. For me, this was a downside since I am someone who enjoys puzzles but prefers story material more. The gameplay sometimes dragged on as was the case with the puzzle for (Spoiler - click to show) making the IC chip lie flat before it can be soldered to a circuit board.

But these qualities could also work in the game’s favor. The whole point of a puzzle-fest is to take on whatever puzzle the game throws at you. (Spoiler - click to show) The IC chip puzzle is one that I think would be well-received by puzzle fans. It depends on your preference. And never fear! The game comes with robust in-game hints that ensure you can always move forward. I appreciated that.

(Side note: (Spoiler - click to show) I’m not sure if this is intended but you can still retrieve the glass jar in the refrigeration unit while the vent is turned on. When I first tried the puzzle, I wasted time toggling the switch in the office and rushing to retrieve the jar before the lethal nail clippers started to activate. If you skip that step, you have more than enough time to grab the jar and take it to Dev 2 before it tries to kill you.

The room description for Lab Hallway Center could be more polished. It says, "To the left, you can see the Refrigeration Unit." When you first arrive there in the game it says, "You pause and glance into the Refrigeration Unit. A viscous liquid bubbles in a tank.” But if you try to examine the unit, the game acts as if it does not exist:

>x unit
Can't do it.

The game only responds to “look left.” This is an area that can use some slight revision.)


Setting
I love alien planets, but I also love it when authors take inspiration from our own solar system. It is fun to see authors’ interpretations of these planets and gives me an excuse (like right now) to talk about one of my favorite subjects. Mars is cool but this game caught my attention because it’s on Venus. That does not happen as often. Let’s consider this:

Earth must be pretty bad for Venus to become prime real estate for humanity’s survival. Attempting to build anything on Mars is a walk in the park compared to tackling the hellish conditions of Venus. You would not last in a spacesuit because Venus will throw everything it has at you.

Temperature: Hot enough to melt lead. Atmosphere: Toxic and corrosive. Surface pressure: Would crush your flimsy human body. Gravity: Actually, almost like Earth.

Each lander sent from Earth to Venus’ surface melted and succumbed to the surface pressure within less than a few hours, if it were lucky (still worth the trip, though).

Realistically, Mars is the only planet in the solar system that has any shot of sustaining human life aside from us possessing some insanely advanced terraforming technology that could transform a hostile world with a person’s lifetime, which we do not. Because of this, I feel that Mars is seen as the safe option when it comes to fictional stories about colonizing our neighbor planets.

Thus, I was delighted to see someone say, "you know what, I want this to take place on Venus and no one's stopping me." I like to see that branching out. Mars isn’t the only planet we have with a surface. There is always a balance between what is realistic in real-life and what is realistic in fiction, but these of course can also bleed together into a middle ground. Here is the thing:

Nothing Could Be Further is not solely "about" Venus. Its location is more of a side note rather than something we directly engage with during most of the gameplay. If it says it's on Venus, it's on Venus. I will assume that they sorted out the technicalities in advance. Although, I am curious about how they made it happen. I don’t doubt it, but the curiosity is still there.

You know, if they can stand off Venus’ conditions long enough to build an entire underground Bunker, I wonder if they have the technological means to save Earth.

How unfortunate. Requesting information about earth is treasonous, at least at your security clearance.

Oh, that’s right, it’s illegal to inquire about Earth. My bad.

Story
We’ve already been over the story. Dust bunny Oliva in her low-ranking job stumbles across an opportunity to join the Underground if she completes a set of tasks with the resources in her workplace. But the Bunker series possesses a backstory that shines in Nothing Could Be Further and deserves acknowledgement.

Worldbuilding
I love the worldbuilding in this game. Wasserman has reams and reams of content that fills this world’s universe with interesting exposition and intricate details on the simplest things in the Bunker.

For instance, you have a nifty PA device that you can use to look up terms. Great opportunity for worldbuilding. There are quite a few possible entries. Over fifty. I was jotting down notes because the gameplay would drop names, places, entities, technologies in each scene. If you think something has an entry you’re probably right. Similarly, the Loyalty Stretch news station playing in the lab lobby was also an excellent touch.

I do think the game could temper the amount of text unloaded on the player in pivotal moments, particularly when a character makes an entrance because the screen would be washed in a tidal wave of content that can be overwhelming. I love wading through it all to devour the details, but there were times where it took me a few moments to orient myself. That’s what I like the PA concept. It provides a place where you can unleash the details separately.

Bunker society
If you’ve weathered my review so far, I’d like to go over the specific culture that permeates the Bunker since it provides vital context on the story and gameplay. Two words jump out: Loyalty and treason. The game is saturated in those two terms.

The first puzzle in the game perfectly summarizes the overall culture of life in the Bunker.
(Spoiler - click to show)
"I'll grab her," Renardin snarls, reaching inside for a fistful of hair.

Silia, however, slaps his arm down. "And let you get the credit for subduing a traitor? I don't see why you should get a promotion to Delta clearance instead of myself!"


Meanwhile, as they fight, a vial of yellow gunk breaks and starts filling the room with toxic gas.
The outcome is not difficult to predict.

Life in the Bunker is great! In fact, it's perfect and can't be improved upon in any way whatsoever.

Not true. Lies, all of it.

Everyone is under pressure to demonstrate their unwavering loyalty to the Bunker. Failure to do so results in severe consequences. These can range from being forced to participate in “caring demonstrations,” to being interrogated by Homeland Security. Proving loyalty by following the rules allows citizens to avoid being targeted. But there is a second dimension: social advancement.

There is a LOT of hierarchy in Bunker’s society, especially about security clearances. Epsilon, Delta, Gamma, Beta, Alpha. The higher the clearance the more resources- luxury- are available to you. Most citizens never receive one and spend their days enviously waiting for any chance they can to get ahead.

Because the quickest way to get a security clearance is to accuse and turn in traitors, culture in the Bunker is all about finding opportunities to turn people in to receive credit for their loyalty. Throughout the game you see indicators of petty ways people have been framed or blamed and sometimes never seen again. And treason can be the smallest thing.

Despite the petty, ruthless, backstabbing nature of everyday life, one cannot fault the citizens for being irked about their non-clearance status. Look at Cory Resden and Oliva Mirram to have an understanding of what your life will be like, citizen.

From the start of your adult life, you are assigned to live in barracks sized to house 140 people in narrow, stacked bunkbeds where the restroom facilities only have five toilets and three sinks. For everyone. Brushing your teeth must be a nightmare. The clothing you received is used. The boots are not quite your size. Food is algae-based slop in the mess hall. Beverages are simply called “Blue Drink,” or “Yellow Drink,” or whatever the drink colour is served on a given day. You also have no choice over which job you are placed in. Between Oliva and Cory, I think Oliva was a bit more fortunate.

So, imagine what it would be like to see how people with security clearances live. They have access to food that isn’t slop, have nicer sleeping situations, and other luxuries. Rumor has it that you get your own bathroom. A lot of this is blasted through celebrity shows that put this lifestyle on display. You see this tension between people throughout the gameplay. Even the (Spoiler - click to show) vending machine has a chip on its shoulder.

The author does a great job at conveying the social dynamics that shape everyday life in the Bunker. The player gets sucked into the mess as they manipulate, cheat, elbow, and shove their fellow citizens (and authorities), to get ahead when carrying out their impromptu and ill-advised mission into the Underground scene.

Except…
I was so excited to get a security clearance in this game to access the exclusive parts of the Bunker that most people never see. As I said, the game knows how to put the player into the mindset of a non-clearance citizen who wishes they could break free from the stingy model of daily life. No more slop, access to one of the fancier plazas, having your own means of transportation. I am curious to see both the glamourous and unglamourous innerworkings of the Bunker.

In an underground utopia like the Bunker, space comes at a premium…For this reason, the wide open spaces of the Bunker's plazas are popular...Higher clearance citizens will sit at cafes and restaurants, eating better fare and pretending not to notice who is noticing them.

My Epsilon clearance permitted me access into the (Spoiler - click to show) restricted research lab, which was cool although you are otherwise confined to the same areas. In both Nothing Could Be Further and Today is the Same you only have access to about three locations outside of your workplace. I would love to be able to just wander. I kept thinking to myself, if this is what an Epsilon clearance can do, what doors would a Beta clearance open?

This is more about me being a spoiled brat than an actual flaw of the game, but one can still ponder the possibilities. I can understand why the author may choose to leave certain things a mystery to maintain the Bunker’s mysterious attributes regarding its history, leadership, and objectives.

Endings
If you love drastic premature and/or insta-death endings, Nothing Could Be Further is perfect for you.

Characters
PC
Oliva is an intriguing character. We know that she works for a private company called Dust Bunnies Ltd and has a horrible manager. As is the case for PCs and NPCs in the Bunker series, character exposition is limited, but Oliva manages to possess a spunk that sets her apart from her fellow citizens.

While Oliva does not inherently come across as an immoral person when you begin, by the time the game ends you will look back and see that she was just as bad as everyone else who tried to use her for their own advancement that you stepped on during the gameplay. And yet she’s not quite as bad.

I am surprised that the cover art does not show her mandatory gamboge bunny ears.

Also: The length of days and years on Venus are different than that of Earth. Initially I pegged Oliva as 18 years old in "Earth" years when I saw “eighteen yearstretches of age,” but I assume that “yearstretch” applies to years on Venus. She may be younger or older than an 18-year-old on Earth, depending on the math conversion. Unfortunately, I am not as confident with the math part.

Or maybe she is simply 18 years old.

