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Signal Hill, by Crosshollow

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Wow, but in the best way possible, March 26, 2023
by Kinetic Mouse Car
Related reviews: Surreal, Twine

I must confess, my brain constructed an impression on what Signal Hill was going to be like when I first saw the listing on IFDB and itchio. It seemed really cool. I had a guess for the appearance and gameplay structure. If turned out that way, it still would have been a great game.

But what I found was far more innovative and creative than said impression. One that you can't really put a single genre on. There is an extra magic to Signal Hill. It is not the most innovative or complex Twine I have seen, but the author expertly balances gameplay mechanics with story and setting so everything enhances each other, creating a game with a deep and dynamic world.

Granted, this is a demo, but an incredibly strong one. This review will probably be longer than usual.

You lay there on the ground, bleeding into the ash from a hole in your side, staring up at the blazing red of the sunless sky.

And you’re off to a great start.

In the intro you are trekking across the wasteland in a caravan to the city of Signal Hill, same as the game’s title. You and your traveling companions are delivering cargo to the city when everyone is ambushed. Everyone dies… except you, although the bullet hole on your torso is on the verge of changing that.

Fortunately, you are found in time and brought to the Signal Hill Free Clinic where you are revived and saved by emergency surgery thanks to a man named Dr. Zhao and his coworker, Dr. Ellis.

Unfortunately, you confirm the worst: the cargo was stolen. This bad for your client. It also throws a wrench into your plans since the paycheck for the delivery was what you were going to use to make a new life in the city. Looks like you need a new plan of survival if you want to find answers and claim Signal Hill as your new home.

And it's a city. One you wander around in. There are districts. You talk to people, even buy things. Take on quests, be a nuisance, make friends, or just explore. That enticing Twine gameplay flexibility.

So yeah. The medical clinic serves as your temporary home, one where you can come and go freely. There are plenty of places to visit. The aim is to find “leads,” or quests that allow you to investigate the city and the forces behind the stolen cargo. Leads take all sort of forms and are introduced like this:

The lady at the bookstore offered rewards in exchange for zines. If you come across some, you should bring them back for her to photocopy.

Speaking of which, has anyone found any zines, yet? I haven't.

These leads shape the gameplay. You can start many but finish few due to the constraints in this demo. No more progress can be made on a lead when the (dreaded) message that reads, “This lead will be implemented in a later version,” appears next to its listing.

Since Signal Hill is a demo, I kept waiting for the game to use the “Congratulations, you have reached the end of the demo!” message, but that never happened. The demo never “ends.” Instead, there is a point where you exhaust every lead and undiscovered morsel of gameplay. And it takes a while. When I ran through it all again to clarify some things for this review, I still stumbled across missed content.

I made the most progress in the Red Light District. Yeah, stop smiling. It’s not (quite) what it sounds.

Let me back this up. When Dr. Zhao stitches you back together, he asks about your specialties. This results in him recommending one of three ways of finding more info about the cargo and ambush. These are mere starting points to get the player started. They consist of investigating the Red Light District, contacting the Lamplighters outside of the city, or get started on deciphering the documents uncovered about the cargo.

Out of these three general paths, the adventure in the Red Light District was the only one that seemed to “end” without any additional strings that were restricted by the demo in the sense that it would not result in a new lead that could not be pursued. It is called (Spoiler - click to show) RIDE THE WAVEFORM. I do have one question about it. While it wraps up neatly, (Spoiler - click to show) Yvette explains that you be contacted soon for more work. Does that occur in the demo? Because I’ve tried sleeping several times but doing so has no effect on the timeframe in the game’s world.

As an RPG, stats are part of the experience. In the intro, you choose a specific reason for arriving at Signal Hill. This increases one of four possible stats in this game: Glam, Savvy, Signal, Brawn.

Not much work back home for mechanical types. Here, though? Plenty of machines out here, maybe too many.

That old place? Got bored of it. This city has the excitement you really crave. Until you get bored of this, too.

You shoot things for a living. You just go where the money goes. Or more accurately, where the bullets need to go.

You're in tune enough with the universe to know where you're needed. You hear its signal. It's calling you here.

You also must choose one weakness that gives you a -1 for a stat. You can upgrade this back to 0 with 10 XP points. However, I have been able to get no more than 5 XP in this demo.

For certain gameplay choices, the game will roll two dice to determine the outcome.

Just give the man your name.
Give him a fake name, just in case.
Get him to put it on Yvette's tab.

The last option has an icon of two dice and a heart, which means there is an advantage if you have a higher “Glam” stat. You are sort of at the mercy of the game.

Sometimes it is not always clear if you succeeded with the dice rolls. For the most part you get the long-term outcome anyway (for example, if you (Spoiler - click to show) fail in your attempt to break up the fight in the Rose and Thorn, management still gives you a job). It can be vague.

But it can also mean an undeniable victorious win.

Success. Flawless execution.

It does happen, you know.

You sit back and wait for the questioning to begin. This is kind of exciting.

Not bad. I hope further updates will let us experience the combat component of the game.

It was a blast exploring the city. I have no complaints in the regard. However, I have feedback based on the game’s own description on itchio. It read, “Each area is a snapshot of city life, from the luxury of The Heights to the poverty-stricken slums of Skid Row.” I did not experience this.

My reaction is that while the city certainly had locational differences, it never felt like there was much contrast prosperity and/or social demographics between areas as suggested. Any contrasting information are more centered in locations’ descriptions rather than in immediate gameplay. They are well-written but long, meaning that players are not likely to read them each time they visit. The atmosphere is thus overlooked.

I agree that The Heights stands out as the snazziest place, Skid Row, the least in prosperity and glamour. The Stacks would fall between the two. Did they feel like separate “snapshots” when you go out exploring? Not really. The Red Light District is an interesting case. It too felt like the other areas of the city. If anything, like an extension of The Heights due to the high quantities of glitz, glamour, and luxury.

But while the district’s name may draw assumptions of what it entails, the author crafts a world that just may turn challenge that assumption. Tangent time.

