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.
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.
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.
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, an important subject. However, Learning to Be Human takes this an extra step further with a solid and consistent gameplay structure to back it up. This makes it easier to absorb its key points.
After slowly and earnestly playing the game with a learning 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.
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.
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 (Spoiler - click to show) 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. (Spoiler - click to show) 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...
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.
In prepare for return, you play as an AI stored in an underground facility with the task of making Earth habitable for humans. Following a series of disasters, Earth has become an apocalyptic world unsuitable for human life. Humans have left and will return once Earth is ready to receive them again.
The game begins with you powering on in the year 2851. The system that you are connected to is happy to answer some basic questions about yourself. You were constructed in the late 21st century by two corporations that have since ceased to exist since every human connected to them are either dead or left the planet long ago. It is time for you to carry out your purpose.
Your current hardware base is a Torsion Robotics AI Core, Model AI-05-3845-5000, housed in Room A48 of Reconstruction Facility 05, with six Intel W-39 Computing Clusters in rooms A49 and A50. More detailed information should be readily available to you through your operating system diagnostics.
Your job is to lead Reconstruction Facility 05 in rebuilding Earth, so it is not just habitable but also aesthetically pleasing for humanity. The gameplay is organized into “rounds” where you resolve alerts, modify objectives, and read status reports. After each task has been addressed, you enter sleep mode.
• Prime: Prepare the planet for the Humans' return.
• Purification: Remove elements toxic to humans from the seas.
• Development: Contact any other remaining complexes.
• Biosphere: null
• Legacy: null
The first task is to choose objectives for several parameters, such as how to remove toxins from the environment or what to cultivate in the biosphere. The impact of your choices here is shown in the summary reports provided the next time you wake up. Initially, I thought this would be a simulation game. Not quite.
(Spoiler - click to show) The summary of each "round" is long with rambling paragraphs, though that may be intentional. I opened two windows to compare playthroughs and noticed that each summary was nearly identical to that from another playthrough. My choices appeared to be meaningless. Plus, Facility 05’s resources are being drained rapidly. Things fall apart. After a few rounds, the game ends when the facility runs out of juice and the AI falls asleep for the last time (I think).
Rather than a planet terraforming simulator, it seems that prepare for return instead strives to depict a noble goal with a (Spoiler - click to show) futile future. As advanced as Facility 05 is, there is a looming sense of never being able to reach the ultimate vision of bringing humanity home. The result is gameplay that focuses on ambience and subtle messaging rather than strategy.
The story is a little reminiscent of the film WALL-E. Let the bots do the work so humans can return to a paradise. But unlike the film’s mobile robot protagonist, the AI in prepare for return is just that: an AI core stuck underground. It does not have the luxury of personally exploring the landscape and remnants of human-built structures. Instead, the facility’s drones carry out the exploration while a software program shares the occasional artifact on human history. None of it provides the AI with the depth needed to actually learn about humans. This proves to be a frustration that only compounds.
(The artifacts were interesting to read. They reminded me of decoding DNA files in The Archivist and the Revolution. Especially the Wikipedia citations.)
The trajectory is an unusual one. We typically perceive AI, robotics, and other technologies as constantly changing, upgrading, and finding new ways to defeat the elements. That is not the case here. You may be an advanced AI in a high-tech facility with a game plan, but the Earth is undergoing changes of its own. Changes that you cannot keep up with. Changes that interfere with your objectives. The result is (Spoiler - click to show) coming to terms with failure. As an AI, the only thing you can do is go back to sleep.
We’ve already been introduced to the protagonist, AI-05-3845-5000, but the character is best explored through the dream sequences. The AI dreams surreal dreams often underscored by human strife. Some are more exciting than others and typically make little sense. But this chaos is what makes it interesting. It gives you a sense of if an AI on a post-apocalyptic Earth were to dream, what would those dreams look like?
In my favorite dream, (Spoiler - click to show) a meeting is held in a cavern where a wise old master addresses a group of pupils. However, the NPCs are all arachnids or amphibians. At first glance, it seems rather comical if not for the underlying meaning about the protagonist and their functionality as an AI.
"Master," croaks the Bright Blue Leaping Toad, "the students are assembled."
In this dream, the protagonist sits among the students and tries to participate in the conversation. The students are given the opportunity to ask questions. Immediately, the students ask about being. But the master says that he is no philosopher, and that they should look for deeper answers elsewhere. Often, he brushes off the students’ questions.
The protagonist then inquiries about what it means to be lonely. The response is that loneliness is a human emotion and incompatible with an AI’s experience as a machine. Physical phenomena unique to one type of being is inaccessible to that of another. For instance, a human could not experience echolocation like a dolphin or whale would. At least, that is the argument.
"You," calls out Bright Blue Leaping Toad, "the living machine in the second row!"
But what about emotions, like loneliness? Surely pain can be felt by most creatures no matter how diverse. Oddly enough, the protagonist is called a “living machine.” If the protagonist is living, could they experience universal sensations? The protagonist tries to engage the NPCs with these ideas but is shrugged off and told that they are too different to understand.
This ultimately fuels the AI’s frustration at being unable to find ways to better understand humans while it works towards making Earth a place that humanity can call home. How do you make a home for a civilization you barely know? Once the facility is (Spoiler - click to show) no longer able to pursue objectives, its alerts are meaningless. The AI becomes someone who always hits the snooze button when their alarm goes off.
