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Andelmans' Yard, by Arlan Wetherminster

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Cat rescue leads in a different direction, November 30, 2022

You are fourteen-year-old Kyle, a Boy Scout looking to earn a Community Service badge. Peanut the cat has run off, and this is your chance to show initiative. Time to investigate the local neighborhood.

Gameplay
When the game began my first impression was that a Boy Scout troop was out looking for a cat (does that occur in real-life?) which immediately creates a cool ambience. A closer look soon showed that Kyle is the only Boy Scout around. Meanwhile, a group of middle-school aged kids, are running about and talking about a kid named Max. Naturally, the player is roped into participating in Max’s plans.

I really, really, like the (Spoiler - click to show) occult twist. Yes, you heard that right. The start of the game sounds like a light, wholesome game about a youth trying to save a cat (which also sounds like fun) to earn a badge only to surprise the player with an unexpected thrill. Eerie ten-year-old Max (Spoiler - click to show) wants to hold a ritual in the groundwater tunnels. Sounds cool! Max needs three Native American artifacts for the ritual. He has one and wants you to find the other two. By now, finding the cat falls to the wayside as you pursue this new objective.

This is not a puzzle heavy game but there is a lot of exploring. The gameplay has a moderate sized map consisting of a suburban area. You will probably want to make a light map of the underground tunnels. Nothing too fancy, but you may find it helpful.

There is one bug/issue that made the game unwinnable. (UPDATE: I've received feedback that this is NOT an unwinnable state. I'm leaving this paragraph in as a formality but understand that my calling it unwinnable was an incorrect assessment on my part). (Spoiler - click to show) Max wants Clem to solder the three artifacts together. Clem follows you around for most of the gameplay. You are supposed to retrieve the hand-held generator from his garage, fill it with gas, and give it to him so he can use his solder iron. I put the game in an unwinnable state by giving him the generator before Max has all three artifacts.

He looks at you, “Give me the hand-held generator.”

I already gave it to him at the garage. I tried to take it back, but…

That seems to belong to Clem.

I restarted the game because I could see no way of soldering the artifacts together to start the ritual. CORRECTION: While Clem may still ask for the generator even after you give it to him, he will solder the artifacts together once everyone arrives.


Story
I was expecting the story to have more focus on the protagonist’s goal of earning a badge, perhaps incorporating themes of “character building.” Maybe I am misinterpreting the process of earning a Community Service badge. Point is, Kyle obviously takes this seriously, and as a game, the idea of earning a badge takes center stage. This is the first Boy Scout PC I have played in interactive fiction, and I was excited to see where it would go. Ultimately, this part of Kyle’s identity was not showcased as much as I thought it would be.

The setting is intriguing. After snooping around you come across some newspaper clippings that outline two main controversies in the area. The first follows the development of a (Spoiler - click to show) new museum on Native American culture that has been delayed over conflicts of the museum’s focus. There is also mention of Native American artifacts being discovered while the neighborhood was being developed. The second controversy looks at a trend of (Spoiler - click to show) health issues in residents that seem to be connected to the water supply. Plans were made to re-design the water drainage system, but those plans were brought to a halt. The story focuses more on the former issue.

The storyline reminded me of an element in Anchorhead where a (semi-spoilers for Anchorhead coming right up!) (Spoiler - click to show) specific tribe- I believe it was a fictional tribe- of indigenous people who worshiped celestial entities that were of interest to the Verlac family because it was connected to a vast ritual that had been planned for generations. The player, lucky you, gets to deal with the impending doom of this ritual. Right near the center of town is a big obelisk that covers the tribe’s ancient burial ground that also seals off a hell-dimension on the other side of mortal existence. You learn about this through newspaper clippings and content from the library. It’s wild. I mean, it’s Anchorhead, obviously.

Max (Spoiler - click to show) speaks of a monster in the southernmost tunnels that had been sealed off by Native Americans. This can be unsealed with a ritual using the three artifacts. Max himself also seems to be possessed. Disturbing, but not disturbing enough to dissuade the other neighborhood kids, including Kyle, from helping. Don’t get me wrong, (Spoiler - click to show) suburban Boy Scout cat search + occult ritual hosted by a ten-year-old named Max is novel as it brushes on Anchorhead themes. My complaint is this: there is hardly any story (or gameplay) about (Spoiler - click to show) finding Peanut the cat.

Start of game: You have been tasked to find the missing cat, Peanut. You're hoping this simple mission will earn you your Community Service merit badge. You head into the woods where the cat was last seen.

We’ve seen Peanut at the start of game. She’s behind a storm tunnel grating and runs off when you open it. Onwards, you try to run and chase her. Throughout the gameplay are cues such as, “You hear the tinkling of a small bell,” and “You hear a cat meowing,” amongst NPCs’ advice to look in the tunnels! And from there on, the cat takes a back seat as the gameplay shifts to finding artifacts.

