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Hanna, We're Going to School, by Kastel

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Time for school, time for school, time for school, time for-, May 3, 2023

It’s time for school but you’re not feeling it right now.
Or ever, really. But you and Hanna have no choice. School it is, then.
Oh, and Hanna is a ghost.

Contrary to what the game’s title suggests, Hanna is not the PC. You play as a high school girl named Jing who goes to an international school in Singapore called the American Independence School. Unlike Jing, Hanna expresses some excitement about going to school. Soon, though, we see that this excitement is masking underlying pain as we face the daily mundane and rocky reality that is school.

The start of the gameplay really sucks you in. It captures how Twine’s interactivity can be used to make a more dynamic scene. We begin in Jing’s bedroom.

You get up.

You are in your bedroom, which consists of a desk full of books, a desktop computer, a bed, and a cabinet.

Hanna eyes at your schoolbag.

Here, "books," "desktop computer," and "bed," are all links that expand the text to reveal more information about each item while clicking on the cabinet link moves the gameplay forward as Jing gets ready for school.

While the scene’s outcome is not impacted by your choice to examine the scenery, the links provide an extra sense of interaction that make it a little more interesting than if it were one big room description. It also engages the player with Twine’s choice-based format. Why read when you can click on links?

This structure continues for the rest of the game as we venture into Jing's school. After your first playthrough, the game allows you to skip ahead to crucial parts in the gameplay to save time. Much appreciated.

(I’m going to do characters first, then story.)

We do not learn as much about Jing as I hoped. After all, she is the starring PC. She’s Chinese, lives in an apartment, her parents both work (we never meet them), likes to use art and books as a portal for exploring sexuality, and has befriended a ghost named Hanna! Alright, we learn a fair amount. But her character is intriguing. More would be nice.

It would also be nice to have more context about Jing’s everyday school life. While I understand that school day structure differs across the globe, American Independent School has a somewhat bizarre (to me) daily schedule. (Spoiler - click to show) It offers cafeteria lunch twice and holds a separate student council-led karaoke party between Trigonometry and European History class. Actually, that doesn’t sound so bad. Ultimately, however, I felt out of touch. (If this really occurs in real life, thank you for diversifying my understanding of how teens go to school in today’s world.)

Clara. Ah yes. Clara does not censor what she says. She just says it without considering her surroundings. Or those nearby. She also thinks that she is doing you a favor by letting you know what she has to say.

Consider: a group of young people with that one peer who, to everyone’s delight and dismay, confidently and loudly talks about daring and explicit things in a causal social setting. Just when you think the conversation has leveled off, bam, the peer in question takes it up several more notches and everyone around is just, “oh wow.” That’s Clara. The scene in the (Spoiler - click to show) hallway after homeroom (and onwards) showcases this perfectly.

She embodies the “mature” girl persona who claims to have a resume of sexual experiences. She also comes off as trying to convince herself that she knows the ropes and that her confidence on the subject matter is unwavering. A bystander (Jing/player) is then used as a sounding board as she pelts them with a mix of "advice," tidbits of knowledge that demonstrate credibility, and personal experiences involving sex and other adult-like activities.

My favorite sentence in this game:

You pretend to agree and hope Clara's done with her TED Talk.

Clara gives some intense TED Talks.

When it comes to her relationship with Jing, Clara does not come off as being the classic High School Mean Girl who breaks out in hives at the mere sight of you. Maybe that is not what the author intended, but that’s the impression it left on me. If anything, Clara sees herself as friend rather than foe.

Clara reads more like a bossy, we’re-friends-since-we-see-each-other-daily type of “friend.” One who considers herself to be your friend in a self-serving manner or considers you to be a friend more so than you feel in return. She latches onto you like a leech while insisting that she knows what’s best for you. Especially when it comes to sexuality.

It gets uncomfortable. Clara reassures Jing about her dating desirability. Because Jing is Chinese, Clara keeps advising her to embrace “popular” stereotypes by acting more submissive and “pure-hearted” since that apparently is what attracts dudes. Clara may be trying to help in her own way, but ultimately this persistent fetishization overwhelms Jing. And most likely the player.

But as the story’s antagonist, she does not seem so bad after all… Until your final encounter with her where she (Spoiler - click to show) goes full homophobe and transphobe. Everyone’s (Jing/Hanna/hopefully the player) response to this is more, way more, than just, “oh wow.”

