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Alone in the Void, by Gareth Meyrick

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Looks like you slept through the action. Unless it’s only getting started., April 22, 2023

Alone in the Void is a promising Quest game about waking up from cryonic suspension on a ship called the Amaethon drifting through deep space. Twenty years have passed since you woke up, and since then, something has happened. You just need to figure out what it is… and whether it is a threat to you.

The game falls under the sci-fi subgenre where the protagonist investigates a seemingly lifeless spaceship after an unknown incident. Games following this premise that I have reviewed include A Long Way to the Nearest Star, Fall of the Achilles, and Reclamation. Each time I play a game like this I am always eager to find out what happened.

Gameplay
The gameplay starts in your crew quarters after the ship’s computer guides you there upon your awakening from cryonic suspension. Rise and shine! While the messiness of your living space has not changed, the same cannot be said for the rest of the ship.

From the crew quarters, you wander in search of leads. There are no specific objectives or tasks/checklists that the protagonist must pursue. Everything is exploratory, simply trying to figure out what happened to the ship while you were frozen.

There are occasional small bugs and some situational limitations that were frustrating. Such as the (Spoiler - click to show) bathroom stalls in the deck 4 bathroom.

There are five stalls in the bathroom. Four have signs that read “Occupied.” Normally, the decision is obvious. Move on and perhaps check out the stall with no one in it (don’t, actually). From a practical standpoint, given that this ship has supposedly been abandoned for the past 20 years, I feel that some persistence is warranted as part of your investigation. I wish there were a way to knock on the stalls or somehow confirm the occupants/contents of the stall.


Unless there really, really, really is nothing in there for the protagonist. In that case, forget I asked.

Atmosphere
Something bad has happened, that is clear, but there is not a lot of urgency that directs the gameplay. It feels more as if the spaceship is your personal playground following the aftermath of some event that took the rest of the crew while you were on ice. However, there is one exception that deserves acknowledgement.

It comes while you are (Spoiler - click to show) sitting in the seat in the theater. Without warning and in red text:

As you pause to watch the screen, a sudden sound catches your attention from the recesses of the room. You swivel your head toward the source of the disturbance, only to spot a shadowy figure looming near the closed entrance to the lobby.

And if you wait too long, it appears again. Uh oh.

Timed responses can receive mixed reception with players, but the time margin here is reasonable and effectively atmospheric.
It comes out of nowhere and the timing is right to surprise you, spurring you into action.

Finally…
Ultimately, I enjoyed the gameplay even if the atmosphere was underwhelming at times. It is fun because it has a free-for-all self-driven mayhem where loot everything in sight, demonstrate a blatant disregard for locked doors, and grill NPCs for answers (Spoiler - click to show) (see, you’re not so alone after all). While this sort of behavior is often found in similar games, Alone in the Void manages to cultivate a chaotic carelessness that is unique to its plot.

Before I move on, I have some praise for Alone in the Void: The gameplay lacks the sluggishness I often encounter in Quest games. Generally, I don’t think sluggishness is the author’s fault. I usually assume it is a Quest-related technicality. Perhaps it is a computer or browser issue on my part.

Either way, sluggishness slurps the fun out of the gameplay, especially if the game decides to suddenly end while you pause to do something else on another tab. That happens a lot when I play Quest games. While Alone in the Void is not completely exempt from this, it was a smooth ride that took longer to time out when I paused to do something else. Whatever caused this made a difference.

Puzzles
For anyone unfamiliar with Quest, most Quest games have three menus on the right side of the screen for exits, player inventory, and objects in the player’s surroundings. Clicking on items in a menu reveals a set of possible verbs for said object, which helps eliminate guess-the-verb confusion. Through this, you can even skip a keyboard altogether, although I still prefer to use one.

While some Quest games are designed so that navigation via the side menus can be ignored, that is not the case with Alone in the Void. It seems that some puzzles can only be solved by navigating menu options. This was both a strength and weakness. As of *now, puzzles are limited to unlocking doors. One example involves (Spoiler - click to show) entering the cafeteria.

The location description outside the cafeteria reads:

You are in a Hallway on Deck 4.
You can see a Cafeteria Door, Elevator 4 and a Terminal.
You can go down, west, east, north or up.

Examining the cafeteria door says, "But a keen eye will reveal a tiny hole, a chink in the armor - a minuscule orifice tucked away under the words 'Emergency Release.’”

> x hole
The emergency hole is built into the Cafeteria door. Its too narrow for your fingers to fit... maybe if you had something pointed.

The object for the job is the nasty toothbrush from your locker.

However, “Put toothbrush in hole” results in “You can’t do that,” while “unlock door with toothbrush” gets “That doesn’t work.” And no, "use toothbrush" does not work either. The protagonist puts it in their mouth instead. Gross.


The solution to (Spoiler - click to show) using the toothbrush to unlock the door requires use of the “Places and Objects” menu.

Clicking on the (Spoiler - click to show) "Cafeteria Door" link reveals two options that say, "Look at," and "Unlock." If the toothbrush is in your inventory, clicking “Unlock” will automatically unlock the door. This is quite helpful if you are unsure of what item is needed to unlock a barrier. If you gather as many items as you can there is a good chance that no door will stand in your way when you go to unlock it.

Does this detract from the puzzle solving experimentation? A little bit since typing out commands gives the impression that the command itself has no use. But the tradeoff is that it increases player friendliness in the sense that, when it comes to applying the right inventory item to a task, the game “does it all for you.” If you (Spoiler - click to show) have the toothbrush, the game takes care of unlocking the door.

Once I figured out this trick, I was never stuck. But maybe that will (Spoiler - click to show) change later when more of the game is released.

*Initially I wondered whether this could be dismissed as a non-spoiler, but since the argument could probably go either way, I’m playing it safe when I say this: (Spoiler - click to show) Alone in the Void is not a complete game. Eventually you will run into a message saying, “To be continued.” I’m not sure if calling it a demo would be accurate. Sometimes, you can advertise a game as such without it necessarily being considered a spoiler, but since Alone in the Void ends on a cliffhanger, I’m spoiler tagging it.

Story
Alone in the Void is a science fiction game with a mix of horror and mystery. It includes some gore and bathroom humor, and it's no joke when I say that the protagonist seems willing to eat most everything. Like the (Spoiler - click to show) urinal cake. Ugh. There is a bit of a gross factor there, but not too much.

The overarching story behind the Amaethon is surreal, eerie, and thought provoking. It seems that we live in a reality where mainstream space travel exists, but light-speed travel is off-limits. Currently, no ship can go faster than half of the speed of light.

For the past twenty years the Amaethon has been drifting farther into deep space to the point where no other ship, burdened by speed limitations, can match its distance. (Assuming that the Amaethon’s momentum is slinging it faster than any ship sent to track it down. Otherwise, a ship would eventually catch up. However, the Amaethon has a 20-year head start.) What an interesting situation to ponder.

Other than that, an immediate story is still emerging. Like I said, (Spoiler - click to show) the game ends on a cliffhanger.

Characters
PC
The gameplay keeps details on the protagonist at a minimum. We know they are a member of the crew and not much else. While they come off as gender neutral in the gameplay, the cover art hints that we are playing as a male protagonist. It would be cool to learn more. I wonder if they are simply underdeveloped or if there is a big secret about their identity.

I do think that the game needs to be clearer about the protagonist’s role on the ship. Initially I thought that they were in cryogenic suspension on a smaller ship sent to investigate the Amaethon. Once having found the Amaethon twenty years later, the protagonist would be awakened to board the lost vessel.

Not quite. The gameplay soon tells a different story. It seems instead that they were already frozen on the Amaethon and awakened by the ship's computer for an unknown reason. The closest answer is (Spoiler - click to show) from Sophie Malaca, an injured officer in the cafeteria.

