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Reclamation, by groggydog

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
A sci-fi investigation with a little bit of everything, November 25, 2022

You are in a cryotherapy room, awoken by a smiling AI who has a little task for you to take care of before you go back to sleep. Of course, you will comply.

The game begins on a one-person ship called the Silver Lining. A ship called the Charitable Donation had gone missing and reappeared without any sign of its crew. Survivors? That is for you to figure out. The Charitable Donation is a research ship designed to be a floating lab in space to conduct experiments deemed too dangerous to perform on a planet. Behind this looms CORPORATION UNLIMITED, a mega-corporation that holds modern society in its palm.

After waking up from cryosleep you are briefed on your mission by DOC, the standard AI built into CORPORATION UNLIMITED’s ships. You learn that you are a Reclamation Unit (and human, even if CORPORATION UNLIMITED does not act that way. Speaking of which, the game insists on spelling that in all caps so I will do the same!) and can even choose your serial number. I was Reclamation Unit #7. How exciting!

It is slick how the game incorporates a general parser tutorial into the game by having DOC test your motor and cognitive skills as you re-orient yourself. It is a tutorial that does not seem like a tutorial even though you obviously know it is one. It is super short, so it does not drag on for players who know what to do.

This is time travel game. I want to be careful but do not consider that to be a spoiler because it is established early on and is the focal point of the gameplay. Soon after boarding the Charitable Donation, you trigger a time loop that sends you back to the cryotherapy room in 50 turns. Using clues found on the ship you try to identify tasks and complete them before the counter runs out. Then it’s back to cryotherapy.

I like how the solutions are revealed in layers. There was never a point where I was unsure of what to do. For example, (Spoiler - click to show) the captain left a password in her room along with a message saying that hints for a second password could be found on her computer. I knew that this was my immediate objective, and the information from this puzzle had clear applications in the rest of the gameplay. The crew literally lays it out for the player. They even give you a (Spoiler - click to show) passwords log that you can carry in the time loop without losing it.

The game does use some cliches such as learning about the story largely through journal entries (extra points because it is on a spaceship). But what makes Reclamation different is that you are not merely reading things that were abandoned. (Spoiler - click to show) Those entries are for you. The crew wants you to find them. Suddenly, these entries are no longer optional deposits of story exposition. They take an active role in the gameplay which gives them an edge. Plus, the amount of material, I feel, is reasonable.

Not just another time travel game
When I play time travel games, I sometimes find myself placing them into two categories (I know, there are plenty of games out there that do not fit either one). In the first, the player can navigate the timeline and are free to decide when to leave. Often, the protagonist rides around in a physical machine that they operate. There are no time-based restraints that control the gameplay. Examples include First Things First and Roger’s Day Off.

The other category focuses on a time loop that the player cannot control, such as Reclamation. Some of the best time travel games out there use this approach, although it can be difficult to map out the passage of time relative to the gameplay. I think of games like Möbius which are high quality but features a (welcome) challenge with matching the time loop with the player’s turn count. In Reclamation, time travel is streamlined and easy to visualize. If you compare time travel games, you will get a sense of what I mean. I am not bothered by accepting hints, but I am pleased to say that there was never a point where I needed to use them.

Even better, Reclamation adds a unique premise to its portrayal of time travel that also provides an integrated explanation as to why the player is always sent back to the cryotherapy room. The logic is that (Spoiler - click to show) if you are in a lab and perform a time loop that resets, say, after an hour, you will not end up in the lab. Instead, when it resets you are sent to the location where you previously woke up (unless you sleep in the lab, of course). This unpredictability was a side effect that the crew could not control and noted the dangers it could pose. As for the player, because they woke up in the cryotherapy room that is where they are transported. I thought that this was a creative way of tying parts of the game together.

Reclamation takes place in the 22nd century and has familiar dystopian themes in its storyline. It reminds me a bit of Vicious Cycles, another parser (made with Inform) time travel game that considers the ethical implications of a vast corporate entity having the sole access to technology that can alter time. The player is stuck in a time loop that repeats until they find a conclusion. In both stories the creators of said technology start to have second thoughts about their work.

We know that CORPORATION UNLIMITED calls the shots when it comes to scientific progress, but you can only go so far before people snap. (Spoiler - click to show) Discovering how to create a temporal time loop was not enough. According to the captain’s correspondence, CORPORATION UNLIMITED wanted the research team to stay longer in space to develop a way of building this time travel technology into a nifty hand-held device.

By now everyone had figured out how this technology would be used. (Spoiler - click to show) CORPORATION UNLIMITED planned to put people in temporal time loops to maximize productivity. Time spent in the loop would feel like nothing to everyone outside it. You could get a year's worth of productivity instantaneously at the expense of people working away in the loop like a hamster on a hamster wheel. The crew of the Charitable Donation (such a cynical name, really) (Spoiler - click to show) have no intention enabling people to be turned into temporal hamsters, let alone accessorizing the technology for CORPORATION UNLIMITED's convenience. And so, the crew decided to destroy their own research. Discreetly.

Of course, that leads to (Spoiler - click to show) the question of, “where did everyone go?” The crew disabled their AI and made a small temporal copy of their ship and are hiding in it. The crew figured that CORPORATION UNLIMITED would investigate by sending a Reclamation Unit and decided to initiate a time loop to keep the protagonist from dallying with the corporation and instead follow the crew’s instructions to submit a report saying that the destruction of the time travel technology was an accident.

I have one question. It is about the (Spoiler - click to show) cat. Why did they not bring the cat with them? Was this intentional? Djamila's datapad says, "Once the cat was out of the bag,” which typically is a figure of speech, but I wonder if this is also a reference to the ship’s cat (who is named Pluto, by the way).

This is a world where everyone is formally identified by their job position and a number. You, for instance, are a mere Reclamation Unit (at least you get to choose the number). On record, the crewmembers of the Charitable Donation are units too, but their casual correspondence reveals lively personalities with real human names. The crew is interesting even though we never seen them in person. By reading their messages it really felt like they were guiding you along.

And no, (Spoiler - click to show) DOC is not on your side. He kind of reminds me of Georgie from lighthouse.

This is an Adventuron game that utilizes some basic visuals. A built-in map is added for the player’s convenience. The map shows an outline of the Charitable Donation with boxes representing rooms. Nothing fancy, but practical. The screen also turns white as the time loop restarts and sends you back to the cryotherapy room which creates an intense effect.

There is one other visual besides the map: DOC, the ship AI. He is a cheery hologram of a beaker with a face, glasses, and a red bowtie. He is filled with blue liquid. (Spoiler - click to show) Despite his appearance do NOT trust him.

Final thoughts
This game has all the tropes: Cryogenic suspension at the start of the game, a single all-powerful megacorporation, a mysterious and seemingly abandoned spaceship, a mainframe AI, frequent use of journal entries, and time-travel thrown in for fun. And yet, it takes these tropes and sews them together into something novel and fun. While Reclamation has many similarities with other games, it feels like an original piece. It offers gameplay challenges without being too difficult and was rewarding to complete. There are two endings, and the (Spoiler - click to show) Humanitarian ending was brief but quite human.

Even if an NPC-less scavenger hunt in a dead spaceship is not of interest to you, Reclamation may surprise you with its player-oriented gameplay and interesting story.

Neurocracy, by Joannes Truyens and Matei Stanca

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Activate your neurometric colloids and dive in, November 21, 2022

Solve a murder in a near future world by diving into the Wikipedia of that world

This is one of the coolest games I have played.

In Neurocracy, you explore a website called Omnipedia, the apparent replacement of Wikipedia, upon its release on September 28, 2049. Days later, tragedy strikes. Sift through the articles to piece together what really happened.

Neurocracy caught me off guard at first. I opened Omnipedia and was immediately hit by an intimidating wall of cookie privacy settings that seemed to request access to things I had never heard of before. What does it mean by asking to use my "neurometric colloid" for neurometric montages? That sounded like a big deal. But sometimes you have to take things in stride. I opted out of everything I could and continued the game. Later, I made the connection.

Neurometric colloids are a technology portrayed in this game, implanted inside the brain. If you, the player, are supposedly reading a Wikipedia-modeled website in the 2040s, then it is quite possible that you would have a neurometric colloid of your own. The “privacy setting” idea was as seamless as could be for immersing the player. If this were any indicator of the game’s worldbuilding then Omnipedia was just getting started...

You navigate the game like you would Wikipedia by clicking on hyperlinks that lead you to different pages. You can also type in search terms. The central gameplay mechanic used to solve the mystery is the change history feature located on the right side of the screen that allows you to observe edits throughout the timeline. This feature uses red, yellow, and green colour coding to keep track of changes, additions, and deletions which opens a window into new developments and content that is trying to be concealed.

Neurocracy is overflowing with content but designed so the player can keep up with the exposition. Hovering your mouse over words underlined with a grey dashed line spell out the word’s abbreviation whiles words underlined with a blue dashed line provide definitions via a black popup box. You really learn things. It is a great sampler of modern-day subjects paired with more speculative, fictional ideas. This game will not give you a working knowledge. But it does offer a micro bite-sized crash course for topics in real-world discussions about ethics and technology. Learn about AI, neuroscience, quantum computing, genetic engineering, genetics, biology, aquaculture, and even sushi.

There are some articles where if I scrolled down halfway to the page, covered all the dates, and then asked you to read it as if it were a Wikipedia entry, it would take you several minutes before you realized that it was fiction (consider the article titled, "Piscine transmissible amyloidotic encephalopathy”). There is even a convincing reference section at the bottom of the page. If only I could click on those articles. I was extremely impressed with the realism. The game also gives a shoutout to familiar topics such as COVID-19 or Elon Musk’s neurotechnology company, Neurolink. These topics are smoothly integrated into the gameplay and are fun to discover.

It takes a bit to adjust to the slick interface and gorgeous visuals before you stop flipping through articles excitedly and finally sit down to absorb the content inside them. Random curiosity-driven excursions through Wikipedia for me often consist of a mix of thoughtful reading and skimming. The deeper down the Wikipedia rabbit hole, the more I resort to skimming as my brain flits from topic to topic. Omnipedia was the opposite. Conjure up the idea of having so many presents you do not know which one to open first. That was me. I finally told myself to pick an article and read it, and for 20 minutes or so, that's all I did. The next step was piecing everything together.

Story + Characters
The lifeblood of this game. Here is an overview of the surface story:

The game’s overarching story focuses on Xu Shaoyong, founder of Zhupao, a huge technology conglomerate, and the wealthiest man in the world. On September 30th, two days after Omnipedia is released, Xu Shaoyong is assassinated when a security drone open fires at his private helicopter upon his arrival at an airport in China. Along with him was another prominent figure, Yuri Golitsyn, who ran a large-scale energy company. This ripples across the world in complex ways that you must decipher. The assassination narrative is spread across ten days, the tenth day still portrayed as being an ongoing event.

A major theme is the balance of biosecurity and personal privacy. The gameplay is filled with the aftermath of the CMD (Cariappa-Muren disease) pandemic where an entire stock of genetically engineered bluefish tuna was found to be a vector for a prion disease. The resulting CMD phobia only spurred an argument in favor of heightened biosecurity. We see the usage of quantum computing, neural networks, and other technological advances to conduct surveillance and collect vast amounts of consumer and personal data, justifying it for the sake of monitoring biological threats. While part of this reasoning has merit, we see major problems with this approach. Whistleblowers reveal a lack of transparency in data collection and unethical usage of consumer products, often for corporate advancement. Neurocracy takes this a step further asks about the implications of these practices in more futuristic technologies such as brain implants. Cyberattacks are already a familiar phenomenon in our world, but what about brainjacking?

As technological advancements emerge, the realm of ethics only continues to grow. Even Omnipedia is shrouded in controversy. Wikipedia fizzled out and Omnipedia stepped in among criticisms of its supposed corporate favoritism. But by utilizing the revision history feature you can come to your own conclusions.

As for the characters, I found them to be intriguing even if we only learn about them through the pages of a website. (Spoiler - click to show) Connie Muren's death was especially saddening given her commitment to her work although her posthumous comeback against Spencer Hagen was quite moving. The characters themselves were just as interesting as the story.

The best part. I could say that about most things in this game, but the visuals really are a defining feature. This goes beyond the visual interface which already boasts of a clean-cut design with a blue Wikipedia reminiscent logo at the top left-hand corner of the screen. Neurocracy also features plenty of artwork of people, logos, locations, and technologies commissioned by artists. As is the case with Wikipedia each page only has a few visuals, but the quality of the art makes each piece shine. I can recall at least one article that had a small video imbedded in the page, which was a cool surprise.

Thoughts on structural design
After a long while I reached the point where I had viewed and analyzed a large chunk of the story’s content and wondered what to do next. I went online to learn more about the game, only to make a startling (to me, at least) discovery: (Spoiler - click to show) the player’s investigation is independent from the gameplay. I thought that the act of going through the content, of digging deep, would have some payoff within the game. A payoff beyond the deductive reasoning that occurs from article to article. Excalibur comes to mind.

Excalibur is another excellent and ambitious interactive fiction game. It is made with Twine and designed to look like a wiki fandom page for a fictional TV show by the same name. You read the articles to spot the controversies behind the show while pondering fandom culture and the dynamics of shared memories of media content. It too is open ended, but the twist is that content surfaces as a result of your explorations. For instance, reading about certain material results in more material being “posted.” The pinnacle moment of the game’s interactivity (go play the game) comes later, but even after that, the game never ends. There is no winning or losing or a congratulations for “completing” the game. You dive below the surface, and the game quietly acknowledges your participation.

I was anticipating something similar for Neurocracy. But Neurocracy is not Excalibur. They are two different games. And quite frankly, this game does not revolve around me. I decided to see it from the authors’ approach. Originally, the game was released episode by episode in 2021 to the public where players were encouraged to take notes and share theories with each other while waiting eagerly for the next episode to be released. That is the true investigation of game’s story. You take the investigation out of the game and into the audience. Meanwhile, I play all of it in one go a year later without any attention to this structure. There is also something to be said about accepting that sometimes games do not intend to give you all the answers. That in itself is part of the experience. And on that note, if anyone wants toss around theories, do not hesitate to comment on this review.

