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.
At Esther's cafe your adorable host / Served cheese to the mice when they wanted toast! / That won't bother Harold's robust appetite, / But Janie insists that the order's not right. Sounds like something out of a children’s book!
Esther's is not a rhyming game, but as you can see, its description caught my eye. Janie and Harold are mice who like to visit their favorite joint for brunch every week. The café is run by a young girl named Esther. Unfortunately, there is a bit of a linguistic barrier. Esther does not understand the mice and ends up serving them cheese instead of their intended order.
There is no singular PC. The game's tone is in third person and the choices you make bounce between Janie and Harold. Gameplay is super easy and versatile for all ages partly because you will not get stuck, and partly because it gives the player space to experiment with choices. You figure out how to get Esther to serve you the right food through pointing or hand gestures. No matter what approach you take the game will guide you to the correct direction at the end.
The characters are endearing, especially the mice. Originally, I was picturing a fantasy world where animals hustle and bustle like humans to cafés and other establishments, but the game opts for a more basic approach. Esther’s café turns out to simply be a little girl indulging some mice in playing a variation of a tea party. Or maybe it is the mice indulging the girl? Either way, this is a sweet premise that the game pulls off. It mixes relatability with imagination. My favorite line is, “Tapioca. I like that word! Tappy-OH-kuh…”
Visually, the game reminds me of a picture book. The text area is a white square set against a purple screen. The letters are black with colour coded text for character names. Avocado icons decorate the player’s list of choices. I also really love how the authors included (Spoiler - click to show) a behind-the-scenes section at the end that shows drafts for the art as well as a node map for the Twine game.
Esther’s is a sweet Twine story that only takes about five minutes to play. While aimed at younger audiences, and I do recommend it for younger audiences, players can still appreciate the thoughtfulness put into the game’s creation.
This game looks at what could happen when you fall asleep and dream.
I want to keep myself from going on a tangent of Lost Coastlines vs. Skybreak! since this review is ultimately about Lost Coastlines, but that is probably inevitable. Both are excellent games. They are also the only ADRIFT games that I have committed to playing because I always run into lag issues (not the authors’ fault) that make me hesitant about long, epic pieces. These two are definitely worth it.
I must confess, Skybreak! wins me over a little more, probably because I am into science fiction. Sentient-computer-adventure-friend/narrator is tough to beat. But Lost Coastlines has a lot of great features not found in Skybreak! Ultimately, they both bring something new to the table while retaining similar structural framework. If you have previously played Skybreak! which came out a few years ago, you most likely will say to yourself, “this seems familiar” when you launch into Lost Coastlines. Same goes for the other way around. William Dooling has a distinct and creative style.
Lost Coastlines begins with character creation. You choose factors like where you fall asleep or what type of person you are in the day which then determines your skillsets and some of the gameplay content. I thought this was clever because it makes the gameplay more personalized to what interests you the most. You then decide who you want to be in the game, such as a Scientist or Mystic, which also sculpts your adventures. Lots of possibilities. I highly encourage you to use the author’s nifty guidebook for this portion.
A key mechanic in the game is with stat related encounters where the game lists your options along with the skill used in each choice and the probability of success. It is also colour-coded! I thought that this was a consistent structure. It is easy to keep track of your stats for these encounters and I did not experience burnout after several hours of this. One of my favorite features was how you can wear individual clothing items to improve your stats.
The part that took me the longest to manage is the currency system. Believe it or not, gold and coins are not the standard. Emotions take center focus instead.
Pleasance:15| Sadness:5| Madness:42| Fury:36| Worry:218|
Emotions are generated through different encounters and can be used to make transactions or initiate opportunities. Some are easier to accumulate, for better or for worse, but it appears that they all have an application somewhere. The problem is that it can feel as if you always have the least amount of the emotion you need. There was a bit of a learning curve for me.
A complaint that some people had with Skybreak! is how the player can decide on everything except their destinations. Travel was random. Spaceships never used compass directions. But Lost Coastlines does. When you want to leave, you get back into your boat, pick a direction, and set sail. You have much more wiggle room with navigation. Many locations only allow you to perform one action, but it is easier to return to them because you can correlate their location relative to other areas. The in-game map is especially helpful. While travel is not always smooth sailing, the randomness is reduced. I think players will like that.
Story + Characters
As I already mention, gameplay content is molded by character customization choices. There is not an overarching story in the game’s world, just the player’s role-oriented objectives. You can find bite-sized story content in places you visit. Populated areas have legends or rumors that span across multiple regions. But the dreamlike quality of the gameplay means that there will be something to engage you.