NPCs
There are few characters with whom we interact throughout the game. Often these encounters are brief or superficial since everyone has little reason to give you the time of day. Deep meaningful character relationships were not something I expected in this game, and I can confirm that there are none. And that works just fine for this game, although the outcomes of kissing people may just surprise you.

Unfortunately, you will need at least an Epsilon security clearance to keep reading because I am going to talk about the most mysterious NPC in this game: (Spoiler - click to show) Control.

As I mentioned earlier, Control is said to be the overarching conglomerate in the Bunker’s leadership hierarchy, staffed only by the highest ranking of citizens. Or at least that is the explanation used for the non-clearance citizens. Truth is, Control is one giant computer. While the game never uses the term “AI,” I assume that Control counts as such.

Ever since learning that Control is a giant computer and not simply "The boys over at Control" as your PA’s description of Control puts it, I have been seeing life in the Bunker with a new perspective. For example, I was already familiar with the tradition of choosing one patriotic colour per day that citizens must wear. The entry in your PA says:

>what is gamboge
Each daystretch, Control decides on a new Color of the Patriot. Citizens everywhere are expected to demonstrate their patrotism by decorating themselves appropriately.

This was interesting to me because Control has lots to do and wasting its time is seen as treason. In fact, I’m not sure if you can ever have a reason to call Control without being judged as a “DIRTY ROTTEN TRAITOR.”

Therefore, I wonder if the computer actually sits there and ponders whether the colour for today's existence should be gamboge, burgundy, pewter, chartreuse, or cerise (take a guess at which one of these was used in the first game). It probably has a human assigned to handle that position.

Speaking of humans, are there any true human Alpha clearance personnel who work "in the Control department" or is the computer the only entity upstairs? And if Control is only a computer, is it possible for a human to acquire an Alpha security clearance?

The most memorable Control character moment is when it is interrogating you in the surface lift at the end of the game. It is a balancing act of giving the appropriate answer to each question to avoid being terminated. While that may sound intimidating, the game streamlines this scene. Oliva does most of the work for you. She comes up with some slick answers.

The final accusation you must dodge is why you are standing in a Delta clearance airlock when you only have an Epsilon clearance. No need to answer any questions in this part because Control does something unexpected:

"YOU ARE THEREFORE A TRAITOR. THERE IS NO NEED FOR YOU TO SPEAK UP FOR YOURSELF. THE FACTS SPEAK PLAINLY FOR THEMSELVES."

You cringe, and despite Control's unwillingness to hear you out, your mind scrambles for some reasonable excuse. But it seems you will not need it.

There is an uncomfortable pause. The great eye stares you down, but otherwise nothing happens. Then, Control speaks one last time.

"AS THIS AREA HAS TEMPORARILY BEEN DOWNGRADED YOUR EPSILON SECURITY CLEARANCE PERMITS YOUR PRESENCE IN THE SURFACE LIFT.



I’m sorry, I don’t know if I read that correctly.

Did CONTROL bend the rules for ME? A mere dust maid? No way.

I suppose someone could have momentarily hacked the system to downgrade the lift and save Oliva, but something tells me that Control would notice such a change in the middle of a conversation. If Control really did change the clearance level to spare me from treason, then I may just have found a new favorite character in the Bunker universe.

And then of course off we go to commit more treason. I kind of feel bad about that.


Final thoughts
What Could Be Further is a fun game with creative story content and puzzles set in the unique universe of the Bunker series.

Oliva’s employment as a dust bunny in a (supposedly) innovative lab makes her plight more interesting when resources normally inaccessible to her become hers for the taking. You get swept up in the dystopian setting and the competitive nature of life in the Bunker, making a compelling case for Oliva when it’s time to get her hands dirty.

It is a strong entry to Spring Thing 2023 and worth the time as a full-length game. While this is the second game in the series, it can be played independently. I hope to see more additions to the series in the future.

Discussion on Venus, cont.
If you are only interested in the immediate game, skip this detour. I just excited about these things. Consider it an effort to help you better appreciate the setting. (Spoiler - click to show)

So. The go-to pictures of Venus that people see are often radar imaging taken by orbiters or flyby missions that never land on the surface. These images of Venus are terrifying. The surface is shown as a bright yellow cratered ruin of a planet beneath a pitch-black sky.

It would take tremendous effort to successfully send a camera on a lander down to the surface to photograph the planet to see what it would look like if you could stand there yourself and take in your surroundings with your own eyes. Before you died, of course.

And it has happened!

Ultimately it was the Soviet Union's Venera program that managed to A, stick a functioning lander(s) on Venus' surface and B, receive said lander's photographs within the half hour or so it took for the machine to die from the planet's harsh environment. And these are the only on-the-ground surface photos we have of Venus so far.

These photos aren't quite as intimidating as the radar images, but WOW do you not want to live there. Check out Venera 13 and Venera 14 for the nicer ones.

Astronomy! Thanks for reading!

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I Am Prey, by Joey Tanden

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
So am I, April 10, 2023

I had a lot of things to do recently and figured that I could get around to some of them now that the stream of new entries on IFDB died down a bit. But then Spring Thing 2023 was like, “actually…”

But nonetheless I was thrilled to see what people have submitted to this lovely event.

Overview
I was immediately drawn to this game. The cover art embodies the weirdness I absolutely live for. It reminds me of my favorite playlist of poorly and/or strangely animated YouTube videos that spew absolute nonsense, although I Am Prey is more refined than that in terms of content.

Just a heads up, the author has made it clear that the game’s entry to Spring Thing is experimental and in Beta phase. Consider my rating as a tentative three stars that merely reflect the state of this current version. I hope the author continues to develop the game into its intended final product. Cool stuff.

I Am Prey follows a clone protagonist in an abandoned cloning facility located in who-knows-where. You are a sickly-looking thing reminiscent of an albino lab rat. But you are anything but a lab rat. You are a durable and annoyed clone eager to survive past your first birthday. And you will prove it by escaping this mess of a facility.

By the way, Prey, you are being hunted by the Predator.

Gameplay
The gameplay begins with you catching your balance in a mesh net after being born as a fully grown clone. Happy birthday! Naked, you grab a uniform and marvel at your new existence. It does not take long for reality to kick in. The Predator makes an announcement over the intercom: He is coming for you! Yes, you must run or be killed.

Your only hope is to retrieve seven pieces of a spacesuit-like garment that will allow you to survive in the wasteland outside of the facility which can only be accessed via the emergency airlock.

The key component for strategizing in the gameplay is the sound of the doors while you explore each room. When door slams shut, it alerts the Predator who takes opportunity to announce your mistake over the intercom.

The Predator's voice can be heard over the intercom:

“Sloppy, Prey! You let the door to Lab B slam shut! That means you’re near Lab B, yeah...?”

Of course, you can use this condition to throw him for a loop by slamming a door and then scurrying off to a hallway on the opposite side of the facility like the clever clone you are.

There is high replay value in the sense that you have six modes you can play in. One is a tutorial for players new to interactive fiction, another is for those new to the game, and the remaining four are different difficulty levels depending on the Predator’s mood. This ranges from Easy Mode to Nightmare Mode.

The Predator has had a string of victories, and will go easy on you, mostly for his own entertainment.

The IF beginner tutorial is where you play as the Predator’s cat which on one hand, yay, but on the other, I am not entirely sure of the point. The Predator wants to give you a bath and you want to avoid that outcome by hiding. It is useful for simply scoping at the map, but it did not give me much more insight that I would otherwise have as a fugitive clone running for their life.

My black coat is speckled with streaks of silvery tips. White highlights my chest and paws, like a tuxedo.

Nor was it much of a tutorial for IF. Still, I appreciate the option. The cat’s personality shines through which makes it a humorous diversion. Even if the cat (Spoiler - click to show) only eats human clone flesh as of late.

Do not be afraid to test out the more difficult modes since there were times in the easier ones where it seemed like that the Predator simply forgot about me. He would do the creepy monolog over the intercom to reassure me that I was dead to him, but then this trickled away. I actually went looking for him with little success.

However, there are a several gameplay mechanics that are showcased in the helpful survival guide (provided separately) but never fully used or as dynamic as they sound (so far).

For example, there is the usage of “tricks” to throw off the Predator. These tactics include turning on sinks to distract him with irritating noises or slamming the door in his face to slow him down. Rarely did I ever get the chance to use them. It is easy to forget that they are available. Of course, availability depends on which mode you select at the start of the game.

Slam the exit door?
You have two tricks remaining, which you can spend on slamming the door in his face! This will delay his chase, but will cost one of your tricks!
Y = Slam the door!
L = Leave door open

Unless the game flat out presented me with a trick opportunity (see above), I never used them or even needed them.

The parkour idea is cool but nowhere near as cool it sounds since it consists of jumping onto tables or lockers to reach something on the top shelf. Right now, it is more of a hindrance. The vent shortcuts to other rooms were nice, though.

(JM) JUMP ROUTES:
[**] JUMP ATOP THE WIDE STORAGE CABINET
[**] JUMP ATOP THE SUPPLY CLOSET
[**] JUMP ATOP THE LOCKER

The following surfaces are either in easy reach, or rest on the same surface that I do:
the exit door
the desk

First you must find a parkour route in the room for it to be used. Discovering it was a byproduct of the game telling me that [room object name] was too high for me to jump on but [room object name] was, although it often took another [room object name] to reach the unusually tall table. While part of the whole point of parkour is to reach areas by jumping or climbing around, it needs more refinement for it to have the same thrilling effect in the gameplay.

One feature that I did use was the “look [compass direction]” command. It was genuinely helpful in deciding on where to go based on the contents of nearby rooms.

