This game is NOT for kids.
Page 1: This is Jo. Jo wants to go on an adventure!
You are reading a storybook about a boy named Jo who seeks to overcome adversary to reach a mountain and climb it. The narration depicts a fun adventure but inserted text on each page reveals how Jo really feels about the story.
Gameplay structure follows the concept of reading a storybook from start to finish. You click on a link at the bottom of the screen to flip to pages in the "book.” On the screen are additional links that allow you to explore Jo’s perspective as the protagonist of a storybook.
(It's almost over. Stop reading. Please.)
Turn to page 10...
There is more to this game than clicking on links to read a story in a picture book.
"Stop reading" and "Turn to page 10..." are both links that places Jo's predicament into the player’s hands. One hears what Jo has to say about the scene while the other simply moves forward with the story. This opens new avenues for the player to explore which then changes the gameplay.
The main plot element is that (Spoiler - click to show) characters recognize that they are cartoon characters in a storybook and that there are countless copies of the book that feature the same characters with the same struggles. As for Jo, he has experienced the same linear story of climbing the mountain repeatedly. Every time someone picks up the book to read it, he must relive the whole thing.
If you dutifully follow the page sequences straight to the end, (Spoiler - click to show) Jo manages to make an appeal when you reach the final page. He wants you to free him by ripping out the page to ensure the story never ends. That way he no longer endures the pattern of traveling to the mountain and climbing it.
The player has two choices. (Spoiler - click to show) They can rip out the page like Jo requested or close the book. Both led to lackluster endings consisting of a few words on the screen. I was expecting them to have a little more substance. Fortunately, it is possible to (Spoiler - click to show) reach an alternate conclusion by diving deeper. If you ignore the page sequences and explore the links on the screen you reach hidden content that takes the game in a whole new direction. That’s when the story starts to take off.
Clicking on other links reveal (Spoiler - click to show) Jo’s daydreams and idle thoughts of what he would do if he had free agency over the storybook that he is trapped within. These scenes depict violence, self-harm, and other subjects that depart from the picture book’s cheerful story. It also details the frustrations he endured and outlines his plan for vengeance on the author of the picture book if he had a chance to escape. If you explore these grievances enough, you can reach an alternate ending. It is similar to an ending that I previously mentioned but feels more like a solid outcome that ties the story together with no loose ends.
There is some cynical humor to the story and its protagonist. A (Spoiler - click to show) “children’s book” that jumps off the deep end with a dramatic shift in story tone. One minute a good-natured boy meets a friendly bear, and the next thing we see is the boy killing the bear instead. However, not all of it is a laughing matter. There are themes that make the humor less lighthearted and the story’s content more serious. But different elements can add dimension.
This is a PC who feels trapped. Jo often looks (Spoiler - click to show) for ways of committing suicide to escape the story but fails every time. The difficult part is that once Jo shares his grievances in an alternate scene the game then launches us back into the main storybook gameplay so that Jo can go through the exact thing he was talking about. At least I can say that it is possible for Jo to be free and seek vengeance. Closure, if you will.
A white section of page is used for the picture book which is then set against a pale blue backdrop. As a picture book it naturally features cartoon artwork. If this were a book for kids, I would say that the artwork’s style is a tad mediocre, but it has a crude quality that suggests a dissonance (or maybe it’s just the parts with the (Spoiler - click to show) blood). I have no idea if this is what the author intended but it pairs perfectly with the story and gameplay.
I like choice-based games that reveal a sinister truth and convey it with an abrupt change in visuals that tells the player in unveiled terms that they overstepped or disobeyed and should get with the program. The player has no choice but to follow the game’s orders, infusing the remaining gameplay a sense of dread. The game i love gardening comes to mind. If you refuse to garden, well…
This Is A Picture Book is a bit different in that the player is not being herded into making one specific decision. They still have choices even if Jo does not, but the change in the game’s appearance still indicates that there is a darker layer underneath this sunshiny story book. Things escalate.
The shock value comes in when you first encounter Joe’s (Spoiler - click to show) alternative narratives that dispose of the bright colours and outdoor scenery. Disturbing imagery is used. For instance, a friendly bear frolics on the green grass next to a clear blue lake. Next, the bear is dead on a stretch of concrete with red blood pooling from its neck. A noticeable transition that packs a punch.
Right from the start you know that there is something wrong with Jo’s situation, but you do not know the extent of it until you go off the beaten path to explore the links that reveal the story underneath. I liked how the game rewarded the player interacting with more links by adding an ending that felt cohesive, humorous, and a place to finish playing. Hidden cynical horror with a catchy concept. I feel like people are either going to like it or dislike it. If you are comfortable with its graphic themes (Spoiler - click to show) (violence, self-harm, mentions of suicide, blood) then try it.
You are fourteen-year-old Kyle, a Boy Scout looking to earn a Community Service badge. Peanut the cat has run off, and this is your chance to show initiative. Time to investigate the local neighborhood.
When the game began my first impression was that a Boy Scout troop was out looking for a cat (does that occur in real-life?) which immediately creates a cool ambience. A closer look soon showed that Kyle is the only Boy Scout around. Meanwhile, a group of middle-school aged kids, are running about and talking about a kid named Max. Naturally, the player is roped into participating in Max’s plans.