Despite what the (lovely) cover art shows, I am pretty sure that the player is not puttering around in a little rowboat. Your vessel has a crew, a relatively anonymous and replaceable one that does everything automatically. You never truly interact with them, although I would not be surprised if you can recruit individual NPCs. If so, I never reached that point. You still have the chance to mingle with NPCs at destinations, particularly harbors, taverns, and markets.
My first playthrough
I will just stick this “dream” under one spoiler tag in case you want to know about my experience.
(Spoiler - click to show)
Character customization: (I decided to stick to a science-oriented theme for these choices, as was the case when I first played Skybreak!)
1. I fell asleep in class
2. Brought an old telescope with me
Let's see... Highlights:
-I saw Natalie Portman in a bar (she was the bartender).
-Spent three years with a talking cat to learn about the magical arts.
-Found the Pendant of Fire (is that a big deal?)
-Crew supposedly came this close to eating me.
-Dueled it out with Schenckloth. Did not go as planned.
Challenge: At one point, my crew and I were stuck on a 3x3 grid of rooms consisting of eight jungle locations and one beach location, and I had no idea of how to leave. I tried "SET SAIL," "LEAVE," "LEAVE BEACH," but nothing. I spent the better part of an hour puttering around, studying insects, plundering ruins, and hunting for meat, but there was never any opportunity of leaving.
I wondered if I should have left it at that, but there was another issue. When you read the in-game help section it says, "As an open world game, there is no final goal or overarching story: do whatever you want! You can end the game at any time by typing WAKE UP." But if I try to do this, I get this response:
➢ WAKE UP
You are not asleep!
What does it mean I am not asleep? It is one big dream! I should be snoozing away here. Waking up was supposed to end the game and give me a final score, but I suppose not. Sadly, I had to end my first playthrough there. I wanted to keep playing but you can only search the same area for insects for so many times. That did not, however, stop me from replaying the game to sample the different character creation options. While I did not devote as much time to my other playthroughs of this game, I had fun experimenting with the gameplay. There is a lot to do.
Lost Coastlines is a beautifully descriptive game. Calming with an edge of danger. The best part of this game is the open world format. Go. Explore. I love it when games capture that notion. You have your boat and go wherever you want, assuming you can weather the challenges.
Ideally, play this game when you have several hours of time available for a leisurely playthrough. Don’t try to cram it into your lunch break because it takes a while to accumulate items and stats that allow you to pursue some of the more daring opportunities. Then it becomes really fun.
Before you go: Maybe I am wrong, but isn't (Spoiler - click to show) Schenckloth, the Lord of Nightmares in Skybreak! as well?
Oh no! Aliens have arrived and the fate of the city is now in your hands. Campus Invaders is a comedic sci-fi peril story about a normal citizen tasked with saving the day when aliens from space park a spaceship over Vigamus Academy’s campus. And here all you planned to do was attend a seminar!
Campus Invaders has ups and downs. On one hand, this is a great game for newer players because the puzzle logic is not too difficult (Spoiler - click to show) (ex. teacher stuck in a vending machine? Look around to find a coin. And you do. It is laying out on the floor of another room) while also having the player think outside the box, such as dealing with the alien in the bathroom. Objectives are also easy to follow because NPCs tell you want to do and then point you in the next direction after you have fulfilled a task. The downside is that the implementation of the puzzles is not as well-fleshed as the concept behind them.
The main issue is that elements are scarce. Gameplay follows a show/trade pattern of showing or giving something to one NPC in exchange for something that you need to give to another NPC. I think there may be a term for that. Because the setting is a research facility and the protagonist is prospective student, the interactions tend to be about gaining approval or permission to access new locations. Nothing wrong there. What falls flat is that character interactions lack substance which drags the game down since character interaction makes up a chunk of the gameplay.
NPCs have their one moment before retreating into the background as awkward scenery. It feels unnatural. Lack of responsiveness is primary issue. I was a bit surprised at how faculty do not react when you run tearing into their office amid an alien invasion. They just sit there at their desk until you talk to them. When you first speak to them, they have a verbal response, but afterwards you get a pre-recorded message that does not even come from the character, or when you first meet Mica Hela the game says, “Mica Hela welcomes you to her office and tells you that anything (or almost!) she can do for you, she will,” rather than her character speaking to you.
