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Slice of Life

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13 Laurel Road, by Crosshollow

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Going back to where it fell apart and maybe…move onwards?, January 30, 2023

You play as Noah. Kiera, your sister, texts you with a request. She wants you to visit a relative’s former house on Laurel Road to retrieve items for your cousin, Quinn. But you and Quinn have never had the best relationship. Not ever since they transitioned. Returning there will bring up bad memories, and afterwards, you will have to bring the items to Quinn. Will you do it? Or will you shy away from the task?

There is a genre of games about rummaging through a house one last time after a drastic event to gather items and relive memories. Exploration is largely NPC-less with a profound sense of melancholy, leaving the player to decide one what the PC gets out of the experience. I am reminded of the Twine game Another Cabin In The Woods and the TADS game Past Present. I know there are plenty more out there.

Gameplay
Quinn is the younger cousin of Noah and Keira. They lived their entire life under a different name- of which we never learn- but now go by Quinn. If it was not obvious, they also now identify as “they.”

The house on Laurel Road has been abandoned for months, but the furniture and belongings are still there. It is also a former crime scene. There is a brief intro before you travel to the house. Once there, you can travel from room to room in search of items. For the gameplay mechanics, you either click anywhere on the screen to move to the next passage or click on links when they are offered.

Gameplay involves reliving memories by examining items in the house. There is the (Spoiler - click to show) sketchbook that Quinn used while hospitalized for self-harm (I thought this scene was well done. It does not tip toe around the subject but also treads lightly on the explicit details). A boardgame that Noah thought was dumb, but Quinn liked to play. The home videos that Quinn’s father smashed out of anger. Oh yes, there is a lot to unpack. Overall, I would not say this is a sad, gloomy game, but there is an undeniable sense of tragedy that emerges as you sift through the near empty house.

Story
As I mentioned at the beginning, 13 Laurel Road is a piece where the story is centered around a defining Event that occurs before the game begins. You just merely pick up the pieces of a shattered past. The big plot twist is that (Spoiler - click to show) Quinn’s father, Glenn, shot and killed his wife, Joyce. You are visiting the house months after the incident.

While this is not a graphic game, there are poignant indicators of the violence that took place, such as bullet holes or suspicious looking stains. The game gives few details about this plot element, and it’s unclear if both Quinn and Joyce were shot, or the fate of Glenn. Did he kill himself? The only certainty is that Joyce is dead, and Quinn is now living on their own.


If anything, this story is about Quinn. Nearly a year ago, when Quinn requested to be called "they," Noah screwed up and said some things that hurt Quinn, and then started an argument with his sister, prompting Quinn to leave. Noah has felt bad about that ever since, and yet has not been proactive in making up for his behavior. Hopefully, this excursion into the past to find Quinn's things will be an opportunity to come to terms with what he did.

Sure enough, you end up being the one who (Spoiler - click to show) meets with Quinn in person to return the items. You have a few choices on how to respond to that encounter.

Characters + Themes
Let’s take a closer look at the character dynamics, particularly Noah’s relationship with Quinn since it is a long relationship filled with instability.

Noah never took Quinn’s transition seriously. Not transphobic, exactly, but indifferent to the challenges and implications brought by this personal growth. Quinn came out to Noah and Keira before ever bringing it up with Quinn’s own parents. Noah and Keira were supposed to be a support system, but Noah made little effort to respect his cousin’s change in identity.

In one of the memories, Noah recalls hearing (Spoiler - click to show) Quinn’s father, Glenn, talk about Quinn in shocking ways. While the game never actually uses transphobic slurs, it's implied that such slurs and statements were said in these past discussions. Even worse, Noah also remembers not trying object to (Spoiler - click to show) his uncle's comments or feeling any need to defend Quinn. (Note: This is a good game if you want to explore these ideas without dousing you with explicit content. Such games are powerful but sometimes you may feel like playing something more subtle.)

At the same time, the game highlights the uncertainty that can come with learning about a person’s, transition in gender and pronouns when one (Noah) is unaccustomed to concepts about transitioning. Noah would retreat to the use of Quinn’s previous name and pronouns as a defense mechanism when he felt insecure about the fact that people’s identity can be fluid. It is a big unknown for Noah. Unfortunately, Noah’s lack of open-mindedness caused harm to Quinn, especially as they struggled back at home. It was not until (Spoiler - click to show) Glenn killed Joyce did Noah realize how little support Quinn had.

How the player chooses to engage with this determines Noah’s willingness to admit- really admit- that he was wrong. That he chose the easy route and ignore when faced with his cousin’s requests to use different pronouns.

Visuals
Though the game features a familiar appearance of white text against a black screen, it seems like the author added the slightest variation to the default stylization. The white text large and easy to read, maybe in a different-from-default font. Paragraphs are neatly organized onscreen. Never is the screen swamped with text. Neglecting paragraph organization and text space is something I see in Twine games from time to time. Finally, the red links offer a nice splash of colour.

Final thoughts
While not particularly advanced in the technical department, 13 Laurel Road is a simple Twine game with a potent story about identity and revisiting a broken relationship. There are a lot of variables to consider. The game shows the impacts, often the more subtle impacts, that come with misgendering someone or not respecting their wishes (hopefully I analyzed the story correctly). Ultimately, it offers redemption but only redemption that is sought out earnestly.

A memorable slice of life game worth checking out.


差异 // Disconnect, by Kelly Weng

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A meaningful story about Chinese linguistic differences among family, January 21, 2023

It is late morning and your mother texts you about going to a restaurant together. Spending time with your mother and eating food sounds like a great idea, but there is anxiety looming in the back of your mind as you agree to meet. Part of it has to do with language.

Gameplay
差异 // Disconnect uses a mix of Chinese characters and English. Occasionally, Chinese characters are substituted with phonetic spelling. The game begins with a short text message exchange between the protagonist and their mother.

11:05 AM MOM: I know a good restaurant, have 手拉面

The first Chinese characters, 手拉面, initially did not have the translation, prompting me to immediately reach for an online translator. I thought this was interesting because the protagonist did exactly just that after I did. It was a brief moment where I could relate to the protagonist, although less so since I lack any working knowledge on the Chinese language. I got "hand-pulled noodles," as did the protagonist when they used consulted Google. It was a neat moment.

The remainder of the gameplay takes place at the restaurant. This seems to be a story where the PC feels like they are messing up more than they are, but the awkwardness so, so real. A noteworthy scene is when the protagonist is trying to give the waitress their order. Their menu is written in Chinese with an English translation, and automatically find themselves reading the translation. But when a waitress comes over to the table, they feel pressured to order in Chinese.

You review the pinying over again in your head. Wǒ yào niúròu shǒu lāmiàn tāng. How hard can it be?

Trying to use perfect accent and pronunciation while on the spot, they trip over the words. You can either try again or bail out and switch to English. Either choice serves to serves to put the player in the protagonist’s shoes to show what it is like to sit on a fence between your closeness to the Chinese language as part of your heritage, and the everyday convenience of English that you rely on in daily life.

What I did not like was how quickly this game ends. It happens sort of out of nowhere. I would have easily given this a rating of five stars if it had more of a conclusion. When you sit down to eat, I thought the game was just getting started, that there would be a little more dialog or examination of other cultural norms. The game is far from incomplete. In fact, it’s excellent. However, I was invested in the story and looked forward to seeing more the protagonist’s experience.

Story + Characters
The story is told in second person, and it seems that your character is gender-neutral, although there is one section that slightly suggests that the protagonist is female. I’ve opted to use “they” instead. Yes, so they feel anxiety and regret about their broken Chinese and how it has shaped encounters with their mother and older family members. They especially remember being pressured into attending Chinese language school when they were younger, but now feels guilty about not making the most of what they learned. They are left as someone who understands Chinese but is unable to speak it with the same proficiency of their mother.

These differences go beyond spoken language. The protagonist has the urge to hug their mother when they see her at the restaurant but refrains from doing so since older members in their family typically did not do that. It was something "reserved for your friends and younger, Westernized relatives.” There are all sorts of subtleties that contribute to a feeling of disconnect. I have always liked games that show the inns and outs of cultural interactions that would otherwise go over your head. The point is not to be a crash course on culture, just a glimpse into a single story.

Visuals
The game keeps it simple but visually appealing. Links are a cheerful yellow. Most of the Chinese text is highlighted in yellow that, when clicked on, reveals the English translation. Text is a mix of black and grey against a white background. I liked the simplicity of the cover art.

Final thoughts
So, this game got me thinking about the title. Courtesy of online Chinese-to-English translate, 差异 means “difference.” Someone better correct me if I’m wrong. Difference // Disconnect. Based on what I learned from the gameplay, it seems the title means that linguistic differences- and other differences- have formed a disconnect between the protagonist and their mother. It is a caring relationship but not always a seamless one as we see in the game.

I really enjoyed this game and recommend it to anyone interested in a slice of life game about family dynamics and Chinese culture. As someone largely unfamiliar with the ins and outs of Chinese language/culture, I found this to be an insightful piece on a human experience.