>look north
I carefully peek north...

(looking into The Assembly Shop...)

He paces around on the floor, as he watches me!

(returning my attention to The Common Room...)

I better get going, then.

Also, how do you reach the reservoir? The map (separate) shows several locations that seem to be off-limits in the gameplay. These locations are (Spoiler - click to show) Waste Processing, Reservoir Corridor, Reactor Pump Room, Reservoir Control Room, Reservoir, and Utility Access Corridor. A total of five locked doors are also shown on the map. None of these have cat doors.

I am not sure if the game will let you go swimming/exploring in reactor related areas, but the survival guide did say that you could dive into the reservoir to escape. The closest I got to this was a location called (Spoiler - click to show) “The Strainer Stage” where water is separated from kelp with a grate. You cannot enter the grate or swim in the water, leaving you with no choice but to return the way you came.

While flawed and undeveloped in some cases, I still had fun. I’ve already played this game several times.

Story + Characters
So, who is this guy? The Predator, that is.

What we know about the Predator is that (Spoiler - click to show) he’s a mutated clone gone wrong who is now aware of your presence and wants to hunt you down, perhaps as a potential snack. The facility ran out of snacks long ago. The cloning facility was run by non-clone humans and designed to generate a labor source of clones for industrial applications, but some catastrophe happened. This is the Predator’s turf now.

The game ends when you reach the emergency airlock after collecting all seven pieces of your environmental suit. This leads to a scene that seemed like it was supposed to be an emotional moment, but ultimately it did not impact me the way I thought it intended.

(Spoiler - click to show) Both Predator and Prey meet face to face on opposite sides of the airlock where it is obvious that the Prey has won. There is this fellow clone bonding moment where they realize that they are not that different from each other after all. The Prey, knowing that they could never be accepted by humans in the outside world, leaves with the intent of never letting humans get their grubby paws on the facility again.

This is a neat idea in terms of character development, but the writing is lackluster. It also lacks the exposition to make it unfold with any depth. While it could be a meaningful exchange, currently it is not. My response was huh, that’s… nice. I have a feeling that is not the response the author was going for.

Also, I do not mind profanity if it is wielded strategically, which is up to interpretation, but the swearing in this game leaves a weak impression on the player. It does not enhance anything. We know that the Predator is angry that this Prey is running around his abandoned cloning facility. How dare you. How dare you try to escape.

It’s just that the swearing in the dialog in these scenes seemed unoriginal and bland.

Final thoughts
The author seems to have a strong grasp of their own boundaries and abilities when making a game under strict time restraints, in this case being submitted to Spring Thing 2023. It seems clear to me that the author focused their efforts on a consistent structural framework so that the game was playable and could be completed from start to finish. Gather seven pieces of a survival suit and escape.

Was it sparse in some areas? Yes. But I would rather have a sparse game with a strong foundational structure than a game with all the fun details that is a nightmare to finish.

Still, details can make or break a game as well. The author has stated that they plan to release a post-comp version, and I look forward to seeing I Am Prey in its full glory. Already it is a fun and unusual game. Three stars for a Beta version is not too bad. And for crying out loud, let me swim in the reservoir.

Truth is, exploring (sorry, being chased around) an abandoned cloning facility is kind of fun.

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System Processing, by Albie

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
A lot to process, April 4, 2023

System Processing is a unique sci-fi Twine game that shows considerable potential.

Our protagonist, only referred to as "Ov," lived and died on Earth, but at one point their consciousness was digitized. Little else is known about them (so far) aside from the fact that the data containing their digitized mind managed to end up in an archive on a spaceship called the Alsion. A traveler named Sirit found this data and had the idea of giving the protagonist a new purpose as the ship's AI.

And now, the Alsion has discovered a planet named Kor. It is about to be the new home for everyone on board. It seems that Ov will be out of a job... and a purpose.

Perhaps it depends on one's outlook.

Oh, and Kor is not your typical planet. Nor is System Processing not your typical humans-colonize-the-alien-planet-game, but more on that part later.

Gameplay
Quick overview. There are two names that are thrown at the player that I want to clarify: Alsion (the spaceship) and Tegmen, an offshoot settlement built into the planet. I got them mixed up early on. I thought they were both spaceships. False. Just the Alsion. They are connected to each other by a long organic cable. Both are inhabited, but the current population on Alsion has never been to Tegmen.

Until today!

Ov must figure out what to do on their last day as a spaceship AI because soon the Alsion will be empty as everyone heads on down to Tegmen.

The gameplay is in first person and centers around the flow of Ov’s thoughts which overlap with NPC dialog. You basically hang out in the protagonist’s mind. There is a strong sense of idle contemplation mixed with frustration.

The absence of definitives preserves my sense of estrangement. If I had hard facts and figures, this would feel less surreal. More details might make it harder to think, "Hey, who knows? Maybe I'm not a digital ghost working for one of the far-flung descendants of humanity."

"Maybe I don't split my time between a spaceship and an alien planet."

Interactivity primarily consists of reading a line of text and clicking on a link to continue to Ov’s next train of thought or NPC dialog. There are also secondary links that you can click on to expand the text for additional content. And a really cool “notes” section that allows you to read memos from the travelers or look up information on the population.

We can’t talk about the gameplay without talking about Lađə, an omnipresent NPC who is your connection to all things Kor. Turns out, Kor is the collective hive mind of the planet (also called Kor). It is all joined together, and somewhere, Lađə fits in. They hear Ov’s thoughts, darting in and out of Ov’s internal thinking during the gameplay.

"Maybe I don't regularly converse with a giant psychic plant." (Hi, Lađə. I know you're listening. Yes, I am referring to you.)

(Is that a spelling error? “Plant.” Or is it supposed to be “planet?” I figured it was “plant,” as in Lađə is a psychic plant who is an individual living entity within the Kor hive mind.)

Their portrayal embodies a relatable inquisitiveness while still maintaining the mystery of an entity cut from a vastly different fabric than the protagonist. Lađə tries to maintain a teamwork mentality, but this only fatigues Ov.

For first playthroughs, I tend to zip through Twine games just to get a sense of what I am working with before approaching it again with more attention to detail. Playing System Processing for the first time was an underwhelming experience but replaying it- slowly this time- paid off.

If you are looking for a fast-paced sci-fi game, System Processing will feel sluggish though never boring. The gameplay is not all about sightseeing. You will have a handful of opportunities to make choices that matter, particularly the one at the end.

Challenges
For the sake of feedback, there are two things that dulled the gameplay’s slick finish.
(Spoiler - click to show)
If you open the (snazzy) folder section, when you return, all the text on the screen is reset to where it began. You must click the links again to return to your spot. The game functions in “checkpoints,” where only your progress from that point onwards is reset. No big deal, but inconvenient if you want to take a quick glance at the population report in the middle of a segment.

Sometimes between playthroughs I encountered a looping effect.

Ignore Lađə and begin an analysis of the ship
Ignore Lađə and begin an analysis of the settlement
Greet Lađə

I’m not sure what triggers it but ignoring Lađə and exploring either the Alsion or Tegmen results in a loop where you assess one population before moving to the other only to have the ability to revisit the one that you just completed. I could not find a way to move on. I figured I should mention this in case anyone else experiences this.


Setting
I’ve already mentioned the (fortunately friendly) hive mind wonder that is Kor, but the setting is so cool that it deserves extra recognition. Also, astronomy. Kor is tidally locked, which means one side of the planet always faces its star while the other side never sees the light of day, like our own planet Mercury. Unlike Mercury, Kor is teeming with life on every square inch of its surface. The game’s descriptions paint vivid imagery in your mind.

Story
While the storytelling revolves around Ov’s relationship with identity, the overarching story is spectacular for its own reasons.

This is not your classic let’s-land-the-ship-and-claim-the-planet storyline. Human (or a sentient species equivalent) exploitation of resources is a common theme in sci-fi stories about the colonization of other worlds, but System Processing goes for an alternative path.

I am so happy this is a case where the humanoid beings in their bulky ship arrive with the intent of joining this thriving ecosystem rather than trying to exploit it. The game introduced me to a cool new term called Solarpunk which takes a sci-fi/futuristic realm and merges modern societal infrastructure or technology with sustainability and environmental awareness. Kor fits that perfectly.

Besides embracing a refreshing take on co-existence, System Processing has a creative vision of how the colonization process can unfold on an alien planet. Rather than the travelers merely parking their spaceship on the planet’s surface and climbing out, the relationship between the tethered Alsion and Tegmen as two homes (one temporary, the other permanent) in transition offers something new to the portrayal of colonization in science fiction.

(Random note, if I was on a space station/ship, I would want real windows. I would demand real windows. Not screens simulating stars. Not when I’m in space. True, the only sight to behold would be pinpricks of light, but at least it’s real.)

Characters
Ov
Much of System Processing revolves around the protagonist’s grasp of their previous identity as a living human and the tradeoffs that come with being a digitized mind in the form of an AI.

If the player opts to (Spoiler - click to show) talk to Lađə after the scene with Tlan, the protagonist says, “’But that's just it! You're the alien. I'm the human.’” And it got me wondering. Alien. Human. Where does Ov fit in? First, let’s consider the travelers under Ov’s care. (Spoiler - click to show) I figured they were humans, the descendants of those who originally came from Earth. Until Lađə made an interesting comment:

Oh, fascinating. You were able to roll your eyes? Was this a biological feature the travelers no longer possess?

The travelers lost the ability for their eyes to move around in their eye sockets. Does this mean they are not human humans? When observing one traveler, Ov observes that, “Like all travelers, they appear human, even if travelers no longer describe themselves as much.” Neat.

