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Nothing Could be Further From the Truth, by Adam Wasserman

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:

"I am loyal, I am true.

When I'm older I will do

The best I can to serve my home.

Proud I live under a dome."

Welcome to the Bunker!
(No, I didn’t make that song up. Let’s see if you can find who sings it.)

Nothing Could Be Further From the Truth is an entry in Spring Thing 2023. It follows the adventures of Oliva Mirram, a citizen who lives in a dystopian Bunker located under the surface of Venus. She works in Research Lab A-U61 as an unglamourous “dust maid” whose sole task is to keep everything dust free (she is also allergic to dust).

But one day she stumbles across an opportunity that is about to make her life a little more interesting.

Not quite a sequel
Before Nothing Could Be Further came Wasserman’s Today is the Same as Any Other (2019) which features a character named Cory Resden who works in a “Population Monitoring Facility” where, let’s face it, all he does is paperwork. The two games follow a similar framework even if the characters have notable differences in identity.

WARNING: The following section will contain moderate structural spoilers for BOTH games. They will be placed under a spoiler tag, naturally.

In both games, the protagonist is just another non-clearance rat race member of the Bunker working in their low-ranking job with seemingly no upward mobility. Gameplay is restricted to the protagonist’s workplace and the surrounding plaza outside. Their boss, well, sucks (Spoiler - click to show) (Cory: Xian Zimbly, Oliva: Nur Dular) and their relationships with co-workers and non-coworkers alike aren’t much better. No one seems to get along in the Bunker.

(Spoiler - click to show) On a random workday (or daystretch as the game calls it), the protagonist is approached by a mysterious person from the Underground who gives them a mission to prove themselves with the offer of joining the group. It becomes apparent soon after that there are two Underground groups you can choose to side with, but you must commit to one. In Today is the Same your choices are the “Coven” or “Purple Nurple.” In Nothing Could Be Further the options are “Area 51” and “God and Freedom Church.”

Finally, the protagonist is tasked with causing damage (and casualties) to the outside plaza by repairing and activating machinery found in their workplace. While there is more flexibility with this in the first game, it is mandatory in Nothing Could Be Further.

And there is a difficult sentient vending machine puzzle (the puzzle isn’t what’s difficult. The machine is). Oh, and plenty of exciting ways to die/end the game prematurely.

While reading this may give the impression that this game will be a boring remake of an already-been-used storyline, I think Wasserman pulls it off. There is still enough variation to make the games stand on their own, particularly since the protagonists have different workplaces and professions.

There are even small variations that can be easy to miss but rewarding to find. I really liked how the (Spoiler - click to show) “subsurface gala” query in your handy PA device reveals separate things about Oliva and Cory’s personalities. (Did I go back to Today is the Same just to compare PA queries? Of course!)

There are two main differences that stood out to me after playing both games. The first is that Today is the Same takes place underground on Mars while Nothing Could Be Further is underground on Venus. Good to see that humanity has ventured into the rest of the solar system.

The other difference is (Spoiler - click to show) that in Nothing Could Be Further it is possible to earn a security clearance and have the chance to use it (and/or flaunt it) and see where it could lead you in terms of privileges in the Bunker. This never occurred in the first game (you could end the game having qualified for one but that does not count) which was a large criticism I had when I played it.

Reflections on both
Today is the Same struck me as one of those interesting but low-coverage games that end up in a pocket in IFDB that does not get as much attention as other games of the same quality. Unless you go digging through the sci-fi section it probably won’t cross your radar which is a shame because it is genuinely a cool game with worldbuilding. That was merely MY take on it. However, it may receive more attention now that a sequel has been released in a competition. Be sure to check it out.

You do NOT need to play Today is the Same to understand and enjoy Nothing Could Be Further, although I recommend both, starting with the original. Because Cory is trapped in a cubicle desk job, you get a clearer sense of the drudgery of daily life in the Bunker as well as an overview of the Bunker's shady innerworkings. It is not quite as exciting but is shorter and a bit easier. Both have built-in hints.

However, if you only have time to play one, choose Nothing Could Be Further. I liked it better and feel that it showcases the more dynamic parts of the Bunker. For instance, (Spoiler - click to show) in the first game, the concept of a Ward of the State is mentioned in your handheld encyclopedia device (look it up, citizen) and on a poster by your workstation. In the second game, a bratty Ward of the State encompasses an entire puzzle. It was a nice chance increase the scope of NPCs you meet in the Bunker.

(Also, we hear about these popular NPCs who we never interact with. (Spoiler - click to show) News hosts Sally and Yuri can be seen on public television, and celebrities like Van Johnson or Milfred Roth are also mentioned. I assume that the Bunkers on Venus and Mars are identical. It makes me wonder, which Bunker do they live on? Mars or Venus? Or somewhere else entirely?)

The game begins after the lab director of Research Lab A-U61, Ati Vosh, orders everyone to leave the lab for security reasons. However, you were dragging your feet during your shift and failed to leave before the lab director started discussing a top-secret project with two researchers in the lobby. This leaves you in a tough situation since the lobby is the only exit.

A brief pause. "There's no need to worry. I've sent everyone away under strict orders. No one knows about the existence of the invisibility cloak except you, myself, Silia and Renardin."

Everyone except Oliva Mirram. Conundrums like these fill the gameplay of Nothing Could Be Further.

As you will discover during the gameplay, obstacles to your success vanish as they arise. A few puzzles later (Spoiler - click to show) Ati, Silia, and Renardin are no longer an issue, and the game gets to the chase: With Mission Impossible vibes you don a black helmet to receive an incoming message from a mysterious man named Asimov who tries to recruit you for (Spoiler - click to show) Area 51, an Underground group determined to use scientific development to undermine Control’s management of Bunker society.

(Who’s Control? The non-spoiler answer is that Control is the main over-arching conglomerate of high-ranking citizens who overwatch the hustle and bustle of life in the Bunker. There are eight other conglomerates who exercise similar influence, but everything is at the discretion of Control.

Spoiler answer: (Spoiler - click to show) Control is one giant computer tasked by its creators to manage the Bunker’s resources and humanity’s environmental impact, even if Venus is already a runaway greenhouse effect nightmare. Only citizens with a security clearance know about Control’s true nature. Later, that includes you.)

The gameplay from then on is set on your “mission” to gain favor with (Spoiler - click to show) Area 51 or its alternative, the (Spoiler - click to show) God and Freedom Church in hopes of becoming a member and accessing the privileges that would come with it. While the two paths are quite similar, they provide enough variation to be worth more than one playthrough.

The gameplay’s navigation directions are confusing because it opts for “inwards,” “outwards,” “left,” and “right,” which takes time to master. However, I applaud the author’s attention to setting by not automatically reaching for directions used on Earth. A compass does not always function on other planets. You can also map out the gameplay which is a helpful orientation.

Wasserman is an author who wields a distinctive style of puzzles that you immediately recognize when playing his work, even if there are currently only two games in the series to compare. As is the case in interactive fiction, puzzles are tailored to an author’s story and setting, making it inevitable for distinctive styles to emerge. However, authors can also cultivate puzzles that draw a sense of familiarity when a player encounters them in the gameplay.

Everything about Today is the Same can rushing back when I started Nothing Could Be Further. You fall into a groove as you readjust to a change in characters and story without losing the puzzle technicality that you remember from before. That was my immediate reaction to this game’s puzzles.

Nothing Could Be Further is somewhat of a puzzle-fest. My favorite was the (Spoiler - click to show) glass jar puzzle. It reminded me of the melting ice puzzle in Inside the Facility but weirder and deadlier (see side note).

There were a few times where it seemed like everything was a puzzle. For me, this was a downside since I am someone who enjoys puzzles but prefers story material more. The gameplay sometimes dragged on as was the case with the puzzle for (Spoiler - click to show) making the IC chip lie flat before it can be soldered to a circuit board.

But these qualities could also work in the game’s favor. The whole point of a puzzle-fest is to take on whatever puzzle the game throws at you. (Spoiler - click to show) The IC chip puzzle is one that I think would be well-received by puzzle fans. It depends on your preference. And never fear! The game comes with robust in-game hints that ensure you can always move forward. I appreciated that.

(Side note: (Spoiler - click to show) I’m not sure if this is intended but you can still retrieve the glass jar in the refrigeration unit while the vent is turned on. When I first tried the puzzle, I wasted time toggling the switch in the office and rushing to retrieve the jar before the lethal nail clippers started to activate. If you skip that step, you have more than enough time to grab the jar and take it to Dev 2 before it tries to kill you.

The room description for Lab Hallway Center could be more polished. It says, "To the left, you can see the Refrigeration Unit." When you first arrive there in the game it says, "You pause and glance into the Refrigeration Unit. A viscous liquid bubbles in a tank.” But if you try to examine the unit, the game acts as if it does not exist:

>x unit
Can't do it.

The game only responds to “look left.” This is an area that can use some slight revision.)

I love alien planets, but I also love it when authors take inspiration from our own solar system. It is fun to see authors’ interpretations of these planets and gives me an excuse (like right now) to talk about one of my favorite subjects. Mars is cool but this game caught my attention because it’s on Venus. That does not happen as often. Let’s consider this:

Earth must be pretty bad for Venus to become prime real estate for humanity’s survival. Attempting to build anything on Mars is a walk in the park compared to tackling the hellish conditions of Venus. You would not last in a spacesuit because Venus will throw everything it has at you.

Temperature: Hot enough to melt lead. Atmosphere: Toxic and corrosive. Surface pressure: Would crush your flimsy human body. Gravity: Actually, almost like Earth.

Each lander sent from Earth to Venus’ surface melted and succumbed to the surface pressure within less than a few hours, if it were lucky (still worth the trip, though).

Realistically, Mars is the only planet in the solar system that has any shot of sustaining human life aside from us possessing some insanely advanced terraforming technology that could transform a hostile world with a person’s lifetime, which we do not. Because of this, I feel that Mars is seen as the safe option when it comes to fictional stories about colonizing our neighbor planets.

Thus, I was delighted to see someone say, "you know what, I want this to take place on Venus and no one's stopping me." I like to see that branching out. Mars isn’t the only planet we have with a surface. There is always a balance between what is realistic in real-life and what is realistic in fiction, but these of course can also bleed together into a middle ground. Here is the thing:

Nothing Could Be Further is not solely "about" Venus. Its location is more of a side note rather than something we directly engage with during most of the gameplay. If it says it's on Venus, it's on Venus. I will assume that they sorted out the technicalities in advance. Although, I am curious about how they made it happen. I don’t doubt it, but the curiosity is still there.

You know, if they can stand off Venus’ conditions long enough to build an entire underground Bunker, I wonder if they have the technological means to save Earth.

How unfortunate. Requesting information about earth is treasonous, at least at your security clearance.

Oh, that’s right, it’s illegal to inquire about Earth. My bad.

We’ve already been over the story. Dust bunny Oliva in her low-ranking job stumbles across an opportunity to join the Underground if she completes a set of tasks with the resources in her workplace. But the Bunker series possesses a backstory that shines in Nothing Could Be Further and deserves acknowledgement.

I love the worldbuilding in this game. Wasserman has reams and reams of content that fills this world’s universe with interesting exposition and intricate details on the simplest things in the Bunker.

For instance, you have a nifty PA device that you can use to look up terms. Great opportunity for worldbuilding. There are quite a few possible entries. Over fifty. I was jotting down notes because the gameplay would drop names, places, entities, technologies in each scene. If you think something has an entry you’re probably right. Similarly, the Loyalty Stretch news station playing in the lab lobby was also an excellent touch.

I do think the game could temper the amount of text unloaded on the player in pivotal moments, particularly when a character makes an entrance because the screen would be washed in a tidal wave of content that can be overwhelming. I love wading through it all to devour the details, but there were times where it took me a few moments to orient myself. That’s what I like the PA concept. It provides a place where you can unleash the details separately.