Orunge , by Jennifer Reuter

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
MUST. GET. ORANGES!, December 26, 2022

Orunge is a heartwarming story told in first person from the perspective of a young girl looking to buy some oranges at a market. We follow her frantic rush to buy these oranges and meet up with some mysterious NPC.

Gameplay
The game takes place at a metropolitan setting with public transportation and a maze of outdoor venders. The girl’s desperate search in the gameplay accurately captures a sense of rushing through a busy area, totally lost while on a time crunch. This part was relatable. Science dictates that the less time you need to be somewhere, the more confusing everything- I’m kidding.

Ack, I’m getting distracted! Gotta get oranges first. He’ll be packing up soon, so I don’t have a lot of time. I’ll miss out.

Those pastries smell SO good though.

(The words "oranges" and "pastries" are both links. It is an extremely difficult decision.)

In terms of interactivity, there are only a few cases where the player can make a choice. Otherwise, they are just in it for the ride. But being a short game with a reasonable amount of text, Orunge maintains the player’s attention as they watch the story unfold. Because of this, the game would be a good selection for kids.

Story + Characters
The reason behind the protagonist’s desperate scramble is only revealed at the end. We know one thing: These oranges are for someone else. Until then, there is a sense of mystery and anticipation as we wait to learn who “he” is (In fact, character details about everyone, including the protagonist, are kept at a minimum).

The answer is that there is a (Spoiler - click to show) vender who will teach the protagonist how to make orange juice by pressing oranges. Naturally, she supplies the oranges and does not want to keep him waiting. I am not sure of the protagonist's relationship with the vender or how they know each other, but it is a wholesome story about a person teaching a trade to another.

There are multiple endings. I found two, one of which has two nearly identical variations. For the latter, (Spoiler - click to show) you acquire a pastry to give to the man or you forget/ran out of time to buy a pastry. Either one is a happy ending where the two characters bond over orange juice. It's such an endearing story! There is also a less ideal ending where you (Spoiler - click to show) dally and take too long to catch up to the vender before he packs up his stall and drives off. But never fear, that ultimately leads to a surprise happy ending and still ends in (Spoiler - click to show) orange juice.

Visuals
Unsurprisingly, the colour palette for this game is orange. It has a light orange background with dark orange text and white links. This is quite a tasteful look. There are also some nice story graphics on every page that elevate the game’s quality. Graphics feature drawings done in a mix of orange shades. They depict the protagonist as she runs around the market, and I liked the art style.

Final thoughts
Orunge is an endearing story for adults but also perfect for kids because of the lighthearted story, cheery art, and shorter word count. It features a relatable and upbeat protagonist who leaves a lasting impression on the audience. It’s also a game that demonstrates how you do not need to have ultra-complex coding or dramatic visual effects to create a polished and professional-looking Twine game.


Learning to Be Human, by Lynnea Glasser
An occasionally lackluster game with an extremely important message, December 22, 2022

Your mind blinks into existence: You are an android at FutureBright tech company. Two humans, Dr. Jeongmin Kim and Dr. Jinn Hong, have brought you online for a social experiment. You are going to be making your public debut in… a school.

They want you to learn about what it means to be human.

Gameplay
The game takes place in an international school in South Korea attended by students from different backgrounds and native languages. The gist is that you will spend time with four students in the same class, devoting an entire day to each student. Details about the school are kept to a minimum, but my guess is that the class is about “middle school” aged (the author reminds us that school system structures are not universal).

Gameplay is straightforward. School days are basic but uniquely influenced by the student. This ranges from talkative strolls around the campus to spending time in the cafeteria. You learn about students’ struggles with their lives inside and outside of school. You also see them experience bullying (Spoiler - click to show) (Yeon & David), and you see them causing it (Spoiler - click to show) (Soojin & Sangho). In both cases you develop an understanding of their deeper selves that includes sensitivity, a lack of confidence, and a desire of fitting in. You engage them about their behavior, so they think critically on why they do it and how it harms others.

There are multiple endings, but it feels more like two endings, the second of which comes in several flavors. You can either choose to (Spoiler - click to show) keep participating at the school or to move on with FutureBright’s next experiment. Choosing to move on prompts you to reflect on your experience with the students. What did you learn about being human? Arguably these reflections count as separate endings. You can even request changes in your programming.

Also: I appreciate how the author provides the player with chapter codes so they can revisit their progress rather than having to start over. That makes it easier to explore different outcomes.

Themes
This is the main event. Learning to Be Human is ultimately about bullying and seeks to shine a light on how it can manifest in everyday situations. It also functions as a tool for resolving attitudes that lead to bullying. While bullying can be spontaneous and take one by surprise, so can behavioral solutions. The term “behavior solutions” sounds clinical, but the game puts it into context.

Themes about bullying and social dynamics are partly explored through restrictions placed on the protagonist. A defining element in the gameplay are Laws. At the start of the game, Dr. Jeongmin Kim and Dr. Jinn Hong explain that they programmed you to follow three Laws as follows:
- 1: Do not harm sentient life forms.
- 2: Do not interfere with human development.
- 3: Protect yourself from harm.

The second Law turns out to be a real pain. In ChoiceScript, the player selects choices from a menu. But in Learning to Be Human, some of these choices are greyed out and made unavailable because the choice violates a Law.

"Hey, maybe the rest of you should be nicer to David." [This would be interfering.]
"I'm happy to let David figure out what we do for today."
"I'm happy to go to the cafe with everyone as a group."
"Maybe there's some other way I can play the games?"

In example above, the top choice is greyed out because the player is trying to interfere with an exchange between a student and his classmates. This interference seems benign. The PC just wants David to be heard. But the Law interpreted this as overstepping, leaving the PC unable to promote a more inclusive environment. I thought this was an effective way at showcasing these programmed restrictions in the gameplay. More of these scenes appear in the game that also bring up implications about bullying in today’s world.

The Laws’ influence over the protagonist simulates real challenges about addressing conflict in group situations. Often youth are given simple instructions to merely “stand up if you see someone is being treated unfairly!” A valid lesson, but easier said than done. As we see in Learning to Be Human, bystanders suddenly turn into an intimidating audience. The person initiating the harassment may be higher in social status or have considerable sway over how everyone else views an individual. That’s a common theme in this game, the feeling that you could be more inclusive to [insert name] but worry that it would be at the expensive of your peers’ perception of you.

There are countless variables present in these scenarios that make “standing up” the opposite of an easy task. The game puts the player in the shoes of someone who is presented with these predicaments. While the protagonist’s reason for freezing is because of android programming, it captures the experience of witnessing an icky situation but feeling unable to respond.

On a funky side note, the PC can still entertain dubious ideas. The Laws do not prevent the protagonist from thinking about certain actions, only to prevents them from acting on it. Sometimes these actions feel like suppressed impulses. In more heated scenes, we see "so-and-so punched my friend so I'll punch them back" type of responses are fortunately disabled by the protagonist’s programming.

Hit him back. "How do you like it?" [This would be causing harm.]
"No. I couldn't interfere with that."
"I'm sorry that I couldn't interfere."

In these cases, I do not think the protagonist is seriously considering being violent. For the most part.

"There will be a bloody revolution." [This would be causing harm.]
(To clarify, the PC cannot wage war on classmates.)

Rather, these responses seem like an emotional byproduct of input from their surroundings. Being unable to carry out violent actions is a good thing, but sometimes this prevents the protagonist by standing up for others in nonviolent ways.

Story
In my review’s title I call the game lackluster. I should elaborate. If you approach this game looking for a sci-fi adventure like I initially did, you may find it dull or underwhelming. All I saw was “android protagonist” and dug in. I confess that I have a habit of zooming through ChoiceScript games to orient myself with its structure before replaying it to focus on the details. My first impression felt like this: You hang out with Character A. You hang out with Character B. You hang out with Character C. And, finally, you hang out with Character D. Thanks for playing. What a bland story. Now, hold on a moment. I was missing the whole point. What changed for me (and no doubt people will pick up on this sooner than I did) was taking a closer look at the implementation of the game’s main idea in the gameplay.

The game may have sci-fi elements, but its genre is ultimately listed as Educational. As I’ve mentioned, it is about bullying. It is an important topic but Learning to Be Human also has a strong, consistent gameplay structure to back it up. This makes it easier to dive into key points. After slowly and earnestly playing the game with this objective in mind, it became more than just “hanging out” with NPCs. Instead, Characters “A,” “B,” “C,” and “D” are Yeon, Soojin, Sangho, and David, and each have extremely earnest and down-to-Earth life experiences that are relatable, and compelling because we view them through a unique vantage point: An android programmed for human interaction.

It becomes meaningful, and I’m not just saying that to be polite. Just don’t expect a wild sci-fi story.

Characters
You, Robot
A cool design feature is how the game subtly allows you to customize yourself when the researchers ask you to describe yourself. When I saw the “I am a human” option (one of seven options, actually) I figured that the researchers would snicker and say, “if you say so, android,” when instead they hand you a mirror so you can assess your appearance. The game then gives you a list of attributes that you describe, such as the colour of your synthetic flesh. If you describe yourself as an android the game assumes that your appearance is that of a standard android. You also choose your name and gender.