I really, really, like the (Spoiler - click to show) occult twist. Yes, you heard that right. The start of the game sounds like a light, wholesome game about a youth trying to save a cat (which also sounds like fun) to earn a badge only to surprise the player with an unexpected thrill. Eerie ten-year-old Max (Spoiler - click to show) wants to hold a ritual in the groundwater tunnels. Sounds cool! Max needs three Native American artifacts for the ritual. He has one and wants you to find the other two. By now, finding the cat falls to the wayside as you pursue this new objective.
This is not a puzzle heavy game but there is a lot of exploring. The gameplay has a moderate sized map consisting of a suburban area. You will probably want to make a light map of the underground tunnels. Nothing too fancy, but you may find it helpful.
There is one bug/issue that made the game unwinnable. (UPDATE: I've received feedback that this is NOT an unwinnable state. I'm leaving this paragraph in as a formality but understand that my calling it unwinnable was an incorrect assessment on my part). (Spoiler - click to show) Max wants Clem to solder the three artifacts together. Clem follows you around for most of the gameplay. You are supposed to retrieve the hand-held generator from his garage, fill it with gas, and give it to him so he can use his solder iron. I put the game in an unwinnable state by giving him the generator before Max has all three artifacts.
He looks at you, “Give me the hand-held generator.”
I already gave it to him at the garage. I tried to take it back, but…
That seems to belong to Clem.
I restarted the game because I could see no way of soldering the artifacts together to start the ritual. CORRECTION: While Clem may still ask for the generator even after you give it to him, he will solder the artifacts together once everyone arrives.
I was expecting the story to have more focus on the protagonist’s goal of earning a badge, perhaps incorporating themes of “character building.” Maybe I am misinterpreting the process of earning a Community Service badge. Point is, Kyle obviously takes this seriously, and as a game, the idea of earning a badge takes center stage. This is the first Boy Scout PC I have played in interactive fiction, and I was excited to see where it would go. Ultimately, this part of Kyle’s identity was not showcased as much as I thought it would be.
The setting is intriguing. After snooping around you come across some newspaper clippings that outline two main controversies in the area. The first follows the development of a (Spoiler - click to show) new museum on Native American culture that has been delayed over conflicts of the museum’s focus. There is also mention of Native American artifacts being discovered while the neighborhood was being developed. The second controversy looks at a trend of (Spoiler - click to show) health issues in residents that seem to be connected to the water supply. Plans were made to re-design the water drainage system, but those plans were brought to a halt. The story focuses more on the former issue.
The storyline reminded me of an element in Anchorhead where a (semi-spoilers for Anchorhead coming right up!) (Spoiler - click to show) specific tribe- I believe it was a fictional tribe- of indigenous people who worshiped celestial entities that were of interest to the Verlac family because it was connected to a vast ritual that had been planned for generations. The player, lucky you, gets to deal with the impending doom of this ritual. Right near the center of town is a big obelisk that covers the tribe’s ancient burial ground that also seals off a hell-dimension on the other side of mortal existence. You learn about this through newspaper clippings and content from the library. It’s wild. I mean, it’s Anchorhead, obviously.
Max (Spoiler - click to show) speaks of a monster in the southernmost tunnels that had been sealed off by Native Americans. This can be unsealed with a ritual using the three artifacts. Max himself also seems to be possessed. Disturbing, but not disturbing enough to dissuade the other neighborhood kids, including Kyle, from helping. Don’t get me wrong, (Spoiler - click to show) suburban Boy Scout cat search + occult ritual hosted by a ten-year-old named Max is novel as it brushes on Anchorhead themes. My complaint is this: there is hardly any story (or gameplay) about (Spoiler - click to show) finding Peanut the cat.
Start of game: You have been tasked to find the missing cat, Peanut. You're hoping this simple mission will earn you your Community Service merit badge. You head into the woods where the cat was last seen.
We’ve seen Peanut at the start of game. She’s behind a storm tunnel grating and runs off when you open it. Onwards, you try to run and chase her. Throughout the gameplay are cues such as, “You hear the tinkling of a small bell,” and “You hear a cat meowing,” amongst NPCs’ advice to look in the tunnels! And from there on, the cat takes a back seat as the gameplay shifts to finding artifacts.
When you save your friends from the monster and win the game, Peanut decides to appear and jump into your arms. Great resolution, but I just sat there realizing how much time I wasted trying to corner the cat into one of tunnels, using the dead rat as bait (probably not as appealing to cats as I thought), and experimenting with the various exits and entrances in the tunnel maze to map out her movements. The kid doesn’t even get his badge at the end of the game!
NPCs wander independently. I always enjoy seeing this in interactive fiction because it feels more dynamic. That said, their behavior does not have much substance. When you first meet them, they introduce themselves to you which is a strong start. Then they wander around until aimlessly until you make progress towards the (Spoiler - click to show) ritual. To be fair, designing seven (plus Peanut) independent NPCs is probably not an easy task. And you will find moments where NPC behavior triggers a surprising effect, such as when they all (Spoiler - click to show) suddenly gather in the meeting room to start the ritual. That was cool.