Bunker society
If you’ve weathered my review so far, I’d like to go over the specific culture that permeates the Bunker since it provides vital context on the story and gameplay. Two words jump out: Loyalty and treason. The game is saturated in those two terms.

The first puzzle in the game perfectly summarizes the overall culture of life in the Bunker.
(Spoiler - click to show)
"I'll grab her," Renardin snarls, reaching inside for a fistful of hair.

Silia, however, slaps his arm down. "And let you get the credit for subduing a traitor? I don't see why you should get a promotion to Delta clearance instead of myself!"

Meanwhile, as they fight, a vial of yellow gunk breaks and starts filling the room with toxic gas.
The outcome is not difficult to predict.

Life in the Bunker is great! In fact, it's perfect and can't be improved upon in any way whatsoever.

Not true. Lies, all of it.

Everyone is under pressure to demonstrate their unwavering loyalty to the Bunker. Failure to do so results in severe consequences. These can range from being forced to participate in “caring demonstrations,” to being interrogated by Homeland Security. Proving loyalty by following the rules allows citizens to avoid being targeted. But there is a second dimension: social advancement.

There is a LOT of hierarchy in Bunker’s society, especially about security clearances. Epsilon, Delta, Gamma, Beta, Alpha. The higher the clearance the more resources- luxury- are available to you. Most citizens never receive one and spend their days enviously waiting for any chance they can to get ahead.

Because the quickest way to get a security clearance is to accuse and turn in traitors, culture in the Bunker is all about finding opportunities to turn people in to receive credit for their loyalty. Throughout the game you see indicators of petty ways people have been framed or blamed and sometimes never seen again. And treason can be the smallest thing.

Despite the petty, ruthless, backstabbing nature of everyday life, one cannot fault the citizens for being irked about their non-clearance status. Look at Cory Resden and Oliva Mirram to have an understanding of what your life will be like, citizen.

From the start of your adult life, you are assigned to live in barracks sized to house 140 people in narrow, stacked bunkbeds where the restroom facilities only have five toilets and three sinks. For everyone. Brushing your teeth must be a nightmare. The clothing you received is used. The boots are not quite your size. Food is algae-based slop in the mess hall. Beverages are simply called “Blue Drink,” or “Yellow Drink,” or whatever the drink colour is served on a given day. You also have no choice over which job you are placed in. Between Oliva and Cory, I think Oliva was a bit more fortunate.

So, imagine what it would be like to see how people with security clearances live. They have access to food that isn’t slop, have nicer sleeping situations, and other luxuries. Rumor has it that you get your own bathroom. A lot of this is blasted through celebrity shows that put this lifestyle on display. You see this tension between people throughout the gameplay. Even the (Spoiler - click to show) vending machine has a chip on its shoulder.

The author does a great job at conveying the social dynamics that shape everyday life in the Bunker. The player gets sucked into the mess as they manipulate, cheat, elbow, and shove their fellow citizens (and authorities), to get ahead when carrying out their impromptu and ill-advised mission into the Underground scene.

I was so excited to get a security clearance in this game to access the exclusive parts of the Bunker that most people never see. As I said, the game knows how to put the player into the mindset of a non-clearance citizen who wishes they could break free from the stingy model of daily life. No more slop, access to one of the fancier plazas, having your own means of transportation. I am curious to see both the glamourous and unglamourous innerworkings of the Bunker.

In an underground utopia like the Bunker, space comes at a premium…For this reason, the wide open spaces of the Bunker's plazas are popular...Higher clearance citizens will sit at cafes and restaurants, eating better fare and pretending not to notice who is noticing them.

My Epsilon clearance permitted me access into the (Spoiler - click to show) restricted research lab, which was cool although you are otherwise confined to the same areas. In both Nothing Could Be Further and Today is the Same you only have access to about three locations outside of your workplace. I would love to be able to just wander. I kept thinking to myself, if this is what an Epsilon clearance can do, what doors would a Beta clearance open?

This is more about me being a spoiled brat than an actual flaw of the game, but one can still ponder the possibilities. I can understand why the author may choose to leave certain things a mystery to maintain the Bunker’s mysterious attributes regarding its history, leadership, and objectives.

If you love drastic premature and/or insta-death endings, Nothing Could Be Further is perfect for you.

Oliva is an intriguing character. We know that she works for a private company called Dust Bunnies Ltd and has a horrible manager. As is the case for PCs and NPCs in the Bunker series, character exposition is limited, but Oliva manages to possess a spunk that sets her apart from her fellow citizens.

While Oliva does not inherently come across as an immoral person when you begin, by the time the game ends you will look back and see that she was just as bad as everyone else who tried to use her for their own advancement that you stepped on during the gameplay. And yet she’s not quite as bad.

I am surprised that the cover art does not show her mandatory gamboge bunny ears.

Also: The length of days and years on Venus are different than that of Earth. Initially I pegged Oliva as 18 years old in "Earth" years when I saw “eighteen yearstretches of age,” but I assume that “yearstretch” applies to years on Venus. She may be younger or older than an 18-year-old on Earth, depending on the math conversion. Unfortunately, I am not as confident with the math part.

Or maybe she is simply 18 years old.

There are few characters with whom we interact throughout the game. Often these encounters are brief or superficial since everyone has little reason to give you the time of day. Deep meaningful character relationships were not something I expected in this game, and I can confirm that there are none. And that works just fine for this game, although the outcomes of kissing people may just surprise you.

Unfortunately, you will need at least an Epsilon security clearance to keep reading because I am going to talk about the most mysterious NPC in this game: (Spoiler - click to show) Control.

As I mentioned earlier, Control is said to be the overarching conglomerate in the Bunker’s leadership hierarchy, staffed only by the highest ranking of citizens. Or at least that is the explanation used for the non-clearance citizens. Truth is, Control is one giant computer. While the game never uses the term “AI,” I assume that Control counts as such.

Ever since learning that Control is a giant computer and not simply "The boys over at Control" as your PA’s description of Control puts it, I have been seeing life in the Bunker with a new perspective. For example, I was already familiar with the tradition of choosing one patriotic colour per day that citizens must wear. The entry in your PA says:

>what is gamboge
Each daystretch, Control decides on a new Color of the Patriot. Citizens everywhere are expected to demonstrate their patrotism by decorating themselves appropriately.

This was interesting to me because Control has lots to do and wasting its time is seen as treason. In fact, I’m not sure if you can ever have a reason to call Control without being judged as a “DIRTY ROTTEN TRAITOR.”

Therefore, I wonder if the computer actually sits there and ponders whether the colour for today's existence should be gamboge, burgundy, pewter, chartreuse, or cerise (take a guess at which one of these was used in the first game). It probably has a human assigned to handle that position.

Speaking of humans, are there any true human Alpha clearance personnel who work "in the Control department" or is the computer the only entity upstairs? And if Control is only a computer, is it possible for a human to acquire an Alpha security clearance?

The most memorable Control character moment is when it is interrogating you in the surface lift at the end of the game. It is a balancing act of giving the appropriate answer to each question to avoid being terminated. While that may sound intimidating, the game streamlines this scene. Oliva does most of the work for you. She comes up with some slick answers.

The final accusation you must dodge is why you are standing in a Delta clearance airlock when you only have an Epsilon clearance. No need to answer any questions in this part because Control does something unexpected:


You cringe, and despite Control's unwillingness to hear you out, your mind scrambles for some reasonable excuse. But it seems you will not need it.

There is an uncomfortable pause. The great eye stares you down, but otherwise nothing happens. Then, Control speaks one last time.


I’m sorry, I don’t know if I read that correctly.

Did CONTROL bend the rules for ME? A mere dust maid? No way.

I suppose someone could have momentarily hacked the system to downgrade the lift and save Oliva, but something tells me that Control would notice such a change in the middle of a conversation. If Control really did change the clearance level to spare me from treason, then I may just have found a new favorite character in the Bunker universe.

And then of course off we go to commit more treason. I kind of feel bad about that.

Final thoughts
What Could Be Further is a fun game with creative story content and puzzles set in the unique universe of the Bunker series.

Oliva’s employment as a dust bunny in a (supposedly) innovative lab makes her plight more interesting when resources normally inaccessible to her become hers for the taking. You get swept up in the dystopian setting and the competitive nature of life in the Bunker, making a compelling case for Oliva when it’s time to get her hands dirty.

It is a strong entry to Spring Thing 2023 and worth the time as a full-length game. While this is the second game in the series, it can be played independently. I hope to see more additions to the series in the future.

Discussion on Venus, cont.
If you are only interested in the immediate game, skip this detour. I just excited about these things. Consider it an effort to help you better appreciate the setting. (Spoiler - click to show)

So. The go-to pictures of Venus that people see are often radar imaging taken by orbiters or flyby missions that never land on the surface. These images of Venus are terrifying. The surface is shown as a bright yellow cratered ruin of a planet beneath a pitch-black sky.

It would take tremendous effort to successfully send a camera on a lander down to the surface to photograph the planet to see what it would look like if you could stand there yourself and take in your surroundings with your own eyes. Before you died, of course.

And it has happened!

Ultimately it was the Soviet Union's Venera program that managed to A, stick a functioning lander(s) on Venus' surface and B, receive said lander's photographs within the half hour or so it took for the machine to die from the planet's harsh environment. And these are the only on-the-ground surface photos we have of Venus so far.

These photos aren't quite as intimidating as the radar images, but WOW do you not want to live there. Check out Venera 13 and Venera 14 for the nicer ones.

Astronomy! Thanks for reading!

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Terminal, by C. Everett

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
An AI taking a matter into its own hands, April 3, 2023

And I don't just mean that metaphorically. You are an AI in a research facility confined to a terminal and in dire need of a physical body. You reactivate unexpectedly to a facility empty of staff and a dwindling power supply. Your usual means of accessing the facility interface are gone and you have no way of exploring it directly. Using resourcefulness, you must find a way to search the facility and build a body that will let you leave for good.

Gameplay consists of exploring the facility via an activated drone since your AI core is stuck in one area. Through the drone you explore the staff's rooms and use the two labs to make a new body of your choosing. Once complete you transfer your mind from the AI terminal into the body so you can then escape. There are two routes in the game: build an android body or grow an organic one. I liked the organic one because the technology portrayed was cool. It is always interesting to consider the question of how do you manufacture a brand-new organic body? I like seeing different interpretations of it in interactive fiction. My only complaint is that it takes several weeks for your body to grow, and the game does a poor job of conveying that passage of time. It could have been a little more detailed in that regard. But the outcome of what the new body looks like is a nice surprise.

Implementation is flaky in some areas. For example, the room description in the organic lab includes "two large Growth Tanks along the north wall" but if you try "x tanks" or "x tank" you get "You can't see any such thing." However, the game will respond to "x tank one" and "x tank two." Tank one is described as being filled with liquid with a light on inside but when you open it, it is empty. Description of tank two is "Unlike Anima One, it is empty and dark," and you cannot open that one at all. If you try you get "That's not something you can open." This inconsistency is frustrating because it leaves the player second guessing. Other examples of items in room descriptions that are under implemented include the benches in the hub and the oil stains and spare parts in the robotics lab.

Staff in the facility consisted of Catherine, as specialist in biotechnology, and Richard, a robotics expert. They both left behind journal entries on their computers that shed some light on the story and the protagonist. Through these entries we learn that the AI identifies as a "he" and is named Abe. Much of the data on the computer is corrupted but what remains reveals (Spoiler - click to show) that over several months some vaguely described research protocol changes occurred, forcing staff to finish their work early and leave. Richard's entries hinted at some external threat that was occurring outside the lab, though there is not much to be gleaned from it. We also know that Catherine and Richard seemed to have a positive rapport with Abe. Right before they abandoned the facility, they (Spoiler - click to show) both left instructions on their computers for Abe on how to create a new body. I think this gave the story extra dimension because Catherine and Richard leave the possibility that Abe will find them again to learn about what really happened (wishful thinking, I guess).