Besides character interactions, the other flimsy element in the game is with the scenery. While the room descriptions are interesting, the things inside them are only sparsely implemented. The description for the terrace is:
You went out on the terrace of the upper floor of the Vigamus Academy, on which a beautiful warm sun shines. From here you can clearly see the large alien spaceship that stands out in the sky and the thousand colored lights that turn on and off on the glittering metal hull. To the west, you can go back inside.
You can't see any such thing.
I thought that the spaceship was clearly visible. It was frustrating to be unable to examine key items to learn more about them.
There are no true bugs that keep the player from making progress, but there some superficial ones. The game allowed me to pick up the trolley and carry it around in my inventory like a bookbag. It is ironic that it says, "You could use it to put in the bulky stuff you won't be able to carry by hand." You would still be carrying the bulky stuff anyway when you put it in the trolley. This was weak design.
It is not the most polished game but still decent. While most of this review has been spent analyzing the downsides of Campus Invaders, there is merit. It has spirit and is short enough to keep the story’s enthusiasm from fizzling out. Never does it waver from its atmosphere. Perhaps some testing would have tightened everything to make it more of a finished piece, but it still offers a fun time battling with alien invaders. (Plus, I liked the inclusion of a (Spoiler - click to show) secret section in the game).
The concept behind The Staycation is straightforward yet murky. The general premise is that the protagonist's housemate Claudia is going on vacation with her boyfriend, allowing the protagonist to have the house to themselves for a while. The protagonist is looking forward to some quiet time alone, hence calling it a “staycation.” Everything soon becomes vague.
The gameplay looks like this: (Spoiler - click to show) You cannot sleep, you hear strange sounds, your cat startles you, you hear more strange sounds, you feel the urge to check your phone, and then you realize that you do not like being home alone after all. These events convey a simple enough narrative about someone reconsidering their comfort zone of being in an empty house. But there are horror elements injected into the gameplay that make this storyline feel undeveloped.
Horror elements consist of (Spoiler - click to show) being unable to stop scratching yourself and frantically wondering why you refer to Claudia as your housemate instead of as your own mom. You are not really sure of what is going on. Perhaps there is stronger horror themes in this game. However, part of the game is broken, which prevents the player from investigating what they see in the game.
I ran into a broken page that prevented me from moving forward when I tried to purse the (Spoiler - click to show) path of self-denial in the gameplay. It said, "You choose to ignore the cracks within your marrow." This game is made with Texture. You make choices by selecting boxes and dragging them over the text to see what words the box can be applied to. In this case, there were two boxes at the bottom of the screen, a green checkmark and a red X. Moving them around the screen failed to reveal any sections that could be connected to either box. I had to restart.
Also, the game’s description says that there is imagery, but the only major visual was a (Spoiler - click to show) silhouette (a cute silhouette) of a cat in a doorway. There are also some creative emojis to illustrate certain actions. Otherwise, the game largely consists of text only.
To summarize, The Staycation is not as developed as it could have been, especially since part of the game is a dead end. If you have been planning to play it, I would still encourage you to give it a shot simply because it is so short. While the horror in the game is flimsy, the experience of unexpected nervousness while being at home alone is real. If anything, that human element is its one strength. Otherwise, it is not really something I would recommend. If it were more polished that could change.
This game is apparently about selecting parties. It is chaotic and confusing, but not in a good way. You are in a courtyard that contains several offices, within each is a character looking to have a fun time. (Spoiler - click to show) After browsing your options, you get to pick who to visit. A small paragraph describing the encounter appears on screen and the game just ends. There is no story structure.
I find it so frustrating when Twine games do not have any indicator that the game is over, and instead either leave the player with a blank screen or a screen with text minus a concluding passage (does not necessarily have to be link) that confirms that the game is over. Just some indicator will do. Otherwise, I get the impression that I came across a broken page. It is like someone singing and they decide not to sing the last line. This game (Spoiler - click to show) opts for the latter, and they hardly feel like endings.
Visually, everything is organized well enough. Then again, there is hardly anything to critique because the game is so short. It sticks with the standard visual model of black screen, white text, and purple links. But that is the only positive in this game.
4 Edith + 2 Niki is too incomplete for this competition. It was tough to even find the game’s main idea and story. Feel free to check it out if you want, it will only take up a minute of your time.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In this short Twine game, you play as a volunteer collecting dues for a community organization group. It is time for your shift, where you go from door to door, trying to get people interested in signing up as members. You have a quota to meet, but lately your success rate with recruiting members has declined and your faith in the organization's ability to create change is wavering. Think about that later. Pull on your winter clothes, steel your nerves, and start your shift.