When you save your friends from the monster and win the game, Peanut decides to appear and jump into your arms. Great resolution, but I just sat there realizing how much time I wasted trying to corner the cat into one of tunnels, using the dead rat as bait (probably not as appealing to cats as I thought), and experimenting with the various exits and entrances in the tunnel maze to map out her movements. The kid doesn’t even get his badge at the end of the game!


Characters
NPCs wander independently. I always enjoy seeing this in interactive fiction because it feels more dynamic. That said, their behavior does not have much substance. When you first meet them, they introduce themselves to you which is a strong start. Then they wander around until aimlessly until you make progress towards the (Spoiler - click to show) ritual. To be fair, designing seven (plus Peanut) independent NPCs is probably not an easy task. And you will find moments where NPC behavior triggers a surprising effect, such as when they all (Spoiler - click to show) suddenly gather in the meeting room to start the ritual. That was cool.

I have criticism about the dialog. The game uses the “topics” command to offer a list of topics to ask other characters. I thought this was smart because it keeps the player close to relevant subject matters. The issue is that A, topics do not acknowledge the player’s progress, and B, the “topics” feature lack subjects relevant to the situation. To use an example for the first case, (Spoiler - click to show) if you ask Max about the artifacts after the ritual, he still acts as if you have not found them yet. This put a dent in the interaction.

The other concern become more apparent as the story developed. Characters were limited in their responses to these events. The topics list never expands. In Clem’s introduction he says, "'I'm Clem. I'm in charge of the reconstruction effort.'" But asking him about it (I wanted to know if this had any connection to the (Spoiler - click to show) water quality controversy) results in, "Clem doesn't have anything useful to say about that." Alright, maybe I am being a stickler on this one. Still, subjects about the (Spoiler - click to show) ritual, the Andelmans’ house, and characters’ immediate surroundings are excluded from conversation. (Spoiler - click to show)

Guarding the room is a fearsome pitbull. He eyes you while growling.

Clem comes up from below.

>ask Clem about pitbull
Clem doesn't have anything useful to say about that.

I was expecting some response.


Also, who are the Andelmans'? It’s in the title. First impression was when I tried to enter the basement before meeting with the NPCs in the meeting place near the start of the game.

You begin to head west when suddenly you hear a girl's voice scold you, "We don't go in there. We think it's the Andelman House."

There you go. Mystery. It creates a chilling, sinister vibe to the gameplay. A hint that there is more to this maze of storm drain tunnels than what meets the eye. Right away you think, Who are the Andelmans? Sounds like a neighborhood legend. Your curiosity is spiked because this suburban adventure just got a whole lot interesting. This never went anywhere. We explore the house, almost abandoned, if not for the (Spoiler - click to show) guard dog in the kitchen. I kept wondering what the big secret was. Turns out, I was on the wrong path. I was thinking of this in terms of character names. Andelmans' Yard is (Spoiler - click to show) apparently named after a song of the same title. I would never have known that if I had not looked up the game’s title on a hunch. The song’s lyrics details exploring tunnels and themes that are seen in the gameplay. That was the connection I was missing.

Final thoughts
This game has a good start. While character interactions could use more polish, the game has been tested and it feels like completed piece. I enjoyed the surprises. Especially (Spoiler - click to show) Max’s surprises. The author does a nice job in mixing the everyday with the (Spoiler - click to show) paranormal. Even though I was expecting the gameplay to go through with its (Spoiler - click to show) original plot of searching for Peanut, I am glad that, in the end, we find her anyway. If there are any more games about Kyle trying to earn a badge, I would be interested in playing them. An enjoyable slice of life game mystery with a horror twist.


That Night at Henry's Place, by Jei D. Marcade
Just a fun party. Right?, September 27, 2022

Your best friend has a change in plans for Friday night. Instead of watching movies like usual you are going to a party hosted by Henry, a former classmate. Henry... Vaguely familiar. No one fully knows why he stopped going to your high school but hey, a party is a party. Everyone will be there.

Gameplay
The player first customizes their best friend with a name and pronouns before the game begins. There is a brief intro that is skippable after your first playthrough. On the drive to the party your friend hits a pale and gangly creature unlike any animal you know. You can then choose (and this is where the gameplay begins when you skip the intro) to either step out of the car to look around or to continue driving to the party. This choice is relatively trivial, but its effects will worm its way into the rest of the gameplay in the form of tiny details.

At the party the player can roam around in three main areas: the barn, the yard, and the house. The game gives the player some free range of moment where it feels like they are strolling from each location. In these areas are some partygoers and light scenery, some of which the player can directly interact with. This is not a puzzle-oriented game, but it does require the player to use creative thinking to find every ending. Its combination of ten endings and short playthroughs make it a game with great replay value. At the time of this review, I managed to reach all but the fifth ending.