Oddly enough, being an android makes you a neutral party, especially as an observer. A common pattern is that students wage war on each other when the adult in the room leaves, only to pretend like nothing happened when a teacher returns. They have no hesitations around you. They are also more likely to listen to you. You are not a parent or stuffy adult giving them a lecture. You have no allegiance to anyone at the school or belong in a clique. You are cool, or at least novel enough to be interesting. Knowing every language doesn’t hurt either. As we see in the game, students are more receptive to your advice. And that feels nice.

NPCs
There are six students, four of which you spend time with, plus a few adults. The game has a nifty bio page for reference that lists name, race, and role for all NPCs.

It's tough because some kids are not as likeable. Ouch. This is where we want to be careful lest we repeat the issues we are trying to address. Let’s put it this way: One of the students is the “main bully” whom you have- correction, you get (they matter too)- to hang out with for an entire day. When he hears about your Law against interfering, he pinches a bullied classmate to see if you can do anything about. You can’t. It’s frustrating. And yet, you slowly learn his side of the story and form a connection with him with the understanding that “the bully” only skims the surface of who he is. Simply talking goes a long way. That is where the human element emerges.

Be aware, you get placed in some awkward situations. The biggest challenge is when you have great one-on-one time with one student only to see them harass someone else. Yeon, a shy and soft-spoken student, is often the target. Someone might toss out the “b-word” or make derogatory remarks about one’s race. Cultural stigma also appears. The author does a nice job of sitting on a fence between being frank about bullying without making it too extreme for players.

But yes, difficult situations can spring out of nowhere, almost casually. In one case a random student (Spoiler - click to show) calls Yeon fat while standing in the lunch line. There are parts of the game where your android self is thinking, I swear to God if it weren't for these stupid Laws...

Final thoughts
Learning to Be Human is a powerful resource about human interaction, particularly for kids and tweens. It looks at intersections of daily life (schoolwork, language barriers, parental expectations, feeling cool) and how it can fuel bullying behaviors.

The android protagonist has unique freedoms that puts them in the role of observer but is also bound by the Laws that prevents them for standing up for someone being bullied. This highlights the complexities and challenges that come with recognizing bullying, stopping it, and preventing it from happening again.

I think the gameplay has a realistic view about change. You do not waltz into the classroom and convince everyone to be friends. You certainly make a positive impression, but since the game only occurs over four days, there is no way of seeing the long-term effects on students’ behavior and relationships with one another. It does not set major expectations because small changes matter. That, I believe, is where the game will be helpful for real-world people.

The objective is to show ways of initiating a conversation with a peer, making amends in small ways, and understanding how seemingly perfect people likely have hidden struggles of their own. And on that note, the game provides resources about bullying at the end of the gameplay. I encourage you to check out the link to the author’s notes.


Andelmans' Yard, by Arlan Wetherminster

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Cat rescue leads in a different direction, November 30, 2022

You are fourteen-year-old Kyle, a Boy Scout looking to earn a Community Service badge. Peanut the cat has run off, and this is your chance to show initiative. Time to investigate the local neighborhood.

Gameplay
When the game began my first impression was that a Boy Scout troop was out looking for a cat (does that occur in real-life?) which immediately creates a cool ambience. A closer look soon showed that Kyle is the only Boy Scout around. Meanwhile, a group of middle-school aged kids, are running about and talking about a kid named Max. Naturally, the player is roped into participating in Max’s plans.

I really, really, like the (Spoiler - click to show) occult twist. Yes, you heard that right. The start of the game sounds like a light, wholesome game about a youth trying to save a cat (which also sounds like fun) to earn a badge only to surprise the player with an unexpected thrill. Eerie ten-year-old Max (Spoiler - click to show) wants to hold a ritual in the groundwater tunnels. Sounds cool! Max needs three Native American artifacts for the ritual. He has one and wants you to find the other two. By now, finding the cat falls to the wayside as you pursue this new objective.

This is not a puzzle heavy game but there is a lot of exploring. The gameplay has a moderate sized map consisting of a suburban area. You will probably want to make a light map of the underground tunnels. Nothing too fancy, but you may find it helpful.

There is one bug/issue that made the game unwinnable. (UPDATE: I've received feedback that this is NOT an unwinnable state. I'm leaving this paragraph in as a formality but understand that my calling it unwinnable was an incorrect assessment on my part). (Spoiler - click to show) Max wants Clem to solder the three artifacts together. Clem follows you around for most of the gameplay. You are supposed to retrieve the hand-held generator from his garage, fill it with gas, and give it to him so he can use his solder iron. I put the game in an unwinnable state by giving him the generator before Max has all three artifacts.

He looks at you, “Give me the hand-held generator.”

I already gave it to him at the garage. I tried to take it back, but…

That seems to belong to Clem.

I restarted the game because I could see no way of soldering the artifacts together to start the ritual. CORRECTION: While Clem may still ask for the generator even after you give it to him, he will solder the artifacts together once everyone arrives.


Story
I was expecting the story to have more focus on the protagonist’s goal of earning a badge, perhaps incorporating themes of “character building.” Maybe I am misinterpreting the process of earning a Community Service badge. Point is, Kyle obviously takes this seriously, and as a game, the idea of earning a badge takes center stage. This is the first Boy Scout PC I have played in interactive fiction, and I was excited to see where it would go. Ultimately, this part of Kyle’s identity was not showcased as much as I thought it would be.

The setting is intriguing. After snooping around you come across some newspaper clippings that outline two main controversies in the area. The first follows the development of a (Spoiler - click to show) new museum on Native American culture that has been delayed over conflicts of the museum’s focus. There is also mention of Native American artifacts being discovered while the neighborhood was being developed. The second controversy looks at a trend of (Spoiler - click to show) health issues in residents that seem to be connected to the water supply. Plans were made to re-design the water drainage system, but those plans were brought to a halt. The story focuses more on the former issue.

The storyline reminded me of an element in Anchorhead where a (semi-spoilers for Anchorhead coming right up!) (Spoiler - click to show) specific tribe- I believe it was a fictional tribe- of indigenous people who worshiped celestial entities that were of interest to the Verlac family because it was connected to a vast ritual that had been planned for generations. The player, lucky you, gets to deal with the impending doom of this ritual. Right near the center of town is a big obelisk that covers the tribe’s ancient burial ground that also seals off a hell-dimension on the other side of mortal existence. You learn about this through newspaper clippings and content from the library. It’s wild. I mean, it’s Anchorhead, obviously.

Max (Spoiler - click to show) speaks of a monster in the southernmost tunnels that had been sealed off by Native Americans. This can be unsealed with a ritual using the three artifacts. Max himself also seems to be possessed. Disturbing, but not disturbing enough to dissuade the other neighborhood kids, including Kyle, from helping. Don’t get me wrong, (Spoiler - click to show) suburban Boy Scout cat search + occult ritual hosted by a ten-year-old named Max is novel as it brushes on Anchorhead themes. My complaint is this: there is hardly any story (or gameplay) about (Spoiler - click to show) finding Peanut the cat.

Start of game: You have been tasked to find the missing cat, Peanut. You're hoping this simple mission will earn you your Community Service merit badge. You head into the woods where the cat was last seen.

We’ve seen Peanut at the start of game. She’s behind a storm tunnel grating and runs off when you open it. Onwards, you try to run and chase her. Throughout the gameplay are cues such as, “You hear the tinkling of a small bell,” and “You hear a cat meowing,” amongst NPCs’ advice to look in the tunnels! And from there on, the cat takes a back seat as the gameplay shifts to finding artifacts.

When you save your friends from the monster and win the game, Peanut decides to appear and jump into your arms. Great resolution, but I just sat there realizing how much time I wasted trying to corner the cat into one of tunnels, using the dead rat as bait (probably not as appealing to cats as I thought), and experimenting with the various exits and entrances in the tunnel maze to map out her movements. The kid doesn’t even get his badge at the end of the game!


Characters
NPCs wander independently. I always enjoy seeing this in interactive fiction because it feels more dynamic. That said, their behavior does not have much substance. When you first meet them, they introduce themselves to you which is a strong start. Then they wander around until aimlessly until you make progress towards the (Spoiler - click to show) ritual. To be fair, designing seven (plus Peanut) independent NPCs is probably not an easy task. And you will find moments where NPC behavior triggers a surprising effect, such as when they all (Spoiler - click to show) suddenly gather in the meeting room to start the ritual. That was cool.

I have criticism about the dialog. The game uses the “topics” command to offer a list of topics to ask other characters. I thought this was smart because it keeps the player close to relevant subject matters. The issue is that A, topics do not acknowledge the player’s progress, and B, the “topics” feature lack subjects relevant to the situation. To use an example for the first case, (Spoiler - click to show) if you ask Max about the artifacts after the ritual, he still acts as if you have not found them yet. This put a dent in the interaction.

The other concern become more apparent as the story developed. Characters were limited in their responses to these events. The topics list never expands. In Clem’s introduction he says, "'I'm Clem. I'm in charge of the reconstruction effort.'" But asking him about it (I wanted to know if this had any connection to the (Spoiler - click to show) water quality controversy) results in, "Clem doesn't have anything useful to say about that." Alright, maybe I am being a stickler on this one. Still, subjects about the (Spoiler - click to show) ritual, the Andelmans’ house, and characters’ immediate surroundings are excluded from conversation. (Spoiler - click to show)

Guarding the room is a fearsome pitbull. He eyes you while growling.