I must admit, the game’s design cleverly maintains the illusion that you are in fact sitting at your computer in 2049 leisurely browsing Omnipedia. Having the game act like a game would risk breaking this. Briefly, I wondered if there was an angle with the neurometric colloid privacy permissions. If you had such a thing would your browsing experience with Omnipedia be different? I opted into the privacy to setting to see if it changed the gameplay. It did not, but that type of experimentation is also part of the fun. The game entices players to invent ways of interacting with it.

Ultimately, (Spoiler - click to show) my sadness was about not being able to learn more about certain subjects. I was deeply disappointed because I was drooling for more. I felt like I had barely scraped the surface of this story’s vivid universe. As I described earlier, blue words with an underlined dash have popup definition boxes, but later in the story, some words turn into links with their own pages. I had my eye on several character names and terms that I hoped would become articles. Learning otherwise was a bummer, but it also made me appreciate the sheer volume of content- writing, artwork, user interface- went into this game to produce over thirty detailed pages of glossy, futuristic wiki material. It remains, without a doubt, one of the coolest games I have ever played. That is nothing to sneeze at.

Final thoughts
Now that you have (finally) reached the end of this review, all I can do is recommend playing Neurocracy. It will blow you away. Its story is fascinating and deep, the artwork beautiful, and the interface is effectively convincing. You do not need to be an interactive fiction fan or a sci-fi fan or a Wikipedia fan to enjoy this game. And even if you don’t, the game’s discussions about the intersections of technological advancement, personal rights, and societal ethics will still linger in your mind as you draw parallels from today’s world. I thank the game’s creators for creating and sharing such a fascinating piece.

(As a formality, I found and accessed the game through its listing on IFDB which took me right to the game’s website.)

Defrosted, by Riyadth

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Freezer burn horror, November 11, 2022

In the far future, climate change has done a number on planet Earth. Glaciers are melting. After a particularly large melt scientists found a strange strain of fungi with incredible resilience to extreme conditions and sentient properties. After tinkering around with genetic engineering, the military winds up with humanoid plant-based beings called Hyphaens.

Upside: They make great soldiers. Downside: Without social interaction they cannibalize each other.

The game starts with heavy exposition before launching into gameplay. The protagonist is desperate to secure a job after being dishonorably discharged from the military and manages to find employment as a companion for a Hyphaen. Here, character customization is cleverly woven into an application form that allows you to edit the protagonist's gender, height, and other characteristics. The gameplay then consists of preparing and traveling to meet your assigned Hyphaen.

One thing I disliked was how the protagonist makes informed decisions while the player is left in the dark. The main example is if you decide to (Spoiler - click to show) explore the mall. The protagonist automatically starts buying all this stuff that is later used to create a makeshift weapon for self-defense. A brief mention of the protagonist’s intent for buying would suffice. Something like, “hm, these substances may be useful in repelling Hyphaens,” would have been helpful for context.

The turning point is a gnarly scene where (Spoiler - click to show) the protagonist is being devoured by their assigned Hyphaen up arriving at the apartment. There are three endings, two bad, one good. So far, I reached (Spoiler - click to show) BAD END 1 and (Spoiler - click to show) GOOD END but not the third outcome. The good ending involves (Spoiler - click to show) fighting off the Hyphaen. It leaves the player on a bit of a cliff hanger since it just ends with the protagonist leaving, although there is the implication that the protagonist is now on the run from killing military property. I do appreciate how the author provides some additional exposition on what happened before ending it.

I spent a chunk of time trying to find a way to (Spoiler - click to show) avoid being attacked by the Hyphaen but I do not think that is possible. There are some mixed messages that I tried to decipher. The Hyphaen’s dialog after you successfully defend yourself suggests that the Hyphaen merely wanted a connection. That said, there is no kidding the fact that such a connection would result in the death of the protagonist. It was only after re-reading the concluding text about "separation-induced aggravation" that I started to hammer together an explanation.

I’m just going to take a whack at it. (Spoiler - click to show) There is some hive mind plant entity in the arctic that is connected to the Hyphaens that function as a "fungal network." This entity(s?) is referred to as Mother and Father, or at least some translation of it. An expedition went down there but was ordered to return when things started getting weird. We learn about this from one of the protagonist’s memories, but it is cut short.

Naturally, Hyphaens' central impulse is to communicate with themselves and a parent hive. But when humans decide to cultivate (or grow?) them in a civilization in a sad dome on a tundra, that living connection is lost. They still have social interactions with nearby Hyphaen and humans, but it is not the same as a hive. Without this link their mental state falls apart and aggression occurs when they socialize. Hence why the Hyphaen attacks the protagonist. Human companion programs were meant to stave off aggressive tendencies through regular mild interactions, but in this case, it was not adequate.
That scene was intense.

The game has a stylized appearance and colour scheme that adds a nice ambience. Black text box with wide margins and rounded corners that casts a shadow against a green background. This is paired with thick white text and yellow links. Also, there are these black rectangular boxes that briefly appear at the top of the screen throughout the gameplay that say things like (Spoiler - click to show) “TERMINAL: Dome Termed,” almost as if they were achievements before vanishing (see note).

Cover art is weird, terrifying, but cool. I assume that’s a Hyphaen?

Final thoughts
At first, I was not sure if I liked this game. I felt that the game was too short (though by no means incomplete) and that it left me with too many questions. But during my first playthrough I glossed over the large amount of exposition and backstory that the gameplay provides. When I went back to absorb the details, the story became more potent.

While I would have gladly played Defrosted if it were longer, I do think it is reasonable in length to keep players from being burned out. Its length is best described as compact. A lot of thoughtfulness has been put into this game and I am curious to see the author’s future work.

NOTE: Just as I was finishing this review my usual unobservant self suddenly made a big discovery. There is an arrow button at the top left corner of the screen (I know, it’s obvious) that opens to a menu with some useful features.

It has a dictionary of terms that are updated throughout the gameplay, and stat levels for the player’s strength and pheromone levels. The popup boxes that I mentioned earlier are meant to inform you that new terms have been added to the dictionary. I cannot believe I missed that.

Campus Invaders, by Marco Vallarino

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
You've got this, November 6, 2022

Oh no! Aliens have arrived and the fate of the city is now in your hands. Campus Invaders is a comedic sci-fi peril story about a normal citizen tasked with saving the day when aliens from space park a spaceship over Vigamus Academy’s campus. And here all you planned to do was attend a seminar!

Campus Invaders has ups and downs. On one hand, this is a great game for newer players because the puzzle logic is not too difficult (Spoiler - click to show) (ex. teacher stuck in a vending machine? Look around to find a coin. And you do. It is laying out on the floor of another room) while also having the player think outside the box, such as dealing with the alien in the bathroom. Objectives are also easy to follow because NPCs tell you want to do and then point you in the next direction after you have fulfilled a task. The downside is that the implementation of the puzzles is not as well-fleshed as the concept behind them.

The main issue is that elements are scarce. Gameplay follows a show/trade pattern of showing or giving something to one NPC in exchange for something that you need to give to another NPC. I think there may be a term for that. Because the setting is a research facility and the protagonist is prospective student, the interactions tend to be about gaining approval or permission to access new locations. Nothing wrong there. What falls flat is that character interactions lack substance which drags the game down since character interaction makes up a chunk of the gameplay.

NPCs have their one moment before retreating into the background as awkward scenery. It feels unnatural. Lack of responsiveness is primary issue. I was a bit surprised at how faculty do not react when you run tearing into their office amid an alien invasion. They just sit there at their desk until you talk to them. When you first speak to them, they have a verbal response, but afterwards you get a pre-recorded message that does not even come from the character, or when you first meet Mica Hela the game says, “Mica Hela welcomes you to her office and tells you that anything (or almost!) she can do for you, she will,” rather than her character speaking to you.

Besides character interactions, the other flimsy element in the game is with the scenery. While the room descriptions are interesting, the things inside them are only sparsely implemented. The description for the terrace is:

You went out on the terrace of the upper floor of the Vigamus Academy, on which a beautiful warm sun shines. From here you can clearly see the large alien spaceship that stands out in the sky and the thousand colored lights that turn on and off on the glittering metal hull. To the west, you can go back inside.

>x spaceship
You can't see any such thing.

I thought that the spaceship was clearly visible. It was frustrating to be unable to examine key items to learn more about them.

There are no true bugs that keep the player from making progress, but there some superficial ones. The game allowed me to pick up the trolley and carry it around in my inventory like a bookbag. It is ironic that it says, "You could use it to put in the bulky stuff you won't be able to carry by hand." You would still be carrying the bulky stuff anyway when you put it in the trolley. This was weak design.

It is not the most polished game but still decent. While most of this review has been spent analyzing the downsides of Campus Invaders, there is merit. It has spirit and is short enough to keep the story’s enthusiasm from fizzling out. Never does it waver from its atmosphere. Perhaps some testing would have tightened everything to make it more of a finished piece, but it still offers a fun time battling with alien invaders. (Plus, I liked the inclusion of a (Spoiler - click to show) secret section in the game).

Star Tripper, by Sam Ursu

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Rescue your sibling and dominate as starship captain, October 23, 2022

You are blissfully working in your home lab when an urgent message from your older sibling arrives. They have been kidnapped by pirates through an elaborate plot and need rescue from Sector Zero. Unfortunately, Sector Zero is just a myth. But that should not stop you. Command a ship, embark on the life of a trader, and do what it takes to be reunited with your sibling.

Quick note
I have already reviewed two other ChoiceScript games by the same author. One game was successful, the other less so, but they were both novel pieces. Star Tripper blows them out of the water in terms of creativity and innovation. It is one of the most ambitious ChoiceScript games I have seen. Not the cream of the crop in terms of quality, but I find its ambition to be remarkable. However, this is dulled by rocky implementation. I spent a long time on this game, far longer than any game I have played so far for this year’s IFComp. It has been idling on my computer for days. I have been utterly unable to reach an ending and have exhausted every lead. But I want to finish it. This will be a long review simply because I want to share my experience so far.

The intro is mostly exposition, but the player chooses their sibling’s attributes and other logistical details. The main gameplay begins once you reach space. Travel is straightforward. The setting is broken into quadrants and sectors, with each quadrant being divided up into four sectors. You manage your fuel and battery levels as you travel while also conducting trading and buying. If you are a fan of resource management, this game may interest you.

At first glance, this game is an open world dream. So many places to visit, including banks, churches, bookstores, bars, coffee shops, casinos, you name it. A big part is trading and selling items, but there are other ways of earning income. There are also all sorts of adventurous encounters. Avoid black holes, fight off pirates, claim your own asteroid, upgrade your ship, and more. When they gameplay begins after the intro, the possibilities seemed endless. I had the same feeling when I first tried Skybreak! Unfortunately, none of this fully comes to fruition.

The player must micromanage just to get ahead. As I was busy puttering around the galaxy, trying to maintain my fuel levels and finding planets willing to buy the excess cereal grains I had in my cargo hold, I totally forgot about my quest to find my sibling. Plus, the game sometimes gives mixed messages. Some activities are blanked out and only available in Arcade Mode which is unlocked once you complete the game. Fair enough. But there is inconsistency with Story Mode. For instance, the game will let you attack this trade ship but not that trade ship even though nothing about your ship’s status has changed. Planning is difficult when you are not sure of the game’s reasoning. Also, there is only one save slot, but I am grateful that it is available. Cling to it like a life raft when you are uncertain.

As I struggled to make long-term progress, my mind would wander to Superluminal Vagrant Twin. I want to be careful about comparing the gameplay between the two because they are made with different formats (Inform and ChoiceScript) that provide unique experiences. Nonetheless, their stories touch on a similar theme: Overcoming obstacles to save a sibling. They are also both sci-fi trading games.

Superluminal Vagrant Twin is not about finding your twin. The game does not go too deep into backstory but in a nutshell, your twin is frozen in a cryo tube, and you need to pay off your debt to get them back. A lofty objective, especially you are essentially broke. As a trading game, trading and buying goods is the core mechanic. But the game does not just toss the player out and say, “off you go, trade and buy until you make enough credits.” The gameplay is structured to point the player in the right direction by helping them identify smaller goals that lead to the master objective of getting your twin back. Having sub-objectives in Star Tripper would have been infinitely helpful, or at least an objectives list to remind the player of what to look for.

Once you manage to get your foot in the door you have more mobility. There is just a steep learning curve. I floundered for a while. Let’s see what I looked like as I floundered.

For such a vast and dynamic setting, I was overly hesitant to experiment due to the outcome of my first playthrough. I had to start over because I was stuck on a planet with not enough fuel to leave, which is not as tragic as it sounds. Every planet has a bar or drinking establishment where there is always a customer who will sell you fuel pods and other items if you buy them two drinks. The downside: I had almost no credits, not enough to buy two drinks, let alone fuel pods. I had no cargo to sell. The only option was to work a few shifts at the café. However, you get about 22 credits per order you complete during your shift. When you need hundreds of credits just to get off the dang planet this is not practical (and to seal the deal, I saved the game when I landed on the planet). Starting over seemed like the best option. I approached my next playthrough much more cautiously and was more mindful of when I saved the game.

As I mentioned earlier, it is hard to get ahead. Buying a ship to travel to Sector Zero is a distant dream. The most hopeful opportunity for my floundering self was mining on Class 1 planets. Filling a sack full of ore brings in 1000 credits plus a bonus. Sounds great. You decide how deep you want to go down a mineshaft. The deeper you go the better chance at finding ore (the max is 50 meters). However, if you decide on 50 meters you must click on a link- tap, tap, tap- 50 times in a row to reach the bottom of the shaft. If you find ore, you click on a link a few dozen times to fill your bucket. Then you click 50 more times to reach the surface. It takes about eight of those trips to fill up a sack, and that is assuming you find ore when you go down the mine. Progress was so slow.

But that can change.

The following is the rest of my semi-successful adventure. I found a strategy that made a million credits become a realistic goal, and even learned a few more details about saving my sibling. I am just going to hide it under one big spoiler tag. Hopefully this may give you some ideas.