Collect £5 in dues within four hours. All right. There are 32 houses on your list. It is not possible to visit them all, nor is that the goal. Well, the goal is to knock on as many doors as possible, but your success is based on the dues you collect, not on how many houses you reach. Going to a house costs five minutes, and at some point, you also need to take at least one break, either to use the restroom or warm up from the cold, or you will have to end your shift early. So, it is definitely not possible to cover everything. But that is also a good reason for replays.
You can also take breaks for other things such as texting a coworker or checking the news. The game is set during the COVID lockdown restrictions in 2020, and checking the news gives some light background context which was a nice touch. Plus, there is an in-game glossary explaining the process of community organization.
The catch is that success is not really possible. Few people showed interest in my pitch. I made a simple list of which houses had people who answered the door, and then narrowed that down to people who would earnestly engage in conversation. Next, I replayed to find the dialog options that successfully convinced them to join. And it worked! I was so pleased with myself. My target was £5. I came back with (Spoiler - click to show) £8. Only to learn that (Spoiler - click to show) some people cancelled their memberships, resulting in me failing to meet my target after all. An exercise in futility, and that is where the main idea comes in.
Story + Characters
The protagonist is coming to terms with the fact that their work is no longer as meaningful as they once thought it was. They joined to make a difference, and now they have a hard time envisioning people enthusiastically signing up for something pitched to them by a stranger on their doorstep. Early on in their job, the protagonist reached their targets with recruiting people but now not so much. They wonder if the time spent going from door to door to keep their numbers up could be better spent elsewhere. But the only thing they are told by their manager is to knock on more doors. The game ultimately shares some interesting perspectives.
There is a strong human element in this game. It captures the task of preparing to weather all sorts of people. When you first play the game there is a sense of anticipation of wondering who will open the door. Someone edgy? Someone friendly? No one at all? At the same time, you also see the other side of the story. There is a lockdown, everyone is cooped up inside, it is the dead of winter, and now here is someone knocking on your door asking you to sign up for something. Still, I wonder if the author has done community organization work themselves, and if so, whether the characters in the game are based on actual experiences.
On a brief side note, I really like the game’s appearance which combines a purple background with white text and colourful links. It is organized and crisp looking.
No One Else Is Doing This was one of the earlier games I played for the IFComp and it immediately pulled me into the story. It is not particularly long, but its gameplay structure encourages multiple playthroughs. While generally lighthearted it does touch on topics about daily concerns such as upkeep of parks or cost of public transportation. It gives you some interesting things to think about, and I appreciated its relevance to the COVID related lockdown without it dominating the gameplay. The game is ultimately a mix of humor, determination, and frustration that puts the player in the protagonist’s shoes.
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.)
This game is not a mere skip through the forest, I can tell you that.
The subject of Arborea is hard to summarize in a sentence. I have never played a game quite like it. It has the slight sci-fi angle of being in a computer simulation that adds a unique flair without coming off as a sci-fi game. It has a strong history-based component and yet I would hesitate to write it off as a historical game. There are even a feel mythic and spiritual elements thrown in. And then there is the overarching question of what is Program Arborea? But first things first.
Arborea seems to be a rift off the word “arboreal” which refers to the overall nature of trees. The definition, “pertaining to trees” also surfaced when I looked up the word. Both descriptions are spot on because Arborea is all about trees and human’s relationship with them, whether it may be for exploitation of resources, cultural traditions, or everything in between.
The game begins right after you step into a simulation room where a smooth computerized voice informs you that Program Arborea is about to begin. The next thing you know, you are in a vast forest with no exits and nothing but a gourd in your possession. On the gourd are markings that represent trees from different parts of the world. By identifying the trees, you can travel to eight world regions at different point of human history depicted in this game. It is not a time travel game. The player is not going back in time. Instead, they are simply in a simulation that brings the time periods to them.
Direction > Tree > Destination
North > Pine > The Pine Forests of Scandinavia
East > Palm > The Palm Tree Plantations of Indonesia
You are presented with the simple sounding but vague goal of finding a kernel. The game essentially cuts you loose to figure it out on your own. But it also seems like the more you try to make progress on your own, the more guidance you find in the setting and characters. It can be intimidating at first. You learn that you must “solve” each location, but this is not done independently where you solve one before moving on to the next. Instead, everything crisscrosses. Items from one location can be used in another. The puzzles are not always intuitive and given the size of the game it easy to lose track of your progress.