You: "Do you know what's happening on this ship? or where everybody is?"
Sophie: "I know about as much as you do, according to all the callanders on board its been twenty years"
You: "From what I've seen so far it looks like people left in a hurry too"
Sophie: "So much so they left two officers on Ice? .... lovely"

(Note: there are some grammar and spelling errors in this game.)

In this exchange, it seems that "officers on ice" refers to crew being put into cryogenic suspension and that Sophie, like you, were frozen and awakened by the computer after twenty years of slumber. But when she says, “they left two officers on Ice,” I wondered who's "they?"


Who gets frozen and why? My guess is that crew are either frozen in emergency situations for their own safety or that designated crew members are frozen and awakened in the event of an emergency to investigate. I doubt (Spoiler - click to show) Sophie has been lounging around in the cafeteria for the past two decades. But all I have right now are speculations.

NPCs
There are (Spoiler - click to show) three NPCs. (Spoiler - click to show) Sophie Malaca (as I mentioned), the robotic toaster in the kitchen, and the automaton upstairs. I wish these characters would respond to a wider range of prompts. Especially (Spoiler - click to show) Sophie since she is the only crew member in sight. Like you, she just emerged from cryonic suspension, most likely before you did.

She also later turns into an undead monster and corners you in the movie theater.


While I can understand why the (Spoiler - click to show) robotic toaster is limited linguistically, I was expecting more from (Spoiler - click to show) Sophie, a fellow crewmember. It would extremely helpful if her character was more responsive since she seems to be the only NPC capable of answering any substantial questions.

What surprised me is that she has a gaping wound (most likely the source of the mess in the bathroom) and you cannot even ask about it. Or the military bandages packet that you found or maybe the ship’s failing power levels. And as for investigating the ship…

You: "Okay, I'm going to continue searching, but I'll come back for you"
Sophie: "You better! - Also becareful, that thing... whatever it is, it's still out there"

Hold on, Sophie. What thing?

That sounds like something we should be able to ask about. My guess is that this “thing” lurking around the ship is responsible for her injury (and later transforming her into an undead creature), and yet she has nothing to say about it when you ask for clarification. Absolutely no response at all.


This also seems like a big plot element. Sadly, we cannot learn more about this development.

Thoughts on setting
This spaceship sci-fi/mystery (and sometimes horror) subgenre often features research or military spaceships as the setting. The Amaethon falls into a similar category, a mining vessel. However, the Amaethon is also a bit unusual. Let’s just say that the ship’s function is not conveyed by its contents. I would never have guessed that it was a mining vessel had the game never told me.

Instead, the Amaethon’s layout gives the impression of a “party ship” or one dedicated solely to leisure. The parts of the ship accessible to the player includes a (Spoiler - click to show) trashed bathroom with a vending machine that sells- you’ll see, an arcade, a movie theater, and a general “store” that strikes you as being anywhere but on a near powerless mining vessel drifting in deep space.

Aside from the (Spoiler - click to show) excess blood pooling on the bathroom floor and Sophie’s injury, The Amaethon gives the overwhelming impression of the aftermath of wild party in a rented venue the night before. This is not necessarily a complaint. It was a fun surprise to see that the game diverts from a generic starship floor plan. I do wonder, however, when the mining part comes into play.

So far exploration offers little explanation of the ship’s mission (if it ever had one in the first place) or its activities with mining. It leaves the player with questions, but hopefully more will be revealed in the future.

Visuals
Alone in the Void has some of the coolest graphics I have ever seen in a Quest game to date. Amaethon seems to have had some serious gamers. And film fans.

There is an (Spoiler - click to show) arcade (plus a Game Boy left behind) and a movie theater. Looking at the screen in the movie theater prompts a clip to play as if you were watching a projection on a screen. Playing video games reveals a clip of the game in action. Even though the player has no control over the (Spoiler - click to show) clip, it is still impressive and gives the gameplay extra dimension.

Also, the game uses a simple but pleasing colour scheme of a black screen with white text and orange links plus accents. Consistent colour coordination can create a more polished look. Sometimes the game will stray from this and use colour coding for dialog or warning text that includes red, yellow, and purple colours. Overall, Alone in the Void has a crisp appearance.

Final thoughts
While (Spoiler - click to show) I was sad that the game ended on a cliffhanger, I applauded the author for making a game that leaves the player curious for more. Its implementation is not perfect and lacks fewer story details about than what I would have liked, but I am also keeping an open mind since the game (Spoiler - click to show) is still under development. The author has already established a concrete foundation of gameplay and setting that sets it apart from other games and carries much potential.

Alone in the Void is a strong addition to the current sci-fi selections of games made with Quest. I hope the author continues to shape it.

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Nothing Could be Further From the Truth, by Adam Wasserman

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
GREETINGS READER, THIS IS A REVIEW, April 16, 2023

"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.

Similarities
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.


Differences
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?)

Gameplay
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.

Puzzles
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.)


Setting
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.

Story
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.

Worldbuilding
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.

Except…
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.

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

Characters
PC
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.

NPCs
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 ARE THEREFORE A TRAITOR. THERE IS NO NEED FOR YOU TO SPEAK UP FOR YOURSELF. THE FACTS SPEAK PLAINLY FOR THEMSELVES."

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.

"AS THIS AREA HAS TEMPORARILY BEEN DOWNGRADED YOUR EPSILON SECURITY CLEARANCE PERMITS YOUR PRESENCE IN THE SURFACE LIFT.



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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I Am Prey, by Joey Cramsey

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
So am I, April 10, 2023

I had a lot of things to do recently and figured that I could get around to some of them now that the stream of new entries on IFDB died down a bit. But then Spring Thing 2023 was like, “actually…”

But nonetheless I was thrilled to see what people have submitted to this lovely event.

Overview
I was immediately drawn to this game. The cover art embodies the weirdness I absolutely live for. It reminds me of my favorite playlist of poorly and/or strangely animated YouTube videos that spew absolute nonsense, although I Am Prey is more refined than that in terms of content.

Just a heads up, the author has made it clear that the game’s entry to Spring Thing is experimental and in Beta phase. Consider my rating as a tentative three stars that merely reflect the state of this current version. I hope the author continues to develop the game into its intended final product. Cool stuff.

I Am Prey follows a clone protagonist in an abandoned cloning facility located in who-knows-where. You are a sickly-looking thing reminiscent of an albino lab rat. But you are anything but a lab rat. You are a durable and annoyed clone eager to survive past your first birthday. And you will prove it by escaping this mess of a facility.

By the way, Prey, you are being hunted by the Predator.

Gameplay
The gameplay begins with you catching your balance in a mesh net after being born as a fully grown clone. Happy birthday! Naked, you grab a uniform and marvel at your new existence. It does not take long for reality to kick in. The Predator makes an announcement over the intercom: He is coming for you! Yes, you must run or be killed.

Your only hope is to retrieve seven pieces of a spacesuit-like garment that will allow you to survive in the wasteland outside of the facility which can only be accessed via the emergency airlock.

The key component for strategizing in the gameplay is the sound of the doors while you explore each room. When door slams shut, it alerts the Predator who takes opportunity to announce your mistake over the intercom.

The Predator's voice can be heard over the intercom:

“Sloppy, Prey! You let the door to Lab B slam shut! That means you’re near Lab B, yeah...?”

Of course, you can use this condition to throw him for a loop by slamming a door and then scurrying off to a hallway on the opposite side of the facility like the clever clone you are.

There is high replay value in the sense that you have six modes you can play in. One is a tutorial for players new to interactive fiction, another is for those new to the game, and the remaining four are different difficulty levels depending on the Predator’s mood. This ranges from Easy Mode to Nightmare Mode.

The Predator has had a string of victories, and will go easy on you, mostly for his own entertainment.

The IF beginner tutorial is where you play as the Predator’s cat which on one hand, yay, but on the other, I am not entirely sure of the point. The Predator wants to give you a bath and you want to avoid that outcome by hiding. It is useful for simply scoping at the map, but it did not give me much more insight that I would otherwise have as a fugitive clone running for their life.