I have criticism about the dialog. The game uses the “topics” command to offer a list of topics to ask other characters. I thought this was smart because it keeps the player close to relevant subject matters. The issue is that A, topics do not acknowledge the player’s progress, and B, the “topics” feature lack subjects relevant to the situation. To use an example for the first case, (Spoiler - click to show) if you ask Max about the artifacts after the ritual, he still acts as if you have not found them yet. This put a dent in the interaction.
The other concern become more apparent as the story developed. Characters were limited in their responses to these events. The topics list never expands. In Clem’s introduction he says, "'I'm Clem. I'm in charge of the reconstruction effort.'" But asking him about it (I wanted to know if this had any connection to the (Spoiler - click to show) water quality controversy) results in, "Clem doesn't have anything useful to say about that." Alright, maybe I am being a stickler on this one. Still, subjects about the (Spoiler - click to show) ritual, the Andelmans’ house, and characters’ immediate surroundings are excluded from conversation. (Spoiler - click to show)
Guarding the room is a fearsome pitbull. He eyes you while growling.
Clem comes up from below.
>ask Clem about pitbull
Clem doesn't have anything useful to say about that.
I was expecting some response.
Also, who are the Andelmans'? It’s in the title. First impression was when I tried to enter the basement before meeting with the NPCs in the meeting place near the start of the game.
You begin to head west when suddenly you hear a girl's voice scold you, "We don't go in there. We think it's the Andelman House."
There you go. Mystery. It creates a chilling, sinister vibe to the gameplay. A hint that there is more to this maze of storm drain tunnels than what meets the eye. Right away you think, Who are the Andelmans? Sounds like a neighborhood legend. Your curiosity is spiked because this suburban adventure just got a whole lot interesting. This never went anywhere. We explore the house, almost abandoned, if not for the (Spoiler - click to show) guard dog in the kitchen. I kept wondering what the big secret was. Turns out, I was on the wrong path. I was thinking of this in terms of character names. Andelmans' Yard is (Spoiler - click to show) apparently named after a song of the same title. I would never have known that if I had not looked up the game’s title on a hunch. The song’s lyrics details exploring tunnels and themes that are seen in the gameplay. That was the connection I was missing.
This game has a good start. While character interactions could use more polish, the game has been tested and it feels like completed piece. I enjoyed the surprises. Especially (Spoiler - click to show) Max’s surprises. The author does a nice job in mixing the everyday with the (Spoiler - click to show) paranormal. Even though I was expecting the gameplay to go through with its (Spoiler - click to show) original plot of searching for Peanut, I am glad that, in the end, we find her anyway. If there are any more games about Kyle trying to earn a badge, I would be interested in playing them. An enjoyable slice of life game mystery with a horror twist.
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.
In the far future, climate change has done a number on planet Earth. Glaciers are melting. After a particularly large melt scientists found a strange strain of fungi with incredible resilience to extreme conditions and sentient properties. After tinkering around with genetic engineering, the military winds up with humanoid plant-based beings called Hyphaens.
Upside: They make great soldiers. Downside: Without social interaction they cannibalize each other.
The game starts with heavy exposition before launching into gameplay. The protagonist is desperate to secure a job after being dishonorably discharged from the military and manages to find employment as a companion for a Hyphaen. Here, character customization is cleverly woven into an application form that allows you to edit the protagonist's gender, height, and other characteristics. The gameplay then consists of preparing and traveling to meet your assigned Hyphaen.
One thing I disliked was how the protagonist makes informed decisions while the player is left in the dark. The main example is if you decide to (Spoiler - click to show) explore the mall. The protagonist automatically starts buying all this stuff that is later used to create a makeshift weapon for self-defense. A brief mention of the protagonist’s intent for buying would suffice. Something like, “hm, these substances may be useful in repelling Hyphaens,” would have been helpful for context.
The turning point is a gnarly scene where (Spoiler - click to show) the protagonist is being devoured by their assigned Hyphaen up arriving at the apartment. There are three endings, two bad, one good. So far, I reached (Spoiler - click to show) BAD END 1 and (Spoiler - click to show) GOOD END but not the third outcome. The good ending involves (Spoiler - click to show) fighting off the Hyphaen. It leaves the player on a bit of a cliff hanger since it just ends with the protagonist leaving, although there is the implication that the protagonist is now on the run from killing military property. I do appreciate how the author provides some additional exposition on what happened before ending it.
I spent a chunk of time trying to find a way to (Spoiler - click to show) avoid being attacked by the Hyphaen but I do not think that is possible. There are some mixed messages that I tried to decipher. The Hyphaen’s dialog after you successfully defend yourself suggests that the Hyphaen merely wanted a connection. That said, there is no kidding the fact that such a connection would result in the death of the protagonist. It was only after re-reading the concluding text about "separation-induced aggravation" that I started to hammer together an explanation.