Besides Signal Hill, I’ve played only one other IF game that depicts a red-light district setting that goes beyond a single establishment, such as a brothel: Gotomomi. Despite some roughness with the implementation, I really liked Gotomomi for its open-world atmosphere, one that I have never quite been able to find anywhere else. (Games that stick to a single location include Sense of Harmony, a custom choice-based game, and Desert Heat which is made with TADS).

Gotomomi is a parser game set in a fictional Japanese city of the same name. It stars Ayako, a teenager on the run from her wealthy and influential father. She loses her wallet and must hustle for money to buy a train ticket out of the city. While the game does not apply the term “red-light district,” to a designated area, a huge chunk of the city clearly fits the bill.

The nightlife is infused with a sense of vibrant possibility as we navigate it from Ayako’s perspective. But above all else, the city is coated in a garish sleaziness that permeates everything. This kind of seediness is not present in Signal Hill even if its own Red Light District strives to be unapologetically tacky (in a luxurious way, of course). The Rose and Thorn in Signal Hill is nothing like its equivalent in Gotomomi.

With Signal Hill, it was cool to see how it opts for a slightly different portrayal than a stereotypical (but still just as valid) vision of a nightlife district dedicated to “adult entertainment.” There is no mix of impoverishment and wealth (an unfortunate reality in today’s world, sadly) like that in Gotomomi or other games I’ve seen that depict sex work and similar activities. Sense of Harmony is another good exception. As an interactive fiction work, it was a refreshing contribution to the subject matter!

Finally, I am not saying that the Red Light District has to be seedy to stand out from the rest of Signal Hill city, only that it currently shares more or less of the same ambience as The Heights, The Stacks, and Skid Row. Perhaps even the Lamplighter HQ.

Before we talk about the story, I must acknowledge the writing. The writing is bold, potent, humorous. Surprisingly daring and underscored by a brash, unashamed sexiness. Especially in the Red Light District. Everything about Signal Hill is over the top but narrowly dodges being overdone or contrived. It is not an easy balance, but that game navigates it with ease.

Between that and his usual silver screen-ready makeup, he was really rocking the 'rich widow who has no clue who shot her husband, officer' look.

Not sure I why I found it so funny. I just did. That happens a lot in the game.

Alright, story. I like to think of the story as having three layers. The immediate story about trying to recover the cargo, the overarching story surrounding the city, and the over-overarching story on the game’s universe. Presumably, they are all connected. Let’s dive into the last two.

Over-overarching story: Something has happened to modern civilization. An apocalypse that no one can remember or explain. All of this is underscored by background static, something that you can not only hear but reexperience past events. It depends on your affinity for sensing it. It has a sci-fi feel. Perhaps the universe runs on a computer. Probably not. There is also a spiritual, maybe even supernatural element interwoven in between. At this point, all I have are speculations.

Overarching story: I am still piecing everything together, but I’ll bounce some ideas around. (Spoiler - click to show) Signal Hill was transformed by a man named Nadir whose wealth came from the South and revitalized the city infrastructure, starting with an electric company. He was not the official owner of the city, but he also kind of was. Things were rocky. A month before the game begins, he was shot and killed. Things are still rocky.

I hope the game focuses more on the player’s ability to cross-examine story material from different parts of the gameplay. I love how the game overlaps information about (Spoiler - click to show) Nadir throughout the gameplay. We hear snippets of it on the radio and in conversation with other characters. This provides fantastic worldbuilding because it starts to feel like a separate fictional universe.

The most prominent example of story overlap is when (Spoiler - click to show) KC from the Lamplighter HQ shares her story about guarding a tent for Nadir and his daughter, Yvette, when they were camped out with some caravan. After that experience, Nadir had a chip on his shoulder about mercenaries. KC does not shy away when telling the story. At one point she says:

"You ever heard of this girl? She's pretty f****** important now that daddy got shot, so I guess you might know about her."

"I don't think so."

YES, WE DO. (I censored the quote by the way. The game itself does not hesitate.)

That’s the issue: I just waltzed out of the Waveform quest. The one where you curl up (as in, fall asleep) in the fancy back room in the Waveform club with Yasmine? The game acts like we are learning about this for the first time.

"Don't bother trying to meet her, I've heard she's gone off the deep end nowadays."

Yeah, already been done.

Yasmine mentions a little about this. Tidbits about her father’s will that left her the fortune but also required that she be hounded bodyguard/handlers (city militia, perhaps?) who “look after her,” to borrow her own words. Vague and intriguing. One thing is obvious: Beneath Yasmine’s superficial partygoer glamour, it is obvious that her father’s death deeply upsets her.

Not sure where your missing cargo comes in, though.

I would not expect the player to be able to interrupt (Spoiler - click to show) KC and say, “actually, I did… blah, blah, blah etc.” Blathering about everything you know seems like a bad idea in this environment. However, I was expecting the game to subtly acknowledge that the player has in fact heard about this before. Some way to connect these experiences together. And vice versa. You can visit (Spoiler - click to show) Lamplighter HQ before the Waveform club. That’s what I mean by cross-examining story material.

It would be interesting, though probably unwise, to show (Spoiler - click to show) Yvette the letter that he wrote on the hand drawn map that you receive from Dr. Zhao. Who’s Emil? Yeah, probably a bad idea. Still, it piques your curiosity.

I could ramble about the unique and interesting NPCs that fill the game, but Signal Hill is highly player centric (and this review already too long). Yes, it’s all about you. It features considerable character customization. Sculpting a persona is a main theme in this text adventure. It can be broken down into two fields: Personal identity and physical appearance. Especially the former.

Who am I?
Throughout the game you will have opportunities to accept certain identities as they arise. When you make certain choices or have a particular encounter, the game will present you with messages like this:

You venerate The Lady Death, whose loving embrace will bring us all into the end-times when our brains stop working and we succcumb to her will. While you're alive, offerings to her at your altar can perhaps grant you luck, love, and happiness- or skill bonuses.