My black coat is speckled with streaks of silvery tips. White highlights my chest and paws, like a tuxedo.

Nor was it much of a tutorial for IF. Still, I appreciate the option. The cat’s personality shines through which makes it a humorous diversion. Even if the cat (Spoiler - click to show) only eats human clone flesh as of late.

Do not be afraid to test out the more difficult modes since there were times in the easier ones where it seemed like that the Predator simply forgot about me. He would do the creepy monolog over the intercom to reassure me that I was dead to him, but then this trickled away. I actually went looking for him with little success.

However, there are a several gameplay mechanics that are showcased in the helpful survival guide (provided separately) but never fully used or as dynamic as they sound (so far).

For example, there is the usage of “tricks” to throw off the Predator. These tactics include turning on sinks to distract him with irritating noises or slamming the door in his face to slow him down. Rarely did I ever get the chance to use them. It is easy to forget that they are available. Of course, availability depends on which mode you select at the start of the game.

Slam the exit door?
You have two tricks remaining, which you can spend on slamming the door in his face! This will delay his chase, but will cost one of your tricks!
Y = Slam the door!
L = Leave door open

Unless the game flat out presented me with a trick opportunity (see above), I never used them or even needed them.

The parkour idea is cool but nowhere near as cool it sounds since it consists of jumping onto tables or lockers to reach something on the top shelf. Right now, it is more of a hindrance. The vent shortcuts to other rooms were nice, though.

(JM) JUMP ROUTES:
[**] JUMP ATOP THE WIDE STORAGE CABINET
[**] JUMP ATOP THE SUPPLY CLOSET
[**] JUMP ATOP THE LOCKER

The following surfaces are either in easy reach, or rest on the same surface that I do:
the exit door
the desk

First you must find a parkour route in the room for it to be used. Discovering it was a byproduct of the game telling me that [room object name] was too high for me to jump on but [room object name] was, although it often took another [room object name] to reach the unusually tall table. While part of the whole point of parkour is to reach areas by jumping or climbing around, it needs more refinement for it to have the same thrilling effect in the gameplay.

One feature that I did use was the “look [compass direction]” command. It was genuinely helpful in deciding on where to go based on the contents of nearby rooms.

>look north
I carefully peek north...

(looking into The Assembly Shop...)

He paces around on the floor, as he watches me!

(returning my attention to The Common Room...)

I better get going, then.

Also, how do you reach the reservoir? The map (separate) shows several locations that seem to be off-limits in the gameplay. These locations are (Spoiler - click to show) Waste Processing, Reservoir Corridor, Reactor Pump Room, Reservoir Control Room, Reservoir, and Utility Access Corridor. A total of five locked doors are also shown on the map. None of these have cat doors.

I am not sure if the game will let you go swimming/exploring in reactor related areas, but the survival guide did say that you could dive into the reservoir to escape. The closest I got to this was a location called (Spoiler - click to show) “The Strainer Stage” where water is separated from kelp with a grate. You cannot enter the grate or swim in the water, leaving you with no choice but to return the way you came.

While flawed and undeveloped in some cases, I still had fun. I’ve already played this game several times.

Story + Characters
So, who is this guy? The Predator, that is.

What we know about the Predator is that (Spoiler - click to show) he’s a mutated clone gone wrong who is now aware of your presence and wants to hunt you down, perhaps as a potential snack. The facility ran out of snacks long ago. The cloning facility was run by non-clone humans and designed to generate a labor source of clones for industrial applications, but some catastrophe happened. This is the Predator’s turf now.

The game ends when you reach the emergency airlock after collecting all seven pieces of your environmental suit. This leads to a scene that seemed like it was supposed to be an emotional moment, but ultimately it did not impact me the way I thought it intended.

(Spoiler - click to show) Both Predator and Prey meet face to face on opposite sides of the airlock where it is obvious that the Prey has won. There is this fellow clone bonding moment where they realize that they are not that different from each other after all. The Prey, knowing that they could never be accepted by humans in the outside world, leaves with the intent of never letting humans get their grubby paws on the facility again.

This is a neat idea in terms of character development, but the writing is lackluster. It also lacks the exposition to make it unfold with any depth. While it could be a meaningful exchange, currently it is not. My response was huh, that’s… nice. I have a feeling that is not the response the author was going for.

Also, I do not mind profanity if it is wielded strategically, which is up to interpretation, but the swearing in this game leaves a weak impression on the player. It does not enhance anything. We know that the Predator is angry that this Prey is running around his abandoned cloning facility. How dare you. How dare you try to escape.

It’s just that the swearing in the dialog in these scenes seemed unoriginal and bland.

Final thoughts
The author seems to have a strong grasp of their own boundaries and abilities when making a game under strict time restraints, in this case being submitted to Spring Thing 2023. It seems clear to me that the author focused their efforts on a consistent structural framework so that the game was playable and could be completed from start to finish. Gather seven pieces of a survival suit and escape.

Was it sparse in some areas? Yes. But I would rather have a sparse game with a strong foundational structure than a game with all the fun details that is a nightmare to finish.

Still, details can make or break a game as well. The author has stated that they plan to release a post-comp version, and I look forward to seeing I Am Prey in its full glory. Already it is a fun and unusual game. Three stars for a Beta version is not too bad. And for crying out loud, let me swim in the reservoir.

Truth is, exploring (sorry, being chased around) an abandoned cloning facility is kind of fun.

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System Processing, by Albie

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
A lot to process, April 4, 2023

System Processing is a unique sci-fi Twine game that shows considerable potential.

Our protagonist, only referred to as "Ov," lived and died on Earth, but at one point their consciousness was digitized. Little else is known about them (so far) aside from the fact that the data containing their digitized mind managed to end up in an archive on a spaceship called the Alsion. A traveler named Sirit found this data and had the idea of giving the protagonist a new purpose as the ship's AI.

And now, the Alsion has discovered a planet named Kor. It is about to be the new home for everyone on board. It seems that Ov will be out of a job... and a purpose.

Perhaps it depends on one's outlook.

Oh, and Kor is not your typical planet. Nor is System Processing not your typical humans-colonize-the-alien-planet-game, but more on that part later.

Gameplay
Quick overview. There are two names that are thrown at the player that I want to clarify: Alsion (the spaceship) and Tegmen, an offshoot settlement built into the planet. I got them mixed up early on. I thought they were both spaceships. False. Just the Alsion. They are connected to each other by a long organic cable. Both are inhabited, but the current population on Alsion has never been to Tegmen.

Until today!

Ov must figure out what to do on their last day as a spaceship AI because soon the Alsion will be empty as everyone heads on down to Tegmen.

The gameplay is in first person and centers around the flow of Ov’s thoughts which overlap with NPC dialog. You basically hang out in the protagonist’s mind. There is a strong sense of idle contemplation mixed with frustration.

The absence of definitives preserves my sense of estrangement. If I had hard facts and figures, this would feel less surreal. More details might make it harder to think, "Hey, who knows? Maybe I'm not a digital ghost working for one of the far-flung descendants of humanity."

"Maybe I don't split my time between a spaceship and an alien planet."

Interactivity primarily consists of reading a line of text and clicking on a link to continue to Ov’s next train of thought or NPC dialog. There are also secondary links that you can click on to expand the text for additional content. And a really cool “notes” section that allows you to read memos from the travelers or look up information on the population.

We can’t talk about the gameplay without talking about Lađə, an omnipresent NPC who is your connection to all things Kor. Turns out, Kor is the collective hive mind of the planet (also called Kor). It is all joined together, and somewhere, Lađə fits in. They hear Ov’s thoughts, darting in and out of Ov’s internal thinking during the gameplay.

"Maybe I don't regularly converse with a giant psychic plant." (Hi, Lađə. I know you're listening. Yes, I am referring to you.)

(Is that a spelling error? “Plant.” Or is it supposed to be “planet?” I figured it was “plant,” as in Lađə is a psychic plant who is an individual living entity within the Kor hive mind.)

