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Neurocracy, by Joannes Truyens and Matei Stanca

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

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

This is one of the coolest games I have played.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


One Way Ticket, by Vitalii Blinov
Next time, take a flight instead, October 31, 2022

One Way Ticket is a surreal custom choice-based game about being stuck in a strange town after your train runs into an accident… the railway is covered in a big mountain of corn. These circumstances only get stranger. If you want to leave you will have to show initiative by pestering the locals, worming your way into off-limit areas, and maintaining your sanity is this odd, odd adventure.

This is a town where (Spoiler - click to show) people use golden sand as currency, night and day are determined by adjusting the arms on a clock, buildings have legs, everyone only eats corn, and lions hang out in the valley. There is also an NPC (Spoiler - click to show) who has arms and hands in place of legs and feet. Soon after your arrival, the mayor gives you a town map that already has the broken-down train marked on it, almost like a historical landmark. His also attitude suggests that the train (which, by the way, has *(Spoiler - click to show) eyes for wheels) and its passengers were meant to be trapped here, but that won’t stop you from looking for a way out.

Despite this weirdness, this is not a horror game, more akin to a demented version of Thomas the Tank Engine (not Thomas himself but the human characters). These themes are subtle, and that is the whole point. If you like vague, slightly unsettling themes right under the surface in a surreal game, this might be for you.

Gameplay
After an intro in the train, you are essentially dropped into the middle of town to fend for yourself. This means wandering around and asking people questions. Later on, the gameplay becomes more complex.

The gameplay is structured for convenience and frustration, a surprising combination. The central mechanic revolves around the two icons at the top of the screen: a satchel icon (for inventory) and a notebook icon. The satchel icon keeps track of clues and observations which are added as you play. Any noteworthy information in a scene is underlined and sent to this section for future reference. For me, there was a learning curve with how the gameplay implements these two icons. In an interaction you can open the notebook or satchel to select an entry to be used in the encounter.

"By the way, if you want to eat or something else, say, do not hesitate!" she added cheerfully, without turning around.

Say goodbye.
Ask about the driver and conductor.

Above is an early scene where you talk to the hostess in the tavern. “Say goodbye” and “Ask about the driver and conductor” are action links, the latter of which only appears if you open the notebook section and select the clue about the driver and conductor’s whereabouts in the notes section. Easy enough. The problem is that later in the game the objectives and puzzles become increasingly cryptic, technical, and confusing. I found myself just randomly trying every clue in an encounter until I found one that did something. At times, the number of clues and details can be overwhelming, especially if you have a hard time following the story.

The reason why I am giving this game three stars instead of four is because the last third of gameplay involves excess backtracking for solving the dozen or so final puzzles. You navigate by opening and clicking on a map which translates into, (Spoiler - click to show) go to the tavern, the trolley, another trolley, the cemetery, the trolley, another again trolley, the tavern, the southern trolley, the workshop, the southern trolley, the tavern, the- and so forth. Usually this is just to switch between night and day via the tavern, but it feels so repetitive, even more so since this is a long game. At least it was fun to see the night and day art for each location.

Story
The gist with the story is that a mountain of corn is covering the train tracks, and that the only way for it to be removed is to eat it…………..it is hard to keep track of events in this game. It largely has to do with (Spoiler - click to show) dealing with the lions in the valley, but to get to that point you must do all these odd jobs (like obtaining some golden sand so you can actually buy something) to acquire the resources need to achieve that.

I was using the walkthrough for most of the second half of the game (Initially, I thought I was making speedy progress, but when I saw the walkthrough, I realized I had a long way to go). By the time I finished I was not even sure of what I accomplished. It was (Spoiler - click to show) snowing and everyone seemed miffed that I banished the lions. I can’t even remember if I managed to leave.

It feels like you have to jump through hoops just to get some answers about the story. It is not as if the game simply skips over discussing exposition about the town but having played it for several hours, I find myself unable to piece it all together. While it is not really something I plan to play more than once, the optional achievements and bonus art galleries make it awfully tempting.

Characters
The game vaguely suggests that the protagonist is male, but there is a scene on the train that may or may not be an opportunity to choose your own gender. It has to do with examining and entering the bathroom doors, but it does this so vaguely that I cannot say for sure.