Would you like to accept this identity?
--- YES / NO ---

The DEVOTEE identity is the first one offered in the game. You cannot miss it. Other identities, however, are tougher to find. So far, I found eight: (Spoiler - click to show) Augur, Devotee, Genderfuck, Hedonist, Machinist, Medic, Merc, Nomad.

I do not think that the demo is large enough to see these identities manifest due to length and limited opportunities in the gameplay. For example, part of the MERC identity reads:

You know how to get work, never have to roll to get a gig, and can negotiate better pay. However, you're also bound by your word- if you back out on a job, or fail, you lose this perk.

I never had a chance to see this perk in action. That is not a complaint, just that I am eager to explore them further.

The identity I could engage with the most was by far DEVOTEE. (Spoiler - click to show) You can turn a table in the medical clinic into an altar to give offerings. A few things changed in the city after I did this. For example, I went to the Trading Company there was an option to look for candles (there were none worthy for the altar) which is not shown otherwise. It’s as if the game’s landscape is adapting to your own character development. That was delightfully cool and immersive.

I gave my (Spoiler - click to show) altar three offerings: a packet of painkillers, a bottle of whiskey, and my severed pinky finger. I got an achievement for that one. It was worth it. Still, it was not enough to get any of the special perks promised in the DEVOTEE identity description.

(It would have been funny if Yasmin noticed your missing finger when you extend your hand to her during the Waveform club quest: “Eager, you step toward her and take her hand. Like accepting a gift.”)

Looking good
If you like games that allow you to adjust your physical appearance, Signal Hill may be to your liking. In the intro, you have choices for gender, hair, body type, cosmetics, piercings, tattoos, and clothing. And your name. There are plenty of options and yet it avoids flooding the player with its selection.

In fact, you can complete ignore customization. Clothing? Optional. You can literally be wandering around in nothing but underwear and electrical tape, and everyone- the attackers who shoot you, pedestrians, the guy who stiches you back together- will just be like, “hi, welcome to Signal Hill.” Well, maybe not the attackers. My point is that there is no judgment about your appearance.

Although, the idea of trekking across the wasteland with a caravan while wearing strappy heels makes me anxious. It is a sprained ankle just eagerly waiting to happen. Speaking of impractical outfits, I once started the game in a sequin dress, silk gloves, pearls, and high heels. I felt so weird, but I did so for a reason.

My knowledge is that the only time someone acknowledges the PC’s customizable design choices is during the (Spoiler - click to show) RIDE THE WAVEFORM where Yvette responds to your appearance with different dialog depending on if you dressed to the nines or look shabby.

"What on earth are you wearing?! My god, you're lucky you're cute. This is an important mission, you know!"

This was enough to make me want to restart the entire game.

At that time, I had no idea how to make money in this game (I do now). I figured that I should start the game with clothing that Yvette would approve of to avoid having to scavenge clothes later and/or enduring Yvette’s criticism. Hence the poorly chosen wasteland explorer outfit.

But besides this, I did not notice any gameplay that made note of what you wear.

I’ve got something to complain about (mostly just to vent). There are two guys in the warehouse who talk about a religion of being connected to the “static.” If you try to listen to it and succeed, one character gives you instructions to (Spoiler - click to show) talk to the bookseller for more info. She has a price if you want to take it another step.

Pay the woman. (4)
“Woah. That's crazy!”

(The first choice is to pay; second choice is if you cannot afford it. I could afford it.)

This is a placeholder. You shouldn't be able to get this much money in the current version.
And a way out in case you cheat yourself into this passage somehow. Naughty.

You don’t understand. I DID make that much money. My wealth was 4. That was the price she wanted. Cheating? How would one do that? I suppose this is not a fair complaint since the author clearly states that the demo is just that: a demo. Still, I was so pleased to have accumulated the wealth to unlock the next phase of this story.

In another playthrough, I got it up to 5. I cannot believe that wealth 5 is not enough to buy something in L'Apothecaire, although I applaud how the player discovers the store by (Spoiler - click to show) listening to the radio in the Juice Bar. That part was clever.

The other notable thing about this place was the prices. They were all listed on the shelves, and lord were they ludicrous. There was no way you could afford any of this stuff. Maybe a pack of their cheapest cigarettes.

Ah, well. Maybe when you earn more cash.

There is no higher wealth level than 5! The description of this wealth level is “Rich get richer. Get into any club, hire anybody, buy whatever you want.” Hear that? Buy anything.

Also, I bought a radio from the electronics story, but it never showed up in my inventory. That annoyed me. Why did I bother increasing my wealth if it has little use? It is like someone gives you candy with the condition that you are not allowed to eat it.

There are some broken links that are highlighted in red. I was disappointed to see:

Error: <<include>>: passage “Personal Shoutout” does not exist

…after paying for a shoutout at the radio station.

As a demo, these technicalities can slide, but I hope that the author continues to develop the game.

Features a graphic of a computer screen that contains text from the gameplay. The screen’s appearance can be adjusted. I set it to “dark mode” to make it easier on my eyes. Behind it all is a backdrop designed to look like a concrete wall. Adds a nice grunginess.

The menu section on the left side of the screen is cleverly depicted as VHS tapes with handwritten titles like “Gear,” “ID,” or “Leads.” They are animated to slide out when you hover over them.

I am incredibly happy that the font is readable. Some games use ultra-pixelated font when going for a computer screen vibe which can be difficult to read, especially for long gameplays. With Signal Hill, the default is easy to read, and you can even change it in the settings. Options!

Final thoughts
Signal Hill is an ambitious game that delivers. It never seems like the author bit off more than they can chew in the sense that they envisioned a bold idea for gameplay and had the implementation to pull it off. While there are natural limitations to Twine and other choice-based formats when simulating a navigable city, its components support one another so that it feels that much more complex.

I loved the focus on fluidity of individuality, and I feel like that will be a main draw for other players. Rather than boxing yourself in a single role, you can collect identities like trading cards. The story is the same way. You start at a lead of your choosing and simply see where it takes you. There is no singular path. Nor do you have to pick a single path and stick to it.