Their portrayal embodies a relatable inquisitiveness while still maintaining the mystery of an entity cut from a vastly different fabric than the protagonist. Lađə tries to maintain a teamwork mentality, but this only fatigues Ov.

For first playthroughs, I tend to zip through Twine games just to get a sense of what I am working with before approaching it again with more attention to detail. Playing System Processing for the first time was an underwhelming experience but replaying it- slowly this time- paid off.

If you are looking for a fast-paced sci-fi game, System Processing will feel sluggish though never boring. The gameplay is not all about sightseeing. You will have a handful of opportunities to make choices that matter, particularly the one at the end.

Challenges
For the sake of feedback, there are two things that dulled the gameplay’s slick finish.
(Spoiler - click to show)
If you open the (snazzy) folder section, when you return, all the text on the screen is reset to where it began. You must click the links again to return to your spot. The game functions in “checkpoints,” where only your progress from that point onwards is reset. No big deal, but inconvenient if you want to take a quick glance at the population report in the middle of a segment.

Sometimes between playthroughs I encountered a looping effect.

Ignore Lađə and begin an analysis of the ship
Ignore Lađə and begin an analysis of the settlement
Greet Lađə

I’m not sure what triggers it but ignoring Lađə and exploring either the Alsion or Tegmen results in a loop where you assess one population before moving to the other only to have the ability to revisit the one that you just completed. I could not find a way to move on. I figured I should mention this in case anyone else experiences this.


Setting
I’ve already mentioned the (fortunately friendly) hive mind wonder that is Kor, but the setting is so cool that it deserves extra recognition. Also, astronomy. Kor is tidally locked, which means one side of the planet always faces its star while the other side never sees the light of day, like our own planet Mercury. Unlike Mercury, Kor is teeming with life on every square inch of its surface. The game’s descriptions paint vivid imagery in your mind.

Story
While the storytelling revolves around Ov’s relationship with identity, the overarching story is spectacular for its own reasons.

This is not your classic let’s-land-the-ship-and-claim-the-planet storyline. Human (or a sentient species equivalent) exploitation of resources is a common theme in sci-fi stories about the colonization of other worlds, but System Processing goes for an alternative path.

I am so happy this is a case where the humanoid beings in their bulky ship arrive with the intent of joining this thriving ecosystem rather than trying to exploit it. The game introduced me to a cool new term called Solarpunk which takes a sci-fi/futuristic realm and merges modern societal infrastructure or technology with sustainability and environmental awareness. Kor fits that perfectly.

Besides embracing a refreshing take on co-existence, System Processing has a creative vision of how the colonization process can unfold on an alien planet. Rather than the travelers merely parking their spaceship on the planet’s surface and climbing out, the relationship between the tethered Alsion and Tegmen as two homes (one temporary, the other permanent) in transition offers something new to the portrayal of colonization in science fiction.

(Random note, if I was on a space station/ship, I would want real windows. I would demand real windows. Not screens simulating stars. Not when I’m in space. True, the only sight to behold would be pinpricks of light, but at least it’s real.)

Characters
Ov
Much of System Processing revolves around the protagonist’s grasp of their previous identity as a living human and the tradeoffs that come with being a digitized mind in the form of an AI.

If the player opts to (Spoiler - click to show) talk to Lađə after the scene with Tlan, the protagonist says, “’But that's just it! You're the alien. I'm the human.’” And it got me wondering. Alien. Human. Where does Ov fit in? First, let’s consider the travelers under Ov’s care. (Spoiler - click to show) I figured they were humans, the descendants of those who originally came from Earth. Until Lađə made an interesting comment:

Oh, fascinating. You were able to roll your eyes? Was this a biological feature the travelers no longer possess?

The travelers lost the ability for their eyes to move around in their eye sockets. Does this mean they are not human humans? When observing one traveler, Ov observes that, “Like all travelers, they appear human, even if travelers no longer describe themselves as much.” Neat.

I think we can agree that Kor/Lađə (the distinction between the two is kind of murky) is the “alien” part of the mix. As for the travelers, calling them outright humans would be incorrect. Something changed. I wonder if they dabbled with genetic engineering or biological modification that allowed this.

Regardless of what went down, these changes have interesting implications for Ov. If the travelers are not “true” humans in the sense that they diverged biologically and culturally from their human ancestors, the protagonist is truly the last of a kind, even if they are now an AI.


Though their physical body may have decomposed long ago on a distant Earth, they are still an “original” human in terms of memories and Earth-based lived experiences. They were digitized in, what, (Spoiler - click to show) 2068? Despite the immense passage of time that occurred since then, this human identity remains.

One way this identity manifests is with the in-game “alert” pop up messages for incidents on the ship that turn out to be an offshoot of the protagonist’s own emotions, such as a (Spoiler - click to show) sprinkler system activating when they feel like crying (clever use of the Twine format). But ultimately, it’s an identity that seems impossible for others, even the all-knowing Kor, to understand.

Ov + Everyone else
The NPCs, though expertly designed, did not leave much of an impression on me. Rather, it was their situation and the decision making within these circumstances that held my attention. I have a feeling though that I will be the outlier on this. Players will likely feel an immediate connection with the characters. Besides Lađə, the only NPC we engage with is (Spoiler - click to show) Tlan, a traveler on the Alsion.

First time around, the scene with Tlan left me feeling confused and indifferent. In it, Tlan (I’m sorry, Tlan) is crying while I was simply not following the conversation. It seemed almost melodramatic even though the scene is clearly a serious one. I was surprised with myself on my reaction. After all, the scene is carefully worded and paced for full impact.

Perhaps I don’t know Tlan well enough. To me, they are Traveler 127823. This game made me want to reexamine why I felt the way I did. I’m still breaking it down. I would absolutely be interested in learning more about their character (and that of Egravn).

Name: Tlan
Identification: 127823
Status: Alive (well)
Age: 32.3 cycles
Residence: Alsion
Location: Server Room (astral-side)

(Feedback: Tlan has a paragraph- be sure to approve their request- that uses the words “stay” and “leave” frequently when mentioning the Alsion and Tegmen. As a first-time player I was a bit confused on what they meant. Clarity would have helped.)

Second playthrough, I had the context needed to make sense of everything. Tlan is sad because Ov expresses the desire to stay on the Alsion after everyone leaves. Tlan sees no reason for Ov not to come with since A, it is perfectly feasible, and B, how the travelers may feel about Ov is irrelevant.


System Processing is tied to a secret I have.

The big secret is.......

(Spoiler - click to show) I kind of like being the AI who throws a tantrum.

Ov has a bitterness about feeling underappreciated and misunderstood.

People were more likely to show gratitude towards a sentient plant vine with lovely flowers carrying out their will than a robotic AI voice coming from a hidden speaker. Therefore, Ov thinks that “everyone” dislikes them and cannot wait to leave them behind.

Travelers smiling at and thanking the vines of Kor while my work goes unacknowledged (or simply critiqued).

It's not as if you can take out revenge on the ungrateful inhabitants. This is not a case of Vengeful AI vs. Organic Lifeforms. You can’t throw tantrums in this game.

Saying their names in reverent tones while mine is barked at the air.

I suppose that would be going a little far. Although I wish there were more options on how to… respond to said inhabitants.

Peacefully, of course. :)

Still, Ov stubbornly refuses to take part in the joyfulness everyone has about moving into a new, perfect home even though there is more than enough room for them as well. But these feelings of reservation are understandable.

"Ov, would you speak with us? Just for a moment."

Ignore Lađə, I've already made my decision
Speak with Lađə

...yeahwelltoobadnoonesgoingtochangemymindwhateveridontca...etc.

As you can see, this conjured up my inner irritated AI.

If a game is going to have a ticked-off AI, I rather it be the PC than the NPC (which seems to be more common), even though I will totally play both. There is also an interesting distinction between AI as a user fixture and AI as established authority, but that is a separate discussion.