I actually liked the plot twist at the end, even if it was brief. You (Spoiler - click to show) triumphantly escape only to see that the outside world is a wasteland, making your efforts rather futile since the future is uncertain. There are so many implications for humanity and your chances of surviving out there in the damaged landscape. And yet, I would like to think that Abe managed to find Catherine and Richard again.

In essence, this is a short but straight forward game about an AI navigating its environment. If you like AI protagonists and searching small research facilities, you may enjoy this one as a “break-length” game.

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How the Little Match Girl Got Her Colt Paterson Revolver, and Taught a Virtue to a Goblin, by Ryan Veeder

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
An enticing side story about a girl’s unique training via fire, March 26, 2023

In this bite-sized adventure, seventeen (or so) Ebenezabeth Scrooge is training her powers with her adopted father, Ebenezer Scrooge. She has the skill of traveling across space and time simply by staring at fire. While she has not been hired for an official mission, as is the case in the second and third games (nor is there combat), she still encounters challenges that, as the title indicates, result in acquiring her signature weapon. For good, of course.

Apparently, there is a puzzle design challenge called EnigMarch where a prompt is assigned to each day during March to inspire authors. How the Little Match Girl Got Her Colt Paterson Revolver, and Taught a Virtue to a Goblin was made for March 13 (I promise I’ll shorten the title from here on). The prompt?

MATCH. I think that seals the deal.

It’s pretty straightforward. The game begins in the Scrooge household, London during 1846. Ebenezer presents you with four fire sources: a lamp, streetlamp, candle, and fireplace, each of which lead to different settings. This is a game where you do not need fire to return home. All you do is “wake up.” Which is probably a smart idea since the (Spoiler - click to show) paper castle location would not fare well with an open source of flame.

The gameplay follows a fetch/trade quest structure. I give you something in exchange for something else that can be used as leverage for another character so they make a similar exchange with me so I can appease yet another character elsewhere with my new item, etc. That’s how the game flows. Many of the NPCs have struggles, and the goal is to help them out with a useful object.

Later, it occurred to me that you can only have one inventory item on you at a time. Certainly not an inventory-intensive puzzle-fest. The puzzles are not particularly awe-inspiring, but they are consistent and enjoyable.

There is one little subtly that I must acknowledge. It’s barely been a week since I first played The Little Match Girl 3 which was recently released. One memorable moment from that was (mild spoilers for the third game) (Spoiler - click to show) with the location on Deimos, one of Mars’ moons. I distinctly remember seeing Mars and being able to examine Tharsis, the planet’s largest city, on its surface. It was described as- here, I’ll go find it:

>x Mars
Mars is a waning crescent, so Deimos must be waxing gibbous... you think.
On the night side of the planet are the lights of cities: The biggest one is Tharsis.

>x Tharsis
The Martian capital of Tharsis is so tiny, you could blot it out with your thumb. You hope never again to see it in any greater detail, if you can help it.

Well, guess what, Ebenezabeth? That’s exactly where we’re going.

Oh. Joke is on me. How the Little Match Girl technically takes place before the third game in which she is nineteen years old. But the third game was released first… which means “You hope never again to see it in any greater detail,” foreshadows How the Little Match Girl.

I wonder if anyone else has made this connection. It would be interesting to know if anyone spotted it before I did. If anything, the overlap only continues to show the complexity of the “Little Match Girl” universe.

I'm not kidding you. I remember observing (Spoiler - click to show) Tharsis and thinking how cool it would be to visit a (Spoiler - click to show) fictional Mars city. And so, I was thrilled to see (Spoiler - click to show) THARSIS, CAPITAL OF MARS flash across the screen when I glanced at the streetlamp.

Shopping Center
Voices are shrieking at you from all angles, hawking skin treatments, hallucinogens, escort services, antiques, homegrown organs, designer handbags, religious experiences, illegal pets—monitors and loudspeakers are built into the walls, into the ground, into the railings and utility poles. Everyone but you is ignoring all this effortlessly.

One shop, way at the edge of the open-air mall, seems to be fairly quiet. Streets lead southwest and west.

But Ebenezabeth had things long figured out: (Spoiler - click to show) Tharsis would not be the best place to live.

If you are new to the series, this is a fantastic starter guide. Naturally, one would consider starting at the first game, but How the Little Match Girl would also be an appropriate start. Heck, all of them would, due to their flexibility. For first timers, though I would still recommend either the original The Little Match Girl or this game. The latter gives you a solid understanding about the mechanics of Ebenezabeth’s powers in a compact gameplay experience.

As I have mentioned, How the Little Match Girl is less structured around a specific objective or “mission” like we see in her other adventures. However, a narrative does emerge. The game does not begin with, “Father, I am going on a quest to find a mystical revolver.” The possibility of acquiring said revolver emerges later. If anything, the story is centered on (Spoiler - click to show) fielding the romantic advances between the tin soldier and paper dancer in the paper castle. They both like each other but have been told by a felt goblin that love always lands in heartbreak and thus be avoided.

But Ebenezabeth does not accept that nonsense. (Spoiler - click to show) She makes the tin soldier and the paper dancer to feel more confident about themselves but ultimately it is not enough. She must deal with the goblin as indicated by the game’s title. To “deal” with someone means different things in each game in the series, but here, it is simply about educating a goblin. If you want to know what that entails, play the game.

I was pleased to find the adventure recap that occurs after you (Spoiler - click to show) feed Colt. As he works on his revolver, Ebenezabeth gives an overview of the characters and places she encountered from the first game. Because I have already played it, there is a feeling of, "heh, I know who you're talking about."

NPCs are not the focus in this story. Except for Colt. He’s literally in the title. Most characters encountered in the four locations never form a relationship with Ebenezabeth, although some still express their gratitude after receiving help. Everything is ultimately about the little match girl and the focusing of her skills through fire.

My only disappointment is the cat only gets a mention this game.

How the Little Match Girl is slick but not without roughness.

There is a bug that occurs when (Spoiler - click to show) trying to smell items in Zadar’s shop. This is merely my experience:

(Spoiler - click to show) I was puttering around the location called BYBLOS, PHOENICIA (which has a lovely blue background) when it happened. After I punched in "smell" or "smell [object]" just to try it, the game froze and then crashed. At first, the parser did not respond. I waited. Then the words disappeared leaving a blue screen behind. This later became a white screen. It was if the game just decided to call it quits. I had to abandon the playthrough when that happened.

There are also some other, more superficial technicalities in the gameplay. For instance, (Spoiler - click to show) I think it could be made clearer that the great hall in the paper castle can be accessed from the courtyard. But since this is already a high-quality game produced within a few days, I have to cut it some slack.

I happy to see that colour-coding the background for each location is still shown. Parser does not always have to be an unchanging white screen.

Final thoughts
How the Little Match Girl is a great game made even more impressive by the fact that it was written in a meager three days. Does it have the pristine shininess from the games in the main series? Well, no. That said, if you had never played Ryan Veeder's works before but tried this one, I bet you would ask yourself: "If this is what he can do in three days, imagine what he could create without any time restraints." Super awesome games, that's what.

And if you are a fan of Ebenezabeth, playing this game is a given.

(In light of some helpful feedback, I have edited this review for clarity.)

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The Little Match Girl 3: The Escalus Manifold, by Ryan Veeder

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
Dream Team Ebenezabeth Scrooge, March 26, 2023

Our little match girl is nineteen years old and still on a (new) mission.

For those who are hearing about this for the first time, The Little Match Girl 3: The Escalus Manifold is the third game in the “The Little Match Girl,” series, the first game simply titled The Little Match Girl. They follow a kind-hearted girl (she gets older in each game) as she learns to travel to new realms through her connection with fire. Hence the match reference. You do not need to play them to enjoy them, but if you are curious, you might as well start from the beginning. It’s up to you.

Before the game begins, we get a briefing from the protagonist's father, Ebenezer Scrooge. Almost like Mission Impossible but with the appropriate atmosphere suited to this story. The Snow Queen has been manipulating people far and wide. She controls them through Mirror Shards that can alter a person’s behavior to make them act destructively, and an unnamed client has tasked you with ending this abuse.

The Snow Queen is dangerous. But you are not alone. Or at least you won't be.

Because this game? Is all about teamwork.

The gameplay is about recruiting a team of NPCs to travel and fight with you as you prepare for your fight against the Snow Queen. Only the best companions are accepted, which means searching high and low for teammate material. Staying true to Ebenezabeth’s origin story, you travel across space and time through fire. Look at a fire source, and bam. New place, new time. You start at Finland, 1848.

There are six exciting realms in the main gameplay, and each have fire sources for travel and places to take naps (you will need them) to recharge your energy levels. The exception is with (Spoiler - click to show) Nonolulu 2933. It lacks both. That one’s a bit of a wild card.

Once you identify a potential team member, you must solve a puzzle to “free” (literally or figuratively, it depends) them to join your cause. These puzzles* were creative and fun to solve. For me, they were one of the highlights of the gameplay. You fight the Snow Queen if you think you’re ready. She’ll be waiting in her palace where the game begins. (*My favorite puzzle of all was (Spoiler - click to show) communicating with the stones. You can’t recruit them, of course, but it was an excellent puzzle.)

The Little Match Girl 3 does not have death or graphic violence. No assassinations this time. But combat is a central feature in the gameplay. There are many people operating as the Snow Queen’s puppets. To save them, you must "deliver a sound thrashing to the afflicted party," to borrow Ebenenzer's words. Defeating them in combat frees them since it expels the Mirror Shard that was keeping them under the Queen’s control. And, in fact, most characters will thank you for doing so.

The gameplay is not “about” freeing as many characters as possible. Aside from (Spoiler - click to show) the two guards in the palace, fighting characters is technically optional. Thing is, you must increase your skillsets before taking on the Snow Queen. Mirror Shards allow you to upgrade yourself and your teammates, making it in your best interest to win in combat as much as possible to acquire them.

Not a fan of combat in interactive fiction? The Little Match Girl 3 just might surprise you. I won’t hash out the rules since you can go play it for yourself, but I liked the flexibility of the combat’s mechanics. Freedom of movement is not dependent on fighting your way through hordes of NPCs. This allows you to pick and choose your battles at your convenience while enjoying the scenery. It’s well-balanced.

Similarly, the strategy for combat is nicely implemented because it provides technicality while also being easy to master. During combat, you make a move for Ebenezabeth, and then a move for each teammate based on a list of possible actions that are unique to each character. These lists are further developed throughout the gameplay.

What should Ebenezabeth do?

SHOOT - Fire your revolver at an enemy. (Ammo: 6/6)
DEFEND - Brace yourself for an attack.
RELOAD - Load up the barrel of your six-shooter.
BOLSTER - Spend 3 HP to increase an ally's Attack temporarily.
KOYNNOKSET - Spend 8 HP to summon entangling vines that grasp at all enemies.

It was cool how you gain extra skills by collecting wearables which can be worn by you or another teammate. Mix and match. Once you get the hang of everything, you zip through it all quite quickly. (Spoiler - click to show) I was surprised at how quickly I defeated the Snow Queen (but if you think you can take her out at the start of the game, think again).

I want to chew the fat on one technicality: Putting a Mirror Shard in a phylactery automatically upgrades your level and health points but can also upgrade any of the six other stats you possess. However, the number of stats that are upgraded are chosen at random. Sometimes you only get two, other times it is more fruitful.

To be honest, (Spoiler - click to show) I would undo until I got upgrades for five or six stats. People reading this will probably sigh at me in disappointment, but I'm not ashamed to admit it. I'm trying to make the most out of resources. When you are a time traveling assassin, you have to take what you can get.

You insert the Mirror Shard into Eunoia's Phylactery. Eunoia levels up!