Clem comes up from below.

>ask Clem about pitbull
Clem doesn't have anything useful to say about that.

I was expecting some response.


Also, who are the Andelmans'? It’s in the title. First impression was when I tried to enter the basement before meeting with the NPCs in the meeting place near the start of the game.

You begin to head west when suddenly you hear a girl's voice scold you, "We don't go in there. We think it's the Andelman House."

There you go. Mystery. It creates a chilling, sinister vibe to the gameplay. A hint that there is more to this maze of storm drain tunnels than what meets the eye. Right away you think, Who are the Andelmans? Sounds like a neighborhood legend. Your curiosity is spiked because this suburban adventure just got a whole lot interesting. This never went anywhere. We explore the house, almost abandoned, if not for the (Spoiler - click to show) guard dog in the kitchen. I kept wondering what the big secret was. Turns out, I was on the wrong path. I was thinking of this in terms of character names. Andelmans' Yard is (Spoiler - click to show) apparently named after a song of the same title. I would never have known that if I had not looked up the game’s title on a hunch. The song’s lyrics details exploring tunnels and themes that are seen in the gameplay. That was the connection I was missing.

Final thoughts
This game has a good start. While character interactions could use more polish, the game has been tested and it feels like completed piece. I enjoyed the surprises. Especially (Spoiler - click to show) Max’s surprises. The author does a nice job in mixing the everyday with the (Spoiler - click to show) paranormal. Even though I was expecting the gameplay to go through with its (Spoiler - click to show) original plot of searching for Peanut, I am glad that, in the end, we find her anyway. If there are any more games about Kyle trying to earn a badge, I would be interested in playing them. An enjoyable slice of life game mystery with a horror twist.


Nick's Dilemma - An educational game about Sales Management, by Matthew Schmidt and Andrew Tawfik

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Sales hiring made simpler, November 26, 2022

This is not a spoof. Do not let the cartoon cover art make you think otherwise. After playing URA Winner! I probably jumped to conclusions. Some educational games look convincing at first only to reveal its nature later in the gameplay. Parodies are a lot of fun, but Nick’s Dilemma is not one of them.

You work for a company called MediSales that distributes surgical equipment. Sheila, your boss, calls for a meeting about a hiring issue. The company has been unable to find a long-term employee for a sales management position. Candidates are selected, trained, and months later they leave because the job was not a good fit. This pattern is expensive and needs a lasting solution.

Gameplay
Sheila guides the player by having them ask appropriate questions about hiring. Then she then guides the player by talking to co-workers and using digital resources to learn about factors in the hiring process. The gameplay is structured into units. After each unit you get a badge before moving on to the next unit. It is all incredibly straightforward. There is even an embedded video tutorial for the game on the title page. Everything is painstakingly designed to be user-friendly.

When I went to restart the game, I got a popup message saying, “Are you sure you want to restart this Educational Game?” For some reason I thought it was amusing that the message went through the effort of noting that this is, in fact, and educational game.

Story
This really isn’t a story intensive game. It gives everything up front. Find a candidate who will be compatible for sales management. There are multiple endings based on your hiring select. Not all of them are ideal but the game always urges you to return to the gameplay to make choices that result in a favorable outcome. This is where it deviates from being a “game.” For some games, the fun is seeing the “bad” endings, the ones that crash and burn. But in Nick’s Dilemma the goal is to learn about the proper steps to success (oh no, I’m started to sound like a training manual), hence why it wants the player to win.

Characters
There is a diverse range of characters in this game, most of which only make a brief appearance to discuss key points in the game’s content. Sheila is the NPC you interact with the most.

One problem: I still have no idea who Nick is.

When I first saw this game, I was this close adding it to the poll titled, “Games Where the Title Is You,” but hesitated. I thought that you were playing as Nick. That is, until the game asked me to type in my character name instead. I guess we are not Nick. The game features graphics for the characters, and the PC’s is rather generic. We only see the backside of “Nick” never the face, probably to minimize characteristics. I’m not at all mad at this if that is what you’re worried about. I just spent a lot of time scanning the game to try to find any mention of Nick.

Visuals
The game uses a white background with black text and blue links. Sometimes it dabbles with fonts for emails or notes which was clever. There is a panel on the left side of the page with a list detailing your progress. For completing each milestone in the story, you get a badge which is displayed in the corner of the screen. The badges are visual appealing but kind of useless and yet receiving them feels oddly rewarding.

Congratulations! You have earned 2 badges. You have unlocked the next section of the game!

Oddly rewarding.

The game would not succeed without its graphics. The character graphics give you something to look at and draws the player’s attention away from just reading text. Other visuals are more vital because they provide useful examples of material you may create for yourself. If you decide to (Spoiler - click to show) put out an online add the game shows a picture of what the ad may look like if it were posted it on a job search website.

Final thoughts
Do you walk away with the basics of sales management? Honestly, no. Not really. I cannot say I know more about the field of sales management (or the management of sales). HOWEVER. I did learn a lot about protocol, process, and the reasoning behind making hiring decisions. Of course, in real life this matter is more complex than what can be covered in a Twine game, but it does provide you with some insights. A couple of times I almost felt like I was taking one of those interactive training video exercises you complete after being hired.

You learn more about basic communication skills. Things like writing brief but thoughtful emails and follow-up emails, initiating conversations with co-workers. These skills seem trivial, but they go a long way in real life. The game does not sit you down and start a “Writing Emails 101,” spiel. Instead, it provides examples that serve as a reference. This way, the game is more helpful regardless of players’ emailing skills. Nick’s Dilemma is reasonably short and surprisingly practical. It is one of the most educational interactive fiction games for subjects unrelated to interactive fiction that I have played so far.


Nineteen, by kiran
An earnest look into transgender identity and personal growth over time , November 17, 2022

Nineteen is about the author’s experience with gender identity during an important milestone: Turning 19. The story looks at personal struggles, not just in terms of societal stigma but also the frustrations of not knowing what definition you align with in a world where concepts of gender and sexuality are often placed in a ridged box: You either belong in this category or that category. This game, however, points out that the identity of oneself is far more complex than that.

The gameplay is in second person but built of the author’s own life experiences. As an almost-nineteen-year-old the player finds themselves moving into an apartment with an abusive girlfriend while being employed at an office job. Here, the game explores the loaded meaning behind slurs and their associations and assumptions with gender as they navigate new life changes.

Everything in the game takes a reflective approach. The interactivity does not consist of making changes to the storyline or directly engaging with the characters within. Instead, the player chooses links that reveal different components of their situation before cycling back. This created a fluid effect that made the gameplay a little more immersive. It gives the player an opportunity to “dig” through the story even if they do not influence its contents. Gameplay is extremely short, and you will have to play the game twice to see everything.

Nineteen is not a timeline of the protagonist’s life, but it does outline how identity can change. While the protagonist’s 19th birthday is in 2004, the game projects what life will be like in the future which includes life crises. We get a glimpse- just a glimpse- of the author’s experiences during (Spoiler - click to show) 2007, 2011, 2012, and 2014. In college the author identified as a transgender male and went by Aidan. Years later Aidan became Kiran.

At the end of the narrative the author identifies as neutrois. I have never heard about this term before and wanted to make sure that I used the proper pronouns and wording for this review. Neutrois, according to the definitions I looked up, means gender neutral and that “they/them” pronouns are used (inform me, please, if this is inaccurate) So, there you go. I learned a new term.

One of the takeaways in the game is the idea of considering a term about gender, and then considering the individual attached to the term. If I understand correctly, the author found hope in learning how people can be transgender, and yet, trying to transition did not bring any clarity to how they felt about their own identity. Terms do not necessarily explain the person behind it.

The subject matter is serious, but I found the author’s writing to be approachable. As a Twine game it also has polished formatting. It sticks to a basic appearance with a black background, blue links, and small white text placed neatly at the top of the screen. There quantity of text is moderate, but it is all concise and potent.

Ultimately, this is not a gameplay-oriented game. If you are merely looking for something to “play” then you may not enjoy this one as much. Rather, the heart of the experience is taking in the story and viewing every thread that the author has to say about it. And I am glad they decided to share this through an interactive fiction piece.


The Good Ghost, by Sarah Willson, Kirk Damato

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
An outstanding short story that conveys much emotion, November 6, 2022

This is such a gem.

You a ghost. A friendly, benevolent one. No one can see you or acknowledge your presence, but that does not deter you from wanting to help. The game takes place in the house of a small family. Even though your own identity is foggy, you have a strong desire to protect them.

As a ghost you try to prevent disasters, preferably so that the occupants of the house never realize that there was any chance of disaster to begin with. It is a lighthearted game, but one that ponders the balance of everyday events that can lead to (Spoiler - click to show) household disasters. To borrow its words, "a domino effect." This game is never judgmental, nor does it strive to teach a moral. Instead, it portrays a sensitive protagonist who looks at daily life through the unique advantage of a ghost. Contemplative.