While Clara excels in her character role’s persona, there are some scenes that feel- even for her- more like an endless rant of shocking content that is independent from the scene itself. I wish we could explore her character in other ways than just sex-fueled rants.

And as for bringing an umbrella, (Spoiler - click to show) careful kids, you can poke an eye out. I applaud the implementation of Twine in this scene.

Hanna is a neat character- she’s a ghost! - with a tragic past who still brings the perspective of a modern teen unimpressed by the school system and its expectations. She does not necessarily “haunt” the player. Instead, she tags along to offer commentary, friendship, and support without sugar coating your collective circumstances.

Before the game even begins, we are presented with a passage that leads to the game’s menu. The passage keeps it brief: (Spoiler - click to show) Hanna was a teen who jumped off a hospital rooftop to commit suicide. Later we learn that in life, she identified as transgender but never received support or understanding- quite the opposite.

Here’s the deal: The gameplay ultimately leads up to a (Spoiler - click to show) pivotal scene where Clara (as I mentioned earlier) starts rambling about an unnamed individual during which she unleashes homophobic/transphobic commentary. First time around, I struggled to piece it all together.

In this scene, Clara explains (claims?) that she was engaged to a young man her age since they were kids except that he expressed interest in dresses, dolls, and feminine self-expression. She mocks this which only further traumatizes Hanna who is also transgender.

Then it clicked.


I need someone to spell it out for me so I can be sure: Was Clara engaged, in whatever form it may have been, to… Hanna? Before her death when people refused to recognize her identity? (Is it true that her previous- I hope I’m doing this properly- name was Alex? I only ask since Clara mentions the name once in her rant.) Talk about a plot twist. In fact, I initially failed to make the connection that Hanna knew both Jing and Clara as former classmates since middle school. Scatter-brained on my part.

Also, part of the reason Hanna transitioned was to avoid being drafted into the army since male Singaporeans are drafted into the National Service when they turn eighteen. This fact completely went over my head. It was not until I read the explanation in the content warning that I connected the dots- and it gives you some interesting things to think about since many international kids do not have to worry about this requirement. I just feel that this part of Hanna’s backstory could have been clearer.

There is one thing that I did not figure out. During Clara’s rant, we see a link that says, “Hanna’s wailing floods the whole room.” Clicking on it expands it into the following:

why am i not dead yet why am i not dead yet why am i not dead yet why am i not dead yet why am i not dead yet why am i not dead yet why am i not dead yet

Hanna is dead. There’s something I’m clearly missing.

NPCs (besides Hanna and Clara)
Finally, some of the remaining dialog almost seemed melodramatic in the sense that there is not much context around NPCs’ behavior. Like (Spoiler - click to show) Harold's outburst when you ask him what is wrong during homeroom. If I had not known better, I would have thought these characters were pre-teens who just entered middle school.

Nonetheless, they are still intriguing.

Story + Themes
The story takes place over one school day where we get a glimpse of daily life for Jing and Hanna, even if Hanna is not an actual student. She almost functions as an extension of Jing which is close enough. Besides Hanna’s backstory, Hanna We’re Going to School is largely character-oriented rather than wielding a complex storyline. There are, however, plenty of themes to go around.

There are several slice-of-life themes about youth and adulthood that could appeal to a wide range of players. However, the intended audience is relatively narrow since many of the themes are explored through brief, sudden romance-oriented encounters that may not appeal to everyone. This runs the risk of the player not absorbing the key themes showcased in a scene if they are skimming past certain parts.

For instance, (Spoiler - click to show) Clara's attempt to matchmake you with Dan was surreal and disjointed. Is she serious? It seemed like an unbelievable exchange… unless it’s set in reality more so than I realize. While this specific scene made me raise my eyebrows, I could see how it ties in with the game’s discussions on the intersecting expectations placed on young people.

Much of the game is focused on the idea of adult expectations of who you marry, the achievements of your parents, academic performance, job prospects, and your ability to look casually desirable the entire time. I feel like the (Spoiler - click to show) scene with Dan is meant to shine light on several of these issues, but from a gameplay standpoint it leaves you a bit bewildered. Because of this, players may find it less relatable.

Also: I'm not asking for more in that scene between (Spoiler - click to show) Clara and Dan in the school library, I'm really not (no shame if anyone feels otherwise), but it came out of nowhere and felt completely out of context. Even for this game. In the school library? I would say it is the only truly explicit scene in the game and is completely avoidable.

