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One Way Ticket, by Vitalii Blinov
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.

The Absence of Miriam Lane, by Abigail Corfman

5 of 5 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.

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.

Kitty and the Sea, by Felix Pleşoianu

2 of 2 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.

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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