This is a Twine game. Not only does it look nice, but the gameplay is smooth. The player moves freely throughout rooms to explore the contents. For choice-based games I like to call this as free range of movement, but the effect is more subtle in The Good Ghost. Lazy and casual, yet attentive. There is a thoughtfulness in your surroundings that encourage you to find the nooks and tiny details that usually go unobserved by the family in the house.

Now, this is not a puzzle game. Instead, it features small objectives, such as (Spoiler - click to show) finding a wedding ring, that are solved by going to the right room and carefully observing. This shifts the flow, so the game then leads you to the next scene. Everything is so fluid and organized!

The Good Ghost shines in every department, but the story tops it all. It is broken into several acts that documents the family over a lifetime. Seeing this process was incredibly grounding. As for the ending, it is the sublime moment of realization at the end that makes this game so emotionally powerful. I do not want to spoil the ending but know that it clicked perfectly. (Spoiler - click to show) So that's why the cat dislikes me... It was beautiful.

Excellent, excellent work. I highly recommend this game to anyone.


No One Else Is Doing This, by Lauren O'Donoghue

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Knock on those doors…you can do it, October 29, 2022

In this short Twine game, you play as a volunteer collecting dues for a community organization group. It is time for your shift, where you go from door to door, trying to get people interested in signing up as members. You have a quota to meet, but lately your success rate with recruiting members has declined and your faith in the organization's ability to create change is wavering. Think about that later. Pull on your winter clothes, steel your nerves, and start your shift.

Gameplay
Collect £5 in dues within four hours. All right. There are 32 houses on your list. It is not possible to visit them all, nor is that the goal. Well, the goal is to knock on as many doors as possible, but your success is based on the dues you collect, not on how many houses you reach. Going to a house costs five minutes, and at some point, you also need to take at least one break, either to use the restroom or warm up from the cold, or you will have to end your shift early. So, it is definitely not possible to cover everything. But that is also a good reason for replays.

You can also take breaks for other things such as texting a coworker or checking the news. The game is set during the COVID lockdown restrictions in 2020, and checking the news gives some light background context which was a nice touch. Plus, there is an in-game glossary explaining the process of community organization.

The catch is that success is not really possible. Few people showed interest in my pitch. I made a simple list of which houses had people who answered the door, and then narrowed that down to people who would earnestly engage in conversation. Next, I replayed to find the dialog options that successfully convinced them to join. And it worked! I was so pleased with myself. My target was £5. I came back with (Spoiler - click to show) £8. Only to learn that (Spoiler - click to show) some people cancelled their memberships, resulting in me failing to meet my target after all. An exercise in futility, and that is where the main idea comes in.

Story + Characters
The protagonist is coming to terms with the fact that their work is no longer as meaningful as they once thought it was. They joined to make a difference, and now they have a hard time envisioning people enthusiastically signing up for something pitched to them by a stranger on their doorstep. Early on in their job, the protagonist reached their targets with recruiting people but now not so much. They wonder if the time spent going from door to door to keep their numbers up could be better spent elsewhere. But the only thing they are told by their manager is to knock on more doors. The game ultimately shares some interesting perspectives.

There is a strong human element in this game. It captures the task of preparing to weather all sorts of people. When you first play the game there is a sense of anticipation of wondering who will open the door. Someone edgy? Someone friendly? No one at all? At the same time, you also see the other side of the story. There is a lockdown, everyone is cooped up inside, it is the dead of winter, and now here is someone knocking on your door asking you to sign up for something. Still, I wonder if the author has done community organization work themselves, and if so, whether the characters in the game are based on actual experiences.

Visuals
On a brief side note, I really like the game’s appearance which combines a purple background with white text and colourful links. It is organized and crisp looking.

Final thoughts
No One Else Is Doing This was one of the earlier games I played for the IFComp and it immediately pulled me into the story. It is not particularly long, but its gameplay structure encourages multiple playthroughs. While generally lighthearted it does touch on topics about daily concerns such as upkeep of parks or cost of public transportation. It gives you some interesting things to think about, and I appreciated its relevance to the COVID related lockdown without it dominating the gameplay. The game is ultimately a mix of humor, determination, and frustration that puts the player in the protagonist’s shoes.


Admiration Point, by Rachel Helps

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A blend of futuristic curation, cultural values, & personal ambition, October 24, 2022

Admiration Point takes place several decades into the future. You play as Maria, a 3D artist at the Digital Culture Museum where she designs virtual exhibits. But lately, her attention keeps wandering to her coworker, Sean. Romance is unlikely.

Gameplay
The interactivity usually consists of deciding whether to explore Maria’s attraction to Sean, or to shift the attention towards her work and family. To use an example, (Spoiler - click to show) in one scene you choose whether to read Sean’s book, search for Sean on the internet, or read a novel having nothing to do with Sean. Other times, choices are centered around character dialog.

Gameplay choices generally do not affect the overall track of the game. The most influential choice occurs about a quarter into the game where the player decides on how Maria should approach her feelings about Sean. Maria can choose to wreck her feelings, ignore them, or use them to fuel her own work. Your choice is then listed at the side of the screen for the rest of the game. This choice does not change the gameplay path but features text changes that are varied enough to make each playthrough a unique experience for replays.

Admiration Point is not a stat intensive game, but there are a few. Stats are meant to give the player a general idea of Maria’s feelings and standing with Sean. Cleverly, they are indicated with icons rather than numbers. (Spoiler - click to show) Maria’s obsession with Sean is represented by a looping scribble that becomes denser as her interest grows. I think that explains itself clear enough. Sean’s attitude towards Maria is shown with weather icons that begins with a neutral cloud before slowly transitioning into a shining sun. There are no rainy clouds or thunderstorms. It is just meant to be an estimate of your progress of getting to know Sean since opportunities can become available.

Story
Immediate story
The story revolves around Maria’s infatuation with Sean. He is the new guy in another department at the museum, but his work often overlaps with Maria’s work. Like Maria, he is married, though considerably older than her. As I mentioned earlier, the player’s choices do not branch the gameplay. Instead, it determines how Maria approaches her romantic feelings. Sometimes this will take you in an unexpected direction.

Have you ever played a Twine game where you click on a link that surprises you with a message instead of carrying through with the command? You probably have. Sometimes games use them to make the player think that a character is about to do something major, only to say, “yeah, not happening.” Sometimes you can sense it in advance. In this game, there were cases where I thought, “surely, the game would not allow me to actually do that,” only to click on the link and realize that, no, Maria really is going for it. I think that this allows the player to share the awkwardness with Maria rather than just feeling awkward at her situation, although the awkwardness can range anywhere from cringy to Going Too Far. Some were pretty painful to try. (Spoiler - click to show) Ending 2 was sad.

Overarching story
I am not sure whether Admiration Point takes place in the late 21st century or early 22nd century, but my guess is the former. When it comes to games that aim towards the near future, I always like to see authors’ interpretations what happens.

Apparently, (Spoiler - click to show) things seemed to go downhill during the 2040s where algorithms in social media allowed corporations to weasel their way into leadership positions and other societal pillars that changed everyday life. Names of states and countries were even changed to corporate brands. It is a familiar trope, perhaps not the most novel. But the game has nice worldbuilding by introducing these concepts through character conversations or Maria’s reading material. It makes explanations more integrated in the game rather that pulling the player aside for a crash course on the history before releasing them back into the gameplay.

Also, futuristic technology (or at least advanced versions of preexisting technologies we have today) is subtly placed throughout the game. For example, we hear mention of synthetic meats called Near-Meat. I am not sure if Near-Meat is a brand-based product. It seems like games that speculate on the nature of consumer meat products in the future tend to opt for flashy fictional marking such as NearMeats™ whereas this game takes a more subtle approach by lightly incorporating it into the writing. No? Maybe it is just me. Regardless, there are small hints that provide exposition about the world Maria lives in.

Characters
The premise of Maria's character is an exciting one: A protagonist who creates 3D art for virtual exhibits at a museum on digital culture in the future. But she also brings something new to the table: She is Mormon. Aside from the author’s other works, I have never really played any interactive fiction games that look at a specific branch/group of Christianity. The only one that comes to mind is the Methodist church in Robin & Orchid. I would not say that Admiration Point is heavily based on religion, but there are scenes where it takes center stage. I cannot say that I am familiar with the subject, but the game does share some cultural insights that were interesting.

One theme that often surfaces with Maria is motherhood. In one part of the game, (Spoiler - click to show) Maria reviews an exhibit script where women share how pregnancy was not a positive experience for them. One woman in the script notes that being overjoyed about expecting a child does not mean you are thrilled with being pregnant. For Maria, these hit close to home since she deals with indecisiveness about whether to have a second child. While there is plenty of existing media that cultivates the image of upbeat motherhood and "perfect" pregnancy, media can also be an avenue for women to share experiences, such as blogging. In Maria’s case, hearing someone who can relate to her struggles was a powerful moment. That seemed to be the main idea the author was going for in this scene.

Visuals
The game has a polished minimalist look. Green links, white background, and grey text organized into neat paragraphs at the left side of the screen. And to the left of that is a grey panel with rounded borders. This panel is mostly blank until the stats are introduced which have fun icons which I discussed earlier in this review.