I’m just going to take a whack at it. (Spoiler - click to show) There is some hive mind plant entity in the arctic that is connected to the Hyphaens that function as a "fungal network." This entity(s?) is referred to as Mother and Father, or at least some translation of it. An expedition went down there but was ordered to return when things started getting weird. We learn about this from one of the protagonist’s memories, but it is cut short.
Naturally, Hyphaens' central impulse is to communicate with themselves and a parent hive. But when humans decide to cultivate (or grow?) them in a civilization in a sad dome on a tundra, that living connection is lost. They still have social interactions with nearby Hyphaen and humans, but it is not the same as a hive. Without this link their mental state falls apart and aggression occurs when they socialize. Hence why the Hyphaen attacks the protagonist. Human companion programs were meant to stave off aggressive tendencies through regular mild interactions, but in this case, it was not adequate. That scene was intense.
The game has a stylized appearance and colour scheme that adds a nice ambience. Black text box with wide margins and rounded corners that casts a shadow against a green background. This is paired with thick white text and yellow links. Also, there are these black rectangular boxes that briefly appear at the top of the screen throughout the gameplay that say things like (Spoiler - click to show) “TERMINAL: Dome Termed,” almost as if they were achievements before vanishing (see note).
Cover art is weird, terrifying, but cool. I assume that’s a Hyphaen?
At first, I was not sure if I liked this game. I felt that the game was too short (though by no means incomplete) and that it left me with too many questions. But during my first playthrough I glossed over the large amount of exposition and backstory that the gameplay provides. When I went back to absorb the details, the story became more potent.
While I would have gladly played Defrosted if it were longer, I do think it is reasonable in length to keep players from being burned out. Its length is best described as compact. A lot of thoughtfulness has been put into this game and I am curious to see the author’s future work.
NOTE: Just as I was finishing this review my usual unobservant self suddenly made a big discovery. There is an arrow button at the top left corner of the screen (I know, it’s obvious) that opens to a menu with some useful features.
It has a dictionary of terms that are updated throughout the gameplay, and stat levels for the player’s strength and pheromone levels. The popup boxes that I mentioned earlier are meant to inform you that new terms have been added to the dictionary. I cannot believe I missed that.
The protagonist of Something Blue is Helen, a young woman recently married to an affluent man named Henry Compton. Great match. The story is told through letters that she writes to her sister Anne. But each letter gradually reveals a sinister truth.
Gameplay is simple enough. For each of Helen’s letters you choose several passages by clicking on a link that cycles through your options. There are three options per passage, and options seem to feature three different tones:
(1) Helen assumes the best of her husband and never speculates about suspicious things.
(2) Helen admits that she is not enjoying being married and that her husband gets super touchy about certain topics but otherwise plays ball. For a while, at least.
(3) Helen is sure that that something weird and explainable is going on. This last one sits on a fence between working yourself into imaging things and knowing Exactly What You Saw.
I was half expecting, half hoping that the player could determine Helen’s actions based on your choices while writing her letter. If Helen writes to Anne that she will (Spoiler - click to show) explore the attic when Henry leaves, she will explore the attic. If she opts to stay out of it, she stays out of it. Instead, it she goes to the (Spoiler - click to show) attic every time, and honestly, I cannot fault her for that. Ultimately my issue is that gameplay choices seem superficial when finding the possible outcomes for the story. I would mix and match choices to see how it shaped the gameplay, but it ended up being rather linear.
Helen is told she get go wherever she wants in the house except (Spoiler - click to show) the attic. I will just rip off the band-aid. (Spoiler - click to show) Helen sneaks into the attic and discovers the dead bodies of Henry’s previous six wives. Her final letter to Anne shares her findings. The game ends with Helen’s husband sending a letter to Anne with bad news. He explains that Helen’s previous letter surely must have been the result of a high fever that gave her delusions that her husband had murdered his former wives. Haha. No, the player is not going to buy into that too easily.
I found the ending to be ambiguous. We know he is trying to cover his tracks. We do not know if Helen tried to run away or asked him about what she saw. I am assuming that at some point he figured out that she explored the attic. The implications of this are disturbing but we are left with a bit of a cliffhanger. Is she dead? He offers to allow Anne and her parents to come visit, so I take it that she is still alive. But if gameplay has any merit, she will probably end up like the other wives. Implied horror can work tremendously, but Something Blue ends a bit too soon for the story to click.
Henry’s writing about a fever feels like the default ending, but there is an alternate ending that ends in a similar fashion. If you choose gameplay prompts that seem a little, for the lack of a better word, “hysterical,” Henry writes that she was sent to a sanatorium instead. Historically, the notion of hysteria been used as a way of diagnosing women, which opens a can of worms about sexism and other issues. But it appears that Henry is going to use that to his advantage. Like the other ending, things are a little ambiguous about the outcome. Is he really sending her to a sanatorium or is he just going to kill her in the attic?
In case you are curious, the game’s title is based off a wedding rhyme that says, "Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue." Each part of the rhyme details something the bride should wear while tying the knot to ensure certain blessings throughout the marriage. The "something blue" is meant to defend against evil superstition but (Spoiler - click to show) having a husband who chops up his wives also counts. If Helen followed the rhyme at all, it clearly failed. Especially with "something blue." The sad thing too is that her first letter in the game suggests that she married at her parents’ insistence. She probably had little say on not just who she married, but also on how she was married.