The facility’s (Spoiler - click to show) failure only alienates the AI from the planet on which it exists but is never a part of. There is no crushing disappointment about failing human masters. Only exhaustion and, at the end, indifference. Even if they could get out of bed, would they?
The idea of terraforming planet Earth sounds so exciting, and while prepare for return takes an alternate route with that concept, it pulls off a compelling story from the perspective of someone who was simply (Spoiler - click to show) not given the resources needed to complete a monumental task. That someone is an AI left behind by humans with instructions to ultimately serve them.
I wish the game was a little more drawn out since there are only a few rounds. It would have been nice to have seen the balance between reasonable and more daunting challenges. Human culture, experiences, history, and mannerisms are all something in short supply for our AI protagonist. But the hard science of removing toxins from an environment seem a little more straightforward and in the reach of the facility’s scientific knowhow.
Nonetheless, prepare for return is an excellent choice if you are interested in post-apocalyptic existentialism, particularly one with a non-human perspective. It contemplates the lengths in which technology can go when saving humanity. Especially when humanity isn’t around.
I figured that Fervency would take inspiration from the black plague epidemic during the 14th century in Europe and neighboring areas. It was so devastating that the timespan was called the Black Death. Still exists, but that’s another discussion.
Malignant miasmas have been assaulting your village for almost two weeks now. Pestilent toxins, noxious fluids. Even as you hole yourself up in your own home, you barely dare to breathe, lest the plague is airborne.
The game starts with an intro, during which I made some snap judgements based on what I saw: miasmas/humours + villagers + the dead being carted away + plague + bloodletting = plague years in the Middle Ages. I was hoping for a grimmer and serious game in a loose historical context like that of Vespers and Pilgrimage. I can tell you now that Fervency departs from that.
For a game of this subject matter, it is surprisingly cheery. Has the doom but minimal gloom. Messy but not quite as much (sort of) as the cover art and description suggest. Personally, it did not resonate with me, but it is good that the author decided to take an alternate route with the plague story concept. In terms of quality, Fervency needs some work, though it has strong potential to engage target audiences.
The game, already
The premise is that a plague is ravaging your home village. This is the realm of bird shaped protective masks, shaky beliefs on the origin of disease, and bloodletting. Every medical expert has tried and failed to stop the growing death toll. Daily life is isolation and fear, and you are dying.
Then, from nowhere, a visitor.
A strange woman appears before your deathbed with the promise that she can cure you.
Behind the fog of your dried-out eyes and dried-out mind, she stands there, like the Grim Reaper, or perhaps the Angel of Death. You weren't aware that you had neglected to lock your door - or perhaps you hadn't. Reapers and angels can probably pass through doors with no trouble.
That’s a potent introduction and an intriguing development when you are dying from the plague. Even though it does not explicitly say that she is an angel or reaper, the supernatural- or at least otherworldly- associations are there. Separate from the reality of a dying mortal, especially since she succeeds where all mortals have failed when curing this disease. Meanwhile, I was still glued to my Black Death + Middle Ages impression.
Even though she leaves a note saying she wants to help* the village, I felt that her skill at curing the incurable would not go over well with the village because of how it was conducted. She sneaks in, tells you the game plan, knocks you out, and cures you with some unknown method. Her entrance as a vague embodiment of the Angel of Death still lingered too, adding to the sense that she may have an otherworldliness that would leave the village a little uneasy. *(Spoiler - click to show)No.
The next day, two groups of people have gathered in the village. Healthy-looking ones, and gaunt ones that have been miraculously cured. I was expecting the former to call witchcraft and shun and/or be wary of those revived by some stranger wielding unexplainable magic in the night. Quite the opposite. Instead, everyone was all, “hi how are you?” which set the game into perspective. The final wakeup call that said, “you’re not playing Vespers, so get over it.” But there is more in store when the intro ends.
Kicking off the main gameplay, there is now an understanding that the village population falls into two categories: villagers who never got sick and anemics. Anyone cured by the Physician is an anemic. It is unclear of whether this was a good thing. Upside is that you survived the plague. Downside is that your sense of thirst and appetite are heightened. The game has you choose your type of craving.
I'm famished. A large slab of meat would do me good.
My throat is parched. I'm so thirsty I'm about to swoon.
Hunger or thirst? This decision will sculpt parts of the gameplay later. The big event in the main gameplay is that two nobles in the area are throwing a lavish costume party, inviting a mix of guests.
Now, the villagers and anemics get along quite well. This slowly changes as the anemics realize that the finest food and wine does nothing to dent their appetite. Civilized behavior goes out the window. It is not until (Spoiler - click to show) everyone gets wasted that they stop and ask, “what exactly did the Physician do to us?” Until then, party time.
The gameplay is heavily based on character interactions, mostly dialog for the first part. It follows the structure of talk to Character A about a list of prompts, then talk to Character B about a list of prompts, and so forth. Most of the prompts are the same aside from a few unique to the character. Later, you can choose to dance or interact further with an NPC.
This is not necessarily a negative feature. It is a great choice for players interested in that intimate character one-on-one at a group setting dynamic. Not so much for me, or at least with the writing. I do appreciate how it is not required to go through every prompt or interact with every character, which adds flexibility for players.