Sometimes the game uses different fonts for newspapers or other content which added nice stylization. Occasionally there are text boxes used to simulate a text chat screen. It uses basic shapes and colours to imply the idea without needing to be elaborate.

Final thoughts
This was one of the earlier entries that I played. I liked the design and candid nature of the story. A highlight of the game for me was the author’s interpretation of the future and the corresponding worldbuilding, but I also enjoyed the character development.

If you asked me to pick one genre to summarize this game, I would not choose romance, religion, or science fiction, but slice of life. Romance, religion, and science fiction would fit under this umbrella and describe the complex character that is Maria. Admiration Point is short game with a compressed story, and worth more than one playthrough. Even if you decide that you do not like it, there still may be something in it for you.


The Day After Chemo, by cyndisision
A generous account of an author’s chemo experience, September 2, 2022

This is an autobiographical game about undergoing chemo for breast cancer. The game does not go into detail about the chemo treatment itself but instead the aftermath and effects on the author’s daily life when they come home.

Gameplay
The gameplay is in second person. My impression is that you do not play specifically as the author in the but instead as a relatively neutral protagonist who portrays the author’s real-life experiences. I could be wrong about that. Either way the emotions and struggles experienced during chemo shine through and paint a picture of what it is like to manage basic routines in life when you feel sick or have physical and mental fatigue.

The player has tasks that they need to complete such as showering, washing the dishes, meeting with friends, and devoting time to personal projects. As chemo continues, they have less energy to work on these tasks which requires that the player prioritize even though it means leaving other things unfinished. They can also ask their partner for help which demonstrates how a person can be a support system in your life but also conveys how asking for help can make one feel like a burden.

The game rates the protagonist’s state of mind with the phrase “You don't feel much shame about the chaos in your life," which changes as life grows more hectic. Next would be “You feel a little shame about the chaos in your life,” and so forth. I thought that this was effective in demonstrating how the effects of chemo accumulate both in mundane things such as maintaining an apartment but also how it shapes more complex areas in your life, especially self-confidence and anxiety. As chemo advances so does the protagonist.

Story
The writing was heartfelt and descriptive. One that stood out to me was “all of a sudden the big wave of energy you've been riding crests, and washes you up on your sofa like a dead jellyfish.” This illustrated how a moment where you feel uplifted and capable can fall flat because of a new development, such as needing to return to the hospital for another round of chemo despite wanting to spend your day on other things. The writing lets the player glance into this daily experience.

Then there is the (Spoiler - click to show) overwhelming sense of triumph of having gone through chemo and emerging knowing that A, it has helped in assuring that you are cancer-free, and B, that you can now regain your life with renewed enthusiasm. The best part is at the end of the game when the protagonist comes home “The Day After Chemo” (this milestone also shares the title of the game) after the whole chemo ordeal is over. There are no dishes or laundry or chores that need to be done. Just an open block of time. The protagonist decides to use that time to make a Twine game about what it took to reach that point.

Visuals
There are three cycles of chemo that each consist of a few days. The game alternates with different colour backgrounds as each day passes and incorporates colour-coded text with links. Occasionally a few are difficult to read but most were a fun splash of colour. There are occasional text effects which added some movement to the gameplay.

Final thoughts
The Day After Chemo is a candid game about cancer and recovery, and I am glad that the author chose to share this story through a Twine format. Its short gameplay balances the daily struggles of chemo with the rewards of having a good day. It is basic, straightforward, and well worth playing.


Pageant, by Autumn Chen

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A unique take on a beauty pageant with a complex protagonist, September 2, 2022

Our protagonist is Karen Zhao, a high school junior from Massachusetts. Her full name is Qiuyi (Karen*) Zhao, but she goes by Karen. One day Karen’s mom informs her that she has been signed up for a beauty pageant, with the argument that it would diversify her extracurriculars for college. Karen, knowing that she cannot refuse, has no choice but to add pageant preparation to her long list of responsibilities.

This is a story about being forced to step out of your comfort zone while life adds extra surprises into the mix. As the player you must manage her hectic life and hopefully win the pageant.

*The player can actually choose her English name, but I always found myself sticking to Karen since it is the default. I will refer to her as Karen in this review.

Gameplay
Each week the player has three time slots that they can use on a list of activities including preparing for the pageant or attending Science Olympiad study sessions. There are additional activities on the weekend although those usually deviate from school. This management of responsibilities involves some strategy and provides incentives for replay. The gameplay will have “Introspection” segments where you can check your progress in preparing for the pageant and other goals.

There are no individual (Spoiler - click to show) stand-alone endings. No “Ending 1” or “Ending 2.” Instead, the game assesses the player in different categories such as their performance in Science Olympiad or their final relationship status with one of the characters. The pageant, being the focus of the game, is the closest thing to an overarching ending. You either win it or lose it (although losing it comes in a few different flavors). Based on your performance you may unlock achievements at the end of the game. I liked this format because it feels more flexible in its assessment of the player’s choices.

I only have two technical issues. The first is that if you (Spoiler - click to show) win a slot as co-captain the achievement remains locked on the achievements page. The second issue is that I have been unable to (Spoiler - click to show) win anything other than a bronze medal with Audrey for Science Olympiad. I looked at the source code and saw that it is possible to win a gold metal if you study enough with her. However, even when I spent every study session with her, I would always get bronze. The player has a limited amount of study sessions with Science Olympiad partners. Study sessions are once a week but stop long before the weekend of the competition. This means you need to choose which teammates get more interaction.

Story + Characters
Three main themes kept surfacing: the clash of perspectives between Karen and her parents, the stress of preparing for collage, and her identity as a gay young woman. Anxiety is a major theme. There is anxiety with school and parental expectations, the stress of wondering if you are good enough for your dream collage topped off with being acutely aware that your peers all seem to have the same ambitions as you. But for this review I am going to focus on the other two themes.

Family
Karen was born in China and traveled to the US with her parents. The intersection of parental traditions and her experience as a modern teen are themes that are heavily explored in this game. Sharing family stories is a common activity. (Spoiler - click to show) For Karen, this sometimes cultivates feelings of guilt about the severity of her parents’ upbringing in comparison to her own. Her parents had to worry about things that she takes for granted and yet her struggles are unique to her own experience. Daily life also involves regular interactions with the local Chinese community. Potlucks and get-togethers are typical weekend activities. (Spoiler - click to show) During this the parents chat about their children’s grades and social activities. In these conversations is a traditional sense of what roles children should take. But for young people like Karen, Emily, and Audrey these norms may feel dated. That is not to say that they reject their heritage. One of my favorite parts in the game is when (Spoiler - click to show) Karen and Audrey are encouraged to sing with the adults during Bible study.

There is one loose string that caught my attention. If the player (Spoiler - click to show) interacts with Karen's family enough, they reach an encounter where Karen's father learns that she is gay by noticing the books that she checked out from the library. He tries to talk to her about it, but the situation is so overwhelming that she runs into her room, locking her door. The scene is short and intense enough that you would expect to see a follow up later in the game, but it never happens. Not even at the end of the game where it summarizes her relationship with her family. Given that these topics are a prominent theme in the story I was surprised that the game did not build on the encounter.

Orientation
Karen is gay but hides it from her parents and most people. The game conveys the frustration of having her parents talk casually about marriage and grandchildren when a core aspect of herself completely goes against it. She also interacts with Emily, who is (Spoiler - click to show) transgender and struggles with not being able to be her true self around her parents and their expectations. Emily’s parents know bits and pieces but ultimately, she has not yet come out to them. Emily was one of my favorite characters because she introduces Karen to big questions. Throughout the game Karen and Emily may choose to counsel each other or simply chat. Emily is also one out of three characters that the player can pursue a romantic relationship with.

A defining plot point is if the player makes it to the (Spoiler - click to show) research event called “Emily and the Professor.” Karen participates with research in a lab managed by Professor Chan who is also Emily’s father. In this scene, he brings Emily to watch Karen give a presentation, referring to Emily as his son and asking Karen to teach “him” about science. The player can choose to proceed with the presentation or step down and say that they are not ready. With the latter choice the player chooses not to be a part of Professor Chen’s attempt to force an identity on Emily. Choosing this option is clearly a risk for Karen but it feels empowering. We see the culmination of their friendship in the face of uncomfortable situation. It is an eye-opening moment not just for Karen but for the player as well.

Visuals
The game has a crisp look, almost like the text is written on a piece of stationary or index card. The textbox area is set in a white box sent against a cream background and accented with grey lines and red links. Together it creates a simple but polished appearance. I liked how the game incorporates more than one language. It uses Mandarin characters with italicized translations. This game is made with Dendry which adds some variety to the development systems that I have encountered.

Final thoughts
This was the first game I played by Autumn Chen who is an incredible author. Everything is well-written, concise yet meaningful. Karen is a memorable character who is relatable and unique. Because of this, (Spoiler - click to show) winning the pageant feels more like a victory. I highly recommend the game, especially if you are interested in the slice-of-life genre.