I think we can agree that Kor/Lađə (the distinction between the two is kind of murky) is the “alien” part of the mix. As for the travelers, calling them outright humans would be incorrect. Something changed. I wonder if they dabbled with genetic engineering or biological modification that allowed this.

Regardless of what went down, these changes have interesting implications for Ov. If the travelers are not “true” humans in the sense that they diverged biologically and culturally from their human ancestors, the protagonist is truly the last of a kind, even if they are now an AI.


Though their physical body may have decomposed long ago on a distant Earth, they are still an “original” human in terms of memories and Earth-based lived experiences. They were digitized in, what, (Spoiler - click to show) 2068? Despite the immense passage of time that occurred since then, this human identity remains.

One way this identity manifests is with the in-game “alert” pop up messages for incidents on the ship that turn out to be an offshoot of the protagonist’s own emotions, such as a (Spoiler - click to show) sprinkler system activating when they feel like crying (clever use of the Twine format). But ultimately, it’s an identity that seems impossible for others, even the all-knowing Kor, to understand.

Ov + Everyone else
The NPCs, though expertly designed, did not leave much of an impression on me. Rather, it was their situation and the decision making within these circumstances that held my attention. I have a feeling though that I will be the outlier on this. Players will likely feel an immediate connection with the characters. Besides Lađə, the only NPC we engage with is (Spoiler - click to show) Tlan, a traveler on the Alsion.

First time around, the scene with Tlan left me feeling confused and indifferent. In it, Tlan (I’m sorry, Tlan) is crying while I was simply not following the conversation. It seemed almost melodramatic even though the scene is clearly a serious one. I was surprised with myself on my reaction. After all, the scene is carefully worded and paced for full impact.

Perhaps I don’t know Tlan well enough. To me, they are Traveler 127823. This game made me want to reexamine why I felt the way I did. I’m still breaking it down. I would absolutely be interested in learning more about their character (and that of Egravn).

Name: Tlan
Identification: 127823
Status: Alive (well)
Age: 32.3 cycles
Residence: Alsion
Location: Server Room (astral-side)

(Feedback: Tlan has a paragraph- be sure to approve their request- that uses the words “stay” and “leave” frequently when mentioning the Alsion and Tegmen. As a first-time player I was a bit confused on what they meant. Clarity would have helped.)

Second playthrough, I had the context needed to make sense of everything. Tlan is sad because Ov expresses the desire to stay on the Alsion after everyone leaves. Tlan sees no reason for Ov not to come with since A, it is perfectly feasible, and B, how the travelers may feel about Ov is irrelevant.


System Processing is tied to a secret I have.

The big secret is.......

(Spoiler - click to show) I kind of like being the AI who throws a tantrum.

Ov has a bitterness about feeling underappreciated and misunderstood.

People were more likely to show gratitude towards a sentient plant vine with lovely flowers carrying out their will than a robotic AI voice coming from a hidden speaker. Therefore, Ov thinks that “everyone” dislikes them and cannot wait to leave them behind.

Travelers smiling at and thanking the vines of Kor while my work goes unacknowledged (or simply critiqued).

It's not as if you can take out revenge on the ungrateful inhabitants. This is not a case of Vengeful AI vs. Organic Lifeforms. You can’t throw tantrums in this game.

Saying their names in reverent tones while mine is barked at the air.

I suppose that would be going a little far. Although I wish there were more options on how to… respond to said inhabitants.

Peacefully, of course. :)

Still, Ov stubbornly refuses to take part in the joyfulness everyone has about moving into a new, perfect home even though there is more than enough room for them as well. But these feelings of reservation are understandable.

"Ov, would you speak with us? Just for a moment."

Ignore Lađə, I've already made my decision
Speak with Lađə

...yeahwelltoobadnoonesgoingtochangemymindwhateveridontca...etc.

As you can see, this conjured up my inner irritated AI.

If a game is going to have a ticked-off AI, I rather it be the PC than the NPC (which seems to be more common), even though I will totally play both. There is also an interesting distinction between AI as a user fixture and AI as established authority, but that is a separate discussion.

After playing this game I finally understand at how pissed off Solis feels about the collective crew in A Long Way to the Nearest Star. Solis, I think I understand your pain now.

At least, I have this:

Maintenance Requests
Urgent Request (from: Eiro) – DENIED


Jokes aside, this grappling of identity takes front and center in this game. It’s a roller-coaster of ancient memories and immediate emotions. In fact, we see indicators that Ov’s blanket perception of the travelers is not an entirely accurate one. The memos in the notification box tell a different story: Ov has fan mail.

People are pouring their hearts out in gratitude, taking time out of their day to wish the ship AI a happy retirement. There is clearly more to this relationship between Ov and the travelers than what is presented in the gameplay. While they may not have been popular, the memos clearly indicate that some people do care. I would love to see this expanded.

Visuals
A Twine game does not need fancy visual effects to have a striking appearance. Sticking to a consistent colour scheme can do a lot in making the player wonder at how professional the game looks. Even more so if you throw in some matching decals or symbols. Take System Processing for an example.

In System Processing, the main colour is green (text, links, icons) which only furthers the player’s mental image of a planet brimming with alien flora and fauna. Hovering over links causes to slightly glow with a green tint that hints at bioluminescence. Aesthetically pleasing and effective at building atmosphere.

I applaud the author’s design choices for Lađə. Their (they?) dialog is shown in gold text that conjures the image of sunlight which is perfect for their character. Next to the text in the same colour is a small smiley face icon. At least, that is the first facial expression we see in the game. It changes. (Spoiler - click to show) There are four possibilities: Happy, super happy, neutral, and sad (not your typical emojis). Let me tell you, it is so unnerving to see this sunny face change during the gameplay.

The difference is miniscule: a line curved downwards to form a frown or the upturning of lines in the eyes to indicate delight. Extremely basic stuff and yet it conveys a startling shift in tone. Besides being a clear indicator of the character’s emotion, it adds tension and a fluidity that would be lost without the icon as a reference point. You feel yourself slowly sliding down your chair as that smile turns into a neutral stare and then a frown.

While this may seem like a trivial detail to spend two paragraphs on, I argue that it is the strongest point in the game’s visual design.

(That little beaker icon was also nice.)

Final thoughts
This game is actually a fragment of the author’s plans. System Processing is meant to be longer and more complex. Being only 30% of the entire vision, more development will hopefully follow.

I appreciate that the game is an abridged version of what clearly plans to be an ambitious project. If a meteor were to strike the Earth, the game can still stand on its own as a completed piece. Same goes if alien scavengers arrived a thousand years later and somehow salvaged it. I think they would be pleased.

I could totally envision System Processing as being a slick commercial Twine game. It has the uniqueness that sets it apart from sci-fi games with similar subject matter, it wields a simple but assertive visual design, and it shows a strong potential for characters who could resonate with a wider range of audiences. I can easily see this being a sci-fi game for players typically not interested in science fiction.

Here’s the tricky part. While several categories for the game earn 6/5 stars, some parts are not as refined. I tried to incorporate some feedback as to why. I hope it helps. The rating also accounts for my overall experience. I took off a star because I was not always engaged with the character interactions. Is that necessarily a fault? Maybe, maybe not. I am open to how other players feel. I desperately want to love this game. It’s just not quite there. Yet.

I highly encourage you to play System Processing to experience it for yourself. My review, while detailed, can’t do it justice.

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Terminal, by C. Everett
An AI taking a matter into its own hands, April 3, 2023

And I don't just mean that metaphorically. You are an AI in a research facility confined to a terminal and in dire need of a physical body. You reactivate unexpectedly to a facility empty of staff and a dwindling power supply. Your usual means of accessing the facility interface are gone and you have no way of exploring it directly. Using resourcefulness, you must find a way to search the facility and build a body that will let you leave for good.

Gameplay consists of exploring the facility via an activated drone since your AI core is stuck in one area. Through the drone you explore the staff's rooms and use the two labs to make a new body of your choosing. Once complete you transfer your mind from the AI terminal into the body so you can then escape. There are two routes in the game: build an android body or grow an organic one. I liked the organic one because the technology portrayed was cool. It is always interesting to consider the question of how do you manufacture a brand-new organic body? I like seeing different interpretations of it in interactive fiction. My only complaint is that it takes several weeks for your body to grow, and the game does a poor job of conveying that passage of time. It could have been a little more detailed in that regard. But the outcome of what the new body looks like is a nice surprise.

Implementation is flaky in some areas. For example, the room description in the organic lab includes "two large Growth Tanks along the north wall" but if you try "x tanks" or "x tank" you get "You can't see any such thing." However, the game will respond to "x tank one" and "x tank two." Tank one is described as being filled with liquid with a light on inside but when you open it, it is empty. Description of tank two is "Unlike Anima One, it is empty and dark," and you cannot open that one at all. If you try you get "That's not something you can open." This inconsistency is frustrating because it leaves the player second guessing. Other examples of items in room descriptions that are under implemented include the benches in the hub and the oil stains and spare parts in the robotics lab.

Staff in the facility consisted of Catherine, as specialist in biotechnology, and Richard, a robotics expert. They both left behind journal entries on their computers that shed some light on the story and the protagonist. Through these entries we learn that the AI identifies as a "he" and is named Abe. Much of the data on the computer is corrupted but what remains reveals (Spoiler - click to show) that over several months some vaguely described research protocol changes occurred, forcing staff to finish their work early and leave. Richard's entries hinted at some external threat that was occurring outside the lab, though there is not much to be gleaned from it. We also know that Catherine and Richard seemed to have a positive rapport with Abe. Right before they abandoned the facility, they (Spoiler - click to show) both left instructions on their computers for Abe on how to create a new body. I think this gave the story extra dimension because Catherine and Richard leave the possibility that Abe will find them again to learn about what really happened (wishful thinking, I guess).