On that note, prompts could stand to be refined. Some were just back and forth banter. Are you looking forward to dinner? I’m looking forward to dinner. Do you have cravings? Same here. I like your scent. I skipped past those parts. Consensus: We hunger. If anything, I think the dialog is meant to pave the way for some romance later.
Fervency is not a romance game, but the traits emerge as the party goes on. No means a dating simulator. Just ways of indulging with that casual ooh la la your-costume-is-delectable flirtatiousness at a decadent party without pressuring the player to commit to anything. Again, did not dazzle me personally, but I could see this being a smash hit with some players. Especially the achievements.
I must admit, Fervency does a nice job of conveying the realistic longevity of a polite, refined party when everyone is trying to manage their symptoms while smiling and engaging in idle chatter. Almost like in Finding Nemo where the sharks are having a civilized conversation until someone gets a bloody nose. It is a scenario where (Spoiler - click to show) if one person loses it, everyone loses it as well. Chow down, quench your thirst, it's all on the menu.
An all-you-can-eat menu. Sooner or later, it does gets repetitive. It starts as an interesting ecstasy-ridden snacking free-for-all that drones on as the writing loses its eloquence. It gets to the point where they are devouring each other and I’m skimming through the text looking for something new. It’s more interesting to eat/drink nothing, go home, pat yourself on the back for not caving into your cravings, fall asleep, return to the manor, and see the absolute chaos caused by the previous night’s activities.
This brings us the question: (Spoiler - click to show) Is this really what the Physician intended when she game to “cure” of the plague? First off, the mysteriousness of her character decreases when she (Spoiler - click to show) casually shows up at the party dressed as a swan. Nothing ever she was not a mortal, but she seems more like an average sack of skin, bones, and organs than when she saved you from the plague. And second, (Spoiler - click to show) yes, she did intend for this happen.
To avoid ruining the entire game, I won’t hash out the details behind her healing (or “healing,” depending on your perspective) abilities. All I will say is that it turns people into proto vampires (my words, not the game’s). I’m not against that, but it currently feels undeveloped. This is meant to be feedback, rather than ridicule.
There are some bugs that tripped up the gameplay.
Sometimes the game would keep loading (indicated by an animated status bar appeared at the lower right side of the screen flickering in a universal "loading" message) but would not go to the next scene. I could not do anything else to the game. I ended up refreshing the page and starting over. Oh: The save files would not work either.
Then there are pop-up messages that freeze the game. Messages like “startup line 2518: increasing indent not allowed, expected 0 was 1” or “startup line 125: Achievement fuhrrvent already defined on line 93” that would render the game unresponsive when you clicked on the blue “okay” button to close the box. Again, I had to restart.
I applaud the author for allowing the player to jump ahead in the game to different sections. At the start of the game you can opt for the full meal (starting right from the beginning), the actual feast (party begins), or dessert (things get heated), the last of which is broken into four paths for you to choose from. And no, I’m not being cute with the eating analogies. I took it right from the game.
Point is the game can be buggy, but the author makes a point of accommodating this with ease of accessibility.
I was not sure of how to rate this game. As I’ve said, it did not exactly reach my interests, but I am confident that it will attract an eager audience. Tightening up the writing and pacing would make a difference. Plus, some (just some) bugs are sprinkled about here and there.
However, the game begins with a disclaimer saying that it is still a work in progress. That had a large influence in my rating since I did not want to take everything at face value. I hope this review functions partly as feedback even if reviewing was the main objective of my lengthy (lengthy) discussion.
While some parts, such as the party dialog options, were lengthy and lackluster, they serve as a solid outline. I am glad to see simply that content is there. What matters is that there is structure. The concept is on paper, and that is the first step. In this regard, Fervency is far more than a “first draft.” It is developed but would go further if it were developed a little more.
If you liked Fervency, I highly recommend that you sample The Lady’s Book of Decency. It’s a Twine game about an upper-class girl (and recently turned werewolf) who must prepare to attend a fancy ball during a full moon. It has stats, including one for hunger which matches perfectly with Fervency.
In a nutshell: Slasher horror + Reality TV + Dating sim = Blood Island
This is the only ChoiceScript game in the 2022 IFComp. Blood Island begins with a great start. You are watching a video of a contestant from the previous season of a reality TV show being stabbed by someone wearing a Barbie mask. The video ends and Chloe, a manager, enters the room. That’s because you are a contestant for the upcoming season of Passion in Paradise!
Blood Island cleverly replicates the qualities we recognize in romance-oriented reality TV shows but adds a unique and gruesome twist while maintaining an underlying light-heartedness. Even if you do not typically like horror or romance, Blood Island may surprise you.
Scenes usually focus on character interaction. A chunk of gameplay choices is reserved for discussing the nature of horror and reality TV with the other characters. While I would have liked to have a few more action-oriented choices about doing instead of talking (both are valuable), I like how the gameplay introduces the player to key ideas about popular culture and then pitches the concept of a Final Girl as part of the discussion.
We learn that a Final Girl (or Final Guy/equivalent) is more than just someone who is the sole person standing when the smoke clears. It is also a series of designated characteristics packaged by social expectations, often with gender norms. The traditional idea of a Final Girl has qualities ranging from drinking habits (or lack of), expectations about purity, graciousness, beauty, all the way to having the right name. Interestingly enough, the player can pursue an inverted version of a Final Girl to challenge the tried-and-true mold.