Also: There is also a sequel game called New Year’s Eve, 2019. It features Karen in her senior year. (CORRECTION: Senior year of collage)


Job Quest, by Chad Comeau
Straightforward concept but weakly implemented, August 31, 2022

You have moved to a new town after landing a new job. There is no sure way to know what is in store for you, so you decide to take it one day at a time. Can you keep a positive attitude?

Gameplay
The gameplay cycles in a loop, with each loop consisting of a single workday. The protagonist wakes up, goes to work, and returns home to spend some free time. The interactivity mostly consists of choosing what to do after work. These choices influence the player’s stats which determines the protagonist’s performance at work the next day. The player manages six stats. These stats are fitness, relationship with friends, relationship with family, time spent working on a personal project, time spend on playing video games to relax, and tiredness.

My main critique is that these stats decrease too quickly. Over the course of five days, you go from (Spoiler - click to show) being “You’re in great shape” to “You've become weak and have visibly gained weight.” Sure, it is probably possible to gain weight in less than a week, but this seems drastic to go from the highest level for this stat down to its lowest level in so little time. Or if you do not check Facebook after a few days the game says, “You're sad about losing contact with your friends,” which is the lowest level for this stat. If the player has too many stats at the lowest level, they lose the game. There is only time for two activities per day (or three at the expense of being more tired) and managing all six stats is an uphill battle. There are also no weekends or days off at all which seems unrealistic for a game that simulates a workplace environment. If you are (Spoiler - click to show) extremely tired, you can sleep in and skip going to work which gives you the entire day to improve your stats. Unfortunately, your boss will fire you which ends the game.

Story
The game does a decent job of capturing the monotony of a job and I like the idea of having random events outside of the protagonist’s job thrown in to make it more realistic. However, the only special event that occurs is (Spoiler - click to show) when your car breaks down, requiring that you get it fixed. I think that the game would have been stronger if it added more of this variation and focused on strategizing with life events rather than leaving the player to drown in managing stats.

The difficulty of managing stats in this game results (Spoiler - click to show) in a poorly implemented ending. Once the player builds up too many low stats the game suddenly says, “You can't sleep because your life sucks. GAME OVER” which is followed by a link called, “Continue?” The game lets you keep playing but it is impossible to improve your situation. This was frustrating and felt sloppy. Perhaps the game is trying to make the point that sometimes it is too overwhelming to manage so many areas of your life all in one go. But the way the game conveys this with its ending is ineffective.

Is it possible to win this game? If you mean in terms of (Spoiler - click to show) the protagonist succeeding at their job than I believe the answer is no. But I did find an ending that could be interpreted as a win. You end up being recruited by a secret organization that sponsors people to win track races. That means quitting your job, which the protagonist gleefully does. The mysterious man who recruits you explains that you will be flown to an island where a new track is being built, the first of its kind. The game then ends on a cliff hanger and says that the story will continue in a game called Job Quest II: Jog Quest. I am not sure if the author is planning to produce this game, but it would be cool to see where the story goes. It also sounds more exciting than the desk job featured in Job Quest. I must admit this secret ending made me smile.

Visual design
The game has a clean visual appearance. It uses black text and blue links inside a white box with a small border against a grey screen. I have seen this colour and format design in other Twine games and it always succeeds in creating a polished look without being overly stylized.

Final thoughts
I like the game’s concept of settling into a new job. The briefness of each day keeps a steady pace and simplifies the gameplay. All you need to do is balance the activities that you do in your free time. The downside is that the implementation of the protagonist’s stats makes the game feel clunky. The player feels like it is impossible to win, and any premature ending feels especially incomplete. Nonetheless, this game is another take of the slice-of-life workplace genre that carries its own charm. If you feel like playing an idle Twine game that (Spoiler - click to show) may or may not have a secret ending than give Job Quest a try.


What are you wearing?, by Von Django
Not much substance to it but a lighthearted topic, August 29, 2022

This is a Twiny Jam game of less than 300 words about a parent casting a critical eye over you and your possessions before you leave on an excursion. It reminds me of being in the dead of winter about to leave when your parents interject that your jacket is not warm enough or that those shoes will be painful for your feet halfway through the day (and usually they are right). This game follows a similar concept.

At the start of the game, you select either a mom or a dad to be the parent in the gameplay. When you try to leave your parent stops you and comments on the (Spoiler - click to show) practicality of your clothes, the amount of food you have, how you intend on keeping yourself safe, and whether or not you snatched something sneaky when they were not looking. For each of these prompts the player selects one of three links that influence the dialog. For example, (Spoiler - click to show) when asked about food you may say trout, mushrooms, or rabbit which each result in a different response. This is the height of the interactivity in this game. It is a short game and needs to be because it was submitted to a game jam with specific rules, but it still felt like it could have been more substantial. The game's ending is sweet and sentimental but a little abrupt.

We never get any backstory on the protagonist's journey. I am curious to know why they are inspired to (Spoiler - click to show) don a "rakish hat sporting peacock feathers" or have a "mark of Grun" to ensure their safety. The writing suggests that the protagonist will be weathering the raw elements during the trip and risk the possibility of encountering bandits. There are tiny little details that hint at a surreal world but none of it comes into play.

In conclusion, this is a short and simple Twine game that can be reasonably relatable. There is not really a specific audience in mind or a dominant message but if you are looking for something brief and positive than this game is a good choice.


I've Attached My CV And Cover Letter, by Jaime Monedero March
Brilliant visual design, okay gameplay, August 28, 2022

This appears to be a somewhat autobiographical story about a game designer creating a cover letter for a job interview. It is a familiar concept, but the author makes it personal by capturing the struggles that come with trying to create a flawless cover letter to wow your potential employers. The gameplay is short but shows off creative visuals that take the experience to another level.

Now, my understanding is that a CV and a cover letter are two different, though similar, documents prepared in an application. The CV gives the nuts and bolts of one’s skill set and experience whereas a cover letter is a bit more personal. It focuses on providing a statement on the applicant’s intent and motivation for applying. Technically, the game only has the player write a cover letter.

Gameplay
First the gameplay has the player “research” the company that they are applying for: GameHouse. This information is then used to construct a draft that the player edits by clicking on links that cycle through responses. The game really captures the anxiety of trying to sound professional without bragging or trying to impress with your people skills without coming off as fakey.

The links cycle through options that consist of the protagonist fumbling with the writing. This shines a light into the protagonist’s thought process of writing which is a strength in this game since it makes it more relatable. However, the gameplay does not give the player the flexibility to choose the tone or quality of the finished letter. As you (Spoiler - click to show) cycle through each link the quality of the writing may improve until it suddenly cycles back to square one. No matter what you do the cover letter never feels finished. The game has the player manage the protagonist’s scattered thoughts but stops short of allowing the player to build from key ideas, such as the (Spoiler - click to show) protagonist’s experience with working internationally. Being able to explore these experiences and ambitions would have made a different in the gameplay.

Story
The basic story is about the protagonist’s desire to work at GameHouse. The downside is that (Spoiler - click to show) there is no real ending. You submit the statement and that is it. No endings that judge your success or final reflections from the protagonist. The game does not feel incomplete, just that it could have had more of a resolution.

Visuals
I was impressed by the visual design. Simple but incredibly creative. It is identical to the screen that you see when using a word document in Google Drive. Same heading and everything. In fact, the author used a screenshot and designed the gameplay so that the text occurs in the document space. The top of the screen even says, "I've Attached My CV And Cover Letter - a game by Jaime Monedero March" right where the title goes when you name the file. This was clever because it feels like you actually are editing a real document.

When the game began, I had to check twice because for a moment I thought I clicked on the wrong link. There is nothing in this game that says “made with Twine,” but IFDB assured me that I was playing a Twine game. The text links are underlined with the type of red squiggles that you would normally see when you misspell something. Obviously, there is no typing in this game, but this added visual effect made it more convincing.

Final thoughts
If the game used featureless visual effects, such as sticking to black text against a white screen it would not have scored as well. As you can tell from this review, I was smitten with its replica of a word processor’s appearance. That alone does not make a game, but it was effective enough to pull everything together. It is still interactive in the sense that the player edits the text, and the writing was humorous and relatable. I think players will enjoy this game. Maybe not for the richness of the game’s content but for its creativity and candidness.


Swedish Dads, by Xian Xian
Catchy start on an important topic but sadly incomplete, August 20, 2022

Paid parental leave in Sweden has led to a change in parenting methods. Many fathers are now considered as "Stay-At-Home" dads, a concept that is rather novel in places like the U.S. In this game you are a father named Björn. The game begins in your kitchen where you are drinking juice and thinking about yourself as a parent. Note: This game came out in 2016. No doubt the landscape of childcare has evolved (for better or worse) since then.

Gameplay
The gameplay is shaped by your choice of perceiving the world with either a realist perspective or an optimist perspective that offer two separate paths. I liked how the game presents two simple but clearcut ways of experimenting with the story. Unfortunately, both paths end abruptly with the realist path being slightly longer.