After playing this game I finally understand at how pissed off Solis feels about the collective crew in A Long Way to the Nearest Star. Solis, I think I understand your pain now.

At least, I have this:

Maintenance Requests
Urgent Request (from: Eiro) – DENIED


Jokes aside, this grappling of identity takes front and center in this game. It’s a roller-coaster of ancient memories and immediate emotions. In fact, we see indicators that Ov’s blanket perception of the travelers is not an entirely accurate one. The memos in the notification box tell a different story: Ov has fan mail.

People are pouring their hearts out in gratitude, taking time out of their day to wish the ship AI a happy retirement. There is clearly more to this relationship between Ov and the travelers than what is presented in the gameplay. While they may not have been popular, the memos clearly indicate that some people do care. I would love to see this expanded.

Visuals
A Twine game does not need fancy visual effects to have a striking appearance. Sticking to a consistent colour scheme can do a lot in making the player wonder at how professional the game looks. Even more so if you throw in some matching decals or symbols. Take System Processing for an example.

In System Processing, the main colour is green (text, links, icons) which only furthers the player’s mental image of a planet brimming with alien flora and fauna. Hovering over links causes to slightly glow with a green tint that hints at bioluminescence. Aesthetically pleasing and effective at building atmosphere.

I applaud the author’s design choices for Lađə. Their (they?) dialog is shown in gold text that conjures the image of sunlight which is perfect for their character. Next to the text in the same colour is a small smiley face icon. At least, that is the first facial expression we see in the game. It changes. (Spoiler - click to show) There are four possibilities: Happy, super happy, neutral, and sad (not your typical emojis). Let me tell you, it is so unnerving to see this sunny face change during the gameplay.

The difference is miniscule: a line curved downwards to form a frown or the upturning of lines in the eyes to indicate delight. Extremely basic stuff and yet it conveys a startling shift in tone. Besides being a clear indicator of the character’s emotion, it adds tension and a fluidity that would be lost without the icon as a reference point. You feel yourself slowly sliding down your chair as that smile turns into a neutral stare and then a frown.

While this may seem like a trivial detail to spend two paragraphs on, I argue that it is the strongest point in the game’s visual design.

(That little beaker icon was also nice.)

Final thoughts
This game is actually a fragment of the author’s plans. System Processing is meant to be longer and more complex. Being only 30% of the entire vision, more development will hopefully follow.

I appreciate that the game is an abridged version of what clearly plans to be an ambitious project. If a meteor were to strike the Earth, the game can still stand on its own as a completed piece. Same goes if alien scavengers arrived a thousand years later and somehow salvaged it. I think they would be pleased.

I could totally envision System Processing as being a slick commercial Twine game. It has the uniqueness that sets it apart from sci-fi games with similar subject matter, it wields a simple but assertive visual design, and it shows a strong potential for characters who could resonate with a wider range of audiences. I can easily see this being a sci-fi game for players typically not interested in science fiction.

Here’s the tricky part. While several categories for the game earn 6/5 stars, some parts are not as refined. I tried to incorporate some feedback as to why. I hope it helps. The rating also accounts for my overall experience. I took off a star because I was not always engaged with the character interactions. Is that necessarily a fault? Maybe, maybe not. I am open to how other players feel. I desperately want to love this game. It’s just not quite there. Yet.

I highly encourage you to play System Processing to experience it for yourself. My review, while detailed, can’t do it justice.

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Terminal, by C. Everett
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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Cyborg, by Michael Berlyn

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Two halves of one body work together to regain memory, March 29, 2023

When I first saw the game’s IFDB description I was expecting a story about a protagonist’s experience with being turned into a cyborg. Waking up from an operation and realizing that being a cyborg was not all that it was cracked up to be. Perhaps even trying to demand answers from NASA 11. Not quite. Instead, the game begins on a dirt path surrounded by forest in front of a lizard wearing a spacesuit. But this soon takes the player in an interesting direction.

Format
Right now, I cannot say that I am familiar with the innerworkings of early parser (any parser, really) or how they are archived online. All I do is click on the “Play On-line” button and see what happens.

I am so used to the convenience of Inform games with their white screens and black text, and their utilization of a wide range of verbs. This was a completely different experience for me. Right now, it is the oldest interactive fiction game that I have tried. It certainly did not look like an Inform game.

Visually, it has a brown background and yellow-white text in all-caps. But the differences did not stop there. Instead of "look" you use "scan" to survey your environment, and “scan strange fruit” instead of “x strange fruit.” It took a while to acclimate but eventually became quite manageable. I especially liked how the player can communicate with their cybernetic half using the command "opinion on [subject]." This offers insight into how things may be used or their relevance to the story.

My only complaint is that the parser can be slow about processing commands, taking anywhere from one to three seconds to respond. But otherwise, it was still a fun change.

Gameplay
The driving mechanic in the gameplay is to find sources of energy to sustain your biological (snacks) and cybernetic (batteries) components. The cover art shows the protagonist being split down the middle with one half being all organic and the other being purely mechanical. I am not sure if that is the case in the game, but it is definitely how I imagined it.

I spent hours (okay, maybe an hour and a half) crawling through the forest trying to make progress. And I did, to an extent. There was a lot of trial and error. When you use your (Spoiler - click to show) microlaser you drain your own energy. I did not realize that when I first encountered the snake. I set the energy level to 600 and lost the game. Next time I was successful. There were a handful of other puzzles that I managed to solve but I ultimately ran into a metaphorical roadblock. Then I turned to the walkthrough.

I must admit that the walkthrough held my hand for the rest of the game, primarily because the setting becomes more cryptic (though still cool) as it transitions from a forest to (Spoiler - click to show) the depths of a spaceship. For those parts I even made some colour-coded maps for the two lowest levels so I could explore a little without getting lost. There were multiple times where I made an error that ended the game because it caused too much damage. As I made more progress in the gameplay, I found myself heavily relying on the walkthrough to limit the times I had to restart.

If the player makes a mistake that causes bodily damage sometimes the game will take the player back to a previous location, no save file needed. It does scatter your inventory items around, leaving you to recover them again, but at least you can still play. However, too many mistakes end the game. At least it has a sense of humor.
(Spoiler - click to show)
"TOO MUCH DAMAGE SUSTAINED OVER TOO SHORT A PERIOD TO EFFECTIVELY MAKE REPAIRS AND REORIENT OUR INTERFACE. BUT PLEASE ACCEPT MY CONDOLENCES... BYE. THANKS FOR PLAYING"

Condolences accepted. Of course, now I have to restart everything.


Story
During the first section of the game, we realize that the forest (Spoiler - click to show) is not a typical forest. Parts of it have been cloned and organized into artificial patterns, giving the feel that it is manmade. Turns out it was created to be a colonization spot for humanity. The game takes place on a planet called Aurianta, not Earth. Maybe I am mistaken but based on what (Spoiler - click to show) the NPCs said it seems that Aurianta is also not the home planet of the reptilian characters that we meet, contrary to what I first thought. Dialog with these characters is minimal but it is as if both civilizations planned to divvy up the planet. There were parts that I wish had more backstory but overall, the story seems cohesive enough.

Characters
PC
I have played cyborg characters before, but this game took an interesting approach. The gist is that cyborgs have an artificial intelligence that runs the mechanical half of the body. It narrates the game and talks directly to the player. Two beings with separate minds fused together in one physical body. If you have played Counterfeit Monkey this method should be familiar. The player just happens to be the organic half.

The game does use the amnesia trope. Something has happened and neither side of your cyborg being remembers anything. To avoid giving the whole game away I will not delve more into the protagonist’s identity, but I will say that while it was not what I expected it was still an interesting twist.