There are stats although they are only shown at the end of the game which I usually do not see in ChoiceScript games. I guess the point to use it in a more reflective manner since (Spoiler - click to show) the game wraps up with the player being interviewed about their whole experience.
Some encounters have a measure for endurance. If a player has a high enough stat more choices are available. If it is lower, some of the choices will be greyed out and unavailable. For example, (Spoiler - click to show) when the player is swimming from the shark as fast as they can, their choices are about having enough endurance to out swim the shark. These choices look like:
Swim like hell!
Swim, damn it!
Don't. Stop. Swimming!!!
If you are in good shape, most of these options will be available. Otherwise, the faster options are greyed out. The game seemed to take your previous gameplay choices into consideration. If you partake in less healthy habits the game will say, “You're not exactly out of shape, but you also haven't been making the healthiest choices since you joined the show,” whereas healthy choices result in, “You take care of yourself, and it's paying off.” I thought that if I played my cards right and increased my performance, I could out swim the shark. But no matter what I did the last choice of, “Don’t. Stop. Swimming!!!” would always be greyed out. The outcome of the scene remained the same.
If there is any underlying content, I am more than ready to go digging for it, but so far, the game sticks to the same course no matter what I do.
I was hoping that the game would indulge the reality TV show premise for a little longer because it is not often that I see this envisioned in interactive fiction. Passion in Paradise tasks contestants to entering a relationship by the end of each week to avoid from being disqualified. Now that I think of it, if this were a real TV show it would probably have more than eight contestants total, but this size works perfectly for this game. Contestants also receive date cards that details a fun excursion they can go on with another contestant. The gameplay never goes past round 1, nor does it reach the point where a contestant is eliminated- (Spoiler - click to show) that is, eliminated according to the show’s rules. By other means? Watch out. The stranger with the Barbie mask makes several appearances in this game.
Spoilers! (Spoiler - click to show) I thought it was sad at how the person you choose for the one and only date on the show dies but if you think about it most of the contestants (and even some non-contestants) get slaughtered in the last scene as well. Takes the idea of Final Girl literally. After all, this is a moment for slasher horror. In the epilogue the player receives a phone call about returning to Passion in Paradise. Considering how many contestants died, I am surprised that the show still manages to continue for another season.
There are seven romanceable contestants, and their introduction to the show is spot-on in creating a reality TV opening montage effect. What frustrated me about these intriguing contestants was how interchangeable the dialog and character interactions were after the opening chapters. They respond the exact same way for everything without any consideration of their unique characteristics that are portrayed when they are introduced at the start of the game reality TV-style. There are certain situations where I figured that Nick would have a different response than, let’s say, Mona, but the writing is almost always the same aside from their names. I am being a bit unreasonable since it is a lot of work to write content for seven separate contestants but please understand that the writing is well done, and it will take time before you exhaust the content.
Now, I know the game is playing around with stereotypical concepts, particularly with the trope of an ideal character that the audience adores, but it also seems like all the NPCs are equally enamored by the player, which feels flimsy. The relationship between a Final Girl/Guy PC and NPCs almost skims the Mary Sue trope which is partly the point in Blood Island. Afterall, you are the package deal. I feel that just because a contestant wins the hearts and minds of viewers does not mean their fellow contestants automatically feel the same way. The NPCs are also competitive contestants who, unlike a TV audience, directly interact with the protagonist and have a chance to form a deeper opinion of them.
Final Girl or not, even if you try stir up drama, and there are opportunities to do so, they forget about it a scene later. It makes me wonder, (Spoiler - click to show) is it even possible to get them to reject me when I choose them for the date card activity?
Also, just for the heck of it, I decided to try an alternate path. The game almost hints at a (Spoiler - click to show) possible Chloe, although I cannot say that I like her character, route. Is it possible to go through with it?
Final (get it? Fine.) thoughts
I have played two of the author's games and I noticed a skill for taking a potentially seedy premises and making it work. Horror game in a retirement home? Slasher horror on a reality TV show? The author pulls it off. (By the way, consider playing The Waiting Room from last year’s competition. Horror with a human touch.)
I was similarly impressed with Blood Island. This game offers a wild time. Your first playthrough is exhilarating and will likely leave you reaching for seconds. After some experimentation the allure fades, but there is enough content to sustain the player for a while. Its discussion of the Final Girl concept is especially memorable.
Question: If someone (Spoiler - click to show) stabs you with a cake knife in your stomach all the way to the hilt, would you survive that? It is surprising at how the human body can withstand major injuries but that sounds like it would test the limits. Then again, perfect for a slasher story.
You are blissfully working in your home lab when an urgent message from your older sibling arrives. They have been kidnapped by pirates through an elaborate plot and need rescue from Sector Zero. Unfortunately, Sector Zero is just a myth. But that should not stop you. Command a ship, embark on the life of a trader, and do what it takes to be reunited with your sibling.
I have already reviewed two other ChoiceScript games by the same author. One game was successful, the other less so, but they were both novel pieces. Star Tripper blows them out of the water in terms of creativity and innovation. It is one of the most ambitious ChoiceScript games I have seen. Not the cream of the crop in terms of quality, but I find its ambition to be remarkable. However, this is dulled by rocky implementation. I spent a long time on this game, far longer than any game I have played so far for this year’s IFComp. It has been idling on my computer for days. I have been utterly unable to reach an ending and have exhausted every lead. But I want to finish it. This will be a long review simply because I want to share my experience so far.