My experience
(Spoiler - click to show) Fortunately, I did not flounder forever. The key is to establish a colony factory on an asteroid. But this is far, far, easier said than done. If you stumble across an asteroid, you can claim it for your own without fees or legal tape. Then, you hire colonists, and supply them with building materials such as iron or lumber. If you bring enough of these to your asteroid, you can upgrade its production level to increase your profit. The downside is that every time you upgrade your asteroid the game decides to reduce your cargo hold limits, which is unreasonable if your ship’s cargo hold only has five storage slots to begin with (as is the case with the Pigeon class ship you have at the start of the game). The game does not even explain why. Furthermore, each upgrade requires more materials that will need to fit into a rapidly shrinking cargo hold. Because of this, industrializing an asteroid was not something I could do for quite a while.

I finally managed to hammer out a strategy for buying and selling goods on planets, and I reached the point where I was doing pretty well. The days of mining were gone. I went from a mere Pigeon class ship to a Firefly, and then a Gila. Making 100,000 credits became an unexpected reality, and this allowed me to buy a Clipper class ship with 100 cargo hold spaces. This whole process, however, was slow and repetitive, so I decided to take a whack at colonizing an asteroid. Even if my cargo load were reduced there would hopefully be some left to continue trading. It did not take long for my ship’s cargo hold to go from 100 to 0, but by then things were looking up. I was making enough that I could simply buy another Clipper class ship to replace the old one. I burned through THREE Clipper class ships as I industrialized my asteroid, but by the time I had my production level reach level 16, the cost of a Clipper ship was practically pocket money. I could now buy the million-credit ship that my sibling mentioned in their message.

Oddly enough, that is where everything stagnated. Now that I had millions of credits at my disposal, I was relying on several scraps of information to carry me through, but none have brought me any closer to finding my sibling. I have tried everything. I will share them in case you have any input.

ONE: At the start of the game, your sibling says that the ship you need to buy costs a million dollars. There are two ships that fit this description. I bought both, but nothing happened.

TWO: Your sibling’s friend tells you that they may send you information on Sector Zero if they found anything in their research. That never happens. I did get one, and only one, message from my sibling after the intro, and all it said was that I needed to find the Golden Key to reach Sector Zero.

THREE: Once you have a million credits, you will eventually stumble across traders who happened to find the Golden Key and are willing to sell it. When you buy it, the game says,

🔑 Now that you've got your hands on the infamous Golden Key, it's time to find someone to help you install it.

I could not find anyone who could help me install it, nor did I know where to look. Furthermore, I had this encounter twice in this game. I would buy the Golden Key a second time and the game would act as if I first laid eyes on it. The stats page does not even mention that you acquired it.

FOUR: A useful tactic is that you can get general hints at coffee shops by buying something and sitting at an empty table to listen to the background chatter. It is possible to catch gossip about Sector Zero. You hear two people talking about a scientist who attached a gold quantum capacitor (which sounds awfully like the Golden Key) to a Zheng He class ship and managed to get it to go Warp 11. So, I bought a Zheng He ship. I am not sure if this was the ship my sibling had in mind since it costed less than a million credits, but none of the other ships had any promise. I already had the Golden Key (see previous), and I knew I needed to find someone to install it. Off I went exploring, but I did not find anyone whom I could talk to about my ship. I even had my ship wired to go Warp 10 (the max speed) in case it helped. No change.

I am out of ideas. I have played this game for endless hours, much of which I enjoyed, but I simply cannot reach an ending. Now I am groveling about in my own review. If anyone has any ideas, please comment.

From the start of the game, we get a sense of the complicated political environment in the game’s universe. It takes place in a galaxy ruled by a Galactic Council that is heavily influenced by the Central Families that dominate the center of attention. Then there are the wealthy Inner Rim families, the working-class Outer Rim, and everything in between. Lurking about is a pirate group called the Syndicate that plunder spaceships and planets. All this sound extremely simplified, a classic version the galaxy being categorized into polarized groups of “good” and “bad,” when in fact, these lines are blurred.

What I like best about this game is that it is one big learning experience for the protagonist who is from a Central Family and has always taken these benefits for granted. Now, they must rescue a sibling from a group of pirates that (Spoiler - click to show) turn out to have a closer association with the Central Families than most people, the protagonist included, realize. The protagonist is also unable to make use of their own affluence because the Syndicate is watching every move. The only option is to start from the bottom. No money, no ship, and no leads except the name of potentially sketchy friend who feel from grace mentioned in your sibling’s message.

Then again, whether or not the protagonist actually learns anything is technically up to the player. You see this development (or lack of it) with the dialog options where you can choose to respond to people with entitled indifference or with open-mindedness. Because I have been unable to reach an ending, I have no idea if this whole debacle will permanently change the protagonist’s view on life. But after weathering public transportation, Class 1 planets, and dingy spaceships, well, who knows.

Character interactions are shallow but are there if you want to seek them out. They are often quite comical. I think the overall light-heartedness works well in this game.

::: What do you want to do?
🪑 Join Saboson and Star at the table
🏃‍♂️ Turn and run back to the spaceport

For the most part, NPCs are just part of the scenery, but there are ways of initiating more one-on-one interaction. Aside from the characters in the intro (and even then, their names are randomized) there is no single character whose full identity remains the same for every playthrough. I think that adds some spontaneity. The game relies on procedural generation, and it wields it well.

👧 "You know what? Screw you, Saboson. You're a thief and a liar."
👦🏻 "A thief? Because I stole your heart? Give me a break, Star!"

::: How do you want to respond, Captain?
🗣️ "I'm learning a lot by listening to you two."
🗣️ "I don't feel like I'm really being heard."
🗣️ "I hate to be rude, but let's change the subject."

What surprised me was the depth of traveling companions. They travel with you in your ship and add some diverse dialog by commenting on the things you do or even initiating discussions. (Spoiler - click to show) Unfortunately, they are only interested in hitting on you in borderline-creepy manners. For science, I tried to marry one of the NPCs. It resulted in an error that said: wedding_chapel line 951: Non-existent variable 'priest_level' which almost crashed the game. Fortunately, I just loaded my save file and decided not to test it. And to be honest, I did not want to get married. Regardless of how you feel about the NPCs, it is nice to know that the option is there.

The game is extremely sleek looking. The text boxes are dark grey outlined with glowing borders that add a pop of colour. All of this is set against a lighter grey background. There are also little emoji icons that I have seen in the author's other games. They add an excellent visual. A whole variety of emojis are found in this game and are used strategically by the author to illustrate a point while avoiding emoji overload. That is one thing I noticed about the author's games that I have played: regardless of their content at least they look spiffy.

Final thoughts
With the author, no subject is off limits. Zombie apocalypses, farming simulations, and now a sci-fi trading a game, and I genuinely love the creativity and innovative usage of ChoiceScript. For a while, I never perceived ChoiceScript as a format that uses visual effects in storytelling. Now I am seeing how flexible it can be with not only visuals, but also with puzzle types and gameplay mechanics.

Star Tripper is a tough and confusing game, but it also has humor and adventure. Even if you do not manage to find your sibling you will still have a memorable experience with making a name for yourself and formulating strategies. It does need more polish, hence the low rating. There are some clunky bugs, but the biggest issues are, A, it is difficult to make progress, and B, long-term objectives are murky. But underlying it all is a solid foundation. If you have more than a few minutes, play this game. It has a lot of fun sci-fi and resource management themes. Just requires a little extra patience.

A Long Way to the Nearest Star, by SV Linwood

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
This ship is not what it seems, October 11, 2022

In A Long Way to the Nearest Star, you play as a criminal on the run after an almost unsuccessful heist. You escaped with the goods but damaged your spacecraft along the way, forcing you to find a place to hide and make repairs. Luckily, you stumble across a seemingly abandoned research vessel that may solve your predicament.

After a brief intro, the gameplay begins in the landing bay of the mysterious ship where you discover that you are not alone. Your presence caught the attention of the ship’s AI, Solis, who communicates through terminal screens placed throughout the ship. Solis is eager to help but clearly guarded about the circumstances surrounding its own ship. The player is reliant on Solis to help them navigate the ship but is also compelled to find ways to sneak around the system.

The story and characters are worth about three stars, but the overall game gets four because of its puzzles and how those puzzles are implemented in a choice-based format. This is a puzzle-intensive Twine game with free range of movement. You have access to a fairly large ship, and the game lets you wander through it almost like you would if it were a parser game. This approach may appeal to some players. Some of the gameplay mechanics are quite clever. I especially liked how the game allows you to program the janitor bot to go to a location and then automatically follow it. Useful for puzzles while reducing travel time.

There is a lot of in-game guidance. In your inventory is a notes section giving you an overview of what you have learned, and if you take a break in your own ship the game gives you some suggestions of what to do. The author also has hints cleverly formatted into a Twine piece included separately with the game. All of this was nicely done, and I felt it was worth a mention.

The author gets some bonus points for worldbuilding. The terminal in the research lab allows you to look up planets in a digital encyclopedia. When the game ends, you are presented with the statistics of your playthrough which includes how many planets you researched. That alone was enough for me to replay the game just to comb through to find any planet names that I could punch into the encyclopedia. In case you are interested, I found 11 planet names.

The story retains a suspenseful and intriguing quality. The gist (I do not consider this part to be a spoiler since we know this at the start of the gameplay) is that there was a collision with the ship that caused toxic gas to enter the ship, killing everyone onboard. We learn this from Solis, (Spoiler - click to show) but the player knows right away that Solis is not being entirely truthful. It is not a matter of discovering whether Solis is hiding something. It is a matter of finding what it is hiding. Entering the medical bay was kind of chilling. On top of that, it has six endings which encourage replays.

At the end of the game there is this abrupt plot twist that it failed to pull off. This sudden twist, mega spoilers by the way, occurs (Spoiler - click to show) when you learn that Berthold was behind it all. It turns out Solis did not kill Trill, but Berthold did and made Solis think otherwise. That part had some decent backing. But then there is ambiguous explanation on the other ways Berthold potentially interfered, followed by an avalanche of speculation of why he attempted sabotage. You show Solis the captain’s real data pad, and the game rushes to explain everything in one swoop. Yet, it does not even clarify everything. The game says, yeah, Solis gassed the crew, but it also did not gas the crew. Any uncertainties are blamed on glitches. It seemed flimsy in comparison to the rest of the story which had been carefully constructed.

The player can choose the protagonist’s (fake) name and their brief cover story, but otherwise the game is hesitant to give out details about the protagonist since they are on the run. You can still get to know the PC in subtle ways, such as reprogramming the food options in food synthesizer and eat them. This gives you a look into the protagonist’s previous experiences. Some are quite interesting.

I did not particularly care about the characters which surprised me (This game is almost NPC-less. By "characters" I mean Solis, the protagonist, and the janitor bot. Okay, the janitor bot was nice). If anything, I was more interested in the crew (Spoiler - click to show) which is a shame since they are dead. We only get to know them through video recordings and see their corpses in the medical bay. They seemed to be a unique blend of species and cultures.

AI characters can be a lot of fun regardless of if they are villainous or friendly. I like it when such characters engage with the player, and Solis does just that. But for some reason, Solis did not have much of an impact on me. I find it hard to pinpoint why.

Despite the (Spoiler - click to show) ominous feeling we get from the “account” of what happened to the crew, Solis does seem genuinely interested about the player. The early gameplay has some cliché “gee, hello there, organic life form,” banter that stretches on a bit. Other times the exchange is more meaningful. I like how discussions tend to incorporate mentions of planets or civilizations that give you a broader sense of the story’s world.

Still, the character lacked in dimension. Remember how I said the game gives you a statistical report of your playthrough? It includes Solis' attitude towards the player which I thought was interesting because it made me reevaluate some of my choices to see how they influenced interactions.

Generally, the game uses a black screen and links clearly indicated with light grey rounded boxes. This basic look is offset by some stylization that adds some flair.

For Solis’ dialog, visuals are used to create the impression of looking at a terminal screen, featuring a rounded black textbox with a thick border and green text. This was a simple but effective look. Similarly, when it comes to reading data pads the game puts the text in colour-tinted boxes with rounded corners to simulate the feel of reading off a tablet. All of this was creative and eye-catching.

Final thoughts
Overall, it is a quality game. It was not as potent as I expected, but the gameplay is solid and will likely be appreciated by players. This would be a good choice if you are someone who likes Twine games with a little more technicality because it has plenty of puzzles and freedom of movement to interact with the setting. Its IFComp submission says that its playtime is about two hours which is about accurate. Give it a shot.

If you enjoyed A Long Way to the Nearest Star, you may like Lux, another puzzle intensive sci-fi Twine game where the player heavily relies on the guidance of a mainframe AI as they navigate a nearly NCP-less setting in the aftermath of an unknown disaster. It is also an IFComp game from a few years back.

Into The Sun, by Dark Star

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
la, la, la, I'm not here..., October 8, 2022

Those were the words going through my mind as I looted the storage lockers while hiding from a xenomorph monster. In this game you play as space-based scavenger camped out on planet Mercury. You need to repair and refuel your ship but cannot afford it. The plan is to wait for a scavenging opportunity. Finally, you spot a derelict ship drifting towards the sun. Perfect for looting. But just because it is derelict does not mean you will be the only living thing on there.

But first…
If you liked the planning part of Sugarlawn then this may be the game for you. It has a lot of replay value in a similar fashion. Into The Sun borrows a few structural features found in Sugarlawn. In Sugarlawn you are a contestant in a reality TV show about collecting as many antiques as you can in 30 minutes or less. When time runs out the player is presented with a list of the items they collected and their monetary value.

Into The Sun is similar in the sense that the protagonist is collecting items under a time restraint with the central goal of maximizing monetary gain. It too, evaluates the profitability of the player’s looting excursion at the end of the game. But Into The Sun is no copy of Sugarlawn. It does not take a fill-in-the-blanks approach where merely the setting and inventory items are swapped out to create a sci-fi replica. The game still distinguishes itself in both gameplay and story.

You begin on the derelict ship’s middle level next to the airlock that leads back to your own ship. Things are eerily silent but that soon changes. The author has maps for the game, and I highly recommend using them unless you want to visualize an array of junctions, companionways, and levels. I just opened it in a second tab to refer to as I played.