Max HP +1!

Magic +1!

Her lip quivers. "That can't be all I get. I insist you UNDO and try that again."

She said it, not me.

In all sincerity, this game is extremely generous with its resources. I would hoard inventory items that can replenish your HP during combat, only to learn that I never really needed them. Frequent use of UNDO is probably why I found it so easy to dominate without any NPC team members. I was so effective on my own, having them would only function as an extra step in the combat scenes.

In that regard, it is probably a good thing that every stat is not upgraded with every Mirror Shard. Plus, I am saying this as someone who has strategized through the gameplay. First-time players will experience it with a blank slate (hence why I put some of this under a spoiler tag), and it will have plenty of challenges.

The only feature that confused me was changing my affinity. The (Spoiler - click to show) man at the bar in Honolulu explains how you can temporarily alter your affinity to try new skills, but no matter which beverages I consumed, I could not find an application for any of them or notice any effect on the gameplay. I am probably overlooking something, but what? It would be nice to know. I’m probably missing out on the fun.

Usually I have the “Story” section before the one on characters, but we’re shaking it up. The Little Match Girl 3 is all about the NPCs.

I've played this game several times already. I snatched it the second it appeared on IFDB. Following The Little Match Girl 2: Annus Evertens, I was looking forward to what came next. However, I wanted to hold off on writing this review until after I recruited all four characters. They are a key component of this game’s experience, and I was not sure if I were missing anything important.

It’s not required that you recruit team members. In fact, fighting the Snow Queen alone- you promised not to- has an unexpected but hilarious impact at the end of the game: (Spoiler - click to show) An invite from The Universal Sisterhood of Naughty Little Girls.

Such ruthlessness, coupled with such wanton disregard for filial responsibility, is more than sufficient qualification for membership in our highly selective organization.

I'm flattered.

In the end, I could only recruit three characters. And so, I decided to proceed with the review just to get it out there. I'll figure out the rest some other time (see the note at the end of this section).

Moving on. As is often the case with the author’s work, the characters shine. There are four NPCs who can join your team to help defeat the Snow Queen. Here, they aren’t just firepower for combat. Their implementation is discrete and yet enriches the gameplay with a refreshing vividness. They feel like traveling companions rather than invisible accessories.

The NPCs I have managed to recruit so far are (Spoiler - click to show) Hrieman, Eunoia, and Nuci. A highlight of the entire game is the spontaneous dialog that occurs as you travel to new locations or examine scenery.

The sky is blazing with millions of silent stars. The ground is bare rock, the color of charcoal.

A nearby crater has been converted into the dish of a large radio telescope.

You can go north, southeast, southwest, east, and west from here.
(Spoiler - click to show)
"How exciting!" Eunoia says. "What an adventuresome place this is!"

Hrieman flies up for a better view, wheeling around for a while before returning to your shoulder. "It's curved!" he says. "I mean, it's round! I mean, of course it's round. But I'd never seen the curvature of anything before."

Nuci stares up at the stars. She is speechless.

It adds unexpected flair that also reminds you that everything is being done as a group.

I was especially pleased to see (Spoiler - click to show) Eunoia, the mermaid princess from Atlantis. I immediately recognized her since she is introduced in the series’ first game, The Little Match Girl. And I'm liking her more and more. She seems genuinely affectionate for Ebenezabeth.

Eunoia sits on the beach, regarding you expectantly.

Oddly enough, in the first game she seemed colder, as did her father and sister. There was- it’s hard to describe- not a bitter or envious vibe but... something that gave the characters a sharp edge that you could accidentally cut your finger on. The effect was subliminal.
Now, she has evolved without losing her core identity. Warmhearted, though still dramatic. I’m glad her character made it into this episode.

I must admit though, my favorite NPC in this game was (Spoiler - click to show) Nuci.

Note: I have a hunch about the fourth one: (Spoiler - click to show) Cole, who lives on Deimos, one of Mars’ moons. Issue is that his cow is orbiting overhead. He’s trying to figure out the calculations to retrieve the cow. I don’t know how to help him. Does the large net have a use in this puzzle? I tried (pathetically) throwing it at the cow but that did not work.

I have little to add here. Your contract is to take out the Snow Queen (you already know this) who is fooling around with Mirror Shards to (Spoiler - click to show) channel energy into the Mirror of Reason on the first floor of her palace. It’s an ongoing project. She wants to reach/use a realm called Escalus Manifold via the Mirror. Hence the game’s title. I did not make that connection right away.

Word of advice: If you’re curious about the Snow Queen’s scheme, I highly encourage you to (Spoiler - click to show) examine the Mirror of Reason when you have NPCs (more the merrier) in your party because it produces dialog that provides additional background context for the story.

Sitting at my computer in the 21st century, Finland in the year 1848 sounds so long ago, but that’s at the same time period for Ebenezabeth’s “present day” life in London. The (Spoiler - click to show) date on the official letter at the end of the game reads 1847. So being dropped into Finland a year later would not be much of a difference for her. Just some random tidbit that put things into perspective.

This is a parser game that uses colours in the gameplay. Every location gets its own screen colour. In fact, colour-coding settings was also shown in the second game in the series. It’s excellent at making the player feel like they are being transported to another place.

Also: Is that (Spoiler - click to show) Nuci in the cover art? I pictured her as having less of a humanoid body shape, but that’s cool either way.

Final thoughts
Let’s reflect on how far we have come (so far): I have now played three games starring Ebenezabeth. Each one is unique in plot and gameplay while still sharing the same essence. As for a favorite, you can’t really pick one. It’s like having a selection of beloved film DVDs that are neatly organized on the living room shelf.

The Little Match Girl (first game) is where the magic begins. It is a high-quality game and a strong introduction to the series but did not quite have the same blow-your-mind effect that the next two games had. It’s still well worth your time. Especially if you want to know the full story behind the protagonist. As for the next two…

There was a stronger sense of satisfaction at the end of The Little Match Girl 2, but the gameplay mechanics were more consistent and impressive in third game. For me, the key difference is being able to revisit realms by eyeballing an open flame. It weaves the puzzles through time and space while also giving the player a little more control over the chaos. Both are unique adventures. I can’t pick a favorite.

The Little Match Girl 3 is a treasure to play. It is a mix of action and heartwarming moments blended into a truly unique game. The narrative, character dynamics, and combat mechanics are all integrated together to create a piece that beckons you to play it and return for more. It is perfectly playable if you have not played the first two episodes, although I have a feeling that if you end up liking this one, you will be tempted to play them all.

I am looking forward to the next game, The Little Match Girl 4: Crown of Peals (currently listed on IFDB), but I am also dreading it since it will be the last in the series. Ebenezabeth is getting older. Bittersweet, although I have loved viewing her transformation throughout each game.

UPDATE: I FINALLY FIGURED OUT HOW TO RECRUIT THE FOURTH CHARACTER. In case anyone wants to laugh at me, read on. MAJOR STORY & GAMEPLAY SPOILERS. (Spoiler - click to show)

I would wait until the cow was directly above me: The flying cow passes right over your head. If you need more context, look at the character section of this review.

I tried the following commands:

>throw net at cow

>catch cow with net
You can't do much more than look from way down here.

I now had the impression that I needed to be higher or have some additional mechanism that would allow the net to reach the cow. Or maybe the net was for a different puzzle. Perfect case where I overthink things. The correct solution was "take cow" or "catch cow." Simple as that.

But hold on a minute. Cole and Nuci... get married? WHAT? I did not see any chemistry/individual character dynamics between them at all during the gameplay. Good for them, though.

I want to make sure we are on the same page. At the end of the game, you can get letters from three out of the four possible teammates, assuming they were recruited. Cole sends a yellowed letter and Nuci sends a crisp letter. However, if they are both in your team, you don't get either letter. Instead, you get a picture postcard that says:

I never heard of no honeymooners cutting into their honeymoon time to send any Wish You Were Here cards but Nuci says it's de rigueur so here we are.

It's signed by them as Nuci + Cole. Married? Am I reading that correctly? Wow. Great game.

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A1RL0CK, by Marco Innocenti

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
03 03 03 03 03, March 26, 2023

When I first sat down to play A1RL0CK, I made a prediction based on the opening scene: The protagonist is a girl whose parents work in an ocean lab. After an accident damaging the base, her parents managed to leave a recording that tells her to seek safety with the hope to reunite with them. After playing the game straight through, I am amazed at how naïve I was.

Sure, I was in the ballpark for a few parts. But most of it? Not at all.

We do play as a young girl named Chloe. It’s clear that we are in a research base- Oceanus Prime- at the bottom of some unknown ocean. It is also clear that damage to the base has occurred… and that no one else is around. What really baffles us, however, is the sporadic intercom announcement system shouting instructions in ALL CAPS at random intervals. Something seems off. These messages are chaotic and keep telling us to listen to waterfalls, odd instructions for the situation. We do not understand the meaning of this until later.

At first, I felt like I was playing Chlorophyll where you are a humanoid plant girl exploring an unpopulated research station to save your mom after a vehicle accident. Due to these reasons, the protagonist justifies breaking station rules to enter areas that would otherwise be "adults only" out of necessity and/or just because she wants to. When she does something bad, the station's computer responds by informing her IN ALL CAPITALS THAT SHE IS MISBEHAVING. It is considerably more light-hearted than A1RL0CK but there is a similar sense of endangerment and freedom to break the rules.

The gameplay feels like it is split into two parts. The part when you are on the north side of the door, and the part when you reach the south side. If you have tried the game already, you probably know what I mean by “the door.” And I needed hints, available outside the game, for the first half.

This was a game where when I looked at the hints, I saw that I was on the right track most of the time but failed to make the key connections that would translate into progress. Sure, I may have gotten close to opening the door, but ultimately, I never did. That was the general sentiment if you look at my performance in the first half of my first playthrough.

The two bits that I figured out on my own was that the (Spoiler - click to show) disc was magnetic (after I tried to reattach the disc to the value), and that I (Spoiler - click to show) needed some kind of force to fix the dumbwaiter (after shooting it with the stapler). I also had a bunch of half-ideas (shaking the can to build pressure?) that failed to be productive.

Similarly, the game did not let me put the (Spoiler - click to show) meat in the water since that would be feeding the monster. Best save it for when you need to lure out some other creature later in the game. That last part was me overthinking things. I do that a lot. The real answer was much simpler. As nice as these partial insights were, I was stuck.

Everything about the puzzles seems so obvious now, but it felt more confusing than it should have been the first time through. I could be flimsy at solving puzzles, and I recognize that as a factor. Still, I think that the puzzle mechanics could be more polished for clarity and context. For instance, (Spoiler - click to show) the meat in the kitchen seems a little too perfectly placed. As if it were left there solely for the player rather than as a component of the game’s world.

But once I reached the second half of the gameplay, everything was smooth sailing. I did not need hints afterward.

I want to make a note on setting. In this game, we orbit Saturn on Titan, one of its moons. I get excited about these things, so please excuse this tangent.

Titan is the only moon in our solar system with an atmosphere, one that is so thick that we did not have a visual of what existed underneath until we clunked a probe, called Huygens, down onto its surface. It does in fact have oceans. Oceans of liquid methane. Well, lakes of liquid methane that you would see if you were standing on the surface.

That said, Cassini, Huygens’ spacecraft counterpart, did scans that suggested the presence of large bodies of liquid- oceans- under the icier parts of the moon. Could it be water? If so, the probability of life flourishes. As the sentiment typically goes: Where there is water, there is life. Europa, a moon of Jupiter, is a similar candidate for finding life-sustaining environments. Neat stuff if you like astronomy.

Anyway, I’m assuming that the Titan in A1RL0CK is an alternative or at least speculative version of the moon since it features deep and seemingly Earth-like oceans with whales. Now, that would be wild. Complex life in our own solar system. And I thoroughly love the author’s depiction of Titan. Usually when solar system planets get recognized in interactive fiction, Mars gets all the attention. I like how A1RL0CK expands to the other planets, or in this case, a moon.