NPCs
There are few NPCs consisting of lizard-like aliens (compelling geckos in spacesuits) with whom you can briefly interact with. While I am not sure if this qualifies as an NPC, there is a maintenance droid found in the gym that will comment on things or even give small hints as you carry it around. When you enter (Spoiler - click to show) the laboratory supply room it says "...KABOOM..." hinting to the fact that you can gather the liquid oxygen in the room and use it to cause an explosion to clear debris later in the game. Otherwise, the dialog is just meant to add some humor to the atmosphere.

Final thoughts
I had fun trying out a different type of parser game and I liked how the story slowly developed rather than heaping information on top of the player. The gameplay is long, and the parser tends to lag. Now that I have played it all the way through from start to finish, I do not see myself replaying it again. But it was worth the time and effort. If you are a sci-fi fan then yes, I suggest trying out this game. If you find yourself getting stuck do not hesitate to reach for the walkthrough.

I will end by sharing a list of things I learned that are not mentioned in the walkthrough in case you play the game and wish not to make the same mistakes. If you want to rush ahead with open arms without my help interfering with your expectations do not continue reading.
(Spoiler - click to show)
Lessons:
-Do not wander off the catwalk while repairing the spaceship’s hull or you will drift off into space. I had to start over because of that one.
-Do not drop the dead insects or moldy bread (and to be safe, avoid dropping other food items) because a space suited lizard will zoom out of nowhere and devour it before you can react.
-If the game warns you that you are in a place with low visibility, leave. Do not go fumbling around without a light source or some form of seeing aid like I did.
-Make sure you kill the snake. Do not skip this part. Apparently, this is a requirement before colonization can occur.
-Be careful not to fall into the debris maze when navigating cargo hold. I also had to start over.
-Remember to take your ID after using it unless you want to spend time trying to find it again.
-Also: West of the tree with the string is a power unit I did not see in walkthrough.

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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 naďve I was.

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

Gameplay
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.

Puzzles
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.

Setting
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.

Story
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?

Themes
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.

Ambience
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.

Characters
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.

Chloe
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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Escape From the Deep, by John Blythe

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Oceanic research base investigation goes haywire, March 22, 2023

For this game, we jump ahead to the year 2055. You are part of a team sent to investigate Neptune Base, a research and mining station at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean that has been the recent site of accidents among its personnel. During the investigation an explosion shakes the base and knocks you unconscious. You wake up in a medical bed with the confirmation that foul play has occurred.

Now that I think about it, Neptune Base does not give the impression of being a mining station. Only for conducting classified research.

Gameplay
Gameplay has nice atmosphere. Escape from the Deep follows the trope of exploring a compromised near NPC-less structure after an unknown accident. You wake up in the medical bay and see carnage but no explanations. Finding answers and survival are intertwined. I have reviewed games like this from the past, and I find them to be tons of fun. Particularly with science fiction.

One thing I really liked is the “use [item]” structure in the gameplay. No need for “unlock door with key,” or- well, I shouldn’t spoil the solutions. Usually, two words is all you need. If you are stuck, you can go room to room using things at random, but the game is designed to still retain a sense of problem solving. After all, you must acquire the item first. There are occasional technicalities that dent the player-friendliness, but ultimately it is designed to keep the player moving forward.

Also: the game sometimes discards items that you no longer need. That was helpful. Especially since there is an inventory limit. Aside from the crowbar, diving attire, and keycards, everything only has one application in the gameplay. The evidence being priceless, of course.

There is a small in-game help system. It provided much appreciated assistance for (Spoiler - click to show) luring out the monster with the food pack. I needed help, and the game provided just that. However, there are puzzles that are equally/if not more technical that have no guidance. It seems like the support system is randomly scattered across the game, as if the author intended to provide an in-depth one but gave up on it halfway through. I am still grateful for it.

Challenges
The puzzles are fun! Most are intuitive. They felt satisfying and rewarding to solve. However, some could use smoother implementation. Please consider this part as a critique. I hope this does not deter you from playing. If anything, it might guide you.

It took FOREVER figure out how to (Spoiler - click to show) deactivate the laser grid around the strange artifact in the lab. The in-game help system had nothing to say about it. This was the puzzle that was keeping me from finishing the game. I wanted to review this game ever since it appeared on IFDB but could not get past this puzzle. I had to set the game aside and return to it several times before succeeding.

I had the right idea early on. (Spoiler - click to show) The only functioning generator in the other room kept glitching as the water level regularly spilled into its vents. This glitch kept the laser grid from shutting off due to security controls. Covering the vents seemed liked the answer, and it was. But with what? That is where the gameplay stalled for me.

The game needs to make it clearer that you can take a tray from the kitchen. After opening the fridge, "take all" results in picking up the small kettle and food pack.

You can see: Metal Trays, a Small Fridge, an Instruction Sign, a Kitchen Sink, a Small Kettle and a Food Pack.

Attempting the command again results in "There is nothing you can take at the moment." However, the game still responds to "take tray." I understand that it is up to the player to examine the room carefully, but this was one detail that could have been better implemented.

(Spoiler - click to show) To use the metal tray on the generator, you must also have the box of screws and screwdriver in your inventory. Otherwise, "use tray" will simply result in "not right now." No indicator that the player in on the right track. No "the vent is in the way," or "you need to remove the vent, first." Just "not right now." Sometimes, “no need right now.” And that is frustrating since it is a prompt that the game uses every time you try to experiment with your surroundings.

“Not right now” was the bane of this gameplay. In this case, “Not right now” makes sense since you just do not have the materials to complete the task. Generally, however, there is little way of knowing if what you are doing is productive or if you are wasting time because “Not right now” can be either. Sometimes the game will let you know if you are one the right track while messing around, but more often or not it was “Not right now,” when it came to experimentation.

An example of when I wasted time through experimentation was finding a battery for the wetsuit. This occurred when I first tried the game. The description of wetsuit is:

You notice however, the Thermal battery pack is EMPTY! Which makes it uselss in sub-zero waters.

I wondered if the kettle had something to do with it. The description reads:

It's a small kettle...It's cordless with a battery and built in boil function. Handy if there's a power cut or you want to be portable with it.

I figured that I could use the battery in the kettle- which is used for heating purposes- for the wetsuit. Playing around with the kettle to extract or examine the battery was a mix of “not right now” and “no need right now.” The solution lies elsewhere, but in those early stages I could not gauge if I was on the right path.

Stickler technicalities
There are technicalities. Bugs or things that do not hinder the gameplay but make it less immersive.

For example, when you look at the mirror in the crew bathroom for the first time, you catch a glimpse of the creature scampering down the hallway. However, this occurs if you do this after you (Spoiler - click to show) kill it with the expired food.

Or juggling the evidence on your person. Attempting to read the file after assembling and wearing your dive suit, swimming outside, and then returning indoors results in this response:

That is in a secure water proof pounch in you suit. Pulling them out in water will render them useless and any evidence may have had. (There are typos in the game.)

The game insists that you cannot reread materials even if you are nice and dry inside the base. Meanwhile, you can drop the item while swimming around. But that causes them no damage despite that dropping them means separating them from your waterproof pockets.

Story
The story sparks curiosity and offers a nice amount of suspense. The medical bay that you wake up in is trashed. A dead nurse is lying nearby. You have no idea of what happened, and yet it does not resort to the amnesia trope. Clearly something has happened on Neptune Base. Something that is still alive and lurking. And there are signs of it.

You call out, there's no response. You do hear a scurrying movement coming from somewhere. That's unnerving.

With Escape from the Deep, you can kind of see the story coming a mile away, the secrecy behind the research project. It consists of (Spoiler - click to show) sea monster experimentation where a fellow staff member takes one for the team and agrees (the level of consent behind this agreement is never clarified) to become a test subject for unethical science. Or “science” depending on how you look at it.

Escape from the Deep follows a familiar model found in some sci-fi and sci-fi/horror games. Its backstory can be recreated in a few easy steps:
(Spoiler - click to show)
Step 1: Scientists find DNA from an unexplainable life form. Especially one with dangerous attributes.