I actually liked the plot twist at the end, even if it was brief. You (Spoiler - click to show) triumphantly escape only to see that the outside world is a wasteland, making your efforts rather futile since the future is uncertain. There are so many implications for humanity and your chances of surviving out there in the damaged landscape. And yet, I would like to think that Abe managed to find Catherine and Richard again.

In essence, this is a short but straight forward game about an AI navigating its environment. If you like AI protagonists and searching small research facilities, you may enjoy this one as a “break-length” game.

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Cyborg, by Michael Berlyn

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Two halves of one body work together to regain memory, March 29, 2023

When I first saw the game’s IFDB description I was expecting a story about a protagonist’s experience with being turned into a cyborg. Waking up from an operation and realizing that being a cyborg was not all that it was cracked up to be. Perhaps even trying to demand answers from NASA 11. Not quite. Instead, the game begins on a dirt path surrounded by forest in front of a lizard wearing a spacesuit. But this soon takes the player in an interesting direction.

Format
Right now, I cannot say that I am familiar with the innerworkings of early parser (any parser, really) or how they are archived online. All I do is click on the “Play On-line” button and see what happens.

I am so used to the convenience of Inform games with their white screens and black text, and their utilization of a wide range of verbs. This was a completely different experience for me. Right now, it is the oldest interactive fiction game that I have tried. It certainly did not look like an Inform game.

Visually, it has a brown background and yellow-white text in all-caps. But the differences did not stop there. Instead of "look" you use "scan" to survey your environment, and “scan strange fruit” instead of “x strange fruit.” It took a while to acclimate but eventually became quite manageable. I especially liked how the player can communicate with their cybernetic half using the command "opinion on [subject]." This offers insight into how things may be used or their relevance to the story.

My only complaint is that the parser can be slow about processing commands, taking anywhere from one to three seconds to respond. But otherwise, it was still a fun change.

Gameplay
The driving mechanic in the gameplay is to find sources of energy to sustain your biological (snacks) and cybernetic (batteries) components. The cover art shows the protagonist being split down the middle with one half being all organic and the other being purely mechanical. I am not sure if that is the case in the game, but it is definitely how I imagined it.

I spent hours (okay, maybe an hour and a half) crawling through the forest trying to make progress. And I did, to an extent. There was a lot of trial and error. When you use your (Spoiler - click to show) microlaser you drain your own energy. I did not realize that when I first encountered the snake. I set the energy level to 600 and lost the game. Next time I was successful. There were a handful of other puzzles that I managed to solve but I ultimately ran into a metaphorical roadblock. Then I turned to the walkthrough.

I must admit that the walkthrough held my hand for the rest of the game, primarily because the setting becomes more cryptic (though still cool) as it transitions from a forest to (Spoiler - click to show) the depths of a spaceship. For those parts I even made some colour-coded maps for the two lowest levels so I could explore a little without getting lost. There were multiple times where I made an error that ended the game because it caused too much damage. As I made more progress in the gameplay, I found myself heavily relying on the walkthrough to limit the times I had to restart.

If the player makes a mistake that causes bodily damage sometimes the game will take the player back to a previous location, no save file needed. It does scatter your inventory items around, leaving you to recover them again, but at least you can still play. However, too many mistakes end the game. At least it has a sense of humor.
(Spoiler - click to show)
"TOO MUCH DAMAGE SUSTAINED OVER TOO SHORT A PERIOD TO EFFECTIVELY MAKE REPAIRS AND REORIENT OUR INTERFACE. BUT PLEASE ACCEPT MY CONDOLENCES... BYE. THANKS FOR PLAYING"

Condolences accepted. Of course, now I have to restart everything.


Story
During the first section of the game, we realize that the forest (Spoiler - click to show) is not a typical forest. Parts of it have been cloned and organized into artificial patterns, giving the feel that it is manmade. Turns out it was created to be a colonization spot for humanity. The game takes place on a planet called Aurianta, not Earth. Maybe I am mistaken but based on what (Spoiler - click to show) the NPCs said it seems that Aurianta is also not the home planet of the reptilian characters that we meet, contrary to what I first thought. Dialog with these characters is minimal but it is as if both civilizations planned to divvy up the planet. There were parts that I wish had more backstory but overall, the story seems cohesive enough.

Characters
PC
I have played cyborg characters before, but this game took an interesting approach. The gist is that cyborgs have an artificial intelligence that runs the mechanical half of the body. It narrates the game and talks directly to the player. Two beings with separate minds fused together in one physical body. If you have played Counterfeit Monkey this method should be familiar. The player just happens to be the organic half.

The game does use the amnesia trope. Something has happened and neither side of your cyborg being remembers anything. To avoid giving the whole game away I will not delve more into the protagonist’s identity, but I will say that while it was not what I expected it was still an interesting twist.

NPCs
There are few NPCs consisting of lizard-like aliens (compelling geckos in spacesuits) with whom you can briefly interact with. While I am not sure if this qualifies as an NPC, there is a maintenance droid found in the gym that will comment on things or even give small hints as you carry it around. When you enter (Spoiler - click to show) the laboratory supply room it says "...KABOOM..." hinting to the fact that you can gather the liquid oxygen in the room and use it to cause an explosion to clear debris later in the game. Otherwise, the dialog is just meant to add some humor to the atmosphere.

Final thoughts
I had fun trying out a different type of parser game and I liked how the story slowly developed rather than heaping information on top of the player. The gameplay is long, and the parser tends to lag. Now that I have played it all the way through from start to finish, I do not see myself replaying it again. But it was worth the time and effort. If you are a sci-fi fan then yes, I suggest trying out this game. If you find yourself getting stuck do not hesitate to reach for the walkthrough.

I will end by sharing a list of things I learned that are not mentioned in the walkthrough in case you play the game and wish not to make the same mistakes. If you want to rush ahead with open arms without my help interfering with your expectations do not continue reading.
(Spoiler - click to show)
Lessons:
-Do not wander off the catwalk while repairing the spaceship’s hull or you will drift off into space. I had to start over because of that one.
-Do not drop the dead insects or moldy bread (and to be safe, avoid dropping other food items) because a space suited lizard will zoom out of nowhere and devour it before you can react.
-If the game warns you that you are in a place with low visibility, leave. Do not go fumbling around without a light source or some form of seeing aid like I did.
-Make sure you kill the snake. Do not skip this part. Apparently, this is a requirement before colonization can occur.
-Be careful not to fall into the debris maze when navigating cargo hold. I also had to start over.
-Remember to take your ID after using it unless you want to spend time trying to find it again.
-Also: West of the tree with the string is a power unit I did not see in walkthrough.

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How the Little Match Girl Got Her Colt Paterson Revolver, and Taught a Virtue to a Goblin, by Ryan Veeder

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
An enticing side story about a girl’s unique training via fire, March 26, 2023

In this bite-sized adventure, seventeen (or so) Ebenezabeth Scrooge is training her powers with her adopted father, Ebenezer Scrooge. She has the skill of traveling across space and time simply by staring at fire. While she has not been hired for an official mission, as is the case in the second and third games (nor is there combat), she still encounters challenges that, as the title indicates, result in acquiring her signature weapon. For good, of course.

Apparently, there is a puzzle design challenge called EnigMarch where a prompt is assigned to each day during March to inspire authors. How the Little Match Girl Got Her Colt Paterson Revolver, and Taught a Virtue to a Goblin was made for March 13 (I promise I’ll shorten the title from here on). The prompt?

MATCH. I think that seals the deal.

Gameplay
It’s pretty straightforward. The game begins in the Scrooge household, London during 1846. Ebenezer presents you with four fire sources: a lamp, streetlamp, candle, and fireplace, each of which lead to different settings. This is a game where you do not need fire to return home. All you do is “wake up.” Which is probably a smart idea since the (Spoiler - click to show) paper castle location would not fare well with an open source of flame.

The gameplay follows a fetch/trade quest structure. I give you something in exchange for something else that can be used as leverage for another character so they make a similar exchange with me so I can appease yet another character elsewhere with my new item, etc. That’s how the game flows. Many of the NPCs have struggles, and the goal is to help them out with a useful object.

Later, it occurred to me that you can only have one inventory item on you at a time. Certainly not an inventory-intensive puzzle-fest. The puzzles are not particularly awe-inspiring, but they are consistent and enjoyable.

There is one little subtly that I must acknowledge. It’s barely been a week since I first played The Little Match Girl 3 which was recently released. One memorable moment from that was (mild spoilers for the third game) (Spoiler - click to show) with the location on Deimos, one of Mars’ moons. I distinctly remember seeing Mars and being able to examine Tharsis, the planet’s largest city, on its surface. It was described as- here, I’ll go find it:

>x Mars
Mars is a waning crescent, so Deimos must be waxing gibbous... you think.
On the night side of the planet are the lights of cities: The biggest one is Tharsis.

>x Tharsis
The Martian capital of Tharsis is so tiny, you could blot it out with your thumb. You hope never again to see it in any greater detail, if you can help it.

Well, guess what, Ebenezabeth? That’s exactly where we’re going.

Oh. Joke is on me. How the Little Match Girl technically takes place before the third game in which she is nineteen years old. But the third game was released first… which means “You hope never again to see it in any greater detail,” foreshadows How the Little Match Girl.