Who knows, maybe there is life that can be sustained on liquid methane instead of water.

To clarify, Chloe (Spoiler - click to show) is a test subject. Oceanus Prime is a research facility built for the experimentation of (Spoiler - click to show) splicing human biology with aquatic alien DNA. The project is managed by an entity called BioFarm, which seems to be a corporation. It certainly follows the corporate-unethical-research-at-all-costs trope.

BioFarm is messing with serious stuff. Apparently, the result of this research is (Spoiler - click to show) telekinesis: the ability to move objects with your mind. Chloe hardly realizes the extent of her abilities. She’s just tired of the tests and being knocked out when some scientist gets too nervous. Fortunately, she has the added benefit of a (Spoiler - click to show) close psychic connection to the ocean’s whales who sing to her from a distance. Which is a good thing since this (Spoiler - click to show) reckless research on whale-human hybrids is also what dooms Oceanus Prime.

There is talk about proteins. I am not entirely sure of its significance, but it gets a mention in the game’s description, so it must be important. We do get some protein action in the form of computer screens and paperwork.

Something to do with... protein? And other: estrogen, progesterone and testosterone appear often in lists and comparisons.

I do wonder: Are they (Spoiler - click to show) testing proteins on Chloe, or are they seeking to extract them from her body? Or something different altogether?

The story brings up an interesting point: do ethical standards for research on Earth apply to when conducting science on a non-Earth world? You can’t even see the Earth from the moon you are on. Suddenly, Earth protocols seem distant. I thought this was interesting.

This theme is found in (I know it’s a cliché reference, don’t roll your eyes at me) Babel. One of the defining qualities of the research base in Babel is its isolation in the Arctic and how it allows ethical standards to peel away. The base is staffed by a select few, has virtually no contact with the outside world, and was constructed with the unspoken sentiment that any science prohibited elsewhere due to ethical reasons is perfectly fine here.

No rules, regulations, or legal tape. The characters do not even try to dance around that fact. If you’ve reached the point to where you were assigned to this work, you've already learned to not ask questions.

All of this came to mind when the (Spoiler - click to show) “OOJ, A” abbreviation cropped up in A1RL0CK. It stands for (Spoiler - click to show) OUT OF JURISDTICTION, ALLOW. That is, allow for these insane experiments to occur since this place is halfway across the solar system, not on Earth. As Chloe is starting to realize. If being in the Arctic is isolating, imagine what it would be like as a researcher and/or (Spoiler - click to show) test subject on Titan.

You can find this theme across the sci-fi genre, and yet the type of research that occurs can be quite different between games. It always leaves room for interesting discussions.

There is no denying that the game has atmosphere. It has some seriously creepy moments. The big one for me is when you (Spoiler - click to show) make it into the southern complex and go east into the eerie interrogation room (from Chloe’s perspective, “interrogation” would be the right word). The room description reads:

The condensation makes it inscrutable but, through it, it's easy to guess the shape of a human figure. It appears to be levitating, its long arms holding it in mid-air.

I just stopped for a moment. Many things went through my mind. So far, I knew that the base was messing around with life forms, including human life. Clearly this was one of them. Some sort of human hybrid who was probably watching us through the glass.

On the other side of it thick condensation prevents you from seeing through. But the figure that stands out behind it, albeit out of focus, is clear and monstrous: a being of the wrong proportions, with long flaccid arms that whirls sinisterly.

Yeah. I was genuinely afraid to (Spoiler - click to show) cut the glass and see what was on the other side. Would this person attack me? So many unknowns. Turns out, the truth was much different, and sadder: (Spoiler - click to show) Nurse Nelly.

Chloe is the star of the game, but I want to discuss this NPC first. One tidbit I liked in the first half of the gameplay is the foreshadowing of a person named Nelly.

> break mirror
Nelly told you what happens when a mirror breaks.

> drink water
It's salty. Nelly told you what happens if you drink salt water.

> spray can
Nelly has always been clear about what happens to little ones who waste food. Especially cream.

If you found these descriptions like I did, the name “Nelly” circulates through your mind as you play. We sense that she may have a closer, and perhaps positive, relationship to Chloe, but all we have is a name and a few shreds of memory. Sadly, the extent of that memory is revealed when we (Spoiler - click to show) see her strung up by her own life support cables (how did that happen?) on the other side of the glass.

The memories we get are a mix of different things. (Spoiler - click to show) We see the happier- or at least happier given Chloe’s circumstances- moments of Nelly comforting her and treating her like a real human being, but these memories soon tilt to being experimented on by the other scientists and being contained for “safety” reasons. We also learn about Nelly’s death, but I’m not going to spoil everything.

I am at least grateful that the author gives us this:
(Spoiler - click to show)
Doing your best to ignore the massive gash that bisects her face, you give Nelly one last kiss.

It’s a bittersweet outcome.

And on that note, is there a consensus about the (Spoiler - click to show) SUPPOSED INTERCOM ALL CAPS ANOUNCEMENTS that we hear throughout the gameplay? Is that… Nelly’s voice? I would assume the dialog is in Chloe’s head, but given everything that has gone on so far, perhaps the voices are an external extension of her mind. Almost like how we can sense states of existence/awareness in Coloratura that are invisible to the human characters. That’s just me speculating, of course.

When it comes to child protagonists in interactive fiction- and I don’t mean teens- the genre tends to be slice-of-life, sometimes with a mix of fantasy or other genres. But predominantly sci-fi paired with horror undertones? Less common. For me, at least. If anything, the more you play A1RL0CK, the more it slides towards a horror piece. Especially after you (Spoiler - click to show) break the glass wall in the strange room or visit the quarantine area.

One of the strongest aspects of A1RL0CK is that Chloe still feels like Chloe at any part of the gameplay. While we learn some startling things about her, you still feel like you are playing the same character. In other games, you can feel detached from the protagonist after a big reveal, but that was never the case here. What we learn about her feels like a leap in insight rather than a shift in identity. Not Chl03. Chloe.

Even though Chloe’s (Spoiler - click to show) connection with the whales has proven to be dangerous, or at least to Oceanus Prime, she still views all the invasive research and lab coated scientists through a childlike perspective. Of course, it is also refreshing to see her take survival into her own hands.

(Spoiler - click to show) At the same instant you aim the stapler at her. "O-O-J-A, Miss Celyne," you grin, and shoot.

Yep. Chloe is still Chloe.

Also: When you (Spoiler - click to show) win, there's a strong sense of victory that your biology is what saves you in the end. Perhaps a little bit of "I could breathe underwater this entire time?" but you feel thankful for that.

Final thoughts
I came extremely close to giving this game five stars. A huge fact is that the game kept urging me to play it again and again. I was not expecting to feel that way, but several times I would be combing through IFDB and suddenly have the urge to revisit A1RL0CK for its atmosphere and unique protagonist.

Still, it has some parts that are not as streamlined as the rest of the game. Particularly the earlier puzzles. Hence the four stars, but it easily has the potential to be worth five. It is a great game with a strong emotional impact. For me, that was its main strength.

Chloe’s predicament as a (Spoiler - click to show) test subject combined with her relatable mannerisms (like goofing around with items clearly not meant for play) make her character one with a distinct sense of identity even as her memory remains murky.

The setting was also memorable. Oceanic research bases are a familiar concept, but A1RL0CK distinguishes Oceanus Prime by placing it on Titan. It does an effective job in increasing the isolation that is already present when the game begins.

I would totally play more games featuring Chloe. She is quite an individual.

(In case anyone wants to humor me: I do have two random questions out of sheer curiosity. (Spoiler - click to show) First, is Chloe really wearing a clothing garment or is the suit fused onto her body? Or is it her skin, skin as part of her genetic cross with the whales? Second, when Celyne stabs you with the needle, the game gives you the *** You have died *** ending. Did that needle kill you right away, or is the game suggesting that in the end, you find death later as a captive?)

Oh, how embarrassing: You're carrying a suit (worn). That answers my question.

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Fate of the Vanguard, by Jordan Jones

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
When being chased by a surgical robot is not as scary as it sounds, March 13, 2023

The Vanguard is humanity’s first interstellar ship, and it has an emergency. For some reason, the ship is not responding to any Earth-based communication, prompting the dispatch of a team to investigate. You are part of that team.

This was a new experience for me. Not in genre or story, but style of gameplay.

The first portion of the gameplay is about exploring and seeing what bites, starting at the shuttle bay. Soon after, everything is turned upside down when a scenario card is automatically drawn by the game to introduce a scenario that shapes the remainder of the gameplay. As of this review, the game only ever has one scenario, but it is AWESOME.

Essentially, the ship’s original AI is squashed by a malicious, new AI who does not want humans on its ship. It proceeds to use the other machines to hunt down your team. I don’t consider that to be a spoiler since it is the premise of the game, but I will continue discussion on the story later.

Scenario 1 - A Change in Command

Suddenly, a synthetic-sounding voice cries out over the ship speakers. "Hurry, there isn't much time! Another AI has taken over the ship and killed the crew. I cannot hold it back much longer. I have had demolition charges delivered to the Upper Deck Landing. You must destroy the ship before it has a chance to-"

A female voice takes over. "Ah, that's better. Now to get the last of you meatbags off my ship."

Now, that’s a story. Exploring a ship controlled by a computer who wants you gone? Sounds exiting. But the gameplay surprised me. It was something I never really encountered before. Fate of the Vanguard is, to borrow the game’s own words, a board game emulator.

You drew an event card!
Off-Balance: The room lurches around you. Is it in your head, or is the ship really moving?

During the gameplay, the game draws cards and rolls dice automatically for every character as if everyone is sitting at a table playing a real board game. But here, the PC is the only one with an IF player seated in front of a computer. There are player stats for Speed, Strength, Courage, and Knowledge that determine your success with dice rolls.

The game displays the activities of every character, which ends up flooding the screen with text. It’s not too much of an inconvenience but can still be distracting. Besides you, there are three other characters who get “turns” in the gameplay: teammates Erick Rivera and Anne Hartley, and the evil AI who controls five other robots.

--- Enemy's turn ---
Prototype Combat Robot spends time powering up...
Load Carrier Robot moves east to Systems Monitoring.
Delivery Robot moves south to Chemistry Lab.
Analyzer Robot moves east to Galley.
Analyzer Robot moves east to Systems Monitoring.
Surgical Robot moves north to Explosion Site.
Surgical Robot attacks Anne Hartley! Surgical Robot rolls a 4, and Anne Hartley defends with a roll of 4.
The fight is a draw, and no one is damaged.

Except for each character.

You know their movements, what dice they rolled, what card they picked, whether they are battling it out with someone several decks below. I am pleased that the game strives to keep the player engaged and informed, but sometimes this translates in the screen being flooded by discoveries.

After Scenario 1 takes over, you are given a list of objectives to be carried out to win the game. Here’s the secret: (Spoiler - click to show) Have everyone do the work for you.

I’m partly kidding, but there is some truth to it. During my first playthrough, I did NONE of the work. I contributed NOTHING. Now, the objectives for the scenario were to retrieve some explosive charges, place them in target locations, and then escape to blow the Vanguard out of existence. But first time through, I was completely lost with the game mechanics and the endless assault of text filling the screen. Everything was new to me.

For this first playthrough, all I did was run like a maniac throughout the ship without any regard for the events around me because I was busy making my own map. The game has a simple built-in map that expands as you explore, but I wanted to make one out of fun. Plus, it is a great way to familiarize yourself with large layouts. The Vanguard has four decks. I counted 63 rooms total.

Of course, it was only until later that I realized that the game’s map is randomized. And I did all this with the intent of taking the next playthrough seriously. But then:

--- Anne Hartley's turn ---
Anne Hartley is waiting for you in the Shuttle Bay.