The game uses a basic set of visuals that opt for something besides the typically default Twine appearance of a black screen, white text, and a standardize font (you'll know it when you see it). There is nothing wrong with using the default, but when authors choose to use a slightly different background colour or multiple font styles, I notice.

Hanna, We’re Going to School features a grey screen with white text and blue-purple links. There is also a wine-coloured panel on the left side of the text body. It contains the “under” arrow that lets you go back a passage. Basic stuff but looks good.

Final thoughts
Hanna, We’re Going to School is a bold, insightful game that bravely questions the intersecting issues that young people experience in the eyes of society and their fellow peers as they start to transition into adulthood. Jing witnesses this from a unique perspective.

She does not share the seemingly carefree lifestyle that her peers put on display, nor does she possess the social status wielded by peers from more influential families. But Clara’s attempts at “mentorship” provides a closer glimpse of the privilege differences within the student body. This slightly departs from the typical formula of popular girl vs unpopular girl while still showcasing the various forms of harassment that can occur, especially when it comes to gender expectations.

Meanwhile, Hanna’s own story raises implications of the harm done when one’s gender identity is mocked, especially if one is still trying to find themselves. As we see, Hanna (Spoiler - click to show) experiences some uncertainty about her motives for transitioning while simultaneously feeling at home with identifying as a girl. Her character is fun, quirky, and honest, making her a highlight of the game.

However, there are some drawbacks. The game could use more clarity for the plot along with additional worldbuilding shown in the gameplay. Right now, I feel like I know more about Clara than Hanna and Jing which is too bad since Hanna and Jing are a fantastic duo. The explicitness of some scenes may also drive some players away.

Otherwise, it is a strong slice of life piece about high school and teenage futures.

Further reading
These are NOT spoilers, but since my reviews are so darn long, I’m spoiler-tagging it to save screen space. I write a lot.
(Spoiler - click to show)
Hanna, We're Going to School reminds me of an unrelated graphic novel called Anya's Ghost. The premise is similar in the sense that it depicts a teenage girl who navigates life and high school while being followed around by a ghost of another teen girl. While that may sound like a carbon copy of Hanna, We’re Going to School, I can reassure you that they diverge in story and subject matter. But the way Hanna coasts along with Jing and offers commentary just reminded me so much of the duo in Anya’s Ghost. If you like this game, you may like the book, and vice versa.

Also, if you are interested in further exploring the social dynamics of an internationally oriented school setting, consider the ChoiceScript game Learning to Be Human. It is an educational game about bullying where you play as a humanoid robot tasked with making connections with middle/high school aged students from different countries. While it is not a particularly thrilling game, it is more interesting than it sounds. Just note that it is strongly character centered, so don’t expect an in-depth storyline. The game covers subjects on popularity, body image, bias on cultural heritage, and inclusion. Recommended if you were drawn in by the peer social interactions found in Hanna, We’re Going to School.

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System Processing, by Albie

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

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

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

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

Perhaps it depends on one's outlook.

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

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

Until today!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes between playthroughs I encountered a looping effect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

System Processing is tied to a secret I have.

The big secret is.......

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

Ov has a bitterness about feeling underappreciated and misunderstood.

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

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

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

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

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

Peacefully, of course. :)

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

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

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


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

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

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

At least, I have this:

Maintenance Requests
Urgent Request (from: Eiro) – DENIED

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(That little beaker icon was also nice.)

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Cozy Simulation 2999, by KADW

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Comfort… centuries from now. Still comfortable?, March 6, 2023

So warm. How lovely.

Welcome to your cabin.
Please, take a look around.

You find yourself in a cozy cabin surrounded by a winter wonderland. It belongs to you, and only you. It can be customized if you should wish. Just don’t mind me.

(wait a minute…)

Despite the surreal dreaminess that pervades the cabin, you can sense that someone is pulling the strings. And for good reason. I think the game's title gives it away, but I'll put it under spoiler tag anyway: (Spoiler - click to show) Your comfy cozy cabin is a simulation. None of it is real!

The gameplay follows an inconspicuous structure. There is a growing list of activities in the cabin for you to choose from. After three, you grow tired and fall asleep, unless you prolong your energy by drinking coffee (a clever little hack).