The visuals only tinker with basic effects but they are effectively polished. The text is on a yellowish-white square against a dark blue background with matching links. It draws attention to the colour in the game’s title. I thought it was a nice look.
This was one of the first games I played for this year’s EctoComp, and I fun reading the story. Definitely a horror game. It could have been more fleshed-out, but it is still a quality piece suitable for a few rounds. If you like interactive fiction with gameplay that exclusively takes place through letters that you modify, consider Something Blue.
This is an EctoComp game. Had I not known that when I first saw the swirly bleeding-heart cover art, I would have guessed that I was about to play a twisted Valentine's Day game. Actually, it could probably double for Halloween (why am I still talking about Halloween?) and Valentine's Day if you are in the mood for horror. Potentially versatile option.
Anyway, MARTYR ME is a candid game about a murderer- a serial killer- dicing up a victim. You play as the murderer, but the narration is second person as told from the victim's perspective (Technically, the dialog is made up in the PC's mind, but they pretend that they are being addressed directly). I am not even sure if the victim is still alive. The start of the game sort of gives the impression that they are already dead, and that the murderer is merely playing around with a corpse.
The pivotal choice you make at the start of the game is whether you want to take your time or jump right in. The goal is to perform a ritual to martyr the victim by carrying out specific “steps” while butchering them. It is almost humorous at how offended the murder victim is if you decide to rush through this process. How dare you cleave me like that? Make it pretty. I know this sounds morbid- I mean, a game about gory murder embodies that concept perfectly- but the author presents it with a concise concept and consistent tone.
As a Twine game the visuals only dabble with a colour scheme, but it looks nice. It uses a pink not-quite-red background that later changes to shades of red and fuchsia. This is paired with white text, and pink/dark red links. The player is not sure if the colour makes them think of blood or candy. Or punch.
Reading my review will probably make you think, “!?!?!?? What is this game?” Well, it pulls the subject matter off better than you would expect. Yes, it is gory, and you may or may not like it. But it is also a horror game and a submission to EctoComp, of which it fairs quite nicely.
(It sometimes has faint vibes from PaperBlurt's The Urge, but much shorter and with a different storyline and gameplay POV. Don’t let that scare you away.)
You are a zombie reviewing a meal.
I was not anticipating an undead connoisseur penning comprehensive reviews after sampling a smorgasbord of brains. Based on the words “Yelp Reviewer” I figured that the game would put the player in the role of someone who wants to write an earnest review about their dining experience, the catch being that they are a zombie eating brains. But above all I was expecting the game to take things a little more seriously.
Instead, the game opts for an ALL-CAPS approach to everything. Zombies are not going to be the most eloquent of review writers (although the PC is obviously tech-savvy enough to use a smartphone and an app) but having, "SO ME STUMBLE AROUND LOOKING FOR BRAINS" the entire time felt like it was trying to get the player to laugh.
Nor does it really “review” brains. It barely feels like a Yelp review. My guess is that the author wanted to include some backstory, which is great, but ends up cramming it into the zombie’s review to the point where it becomes a ramble of how the man was slaughtered. Critiquing the quality of the brains occurs in the last choice in the gameplay. It reminds me of Yelp reviews of restaurants that focus on how they found the place rather than their experience inside of it.
I must say, the title of the game is pretty cool. Yelp reviewing + Zombie is a creative idea that drew me in. The final product, however, did not sell. Geoffrey Golden is a talented author. If you have played Use Your Psychic Powers at Applebee’s, you can see his knack for humor and novel ideas, and I encourage you to do so. But You Are a Zombie Yelp Reviewer is a clever concept that needs more development for it to be palatable.
I am in IFComp mode right now, so please excuse this brief intermission. I also encourage you to put this on your Halloween play list. Preferably with the lights off.
The premise of Disharmony is that you and your friends live in the same country, but far enough away from each other to make daily face-to-face in-person interaction impractical. Everyone uses a messaging and streaming app called Harmony to keep in touch. However, Reina has been unresponsive to anyone’s messages. As more of your friends keep speculating about what to do next, you get a feeling that there is something more beneath the surface.
Disharmony follows the investigation-via-online-messaging trope, a trope that is usually exciting even if it you have seen it before. This game is no exception. It cultivates an investigative ambience for a story that is a mix mystery and horror elements.
A main mechanic is tracing contradictions in character dialog. It is a balance of knowing when to take things with a grain of salt, and when to pick out clues that are a solid indicator. How you respond to characters is as equally important. Here is a scenario:
If you think Character 1 seems suspicious, the game may have you discuss it with Character 2 or Character 3 for answers. But it is also possible that it has nothing to do with Character 1, that instead it is Character 2 or 3 (or neither?) who is at the root of your suspicions. You must follow closely or end up sharing the right findings with the wrong person. If a character thinks you are on to them, they will be less responsive as you try to piece everything together.
While your friends continue to talk, you notice something suspicious.
Who do you contact about it?