Or at least right now. I have a feeling that the stakes will raise as the game continues to be developed.

Where will we go from here? This is a ridiculously generous and detailed demo. It is off to a fantastic start… However, there are many cool demos out there that I have yet to see finished. I know it’s asking for a lot, but you know, make it come full circle. I won’t pretend to understand the sheer work that goes into making a large, ambitious game. Still, if you have a gem, keep at it. FiNiSh tHeSe GaMeS!

I hope to see Signal Hill completed. (Please)

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Cubes and Ladders, by P.Rail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The machine hums away oblivious to its obsolescence.

The Complexifier is currently switched on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So true. Including in this game.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your boss is sitting impatiently in your office chair.

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

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

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

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

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The Twine Fishing Simulator, by maxine sophia wolff

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Had me hooked, but I was expecting a larger fish., February 8, 2023
by Kinetic Mouse Car
Related reviews: Twine, Surreal

Gone fishing… Yes. Gone fishing.

You find yourself standing before a serene lake with a fishing pole in your hand.

First things first, you are introduced to June, a friendly woman fishing. She can give you help or chat, but your main activity here is to fish and catch all six species.

The fishing mechanics are a creative one. The word "nibble..." flashes onscreen, and at one point quickly changes into a link that says "BITE," before changing back. If you clicked on the link in time, you reel in your fish. To keep it, you answer three multiple choice questions (with two possible answers each). The catch (!!) is that you have five seconds to solve each one. If you fail to answer or get one incorrect, the fish escapes and you try again.

At first you think, "this is fun, but will I seriously be doing this for the entire game?" (Answer: no) Then you see that each area has its own fishing challenge. That’s right, there is more than one area. Then you realize that (Spoiler - click to show) it is about more than just fishing. Simulator? More like (Spoiler - click to show) simulation. Which does not take long to figure out.

The fish you catch may come with a surprise. Sometimes your fishing gear catches an (Spoiler - click to show) audio log that provide a glimpse into the NPCs’ identities while raising doubts about how real your surroundings are. I have a bit of a request: (Spoiler - click to show) How many audio tapes has anyone found? They were fun to discover and enhanced the story. I found three at the lake, one at the ocean, and none at the third location. I would love to find more.

Zooming out, the overarching goal is to (Spoiler - click to show) acquire three fish spines that you receive as rewards from an NPC in each area, the lake being the first. The lake and the ocean seem harmless enough, but once you make it to the location after that, you will have an entirely different view of the game than the one you had when you first started playing. Which is perfect.

Gameplay challenges
I found two broken links and an error that halted the gameplay, perhaps even making it unwinnable in the sense where you are stuck in an obvious loop. It is otherwise a Merciful/Polite game through and through. Here it is:
(Spoiler - click to show)
I got the dreaded “Double-click this passage to edit it,” message after pressuring June about her means of transportation to the lake. The other instance was during the battle scene with Horace. I don’t know what I did, but the game suddenly said, "Horace Breem of the Black Water attacks for 150 damage!" But there was no link on the screen to move forward. It was a dead end.

The error occurred with June. It had to do with catching all six types of fish at the lake and then talking to June about moving to the next area. She lets you choose between leaving right away or staying at the lake a little longer. When I choose the former, I would be sent back to the location menu page where the ocean would be unlocked.

"You can now progress to the next area."
1. I'm ready.
2. I'd like to stay here longer.

However, when I chose to stay and then later asked to leave (see below), I would be sent back to the location menu, but the ocean location would NOT be unlocked. Maybe someone can find a way around it, but I was stuck.

"You've still caught all six species! Feel free to leave here anytime."
1. Move onto the next location.
2. Goodbye.

But if you are mindful about these parts, you’ll be fine.

Generally, it is not always possible to access the link that opens your saves. In the first two encounters I could not access my saves. Refreshing the page would not bring it back to the menu so I had to close out the window, access the game again on IFDB and then go to my saves when the menu appeared. Not too much of a hassle, but still a hassle when it came to hiccups.

Really, you’ll be fine.

The Twine Fishing Simulator has prominent surreal elements in the story and how it is told. It is a fairly linear game. You can hop between the (Spoiler - click to show) lake and the ocean areas, but when you (Spoiler - click to show) reach the third location, there’s no going back. We already know that (Spoiler - click to show) we are trapped in a simulation of fishing minigames. That’s the story in a nutshell. It’s partly told by seeding out-of-place indicators that provide insights about “what’s really going on.” That’s what I want to focus on. Spoilers ahead. (Spoiler - click to show)

In the third location (called "???") the surroundings are less cohesive, almost… like a half-baked simulation. The fact that you had to punch in an administrative code before proceeding was a major indicator. It’s also the only area that allows you to explore the terrain a little more.

I thought it was cool how you end up on this chill half-formed island with some knight in armor catching fish and meanwhile you can just wander down an overgrown beach path to a dingy shack with a computer in it. And that computer is your portal to answers. This scene captures a certain kind of atmosphere that I love in interactive fiction games. Often in games about simulations, but not exclusively. How do I describe it…?

It’s that idea of finding a small but insistent clue that whispers none of this is real, as you stand there waist deep in the gameplay. Or in this case, since we know this is a simulation, it would be not everything is as it seems. That, too, is obvious, I know, but that moment of realization comes off smoothly in The Twine Fishing Simulator. I had the exact same zing feeling when I saw this:

And what's this? Something else is caught in your line. It appears to be an audio log.

You’re hanging out with June at the lake and catch an audio log that reveals more about her- and the place- than we learn through casual inconspicuous conversation. The wording and placement in the gameplay are excellent.

Anyway, the player has a lot of questions about what’s going on, the extent of which is hard to gauge. Fact is, Alireza and the audio logs can only tell you so much. Just how deep does this go? You need answers. This computer had the answers.

But not as many answers as I was hoping for. I'm going to be diving into the deep end with spoilers.