There are some rough areas that stood out. If you talk to Henry in the loft, he climbs down the ladder but leaves his thermos and key behind. You can then choose to take either item or simply leave. However, if you (Spoiler - click to show) do the latter and then return to the loft, the game repeats the encounter as if the player never visited with Henry in the first place. This did not give the impression of being purposely designed to cultivate a surreal effect for an otherworldly party. It just seemed like rough implementation. He can also be in different places at once. If you wear the mask, he will be telling a story around the bonfire while waiting in the loft at the same time (unless you previously took the key or the thermos).

Someone is sitting with his legs dangling over the edge, his back to you. It's Henry.

Say hello.

Climb back down to the barn.

The other rough edge that stood out is when content seem to replace each other. If you (Spoiler - click to show) eat five cookies in the kitchen you hear your friend calling you from the basement (and in fact, they are there when you open the door) but if you go to the cornfield instead of opening the door you find them under the suspiciously UFO-looking light in the field which defaults to either ending 8 or ending 7. It is as if the game suddenly rewrote the fact that the NPC was in the basement. This is not commonplace but still dulled the shine a little while I experimented with the gameplay. Nonetheless, it still offered immersive and compelling playthroughs.

Story
One of the strongest aspects of this game is its atmosphere and familiar spooky themes. People telling unsettling stories around a fire, seances, a strange host, mystery beverages, etc. Then there is the odd fact that, when asked, none of the guests can say they know Henry at all. Intriguing. All of this sets a stage for the story.

But the storyline laced through it all almost stops short. The player does not quite feel like they are peeling back a mystery or some deeper layer. Some of the endings have a bit of cliche horror, such as the (Spoiler - click to show) Skin Suit ending. Others are more contemplative or make the player blink and say, “what just happened?” I liked all of these. It is tough to put into words. I sometimes felt like I was just skimming the surface of something more. Then again, horror games do not always need ultra-complex and detailed stories to be effective. Regardless, I still greatly enjoyed this game.

If I were to piece everything together to find the underlying story this is what I think it would be. Also: mega spoilers with yuck factor. (Spoiler - click to show) An evil (perhaps alien considering the UFO over the cornfield) entity killed Henry a while ago- explaining why Henry left high school- and stole his skin as a suit. If you go into the attic you see “Henry” slip out of his skin next to a clothing rack of, you guessed it, other human skins. Of course, the game ends with the entity claiming the protagonist as a new wardrobe piece. The game is not (particularly) graphic. Mostly implied horror (Halloween, anyone?). (Spoiler - click to show) These themes are only explored in endings 3 and 9. The other endings take a more generalized approach to the story. Does anyone have a different take on it?

Visuals
The game sticks to a black screen, blue links, and (almost exclusively) white text. A strength is that the text is evenly spaced and easy to read. I know you are probably thinking, "So? Why are you rambling about this?" Well, text formatting can leave a dent in the game or enhance it. This game, I think, is a good example of a polished but basic look. It has a slightly distinctive look.

The game will occasionally incorporate some text effects to convey an effective atmosphere. This includes light animation and colours. It even dabbles with different font here and there. My favorite effect is when the lights in the den go out and the player has to "search" for the light switch by sweeping their mouse/cursor across the screen until the link appears. This demonstrates how special effects can be used to tell the story.

Final thoughts
That Night at Henry’s Place is a solid and well-fleshed horror Twine game. Despite some rough areas the game effectively draws the player in with its dawning sense of horror and flexibility in free range of movement. The player can stroll freely from location to location but leaving the party entirely is another matter! I enjoyed the atmosphere and was motivated to try for every ending.

Right now, we are getting close to the end of September which means Halloween is coming up. If you are thinking about compiling a personal Halloween IF playlist for October, consider That Night at Henry’s Place. In fact, there are some Halloween references in the game!


Pageant, by Autumn Chen

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A unique take on a beauty pageant with a complex protagonist, September 2, 2022

Our protagonist is Karen Zhao, a high school junior from Massachusetts. Her full name is Qiuyi (Karen*) Zhao, but she goes by Karen. One day Karen’s mom informs her that she has been signed up for a beauty pageant, with the argument that it would diversify her extracurriculars for college. Karen, knowing that she cannot refuse, has no choice but to add pageant preparation to her long list of responsibilities.

This is a story about being forced to step out of your comfort zone while life adds extra surprises into the mix. As the player you must manage her hectic life and hopefully win the pageant.

*The player can actually choose her English name, but I always found myself sticking to Karen since it is the default. I will refer to her as Karen in this review.

Gameplay
Each week the player has three time slots that they can use on a list of activities including preparing for the pageant or attending Science Olympiad study sessions. There are additional activities on the weekend although those usually deviate from school. This management of responsibilities involves some strategy and provides incentives for replay. The gameplay will have “Introspection” segments where you can check your progress in preparing for the pageant and other goals.