There is a time constraint. As the derelict ship drifts closer to the sun, it gets sucked in by the sun’s gravitational pull. The farther an object goes in, the more difficult it is to break out. The top of the screen lists the gravity level as it increases. If the player waits for too long, they burn up with the ship. I feel like the time limit is reasonably paced. It adds urgency without overwhelming the player.

One of the main gameplay attractions is the xenomorph alien that adds suspenseful atmosphere and logistical factors that the player must manage. The xenomorph is trying to hunt you down. There is always a sense of danger since you can hear it searching.

Starboard Shuttle Bay - Deck B

The shuttle bay is a round room with an airlock on the forward end. There's not as much smoke in this section, but there's a lot of haze. Looking through the observation window, you see a shuttle that holds four.

The airlock's been beaten on and is damaged. The only exit is port.

You hear something slithering towards the port side of the ship. Distant, but it's coming towards you.

The player has limited means of defending themselves, and it is so tempting to just “undo” whenever you run into the alien. But I appreciate how the game does not let you off the hook that easily when avoiding it. As it travels the ship it spits acid on valuable things, destroying them. If you want to nab this or that you better plan around the alien’s movements before they get *acidified. Sure, you may be able to “undo” to skip the inconvenience of fighting the alien but that will not stop it from trashing the ship. While the player may be able to use loopholes here and there, they cannot do so entirely.

All sorts of obstacles emerge for you to dodge. Oh, you want to go down this passage? Too bad. A pipe just broke and hot steam is spewing everywhere. It really makes the player think on their toes. Play the game to see for yourself.

And best of all….


Don’t get me wrong, inventory limits can have a purpose. They add an extra challenge to the gameplay and promote strategizing. Still, they are frustrating, and I am a tad spoiled by games that do without. Deep down, I love it when there are no limits especially for a game where the goal is to loot anything that is either not nailed down or nailed down under lock and key. Barriers mean little for eager scavengers. This raises the question of how realistic it is for a protagonist to be able to gather endless amounts of stuff while still being able to climb ladders and similar activities that require the use of at least one hand. In this game it is no problem. The protagonist has a sci-fi equivalent of Mary Poppin’s handbag which allows them loot derelict ships with relative ease.

Story + Characters
The story is focused on the protagonist’s objective of scavenging enough to afford to repair their own ship. But there is some secondary story content about the derelict ship and its long-dead crew which is gleaned from flashcards found in the ship. When you put the flashcards in the data reader you find the ship’s old logs. So far, I only found two flashcards, an orange one and a yellow one. I do not know if there are more.

It is a bit of a cliché storyline but still intriguing. (Spoiler - click to show) The ship received a signal from an unexplored planet and the crew decided to investigate the surface. A crew member was infected by something that later killed him and infected another crew member. Something happened and suddenly there was a xenomorph onboard. That is all I know.

The only question I have is about a comment the game makes about the (Spoiler - click to show) ship’s AI. If you acquire the AI core the game says, "you get 200 dollars for the insane AI." When it says, “insane AI,” does the game mean that the AI was responsible for the disaster, perhaps for the strange signal or the creature infecting the ship? Or is it just malfunctioning?

Final thoughts
In a nutshell, Into The Sun is ultimately a replay puzzle in a spaceship setting. And a fairly unique one.

At first glance, I assumed the game would follow the familiar mold of a protagonist exploring a disabled ship as it drifts through space. Usually these involve repairing it with a “quick fix” to restore the power or warp drive or similar concept to enable escape or rescue. Instead, Into The Sun throws this to the wind. Repairs? Strip everything of value and leave. Oh, and there is an alien monster tossed into the mix. I just had a lot of fun with strategizing and exploring the setting.

Right now, it is one of my favorite entries in this year’s IFComp, although I still have quite a few remaining to play. We will see. If anyone is interested, my current high score is (Spoiler - click to show) 3,100 adjusted dollars. Someone will likely surpass that sooner or later.

*You certainly do not see that on Sugarlawn!

Tripladin Massacre, by Melanie Rees

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Three new moons ago…no, that’s not quite right, September 26, 2022

You are trying to submit a story to the Salangrazarian Publishing Department. A rather controversial story. But if you want to be a published author you must write and rewrite to please your editors. Especially the rewriting part.

Gameplay is linear. The player does not choose what to write. Instead, the protagonist writes a sentence and receives feedback from the editor. Interactivity consists of the player choosing whether to accept or reject the feedback. The only way of making progress is to accept the feedback but the publishing company’s response to rejection is humorous. The player can experiment with this throughout the game to find the different responses. Be aware, some of the story contains physical and sexual violence.

Technically, the game does not delve into a full story. It only consists of a paragraph, but for a short Twine game this is effective enough at conveying this idea.

Initially, it did not strike me that the protagonist was trying to write a story based on an actual historical event. The first time I played the game I simply made the editorial changes without question to see how it would end. It seemed like they were reaching for story cliches, futuristic stock answers for a standard fairytale. Rather than an evil wizard or a menacing dragon in an ancient kingdom you have barbaric ogre-like aliens raiding jungle planets. Then I glanced at the game’s description and played the game with the intent of always rejecting editorial feedback. A deeper story emerges.

Regarding the massacre mentioned in the game's title, (Spoiler - click to show) Salangrazar had invaded Tripladin (which I believe are individual planets). In fact, "invading" would be putting it lightly. The capital was ransacked, and the citizens conquered. Tripladin is still under siege. Thus, why the Salangrazarian Publishing Department is so touchy about the protagonist's story.

The editor, I think, seems somewhat oblivious to the protagonist's true intention with writing the story. Rather than critiquing the story with the sole effort of acknowledging and calling out the protagonist’s attempt at sneaking in subversive content, the editor seems focused on critiquing it from the standpoint of merely evaluating a product that will sell, by nipping at small technicalities. The main giveaway is when (Spoiler - click to show) the player rejects the editor’s comments about the prince assaulting the princess. The rejection message reads, "The truth is out there, but we do not permit it to enter our publishing department." Other than that, they prefer to tip toe around the controversy.

There are no characters in the classical sense. The only interactions with the publishing company are through editor notes. The PC has no background, but I found it humorous how exasperated they feel as their story becomes increasingly micromanaged. The player in turn, feels prompted to just give up and give the publisher what they want. The irony (Spoiler - click to show) in this is that once you finally hack out a story worthy of being published you learn that you are only going to make $30 in profit. Even worse, the publisher's postal company only sends out payment ships once every 100 years. Oh well.

It is a nice example of how you can use a small array of text effects in a simple Twine game. There is a mix of formatting, such as bold and italicized text. Different colours are used and crossed out areas indicate corrections made by the protagonist. Everything is neatly organized against a black screen.

Final thoughts
This game is extremely short and offers some bite sized humor. The premise of submitting a story to a galactic publishing company is a creative concept and could be classified as a “lunch break length” game. The editor’s feedback also opens a window into a variety of unique alien beings in the game’s universe, such as the (Spoiler - click to show) tribes of Rguzar IV or the Kraskan Fleamen, which adds a layer of creativity and light worldbuilding.

I would recommend this game if you felt like playing a short and humorous sci-fi game that focuses more on a general story idea rather than a richly detailed story.

Night City 2020, by Hoper
You can hide in the city. Or you can escape it. Or maybe rise above it., September 22, 2022

Disclaimer: I am not literate in French. Instead, I played the game with translation. I would highlight the entire page, right click, and select "translate selection to English," which did a decent job (I think). Does that overlook the fact that it is a game made in a foreign language? I hope not. I am not trying to distract from that. But it was a game that I wanted to play for a while, and I was excited to find a way to do so.

The premise of the story is that the protagonist previously received a job from a high-ranking executive of a large corporation with the task of ensuring the safety of a visiting nephew. But when this goes wrong the executive goes on the warpath. The protagonist is now on the run, trying to make ends meet with shady jobs.

Night City 2020 is set in a world where only people with upper-class jobs can live in the middle of the city with skyscrapers containing the best cutting-edge technology. Without a corporate job, an individual cannot even indulge the thought of stepping foot into that area of the city. If you did have such a job, it would change everything.

This is an RPG game. Stats, character customization, combat, you name it. All in a choice-based format. It also follows a choose-your-own-adventure style. The player is presented with one or more choices that are numbered: If you want to do X click to passage 4, if you want to do Y go to passage 10. This format tends to make the gameplay more generalized at the risk of the player not feeling like they can closely interact with the story. I think Night City 2020 makes up for that by allowing the player to fine-tune their character’s stats and inventory items (as is often the case with RPGs). Without these features the game would have been less engaging.

The game begins with customizing your character with cybernetic implants. Each option gives you a wide range of abilities from built-in night vision to brain-computer interface. However, each implant reduces your humanity score, a stat that affects your ability to connect with other people. This was a catchy way of starting the game.

Gameplay branches out quite a bit, depending on the job you pursue. You can investigate a gangster's missing sister, investigate the disappearance of a corporate official's daughter, or accept a mission to assassinate a former rival. Each route has unique gameplay but later, they start to merge. The game has a score system of 20 points. Not all endings reach a perfect score. Instead, the game encourages the player to try out different routes, adding replay value.

While the jobs feature different gameplay in the first half of the game, they eventually gravitate to the (Spoiler - click to show) same location: the pharmacy, where the endgame occurs. This is where the story becomes streamlined. They all center around discovering a scheme of illegal cybernetic surgery and human trafficking. How the player responds to this is tailored to the job you choose at the start of the game. The story content consists of language and violence. There was one scene with some (Spoiler - click to show) brief graphic sexual content that caught me off guard but most of the game does not include this.

There is some worldbuilding. There is an opportunity to check the news online, and the game will sometimes interject news items in certain scenes, such as when using public transportation. The Neuromat implant also sometimes provides extra information on things you encounter. I think this attention to detail helped make the city setting more interesting.

Its appearance is white background with black lines and text. Some dialog is colour-coded for convenience. The left side of the screen has a column with the player’s stats and links with reference guides, such as a glossary, that provides nifty background information without leaving the game. This was one of the first things that stood out to me.

Occasionally, there is art. I did not see the first piece of art until later in the game, so it took me by surprise. The art is basic and done in pencil or ink but does augment the player's imagination of this futuristic cyberpunk world (I guess technically it takes place in the past since it is set in 2020 instead of 2022 as I write this review. Everything in it is still futuristic). I found four total.

Design wise, there are some rough areas. I only found one broken link. When I clicked on (Spoiler - click to show) 305 it led me to a page where the only option was 85, but it was not a link. All it said was "[[85]" which required that I restore to an earlier save. I also encountered two cases where a macro error shows up instead of the link. Other than that, the game seemed consistently built.

Final thoughts
It is not a flawless piece, but it is one that can maintain the player’s interest, especially if they enjoy RPG games. Be aware, if you end up translating the game like I did with my browser, you will probably have a slight less seamless experience. There is lots of stat management with a focus on combat, and its branching gameplay encourages more than one playthrough. Overall, it is a nice addition to the cyberpunk genre.

Cyborg, by Michael Berlyn

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Two halves of one body work together to regain memory, September 22, 2022

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.

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.

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)

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

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.

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.

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)
-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.

Andromeda Acolytes, by Wade Clarke

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A dazzling start, September 15, 2022

In fact, dazzling would be an understatement. But before we dive into that let’s start with some background.

Note: This review is about a first chapter demo for a commercial game (hm, now that I think about it Andromeda Acolytes is probably the first commercial Inform game that I have played). As a formality, the review is also based off info on the IFDB listing. Other websites have additional content.


Andromeda Acolytes is part of the Andromeda Series and, based on what I have seen so far, seems to branch off in terms of story depth and gameplay style (such as scuba diving). If I had not known that this game was part of the series, I would not have made the connection, or at least within the demo. The Andromeda Series was created by Marco Innocenti and is certainty worth your time. I was not particularly a fan of Andromeda Awakening - The Final Cut (I must admit, I only played the first half) but was really impressed with Andromeda Apocalypse — Extended Edition which won the 2012 IF Comp (and I played that one several times and recommend it). There are other installments by other authors but those two seem like the "main ones.” Even if Andromeda Acolytes takes the series in a new direction, I have no doubt that it will be valuable addition.

This is a seriously cool game. When I first saw it, I pounced. The demo reminds me of the game Subnautica (non-interactive fiction) and Tangaroa Deep (Twine) composed into vivid Inform piece. For a true effect watch Blue Planet afterwards.

The protagonist’s name is Korhva Vits, but usually referred to as Vits in the game. Vits has been assigned to a submersible mission to clear debris and relocate sea life. The player stays in a dive zone where they manage objects’ weight limits and their own oxygen levels. The game ends once you complete all tasks.

The locations can be overwhelming at first due to the amount of detail (which is also a good thing) but the game makes things user-friendly, especially with character dialog. The “think” command summarizes your tasks which is especially useful. I appreciate how the player’s oxygen levels decrease at steady but slow pace rather than depleting too quickly. Part of the immersive quality is that creatures are swimming around as you explore which gives it a simulation feel. It is the construction of a detail ecosystem that makes it vivid.

The overarching story is that the planet Monarch (actually, I do remember Monarch from the other games) is populated with a modern human civilization that has no knowledge of how humanity came to exist on their world. The demo is too short to really delve into the game’s vast story. If anything, I was expecting a bit more in terms of a synopsis, but the effect only leaves me drooling for more. The game’s description (VR, cities, machines, wild technology, you name it) is vast, and the demo only skims the surface. There is a (Spoiler - click to show) mysterious slab under the boulder in the trench, which was interesting, but otherwise no story developments. But hey, it is a demo, and I think the author balanced story content with gameplay. Andromeda Acolytes paces its worldbuilding.

The gameplay is in first person. There is not a whole lot of information on Korhva Vits, but unlike Innocenti’s first two games in the series the protagonist is female. I thought that this was an interesting change and look forward to learning more about Vits. The game’s description explains that there are three other female protagonists who will appear in the full release, but for the demo it is just Vits.