The computer contains data entries from 2011 and 2037. The ones from 2011 mention craters, meteors, and scrap metal falling from the sky, but then the September 29th entry says that nothing was falling from the sky, that it was just it… rain? I’m not sure of what to make of that. Jackie does get a mention. The logs are written by someone named “-J,” which I assume is June. The only takeaway is that Jackie found a metal substance that causes dreams.

The entries from 2037 discuss a simulation. My mind wanders back to something Alireza said. He explains that the simulation is decaying but has gained sentience. For whatever reason, the simulation simply generates "fishing minigames.” An AI, maybe? We hear mention of an AI in the computer log for June 17th, 2037: Partial construction of the Simulator AI has begun. Estimated trial date: somewhere in the next few months.

Why was a simulator built in 2037? Why do to the logs only have the years 2011 and 2037? If the simulation has started to deteriorate, does that mean something went wrong? Was Earth undergoing some disaster with falling meteors (or other objects) leaving craters? This is my point: I only have more questions.

I figured the ending would clarify some of these questions, but not really. It was clever, though. After you eat the three fish spines you unlock the ending (the final location) where you wake up in a metal chair in a room. Reveals like this are awesome. One wall reveals a large empty glass aquarium. The game suggests that its emptiness is your fault. You then fall back to an unconscious dream state.

Next thing you know, you are standing by a gorgeous lake with a fishing rod. Though you may be living in a simulation, you decide that it is a better means of existence than whatever is going on outside. This was an excellent surreal moment. However, I still had tons of unanswered questions from the computer. And questions about the ending. Is the whole empty aquarium scene a message about overfishing or humanity ravaging the aquatic ecosystem? Or am I overthinking it?

All I want is just a few more tidbits to fill in the gaps. That’s all. Ultimately, finding the (Spoiler - click to show) computer was still my favorite part, especially since it adds a layer of sci-fi into the surreal mix.

I’m going to ask straight out: (Spoiler - click to show) Who is Volunteer One? Is it Jackie? The player? Probably not the player due to the timeframe. Or maybe it is the player since June is clearly expecting you and mentions a newcomer in one of the audio logs you find at the lake. All I know is that I have a feeling that something happened to Jackie.

This is just a section where I am going to share some ramblings about the characters. You can skip this part.
(Spoiler - click to show)
Somehow, Alireza, June, and Horace ended up in the simulation. My guess (I’ll be making a lot of guesses) is that something happened to Jackie which meant he failed to make it into the simulation. June and Jackie definitely knew each other. Interrogating the NPCs will do little since the simulation saps people of memories. Most assume the simulation is a dream, like June. This means the player must dig for answers.

Of the three NPCs we meet, only Alireza has a faint idea of what’s going on, and there’s a reason. At least two years prior, he was once an administrator for the simulation. We know this from an audio log. It explains that a volunteer entered the simulation for an hour-long excursion but had gone missing, prompting Alireza to complain to management. He also mentions that his career is over. I wonder, did it end because of the missing volunteer, or because he spoke out? My guess is that he was thrown into the simulation in response, but it’s a wild, wild guess.

I really liked the subtle foreshadowing/story building that occurs when you pester Alireza for “fun facts,” which only become meaningful once you’ve played the game and know what to look for. He foreshadows Harold by saying, “'One time this dude in a full suit of armor came through here. I taught him how to fish, he was really nice.'" You find yourself agreeing and thinking, yep, I know who you’re talking about.

The one that really caught my attention is when he says, “'My mom was a scientist up in orbit. Studying those meteors.'" That connects back to the mentions of meteors in the computer logs. There is some truth them… this kind clue dropping is the stuff I play for. It does not answer my (excessive) questions, but it does add context that only encourages the player to look deeper for things they missed.

Where does this leave us? I take it something happens in the gap between 2011 and 2037 that was the catalyst for creating the simulation. A corporate theme has surfaced once or twice but only vaguely. Whoever ran the show was rushing since volunteers were being processed while it still had rough areas. Another wild guess: The computer logs mention a metal material that puts you in a dream state coma for the simulation. Isn’t the chair you wake up in at the end made of metal? Perhaps made of the special metal to put the user into the simulation? That’s all I have.

Comment if you want you share your own speculations for the story.

The game’s visuals stay basic without abandoning stylization. Black backdrop. Text is white with blue links and is placed in a teal bordered box. Beneath it is a shot of the game's cover art. It uses a pixelated font that can be changed in the settings. That is always appreciated. It’s a good look for the game.

Final thoughts
The Twine Fishing Simulator is a clever and unique piece of surreal interactive fiction. I enjoyed it and would recommend it for surreal fans. Or lovers of fishing minigames.

There are some bug issues that dull the polish, but the gameplay is generally smooth sailing. I do feel like it leaves you with a lot of unanswered questions, particularly with linking character dialog to other story related discoveries in the gameplay. Some subjects were mentioned once and forgotten. I would have loved to see a little more cohesion there.

Regardless, the story shows creativity and thoughtfulness that leaves a lasting impression. The author has a skill at leading the player down an unexpected story trajectory. You thought you were going to be playing a realistic resource management fishing game. Well, think twice. It plays with reality and combines it with interesting characters. By the time I reached the ending sequence, I really felt like the PC.

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Habeas Corpus, by G.C. Baccaris

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Explore odd rooms in a fortress, January 21, 2023
by Kinetic Mouse Car
Related reviews: Twine, Surreal

Habeas Corpus is a short game submitted to a jam with the rule of being no longer than 1,000 words. It is a surreal story about finding a way out of a decaying place, and yet this is not a typical escape game. I have a habit for writing excessively long reviews so I will try to do the same thing here!

You awake in a decrepit moving fortress, unsure of who you are. Even your own reflection is unfamiliar. All you have are five rooms to explore: Dormitory, Armory, Engine room, Concourse, and Nexus, where the game begins. The gameplay predominantly uses the “approach,” “examine,” and “talk” command that are available in certain rooms. Some rooms seem to be merely atmospheric. While this game is largely exploratory, there are some small puzzles about searching your surroundings to finding clues about your whereabouts.