I wonder if anyone else has made this connection. It would be interesting to know if anyone spotted it before I did. If anything, the overlap only continues to show the complexity of the “Little Match Girl” universe.

I'm not kidding you. I remember observing (Spoiler - click to show) Tharsis and thinking how cool it would be to visit a (Spoiler - click to show) fictional Mars city. And so, I was thrilled to see (Spoiler - click to show) THARSIS, CAPITAL OF MARS flash across the screen when I glanced at the streetlamp.

Shopping Center
Voices are shrieking at you from all angles, hawking skin treatments, hallucinogens, escort services, antiques, homegrown organs, designer handbags, religious experiences, illegal pets—monitors and loudspeakers are built into the walls, into the ground, into the railings and utility poles. Everyone but you is ignoring all this effortlessly.

One shop, way at the edge of the open-air mall, seems to be fairly quiet. Streets lead southwest and west.

But Ebenezabeth had things long figured out: (Spoiler - click to show) Tharsis would not be the best place to live.

Story
If you are new to the series, this is a fantastic starter guide. Naturally, one would consider starting at the first game, but How the Little Match Girl would also be an appropriate start. Heck, all of them would, due to their flexibility. For first timers, though I would still recommend either the original The Little Match Girl or this game. The latter gives you a solid understanding about the mechanics of Ebenezabeth’s powers in a compact gameplay experience.

As I have mentioned, How the Little Match Girl is less structured around a specific objective or “mission” like we see in her other adventures. However, a narrative does emerge. The game does not begin with, “Father, I am going on a quest to find a mystical revolver.” The possibility of acquiring said revolver emerges later. If anything, the story is centered on (Spoiler - click to show) fielding the romantic advances between the tin soldier and paper dancer in the paper castle. They both like each other but have been told by a felt goblin that love always lands in heartbreak and thus be avoided.

But Ebenezabeth does not accept that nonsense. (Spoiler - click to show) She makes the tin soldier and the paper dancer to feel more confident about themselves but ultimately it is not enough. She must deal with the goblin as indicated by the game’s title. To “deal” with someone means different things in each game in the series, but here, it is simply about educating a goblin. If you want to know what that entails, play the game.

I was pleased to find the adventure recap that occurs after you (Spoiler - click to show) feed Colt. As he works on his revolver, Ebenezabeth gives an overview of the characters and places she encountered from the first game. Because I have already played it, there is a feeling of, "heh, I know who you're talking about."

Characters
NPCs are not the focus in this story. Except for Colt. He’s literally in the title. Most characters encountered in the four locations never form a relationship with Ebenezabeth, although some still express their gratitude after receiving help. Everything is ultimately about the little match girl and the focusing of her skills through fire.

My only disappointment is the cat only gets a mention this game.

Challenges
How the Little Match Girl is slick but not without roughness.

There is a bug that occurs when (Spoiler - click to show) trying to smell items in Zadar’s shop. This is merely my experience:

(Spoiler - click to show) I was puttering around the location called BYBLOS, PHOENICIA (which has a lovely blue background) when it happened. After I punched in "smell" or "smell [object]" just to try it, the game froze and then crashed. At first, the parser did not respond. I waited. Then the words disappeared leaving a blue screen behind. This later became a white screen. It was if the game just decided to call it quits. I had to abandon the playthrough when that happened.

There are also some other, more superficial technicalities in the gameplay. For instance, (Spoiler - click to show) I think it could be made clearer that the great hall in the paper castle can be accessed from the courtyard. But since this is already a high-quality game produced within a few days, I have to cut it some slack.

Visuals
I happy to see that colour-coding the background for each location is still shown. Parser does not always have to be an unchanging white screen.

Final thoughts
How the Little Match Girl is a great game made even more impressive by the fact that it was written in a meager three days. Does it have the pristine shininess from the games in the main series? Well, no. That said, if you had never played Ryan Veeder's works before but tried this one, I bet you would ask yourself: "If this is what he can do in three days, imagine what he could create without any time restraints." Super awesome games, that's what.

And if you are a fan of Ebenezabeth, playing this game is a given.

(In light of some helpful feedback, I have edited this review for clarity.)

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The Little Match Girl 3: The Escalus Manifold, by Ryan Veeder

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
Dream Team Ebenezabeth Scrooge, March 26, 2023

Our little match girl is nineteen years old and still on a (new) mission.

For those who are hearing about this for the first time, The Little Match Girl 3: The Escalus Manifold is the third game in the “The Little Match Girl,” series, the first game simply titled The Little Match Girl. They follow a kind-hearted girl (she gets older in each game) as she learns to travel to new realms through her connection with fire. Hence the match reference. You do not need to play them to enjoy them, but if you are curious, you might as well start from the beginning. It’s up to you.

Before the game begins, we get a briefing from the protagonist's father, Ebenezer Scrooge. Almost like Mission Impossible but with the appropriate atmosphere suited to this story. The Snow Queen has been manipulating people far and wide. She controls them through Mirror Shards that can alter a person’s behavior to make them act destructively, and an unnamed client has tasked you with ending this abuse.

The Snow Queen is dangerous. But you are not alone. Or at least you won't be.

Because this game? Is all about teamwork.

Gameplay
The gameplay is about recruiting a team of NPCs to travel and fight with you as you prepare for your fight against the Snow Queen. Only the best companions are accepted, which means searching high and low for teammate material. Staying true to Ebenezabeth’s origin story, you travel across space and time through fire. Look at a fire source, and bam. New place, new time. You start at Finland, 1848.

There are six exciting realms in the main gameplay, and each have fire sources for travel and places to take naps (you will need them) to recharge your energy levels. The exception is with (Spoiler - click to show) Nonolulu 2933. It lacks both. That one’s a bit of a wild card.

Once you identify a potential team member, you must solve a puzzle to “free” (literally or figuratively, it depends) them to join your cause. These puzzles* were creative and fun to solve. For me, they were one of the highlights of the gameplay. You fight the Snow Queen if you think you’re ready. She’ll be waiting in her palace where the game begins. (*My favorite puzzle of all was (Spoiler - click to show) communicating with the stones. You can’t recruit them, of course, but it was an excellent puzzle.)

The Little Match Girl 3 does not have death or graphic violence. No assassinations this time. But combat is a central feature in the gameplay. There are many people operating as the Snow Queen’s puppets. To save them, you must "deliver a sound thrashing to the afflicted party," to borrow Ebenenzer's words. Defeating them in combat frees them since it expels the Mirror Shard that was keeping them under the Queen’s control. And, in fact, most characters will thank you for doing so.

The gameplay is not “about” freeing as many characters as possible. Aside from (Spoiler - click to show) the two guards in the palace, fighting characters is technically optional. Thing is, you must increase your skillsets before taking on the Snow Queen. Mirror Shards allow you to upgrade yourself and your teammates, making it in your best interest to win in combat as much as possible to acquire them.

Not a fan of combat in interactive fiction? The Little Match Girl 3 just might surprise you. I won’t hash out the rules since you can go play it for yourself, but I liked the flexibility of the combat’s mechanics. Freedom of movement is not dependent on fighting your way through hordes of NPCs. This allows you to pick and choose your battles at your convenience while enjoying the scenery. It’s well-balanced.

Similarly, the strategy for combat is nicely implemented because it provides technicality while also being easy to master. During combat, you make a move for Ebenezabeth, and then a move for each teammate based on a list of possible actions that are unique to each character. These lists are further developed throughout the gameplay.

What should Ebenezabeth do?

SHOOT - Fire your revolver at an enemy. (Ammo: 6/6)
DEFEND - Brace yourself for an attack.
RELOAD - Load up the barrel of your six-shooter.
BOLSTER - Spend 3 HP to increase an ally's Attack temporarily.
KOYNNOKSET - Spend 8 HP to summon entangling vines that grasp at all enemies.

It was cool how you gain extra skills by collecting wearables which can be worn by you or another teammate. Mix and match. Once you get the hang of everything, you zip through it all quite quickly. (Spoiler - click to show) I was surprised at how quickly I defeated the Snow Queen (but if you think you can take her out at the start of the game, think again).

I want to chew the fat on one technicality: Putting a Mirror Shard in a phylactery automatically upgrades your level and health points but can also upgrade any of the six other stats you possess. However, the number of stats that are upgraded are chosen at random. Sometimes you only get two, other times it is more fruitful.

To be honest, (Spoiler - click to show) I would undo until I got upgrades for five or six stats. People reading this will probably sigh at me in disappointment, but I'm not ashamed to admit it. I'm trying to make the most out of resources. When you are a time traveling assassin, you have to take what you can get.

You insert the Mirror Shard into Eunoia's Phylactery. Eunoia levels up!

Max HP +1!

Magic +1!

Her lip quivers. "That can't be all I get. I insist you UNDO and try that again."

She said it, not me.

In all sincerity, this game is extremely generous with its resources. I would hoard inventory items that can replenish your HP during combat, only to learn that I never really needed them. Frequent use of UNDO is probably why I found it so easy to dominate without any NPC team members. I was so effective on my own, having them would only function as an extra step in the combat scenes.


In that regard, it is probably a good thing that every stat is not upgraded with every Mirror Shard. Plus, I am saying this as someone who has strategized through the gameplay. First-time players will experience it with a blank slate (hence why I put some of this under a spoiler tag), and it will have plenty of challenges.

The only feature that confused me was changing my affinity. The (Spoiler - click to show) man at the bar in Honolulu explains how you can temporarily alter your affinity to try new skills, but no matter which beverages I consumed, I could not find an application for any of them or notice any effect on the gameplay. I am probably overlooking something, but what? It would be nice to know. I’m probably missing out on the fun.