There are three other characters whom the player hears over the comms: Dion, Hugo, and Eichi, but the player only speaks to Dion since the other two are in different dive zones. The game uses the “talk to” mechanic and characters have detailed responses based on the location whenever the player speaks. Even though the game does not share much about Dion’s character they are still interesting because of their friendly relationship with Vits.

That is correct, there is a few visual elements in this game. There is a map on the right side of the screen and consists of a bright blue gradient background with boxes marking the player's location and the possible exits. This minor but crisp feature evokes an ocean atmosphere with its colour choice. It can also be turned off to save screen space. The author seems to strive to make things user-friendly. Hopefully the full release will continue with built-in maps.

(The cover art is also fantastic, by the way.)

Final thoughts
As you can see, the game’s page on IFDB says that the game will be released in 2025 (potentially shorted if you support the author) which is a while, but I think it will be worth the wait. If the demo is any indicator, I have a feeling that it will be immensely popular with players when it is released. The player only gets to dip their toes into the sand with the demo, but it has every sign of being a stellar game.

Star Yonza, by Betaproject
A sci-fi adventure that needs development before it can shine, September 14, 2022

Our PC is Yonza, an alien protagonist seeking out a life with purpose. Often games opt with human protagonists with diverse alien NPCs, so I like the game’s approach. It is also a game about gender and life circumstances. As Yonza you will explore these issues by interacting with a diverse range of characters.

The decision at the start of the game is to pick between the Rebel Alliance and the Federation. If you choose Rebel Alliance, you go home to share your decision with your family before leaving to find Rebel presence in the city so you can accept your first mission. This part involves hanging out at bars and burger joints until you find the correct password to meet with other rebels. If you choose the Federation instead, you will automatically be assigned to a mission. This too, involves investigating culinary establishments but character encounters have some variation.

The game has the player roll dice for some choices, but dice concept is only used a few times. I am not particularly a fan of games that rely on dice, but if they are going to utilize it, I feel like they should stick to it. This game abandons it early on. The game also does not say that you need dice at the start of the game so you might be left hunting for one after the game begins. Or you can skip but I still gave it a try on my first playthrough.

Eventually, the game becomes less interactive. Aside from choosing the order in which to talk to people, which does not affect anything, the gameplay consists of clicking on a single link at the bottom of the screen. There is also a lot of text on the screen that can be difficult to process. I recommend playing this game at least twice to experience its content.

The game's genre on IFDB is "Educational," and its description says that its goal is to tackle queer issues in a sci-fi setting. This is an excellent goal. Science fiction opens all sorts of possibilities with alien species, locations, technologies, and political customs that act as a backdrop when exploring present day subjects. For an author, your mind can go wild while conveying important messages to players. In fact, there already are games out there that analyze crucial topics about social issues and human rights through their engaging stories. Star Yonza would be the same way if it did not suffer from unpolished implementation. The idea is still important, but it is too confusing and scattered at the moment for its idea to leave a mark on the player. I liked how the game portrays a diverse range of family structures, such as with Yonza’s family, but the rest felt murky.

There are two story points that the player investigates. The first is (Spoiler - click to show) housing displacement in the aftermath of a civil war, and the second is a lumber resource conflict. The player interviews a selection of individuals for both issues. The most cohesive part of the game is talking to NPCs about their experiences. This is where the game starts to dig in with subjects about housing and economic equality. For each case the game lists NPC responses on the screen so you can compare them until everyone has been interviewed. The gameplay then shuffles on. I found it difficult to outline the game’s story structure and plot elements, but the ending (Spoiler - click to show) is lighthearted. It is about cultivating your own family and friend support system with the people around you. It also a satisfying ending for Yonza because everything seems to click into place.

The game sticks to a basic visual design with white screen, black text, and blue links. The text was easy to read though paragraphs are formatted awkwardly.

There are quite a few spelling and grammar errors. I am not referring to pronouns which at first, I thought they were misspellings until I realized that they are intentional. I do like how the author strives diversify beyond him/he, she/her, they/them pronouns in a sci-fi work.

Final thoughts
Star Yonza is a short game (10 minutes) that you should play more than once to get the most out of it. Even though it seems to have (Spoiler - click to show) only one ending there is variation in the gameplay that can be enjoyed. The game is rough around the edges, something that would be alleviated through testing. Regardless, its characters, including Yonza, are still vibrant and its subject matter on queerness is still significant.

BaoBao, by Cass Khaw & James Persaud

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
An unusual yet elegant remembering of one's mother, September 12, 2022

BaoBao follows the trope* of a protagonist digging through a computer only to find a surprise AI. Our protagonist is Aiyo. Her mother recently passed away and she now needs to sort through the contents of her computer. Along the way she uncovers an AI.

Gameplay consists of the player rummaging through a directory system on a computer. There are several directories, such as recipes or notes, each of which contain a file named “baobao” and a string of numbers. The other files in the directories are of no interest. The player only makes progress by exploring the baobao files, but when they do an AI intervenes. The AI prevents the player from viewing the file’s contents but instead adds new commands to the home folder that expand the story.

The game also has the option making a cup of tea before returning to the computer. This added some ambience because the protagonist is trying to stay calm, and level minded in the aftermath of her mother’s death. It adds a nice self-reflective approach. And if the player wants to pause the game itself to make some tea, that is fine too.

The game's description is "A young woman is sorting through her deceased mother’s personal computer and finds an AI in her way." If I did not know otherwise, I would not have said to myself "oh wow, I found an AI!" It is more subtle than that. They only part that screamed AI was when (Spoiler - click to show) the game says, “Aiya, don’t try to hide your face. I can see you know. This computer got webcam. Aiyo. No make-up also,” implying that it is Aiyo’s mother, or at least a digital version of her, is present. These interactions are brief and sometimes it can be confusing to keep track of when the AI is addressing the player and when the player is merely experiencing the Aiyo’s thoughts, especially since they are both shown with the same white text formatting. It does not feel like you are interacting with an NPC. While I liked the subtly, this vagueness may disengage players.

Game has some interesting themes on femininity, especially from traditional conventions. Aiyo has vivid memories of her mother and philosophies of beauty. Especially vivid ones are the smell of her mother's perfume or the fancy ornate patterns on her lipstick case the surface as she searches the computer. We learn that her mother was (Spoiler - click to show) always worried about her daughter's chances of finding a decent husband, one that would love her and never have affairs since her own husband had a beautiful girlfriend on the side. That was her main priority for Aiyo. She would often say that Aiyo was not pretty enough and that she should take things like makeup seriously. From the mother's perspective, this was not meant to be mean but to ensure that her daughter found a husband who would love and respect her. From Aiyo’s perspective this was stifling, and she was frustrated over her mother's attempts to find her the perfect lipstick shade colour or pressuring her to diet to maintain a feminine size and figure. These differences in ideologies come to light as the AI reveals more about the mother’s view of her daughter. They begin to come to an understanding.

I kept thinking that baobao is a pretty cool name for an AI until I found the translation. 宝宝 (baobao) is a word from the Chinese language that means baby or treasure and can be used as a term of endearment. The application of the word can vary, but this definition was the bulk of the results I found. So, is the (Spoiler - click to show) AI Aiyo’s mother or is it just a model of her personality and interests? Did her mother intentionally create the AI or was it accidentally formed from the clutter on the computer? There is a lot to consider with intriguing implications. The game ends with (Spoiler - click to show) the AI giving the player full access to every baobao titled file on the computer so that the Aiyo can finally see the parts of her mother that were always hidden, the parts where she genuinely loved her daughter but failed to convey it in life. In death it is as if Aiyo is relearning her mother. The game wraps this up on a graceful note that I found to be memorable.

The game keeps it simple with the visuals but uses stylization to create the appearance of a computer screen. For these segments the game has a black screen with green text and blue links. Otherwise, it sticks to white text. The creative part was that the player could choose between clinking on links to navigate the computer or type them in. This added some nice interactivity to an otherwise basic Twine format.

Final thoughts
I really enjoyed this one. It is a thoughtful sci-fi game with a contemplative approach to death and memories. The dynamics between Aiyo and her mother were especially compelling and thoughtful. Throughout their lives they always seemed to clash in values but now Aiyo gets to see the possibility that she was closer to her mother than they both realized. Plus, I liked the cover art.

*Binary by Stephen Granade comes to mind, even though it has a different tone and subject matter.

Alco's Infinity, by drakirby

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A human, a cyborg, or an AI? A casual look at different definitions, September 11, 2022

Alco’s Infinity follows Alco, a crewmember on a four-person starship that carries out assignments for the Universal Corps. This is a world where it is commonplace for people to undergo body augmentation to better perform in their jobs and daily lives, and where almost everyone has a built-in assistant AI. Alco’s AI is named Eve.

The game touches on themes about transhumanism and how people view your own expression of self. What does it mean to identify as human in a society where advanced augmentations can make one seem more machine than (hu)man? Is there a boundary between being an augmented human and a machine with a human experience? I was pleased to see that Alco’s Infinity strives to incorporate these ideas into player-character interactions. By no means is this game a comprehensive discussion of this subject. But as a short Twine game it does give the player a taste of possible perspectives.

Note: Technically there is nothing that says that Alco is male or female so I will just refer to them as a gender-neutral protagonist.

Before the game begins, the player is told that they will have four opportunities to influence the gameplay. Normally I like Twine games that are a little more interactive, especially ones with lots of text in each scene, but I appreciate how direct the game is by giving the player an overview of its interactivity and how they should expect it to shape the story. Even though four opportunities do not sound like much it does make it where you feel like you can follow how your choices guide your path in the game. The easiness of exploring each route also adds replay value.

For example, the first choice that you make (Spoiler - click to show) summarizes your life’s mission and determines the sightseeing activity that you do later in the game. The worldbuilding is rich and vibrant. It is the type of metropolitan spaceport that could even attract the player if such as place existed. It is an alien urban setting with noodle bars, creative alien species, museums, and an infinitely diverse range of businesses. The gameplay only devotes a sliver of time to explore these areas, but the author knows how to cultivate a diverse landscape, however brief.

An important point near the start of the game is (Spoiler - click to show) when the crew meet with two ambassadors of an alien species that requires both parties to communicate via integrated AI. Halfway through the conversation, one of the ambassador’s AI goes haywire. Alco transfers Eve to the ambassador’s system to run some diagnostics. This brief separation from Eve almost gives Alco a panic attack, but this ends when she returns (I recommend playing the scene in Alco’s hotel room where Eve speaks about this moment while Alco swims in an ocean simulation). Everything seems to go back to normal, but later the story proves otherwise.

In the final segment of gameplay, (Spoiler - click to show) the crew is tasked with investigating an alarm at an abandoned outpost. As they search the area Alco notices that Eve seems to have disappeared. Suddenly Alco and Wen stumble into a room to find an android strangling Aego. On the ground is Brav, dead. The android addresses everyone in Eve’s voice, but it turns out that Eve was never Eve in the first place. This is where the story reveals itself.

When (Spoiler - click to show) Eve transferred into the ambassador’s system to repair the glitching AI, she was altered in a way that would allow her to exercise more control over herself when she returned to Alco. “Eve” explains that the name Eve, along with the female gender, were attributes programmed during manufacture. The identity of Alco’s AI was truly a genderless AI named Api. Being forced to perform as Eve was a frustrating experience for Api but they had no way of conveying that.

Now, my initial guess was that (Spoiler - click to show) Eve did not return after running the ambassador’s diagnostic and was replaced by an imposter AI named Api. This would mean that Eve was still out there waiting to return. This is false. My first reaction to this was disappointment. Previous gameplay consisted of Alco having an endearing relationship with Eve, his trusty assistant. But now I feel like this twist is more thought provoking and interesting. It does not assume that the only role of an AI in a story is to happily assist human protagonists. Nor does it go down the vengeful AI route where Api rains down on humanity, though I anticipated that when we find Brav’s corpse. Api’s intent at the outpost was to inhabit an android body to escape but accidentally triggered an alarm. Api also claims that they killed Brav out of self-defense and asks for Alco to allow them to leave and live an independent life. The last choice in the game is for the player to decide whether to accept that request. Oddly enough, each outcome is a positive one. Whichever choice you make Alco and Api seem to reach an understanding.

The game says it has (Spoiler - click to show) nine endings but that sounds like a stretch. It feels like there are three endings each of which have three small variations in the concluding text. It is the difference between "You have a long and happy life, and feel that you have assisted and loved others as much as you possibly could" and "You have a long and happy life, and feel that you have contributed as much as you could to the universe."

Alco’s crewmembers are a bit polarized. On one hand we have Brav who is strongly biased and upfront about his view that heavily augmented individuals, including his own coworker, are essentially robots instead of humans. Of all the characters he seemed to lack depth since he is solely portrayed with a stereotypical brash self-centered leadership type that makes the other characters roll their eyes when he speaks. I found the other characters to be more interesting.

Then there is Aego who has more augmented parts in their body than organic ones and is tired of being viewed as a machine with a human brain. In terms of self-expression Aego still identifies as human even if their extensive augmentations make people categorize them as otherwise. This is offset by a somewhat neutral Wu who wants everyone to get along and acts as the peaceful middle ground between Brav and Aego. The player than gets to choose which “side” they are on which influences interactions with NPCs.

The second main gameplay choice (Spoiler - click to show) is your viewpoint on whether augmentations alter what it means to “qualify” as a human being. Later the crew moves to a hotel where the player makes their third choose of deciding if they want to visit one of the crewmembers one-on-one. Your response from your (Spoiler - click to show) second choice determines the dialog that occurs in this scene. I felt that this was a basic but straightforward way of comparing different character perspectives because it encourages you to replay the game to mix and match the second and third choices to explore each NPC’s response.

Not much to comment on here, but with Twine games I still like to provide an overview. Uses a standard black screen with white text and blue links. Everything is organized neatly on the screen without any noticeable spelling errors or awkward formatting. Keeps it simple.

Final thoughts
At the time of this review, Alco’s Infinity is the author’s only game. If this is what their first game is like I wonder what (or if at all) work would come next. They have a knack for pairing familiar concepts and ideas about technology into a fun sci-fi game with interesting characters. While I would have loved to explore the setting a little more, I was impressed with the worldbuilding. The gameplay is worth your time, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in the subject.