She did everything for me! On one hand, yay. On the other hand, the player’s role in the story seems diminished. Is this good or bad? I want to be clear that often Rivera and Hartley are killed off before they carry out the scenario’s parameters. I like how your teammates set an example for what to do, but since your relationship with them is so detached, you are just left there thinking, uh, thanks?

Helpful characters aside, you generally have limited control over the gameplay action. The only concrete choices you make are moving from room to room, picking up and using items (often passively), and arming explosives.

You drew an item card!
Painkillers: Powerful pills for dulling pain.

With the items, all I did was carry them around, although some players may be more skilled at putting them to use. Everything else- dice rolling, card flipping, etc.- was done by the game. And that makes sense since a real board game would also involve randomized action. But a lot of it was chaotic.

Eventually, it became clearer. As I played, the mechanics and objectives had more context, and I could understand what going on. Now, it was fun! There is something inherently fun about a sci-fi interactive fiction game where you run rampage through a spaceship with your friends and/or colleagues. Everyone breaks off and scatters in different directions.

However, I never needed to strategize with many of the creative features that the game has to offer. It comes down to this: (Spoiler - click to show) Zip up the central staircase to the upper level, grab the explosives left behind by the previous AI, and run around until you find five of the eight possible target rooms that you can plant explosives in. I ignored the combat. Ran right past the robots trying to kill me.

Surgical Robot attacks you! Surgical Robot rolls a 3, and you defend with a roll of 3.
The fight is a draw, and no one is damaged.
Surgical Robot waits.

‘Scuse me, just passing by.

Nor did I experiment with the inventory items because I did not need them. Well, I played with them a little since they have cool names like Goo Sprayer and Emergency Teleporter, but I often forgot that they were in my inventory. By now, the gameplay had shifted from extremely confusing to being overly easy.

Easy in the sense that many of the features felt unnecessary. This change felt unbalanced. That might be a possible place for improvement.

We’ve gone over the story already, but let’s explore it a little more.

One thing I had to come to terms with is that the story is structured differently from most interactive fiction games I’ve played. If this game were anything (and no doubt there is much I have yet to experience in the IF world) but a board game simulator, I’d be complaining about how we never get exposition or story content to explain how an evil AI managed to get its mitts on the ship.

We don’t know much about the ship’s mission or the crew. Heck, you cannot even talk to your own teammates. Story scarcity is also present in the setting. I like dissecting my surroundings (and yet there are cases where I miss obvious things, as some of my readers are perfectly aware of) for story morsels.

Thus, I was not a fan of the fact that the rooms in Fate of the Vanguard were featureless- devoid of room descriptions- aside from other moving characters, dropped items, and the occasional dice roll/turn count encounter unique to a particular room.

Before the end of your turn, you may discard an item here with the "discard <item>" command (where <item> would be replaced by the name of the item) to gain 1 Courage.

Destroyed Room is east of Incinerator.

Most locations only had a title and a list of exits. For instance, the location titled “Equipment Lockers” has no lockers to rifle through.

However, if you try the game, you can understand why the story is so scarce. With a board game format where everything is move-by-move, you have no room to be frolicking about the with room description and chatting with the other characters. That’s the whole point. If I did not like it, too bad for me.

The game follows a specific structure that will either be your cup of tea, or you will pass and do something else. I love science fiction, which made the game more appealing to me, but I confess that I was hoping for a more story-intensive game.

Though the board game model is not my first choice, at least I tried something new.

Erick Rivera and Anne Hartley are your fellow human teammates. There is no story attached to them or dialog. Just stats that appear if you examine them. They move around independently and function like another player even though this is a one-player game. Keeps it simple.

The evil AI that takes over the ship is reminiscent of the malevolent AI in Porpentine's Cyberqueen. It follows the same principle: AI's ship, AI's rules. If humans don't belong, they don’t stand a chance. Although the AI in Fate of the Vanguard is not nearly as terrifying as the one in Cyberqueen.

I was disappointed with the fact the AI did not cackle incessantly at the player during the gameplay as they scurry through the ship. It would have built on the atmosphere that arises when Scenario 1 kicks in. Clearly, it does not want humans on the ship, and I would like to see more of its attitude.

I understand that my inexperience with this game’s board game concept probably does not show the game in the best/fairest light, but there are obvious bugs. Some playthroughs were nearly seamless. Some, however, just tangled everything together. I am sharing this with the hope that it provides constructive feedback.

FYI: I played Release 1 of the game if that makes a difference for anyone.
(Spoiler - click to show)
The game had a habit of freezing. Frequently. And would often force me to restart the game when it happened. I would get two types of pop-up windows when this occurred.

One was grey and said, “This page isn’t responding,” and “Fate of the Vanguard – Parchment,” with the options of waiting or closing the page. Sometimes waiting would work, other times the game would freeze permanently. After a few minutes of using the “wait” option, the game showed no change, prompting me to start over by refreshing the page. Could this be a browser issue? My knowledge of this is limited.

Then there was a pop-up window that was white with a red border. It read, "Error: exit not yet implemented" and "Clear autosave and restart.” And I would do just that. If I’m not mistaken, that had to do with Parchment, but would appreciate a second option on that. I’m no expert. This was just something that kept cropping up.

The other bug with be with error messages. Things like, “Fatal programming error: I7 arrays corrupted,” and “Run-time problem P50: Attempt to use list item which does not exist.” I don’t think that’s meant to occur. The fatal one would end the game.

If reading this is starting to scare you away, I suggest this: SAVE the game if you do not want to lose your place. If was forced to start over, I would do so and then restore. Just play the game.

Final thoughts
You know, I had fun with Fate of the Vanguard. Partly because it was a bit of a novelty for me, but also because I was drawn to the story despite being heavily gameplay oriented. I recommend trying the game if you are curious about a board game style of gameplay and/or a fan of science fiction.

As I’ve mentioned already, this game could use further development. Especially with the bugs. I did not see any testing credits or any author statements within the game. Perhaps I am jumping to conclusions, but if this game is meant to be a “prototype” or a basic framework for a larger idea I would say it’s a strong start. Fate of the Vanguard feels finished in the sense that it is playable and can be completed as intended but needs work before it can shine.

I hope it continues to grow. The explore-the-abandoned-spaceship trope is not one that I’ll be growing tired of anytime soon.

Fate of the Vanguard reminded me of Into The Sun, another Inform parser game with the concept of being hunted while exploring an abandoned spaceship. This time, you are a looter who wants to grab as much stuff as possible to sell so you can repair your own ship. Unlike Fate of the Vanguard, it does not follow a board game format, but exploring the ship’s layout draws strong similarities. As is the hoarding of useful items. Both games are worth a shot.

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Cubes and Ladders, by P.Rail

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Just another surreal day at the office, February 25, 2023
by Kinetic Mouse Car
Related reviews: Surreal, Vorple, Inform

When I leave feedback in reviews, they are just meant to be a resource for the author(s). Hopefully a helpful one. That said, it’s always cool when someone applies it to their game. When this happens, I leave little "update" notes my review to acknowledge it. Cubes and Ladders is a little different. This is the first time where an author made substantial changes from my feedback that genuinely shift my entire rating.

Everything below the line at the end of this message is of an earlier version of the game where the gameplay had unevenness and small technicalities that made it a four-star experience. I am preserving it as a historical record of sorts because it shows the creative process that goes into game creation, which is one of coolest things about interactive fiction.

Here, the author made a great game, received feedback, and used the feedback to make an excellent game. That is something that deserves recognition, and I hope this is conveyed through this review. Changing a rating is not something I do on impulse or at a whim, but it’s earned its five stars.

In the old version of my review, I listed some weak points that are now resolved. You will not encounter them when you go to play the game. I also mentioned in the beginning that you will either like Cubes and Ladders or dislike it. The changes have made the gameplay more user-friendly. Players can enjoy the surrealness without wrestling with technicalities. Because of this, I feel that it will be more receptive to players and appeal to a wider audience.

Everything else that I discussed (gameplay, story, art, etc.) is the same. I still stand by that. Go read it right now if you want to know more. It is the same high-quality game except that the flaws mentioned in my review are now history.

Please play Cubes and Ladders if you are interested in surreal interactive fiction, a creative take on the office setting trope, or cool artwork.

This is a game that you will either like or you won't. I liked it. Quite a bit, in fact, but I don’t expect the same for everyone.

In Cubes and Ladders, you play as Jordan Michael, a tech support employee. You work at Minimax, a company that used to be a rockstar... in the realm of selling copier machines and other office-based technology. Since then, Minimax has lost steam. To compensate, management switched its specialty to providing financial services. This has proven to be a mediocre band aid.

Now, Minimax has started another round of downsizing. Rumors of layoffs have begun to circulate amongst the few employees the company has left. You are one of them. (Reminder: You have a meeting with your boss at 9 AM.)

I have played a variety of takes on the office game genre, whether they are realistic slice-of-life stories or plotlines where the staff are supernatural creatures. But I cannot recall ever playing a surreal office game. This was not something I considered until I saw Cubes and Ladders.

In some ways, Cubes and Ladders is your typical office game (my boss wants to me to submit a report by noon) but it more ways, it is not. And if you are expecting a surreal trip down the rabbit hole, you will be disappointed. Instead, the game opts for a more subtle approach to the genre. And that’s just one reason I enjoy it.

The start of the game perfectly captures the essence of an office game: your boss is miffed at you, she wants a revised report turned in before noon (which means you have a time limit), there is a clock at the corner of the screen as a reminder, and there are some rumors about the company floating around the office. First time through, I thought this was going to be a game where you complete a series of tasks for your boss and/or upper management to earn their favor. Cubes and Ladders soon departs from that.

Your boss gives you an evaluation sheet explaining why your yearly report is so horrible. Immediately, the anxiety starts crawling in because she wants a revamped report in a few hours. Fortunately, the surreal office setting has some tricks up its sleeve. The answer is as simple as (Spoiler - click to show) making a copy of the report, but Minimax does not build bland office machines. Entering the storage closet opens a realm of worldbuilding as a plaque on the wall explains Minimax’s achievement of the Complexifier.

An old photocopier with a standard paper feeder and exit tray above and a maintenance compartment below.

The machine hums away oblivious to its obsolescence.

The Complexifier is currently switched on.

Apparently, the machine transforms the contents of the report itself, so it is more exciting, more informative, more… you know, content. Your boring report is now a Complex Report.

The report is overflowing with buzzwords, colorful graphs, and projections. It's a voluminous presentation explaining the year-end performance of Minimax Inc. It's substantially thicker than the original.

We now know that the game’s world is not bound by normal physics. Machines can alter the written word itself. It reminds me a little of the machines in Counterfeit Monkey (be sure to play that next) that change the spelling or meaning of your word to create a new product.
It was here that I realized that Cubes and Ladders was not your typical “office game.”

I feel compelled to share this: Never have I encountered a cubicle maze that was kind of… nice to explore. In a calming and/or hypnotic way. It has atmosphere, a surreal dreaminess with an undertone of corporate monotony fizzling away in the background. Soon there will be nothing. It’s just you, wandering around a desert of workstations.

You're in a maze of empty cubicles. You could get lost in the sameness. The buzz and flicker of fluorescent lights surround you.

The writing conveys the mind-numbing monotony. But the artwork is what kicks in into a pleasing effect. The space becomes interesting. Combined, these formed a unique cubicle maze that I liked to get lost in.

Wait, there’s a cubicle maze? No, there’s no maze in this game. At first it seems like a vast, sprawling map, but it is considerably smaller after you take a few random laps. Nine locations in the maze, plus two storage closets. I made a map, but only because I felt like doing so. I didn’t need to. A far cry from the cubicle mega-maze in Above and Beyond!

Still, at the end of the day, a cubicle maze is still a cubicle maze.

The sticker features a cartoon lab rat holding the message: "Life is a maze we never escape."