Sometimes characters will message you privately to share their own thoughts and suspicions, which only amplifies as the game continues. A helpful feature is how the game summarizes characters’ perspectives akin to, "[Character name] thinks that [spoiler] is being [spoiler] by-" (and so forth) when the player needs to make an important decision.
In the last half of the game the player runs in to a moral choice. This is where another (Spoiler - click to show) horror movie trend enters: The “group vote.” In these cases, everyone is eyeing each other suspiciously and, in the face of strife, decides to “vote” to either pin the blame on someone or to assign someone to complete an unsavory task for the benefit of the group. Something like that happens in Disharmony.
By now, some creepypasta themes are also introduced. (Spoiler - click to show) Reina claims to be trapped somewhere called, “Never,” and one of the NPCs goes diving into the internet to search for an explanation. They find a secluded article that matches the content in Reina’s messages, and the solution in the article- you know what? Play the game. But expect to make a tough moral decision regarding one of the NPCs. It will keep you busy for a while.
I am not going to hash out the ins and outs of the endings because they will be 150% more enjoyable if you experience them for yourself. But I still want to share some findings. This is where I caution you to play the game before you read this section of my review. It is so easy to click on the spoiler tag to see what’s underneath, but the spoilers here will dampen the thrill of reaching your first ending.
(Spoiler - click to show)
I found out who was responsible for Reina's disappearance, but when the ritual (spoilers, I warned you) was complete, Reina was not returned while the person responsible was returned instead. In the next playthrough the same happened except the person responsible did not return. Finally, I managed to get Reina back at the expense of the person responsible. And then much later I managed to bring them both back. Win? Not really.
Now, I am giving the game four stars instead of five because of its weak ending. This is not me wishing for a happy fairytale where everyone wins. Instead, I did not like how dismissive the game was when the player fulfills the objective of returning Reina.
If you fail, the game informs you that, “Reina is offline,” and then everyone glumly logs off. The screen then says, "The events of the night have left everyone shaken and disturbed. Your friends begin to sign off, no doubt to report the circumstances, or contact one another in some way, or sit and process what has happened." Makes sense. Now, when I first succeeded, this is what I got:
Reina is online.
Presumably the goal of checking Harmony is to have a chit chat with Reina about her disappearance, right? No, the game still wraps up the same way, first with everyone logging off, and second with the game giving you the exact message that you get when you fail. Is everyone seriously going to log off after successfully bringing her back? Now, she is online and probably wondering where everyone went. No one acknowledges the victory of saving her. If a group chat with Reina is not possible, I was hoping that the player could at least have a private chat with her. Instead, you can only log off.
The game puts so much effort into creating a complex and choice-sensitive gameplay experience only to reduce it to a generalized outcome that ignores the player’s choices. To be clear, there are multiple endings in the sense where a major decision that you make at the end is evaluated and then weighed to determine your success in bringing back Reina. But the ending text and the NPCs’ behavior stays the same regardless.
Anyway, that is my take on the story. I am not entirely convinced that I found the ultimate best ending, but I do know what else it could be. Despite my feelings about the endings, it still makes me want to revisit it (and I have). It is an excellent game.
Zero, Amelia, Jae, and Ravi are the NCPs whom you interact with to figure out what happened to Reina. As the game moves on you get a sense of their relationships with each other. It is not necessarily a tight group where everyone are close pals, but there is a general sense of familiarity. Of course, this dynamic takes on new forms as the mystery grows.
Disharmony has simple but stylized look. It uses a dark grey background with lightly coloured text. The author does not try to replicate a chat room look with message bubbles or interface. The only indicator are the colour-coded character names and the occasional @ symbol, which works perfectly well. Fancy chat room designs in Twine games are awesome, but this game shows that a basic look is just as effective at conveying the idea of chat space. Also: The cover art is pretty.
The game’s use of delayed pauses is spot on. I have seen so many Twine games that overuse pauses to point where the suspenseful/dramatic effect is canceled out since everything seems to be drawing (pause) out (pause) the (you get the idea) suspense. Plus, it slows progress. Disharmony uses them whenever Reina sends messages which builds suspense because there is a feeling of anticipation as she slowly doles out shards of information about her circumstances. (Spoiler - click to show) A creepy moment is when she suddenly floods the screen with messages.
Disharmony is creepier than I thought it would be, and I had a lot of fun. The tropes were nicely done. A mystery conducted through chat messaging paired with horror movie character group dynamics. There is some creepypasta thrown in as well. This is all combined with an intriguing storyline, consistent pacing, and a mix of NPC personalities.
I especially liked its investigative nature of the gameplay. (Spoiler - click to show) Winning is not a simple matter of identifying a culprit. It involves identifying a culprit and then going the extra mile so that Reina is brought back. Even though I have (Spoiler - click to show) mixed feelings about the rather lackluster winning ending, reaching it still felt rewarding. There is still the possibility that I missed some things. For this game, it is quite possible. I highly recommend this game to anyone in the mood for a horror Twine game.
(Actually, (Spoiler - click to show) the only trope that made me roll my eyes a little was how everyone’s phones die when they consider calling emergency services. Then again, it functions fine enough.)