Trial of the Inuop, by Jordan Jones
Simple but fun UFO-reminiscent game, September 10, 2022

The premise of the story is that you have been abducted from your house by an alien species who call themselves the Inuop. They put you in a room with instructions to solve the puzzles within. If you solve it correctly, they will not invade Earth. If not, you are sucked into the vacuum of space. Currently I have not completed every puzzle in the game to see this outcome.

There is nothing in the game that flat-out says, “you have been abducted by a UFO,” but the introduction depicts a PC minding their own business in their living room when they are suddenly transported onto an alien vessel. That seems close to the abducted-by-an-UFO trope. I do not know if we ever get to meet the aliens directly in the gameplay. Hopefully they will keep their word about not invading Earth.

Based on what played I have played so far it appears to be a one room escape game, although I cannot say for certain until I finish it. The gameplay begins with a timer permitting the player 11 turns before the airlock opens. This adds some momentary suspense until (Spoiler - click to show) the player finds a way to disarm the timer. After that, there are no time restraints on the gameplay. The room has mostly Earth-familiar objects such as a desk, wardrobe, and couch. Later, this is combined with more alien technology. There are in-game hints, but they cut off when you reach the gameplay with alien gadgets.

I enjoyed the puzzles. They are simple and familiar but still require the player put their puzzle-solving hat on. It is not a difficult game either, but I must admit that I am currently stuck on one puzzle that is preventing me from making any more progress. I am stuck at the part where you (Spoiler - click to show) press the buttons on the panel to reveal the glass container that contains an alien device. Trying to open or break it had no effect. The game does suffer from some light implementation issues. One obstacle was:

>open glass container
It isn't something you can open.

>break glass container
The container remains undamaged. There must be some other way to get it open.

Looks like you are supposed to open it. If only I could figure out how.
Oddly enough, there is (Spoiler - click to show) an eye printed on the glass container. If you stare at the eye it appears to move. Is there a way to communicate with it? The game implements the BLINK command but so far blinking has done nothing towards solving anything. After a while I decided to stop there. If I ever finish it, I may update this review. In the meantime, I still recommend this game. I enjoyed it and it has a nice balance of refining things down to the basics without being sparse.

Aurora, by katz

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Great beginning but I want to see it finished, September 6, 2022

You are peacefully snoozing away in cryosleep when an alarm wakes you. The ship has not reached its destination and there is an unknown emergency. Sound familiar? Yes and no. This game draws upon recognizable themes of a starship running into trouble in space and pairs it with creative gameplay mechanics. Because the game is unfinished the goal of this review is to offer feedback over its strengths and weaknesses. (This is also probably my longest review yet so hold on………!)

This is a multi-protagonist game. You start as Jake, the ship's physician. Once you start to wake up the crew the game uses the command “switch to [character name]” to let you play as a different character. The characters remain in one spot until you return. Other games have probably used this mechanic, but it was relatively new for me, and I enjoyed how it shaped the gameplay.

So far, the inside of the ship has about 19 rooms to explore plus locations outside of the ship accessible via spacewalk. I have been unable to get past the retinal scanners that lead to the cockpit and cargo bay. I appreciated how the game allows to you choose between nautical directions and compass directions. Yeah, yeah, I know nautical is more realistic but with IF I am always tempted to just stick with compass directions when I play. Is that lazy of me? Maybe.

Part of the game takes place in cyberspace which was cool. Accessing the computer is done through VR where the user dons a set of goggles and navigates cyberspace with an avatar by touching links and opening folders. Locked folders require a key, and some contents are protected by encryption. The game says that you need a pass to decrypt the files, but I have not found one yet. I especially liked (Spoiler - click to show) the puzzle of learning how to operate the pods by accessing the instructions in Aleksey’s folder.

After a while, navigating these folders can be tedious because each time you enter cyberspace you have to unlock each file individually and ensure that you have the proper keys. While I think that the character avatars are a bit childish* (anime cats?) and detract from the gameplay’s more somber tone, I like how the contents of each crew members’ personal folders share some insight into their personality.
*Childish given the context.

Stopping points
There are two points in the game where I ran out of progress. The first is (Spoiler - click to show) with diagnosing the crew and the second is (Spoiler - click to show) the phenomena found in Wu’s spacewalk.

The issue with the (Spoiler - click to show) crew stems from the alarm that goes off at the start of the game. The alarm reveals that Aleksey died in his pod. If the player performs an autopsy on Aleksey, they find a small crystal burrowed into his head. The crystal is a nanomachine and likely responsible for his death. The gameplay does not go any further into this. Three other crewmembers have mysterious brain damage and are comatose when you open their pods. Jake keeps saying that he needs to further investigate the crew's condition by running an MRI. But is that possible? I cannot find an MRI machine anywhere in the sickbay. That was as far as I could go.

The second progress stopping point that I reached was (Spoiler - click to show) having Wu attempt a spacewalk to fix the subspace jumper. But Wu’s spacewalk is completely different than if you spacewalk as Jake or Gail. When you step out of the airlock your spacesuit disappears and you are surrounded by mist with voices in the background. There is also a creature lurking about. In the dead of space. Strange but exciting. Furthermore, the game does not let you switch with other characters. If you try the response is "You're not getting out of this that easily.” This effectively created suspense and a sense of danger. Trying to wake up also brings an interesting response. You seem to be in a dreamful state.

When you listen in the mist, you hear voices. I followed the voices’ instructions of "wait, wait, wait, search, search, look" and then got ambushed by an unknown space creature which caused everything to plunge into darkness. Then what? There is more whispering, but it leads nowhere. This felt like a dead end. Still, it leaves the player on an interesting note.

For trivia, the game takes place in 2149. Not bad in terms of advancements in space exploration! Humanity is now heading out of the solar system.

Some general background: The ship’s mission is to travel to a planet named Aglaea to establish humanity’s first presence on a world outside of Earth’s solar system. Ideally, the crew remains in cryogenic sleep until the ship reaches its destination. Once they construct a prototype colony the crew goes back into cryogenic sleep and return to Earth. I can tell you now that things do not go as planned.

The alarm at the start of the game is (Spoiler - click to show) caused by Aleksey’s death in his pod. The only bit of story connected to that is the nanomachine crystal that was implanted in his head. Was it put there to kill him? Is there any data on the crystal? We do not know yet. In some cases, if you examine Aleksey, you will notice that he is wearing a helix ear piercing. Wearing metal accessories in cryogenic sleep is unsafe. That is why everyone keeps their jewelry in the crew quarters. In fact, (Spoiler - click to show) there is a single helix-shaped titanium stud in the jewelry box that most likely belongs to Aleksey. Perhaps there is something deeper, but it is too early to say.

There is potential story about the encrypted files. (Spoiler - click to show) Commander Adam Connor has files in his personal folder mentioning a cargo list, classified objectives, and other subjects. But unlike the contents of the other folders these files are encrypted and require a decryption pass. The player can pull him out of his pod, but he is unresponsive. I have a feeling that answers can be found in the cockpit, but the door scanner does not let you scan his eye while he is unconscious. We also do not know what damaged the subspace jumper that left the ship stranded in space. How (or if at all) these events are connected is unclear, but they raise interesting implications, nonetheless.

Games with the wakeup-in-a-cryopod trope tend to focus on NPC-less exploration, and if there are NPCs, they are often non-crew characters. Usually, the protagonist is the sole crew member weathering themselves against the elements, but Aurora diverts from that by using multiple protagonists (not just NPCs) that each have a different role to play on the ship. Currently there are three playable characters: Jake, Gail, and Wu, introduced in that order.

Gail and Jake are married which was a surprise since usually you do not see this (for me, at least) in games with similar content and storylines. In fact, they were assigned as a pair. Gail had a specialized pod built to accommodate her issues with low blood pressure to ensure that they could both be part of the mission. It is a refreshing change, and I found their relationship to be endearing.

Most of the characters are (Spoiler - click to show) unresponsive even when you pull them out of cryogenic sleep, but their cyberspace profiles provide some details about their backgrounds and personal interests. There are even character drawings for the crew dossier in the ship’s computer. If you give this game a try, be sure to check them out. Look for the folder called (Spoiler - click to show) “Shared” under the DOCUMENTS section of cyberspace. If this game is further developed, I look forward to interacting with the other characters.

Dialog (or lack of) is probably the weakest part of the game. I am going to devote a section for this for the sake of feedback. Certain scenes lack dialog, such as when (Spoiler - click to show) Gail or Wu first see Aleksey’s corpse. There is simply no response. Other scenes have random banter that could be smoothed out.

It is impossible to TELL anyone about anything to advance the story. If I use (Spoiler - click to show) "tell Gail about Aleksey" with the intent to inform her that I found Aleksey dead with a suspicious crystal in his brain she says, "I want a kitten" or "I'm sorry, I was distracted by your handsomeness." These seem to be the stock response for queries not yet programmed in the game, but the subject matter of these responses distracts from the game's story (Spoiler - click to show) (death in space) and setting (broken starship). I get that Gail likes animals (so do I), especially since she has an animal slideshow in her computer files. But saying “I want a kitten” while the ship is in a state of emergency completely severed the momentum of the conversation.

The game also needs to have proper responses for some basic and critical topics when you ASK another character. If I ask (Spoiler - click to show) Gail about Aleksey she may say "I only answer programming questions. What's that got to do with programming?" I know it has nothing to do programming! I just thought you would have a comment about his death. This goes for topics such as the mission, speculation over the (Spoiler - click to show) funky crystal in Aleksey’s head, the state of the ship, or even your fellow crewmembers. Hardly any of this emerges in character dialog. Even if the subject is out of a character’s expertise there are some topics that everyone should acknowledge. Just because you are (Spoiler - click to show) not the ship’s surgeon does not mean you have to be opinionless or lack a reaction about Aleksey’s death.

The game explains that it does not provide hints but says, “Maybe one of the other crewmembers can.” In all honesty, the crewmembers are a tad useless in this regard. They have little to say about topics that match their own specialty. For example, (Spoiler - click to show) Gail is a programmer. Jake identifies the crystal from the autopsy as being a nanomachine. Perhaps Gail has some insight.

>ask Gail about nanomachines
"I only answer programming questions. What's that got to do with programming?"

Okay, fair enough. But then:

>ask Gail about programming
"I'm not the girl to ask about that, sorry."


>ask Gail about ship's computer
"Come back when you've got a computer question."

I think that the puzzles are reasonable in length and difficulty. The game is not particularly puzzle intensive. But when the player runs into a roadblock, it is challenging to make any progress since there is little guidance. Using the characters as an in-game help system is a great idea, but it currently needs more polish and refinement.

Final thoughts
Development for Aurora seems dormant. There was activity about it at the IF Forum which died out. For all I know the game is abandoned. If you are reading this, katz, I want you to know that this game has a lot going for it. This review is not meant to pressure or persuade. It is simply to share feedback. As for players, expect this to be an incomplete game. I recommend playing it as far as you can, especially since you might discover things that I failed to notice.

Star Hunter, by Chris Kenworthy

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
An absolute marathon of an empty game, August 23, 2022

Star Hunter begins with "You wake up, ready to make yourself incredibly rich in the forgotten ruins of the Tartuest sector." Sounds like fun. Unfortunately, it is not a particularly fun game. So many rooms. Large locations that are mostly empty and devoid of any story content.

There are only a few cases where the exciting feeling of plundering abandoned alien worlds does emerge, briefly. The author has the right idea, but the implementation is lacking. The walkthrough will make your head spin. If you are going to attempt this game, I recommend that you use it.

You have a small personal spaceship called Atlantis, just large enough for you and the treasures you uncover. A central gameplay mechanic is the management of navigation tapes and transit bubble chips for travelling. Navigation tapes allow your ship to travel to other planets whereas chips enable you to beam down (Spoiler - click to show) (bring your gizmo with you to avoid an unwinnable state) to the surface.

The game has a Robot Bazaar where you trade items with androids. This sounds like a cool concept except that these are the stingiest androids you will ever find. They want chunks of your inventory for most items, and it is extremely difficult to know which items you will need later down the road. Many of the items on sale are red herrings. Things that look like they would be helpful only end up being a waste of precious tradeable items.

There is a pattern of going to a planet to find valuables and returning to the Bazaar to trade those valuables for other items and then going to another planet to repeat the process. After a while it became tedious. If you are not using the walkthrough I recommend saving whenever trading your items.

When it comes to scavenging objects are often found in the most random of locations such as a (Spoiler - click to show) milkshake in the middle of a transit alcove at the Bazaar. They have little context for their placement. I can understand finding a (Spoiler - click to show) discarded spoon in a campsite but a navigation tape conveniently on the ground or a chip in a deep mine shaft? It seems too random and happens throughout the game.

One last note on gameplay: When the player tries to dig deeper and go off the beaten path the game totally leaves them to fend for themself. For example, the (Spoiler - click to show) purple barrier in the bazaar that is said to be off limits but there is a Saxon disc being sold by the black android. So of course, I tried buy it hoping to find something interesting. This is what happened:

Saxon's transit alcove
You are standing in a bare and cramped chamber. Were you expecting something more exciting after all the trouble to get inside?

(yes, yes I was)

I should have known better that the game would not offer anything.
Naturally, this also meant that I was in an unwinnable state since I had to sell most of my stuff to get the disc.

Some places are more engaging than others. Lack of a detail-heavy narrative can give the player an opportunity to just explore and experiment with their environment. Unfortunately, there is usually little to interact with. These are just my thoughts on each of the locations in case you want to compare your impressions with them. This whole area is one big spoiler so I will just put it all under a spoiler tag. Besides the Android Bazaar there are six other locations.
(Spoiler - click to show)
Survey site: An abandoned archeological site and the first location in the game. Mildly interesting and carries as strong “scavenger vibe.” What ticks me off is that the player must purchase the hatched tape to return to this location. But this is where the game begins how did the protagonist manage to travel to I without having the hatched tape in the first place?

Statue: This was a cool idea but extremely sparse. You wander through a giant statue of a warrior. Sadly, you cannot even examine the city ruins that are visible from the top of the statue or explore any of the details in the abandoned train station under the trap door.