I thought it was interesting how the game uses a first person and past tense narrative. The protagonist is telling a story that already occurred, which I do not see as often in interactive fiction. We also do not get much background on the protagonist, only that they are on the train to leave an old life behind. Obviously, this debacle with the corn-oriented town derailed (hey!) their plans of starting a life somewhere new.

Some of the NPCs are a little intense, but others are mysterious in a cool way. It is hard to pinpoint characters’ motives. Combined with being stuck in a strange town, that is a little worrying, but also the whole point.

Visuals
I really like the art which uses basic lines and shapes to form an image but at times it’s a little unsettling. Imagine taking several sticks and lining them up perfectly side by side except for one that is slightly bent. It is barely noticeable, but something at the back of your brain thinks, “huh, that’s weird.” This is not a complaint since it contributes to the bizarre weirdness that is lurking about. Most of the art though, is not like that. A great feature is a gallery section that collects the art you have found. There are quite a few.

There is also a handy in-game map of the town that expands as you explore more areas. You just click on where you want to go. If I had to describe the map’s style, I would say that it looks like it was hand drawn and then processed through Microsoft Paint, but much nicer looking. And I like the style. It is just hard to describe.

A downside is that I noticed some mildly frequent spelling errors sprinkled about. The game is certainly not sloppy, but a final round of proof-reading would have added some polish.

Final thoughts
One Way Ticket does an effective job at conveying a surreal setting featuring a flustered protagonist forced into bizarre and unexplained circumstances determined not to succumb to the wonderful life that the town claims to offers. I must say, this game’s story is probably the most eccentric, but also memorable, out of all the entries I have played so far for this IFComp.

Ultimately, this is a quality game, and quite an adventure. However, based on its length and repetitiveness near the end, I recommended it if you are looking for a creative take on surrealism and have the patience to be in it for the long haul.

*When I saw the cover art, I had the impression that this would be a kids’ game. It’s not. But it was not until I played the game that I noticed the “wheels” on the train are supposed to be (Spoiler - click to show) eyes. I think since they blink on the menu page in the game.


The Black Phone, by Oreolek
A choice-based mystery in an apartment setting, September 13, 2022

This is a short mystery game where you search someone’s apartment in their absence for a black phone.

Gameplay
There is a brief intro that is a bit confusing. I will summarize it here to provide some context. It is the dead of night in the apartment. Peter, a possibly a doorman or attendant, hears a stranger loudly ringing at the entrance. This stranger is named Ronald and is the PC for the gameplay. Ronald manages to sneak into the apartment of Anastasia Kozlowa who happens to be away on a trip. By the time the door to the apartment closes, Ronald is already inside. Peter decides to wait in the hallway. That is the intro.

The story is in omniscient third person because it covers the thoughts of both Peter and Ronald. However, Ronald is the only playable character. The gameplay begins in the living room. From there, the player has free range of movement to visit each room and search the items within. Most choice-based games with free range of movement tend to be Twine games (I have a recommended list about it if you want to know more), so it was nice to see this implemented in a different format.

Ultimately there is only one puzzle which is to (Spoiler - click to show) unlock the box containing the phone. The significance of the phone is unclear. It seems to have something to do with Leonard Yakovlev, a painter whose name crops up throughout the game. Everything else is either atmosphere or hints on the (Spoiler - click to show) box’s combination.

Story + Characters
Ronald somehow already knows that (Spoiler - click to show) the phone will be in a box in the bedroom. Some parts of his thoughts and mannerisms suggest that he is an acquaintance of Anastasia, or even a friend. But at other times he feels more like a stalker or someone who only knows her at a distance. She is an exotic dancer and the game hints that she is big enough of a celebrity to be covered in the tabloids. This provides some explanation as to how he knows about mundane things like the clothes that she often wears, but something tells me that he knows her through more than just following the tabloids. Ronald absolutely refuses to search through Anastasia’s lingerie or bathroom out of respect for her privacy. Would a stalker do this? It is hard to say. Ronald remains a mystery throughout the game.

The only criticism I have about this game is the ending comes out of nowhere and makes little sense. When you (Spoiler - click to show) leave the apartment, Ronald turns on the phone. Immediately the phone starts emitting the sound of screeching monkeys. He then spots a body on the ground (Peter, perhaps?). Then the game says, "A QUANTUM MAGICAL SMART PHONE FIESTA." Ronald leaves, and the game ends. This confusion is why I am giving this game four stars rather than five. The gameplay is excellent, and the story is intriguing, but the ending leaves you blinking at the screen in confusion. The only correlations that I can think of is the (Spoiler - click to show) letter on the kitchen table that mentions something about “Quantum audio,” and the bedroom wardrobe is filled with portable audio players. But I do not get the connection. If anyone else does, I would like to know.