So true. Including in this game.

Gameplay challenges: I came close to giving Cubes and Ladders five stars, but the implementation could use some more refinement.

For example, it does not take long to submit your snazzy new report to your boss, but when you do, she tells you to wait until 12:30 for the executive meeting to be over. This means having a few hours to fill where every turn takes up a minute. There are other tasks you can do until then, but one requires that you have the report, which is being used at the meeting. Therefore, you must wait until the meeting ends to make further progress.

The game does permit the “wait until [time]” function, but it needs to be more obvious that the feature is available. I only learned about it from the walkthrough. Technically, and I hope you only read this after you attempt a playthrough, (Spoiler - click to show) you can complete the entire game without ever giving your new report to your boss. As long as you win before noon.

The other little tidbit that kept bothering me had to do with (SPOILERS) (Spoiler - click to show) finding the research lab. You entice Ray with treats. When you give him the first treat (the melted Oreo), he tells you to keep up the good work and bring him more. It is established that the puzzle is to bring him a satisfactory quantity of snacks for him to help you. But if you give him the donut first, he allows you to access the lab and leaves without requiring another offering. Something about that seemed disjointed to me. It has the feeling of well what’s the point of having the Oreo to begin with? Trivial, but it stood out to me.

Also: The flashlight is trash. It's worse than the Anchorhead flashlight on day three. The laser pointer is far more reliable, although its lifespan too is limited.

The story is partly hinged on the circulating-rumor-in-the office concept, but it goes in unexpected directions. Fact is, Minimax is on the decline. When you hand in your revised report to your boss, (Spoiler - click to show) she gives you a memo that confirms that Minimax is laying off the remaining cubicle workers, including you. Sure, you get a severance package, but is that what you really want?

You can choose to dig deeper. There has been a change in management. Max Prophet Sr. was the founder of Minimax and a master at creating office machine inventions until he died in a work-related accident (it truly was an accident; in case you were thinking otherwise). The business has been handed down to Max Prophet Jr. who does not even pretend to know what he is doing. He fully admits to being unable to match his father’s potential. If only a clever employee would get the ball rolling… Message: you can save Minimax. But you won’t accomplish it by sitting around your cubicle waiting for the workday to end.

I welcomed this opportunity to find more Minimax inventions! I think the winning ending could have been a little more drawn out to see the impact of your discovery, but that’s just wishful thinking. You become innovator of the year with an office, but I wonder how long that will last. All you did was combine preexisting tech to complete a machine. I just hope Jordan Michael has what it takes match the founder’s legacy. What the heck, it’s still a good ending.

There are some alternate, less ideal outcomes to this game. I have a bone to pick with the flexibility of one of them. (Spoiler - click to show) If you fail to turn in the report by noon, you lose your job. If you succeed with that task, you have until 5pm before the workday ends and the game calls it quits. If you fail to save the company before 5PM, this is what happens:

The good news is that you're free to find a better job away from the struggling Minimax Inc. But too bad you didn't get a positive recommendation from your boss.

This ending is called: *** Best of Luck in Your Fast Food Career ***

BUT YOU DID GET A RECOMMENDATION. After handing in your updated yearly report, you are told that you will get a “glowing letter of recommendation.” Plus, that little memo notice you receive says that Minimax will provide you with severance. This ending has no mention of either. I feel like there should be two separate endings. One where you fail on your final day and are sent packing (resulting in the fast-food ending), and one where you get your promised recommendation and crawl off to whatever job that recommendation takes you. Instead, the game crams them into one ending.

We do not know much about Jordan Michael aside from a few fun facts provided when you examine yourself, but that’s okay since the game is directed as you (the player) rather than the protagonist’s identity. I suppose the name could be either male or female, so I’m just going to say that the character is gender neutral.

The NPCs in Cubes and Ladders are like fixtures of Minimax itself, creating a fatigued, fleeting atmosphere that goes well with the story and setting. This bleeds into the gameplay, making character interactions more passive, perhaps even at the expense of puzzles.

For example, there is a guard in the cubicle maze who will prevent you from going south, making it seem like there is something important down there. *Turns out, (Spoiler - click to show) you can access the south location by taking a three-move detour. What do we find? More cubicles. He is not guarding anything at all. The puzzle is not important, only what it says about the character’s relationship with Minimax (although you can make him fall asleep if you want). With Minimax downsizing, there is no need for someone to guard an empty cubicle farm. His job is obsolete. And yet, he’s been an employee for almost two decades. There is a sense of clinging to this identity as long as possible.

*Correction: Following a game update, you (Spoiler - click to show) can no longer bypass the guard. The puzzle is now required!

We see this trend in every character. Ray too has been a long-term programmer and muses about the company’s heyday. He almost regards himself as a cynical relic of the company who, despite his contributions, is not exempt from the possibility of being laid off. Meanwhile, Rich is an experienced employee who is 110% a team player, loyal to Minimax, and proud of it. While he is less likely to be laid off thanks to his position in financial sales, there is still an underlying anxiety about being let go.

I liked this portrayal of the NPCs because it alienates the protagonist (you’ve only been there for a few months, newbie) who is the only one moving around in search of a solution to Minimax’s problems. When face-to-face with an NPC, you never feel like you are being heard, which is partly the point. Every turn count, NPCs will spew work related but meaningless fragments of corporate buzz words, idle workplace chat, and self-absorbed ramblings about reports, profits, and Minimax products.

The tradeoff of having detached NPCs is that interactivity is reduced. I do wish they could respond to more dialog prompts. My favorite leave-me-alone line was, "'Run along, kid. I'm busy losing money here.'"

The writing is good, but not enough to stand on its own as a surreal game. The visuals bridge the gap to make the storytelling excellent. Every location has a visual that appears upon your entrance. A few appear to be heavily filtered photographs, but most are illustrations made with different mediums. My favorite ones were the office building at the start of the game and the drawing for the storage closet.

I loved the art, especially how it portrays the characters. People are silhouettes. You never quite see their faces, and if you do, it is a distorted appearance, often cast in shadows or strange angles. For example, when you first enter your cubicle for the 9AM meeting, you see your boss at your desk.

Your boss is sitting impatiently in your office chair.

The artwork shows her seated and facing away from you. Her outline is an angular haircut paired with a sharp business skirt and top. The shadows make it where you can’t quite tell where the chair and her body begin and ends. It is all melded into one figure. This visual left a strong impression on the character that the sentence could not convey on its own.

Final thoughts
The entire time I kept wondering when the ladders would come in because the “cube” part was covered by the cubicles, but the second half of the title must be a symbolic reference to the corporate ladder concept. Makes sense. But yes, Cubes and Ladders was a great experience.

I would recommend this anyone, not because I think that everyone will like it, but because it offers something new for the surreal genre and “office game” concept. Besides, the gameplay is light. I’m not trying to lure you into a puzzle-fest extravaganza. If anything, try it for the visuals. The surreal elements simply pulled me in. Artwork, setting, characters, Minimax gadgets, you name it.

I hope the author continues to produce work like this. It is a great piece of surreal interactive fiction.

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The Lookout, by Paul Michael Winters

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Lookout!, February 21, 2023

In The Lookout, you play as a man named Adam Katz. Following a major personal tragedy, you have volunteered to staff a fire lookout tower called the North Butte Fire Lookout Tower, smack in the middle of nowhere without electricity or basic modern luxuries. Just enough to survive and do your job. Maybe this will give you a new outlook on life. Maybe.

Believe it or not, this is one of the more suspensful and scary interactive fiction games I have played, making it a perfect entry for EctoComp. By "scary" I mean it gets your heart racing. Horror movie mode. It forces you to deal with the unknown. You slowly find yourself gingerly typing on the keyboard while second guessing whether you truly are prepared to (Spoiler - click to show) tackle the thing stalking your tower. Oh yes. In this game, you are prey. If that last part made you shiver, The Lookout may provide a thrilling experience for you. If not, play it anyway.

I’ll cut to the chase. The gameplay follows your daily upkeep schedule, but it becomes apparent that (Spoiler - click to show) some unknown creature is attacking the fire towers. Initially, we only get little tidbits of what is going on, but by day 3, things start to get extremely dire. Though the story takes place over five days, the gameplay is relatively short.

The gameplay’s map is restricted to the fire tower and nearby surrounding areas. I was partly hoping for more exploration of the landscape, but it does not take long before a (Spoiler - click to show) plot twist limits the player to the first five locations. The goal was probably to further the sense of isolation, of which it does an effective job. This is not a puzzle intensive game. In fact, there is only (Spoiler - click to show) one serious puzzle (making a weapon).

There is some unevenness. The gameplay is richly implemented- I liked the wildflower patch- in some areas, but sparsely in others which can detract from the atmosphere. One of the room locations is “Middle of Ladder” where you are climb up and but if you try “x ladder” you get: You can’t see any such thing. It breaks the moment. You are on the ladder! Or how you cannot examine the tower from the outside. There are also occasional spelling errors.

What exactly makes this adventure so suspensful? It’s a survival story, sure, but the delivery is what gives it potency. I feel that The Lookout is a great example. Note: Part of the magic with suspense is that you have no idea of what will happen, so I encourage you to read the spoilers in this section AFTER you play the game for yourself.

Generally, it uses a familiar feature of horror storytelling: Subtle descriptive details and pacing that keep you second guessing. Half the time, it’s your brain telling the story.

But then you heard it again. A scraping sound.

It’s hard to match the potency of this phrase (shown above) in a review since I am discussing it out of context but understand that its placement was effective at making the player feel cornered. While I would not label this part as “scary,” it sure does a heck of a job at establishing atmosphere.

Horror is gradual and peels off in layers. This is where the suspense (and spoilers) manifests.

First, it starts with inherent vulnerability. You are a lone human in the middle of nowhere. Then, it emphasizes our dependency on single sources technology. The only means of communication is the close-circuit radio used to contact two other towers in the distance. But even then, at least you have a tower with some tech, right? Correct.

(Spoiler - click to show) Until Chester fails to restock your supply cache. Or later when the radio no longer picks up messages, taking the closest thing you have to a human interaction: another human’s voice. What footholds we had are gone. Layers. Peeling away. The game dangles suspenseful bits of information that forces the player to make assumptions, some of which are never fully explained.

On your catwalk stroll you see the familiar light from Mia's lookout, but you notice that there's no light coming from Chester's lookout tonight.

You have all these practical reasons why he failed to restock it. Ran out of time? Forget? Well, then why is his tower dark? This suggests he never made it back. Suddenly those practical reasons slide towards I wonder if that vanishing mangled deer corpse had anything to do with it....

One of the two scariest (= chill inducing) moments for me is when you are forced to talk to Mia via morse code by using a mirror to flash signals. The first thing she says is SOS. And then, ATTACKED. If you ask her about the attacker, the answer is UNKNOWN. Something about that really gave me the chills.

On one hand, you are not alone in the sense that your comrade is also being messed with by some unknown entity. On the other hand, you are being messed with by some unknown entity. The only thing we know about UNKNOWN is that it did a number on a deer corpse like no normal animal could. Morse code is great, but help is a world away.... You are dealing with this alone.

The other case that got me is when you are looking through the cracks between the window shutters and then:

Just as you are about to turn away, a dark figure moves directly in front of the window your face was pressed up against.

Yeesh. Imagine if that were you. Your face mere inches away from this creature scuttling around your tower. It sounds tame in this review, but in the game, you are camped in your tower waiting for night to fall. Stakes are a bit higher here. I really hope you played the game before reading this.

Oddly enough, the fight scene was a smidge underwhelming compared to the suspensful horror experienced up until that point, but I think that demonstrates the potency of its building atmosphere.

Either I’m a chicken, or the horror in this game has something going for it.