There are no individual (Spoiler - click to show) stand-alone endings. No “Ending 1” or “Ending 2.” Instead, the game assesses the player in different categories such as their performance in Science Olympiad or their final relationship status with one of the characters. The pageant, being the focus of the game, is the closest thing to an overarching ending. You either win it or lose it (although losing it comes in a few different flavors). Based on your performance you may unlock achievements at the end of the game. I liked this format because it feels more flexible in its assessment of the player’s choices.

I only have two technical issues. The first is that if you (Spoiler - click to show) win a slot as co-captain the achievement remains locked on the achievements page. The second issue is that I have been unable to (Spoiler - click to show) win anything other than a bronze medal with Audrey for Science Olympiad. I looked at the source code and saw that it is possible to win a gold metal if you study enough with her. However, even when I spent every study session with her, I would always get bronze. The player has a limited amount of study sessions with Science Olympiad partners. Study sessions are once a week but stop long before the weekend of the competition. This means you need to choose which teammates get more interaction.

Story + Characters
Three main themes kept surfacing: the clash of perspectives between Karen and her parents, the stress of preparing for collage, and her identity as a gay young woman. Anxiety is a major theme. There is anxiety with school and parental expectations, the stress of wondering if you are good enough for your dream collage topped off with being acutely aware that your peers all seem to have the same ambitions as you. But for this review I am going to focus on the other two themes.

Family
Karen was born in China and traveled to the US with her parents. The intersection of parental traditions and her experience as a modern teen are themes that are heavily explored in this game. Sharing family stories is a common activity. (Spoiler - click to show) For Karen, this sometimes cultivates feelings of guilt about the severity of her parents’ upbringing in comparison to her own. Her parents had to worry about things that she takes for granted and yet her struggles are unique to her own experience. Daily life also involves regular interactions with the local Chinese community. Potlucks and get-togethers are typical weekend activities. (Spoiler - click to show) During this the parents chat about their children’s grades and social activities. In these conversations is a traditional sense of what roles children should take. But for young people like Karen, Emily, and Audrey these norms may feel dated. That is not to say that they reject their heritage. One of my favorite parts in the game is when (Spoiler - click to show) Karen and Audrey are encouraged to sing with the adults during Bible study.

There is one loose string that caught my attention. If the player (Spoiler - click to show) interacts with Karen's family enough, they reach an encounter where Karen's father learns that she is gay by noticing the books that she checked out from the library. He tries to talk to her about it, but the situation is so overwhelming that she runs into her room, locking her door. The scene is short and intense enough that you would expect to see a follow up later in the game, but it never happens. Not even at the end of the game where it summarizes her relationship with her family. Given that these topics are a prominent theme in the story I was surprised that the game did not build on the encounter.

Orientation
Karen is gay but hides it from her parents and most people. The game conveys the frustration of having her parents talk casually about marriage and grandchildren when a core aspect of herself completely goes against it. She also interacts with Emily, who is (Spoiler - click to show) transgender and struggles with not being able to be her true self around her parents and their expectations. Emily’s parents know bits and pieces but ultimately, she has not yet come out to them. Emily was one of my favorite characters because she introduces Karen to big questions. Throughout the game Karen and Emily may choose to counsel each other or simply chat. Emily is also one out of three characters that the player can pursue a romantic relationship with.

A defining plot point is if the player makes it to the (Spoiler - click to show) research event called “Emily and the Professor.” Karen participates with research in a lab managed by Professor Chan who is also Emily’s father. In this scene, he brings Emily to watch Karen give a presentation, referring to Emily as his son and asking Karen to teach “him” about science. The player can choose to proceed with the presentation or step down and say that they are not ready. With the latter choice the player chooses not to be a part of Professor Chen’s attempt to force an identity on Emily. Choosing this option is clearly a risk for Karen but it feels empowering. We see the culmination of their friendship in the face of uncomfortable situation. It is an eye-opening moment not just for Karen but for the player as well.

Visuals
The game has a crisp look, almost like the text is written on a piece of stationary or index card. The textbox area is set in a white box sent against a cream background and accented with grey lines and red links. Together it creates a simple but polished appearance. I liked how the game incorporates more than one language. It uses Mandarin characters with italicized translations. This game is made with Dendry which adds some variety to the development systems that I have encountered.

Final thoughts
This was the first game I played by Autumn Chen who is an incredible author. Everything is well-written, concise yet meaningful. Karen is a memorable character who is relatable and unique. Because of this, (Spoiler - click to show) winning the pageant feels more like a victory. I highly recommend the game, especially if you are interested in the slice-of-life genre.

Also: There is also a sequel game called New Year’s Eve, 2019. It features Karen in her senior year. (CORRECTION: Senior year of collage)



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