There is minimal exposition on the story. It's ambiguous but no means incomplete, either. We are not sure of why we are in the fortress or the protagonist’s backstory. It left me with some questions. For instance, (Spoiler - click to show) is the dying body in the dormitory supposed to be yourself? Are you dead? That was my initial impression. But for a game of no more than 1,000 words it does well in sewing together a story out of a surreal concept (although I know the jam gives you more wiggle room than other jams that only allow 100 words).

The game’s description explains that there are multiple endings. I only found two: (Spoiler - click to show) LOTUS-EATER and FIRMAMENT, the second appearing to be the “good” ending. It’s a nice ending enough ending about (Spoiler - click to show) escaping with the harpy that effectively concludes the gameplay.

The appearance is snazzily stylized. The text is white with an angular font. Links are either dynamic animated black 3D boxes or glowing peach colour links. The latter bounces when you click on it, cycling between two to four words that provide extra descriptions. The background is horizontal black and dark grey stripes. Meanwhile, the top of the screen is a panel of red and dark red horizontal strips with a grey border. Slowly, these panel colours change as you explore. The panel has buttons for each room, next to each are door icons. I’d say this is a polished and clever design!

It is not a particularly memorable game or one that I would play again, but it is one that I enjoyed and replayed to find the endings. Some of it even has a few Porpentine vibes. If you are a fellow fan of Porpentine or of G.C. Baccaris’s other works (be sure to try Heretic’s Hope, it’s quite a thrill), Habeas Corpus is a fun option.

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One Way Ticket, by Vitalii Blinov

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Next time, take a flight instead, October 31, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

Say goodbye.
Ask about the driver and conductor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Absence of Miriam Lane, by Abigail Corfman

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Seemingly gone, name forgotten. But maybe there’s hope., October 2, 2022

You are contacted by a man, Mr. Lane, who explains that his wife is missing. For some reason, no one can remember her name. With more questions than answers, you set out to explore the couple’s house to find a seemingly nameless woman.

Note: Obviously, the player already knows the woman’s name. Miriam Lane. It is in the game’s title. Because of this I will openly use her name in this review without tagging it as a spoiler. But uncovering her name in the game to reach the protagonist’s objective requires some work.

This is a longer Twine game. It feels like there are two halves of gameplay. The first is to (Spoiler - click to show) find Miriam while the second is to revive her to the waking world.

In the first half, the player searches the house for abnormal clues to build an understanding about Miriam's living situation. For the most part, this uses a “you can look but not touch” philosophy as you explore. The main mechanic is to use a list of thoughts that are automatically assembled and testing them in areas that seem relevant. It did feel, at times, a bit stagnant when you lose track of where you should look for clues. You end up going over the list for every possible location until you find something that sticks. A strong point (see below) is that it at least keeps track of which prompts you have already used.

Choose a thought:
Light and shadow is acting strangely. / tried
This is unnaturally aged or faded. / tried
There's something here that I can't see.

At the bottom of the screen is a progress bar that measures your “awareness” level. Once the bar is full, (Spoiler - click to show) you discover that she is lying on the bedroom bed in a somewhat comatose state. However, you can only see her silhouette. Your job is not over yet.

The second half of the gameplay is about (Spoiler - click to show) reviving her identity through personal mementos found in the house and recovering her name. Here, the game gives you more freedom to interact with objects. It retains some of the function from the first half, but its application of mechanics is narrowed down. You focus on (Spoiler - click to show) finding meaningful objects. However, the wrong objects can detract from Miriam’s recovery. Things that seem helpful may cause the opposite effect. I found this part to be more challenging to complete but more immersive in its story.

Generally, the puzzles were interesting and creative. My favorite was the flower puzzle where you (Spoiler - click to show) read about flowers and match their descriptions in the flower bed to locate them. It faintly reminded me of Ghosts Within which has themes about flowers and their symbolism. It too features a puzzle involving a guidebook. Another great thing about this game is that uses free range of movement that lets you explore the house and fiddle about with objects within, sharing some attributes with a parser format. Great example of a puzzle-oriented Twine game.

At the end of the game (unless you lost prematurely), you are (Spoiler - click to show) presented with some sentences about her life. Some words in these sentences consist of links that you click on to change them. The goal is to use what you learned from the gameplay to piece together her life. There are multiple endings. (Spoiler - click to show) You do not have to get the answers right 100% to reach a positive ending but every word change has an impact.

As the game progressed it becomes clearer that the (Spoiler - click to show) story is not so much about finding a missing person in the literal sense but recovering a personality that had fallen to the wayside. The game does not end when you find her. It ends when you learn her name and affirm the things she loves. The name is the focal point. And with that comes identity.

There is not too much about the protagonist, Jane. The player can identify themselves as an investigator, researcher, or someone who just wants to help, but Jane is given only a few characteristics, although the game is in first person. She seems to have an affinity for, if not paranormal, the bizarre and unexplainable. I thought that she was going to have more of an occult-oriented profession, but the game only dips its toes this subject. It keeps things subtle which carries its own charm.

There are few NPCs. Only (Spoiler - click to show) Mr. Lane. Miriam as well, but she is unresponsive for most of the game. We learn about her through her home. You nitpick at everything. It is almost like using a lens and zooming in. You examine the sewing room, then the cork board on the wall, and if you look closer there is the (Spoiler - click to show) hidden bird sketch. That bird sketch is a possession with fond memories but it, just like Miriam’s interests, have been overshadowed by obligations in her life.

The game sticks to a black and white colour scheme. Black background, white text, and snazzy black and white graphics. Each location has its own artwork, many having more than one. All of this creates a surreal feel. It does mingle with other visual effects such as a change of font for handwriting without diverting from this theme.

Design wise, the game strives to be user friendly. It has links at the bottom of the page that, when clicked on, result in popup boxes containing the player’s thoughts, inventory, and notes. This was nice since you do not have to flip to a different screen every time you feel like viewing this content. For a Twine game with lots of puzzles this was extremely helpful.