All it took were the words, "research institute that studies aquatic life," in the game's description for me to tell myself, "I have to play this." Plus, it sounds like an unusual setting for a horror story. I was excited. But when it came to sink or swim, the game unfortunately could not hold its own.
The Pool begins at a casual staff party at the institute (we never learn its specific name), which is an attention-grabbing way of starting the game. But tension is in the air. Casual conversation informs us that the protagonist's boss had been missing for several days. People are working overtime to compensate. As the party wraps up, chaos breaks loose. Turns out (Spoiler - click to show) former friends and coworkers are looking to turn their colleagues into fish food. Not goldfish. Something worse.
The gameplay essentially features the protagonist trying to get out of desperate situations with the threat of death lurking around every corner. It becomes a stampede for survival. You are usually presented with two choices at a time, either having to do with character dialog or a generalized decision making. Stay or leave. Help or hide. Go with Ada or go with Marcus. A downside to this game is that everything feels a bit scattered. There are large passages of text with a mix of dialog, sudden changes in scenery, swearing, sea monsters, and other developments that can be hard to follow. But if you stick it out and trudge through, you will find an interesting story.
The redeeming quality in this game is its use of branching gameplay. In fact, the number of paths were fairly impressive. The branching begins at the start of the game where the player chooses who to mingle with at the staff party, and that branches off as well. What I like about this is how paths each have different ways of informing the player about the nightmare that unfolds because they determine where you are in the facility and who you are with when disaster strikes. For example, (Spoiler - click to show) in one path you directly see Ada betray everyone, but in another you may only learn about it second hand. A memorable case of the former is when nearly everyone from the party is chained to a rig that Ada slowly lowers into the pool. This occurs if you choose to hang out with Ada after the party. Sounds gnarly, but it conjures memories of renting horror movies from those Redbox stations for slumber parties. It occurs early in the game, and that is only one path.
The author makes a notable effort at diversifying what you see in each playthrough. If you play the game and think that you have seen everything, then you are probably wrong. Because of this, I played the game multiple times despite its lack of organization.
If you read the previous section, you already know that there is lots of branching to play with, and how it gives you different ways of experiencing certain events. Another upside is that it provides some exposition on the overreaching story, one broader than what we usually see in each playthrough. Common knowledge is that (Spoiler - click to show) the aquatic monsters bite humans to turn them into new monsters, almost like zombies. We also know that Ada and Marcus were involved. But there is more to it. You really have to dig* to find it all, (Spoiler - click to show) but the gist is a conspiracy between the institute and another lab about developing a new form of organism capable of unheard-of morphing abilities for “research.” Dr. Chamber’s phone even mentions a vague business deal. Feel free to play the game to learn more.
*(Did (Spoiler - click to show) you know that there are TWO locked door password-puzzles in this game?)
Endings. It depends (Spoiler - click to show) on whether you include the countless ways of dying as endings or merely premature ones. I found two endings where you walk away alive, only one of which truly feels like a “win.” (Oddly enough, there are two paths that lead to this same ending). Strangely, the winning ending is the most lackluster since it features the protagonist going home and carrying on with their life without any mention of the aftermath of the whole incident. I take it that they no long work at the institute. If you feel like exploring every outcome in this game, it will keep you busy for a while.
Characters fall into familiar horror movie tropes, but that can be part of the charm. If you are looking for complex characters with multi-dimensional relationships with the protagonist, you should look elsewhere. But if you want tried and true character molds, The Pool is a decent example. You have the (Spoiler - click to show) lively acquaintance (Ada) who betrays everyone for personal gain. The spritely action-oriented character (Zara) who expertly pulls the protagonist out of danger and teams up with them. The best friend (or in this case the deceitful "best friend") Marcus. And other NPCs. But instead of chewing the fat I will just encourage you to test the game for yourself.
There is also some attempted character development about the protagonist who has always been timid about stepping outside of their comfort zone and making friends with people without worrying if they share the same interests. The gameplay often features segments where the protagonist has a chance to “break” out and become a new person. It is rather formulaic approach but fits in with the trope-ness seen throughout the game.
The game uses a basic Twine visual appearance: blue links, black screen, white text (with occasional animation). However, this is overrun by numerous spelling and punctuation errors that stick out everywhere. Instead of separating the text into paragraphs the author just crams everything together to create one big mass of unformatted text, especially for scenes with lots of dialog. Occasionally, some areas are a bit smoother. But overall, it looks unpolished and unorganized, and it is obvious.
Also, three links lead to a blank screen (frustrating since I was waiting to see what would happen next), whereas a few others lead to a screen with text but no link to move forward. A little proof-reading and testing would go a long way.
The author has a lot of promising ideas but right now it is simply not a polished piece. Not incomplete- it is playable and possible to reach endings- but more like a draft.
I would recommend The Pool to anyone interested in a creature horror story that conjures up familiar vibes of the "creature horror story" genre while adding a unique touch here and there. Plus, it is short enough for a few rounds. It is best enjoyed if you experiment with the gameplay paths. For me, each playthrough lasted about 15 minutes or less. Otherwise, this game needs some work before I would recommend it to all players.