What would you like to do?

Drink something
Watch the fire
Read a book

Each time (or every other time) you wake up, a new activity is listed. Cozy activities. And. Activities that seem a little… out of context for this serene winter setting. For instance, the first new activity added to the list is "Watch the holoscreen." Huh. Seems a bit out of place. Things get weirder.

You also notice that the narrator has a habit of speaking directly to the protagonist. It is obvious that this entity controls the (Spoiler - click to show) simulation (again, I feel compelled to put that under spoilers), but the player feels powerless at interfering with the narrator’s soothing prattle. However, if there is a will there is a way. You have options.

Is possible to get under reality’s skin. The trigger to underscoring the (Spoiler - click to show) simulation is hard to find, and yet so cleverly hidden that I can hardly complain about its difficulty. I was too busy admiring this innovative way of using Twine’s visual features. Some players may find it too well-hidden, which is understandable, but it worked for me. Creativity like that pleases me in choice-based games.

I absolutely love the idea of a surreal game with unreliable layers of reality. That said, it could use a little more structure in its gameplay. There is no real sense of discovery where you are chugging along and stumble across something that tells you hm, this is different. A game that captures this subtly is The Twine Fishing Simulator. It strings you along but ultimately leaves it up to you when making the big discoveries. In COZY SIMULATION 2999, the narrator directly feeds the reveal to you. In fact, the narrator gives the impression of I’m totally not narrating the story! This is still effective, and even humorous, but much of the mystery is lost in the process.

So. How exciting can a winter wonderland be? Well, the story takes off when you fall asleep.

When you fall asleep, the (Spoiler - click to show) simulation reveals its flimsiness. You have memories of (Spoiler - click to show) running through an industrial complex, being chased by unknown pursuers. Contrary to the safeness of your cabin, these dreams are a world of machinery, corridors, sharp edges, grime, and pain. The opposite of soft rugs and hot chocolate. The best part is when the game swaps out a new set of visuals that are FANTASTIC at conveying this change in tone. I’ll discuss that in the next section. FYI: (Spoiler - click to show) Memories can surface elsewhere in the game, but mostly through sleep sequences. That’s why it is important to explore every feature.

You want the truth? (Spoiler - click to show) After stubbornly refusing the help of the narrator, I realized that reality meant an industrial surgical ward operated by angels reminiscent of a Porpentine game. Turns out the angel- the narrator- attached to your body is the one pumping the simulation through your mind. And it means well, too. It was never, “ha-ha, you’re mine!” It wants to help you (sort of), but you can only live in a simulation for so long. Or maybe you can. The choice is yours.

I don’t know if I could go back to having pillow fights in the cabin while knowing that- I’ve spoiled too much. Please play the game for the full experience.
There are three endings, and the author has kindly provided a built-in guide for reaching them. The author also says that neither are good or bad, but I suppose depends on your interpretation of quality of existence. Do you (Spoiler - click to show) want to know the truth and suffer or exist blissfully as external reality falls apart?

For those who have played the game: (Spoiler - click to show) What does everyone think? The narrator does not seem maliciously deceptive, only wanting to conceal the truth. Which I assume is that 2999 is a horrible year to live in. I thought the clementine description was an eerie indicator.

Sweet and juicy. A little remainder of what they once called summer.

Think about it.

There is some vagueness about being reborn. It’s something that appears in all three endings that I assume has to do with the shenanigans going on outside of the simulation. My guess is that the shenanigan in question is to integrate people into a hive mind as painfully and soothingly as possible. I suppose that is one way of being reborn.

At first glance, even the game’s appearance oozes coziness.

The tan text is set in an off-white cream text box with a thick tan border. The font is small and delicate, with light tan links. Graphics are included along the text to depict cozy cabin imagery that adds nice polish. Finally, all of this is set against a white backdrop of a snowy tree, blurred enough to minimize distractions while finalizing the appear of a winter landscape.

Imagine my surprise when that changed. (Spoiler - click to show) Once dream-mode kicks in, the entire background goes black with thick dark-grey rounded borders crammed against the edges of the screen. The text is white, and the links are red. If you seek out the truth, some extra background visuals are added. They make you wonder if maybe staying in that warm winter cabin would have been a better idea than look too closely.