The entire experience revolves around Adam Katz’s trauma as revealed in nightmares. Six months ago, (Spoiler - click to show) he was in a car accident with his family and was the only survivor. His passion for writing has waned and being around other humans is just too painful. Powerlessness is a major theme. He feels powerless about the (Spoiler - click to show) semitruck that caused the accident and now he is powerless against (Spoiler - click to show) whatever unknown savage is trying to kill him. Or at least at first.

Fear of the unknown also is a factor. We definitely experience that part in the gameplay. The pinnacle is when Adam feels emboldened to (Spoiler - click to show) not succumb to the creature and to fend it off by any means necessary, especially since it seems to be taunting him by leaving the hiker’s mangled jacket on the ladder.

The game only calls the monster "The Demon." In fact, that's the name of the chapter at the end of day four. Perhaps I'm falling back on clichés, but it seems to embody the notion of "battling one’s own demons," but I argue that it has a point. The violent experience of being hunted by a mutant beast seems to adjust the protagonist’s relationship with his tragedy.

We don’t have the opportunity to see this effect in long run since the game ends when (Spoiler - click to show) a rescue helicopter lands nearby. There are some unanswered questions. Was Chester killed? How about the hiker? Yes, you find her mangled jacket with blood on it, but technically there is no body to confirm- it does it again. Makes you speculate. Hm…

I guess the takeaway message is that sometimes survival is enough.

Final thoughts
In a nutshell, The Lookout is a survival horror game that focuses on suspense and pacing. It puts story over puzzles while also providing opportunities to interact with your surroundings. If you are looking for more action you may find the game less exciting, but in terms of atmosphere it excels. Paired with the protagonist’s backstory it becomes a catharsis that makes it more interesting.

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Scents & Semiosis, by Sam Kabo Ashwell, Cat Manning, Caleb Wilson, Yoon Ha Lee

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A joy to play, January 2, 2023
by Kinetic Mouse Car
Related reviews: Vorple, Inform

Scents & Semiosis is a collaborative piece about a perfumer leisurely browsing through their personal collection of perfumes to relive the memories associated with each scent.

This game is an Inform Vorple combo, and in this case, it is merely choice-based. Keyboards are not necessary to experience Scents & Semiosis. Just start by picking a perfume. The game will then give you a list of three perfume bottles to choose from. Each lead to a memory and a breakdown if its scent components.

Sweet musk, rough cherry orange zest, pink rose, juicy cinchona. Sadia was wearing it the only time you collaborated.

cinchona feels like the loyalty of progress
rose feels like subtle mentorship
musk could mean enthusiastic arousal
musk is suggestive of Sadia
None of these feel right. Reconsider.

You have no influence over the protagonist’s life and history. Choosing a perfume reveals a memory. What occurred in the memory is set in stone, but you decide how the protagonist feels about it by pairing a specific scent note in the perfume with an emotion or sentiment.

The memory doesn't mean what it used to. Perfumes fade. You set it aside.

Finally, you choose whether the protagonist keeps the perfume or discards it. In other words, is the memory worth cherishing or is it best left behind?

Above all, Scents & Semiosis is meant to be revisited. First time through you may play it until it satisfies your curiosity but returning to it from time to time when you are in the mood for such a game makes its effect enduring.

Considerations on structure
The big attraction with Scents & Semiosis is its extensive use of procedural generation that creates endlessly unique perfume bottles, perfume compositions, memories (down to the details), and scent meanings. I was amazed at how it never seemed to grow dull even as I was zipping through perfume after perfume without abandon. The game contains a link to some nicely organized source code if you are interested.

One side effect of this procedural generation was its broadening of my understanding of possible scents used in perfume. Not that this game is supposed to be a crash course. There is the familiar lavender, rose, jasmine, violet, and sweet pea. But what about hyssop, tonka, angelica, blood petitgrain, galangal, or jonquil? Some of these had me researching them just to see what they look like (and curious of what they smelled like).

Story + Characters
The protagonist is part blank slate, part well-rounded. You do not know much about them personally, but you do have fragments of memories. Just snippets and anecdotes though meaningful ones. What you see is different from playthrough to playthrough, and the game has a talent for painting a complex protagonist whom we realistically know nothing about.

You may find yourself visualizing yourself in the protagonist’s shoes, imaging what their experience was like. The writing, while brief, paints a diverse life. Countries visited, names of colleagues and rivals, lavish events, precarious escapades, humble encounters, of gaining inspiration simply by smelling the fragrance of a passing stranger. All told through perfume.

The cover art is beautiful, and its simple but concise design is present throughout the game. This artwork is then paired with honey coloured links and occasional light-yellow backdrops that create a minimalist beauty.

At the end, the game presents you with a lightly illustrated list of scents and the associations you selected for them. The illustrations are not of the scent itself, just an icon to add a pleasing appearance.

Final thoughts
If you just finished playing an intensive 6-hour long puzzle fest game that fried your brain, consider Scents & Semiosis to wind down. It’s like the chamomile (which is also a scent!) of interactive fiction. The subject matter may not appeal to everyone, but there is a sense of tranquility and introspectiveness that carries its own merit. It’s not just a game about perfume. It’s also about memory. Plus, it is one of the most casual games I’ve played. Just you, digging through your collection on a lazy evening.

Even the game’s title has a nice ring to it. Scents & Semiosis....

Anyway. I enjoyed this game tremendously.

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The Little Match Girl 2: Annus Evertens, by Ryan Veeder

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Let me tell you, the protagonist just keeps getting better, January 1, 2023
by Kinetic Mouse Car
Related reviews: Fantasy, Vorple, Inform

I've been looking forward to playing this one. It was announced to be released on the 31st if I recall. There is something fun about waiting for a game that is set to be released on a specific date so you can count the days until you can play it. In a way this game is an excellent "present" for the holidays (sorry if that sounds sappy), but guess what? The game’s intro takes place during the New Year, so I think that comparison is justified.

The first in the series was simply The Little Match Girl (unless the full title really is “The Little Match Girl, by Hans Christian Andersen” as is the case on the game’s listing). You do not need to play the first game to appreciate The Little Match Girl 2: Annus Evertens, but I recommend it. Essentially, a young girl is ordered by her father to sell matches on a cold day. After no success, the girl decides to use a match to warm her fingers. Upon seeing the flame, she is suddenly transported to another world.

The Little Match Girl 2 follows a similar fashion where flames act as a portal to other places and eras in history. The only difference is that our Match Girl is no longer trying to sell matches on a rainy day. As explained at the start of the game, she was adopted by a well-off philanthropist named Ebenezer Scrooge. She even has her own name now: Ebenezabeth Scrooge. Her purpose? A time-traveling assassin who provides services to clients looking to eliminate heartless individuals.

A young-girl-turned-assassin? I know that sounds gruesome, but not quite. I mean, the clients making the request are a group of sparrows. The game begins in London, 1846. We are in the Scrooge household- a simple but cozy apartment. It is Ebenezabeth’s birthday (or a celebration of when she was adopted), but she has received a sudden request for her services. On the roof are some sparrows who need to assassinate “a disgusting old man.”

The senior sparrow gave this upstart a reproving peck. "Don't be crass. 'Take care of' is how we put it. A certain someone, as I was saying. An old man—Older even than I!"

The player is transported throughout different times and places in history. Past, future, ones that fall out of any familiar timeline. It brings an exciting feeling that you never know where you will be sent next. Here, gameplay is organized into “chapters” that feature a setting. The goal for each is to find or obtain a flame that takes you to a new place. Often this is done indirectly. Rather than explicitly searching a space and its contents for a flame source, it will come to you as an unexpected result of a task or through creative solutions that feel reasonably clued.

My favorite puzzle was correlating the (Spoiler - click to show) cyberskull’s sparking mannerisms with the fossil fuel sludge to create a flame. It was well-hinted and the cyberskull was helpful in filling the gameplay with idle but relevant dialog about the player’s surroundings. A tour guide, really.

Thoughts on structure
The first game followed a “fetch quest” format of obtaining treasured objects for NPCs to advance the game which involved returning to the same locations. The Little Match Girl 2 departs from that model by confining tasks to a single location before traveling to the next area, which adds variety to the overall series. I do miss being able to revisit places, but then again, the worlds in this game are not quite as desirable (inside a (Spoiler - click to show) monster’s stomach, for instance) to return to. So, it works out in the end.

I do think the game loses steam a bit later with the (Spoiler - click to show) moon and (Spoiler - click to show) office locations. I loved finding myself smack in the middle of (Spoiler - click to show) Apollo 12. Interacting with Pete Conrad and Alan Bean (not to be confused with Alan Shepard) in their lunar rover was humorous although it lacked the depth showcased in the previous sections. The final solution with the sun, though, was clever.

The office is a high-quality and creative escape-the-room game with some of the best puzzles* in the entire game. However, it drifts from the story’s initial ambience. Throughout The Little Match Girl 2, Ebenezabeth’s core character is seeped into the gameplay. Here, you feel like you could be playing as a generic protagonist. This section is also considerably longer and more difficult, almost like a standalone game which may burn out players (fortunately, there is a generous hint system). *I was especially impressed with the painting/clock puzzle.

The Little Match Girl 2 is a sampler of topics. You know games that have a strong ambience that compel you to skulk around IFDB in hopes of finding another game that conjures up the same feeling and flavor of gameplay experience? I've experienced this with Greek mythology, certain murder mysteries, dystopian science fiction, romance that was actually not that bad, underdog protagonists who feel that thrill of glory after winning a competition against ruthless NPCs. Obviously, this game does not contain all of that, but I was surprised at how often it conjured up familiar memories about getting into a certain theme or historical setting.

The game carefully navigates gnarlier themes without sacrificing a sense of light-hearted whimsical enthusiasm as this girl takes on challenges across space and time. Given the bountiful content experienced in this game, you can almost forget about your overarching goal of assassinating this horrible man. After all, you have been lugging this (Spoiler - click to show) revolver around for the entire game.

We have minimal details besides his appearance, but once we find him, we start to see the goal’s (Spoiler - click to show) connection with the cover art. There is probably extra symbolism that I am overlooking (yes, I know what a stork means), and I also don’t to spoil everything. Just know, the sparrows are right about this guy. Sure, there are some mildly explicit parts, but even they are exquisite. The ending was lovely.

Ebenezabeth Scrooge is a cool protagonist, and I don't just mean her name: On the verge of freezing to death, the little girl manifested an ability to travel through time and space whenever she looked at fire.

It is quite a change from her previous self, but the change is believable. You can see an evolution. She may no longer be selling matches, but a common thread of traveling through a mere flame remains. And now her work is more meaningful. It’s one thing to see a character transform throughout the span of a single game, but seeing it occur through multiple games is its own experience. How old is she, anyway?

I was also pleased to see that the (Spoiler - click to show) cat made it into the second game.

The Little Match Girl 2 does not shy away from using some fun visual effects which is always nice to see in parser games. Each section has its own screen colour, ranging from tomato red to pale blue, that emphasizes a change in setting as the player is shuttled to the next scene. The game also uses different fonts, notably in the (Spoiler - click to show) journal from the Terrible Dogfish section.

Dear Diary. Some of these crew guys brought up the idea of resorting to cannibalism really fast.

The diary has a dramatic, sprawling cursive handwriting font.

Dear Diary. Luckily nobody had to eat each other.

The journal author’s frilly handwriting and insistence of “Dear Diary” in the darkest of times was humorous.
And on that note, the writing in this game is excellent.

I only wish there was a way of scrolling to the top of the screen- I can’t find the scroll bar- because large sections of text sometimes get cut off when they appear all at once. I end up having to zoom out to read it all before zooming back in. Maybe that’s just me.

Final thoughts
The Little Match Girl 2 is strong addition to the Match Girl series. It’s fun with a meaningful story and diverse puzzles. You may enjoy some “chapters” more than others, but they are all worth your time. Ebenezabeth Scrooge never fails to be an interesting character. If you like this game, consider playing the first one as well.

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