(Oh, one more thing. I see we are getting close to Halloween. If you feel like burning through horror games while guzzling candy, The Pool has a little more appeal.)
The onset of the zombie apocalypse begins right as you are watching TV. With the world thrown into chaos, fellow neighbors become fellow zombie survivors. A house is transformed into a survival base, and you are nominated as leader. But, in the distance there is a whole horde of zombies coming your way. You will have to prepare.
This is a stat/resource management game where you assign tasks to other characters. After a short intro you are given ten survivors to order about. It was intimidating at first to see all the elements that you need to manage, but the implementation becomes nicely streamlined.
In the center of the screen is a big grey chart. The first left hand chunk of the chart organizes survivors into six groups: Farmers, Guards, Builders, Researchers, Hunters, and Scavengers. You choose how many survivors are in each group and specify their task. Statistics for each group are on the right side of the chart along with additional stats such as the group's happiness levels. Seeing all that was the overwhelming part for me. Numbers, percentages, the whole thing. But this soon changed.
The left side of the screen has a column of status bars that show the completion of the tasks assigned to each group, providing a nice visual indicator of your progress. Interestingly enough, the gameplay also takes place in real time. The game conveniently lists updates in timestamped orange text below the chart to summarize the impacts of your choices. It did not take long for me to familiarize myself with everything. Then things became fun.
I like how the author adds a little touch of atmosphere. There is a section of text at the bottom of the screen that lets you “visit” each area of your base, such as a radio tower or underground tunnel. There is not much to do in them. For the most part, they are just cosmetic. But being able to lightly interact with them as you expand your hideout was a nice detail. The author seems to have a lot of creative ideas.
A challenge, perhaps?
This game has adjustable difficulty. Easy mode, normal mode, hard mode.
Hard mode is considerably trickier because it is challenging to recruit survivors. In the first two modes if you send out a party to look for them you always manage to find at least one. But in hard mode they are more likely to come back empty handed. Survivors are critical to getting things done. The more survivors assigned to a task, the faster the task is completed. What should you do? Use your current survivors to find recruits at the expense of completing immediate tasks, or devote them to immediate tasks without increasing population size? You can try both but at the end of the day, those zombies seem outpace you. It took forever to beat hard mode, but I eventually did.
Approaching Horde! is not a particularly grim zombie game. Its tone maintains a light heartedness that presents the zombie apocalypse in a more comic light without sacrificing the urgency of the situation. You go from channel surfing on your couch to commanding a group of zombie survivors. At the end of the game, (Spoiler - click to show) you are presented with a journal that the PC wrote about the experience with surprisingly cheerful entries. Even the bad endings, where you get zombified, are meant to be a bit humorous. I thought that the intro was especially funny and starts the game off on a strong note.
Your spouse has ran towards you so quickly, that you're knocked to the ground and your spouse is literally on top of you!
Normally this would be a good thing, but in this case your spouse has already turned and joined the ranks of the undead.
I feel that most interactive fiction games about zombies try to add a dash of humor. In this case, I do not mean games that take play in an apocalypse setting where people are turned into zombie-like beings by a fictious pathogen designed by an author. Those games are also awesome. I highly recommend playing Alone, another IFComp game that came out in 2020 (but made with Inform, not Twine). Some argue that Alone is a zombie game, and with solid reasoning. I can see why. Agreed. But it does not quite fit with what I have in mind here.
When I say zombie games, I mean games that blatantly advertise the fact that it is a zombie story where everything in the gameplay screams, we-are-living-in-a-zombie-apocalypse apocalypse. Out of every game that I have played that fits this category they all seem to instill some underlying humor or irony rather than 110% doomsday destruction. This is not a bad thing. Just something I did not realize until I played Approaching Horde! Then again, I am only basing this off the games I have seen so far. Feel free to share recommendations.
There are hardly any specific characters. There is Phil, your former neighbor, but he only gets a small mention. But no complaints. That works just fine with this storyline and format.
This is one of those stories where every survivor possesses the skills to become a biomedical researcher or farmer at the drop of the hat. Realistic? Probably not, it is a management game where you do not need to look too closely.
I already gave an overview of some of the visuals, so here is a deeper analysis. The design is not flashy, but simple and functional. Basic colours are used for drop-down menus, numbers, and other details while the status bars have some bright colours that change as they increase or decrease. All of this is set against a black background. Basic but attractive. Most importantly though, above all else, the text is large and easy to read.
Fancy effects are fun and encouraged, but detailed management games that go wild with visual effects can make it difficult to read and, you know, manage the content. This game keeps it easy to look at, and simple to use. There are some spelling errors that were noticeable but ultimately it has a polished and clear-cut look.
This game has already roped me into playing about a dozen times. The gameplay is moderate in length, and it is fun to experiment. You may like this game if you are into zombies or resource management, or both. I suggest giving it a test run in easy mode to get acquainted to the gameplay mechanics, but there is a good chance that you will be reaching to play it again, perhaps in other modes. And if you feel otherwise, that is fine. It is just worth a try.