Once you (Spoiler - click to show) complete the content in each area, its corresponding icon on the gourd will crack (such as the frog for the Amazon). Turns out the kernel is inside the gourd. I spent all this time looking around for it, only to realize that I technically had it the entire time. The catch is that it is only retrievable once every icon is cracked. And that is not even the end of the game. Surprise! There is an endgame as well. Even though it took a while, completing the game felt satisfying.
The gameplay (and corresponding walkthrough) is long, and I figured that would never replay it after I was done. Turns out this was a game where I found myself eerily capable of remembering the exact solutions. Many puzzles seemed rather simple in retrospect, although (Spoiler - click to show) I still have lingering surprise over having to haul around a severed head for a chunk of the gameplay (it is less gory than it sounds). I have played games where the puzzles are cryptic and I need the walkthrough, and even after I complete the puzzle step-by-step, I still find myself unable to explain what I just did. Many of the puzzles in Arborea can be done in different order. I kept thinking to myself, "you know...I wonder what would happen if I did this first instead.” I returned to the game and played around with the order in which you can complete things.
There are a few guess the verb puzzles that will probably leave players flipping through the walkthrough. A big roadblock for me was (Spoiler - click to show) crossing the Savannah to get to the carcass. If you try to go south, the PC understandably chickens out. I was not sure what syntax to use. In the walkthrough, there is a subtle clue on what word to use, which assumes that the player is familiar with Star Trek. I am, but even that did not help me make the connection. It is not a standard verb, either. Another guess the verb issue was with (Spoiler - click to show) banishing the demon in the Himalayas. Even though it had a few more small clues, I still needed the walkthrough.
Oddly enough, the some of the most challenging puzzles for me were (Spoiler - click to show) not from the main gameplay, but the endgame. For example, I did not put together the solution of dragging the cross while wearing the white robe and crown to scare off the man in the Scandinavian simulation room. Regardless, I thought that the endgame was a clever way of tying everything together (and the game keeps you guessing about whether the endgame is part of the simulation).
Arborea does make some commentary about real-world issues. The locations for Serengeti, Indonesia, and the Amazon all have subtle mention of current environmental concerns. The time period for these areas is set in more modern times. We see deforestation, poaching, and the production of palm oil for consumer goods (Spoiler - click to show) such as beauty products. Obviously, these issues are far more complex in real life, but the game focuses on identifying key ideas to convey a general message of how we use trees and the ecosystems connected to them.
My ongoing question about this game has to do with “Program Arborea.” I borrowed the title of my review from the first line in the game where the computerized voice activates the simulation. The sci-fi aspect of the game stood out to me since the gameplay is essentially an advanced VR adventure. At the end of the game (Spoiler - click to show) when the Program finally ends, and a door opens so the protagonist can leave, while the voice in the background says, “Please take time to re-orient yourself and observe all normal safety precautions when exiting the building.” A museum. A museum on natural history. That is my guess.
But maybe you are not meant to look too closely.
The characters are engaging and interesting (even likable for some) but also highly generalized to match their setting. I think it steers clears of stereotyping, although that is a fine, fine line to walk. That said, it is quite possible that I either overlooked or were not aware of certain important/contextual details. I would love for players to share their take on it. Character interactions do not have much depth since each character generally has their “scene” in a puzzle, but there are meaningful moments.
Actually, this (Spoiler - click to show) can be a bit awkward when you meet these characters again in the endgame where you discover that they were merely actors participating in the simulation. Unexpected but creative approach to character design.
Arborea is a long but thoughtfully constructive game. Reading this review may give the impression that the game is all about climbing trees and analyzing environmental issues, but that is not entirely accurate. Yes, those things are certainly included (especially the tree part), but the gameplay also has a broader scope in content that may appeal to you more than you would think. It is a long game, I know, but give it a shot and then decide. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it.
(Arborea strongly reminds me of The Symbolic Engine. It is a one-room game entered in an IF Art Show and involves messing around with a machine that looks at the history of humans and their relationship with the planet. It also casts an eye on what that history could be in the future. The machine uses different voices and icons to tell the story. The gameplay experience is considerably different, but the themes are spot on. Like Arborea, it has a mix of sci-fi and historical elements. Unlike Arborea, it will only take up a sliver of your time.)