This change in atmosphere was perfect. The use of visual elements to signal (Spoiler - click to show) shifts in reality is one of the strongest parts of the game. Visuals have a lot of potential in storytelling, and I am glad that the author tapped into that. Going from a tranquil cabin to a (Spoiler - click to show) dystopian nightmare moment was powerful. That surprise of the screen going (Spoiler - click to show) dark with anxious-looking white and red text replacing the cabin paradise just had the feeling of Whoa. I love that sort of thing in interactive fiction.

The game uses visual effects in other ways to mess with reality. When text tears through the (Spoiler - click to show) simulation, it is shown in different text that makes it clear that you are straying from the program. For instance, consider (Spoiler - click to show) watching the holoscreen.

The new mental rewiring manufactory has reached 300% efficiency levels, according to StrexCo's fourth quarter and fiscal year 2999 financial results—

No, wait. That's not supposed to happen.

Just ignore that. I'm sorry.

Right. Just ignore it.

The first sentence uses a darker, bold text that is a sharp contrast to the rest of the writing. It represents a break from the façade where fragments of the past creep in. Clearly the narrator did not want the protagonist to see this. Naturally, this only makes it more obvious that the narrator is covering up the truth. The bottom two sentences are the standard text associated with cozy cabin land.

Through visuals you can clearly see the tug of war between the (Spoiler - click to show) simulated reality of the cabin and the nightmarish reality of the “outside” world.

Final thoughts
COZY SIMULATION 2999 is a great blend of sci-fi + horror hidden behind a seemingly innocent slice-of-life premise. There is a bit of everything! While I wish we could explore the backstory a little more (what is going on in 2999?), it feels like a complete game with a strong atmosphere and lots to offer.

It is also a strong first interactive fiction game. I know the author expressed in the game that they were not particularly confident with it, but heck, I had fun! Part of it does appeal to my love of sci-fi surrealness, but it really does demonstrate creative thinking while integrating story, gameplay mechanics, and visual design to create a piece that leaves you wanting more. And I want more.

(Note for the author: There is one small bug with the (Spoiler - click to show) holoscreen and the artwork activities. If you watch the holoscreen enough times, you run out of prompts and only see “lovely colours.” Similarly, if you keep making artwork, the option to do so is eventually replaced by “I don't like your art anymore.” I thought this was hilarious. The problem is that these remain unchanging when you start a new game. You can never revisit the interesting holoscreen channels or the cool artwork that you can “create.”)

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Fall of the Achilles, by davidesky2

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
You only came here for the loot..., February 28, 2023

...and found drama instead.

You are BG Jackson, a smuggler in search of valuables. Your next target is an exploration vessel called the Achilles that went missing months ago, and you finally managed to track it down. Signs indicate that it has been abandoned, but experience knows that it is never quite that simple.

Fall of the Achilles features a gameplay structure that I call “free range of movement.” The term is when a Twine game (or other choice-based format) mimics a parser by allowing the player to move throughout a map and interact with items within it at their leisure. In other words, freedom to navigate a space. This game is a perfect example.

It begins upon your arrival at the Achilles. You are in the Corvus, a personal ship run by an AI named Sahil. After docking the two vessels, you explore the abandoned ship while communicating with Sahil. He does everything from friendly reminders to disabling locked doors. The objective is to acquire the code to the massive warp engines aboard the Achilles. Apparently, the code is worth a lot.

The screen is organized so that a list of actions and a list of exits are always neatly displayed on the lower left which enhances the feeling of a parser. You are still clicking on links, but the links are organized to feel like an arsenal of commands that you would otherwise type into a parser game.

Look at the bootprints.
Talk to Sahil.
Use your blaster.

——— EXITS ———
North is the Achilles' bridge.
South is your ship, the Corvus.

The room title is listed at the top of the screen while inventory items and health points are shown on the left-side panel. These features create a parser-like Twine game with notable user-friendliness.

Be prepared: There are moments where you must make a judgement call. For example, (Spoiler - click to show) whether to kill Trace so she never poses a threat, or to spare her with the possibility that she will provide help later. I feel that this weighing of the pros and cons is a defining feature of the gameplay.

This game is full of puzzles but not quite a puzzle-fest. I never "needed" a walkthrough (I don't think there is one at this time), but there is enough in-game help to work around parts where I did get stuck. Sahil may not be a fancy AI, but he is quite helpful.