Visuals
It plays and looks like an Ink game. If I did not know otherwise, I would have thought it was made with Ink. Instead, it is a combination between Undum and Raconteur, both of which are formats that I am less familiar with, especially Raconteur.

The screen is a dark navy blue that runs a bit lighter at the bottom of the screen. This small contrast adds some depth to the background. The title of a room's location is listed in large text in the lower left hand of the screen. Beneath it are listed the other locations you can visit in the apartment. The text is clean and crisp, and I did not find any spelling errors.

Final thoughts
This was a short and refreshing game. It felt like a gem when I stumbled across it on IFDB, and it did not disappoint. The confusing ending knocked it down a few points but everything else was consistent. It does not take long to play and is a good choice if you are looking for a mystery game.


Redstone, by Fred

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Custom choice-based murder mystery in a casino, August 11, 2022

You are a deputy summoned to investigate a murder in a casino. The game begins when you arrive at the casino. The manager tells you that a prominent guest has been murdered and that it would be appreciated if the investigation were conducted as quietly as possible. The FBI are planning to arrive the next day and would like you to narrow down a suspect.

Gameplay
The game is light on puzzles. They mostly involve traveling to different rooms to interview people and compare their statements. There was one puzzle about finding cheaters in the casino, but they were often found right in the lobby which made it easy to complete. This also seemed to be a bit of a side quest because you can ask the security guard if you could find more cheaters in exchange for chips. The game lets you play blackjack (and you do not even have to win) although (Spoiler - click to show) its only purpose is to attract the attention of Kat who simply gives you more information about the casino guests.

The game makes an effort at building atmosphere. There will be random characters wandering around to make it more like a busy casino. You have access to over a dozen locations including a poker table, blackjack table, bar, kitchen, private rooms, lobby, and other areas. This is roughly an hour-long game but can be completed in less time in replays.

Design
Redstone is a custom choice-based game that uses menus to create a parser-like effect. At first the point and click was slow, but you get used to it quickly. The game tries to streamline the gameplay by summarizing your findings with the “Think” command and marking off which discussion topics you have used with characters to avoid repetition. It is also cool how you can “undo” with this format.

For each location there are boxes that say "Examine," "Go to," "Talk to" (if there are people to talk to), "Think," "Inventory," "Look around," and other commands that may be unique to the situation. This all works together to create a parser-like experience. For instance, clicking on “Talk to” lets you choose which character in the room you want to interact with. On a slightly more complex level, if you use the “Examine” command and find something worth taking, then the game will implement the “Take” command. Play the game and you will get the hang of it.

The visuals are a bit rough-around-the-edges and yet they are consistent enough to create a solid appearance that carries it through. The art, though occasionally crude, I found to be oddly likable. And there is a lot of art to experience. (Spoiler - click to show) One little inconsistency that stood out to me is Kat’s dress. Kat is described as wearing a slinky red dress even though the drawing of her shows her in a dark navy dress. That kept bugging me. But that aside, I really did enjoy the art.

Story
It is an interesting story but none of it is particularly thrilling or exciting which is too bad since murder + casino tends to have no shortage of flair. The main issue is that it could have capitalized on some of the plot developments. The main one was when (Spoiler - click to show) Simon leaves his room and tries to sneak out. If the player goes to his room to find it empty the game has no reaction. No "Simon is no longer here" or "Simon is missing!" All we get is:

John Simon's room
You see a bed and a dresser.


No drama or suggestions to the player that this is a new plot development. There is not even a note under the “Think” command that acknowledges this. I was expecting a “Simon is nowhere to be seen! You should catch him while you can!” That would have been a great opportunity to turn up the heat. Instead, it just assumes that the player will notice that he isn't there and to respond accordingly. In other words, it is easy to put two and two together (Simon snuck out evade the investigation) to figure out what the game wants us to do (detain him in the garage) but there is no atmosphere to this development.


Final thoughts
I would summarize this one as a finished piece that offers some quality gameplay if you feel like playing a murder mystery game. I recommend anyone interested in the genre to play it especially if you are looking for parser-like gameplay in a choice-based format.



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