Step 2: Scientists ask themselves, “what could possibly go wrong?”

Step 3: Scientists combine said strange DNA/alien biology with that of a human. Bonus points if the human is a fellow scientist.

Step 4: You can probably fill in the blanks for this one. Things go wild. Scientists do not stand a chance against their own creation. The PC, regardless, if they are a test subject or a surviving scientist, now has run of the place. Gameplay begins.


This is just a general model. I can tell you now that the protagonist in Escape from the Deep is neither test subject nor scientist. I enjoyed exploring Neptune Base as an outside party. But the science-gone-wrong trope is obvious. That said, even if you have a feeling that you know what is going to happen, you cannot say for sure until you have played the game.

So, what exactly happened? My understanding is that (Spoiler - click to show) researchers found a bizarre creature and merged its DNA with a person- staff member, I assume- named Erik Stratton. The creature, whom we encounter in the first half of the gameplay, was contained in a laboratory tank but somehow escaped and chowed down on your investigation team. As for Stratton… Anyway.

I still want to know more about the explosion that damaged Neptune Base. And where does the (Spoiler - click to show) neolithic doorway fit in with all this? Furthermore, there are additional signs of (Spoiler - click to show) sabotage as you explore. Wide-spread sabotage. Based on the carnage, it seems like it would have required several people to have participated. Surely it wasn’t just Stratton and that other creature skittering around. Hm.

It would been helpful to be able to read the contents on the USB drive after you download them. In sci-fi games I half expect to have story context conveyed through computer files or logs (although games can also overuse it), but some, like Escape from the Deep, chose not to.

Current Drive has 243 Files - 42 Video Clips
Experiment 002 - May 15th 2052
Experiment 003 - June 3rd 2052

(No way would I expect to see 243 individual entries for the player to read. That would be overkill.)

In this case, it would have been an opportunity to fill in any knowledge gaps, though that would mean extra work on top of an already detailed game.

Endings
I have a bone to pick with the endings. The game informs you that the ending is graded based on how much evidence you bring back to civilization.

One can imagine what this would entail: Bring back one, people raise their eyebrows but admit something funky must have occurred. Two, people sort of believe you but still have unanswered questions. Three, people believe you but still don’t understand the full story. And if you bring back all four, you change the field of science and become a legend.

That’s not what happens. Not exactly. (Spoiler - click to show) You either get “Fortune and Glory and Fame,” or “A small house in nowhere's ville.” Bringing back 3-4 gets you the former. 1-2, the latter. It is not possible to have 0 since you cannot drop the strange artefact once you pick it up. This made no sense to me. The gradient part, that is. You definitely want to keep the strange artefact.

People act like you have no proof even if you cart back the strange artifact and, say, the vial of the creature’s blood. Seriously? Are you telling me that none of it has any merit? Or the USB flash drive with all the files? If you tack on the flimsy personnel file, suddenly everyone believes you. Any single piece of evidence, I feel, would have merit. The optimal ending conveys that scientists were wowed by the strange artifact. How come that’s not the case when it’s the only thing you bring back?


Also, while Neptune Base is falling apart, it is in the same condition as when you left. With the proper precautions, you can always send people back down there. Is it safe? Heck no. But still feasible. I think the (Spoiler - click to show) creature’s corpse in the lab says a lot about the shenanigans that took place.

(Spoiler - click to show) These two ending outcomes consist of two small paragraphs. In a way, it seemed like the author did not bother or want to write individual outcomes. I know that’s a harsh criticism, but if the player spent all this time carefully collecting this evidence, it would have been nice to see a payoff. Plus, I’m a little curious to know more about society’s reaction to these highly unethical science experiments at the bottom of the ocean.

You did it, you escaped the base and have the evidence to show what happened to you and the crew of that doomed station.

A brief overview to summarize all that we have learned would have also helped in wrapping up an otherwise fun sci-fi horror adventure.

And yet, it was still an exciting story.

Characters
This is essentially an NPC-less game. The PC is featureless aside from being a member of the investigation team sent to check out Neptune Base.

The fact that you cannot “x me” struck me as a missed opportunity for character context. If you examine the mirror in the crew quarters, you get a description of the mirror rather than of your appearance. Because of this, I thought something weird may have happened to them after they were knocked out and later brought to the medical bay. What’s the game hiding? Looking back, there is not really anything to suggest that, but that was the state of my brain when I first started playing.

I do like how the protagonist has reactions towards gruesome events, particularly ones having to do with the other people from the investigation team. This adds depth to the scene since its contents are acknowledged and connects back to the protagonist’s ultimate reason for being at Neptune Base to begin with.

Speaking of gruesome: There is gore, but not a lot. A reasonable amount given the circumstances. Instead, the game focuses on a sense of dread which is spiked when you see how “everyone else” died. If the visuals become too much, you can just turn them off.

Visuals
Not all Adventuron games have graphics, but it seems like most do and Escape from the Deep is one of them. They function as a nice visual aid, particularly for building atmosphere.

I liked how some action scenes had their own brief graphic, such as when you (Spoiler - click to show) poison the creature. When you glance at the monitors the game shows the “image” on the screen of the creature breaking open the vent.

The graphics for the (Spoiler - click to show) inside of moon pool scene were a bit cheesy. The moon pool itself was cool. Overall, the visuals were nicely paired with the gameplay.

Final thoughts
Despite some rough areas, this Escape from the Deep is one of the most entertaining Adventuron games I have played so far. You are probably reading this with skepticism given how much I complained, but I say it with productive intentions. I hope it is used that way.

I genuinely had fun with Escape from the Deep. It was one of those games that just comes along at random and appeals to your interests, mine being science fiction. The puzzles in particular offered a stimulating challenge, most being well-clued with creative solutions.

In case you are interested…
If you like the idea of galloping around a failing oceanic research base- especially one with questionable research projects- all (for the most part) by yourself, try A1RL0CK. Chloe, the protagonist, wakes up after an earthquake and gets to go wherever she wants, permitting that there is no locked door in the way. If I recall, the two games were released at around the same time on IFDB and complement each other in certain ways with sci-fi horror themes.

Escape from the Deep also shares similar vibes with The Pool, a Twine game about a marine research center that discarded its ethics for the sake of experimentation. To be frank, The Pool is not a quality game. It’s unpolished. That said, it has some merits, particularly with its distinct atmosphere and sea monster horror movie trope ambience. If you love this aquatic horror genre (a genre I just made up while writing this), The Pool might make a nice excursion.

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Learning to Be Human, by Lynnea Glasser
An occasionally lackluster game with an extremely important message, March 19, 2023

Your mind blinks into existence: You are an android at FutureBright tech company. Two humans, Dr. Jeongmin Kim and Dr. Jinn Hong, have brought you online for a social experiment. You are going to be making your public debut in… a school.

They want you to learn about what it means to be human.

Gameplay
The game takes place in an international school in South Korea attended by students from different backgrounds and native languages. The gist is that you will spend time with four students in the same class, devoting an entire day to each student. Details about the school are kept to a minimum, but my guess is that the class is about “middle school” aged (the author reminds us that school system structures are not universal).

Gameplay is straightforward. School days are basic but uniquely influenced by the student. This ranges from talkative strolls around the campus to spending time in the cafeteria. You learn about students’ struggles with their lives inside and outside of school. You also see them experience bullying (Spoiler - click to show) (Yeon & David), and you see them causing it (Spoiler - click to show) (Soojin & Sangho). In both cases you develop an understanding of their deeper selves that includes sensitivity, a lack of confidence, and a desire of fitting in. You engage them about their behavior, so they think critically on why they do it and how it harms others.

There are multiple endings, but it feels more like two endings, the second of which comes in several flavors. You can either choose to (Spoiler - click to show) keep participating at the school or to move on with FutureBright’s next experiment. Choosing to move on prompts you to reflect on your experience with the students. What did you learn about being human? Arguably these reflections count as separate endings. You can even request changes in your programming.