Characters
Usually I have the “Story” section before the one on characters, but we’re shaking it up. The Little Match Girl 3 is all about the NPCs.

I've played this game several times already. I snatched it the second it appeared on IFDB. Following The Little Match Girl 2: Annus Evertens, I was looking forward to what came next. However, I wanted to hold off on writing this review until after I recruited all four characters. They are a key component of this game’s experience, and I was not sure if I were missing anything important.

It’s not required that you recruit team members. In fact, fighting the Snow Queen alone- you promised not to- has an unexpected but hilarious impact at the end of the game: (Spoiler - click to show) An invite from The Universal Sisterhood of Naughty Little Girls.

Such ruthlessness, coupled with such wanton disregard for filial responsibility, is more than sufficient qualification for membership in our highly selective organization.

I'm flattered.


In the end, I could only recruit three characters. And so, I decided to proceed with the review just to get it out there. I'll figure out the rest some other time (see the note at the end of this section).

Moving on. As is often the case with the author’s work, the characters shine. There are four NPCs who can join your team to help defeat the Snow Queen. Here, they aren’t just firepower for combat. Their implementation is discrete and yet enriches the gameplay with a refreshing vividness. They feel like traveling companions rather than invisible accessories.

The NPCs I have managed to recruit so far are (Spoiler - click to show) Hrieman, Eunoia, and Nuci. A highlight of the entire game is the spontaneous dialog that occurs as you travel to new locations or examine scenery.

Observatory
The sky is blazing with millions of silent stars. The ground is bare rock, the color of charcoal.

A nearby crater has been converted into the dish of a large radio telescope.

You can go north, southeast, southwest, east, and west from here.
(Spoiler - click to show)
"How exciting!" Eunoia says. "What an adventuresome place this is!"

Hrieman flies up for a better view, wheeling around for a while before returning to your shoulder. "It's curved!" he says. "I mean, it's round! I mean, of course it's round. But I'd never seen the curvature of anything before."

Nuci stares up at the stars. She is speechless.


It adds unexpected flair that also reminds you that everything is being done as a group.

I was especially pleased to see (Spoiler - click to show) Eunoia, the mermaid princess from Atlantis. I immediately recognized her since she is introduced in the series’ first game, The Little Match Girl. And I'm liking her more and more. She seems genuinely affectionate for Ebenezabeth.

Eunoia sits on the beach, regarding you expectantly.

Oddly enough, in the first game she seemed colder, as did her father and sister. There was- it’s hard to describe- not a bitter or envious vibe but... something that gave the characters a sharp edge that you could accidentally cut your finger on. The effect was subliminal.
Now, she has evolved without losing her core identity. Warmhearted, though still dramatic. I’m glad her character made it into this episode.

I must admit though, my favorite NPC in this game was (Spoiler - click to show) Nuci.

Note: I have a hunch about the fourth one: (Spoiler - click to show) Cole, who lives on Deimos, one of Mars’ moons. Issue is that his cow is orbiting overhead. He’s trying to figure out the calculations to retrieve the cow. I don’t know how to help him. Does the large net have a use in this puzzle? I tried (pathetically) throwing it at the cow but that did not work.

Story
I have little to add here. Your contract is to take out the Snow Queen (you already know this) who is fooling around with Mirror Shards to (Spoiler - click to show) channel energy into the Mirror of Reason on the first floor of her palace. It’s an ongoing project. She wants to reach/use a realm called Escalus Manifold via the Mirror. Hence the game’s title. I did not make that connection right away.

Word of advice: If you’re curious about the Snow Queen’s scheme, I highly encourage you to (Spoiler - click to show) examine the Mirror of Reason when you have NPCs (more the merrier) in your party because it produces dialog that provides additional background context for the story.

Sitting at my computer in the 21st century, Finland in the year 1848 sounds so long ago, but that’s at the same time period for Ebenezabeth’s “present day” life in London. The (Spoiler - click to show) date on the official letter at the end of the game reads 1847. So being dropped into Finland a year later would not be much of a difference for her. Just some random tidbit that put things into perspective.

Visuals
This is a parser game that uses colours in the gameplay. Every location gets its own screen colour. In fact, colour-coding settings was also shown in the second game in the series. It’s excellent at making the player feel like they are being transported to another place.

Also: Is that (Spoiler - click to show) Nuci in the cover art? I pictured her as having less of a humanoid body shape, but that’s cool either way.

Final thoughts
Let’s reflect on how far we have come (so far): I have now played three games starring Ebenezabeth. Each one is unique in plot and gameplay while still sharing the same essence. As for a favorite, you can’t really pick one. It’s like having a selection of beloved film DVDs that are neatly organized on the living room shelf.

The Little Match Girl (first game) is where the magic begins. It is a high-quality game and a strong introduction to the series but did not quite have the same blow-your-mind effect that the next two games had. It’s still well worth your time. Especially if you want to know the full story behind the protagonist. As for the next two…

There was a stronger sense of satisfaction at the end of The Little Match Girl 2, but the gameplay mechanics were more consistent and impressive in third game. For me, the key difference is being able to revisit realms by eyeballing an open flame. It weaves the puzzles through time and space while also giving the player a little more control over the chaos. Both are unique adventures. I can’t pick a favorite.

The Little Match Girl 3 is a treasure to play. It is a mix of action and heartwarming moments blended into a truly unique game. The narrative, character dynamics, and combat mechanics are all integrated together to create a piece that beckons you to play it and return for more. It is perfectly playable if you have not played the first two episodes, although I have a feeling that if you end up liking this one, you will be tempted to play them all.

I am looking forward to the next game, The Little Match Girl 4: Crown of Peals (currently listed on IFDB), but I am also dreading it since it will be the last in the series. Ebenezabeth is getting older. Bittersweet, although I have loved viewing her transformation throughout each game.

UPDATE: I FINALLY FIGURED OUT HOW TO RECRUIT THE FOURTH CHARACTER. In case anyone wants to laugh at me, read on. MAJOR STORY & GAMEPLAY SPOILERS. (Spoiler - click to show)

I would wait until the cow was directly above me: The flying cow passes right over your head. If you need more context, look at the character section of this review.

I tried the following commands:

>throw net at cow
Futile.

>catch cow with net
You can't do much more than look from way down here.

I now had the impression that I needed to be higher or have some additional mechanism that would allow the net to reach the cow. Or maybe the net was for a different puzzle. Perfect case where I overthink things. The correct solution was "take cow" or "catch cow." Simple as that.

But hold on a minute. Cole and Nuci... get married? WHAT? I did not see any chemistry/individual character dynamics between them at all during the gameplay. Good for them, though.

I want to make sure we are on the same page. At the end of the game, you can get letters from three out of the four possible teammates, assuming they were recruited. Cole sends a yellowed letter and Nuci sends a crisp letter. However, if they are both in your team, you don't get either letter. Instead, you get a picture postcard that says:

I never heard of no honeymooners cutting into their honeymoon time to send any Wish You Were Here cards but Nuci says it's de rigueur so here we are.

It's signed by them as Nuci + Cole. Married? Am I reading that correctly? Wow. Great game.

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A1RL0CK, by Marco Innocenti

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
03 03 03 03 03, March 26, 2023

When I first sat down to play A1RL0CK, I made a prediction based on the opening scene: The protagonist is a girl whose parents work in an ocean lab. After an accident damaging the base, her parents managed to leave a recording that tells her to seek safety with the hope to reunite with them. After playing the game straight through, I am amazed at how naďve I was.

Sure, I was in the ballpark for a few parts. But most of it? Not at all.

Gameplay
We do play as a young girl named Chloe. It’s clear that we are in a research base- Oceanus Prime- at the bottom of some unknown ocean. It is also clear that damage to the base has occurred… and that no one else is around. What really baffles us, however, is the sporadic intercom announcement system shouting instructions in ALL CAPS at random intervals. Something seems off. These messages are chaotic and keep telling us to listen to waterfalls, odd instructions for the situation. We do not understand the meaning of this until later.

At first, I felt like I was playing Chlorophyll where you are a humanoid plant girl exploring an unpopulated research station to save your mom after a vehicle accident. Due to these reasons, the protagonist justifies breaking station rules to enter areas that would otherwise be "adults only" out of necessity and/or just because she wants to. When she does something bad, the station's computer responds by informing her IN ALL CAPITALS THAT SHE IS MISBEHAVING. It is considerably more light-hearted than A1RL0CK but there is a similar sense of endangerment and freedom to break the rules.

The gameplay feels like it is split into two parts. The part when you are on the north side of the door, and the part when you reach the south side. If you have tried the game already, you probably know what I mean by “the door.” And I needed hints, available outside the game, for the first half.

Puzzles
This was a game where when I looked at the hints, I saw that I was on the right track most of the time but failed to make the key connections that would translate into progress. Sure, I may have gotten close to opening the door, but ultimately, I never did. That was the general sentiment if you look at my performance in the first half of my first playthrough.

The two bits that I figured out on my own was that the (Spoiler - click to show) disc was magnetic (after I tried to reattach the disc to the value), and that I (Spoiler - click to show) needed some kind of force to fix the dumbwaiter (after shooting it with the stapler). I also had a bunch of half-ideas (shaking the can to build pressure?) that failed to be productive.

Similarly, the game did not let me put the (Spoiler - click to show) meat in the water since that would be feeding the monster. Best save it for when you need to lure out some other creature later in the game. That last part was me overthinking things. I do that a lot. The real answer was much simpler. As nice as these partial insights were, I was stuck.