The intro is mostly exposition, but the player chooses their sibling’s attributes and other logistical details. The main gameplay begins once you reach space. Travel is straightforward. The setting is broken into quadrants and sectors, with each quadrant being divided up into four sectors. You manage your fuel and battery levels as you travel while also conducting trading and buying. If you are a fan of resource management, this game may interest you.
At first glance, this game is an open world dream. So many places to visit, including banks, churches, bookstores, bars, coffee shops, casinos, you name it. A big part is trading and selling items, but there are other ways of earning income. There are also all sorts of adventurous encounters. Avoid black holes, fight off pirates, claim your own asteroid, upgrade your ship, and more. When they gameplay begins after the intro, the possibilities seemed endless. I had the same feeling when I first tried Skybreak! Unfortunately, none of this fully comes to fruition.
The player must micromanage just to get ahead. As I was busy puttering around the galaxy, trying to maintain my fuel levels and finding planets willing to buy the excess cereal grains I had in my cargo hold, I totally forgot about my quest to find my sibling. Plus, the game sometimes gives mixed messages. Some activities are blanked out and only available in Arcade Mode which is unlocked once you complete the game. Fair enough. But there is inconsistency with Story Mode. For instance, the game will let you attack this trade ship but not that trade ship even though nothing about your ship’s status has changed. Planning is difficult when you are not sure of the game’s reasoning. Also, there is only one save slot, but I am grateful that it is available. Cling to it like a life raft when you are uncertain.
As I struggled to make long-term progress, my mind would wander to Superluminal Vagrant Twin. I want to be careful about comparing the gameplay between the two because they are made with different formats (Inform and ChoiceScript) that provide unique experiences. Nonetheless, their stories touch on a similar theme: Overcoming obstacles to save a sibling. They are also both sci-fi trading games.
Superluminal Vagrant Twin is not about finding your twin. The game does not go too deep into backstory but in a nutshell, your twin is frozen in a cryo tube, and you need to pay off your debt to get them back. A lofty objective, especially you are essentially broke. As a trading game, trading and buying goods is the core mechanic. But the game does not just toss the player out and say, “off you go, trade and buy until you make enough credits.” The gameplay is structured to point the player in the right direction by helping them identify smaller goals that lead to the master objective of getting your twin back. Having sub-objectives in Star Tripper would have been infinitely helpful, or at least an objectives list to remind the player of what to look for.
Once you manage to get your foot in the door you have more mobility. There is just a steep learning curve. I floundered for a while. Let’s see what I looked like as I floundered.
For such a vast and dynamic setting, I was overly hesitant to experiment due to the outcome of my first playthrough. I had to start over because I was stuck on a planet with not enough fuel to leave, which is not as tragic as it sounds. Every planet has a bar or drinking establishment where there is always a customer who will sell you fuel pods and other items if you buy them two drinks. The downside: I had almost no credits, not enough to buy two drinks, let alone fuel pods. I had no cargo to sell. The only option was to work a few shifts at the café. However, you get about 22 credits per order you complete during your shift. When you need hundreds of credits just to get off the dang planet this is not practical (and to seal the deal, I saved the game when I landed on the planet). Starting over seemed like the best option. I approached my next playthrough much more cautiously and was more mindful of when I saved the game.
As I mentioned earlier, it is hard to get ahead. Buying a ship to travel to Sector Zero is a distant dream. The most hopeful opportunity for my floundering self was mining on Class 1 planets. Filling a sack full of ore brings in 1000 credits plus a bonus. Sounds great. You decide how deep you want to go down a mineshaft. The deeper you go the better chance at finding ore (the max is 50 meters). However, if you decide on 50 meters you must click on a link- tap, tap, tap- 50 times in a row to reach the bottom of the shaft. If you find ore, you click on a link a few dozen times to fill your bucket. Then you click 50 more times to reach the surface. It takes about eight of those trips to fill up a sack, and that is assuming you find ore when you go down the mine. Progress was so slow.
But that can change.
The following is the rest of my semi-successful adventure. I found a strategy that made a million credits become a realistic goal, and even learned a few more details about saving my sibling. I am just going to hide it under one big spoiler tag. Hopefully this may give you some ideas.
(Spoiler - click to show) Fortunately, I did not flounder forever. The key is to establish a colony factory on an asteroid. But this is far, far, easier said than done. If you stumble across an asteroid, you can claim it for your own without fees or legal tape. Then, you hire colonists, and supply them with building materials such as iron or lumber. If you bring enough of these to your asteroid, you can upgrade its production level to increase your profit. The downside is that every time you upgrade your asteroid the game decides to reduce your cargo hold limits, which is unreasonable if your ship’s cargo hold only has five storage slots to begin with (as is the case with the Pigeon class ship you have at the start of the game). The game does not even explain why. Furthermore, each upgrade requires more materials that will need to fit into a rapidly shrinking cargo hold. Because of this, industrializing an asteroid was not something I could do for quite a while.