Also: I appreciate how the author provides the player with chapter codes so they can revisit their progress rather than having to start over. That makes it easier to explore different outcomes.

Themes
This is the main event. Learning to Be Human is ultimately about bullying and seeks to shine a light on how it can manifest in everyday situations. It also functions as a tool for resolving attitudes that lead to bullying. While bullying can be spontaneous and take one by surprise, so can behavioral solutions. The term “behavior solutions” sounds clinical, but the game puts it into context.

Themes about bullying and social dynamics are partly explored through restrictions placed on the protagonist. A defining element in the gameplay are Laws. At the start of the game, Dr. Jeongmin Kim and Dr. Jinn Hong explain that they programmed you to follow three Laws as follows:
- 1: Do not harm sentient life forms.
- 2: Do not interfere with human development.
- 3: Protect yourself from harm.

The second Law turns out to be a real pain. In ChoiceScript, the player selects choices from a menu. But in Learning to Be Human, some of these choices are greyed out and made unavailable because the choice violates a Law.

"Hey, maybe the rest of you should be nicer to David." [This would be interfering.]
"I'm happy to let David figure out what we do for today."
"I'm happy to go to the cafe with everyone as a group."
"Maybe there's some other way I can play the games?"

In example above, the top choice is greyed out because the player is trying to interfere with an exchange between a student and his classmates. This interference seems benign. The PC just wants David to be heard. But the Law interpreted this as overstepping, leaving the PC unable to promote a more inclusive environment. I thought this was an effective way at showcasing these programmed restrictions in the gameplay. More of these scenes appear in the game that also bring up implications about bullying in today’s world.

The Laws’ influence over the protagonist simulates real challenges about addressing conflict in group situations. Often youth are given simple instructions to merely “stand up if you see someone is being treated unfairly!” A valid lesson, but easier said than done. As we see in Learning to Be Human, bystanders suddenly turn into an intimidating audience. The person initiating the harassment may be higher in social status or have considerable sway over how everyone else views an individual. That’s a common theme in this game, the feeling that you could be more inclusive to [insert name] but worry that it would be at the expensive of your peers’ perception of you.

There are countless variables present in these scenarios that make “standing up” the opposite of an easy task. The game puts the player in the shoes of someone who is presented with these predicaments. While the protagonist’s reason for freezing is because of android programming, it captures the experience of witnessing an icky situation but feeling unable to respond.

On a funky side note, the PC can still entertain dubious ideas. The Laws do not prevent the protagonist from thinking about certain actions, only to prevents them from acting on it. Sometimes these actions feel like suppressed impulses. In more heated scenes, we see "so-and-so punched my friend so I'll punch them back" type of responses are fortunately disabled by the protagonist’s programming.

Hit him back. "How do you like it?" [This would be causing harm.]
"No. I couldn't interfere with that."
"I'm sorry that I couldn't interfere."

In these cases, I do not think the protagonist is seriously considering being violent. For the most part.

"There will be a bloody revolution." [This would be causing harm.]
(To clarify, the PC cannot wage war on classmates.)

Rather, these responses seem like an emotional byproduct of input from their surroundings. Being unable to carry out violent actions is a good thing, but sometimes this prevents the protagonist by standing up for others in nonviolent ways.

Story
In my review’s title I call the game lackluster. I should elaborate.

If you approach this game looking for a sci-fi adventure like I initially did, you may find it dull or underwhelming. All I saw was “android protagonist” and dug in. I confess that I have a habit of zooming through ChoiceScript games to orient myself with its structure before replaying it to focus on the details.

My first impression felt like this: You hang out with Character A. You hang out with Character B. You hang out with Character C. And, finally, you hang out with Character D. Thanks for playing. What a bland story. Now, hold on a moment. I was missing the whole point. What changed for me (and no doubt people will pick up on this sooner than I did) was taking a closer look at the implementation of the game’s main idea in the gameplay.

The game may have sci-fi elements, but its genre is ultimately listed as Educational. As I’ve mentioned, it is about bullying, an important subject. However, Learning to Be Human takes this an extra step further with a solid and consistent gameplay structure to back it up. This makes it easier to absorb its key points.

After slowly and earnestly playing the game with a learning objective in mind, it became more than just “hanging out” with NPCs. Instead, Characters “A,” “B,” “C,” and “D” are Yeon, Soojin, Sangho, and David, and each have extremely earnest and down-to-Earth life experiences that are relatable, and compelling because we view them through a unique vantage point: An android programmed for human interaction.

It becomes meaningful, and I’m not just saying that to be polite. Just don’t expect a wild sci-fi story.

Characters
You, Robot
A cool design feature is how the game subtly allows you to customize yourself when the researchers ask you to describe yourself. When I saw the “I am a human” option (one of seven options, actually) I figured that the researchers would snicker and say, “if you say so, android,” when instead they hand you a mirror so you can assess your appearance. The game then gives you a list of attributes that you describe, such as the colour of your synthetic flesh. If you describe yourself as an android the game assumes that your appearance is that of a standard android. You also choose your name and gender.

Oddly enough, being an android makes you a neutral party, especially as an observer. A common pattern is that students wage war on each other when the adult in the room leaves, only to pretend like nothing happened when a teacher returns. They have no hesitations around you. They are also more likely to listen to you. You are not a parent or stuffy adult giving them a lecture. You have no allegiance to anyone at the school or belong in a clique. You are cool, or at least novel enough to be interesting. Knowing every language doesn’t hurt either. As we see in the game, students are more receptive to your advice. And that feels nice.

NPCs
There are six students, four of which you spend time with, plus a few adults. The game has a nifty bio page for reference that lists name, race, and role for all NPCs.

It's tough because some kids are not as likeable. Ouch. This is where we want to be careful lest we repeat the issues we are trying to address. Let’s put it this way: One of the students is the “main bully” whom you have- correction, you get (they matter too)- to hang out with for an entire day. When he hears about your Law against interfering, he (Spoiler - click to show) pinches a bullied classmate to see if you can do anything about. You can’t. It’s frustrating. And yet, you slowly learn his side of the story and form a connection with him with the understanding that “the bully” only skims the surface of who he is. Simply talking goes a long way. That is where the human element emerges.

Be aware, you get placed in some awkward situations. The biggest challenge is when you have great one-on-one time with one student only to see them harass someone else. (Spoiler - click to show) Yeon, a shy and soft-spoken student, is often the target. Someone might toss out the “b-word” or make derogatory remarks about one’s race. Cultural stigma also appears. The author does a nice job of sitting on a fence between being frank about bullying without making it too extreme for players.

But yes, difficult situations can spring out of nowhere, almost casually. In one case a random student (Spoiler - click to show) calls Yeon fat while standing in the lunch line. There are parts of the game where your android self is thinking, I swear to God if it weren't for these stupid Laws...

Final thoughts
Learning to Be Human is a powerful resource about human interaction, particularly for kids and tweens. It looks at intersections of daily life (schoolwork, language barriers, parental expectations, feeling cool) and how it can fuel bullying behaviors.

The android protagonist has unique freedoms that puts them in the role of observer but is also bound by the Laws that prevents them for standing up for someone being bullied. This highlights the complexities and challenges that come with recognizing bullying, stopping it, and preventing it from happening again.

I think the gameplay has a realistic view about change. You do not waltz into the classroom and convince everyone to be friends. You certainly make a positive impression, but since the game only occurs over four days, there is no way of seeing the long-term effects on students’ behavior and relationships with one another. It does not set major expectations because small changes matter. That, I believe, is where the game will be helpful for real-world people.

The objective is to show ways of initiating a conversation with a peer, making amends in small ways, and understanding how seemingly perfect people likely have hidden struggles of their own. And on that note, the game provides resources about bullying at the end of the gameplay. I encourage you to check out the link to the author’s notes.

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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.

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.

Story
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.

Incinerator
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.

Characters
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.

Challenges
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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