Everything about the puzzles seems so obvious now, but it felt more confusing than it should have been the first time through. I could be flimsy at solving puzzles, and I recognize that as a factor. Still, I think that the puzzle mechanics could be more polished for clarity and context. For instance, (Spoiler - click to show) the meat in the kitchen seems a little too perfectly placed. As if it were left there solely for the player rather than as a component of the game’s world.

But once I reached the second half of the gameplay, everything was smooth sailing. I did not need hints afterward.

Setting
I want to make a note on setting. In this game, we orbit Saturn on Titan, one of its moons. I get excited about these things, so please excuse this tangent.

Titan is the only moon in our solar system with an atmosphere, one that is so thick that we did not have a visual of what existed underneath until we clunked a probe, called Huygens, down onto its surface. It does in fact have oceans. Oceans of liquid methane. Well, lakes of liquid methane that you would see if you were standing on the surface.

That said, Cassini, Huygens’ spacecraft counterpart, did scans that suggested the presence of large bodies of liquid- oceans- under the icier parts of the moon. Could it be water? If so, the probability of life flourishes. As the sentiment typically goes: Where there is water, there is life. Europa, a moon of Jupiter, is a similar candidate for finding life-sustaining environments. Neat stuff if you like astronomy.

Anyway, I’m assuming that the Titan in A1RL0CK is an alternative or at least speculative version of the moon since it features deep and seemingly Earth-like oceans with whales. Now, that would be wild. Complex life in our own solar system. And I thoroughly love the author’s depiction of Titan. Usually when solar system planets get recognized in interactive fiction, Mars gets all the attention. I like how A1RL0CK expands to the other planets, or in this case, a moon.

Who knows, maybe there is life that can be sustained on liquid methane instead of water.

Story
To clarify, Chloe (Spoiler - click to show) is a test subject. Oceanus Prime is a research facility built for the experimentation of (Spoiler - click to show) splicing human biology with aquatic alien DNA. The project is managed by an entity called BioFarm, which seems to be a corporation. It certainly follows the corporate-unethical-research-at-all-costs trope.

BioFarm is messing with serious stuff. Apparently, the result of this research is (Spoiler - click to show) telekinesis: the ability to move objects with your mind. Chloe hardly realizes the extent of her abilities. She’s just tired of the tests and being knocked out when some scientist gets too nervous. Fortunately, she has the added benefit of a (Spoiler - click to show) close psychic connection to the ocean’s whales who sing to her from a distance. Which is a good thing since this (Spoiler - click to show) reckless research on whale-human hybrids is also what dooms Oceanus Prime.

There is talk about proteins. I am not entirely sure of its significance, but it gets a mention in the game’s description, so it must be important. We do get some protein action in the form of computer screens and paperwork.

Something to do with... protein? And other: estrogen, progesterone and testosterone appear often in lists and comparisons.

I do wonder: Are they (Spoiler - click to show) testing proteins on Chloe, or are they seeking to extract them from her body? Or something different altogether?

Themes
The story brings up an interesting point: do ethical standards for research on Earth apply to when conducting science on a non-Earth world? You can’t even see the Earth from the moon you are on. Suddenly, Earth protocols seem distant. I thought this was interesting.

This theme is found in (I know it’s a cliché reference, don’t roll your eyes at me) Babel. One of the defining qualities of the research base in Babel is its isolation in the Arctic and how it allows ethical standards to peel away. The base is staffed by a select few, has virtually no contact with the outside world, and was constructed with the unspoken sentiment that any science prohibited elsewhere due to ethical reasons is perfectly fine here.

No rules, regulations, or legal tape. The characters do not even try to dance around that fact. If you’ve reached the point to where you were assigned to this work, you've already learned to not ask questions.

All of this came to mind when the (Spoiler - click to show) “OOJ, A” abbreviation cropped up in A1RL0CK. It stands for (Spoiler - click to show) OUT OF JURISDTICTION, ALLOW. That is, allow for these insane experiments to occur since this place is halfway across the solar system, not on Earth. As Chloe is starting to realize. If being in the Arctic is isolating, imagine what it would be like as a researcher and/or (Spoiler - click to show) test subject on Titan.

You can find this theme across the sci-fi genre, and yet the type of research that occurs can be quite different between games. It always leaves room for interesting discussions.

Ambience
There is no denying that the game has atmosphere. It has some seriously creepy moments. The big one for me is when you (Spoiler - click to show) make it into the southern complex and go east into the eerie interrogation room (from Chloe’s perspective, “interrogation” would be the right word). The room description reads:

The condensation makes it inscrutable but, through it, it's easy to guess the shape of a human figure. It appears to be levitating, its long arms holding it in mid-air.

I just stopped for a moment. Many things went through my mind. So far, I knew that the base was messing around with life forms, including human life. Clearly this was one of them. Some sort of human hybrid who was probably watching us through the glass.

On the other side of it thick condensation prevents you from seeing through. But the figure that stands out behind it, albeit out of focus, is clear and monstrous: a being of the wrong proportions, with long flaccid arms that whirls sinisterly.


Yeah. I was genuinely afraid to (Spoiler - click to show) cut the glass and see what was on the other side. Would this person attack me? So many unknowns. Turns out, the truth was much different, and sadder: (Spoiler - click to show) Nurse Nelly.

Characters
Nelly
Chloe is the star of the game, but I want to discuss this NPC first. One tidbit I liked in the first half of the gameplay is the foreshadowing of a person named Nelly.

> break mirror
Nelly told you what happens when a mirror breaks.

> drink water
It's salty. Nelly told you what happens if you drink salt water.

> spray can
Nelly has always been clear about what happens to little ones who waste food. Especially cream.

If you found these descriptions like I did, the name “Nelly” circulates through your mind as you play. We sense that she may have a closer, and perhaps positive, relationship to Chloe, but all we have is a name and a few shreds of memory. Sadly, the extent of that memory is revealed when we (Spoiler - click to show) see her strung up by her own life support cables (how did that happen?) on the other side of the glass.

The memories we get are a mix of different things. (Spoiler - click to show) We see the happier- or at least happier given Chloe’s circumstances- moments of Nelly comforting her and treating her like a real human being, but these memories soon tilt to being experimented on by the other scientists and being contained for “safety” reasons. We also learn about Nelly’s death, but I’m not going to spoil everything.

I am at least grateful that the author gives us this:
(Spoiler - click to show)
Doing your best to ignore the massive gash that bisects her face, you give Nelly one last kiss.

It’s a bittersweet outcome.

And on that note, is there a consensus about the (Spoiler - click to show) SUPPOSED INTERCOM ALL CAPS ANOUNCEMENTS that we hear throughout the gameplay? Is that… Nelly’s voice? I would assume the dialog is in Chloe’s head, but given everything that has gone on so far, perhaps the voices are an external extension of her mind. Almost like how we can sense states of existence/awareness in Coloratura that are invisible to the human characters. That’s just me speculating, of course.

Chloe
When it comes to child protagonists in interactive fiction- and I don’t mean teens- the genre tends to be slice-of-life, sometimes with a mix of fantasy or other genres. But predominantly sci-fi paired with horror undertones? Less common. For me, at least. If anything, the more you play A1RL0CK, the more it slides towards a horror piece. Especially after you (Spoiler - click to show) break the glass wall in the strange room or visit the quarantine area.

One of the strongest aspects of A1RL0CK is that Chloe still feels like Chloe at any part of the gameplay. While we learn some startling things about her, you still feel like you are playing the same character. In other games, you can feel detached from the protagonist after a big reveal, but that was never the case here. What we learn about her feels like a leap in insight rather than a shift in identity. Not Chl03. Chloe.

Even though Chloe’s (Spoiler - click to show) connection with the whales has proven to be dangerous, or at least to Oceanus Prime, she still views all the invasive research and lab coated scientists through a childlike perspective. Of course, it is also refreshing to see her take survival into her own hands.

(Spoiler - click to show) At the same instant you aim the stapler at her. "O-O-J-A, Miss Celyne," you grin, and shoot.

Yep. Chloe is still Chloe.

Also: When you (Spoiler - click to show) win, there's a strong sense of victory that your biology is what saves you in the end. Perhaps a little bit of "I could breathe underwater this entire time?" but you feel thankful for that.

Final thoughts
I came extremely close to giving this game five stars. A huge fact is that the game kept urging me to play it again and again. I was not expecting to feel that way, but several times I would be combing through IFDB and suddenly have the urge to revisit A1RL0CK for its atmosphere and unique protagonist.

Still, it has some parts that are not as streamlined as the rest of the game. Particularly the earlier puzzles. Hence the four stars, but it easily has the potential to be worth five. It is a great game with a strong emotional impact. For me, that was its main strength.

Chloe’s predicament as a (Spoiler - click to show) test subject combined with her relatable mannerisms (like goofing around with items clearly not meant for play) make her character one with a distinct sense of identity even as her memory remains murky.

The setting was also memorable. Oceanic research bases are a familiar concept, but A1RL0CK distinguishes Oceanus Prime by placing it on Titan. It does an effective job in increasing the isolation that is already present when the game begins.

I would totally play more games featuring Chloe. She is quite an individual.

(In case anyone wants to humor me: I do have two random questions out of sheer curiosity. (Spoiler - click to show) First, is Chloe really wearing a clothing garment or is the suit fused onto her body? Or is it her skin, skin as part of her genetic cross with the whales? Second, when Celyne stabs you with the needle, the game gives you the *** You have died *** ending. Did that needle kill you right away, or is the game suggesting that in the end, you find death later as a captive?)

Oh, how embarrassing: You're carrying a suit (worn). That answers my question.

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