I finally managed to hammer out a strategy for buying and selling goods on planets, and I reached the point where I was doing pretty well. The days of mining were gone. I went from a mere Pigeon class ship to a Firefly, and then a Gila. Making 100,000 credits became an unexpected reality, and this allowed me to buy a Clipper class ship with 100 cargo hold spaces. This whole process, however, was slow and repetitive, so I decided to take a whack at colonizing an asteroid. Even if my cargo load were reduced there would hopefully be some left to continue trading. It did not take long for my ship’s cargo hold to go from 100 to 0, but by then things were looking up. I was making enough that I could simply buy another Clipper class ship to replace the old one. I burned through THREE Clipper class ships as I industrialized my asteroid, but by the time I had my production level reach level 16, the cost of a Clipper ship was practically pocket money. I could now buy the million-credit ship that my sibling mentioned in their message.
Oddly enough, that is where everything stagnated. Now that I had millions of credits at my disposal, I was relying on several scraps of information to carry me through, but none have brought me any closer to finding my sibling. I have tried everything. I will share them in case you have any input.
ONE: At the start of the game, your sibling says that the ship you need to buy costs a million dollars. There are two ships that fit this description. I bought both, but nothing happened.
TWO: Your sibling’s friend tells you that they may send you information on Sector Zero if they found anything in their research. That never happens. I did get one, and only one, message from my sibling after the intro, and all it said was that I needed to find the Golden Key to reach Sector Zero.
THREE: Once you have a million credits, you will eventually stumble across traders who happened to find the Golden Key and are willing to sell it. When you buy it, the game says,
🔑 Now that you've got your hands on the infamous Golden Key, it's time to find someone to help you install it.
I could not find anyone who could help me install it, nor did I know where to look. Furthermore, I had this encounter twice in this game. I would buy the Golden Key a second time and the game would act as if I first laid eyes on it. The stats page does not even mention that you acquired it.
FOUR: A useful tactic is that you can get general hints at coffee shops by buying something and sitting at an empty table to listen to the background chatter. It is possible to catch gossip about Sector Zero. You hear two people talking about a scientist who attached a gold quantum capacitor (which sounds awfully like the Golden Key) to a Zheng He class ship and managed to get it to go Warp 11. So, I bought a Zheng He ship. I am not sure if this was the ship my sibling had in mind since it costed less than a million credits, but none of the other ships had any promise. I already had the Golden Key (see previous), and I knew I needed to find someone to install it. Off I went exploring, but I did not find anyone whom I could talk to about my ship. I even had my ship wired to go Warp 10 (the max speed) in case it helped. No change.
I am out of ideas. I have played this game for endless hours, much of which I enjoyed, but I simply cannot reach an ending. Now I am groveling about in my own review. If anyone has any ideas, please comment.
From the start of the game, we get a sense of the complicated political environment in the game’s universe. It takes place in a galaxy ruled by a Galactic Council that is heavily influenced by the Central Families that dominate the center of attention. Then there are the wealthy Inner Rim families, the working-class Outer Rim, and everything in between. Lurking about is a pirate group called the Syndicate that plunder spaceships and planets. All this sound extremely simplified, a classic version the galaxy being categorized into polarized groups of “good” and “bad,” when in fact, these lines are blurred.
What I like best about this game is that it is one big learning experience for the protagonist who is from a Central Family and has always taken these benefits for granted. Now, they must rescue a sibling from a group of pirates that (Spoiler - click to show) turn out to have a closer association with the Central Families than most people, the protagonist included, realize. The protagonist is also unable to make use of their own affluence because the Syndicate is watching every move. The only option is to start from the bottom. No money, no ship, and no leads except the name of potentially sketchy friend who feel from grace mentioned in your sibling’s message.
Then again, whether or not the protagonist actually learns anything is technically up to the player. You see this development (or lack of it) with the dialog options where you can choose to respond to people with entitled indifference or with open-mindedness. Because I have been unable to reach an ending, I have no idea if this whole debacle will permanently change the protagonist’s view on life. But after weathering public transportation, Class 1 planets, and dingy spaceships, well, who knows.
Character interactions are shallow but are there if you want to seek them out. They are often quite comical. I think the overall light-heartedness works well in this game.
::: What do you want to do?
🪑 Join Saboson and Star at the table
🏃♂️ Turn and run back to the spaceport
For the most part, NPCs are just part of the scenery, but there are ways of initiating more one-on-one interaction. Aside from the characters in the intro (and even then, their names are randomized) there is no single character whose full identity remains the same for every playthrough. I think that adds some spontaneity. The game relies on procedural generation, and it wields it well.
👧 "You know what? Screw you, Saboson. You're a thief and a liar."
👦🏻 "A thief? Because I stole your heart? Give me a break, Star!"
::: How do you want to respond, Captain?
🗣️ "I'm learning a lot by listening to you two."
🗣️ "I don't feel like I'm really being heard."
🗣️ "I hate to be rude, but let's change the subject."
What surprised me was the depth of traveling companions. They travel with you in your ship and add some diverse dialog by commenting on the things you do or even initiating discussions. (Spoiler - click to show) Unfortunately, they are only interested in hitting on you in borderline-creepy manners. For science, I tried to marry one of the NPCs. It resulted in an error that said: wedding_chapel line 951: Non-existent variable 'priest_level' which almost crashed the game. Fortunately, I just loaded my save file and decided not to test it. And to be honest, I did not want to get married. Regardless of how you feel about the NPCs, it is nice to know that the option is there.