Final thoughts
I have been a huge fan of Abigail Corfman's games for a while. The complexity possible in a Twine game seem to be elevated to the next level whenever I play her games. The Absence of Miriam Lane still has the familiar features found in her work. Free range of movement, unique and stylized use of puzzles (such as the flower puzzle), and a complex character-oriented story.

Based on what I have seen, I think this game will do well in the Comp. Speaking of which… this is the first game I have played for this Comp, and I am thrilled! Have you ever been in an art class where the teacher shows you a rainbow of bright and colourful craft paper that look so appealing you do not know which one to pick first? That is how I feel right now.

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The Soft Rumor of Spreading Weeds, by Porpentine Charity Heartscape

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A multi-act story that touches on familiar ground, September 17, 2022
by Kinetic Mouse Car
Related reviews: Twine, Surreal, Sub-Q

This is a sequel (or maybe a prequel) of sorts for the game With Those We Love Alive. Its description merely says that it is set in the same universe. It is made up of five surreal chapters that can be enjoyed even if you are new to either game.

In the first chapter you play as the Empress, one like the NPC in With Those We Love Alive. You have a limited amount of time to explore the Empress’ apartment before an assassin arrives and stabs you. This is reminiscent of howling dogs where (spoiler if you have not played howling dogs) (Spoiler - click to show) the protagonist is in a VR sequence about an empress taught to die gracefully if assassinated. The way you die (piously, peacefully, or shamefully) in this game depends on your location and influences the writing. To move forward, (Spoiler - click to show) wait for the assassin to kill you in the garden. At the brink of death, the Empress cuts out her own heart to let it fly away. If this occurs elsewhere the assign will squash the heart. Only outside can it escape. This theme appears throughout the game.

Now, the gameplay is story heavy. Some parts of the gameplay have free range of movement, as is the case in chapter one, where the player can travel between rooms. This is an immersive method often featured in Porpentine’s games. It is part of what makes them such a delight to play. But other parts of the game give the player a lot of information to take in. It is full of new events and terminologies that are fascinated but also bewildering. That too is what makes Porpentine’s games shine. The gameplay and story are tightly intertwined and impossible to separate.

Story + Characters
I believe there are only two protagonists in this game. The first is the Empress who, as we know, is assassinated in chapter one. The second protagonist is a worker-convict who is introduced in chapter two and remains the PC for the rest of the game (although themes about the boundaries of individuality make this notion variable).

The story ramps up after the first chapter. I am going to summarize some parts because A, it is an incredibly rich story, and B, I want to see if anyone else had a similar impression. In chapter two (Spoiler - click to show) the protagonist works in a greenhouse that grows advanced perhaps sentient plants. Everyone lives under strict sovereign rules about what plants can be cultivated. The protagonist finds a letter explaining that convicts are now allowed to join the Stamen Vanguard. They jump at the opportunity.

The third and fourth chapters are about the (Spoiler - click to show) protagonist’s service in the Vanguard, the latter of which involves visiting a city where the Empress’ skeleton is on display. The player arrives at a garden where a woman explains that the only way to truly kill an Empress is to kill her heart. She tells the player to do just that, but the player is caught by a guard. Ironically, the Empress’ heart makes unexpected decision. She decides to use the protagonist’s body as her next reincarnation.

In the fifth and final chapter the (Spoiler - click to show) protagonist has been reincarnated into the new Empress. However, the heart often asserts its own consciousness onto the new Empress’ thoughts and actions. The game explains this in a manner that some players may already be familiar with: Dream sequences. These sequences explain how the heart contains the collective soul of all empresses. Even better, they utilize a red gradient background reminiscent of those seen in With Those We Love Alive. The gameplay too also shares some resemblance. Consider asking the Sartorialist to make clothes (below):

Crimson fabric: The better to be stabbed in.
White fabric: For a striking death.
Black: Goes with everything.
Lavender: Your new favorite color.

Look familiar? It is just like crafting items as an artisan in With Those We Love Alive.

The player makes speeches and other duties until the game ends.
I only found (Spoiler - click to show) two endings. The first is where the Empress’ body and the heart seem to reach an understanding with each other. The second involves jumping out of a window in an attempt to regain control over yourself.

Overall, I liked this story because everything comes full circle. The start of the game depicts a (Spoiler - click to show) newly assassinated Empress; At the end, a new one rises to power. And yet, the Empress never really dies. The second protagonist is small and yielding in the face of the empire for most of the game but later becomes a central part in that empire’s leadership, even if they set out to do otherwise. There is a lot to think about.

The game has a black background with white text and purple links. A small flower icon is included at the end of some words which was a nice touch given its imagery about plants. I figured that this would remain unchanging, but the game decides to surprise the player more than once. The screen unexpectedly goes white with black text for the scene when you (Spoiler - click to show) cross the desert and uses a gradient red background for the (Spoiler - click to show) dream sequences in chapter five. Having a black screen for most of the game and then, bam, a gradient one has an exciting effect for the player.

Final thoughts
The Soft Rumor of Spreading Weeds is quite an adventure. I encourage you to play this more than once since the story is extensive and always shifting. If you like surreal interactive fiction and Porpentine’s work (especially if you enjoyed With Those We Love Alive) than I highly recommend that you give it a try.

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Kitty and the Sea, by Felix Pleșoianu

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Atmospheric wandering of a seaside laced with cats, August 12, 2022
by Kinetic Mouse Car
Related reviews: Surreal, Twine

This is surreal Twine game about wandering a seaside landscape in quiet contemplation. The world is infused with cat motifs and underlying feelings of loneliness, serenity, and self-reflection. There are no puzzles or plot twists, and yet, there is plenty to see and do in this game’s world.

The game really captures the feel of wandering aimlessly in a seaside setting. Its design is simple: clicking on links to navigate your environment. But there is an underlying complexity. It heavily uses cycling links, just small ones within each location but also ones that are strung together across locations. It is how you find yourself slowing moving from the waterfront to the lighthouse to the open sea and onwards. You might click on a link that takes you to a previous direction, but you can easily retrace your progress. The writing and the way the links are imbedded in each other really create a smooth effect. It feels less linear and more adaptive to the player's choices. It also creates the excitement of stumbling across a new location that you overlooked.