Optimist path
In this first path Björn is reflecting on when he first met his wife Agatha at an office, thinking about how attractive she was. Then he moves on to when they bought their first house which has started to feel like a home. Suddenly (Spoiler - click to show) the game interjects with "WHAT COULD BE ANY BETTER THAN THAT?!" Then the credits appear. This path does nothing towards portraying the subject of paid parental leave. It is just feels like a brief fantasy trip.

Realist path
At least this path does briefly look at paid parental leave. It covers Björn’s daily routine with his daughter Abby. His wife, Agatha, works in finance in another area. He drives Abby to school tries to complete basic tasks such as grocery shopping. Before paid parental leave he worked in a nut processing factory. Because the factory is not particularly exciting, he decides to apply for a new job. (Spoiler - click to show) Unfortunately, the game randomly ends with him thinking about different types of nuts without further exploring the topics of childcare.

Discussion
The game describes itself as being about "Swedish fathers with a lot of time on their hands," which we never learn about. In both the optimist and realist paths the game never breaks down how fathers commit themselves to childcare or how they manage their free time, especially over longer time periods than the ones shown in the game. For instance, how have societal factors influenced fathers’ role in childcare that resulted in the wave of stay-at-home dads? At least the realist route skims the surface of the subject. It mentions grocery shopping and applying for jobs but discussion of the subject ends before it can begin. I was not expecting a vast Twine piece that covered every aspect of paid parental leave. But when I saw the game, I thought it would have gone into greater detail.

Visuals
The visual design is one of the strong points in this game. It features beautiful gradient backgrounds with large glowing text that is easy to read and creates a nicely stylized effect. The glowing text is subtle without being hard to read. The optimist and realist paths each have a unique gradient background that was aesthetically pleasing. If this were a blog, I would upload a screenshot of the background. Since that is not possible you will have to play the game to see them for yourself.

Final thoughts
Despite its incompleteness there are two reasons why I would recommend the game: A, it has information on parental paid leave in Sweden at the end of the game and B, shows some nice examples of gradient backgrounds used in Twine. This too is mentioned at the end.

Even though I have multiple criticisms about the game I am glad that the author chose this topic because parenting is always a relevant topic. Based on my experience (other players may feel otherwise) with interactive fiction I have encountered more games about motherhood than about fatherhood, and I think that this game is a nice addition to the mix.

(Note: If you click on the link to the article in the credits page, you may be hit with a paywall. But if you type in the name of the article "In Sweden, Men Can Have It All" into a search engine you will still find some interesting and relevant material on the subject.)


Recess At Last, by Gerald Aungst
...yay?, August 19, 2022

The school year is currently in the dead of winter. Most recesses have been spent indoors but today's sunshine changes that. Today will be an outdoor recess. Even better, this will be a much-anticipated chance to test out your brand-new pair of sneakers. But at the last minute the teacher calls you back, saying that you cannot go outside because of a missing assignment.

Gameplay
You play as a fourth-grade student named Jamie Nelson. You need to turn in an "Explorer worksheet" about Vasco da Gama. There are two paths to approach this. If you look at the (Spoiler - click to show) blue folder in your desk you will discover that you have Daniel’s (your younger brother) schoolwork folder. This means Daniel must have your schoolwork folder containing the Explorer worksheet that you had already completed. The gameplay then consists of tracking down this folder to retrieve the missing assignment.

The other path is to (Spoiler - click to show) ask the teacher for a blank copy of the worksheet and fill in the answers. With this path you can consult the library for help. Neither of these paths are particularly exciting but at least it allows you to choose. This is followed by a puzzle about (Spoiler - click to show) finding some mittens, a coat, and a hat so the teachers allow you to go outside. This too is lackluster but does not take long to complete.

Story
In the “about/introduction” section the game says, "The daily school routine of going out to recess, transformed into an epic quest." There is nothing epic about the gameplay although I like the author’s enthusiasm. The conflict is being unable to go outside because of a missing assignment but completing gameplay objectives does not reveal any plat developments or build upon the story. The result is that it does not always feel like a game. But, in all fairness, the game ensures that there are no lose ends or questions left unanswered. It may lack pizazz but at least it presents a consistent and laid-back story.

Characters
Jamie’s personality does shine a little bit. I liked the feeling of rebellion that occurs when he dares to open the door to the bus circle which is forbidden until the end of the school day. The rush and exhilaration of such an act is humorously described, especially since Jamie is normally well-behaved and would shy away from this behavior. The other characters are not particularly interesting, but Jamie’s descriptions of his teachers strongly convey the perspective of a young student.

Final thoughts
It is bland but has no bugs. Everything is smooth and reasonably short. But there are still some upsides. In the credits section the author explains that he based this game off childhood memories, and this earnestness shows. And it might appeal to you if you are looking for a realistic school setting with a younger protagonist.


The Impossible Stairs, by Mathbrush

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Delightful puzzles, easy gameplay, and a touching ending, August 15, 2022

You are CJ, a young man standing outside of the family house surveying the damage from a storm when a mysterious woman throws a paper airplane at your feet. Printed on it is a list of chores. Some of the chores seem a downright impossible, possible only in another timeline. Fortunately for you, the stairs in your house are far from being ordinary stairs. They will allow you to visit and influence different decades of family history so you can fulfill every task on the chores list.

This game is an authorized sequel to The Impossible Bottle by Linus Åkesson and uses a slightly different (but as equally creative) gameplay mechanic. To keep it brief, The Impossible Bottle had the player manipulate the setting through the protagonist's toys. Adjusting toys, such as a dollhouse, adjusted the house in response and the things within it. The Impossible Stairs also focuses on influencing the setting through small but direct adjustments made by the player. However, the cause and effect in The Impossible Stairs is spread across a temporal range. In other words, what sets it apart from The Impossible Bottle is its use of time travel to structure the gameplay.

Gameplay
When I think of a time travel game, I often get the impression that it will be filled with a lot of technical puzzles (even though I have played time travel games that are not like that). But this game does not have time machines or puzzles required to move to different time periods. Not at all. Time travel is as simple as walking up and down a set of stairs, and this concept is well-implemented. Each level is interspaced with 20 years, the earliest starting in 1961, then 1981, 2001, 2021, and 2041. The floorplan is the same along with most objects and characters. But the differences are there, and the player uses them to adjust parameters that change the timeline. This is then used to produce the circumstances needed to complete the chores.

For instance, the game begins in 2001. A hurricane has occurred, and a large tree had smashed the garage. The garage is (Spoiler - click to show) where Ada, CJ's cousin, works on her projects. In the timeline established at the start of the game, Ada left home because she was devastated that the accident destroyed her work. But if you go back to 1961 and ensure that the tree was never planted close to the house the garage will be intact in the future. Suddenly Ada will be in the 2001 garage and onwards.

The player also gets a nudge from the game when an action influences the timeline with notifications such as, "Your Grandma's future has slightly changed" or "You feel your future career slightly change" that guide the gameplay. It makes it easy to piece together the cause and effect while still maintaining a level of complexity for the player since the puzzles vary in length and subtlety.

The protagonist's (Spoiler - click to show) future career is determined by the object placed on the pedestal in the 2001 office while his grandmother's future is based on the TV channel that she is watching in the 1961 living room. The pedestal puzzle was fairly obvious because its description flat-out explains this, providing a clear way of experiencing cause and effect. For example, if you put the sapling on the pedestal in 2001 you are going to find some paintings of it in the office in 2021. This then ties in with another puzzle that requires a certain painting, moving the gameplay forward.

The puzzle for the (Spoiler - click to show) grandmother is more subtle. Changing the TV channel in 1961 influences her interests and the products she buys. This allows the player to alter the items found in the 1981 house. With the right TV channel, the player will find cinnamon in the pantry which is a needed ingredient for the baklava recipe. I felt that this puzzle was a little less obvious than the career puzzle (then again, that could be just my take on it) but they both demonstrate the same gameplay concept. This is just another example of how cause and effect can be incorporated as a puzzle, and this game has plenty of them.

Story/Characters
The characters are all memorable and likable, especially Ada. She is a fun vibrant character with an endearing relationship with the protagonist. While the Ada puzzle seemed lengthy in comparison to the rest of the game, it was also my favorite puzzle. In fact, my favorite moment in the entire game is when (Spoiler - click to show) she finally completes her robot, and you realize that she created Uncle Rob! It is an excellent conclusion to the puzzle especially since the player can interact with Uncle Rob as he follows you around.

Everything was thoughtful. The memory board changes as family members die (after all in 2041 CJ would have outlived everyone except Ada) but there is always the option of visiting them in earlier time periods. (Spoiler - click to show) His grandpa and mom are exceptions. The grandfather died before CJ was born, and his mom while he was young, but the game takes a lighthearted approach to remembering them. I liked finding the recipe card on the memory board because it is closely tied to the protagonist's memory with his mother. And at the end of the game all the family members come together for a party that makes a nice resolution.

Conclusion
If you enjoy this game, I strongly encourage you to check out The Impossible Bottle. It is just as fun and whimsical (both games are also made with Dialog). Likewise, if you are reading this and have only played The Impossible Bottle than I urge you to try The Impossible Stairs. They have similar strengths but with differences in the story and gameplay that make them unique. And the (Spoiler - click to show) crossover with The Impossible Bottle at the end was perfect.



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