The game is extremely sleek looking. The text boxes are dark grey outlined with glowing borders that add a pop of colour. All of this is set against a lighter grey background. There are also little emoji icons that I have seen in the author's other games. They add an excellent visual. A whole variety of emojis are found in this game and are used strategically by the author to illustrate a point while avoiding emoji overload. That is one thing I noticed about the author's games that I have played: regardless of their content at least they look spiffy.
With the author, no subject is off limits. Zombie apocalypses, farming simulations, and now a sci-fi trading a game, and I genuinely love the creativity and innovative usage of ChoiceScript. For a while, I never perceived ChoiceScript as a format that uses visual effects in storytelling. Now I am seeing how flexible it can be with not only visuals, but also with puzzle types and gameplay mechanics.
Star Tripper is a tough and confusing game, but it also has humor and adventure. Even if you do not manage to find your sibling you will still have a memorable experience with making a name for yourself and formulating strategies. It does need more polish, hence the low rating. There are some clunky bugs, but the biggest issues are, A, it is difficult to make progress, and B, long-term objectives are murky. But underlying it all is a solid foundation. If you have more than a few minutes, play this game. It has a lot of fun sci-fi and resource management themes. Just requires a little extra patience.
You play as a young man named “Olde” MacDonald. Do you have what it takes to be a farmer and support your family (and maybe even become famous)?
The game is organized into “cycles” of five days that begin on December 27th which ends when the new year begins. Gameplay consists of feeding or medicating animals, fixing stalls, or butchering animals.
Here, you have the following materials on hand:
🌾 Animal feed: 3764 kilograms
💊 Medicine: 54 units
However, the game predominantly focuses on butchering animals. Once you stockpile a certain amount of meat everything after that can be sold for income. There is some strategy to this. Certain animals produce large quantities of less expensive meat while others produce small quantities of expensive meat. I would focus on the former until I fulfilled the stockpile and then switch to the latter when it came to selling surplus. Butchering animals is not my thing, but this is NOT a graphic or gory game. When you do butcher an animal it is merely implied.
When I first played the game, I thought I was in a dream of resource management. But this wilted. For instance, there is hardly any resource management with the medicine. Only the (Spoiler - click to show) lambs get sick and require use of the medicine supplies. The lambs also die too quickly. The first time I played I was busy exploring the barn and within a few turns (less than one day in the game’s world) all the lambs died of starvation. I had to start over. Because this occurred at the start of the game it was not an issue but still seemed weakly designed.
⚠️ The 🐑 lambs in Stall 1 are out of food!
☠️ All of the 🐑 lambs have died.
::: What do you want to do?
With each year new types of animals are added to a stall and the number of animals in each stall will also increases. Gameplay becomes chaotic. The animals keep damaging their stalls and running out of food too quickly for the player to keep up with.
The game ends once you make $10,000. You can either choose to keep playing (and instead of going to the December of the next year to start a new cycle you keep on playing into a January) or give up farming to seek a different path in life. There are some achievements including three hidden ones. The only hidden one I reached was called (Spoiler - click to show) “Clean Sweep” where you manage to butcher all your animals before the year ends.
Just so we are all on the same page, the game is a rift off a song by the same title. Each verse is about the animals on a farmer’s farm. In the game school children visit your farm to write songs about it. That is supposed to be a reference to the song that it is based on.
It seems like original song is based on barnyard animals, livestock. The game introduces lambs, cows, goats, ducks… snakes? Parrots and frogs? An elephant? The game transitions towards housing, slaughtering, and selling and/or consuming exotic animals (again, nothing graphic). I think the game is trying to take a creative approach to the song by incorporating more novel animals, but the result is confusing and outlandish. The frustrating nature of the gameplay makes it difficult to appreciate these changes because you can barely keep up with everything. Plus, the introduction of these animals does nothing to influence the gameplay or the story beyond needing to butcher them.
I recently played another game by the author called Zombie Blast 2023 which I also reviewed. Zombie Blast 2023 took a unique approach to ChoiceScript by incorporating free range of movement in its gameplay. Free range of movement is where the player can roam around in a space while directly examining or interacting with things in their environment. In Zombie Blast 2023 the goal is to defend your house against zombies. Having free range of movement in the house emphasized that the player must engage in combat. Old MacDonald Had a Farm also tries to use free range of movement in its gameplay, but the result fell short.
Old MacDonald Had a Farm uses this technique to map out the barn which is creative. You can walk across the barn in sections and enter six different stalls. It flows like a parser game, which is great to see in ChoiceScript. But its implementation in the game is repetitive and inconvenient. It means having repeat the sequence of “enter the barn,” “move east,” “move east,” “move east,” “move east,” “enter the stall to the north” just to get to stall 5 to put some food down. It gets tedious as you try to process dozens of animals throughout the barn. As you gain more animals the screen becomes filled with notifications which means that the screen is always shifting. It becomes “enter barn” (scroll down), “move east” (scroll down), “move east” (scroll down), you get the idea. Disabling animation in settings reduces this a little but does not completely prevent the screen from jumping around.
You may run into bugs. Frequently, I would get popup error messages such as, "farmer line 1351: visited this line too many times (1000),” that would appear while I was moving through the barn. I applaud the author’s experimentation with the medium, but it was not as successful as Zombie Blast 2023.