There is a sense that you are the only person there- well, technically you are. You are not ambushed by cuddle piles of cats. In fact, there are no cats you can directly interact with. You only see hints of them here and there in the corner of your eye. But paying close attention to these details almost creates a meditative experience. One of my favorite details is (Spoiler - click to show) in the larger boat, The Flying Fish. It is empty, but you cannot help but notice that the furniture has traces of cat hair.

The author has such vivid imagination that shines in this game. Rather than a broad story that encases the entire game, the story lies in bits and pieces throughout the setting. Different areas are infused with memories and small narratives that help you form your own idea of the history of the seaside setting and the locations connected to it. Besides, the world is just so fascinating to explore. At the waterfront there is a warehouse called "Feline Industries Recycling Center." It is not exactly clear as to what type of facility it is, only that when you explore it you catch hints of cats scampering about the rafters. You get a taste of the story’s world without really knowing what it is.

One of my favorite bits of writing is part of the location description for Feline Industries Waterfront:

Far to the north, beyond a barren expanse, pale light reveals a small town. The sign pointing that way says: “To Centaur Square”. It looks like a short trip.

When you click on “It looks like a short trip” it changes to:

Trying to follow its directions however makes the town appear more distant with every step. Only a solitary line of paw prints marks the way.

There is something about that writing that really resonated with me. Just think about it...

Is there an ending? I believe the answer is no. I certainly did not reach an ending, nor did I find one while digging through the source code that the author posted. But this feels like a game that needs no ending. It ends when you feel like ending the experience.

I applaud the visual design. It is crisp and simple. Main appearance of the game is a white square against a second off-white background. The text is spaced within the square with black lines and accents. The text is well-organized and easy to read, and the name of each location is neatly printed at the top. Occasionally, the writing is augmented with basic but pretty artwork of the setting. All of this created a polished look.

In case you want to compare notes, I found (Spoiler - click to show) five pieces of artwork in the game. The locations are Engine room, Feline bedroom, Ground Floor, In a boat at sea, Round Chamber.

Final thoughts?
So, what is it like playing Kitty and the Sea? Imagine this: It is past noon, and you are playing a Twine game, one that lets you roam around, almost like a parser game, but also one that is heavily based on writing. You are groggy and tired. It is tempting to take a nap, but you convince yourself not to since you want to break the bad habit of sleeping late in the day. You are not really reading; you are just clicking. Whenever you try to focus on the writing, as if someone asked you to read it and then summarize it at the drop of a hat, you just feel so tired. But then slowly your brain starts to focus on the text on and suddenly it does not seem so vast. You go from being in a mid-afternoon dazed to suddenly super-focused on this game that you suddenly realize "wow, this game is actually quite captivating!" THAT was my experience (and this is not the only game where this has happened to me). That was my personal experience. Go see where it takes you.

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They Perished, by Bret Sepulveda
A surreal inventory management game about a dead city, August 3, 2022
by Kinetic Mouse Car
Related reviews: Surreal, Twine

The game begins at the edge of a dead city called Chloe. Not much is described about the protagonist, only that you are determined to enter the city from one end and escape from the other side. Sadly, it is much harder to leave, and you are being hunted by a strange icy figure that moves closer with each passing day. Meanwhile, a tall spire attached to a mysterious egg loom in the distance.

The game uses several types of currency that are represented as colourful symbols on the screen which adds a neat visual flair. Along with coins the player collects manifestations of will, movement, and language. These currencies allow you to access different locations, acquire special objects, and engage with characters. The few characters you can meet are all ghosts of past inhabitants. They are summoned based on location and can assist the player.

The management part is balancing the amount of currency that you need for your objectives. For example, if you need coins, visiting (Spoiler - click to show) the rooftop in the labyrinth is a plentiful place to look. But it always costs you manifestation-of-will currency. Therefore, if the objective I am saving up for requires both coins and manifestation-of-will I end up having to make up the slack somewhere else. This tight inventory management is key attribute to the game. Management of time is also a major variable, and this is where my criticism starts.

Gameplay is marked by the passage of the moon cycles, starting on a new moon, and ending at the tail end of a full moon. This gives the player several days. However, this does not give the player enough time to gather resources needed to make progress, especially (Spoiler - click to show) with Ending 3. On one aspect this is where strategy comes into play. But it feels too tightly constrained to permit exploration of the game’s world. I found myself so focused on micro-managing currency that I felt like I was missing out on some of the world-building.

For instance, you can learn (Spoiler - click to show) more about the ghosts’ former lives by visiting the screeching room in the spire, but the effort and resources required to look up just one character entry would mean running out of time to make up those resources that I would otherwise need to win the game. My hope is that more people will try this game. Who knows? Maybe some player will prove me wrong and glide through the puzzles effortlessly. I would love to know if anyone had a different experience than I did.

We do not know exactly why the protagonist is running or why Chloe is a dead husk. The events behind the city’s destruction or the purpose of the spire and the egg are never fully explained. Based on what (Spoiler - click to show) Ran, Lady of Stone says the spire was possibly as a punishment on the city by some unnamed entity. Ending 3 (SPOILERS), where you take the elevator to the top of the spire and climb into the egg, delves a little more into this but still leaves questions unanswered. (Spoiler - click to show) (Comment if you want my notes on the endings).

The game's surrealness and use of descriptive imagery carries itself through. A lot of it seems to be left up to interpretation. What exactly is the egg? Is it biological? A dormant organism? A weapon? The implications for any of those and the city's fate are interesting to think about. Regardless I would have liked to know more about this compelling story that the author portrays.

Final thoughts
This is a strong game with a few tradeoffs. It is tightly timed, a sometimes a bit too unfairly. But it also forces the player to use strategic thinking to keep them on their toes, so they do not waste resources. If you are interested in that type of gameplay, then definitely play this one.

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