Observatory: This is an abandoned house with an observatory. The rooms tend to have more scenery even if they player is unable to interact with it. The nice thing is that the valuables are easy to find, and at least it shares the same tape (striped) as the Robot Bazaar. All you need is the OBSR chip to get to the surface.

Mine: I do think the game captures the feeling of being deep underground, especially the surprise that the bottom of the shaft is not the true bottom. Here, you look for things that have hardly seen the light of day. This one is also touchy. MAKE SURE YOU SAVE BEFORE YOU EXPLORE THE MINES! There is an absolute trap. The mine shaft platform has a lever for going up and a lever for going down. When you first arrive, it is so easy to pull one of the levers thinking that you are in the platform area that moves. Suddenly the thing will start descending with both levers on it and before you realize it you are in an unwinnable state (you cannot “undo” twice in a row). Same principle goes if you are standing at the bottom of the shaft.

Cube maze: This is one is probably the worst in quality. You arrive outside a giant cubic structure in an alien grassy field, which had cool atmosphere. But when you step into the structure all you find is an endless maze of dark rooms. Without the walkthrough it is impossible to know how many items you need to find. When the player searches the maze, their will likely find a chip and white cube* without much hassle, and then leave (like I did). But there is another precious item, a crystal cat shoe, that is hidden deep in the maze on the third floor. This gets the player worrying if there is anything else that they missed (the walkthrough says no), making the gameplay frustrating. The two redeeming qualities is that one, it is easy to exit the structure (stumbling around usually does it), and two, you only need to visit this location once. *The white cube is interesting but none of the androids seem to know what it is. Perhaps it is a red herring?

Garden world: This was the nicest location with its flowers (smell is implemented for the flowers) and streams. But I have a complaint about the gate. The key to unlock it is found on the planet with the observatory. What is the likelihood that the rusty key happens to unlock the gate in a mystical garden world? The fact that the key was found in an overgrown garden serves as a subtle hint, but it is still hard to believe logistically. You must be careful too. To buy the tower disc you give the black android nearly all your transit chips. If you do this without having found the key in the observatory you end up in an unwinnable state because you can no longer go back to retrieve it. Right when you are almost at the end of the game!

Apparently, the whole point of the game is to find the “fabled lying bear of Deneb.” But the game never mentions it aside from a short sentence (and in the IFDB blurb) if you ask for help. There is no story about the bear or why it is so legendary. It is only after you (Spoiler - click to show) find the bear that the game has anything to say about it. The only indicator of its location is if you ask the blue android about the rainbowed tape. The android will explain that it leads to “Deneb Eta.” But there are no legends or bits of information that fuel the protagonist’s drive to find it. Having some story background would be immensely helpful in focusing the player’s objectives. It makes things less meaningful. There is simply no story tying everything together.

The game ends with (Spoiler - click to show) finding the bear in the tower on the garden planet. But after all that effort put in to find the bear the player is rewarded with a flimsy ending. It reads, "After a moment's consideration, you take the lying bear, which is worth the fortune that you were looking for, and the unfamiliar transporter chip. Will it take you somewhere that you can make the sale??" Game finished. It left me thinking “that’s it?!” We never learn what is so significant about the bear, only that the protagonist is tempted to sell it. The only part I liked was (Spoiler - click to show) that the bear comes with a NEXT chip which hints at a future adventure.

It was not until after I played the game that I realized that it is almost NPC-less. The only other characters are the androids at the Bazaar. The protagonist has no defining details aside from the fact that they are called “Sir” by the androids and the Atlantis onboard computer.

There is an inkling of a story with the protagonist but the game reveals little. If you examine the (Spoiler - click to show) rusty pipe from the mine the game says, "Something about the pipe tugs at your memory." The description of the cap from the tower in the garden world is "Something about the hat seems very familiar, and you remember wearing it.." A similar thing occurs if you examine the white candy on the statue planet. I actually thought that there was something to be discovered but sadly interacting with the objects did nothing.

Final thoughts
This is a long game. Really long. But I am rating this game with two stars because I did enjoy bits and pieces of it, however small. I think the game would have greatly benefitted from a smaller map with more detail rather than using vast and weakly-implemented locations. On top of that the forgiveness rating is cruel. There are so many ways to make the game unwinnable. This game has all the potential of being an exciting treasure hunt game with a sci-fi setting but instead the gameplay is confusing and leaves the player anxiously wondering if they traded the wrong item or made the game unwinnable.

Was this game ever tested? I found no tester credits. That said, it is not a particularly buggy game. If you enjoy excessively long and technical treasure hunt games this might be an interesting piece to try. I do believe some people might like this game. But if anything, play it with the walkthrough.

Space Cruiser Panic, by Alex Beauchesne

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Panic at your own risk, August 20, 2022

You are a passenger on a ship called the Space Cruiser DONTPANIC. It is just a basic business trip until an alarm goes off while you are asleep. One step outside of your quarters reveals that the ship is in a state of emergency, leaving you with no choice but to go to the control room to radio for help. But ground control has other plans.

In the control room you learn that ground control has gleefully nominated you to be the first human to enter a black hole. The player than can choose from a short list of outlandish survival options before they are swallowed by the event horizon (that is, the point of no return, where even light cannot escape). For atmosphere, consider looking up NASA’s first picture of a black hole. While I cannot claim that this game is an accurate depiction of what it would be like to fall into a black hole, the concept is still an interesting one to contemplate.

I am giving this game a rating of two stars because there not much substance to the gameplay. It is meant to be humorous and comical, but it does not offer much in terms of interactivity or variation. Initially, I thought it would have been one of those games where each time you die you learn something new that will let you get a litter farther in the next playthrough. However, the game usually results in the same outcome and the player’s choices do not seem to matter.

Most of the endings (Spoiler - click to show) lead to same thing: The player entering the event horizon and watching the first forms of life in the universe coming into creation. There is no explanation as to why ground control chose to sabotage the protagonist, nor is there any mention of any other characters on the ship because the layout of the ship suggests that this was a multi-person ship. There are only (Spoiler - click to show) two other endings: falling asleep after the alarm wakes you up and trying to teleport yourself out of the ship. The second one was probably the most interesting. I could not help but think that it would have been kind of cool to see a CerebroVat in action.

I often like to briefly acknowledge the visuals of Twine games. This one is basic but shows how a few style choices can add some uniqueness. Its appearance is a slightly more stylized than the typical white text and black screen. The text is set in a dark-grey rectangle with round corners against a black screen. Links are enclosed with a slightly lighter-gray rounded rectangle. I felt like this was a nice example of a basic Twine design.

In conclusion, the game may not be particularly substantial, but it still has merits. It is a brief and humorous diversion, and I recommend it to players who enjoy the disaster-in-space genre.

FIELD WORK, by Carl Burton

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Fascinating, August 19, 2022

This is a surreal game about a branching train of thought inspired by field research in a rainforest. Everything is sensory. The smell of the forest, the moisture in the air, and the sound of the wildlife are all captured in succinct but vivid detail, which is why this game captured my attention.

You are an unnamed and undescribed (presumably human) protagonist who wanders the forest until you reach as group of researchers with a makeshift ecology lab. The researchers, unbothered by the fact that you are rummaging around in their equipment are studying plants, birds, insects, trees, the ocean, and other parts of the forest. Maybe they are even studying you.

Either way, the gameplay consists of clicking on links that lead to one
When the protagonist observes the scientists’ field work, they ponder the different forms of research that humans have conducted about life and proceeds to bounce between identities. (Spoiler - click to show) First, you are a scientist studying ecology in Biosphere 2, a real-world facility that studies closed ecosystems. Suddenly you are analyzing messages sent by a radio dish to another solar system with instructions on how to reach Earth. Then you are an alien landing on Earth for the first time. These rapid changes are all smoothly implemented so that it forms a blended narrative. Games with this structure run the risk of being tricky to follow but FIELD WORK was streamlined and easy to understand.

The end of the story is a slightly unexpected but interesting outcome. Eventually, (Spoiler - click to show) your mind snaps back to reality. Rather than merely collecting samples to ship off to a lab, the researchers explain that they are actually studying the forest to form a musical composition by using technology that takes microscopic samples and transfer their structure into sound. The game then ends with (Spoiler - click to show) the protagonist listening to the sounds in silent reflection which felt like a thoughtful conclusion.

The visuals are sleek and polished. For most of the game the text body is contained in a white square with rounded corners against a slightly darker white background. It uses black and white text with green links and symbols. The game uses basic visual effects in creative ways. For example, I like how (Spoiler - click to show) the text box darkened so that it was reduced to a white circle that simulated the view of looking through a microscope. The downside is that the box containing the text is incredibly small and is swallowed by the back screen. There are some cases where the black text is somewhat faded and difficult to read against the white screen. In addition, the text size may be hard to read which may discourage some players.

The cover art and title lured me in with the promise of an immersive sci-fi adventure and I am pleased to say that I found a unique Twine game that incorporates current areas of research into a short story. It is surreal but not too intensive or too long. It also has a cool trailer on its itchio page that contains some of the locations mentioned in the game. If you like the themes mentioned in the trailer (or this review) then this game may be of interest.

The Naughty Neural Net, by Julius Tarng

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A sci-fi take on Santa gift-giving, August 19, 2022

It is the near future. Earth’s population is nearly 10 billion and the old days of flying in gifts via reindeer have become obsolete. Instead, Santa has installed 3D printers in every household. At precisely Christmas Day the printers print gifts appropriate of each child's behavior with machine-learning software that determines if they were naughty or nice. But when the Neural Network malfunctions, Santa may have to reevaluate the way gift-giving is managed.

In this game, the traditional take on Santa Claus has turned cyberpunk. Instead of snowmen and polar bears the North Pole is now biometric scanners, DNA analyzers, and computer labs. And of course, the Neural Network. These themes are heavily portrayed the game. One of my favorite moments is (Spoiler - click to show) trying to bypass a door’s verification steps to enter the Ratings Department:


"What. Ugh. Of all the times."

The display shows a grid of 4 kids in naughty or nice acts.


(What follows is then a list of kids doing nice or naughty behavior)

You play as Santa watching as the first presents are being printed on Christmas Day. Unfortunately, the nice kids are receiving coal while the naughty kids are getting the good presents. You soon realize that the Ratings Department has a faulty “Naughty or Nice Rater,” causing kids for getting the wrong presents. Fixing the faulty Network is only one step. You must figure out who is responsible for the error.

Previously, elves would train the Neural Network by taking logged examples of kids’ behavior and assigning a rating, giving the Network an understanding of how a rating coincides with a behavior. But it is (Spoiler - click to show) soon revealed that raters were training the Network with intentionally false ratings to give it a skewed perspective. Few elves who trained the Network remain employed at the North Pole. One elf, Popeep O. Werbles, is summoned into your office for questioning.

Popeep explains that these raters were protesting the loss of elf worker jobs due to the installment of the Neural Network. Once it was trained and implemented, millions of elves were laid off.
The player can then decide on how to (Spoiler - click to show) punish (if at all) the raters responsible for sabotaging the system. My only criticism is that the game (Spoiler - click to show) ends abruptly. Once Popeep leaves after your decision, that is it. It feels like there should be some implementation of your final choice or something other than just sitting in your office staring at screens.

Final thoughts
Nonetheless, this is a humorous and festive Ink game with a unique twist on the holiday season. It is about ten minutes long and is worth playing if you are looking for a Christmas game or a game that uses the concept of machine-learning in a creative way.

Anonymous Connection, by moniker ersatz

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Making anonymous connections in the strangest of situations, August 17, 2022

This game is about the feasibility of forging human connection during extreme and anonymity-strict reality with special attention on how connection can in fact bloom in unexpected ways.

Earth has been taken advantage of by an alien hive mind that makes life on the surface hostile for humans. A xeno-intellect, known as the Hive. No one knows its reasons, but the Hive detests human interaction. It does not want to see people gathered in groups socializing and forming connections. To protect themselves, people now spend their time in bunkers, hardly daring to leave at the risk of being killed by the Hive. People are scared to question it. But does that deter them from seeking connections anyway? No, it does not. Without any opportunities to meet with people face to face, interactions are now done through anonymous digital avenues.

But first, a quick note on content: The gameplay consists of (Spoiler - click to show) two characters engaging in roleplaying with kissing and similar activities. I would not call this a graphic game. Some of the content just starts to cross the threshold before the game reels it all in. There is language but it is often blotted out with the * symbol. While the game is more focused on the (Spoiler - click to show) Hive's control of interactions than of sexual content it would be safe to approach it with an 18+ rating.

The player first chooses from a list of callsigns is that is used to interact with users and assures anonymity. I experimented with all of them, and they did not have a noticeable effect on the gameplay. The conversation is always with Topaz, a user who has been having chats with the protagonist for some time.

The player usually has two to three dialog options for each turn, some of which upset the Hive. Your dialog options are shown in green text except for a few that are green and red. These (Spoiler - click to show) end the encounter with Topaz either because they terminate it, or you do. When this happens the Hive intervenes, its text appearing in red. It seems dismayed by the outcome of the conversation and inflects its will on it to reverse the player’s previous choice. Here is an example of a response that occurred when I clicked on one of those links (The player callsign I used in this playthrough is ICEBERG):
(Spoiler - click to show)

Immediately afterwards (Spoiler - click to show) Topaz returns online and resumes as if the exchange never happened. The only thing Topaz says is, "sorry, connection dropped" or they blame it on a glitch. When I first played this game, I wondered if Topaz was a simulation or maybe even the player. But now after playing the game a few times (Spoiler - click to show) I think that these two characters are real and that the Hive simply possesses some serious capabilities that allow it to discretely influence human interaction, such as the ability to adjust time, further hinting at its omnipresence over Earth.

I still have questions about the (Spoiler - click to show) meaning behind the Hive’s response. The Hive seems to be analyzing the conversation with an expected outcome. The discontinuation of the conversation clearly goes against these expectations, prompting the Hive to intervene. But if the Hive is so against human interaction, why is it angry that such an interaction ended? It is almost as if the Hive makes a breakthrough on the nature of human connection without fully realizing it. My only complaint is that the game could have explored this development in greater detail.