Story + Characters
The game begins with a story segment where MacDonald attends a dance where he encounters a young woman (her name is randomized) that he knew from childhood. Here, the game strives to create a wholesome 1940s atmosphere. The two fall in love and get married. This was a great story-centric way of starting the game and I thought that the gameplay would be intersected by more story scenes. Yes, there are scenes at the end of each year to summarize your progress, but it is not the same. Instead, everything is stagnant and repetitive.
Character dialog seems unnatural. For example, at the end of each day the protagonist’s wife says, "MacDonald, time to wrap things up and come home for dinner. Tonight, the family needs to eat 9 kilograms of meat." The phrase “the family needs to eat 9 kilograms of meat” is awkwardly worded and too clinical given the context.
You seem to have a (Spoiler - click to show) kid every year and once the oldest is barley older than a decade you start getting a grandchild each year. If you fail to butcher enough meat your family has to eat cabbage and potatoes for dinner. This is enough to make them malnourished within one day. Within two or three days (Spoiler - click to show) a child dies from malnourishment because they had to eat cabbage and potatoes for a few days instead of meat. It just seemed so artificial and unrealistic in comparison to the content we see at the start of the game. Perhaps it is meant to be comical, but I was expecting some story milestones.
Its creative visuals are probably the strongest part in the game. Visually, it is incredibly polished and a creative use of ChoiceScript. Text area is dark blue set against a pale blue backdrop. There are clever little icons used throughout the game including animals and human characters.
I wish I could say this was an excellent game, but it falls short of its goal. The ideas are there: colourful visuals, resource management, basing the story after a song, and more. But the finished piece is lacking. The implementation is flimsy, and the story dulls soon after the game begins. There is no denying the unique use of ChoiceScript and I think that the game is worth trying for that reason alone. But it probably will not sustain players’ interests for longer than a few rounds.
The zombie apocalypse came and killed your parents. Then it killed your spouse. The only person left is your baby. Using a shack as shelter you will fight tooth and nail to keep the zombies at bay. Hopefully the two of you will survive the night.
This is an incredibly creative use of ChoiceScript. Currently it is the first one that I have encountered where the player has free range of movement to roam around with north, south, east, and west directions. Rather than presenting the player with list of story options such as "Choose to defend the baby" or "Ambush the zombies from the north" the game has the player actively fight the zombies each step of the way. It instead uses “Go north,” “East some food,” or “Fire shotgun” options that require the player to strategize as they defend against each zombie that approaches the house. While the player cannot examine individual things in each area they can scavenge for supplies, rest, or eat. This is such a unique gameplay approach for this story format.
There are four rooms in the house, one room (randomly chosen) containing the baby. The gameplay’s core objective is to protect the baby from the zombies. You go from room to room killing zombies with an axe or shotgun before they can shuffle to the baby’s crib. There is a stats page that tells lists your energy levels, inventory, and number of zombies remaining in the wave. The player "Levels Up" after defeating each wave of zombies. Between each wave you can scavenge for shotgun shells and cans of food. I had fun coordinating these different aspects of gameplay.
There is no way of saving the game nor are there checkpoints that let you return to the previous level. It would have been helpful if these features were available because the gameplay can become repetitive. My initial strategy (Spoiler - click to show) was to shoot zombies when they were three to two steps outside of the house and axe those that entered the house or were right outside the window. I found it helpful that the game alerts the player to the number of steps a zombie has before it enters the house. Each time I cleared a room I would immediately return to the baby’s room to see if any zombies snuck in.
At one point I ran out of energy and could no longer move to other rooms. I also had no food. The only thing I could do was rest. My strategy was to wait in the baby’s room and simply wait for the zombies to come to me. This allowed me to alternate between attacking a zombie with the axe and resting. This was so effective that I continued to do this even when my energy levels were no longer an issue.
The story is your standard zombie apocalypse narrative about a nondescript virus turning people into zombies which results in survivors having to constantly fend off wave of zombie attacks. This familiar storyline in zombie games does not necessarily need too many details to feel like a finished piece, especially if you enjoy the classic elements of the genre but it certainly does not hurt when authors choose to incorporate a more complex story. Zombie Blast 2023 sticks to the basics which is just fine.
The only story is about the protagonist’s desire to protect their baby after losing everyone else. The entire gameplay spans over one night. Once you (Spoiler - click to show) complete Level 9 the game declares that you made it to morning and awards you the “Survive the night” achievement worth 25 points. The game then asks if you want to continue playing or just to end it right there. I believe that this achievement means that you have “won” the game. It definitely felt like an achievement!
This is a nicely stylized ChoiceScript game. The top portion for the story text is light orange while the menu choices are shown in black with an orange border. All of this is set against a black background. I liked this look because the colours make it stand out from other ChoiceScript games that I have played. ChoiceScript games are something that can be enjoyed with or without fancy visual effects, but it is always fun to see when authors experiment. The game also uses fun icons to illustrate player choices such as a cereal bowl next to the “Eat some food” option. It adds just a little bit of pizzazz without being distracting.
This game is a great concept with some novel features but has characteristics that might frustrate players, particularly not being able to save or return to checkpoints. But at the same note it is incredibly entertaining and gives the player a chance to strategize. I recommend Zombie Blast 2023 if you are interested in the zombie genre, looking for gameplay with combat, or curious to see a creative application of ChoiceScript.