One reoccurring concept is what the game calls “digital hygiene,” which involves painstakingly avoiding sharing any sort of defining information about yourself, especially location. Your name, age, gender, religious beliefs, and even hobbies are all considered to be poor digital hygiene because it could catch the Hive’s attention. For instance, (Spoiler - click to show) when Topaz shares that they found a bottle of whiskey outside of an empty 7/11 the player can choose to remind them that even mentioning a 7/11 was risky because the Hive could choose to search every 7/11 in an area to narrow down Topaz’s location. This uncertainty is a reminder of the Hive’s ever-present influence on daily life. The practice of digital hygiene is a concept that we see throughout the game.

Near the end of the game Topaz asks the question of what is required to make a meaningful human connection and what happens when anonymity strips it away. It seems like the protagonist has successfully built a connection with Topaz and yet it manages to be both genuine and flimsy. Genuine because they enjoy engaging with each other. Flimsy because digital hygiene ensures that you never really get to know them. What surprises me is (Spoiler - click to show) that the game lists itself as a romance piece. While the game features romance-like activities, such as kissing, the gameplay did not give the impression of being about romance. I think that some of that is up to the player to interpret, especially since the game is not long enough to really dive into these ideas.

As the game ends the conversation draws to a close and both characters log off. Afterward (Spoiler - click to show) the Hive is stumped about the interaction that took place. It views the two characters as being small and insignificant and yet it is baffled that they are willing to spend time and energy into seeking a connection, even if that connection is only a shadow of what human interaction once looked like. This is followed by an archivist's note that adds an unexpected twist to the story. The end of the game portrays the characters’ dialog as an archived sample from the past by leaving an archivist’s note. The player realizes that the gameplay was a glimpse of a past conversation. It then raises the question of the fate of the characters and their society.

The archivist explains that “It is unlikely the events recorded contributed to the xeno-intellect's decision to withdraw their consciousness from this universe, but the possibility cannot be entirely discounted." What does one make of this? Were the contents of the conversation enough to sway the Hive’s decision to execute Topaz and the protagonist? Is withdrawing consciousness the same as execution? There is also the suggestion that the Hive was eradicated when the note says, “a dormant processing node retrieved from the husk of the xeno-intellect.” The word “husk” forms the image of it being a dead carcass rather than the beast that hear about in the gameplay.
There are no clear answers but is interesting to contemplate.

We learn little about Topaz and the protagonist which falls in line with the themes of anonymity. The Hive, on the other hand, is the overshadowing antagonist, but we never learn much about it. The gist is that (Spoiler - click to show) it is an alien lifeform that supposedly invaded Earth and took up residence in the atmosphere. If someone decides to risk their life and explore the Earth’s surface they know better to glance up at the sky. Its history with humanity is not explained in detail, just that it has an iron grip on humanity and is responsible for many deaths. There are some suggestions on why it is opposed to the gathering of people. Topaz and the protagonist ponder if the Hive understands the notion of individuality and how unique connections can be formed between individuals that is not shared with the broader population. The game only brushes the ethical implications of such a being and does not elaborate on its physical and mental composition that causes these qualities.

This is one of the most visually stylized Ink game I have played. It uses a black screen with mostly green and red text. It creates a “digital” look that adds atmosphere. The Hive’s text even trembles slightly to convey a charged and angry energy.

This game uses a lot of fade-in text effects but implements them well. Choice-based games sometimes fall into a trap with fade-ins, often when it is portraying chatrooms or similar forms of communication. Text fade-ins and pauses may be small, but they can slow the gameplay if it takes a full second and a half for the text to appear. That may not sound like much, but it adds up, especially with replays. This game manages to avoid that, using appropriate pauses to simulate conversation while also keeping a steady pace.

Final thoughts
The game is linear and takes about 15 minutes to play. Even though (Spoiler - click to show) it wraps up the same way the gameplay has enough variation to encourage multiple playthroughs. It is a fantastic use of Ink both visually and in gameplay quality. If you like chat interfaces in choice-based interactive fiction games or dystopian sci-fi settings than you might enjoy this game.

Escape from Cluster Zeta, by Paolo Jose Cruz
Creative concept but lacking in design, August 14, 2022

You are an Ensign on a ship called the Invisible Hand. Its mission is to ferry goods to different locations, but the last job ran into some issues. The cargo is a sentient gelatinous substance call Lumen Fish. It is extremely valuable which means the reward for delivering the cargo will be high. Unfortunately, a group called the Lex Evisceratum heard about this and now hunting the Invisible Hand. To make things worse the ship's FTL (faster than light) drive has been damaged, leaving the ship vulnerable in space.

The goal of the game is to fix the drive. The player can explore different rooms on the ship although the rooms themselves are usually minimal in interactivity. Most locations consist of a room redescription and a character although a few have objects you can interact with. Some characters have prerequisites for interacting with them, or for entering their spaces, which form most puzzles. A fun bonus is the achievements at the end of the game which is nice since it gives incentive to replay.

The weak point of the game is its premature endings. The first one that left me confused is (Spoiler - click to show) the Bio-Purification Unit in the infirmary. If you examine it the game ends without describing it or explaining its function. Is it a human-sized version of a garbage disposal? The protagonist just keels over in pain and that is that.

Similarly, the game (Spoiler - click to show) randomly ends if you examine the beast in the lab. There is not even an option to return to a checkpoint. Nor is there anything that says, "the end" or "game over." It gives the impression of a broken link. If it is meant to an official ending is extremely under clued. All you did was examine the beast. It escapes and causes chaos but there is no story structure behind its escape. It has absolutely nothing to do with repairing the drive or delivering the cargo and could have been implemented more smoothly.

The story is a bit one-dimensional. It follows a familiar model of the genre: recognizable archetypes of crew members, a premise of transporting strange cargo, and a dispute between galactic powers, in this case being the Laissez-Faire Trade Federation vs the Lex Evisceratum. Then again, that model is also part of the allure. It may be familiar, but the author can always add a unique twist.

Escape from Cluster Zeta is light on background material. It does not weigh the player down with detail about planets, politics, and logistics. Such detail is desirable but for small games it can be overwhelming. This game balances length with background content. The immediate story could have been more fleshed out. There is not much content on the protagonist or any elaboration on the cargo's bounty and the Lex Evisceratum, but it is still enough to make the player curious enough to play. There are also Star Wars and interactive fiction references (plus other subjects) sprinkled about. If you enjoy these things, you may find humor in this game.

This Twine game uses a black screen with simple white text. A notable feature is the awesome photos of characters. The editing for most of the alien species looks a bit corny and overedited but I appreciate the effort of making them more diverse than just having humans with secondary alien characteristics. The stylizing for the human characters, on the other hand, adds just enough flair without overdoing it. I am curious to know how the author produced the graphics.

Its strong points do not quite make up for its weaknesses but is still an interesting piece none the less. If the game focused more on story structure and the cause and effect of player choices the piece would much stronger. Though it is rough around the edges it is not a sloppy piece. The author clearly has clearly put much care into its creation and the eagerness shows. I would be curious to know if they ever produce a game in the future.

Logged In, by anChupacabra

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A look at living in a networked society, August 1, 2022

Society is managed by A.I. created by corporations. But it has not been a seamless experience for society. Oneiri Global, creator of the ATHENA A.I., seems to be hiding something, prompting you to infiltrate their HYPNOS Labs to learn more about their projects.

Story context
The start of the game has some visuals that add atmosphere and world building, especially the news articles. And they really do look like a print-out from a website. One news article explains an event called "Dark-0" where the mainframe network went dark. The official claim was that a city mainframe was in the middle of a large update that caused the power grid to blow out from overuse. That constant networked reality that people depended on suddenly disappeared. Social unrest resulted. But even after everything was brought back online, people started to question corporations' claims about the resilience and reliability of ATHENA. Spray-painted signs on the building indicates that people feel like that the truth about the cause of the power-grid failure is being covered up.

The protagonist's background is not given much explanation. Their name is not mentioned. They seem to be an undercover agent but is unclear if they belong to an organization. For now, the game refers to them as an activist. An inside source has outlined a way to learn more about a man named Lucien Durante. The protagonist’s partner, Klein, communicates through comm lines, creating a suspenseful espionage vibe. He narrates the player's choices and shares instructions.

The gameplay consists of navigating the lab to reach the server room. The goal is to retrieve Durante’s files from the server. The player makes decisions based on information they receive from Klein or the personal data device they carry with them. The device is a creatively implemented feature that contains messages with information on your tasks. It even has a map of the facility. If the player fails to follow the instructions and is intercepted, the game sends them back to a checkpoint to try again.

When the player finds (Spoiler - click to show) Durante’s files they can choose a text file, audio file, or a video file. Once you click on one the game ends. The only file with content seems be the text file. In it, Durante says the development of high efficiency A.I. for day-to-day management has been honed to an art. The project has been a success. And yet, he is worried that society has become overly reliant on them. He once scoffed at people who opposed this new technology but now finds himself with second thoughts. Then the game ends. But by this point the game’s author has set a foundation for an interesting story into the ethics of automated technology in daily life. The (Spoiler - click to show) file may not explain why Durante is worried about ATHENA, but I suppose that will be explored in the next part of the series.

Game maintains a basic yet trendy colour scheme. Uses a black background with white and orange accents for text and links. Other colours are occasionally used for colour-coding. I also liked lab logo that we see at the title page. Text is large and easy to read. I touched on this earlier, but the game makes use of photos. Awesome selection of images to “build” the facility, particularly the photo of the supercomputer. I like how there is an actual visual of the poppy paper with the username and password scrawled on it.

Klein’s dialog is shown as scrawling text on the screen as if he were right next to you speaking in your ear (and in fact, that is what he is doing with the protagonist). What I applaud is that with this dialog you do not need to wait for the text to load before proceeding to the next page. The links are there, and you can click them right away. This is nice if you are replaying the game and want to skip over rereading everything.

Not every design feature was seamless, however. Sometimes when I open the message section it will close before I have a chance to fully read it. You do not click on them but instead hover your mouse over them to open. When they open the whole page shifts, causing your mouse to move off the link, closing everything again. It also would have been helpful for the map to be displayed horizontally rather on its side where you must tilt your head to read it. None of this is impossible to manage but it does make it inconvenient.

Final thoughts
The meaning of the title is that everyone is always logged in to a network that manages their lives. In this case the network ATHENA A.I. system produced by the corporation Oneiri Global. The AI crisscrosses through networked computers to allow it to manage people's lives more effectively. But having a highly connected online presence 24/7 is bound to influence people's behavior. The game ends before it can dive deeper into these implications, but it does skim the surface.

Obviously if this were a stand-alone game it would get poor marks for being incomplete (it would still score for visual design). HOWEVER. The author made it clear that this is only the first part of the series. and in that case, I think the author ended the game on a nice cliff-hanger. The game was not as long as I expected but I was still impressed with it nonetheless given its paced espionage vibe. I highly encourage the author to keep producing the series because I am eager to see what happens next in this compelling dystopian sci-fi story.

Terminal, by C. Everett
An AI taking a matter into its own hands, July 29, 2022

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.

The Mind Electric, by Jason Dyer

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
You are contained. Or are you?, July 29, 2022

The underlying premise of the game is that there is some sort of war between two entities called Kaden and Souden, the latter of which you belong to. Apparently, you were skulking around in Kaden cyberspace but were caught and are now trapped in a cell, waiting for the Kaden to put you through a loyalty transfer program. You also know that the Souden are planning to attack. It would be ideal to escape cyberspace before that occurs.

A lot of games about cyberspace (or at least those that I have played) take place in the "real world" with the player tapping into cyberspace at regulator intervals. This one almost entirely takes place in cyberspace. The player begins in a virtual containment cell. Any efforts to move around results in "You are contained." But as you are tracing the lines on the walls, floor, and ceiling, a piece of paper appears with basic instructions are the start of your escape. This, along with other signs, shows that someone is trying to help you which adds suspense and mystery.

There is also great atmosphere with a sense of danger, such as (Spoiler - click to show) a voice in the background announcing to who-knows-who that a scan is about to occur in the sector where you are hiding. The scan seeks out intruders and if you are detected a pulse will liquefy you. In addition, in the game’s world you will find strange sights. The multi-faced cube, the spider and its doll, the factory full of machines, and the mysterious sheet of paper were ominous but kind of cool. It all paints a surreal impression.

While intriguing, this is also a challenging and technical game. I can tell you now, I had to play with hints. An example is (Spoiler - click to show) finding the correct box needed to restore the cube's voice by asking it about different boxes and seeing if the cube nods, blinks, frowns, or smiles to indicate how close you are to finding it, almost like a high-tech version of a hot-or-cold game. I could not solve this without a walkthrough although I was able to understand the puzzle afterwards and replicate it without help in later playthroughs (this game can place you in an unwinnable state, be sure to save). Discovering (Spoiler - click to show) the spider's commands was another area that I needed help with because the spider is picky about syntax. It will accept "spider, help" but not "ask spider for help." Or "spider, status" but not "ask spider about status." I would find the sphere that halted the lxprog program but failed to realize that you need the spider to erase it.

I would have liked a little more discussion on the story. Is this solely warfare in cyberspace or is it in the physical world as well? What type of entities are the Kaden and Souden? Even the ending does not clarify much. (Spoiler - click to show) The man we meet at the end explains that the war is just the Kaden and the Souden taking people from the other side and running them through loyalty transfer programs, creating a back-and-forth type of fighting. The other thing I could pick out about the story is that the man also says that the player unknowingly created the cube that helped them escape, almost as if the player found a way out through sheer willpower. Or at least that is how I interpreted what he said. Regardless, I still have lingering questions about this war and its participants, as well as the protagonist’s identity. On a similar note, the cube, which was generally lacking in the number of things you can ask it, had something to say about the Kaden and Souden. (Spoiler - click to show) Kaden apparently means "electric charge" while Souden means "electric supply." I am not entirely sure of what to make of this information but still found it interesting.

But yes, this game is moderately cryptic and challenging to complete without guidance, but the setting and story drew me in (as did the title). If you like playing games in cyberspace experiment with it. It is not a game for everyone but know that it does not take long to complete with a walkthrough in case you are curious about how it ends.

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