Generally, the puzzles are well-designed with a few exceptions. The puzzles for (Spoiler - click to show) filling the jug* in the mess hall and reaching the console in the warp drive were a bit tedious. You get injured at random and scurry back to the medical bay to heal yourself before trying again. The puzzle in the science lab was cool, though. The goal is to reach the end of the room while the space is influenced by deadly time warping properties. In truth, a mistake only gets you sent back to the front of the room where you started. A reasonably tame “red-light, green-light” game. The warp drive puzzle was a shadow to that.
*But the joke was on me instead: I could have just filled it in my own ship! I did not figure that out until the game lightly suggested that there was an alternate solution.

Also: There was one bug in the gameplay. (Spoiler - click to show) In one case, after I restarted the game, I was able to open the science lab door immediately after defeating Trace. It still had me punch in the password, which I remembered from the previous playthrough, but I don't think that was supposed to happen. I recall only having the password input box appear after you speak with Luisa. A similar thing happened again in another playthrough. Besides that, I did not run into any issues.

About the drama… (Spoiler - click to show) There are two (human) survivors on the ship: Luisa Romero and Elias Zeres. They are on opposite sides of the big controversy that went down on the Achilles months prior. They also control the remaining ship systems. Since the protagonist insists on getting the warp drive code, you must choose to help either Luisa or Elias. Each character functions as a “quest” that shapes the gameplay which adds incentive for replays.

No matter how many questions you ask, there are unknowns about the story. The Achilles was an exploration ship where the crew members lived with their families. (Spoiler - click to show) Upon receiving a strange signal, the ship sent out a probe which came back carrying a strange sphere called the Crux. Everyone on the Achilles split into two factions and- as indicated by the carnage we find- waged war with each other. Embrace the Crux or reject it, those were the sides.

I’m not entirely sure of the dynamics between these two groups. Where did all the violence originate? Dead bodies are everywhere. Were people dragging each other to be thrown into the Crux? Who shot who? We see bodies of Star Patrol officers on the bridge who likely came to investigate. At least we know that they were shot by Trace after she was reprogrammed. The title is Fall of the Achilles. I want more info on the “fall” part. Plus, the ship’s name carries nice symbolism.

Everything accumulates to one key moment: (Spoiler - click to show) Deep in the storage bay, you see a weird probe carrying a sphere, from which voices- people- ask you to join them. There are people in there. Moving closer activates a hologram of someone kneeling before the device only to have their brain lasered in half.

I have to admit, the Crux is not doing a particularly good job at selling itself. Can you trust the voices?

Kneeling before a strange device surrounded by corpses sounds like the most obvious insta-death you-have-lost-in-the-worst-way-possible ending that you just have to be a sucker to fall for… but you'd be surprised……

Someone takes your hand.

......that's all I'm going to say.
(Except that I wish the game gave us long enough to hear what Sahil had to say. I really wanted to hear him finish his sentence. Shame he couldn't come with.)

If anyone is interested in further discussion, see the section after the end of this review.

Fall of the Achilles does not have endings in the form of "Ending 1," "Ending 2," etc. Rather they are general outcomes underscored with secondary events and objectives. These general outcomes are determined by (Spoiler - click to show) whether you sided with Luisa or Elias, of which there are variations. Secondary parts range from (Spoiler - click to show) your success in acquiring the warp drive codes to whether you depart alone. All of this creates additional incentive for multiple playthroughs, especially since it is enticing to mix and match different outcomes.

Now I don’t mean to be morbid, (Spoiler - click to show) but there is a technicality about the fate of Captain Yamashita that kept bothering me. Her body is in a medical capsule designed to heal the patient inside. By default, the end of the game says, “You failed to (mercifully) end Captain Yamashita's life.”

She’s already dead. The medical console reports that "The patient's prognosis is terminal. Brain functions have been inactive for 63 days and are unrecoverable." Sahil summarizes this as brain dead. And therefore, incompatible for the Crux. The capsule is trying to heal a corpse. Opening the capsule to reveal her body (it is not graphic, just sad) is the equivalent to giving her a merciful death, but that seems to have occurred before we even arrive on the ship.
A little more explanation would add clarity to this scenario.

I want to quickly acknowledge the writing. Fall of the Achilles is not an eloquent masterpiece, but it has the occasional descriptiveness that enriches the gameplay. My favorite was when (Spoiler - click to show) you are searching the captain’s quarters for a DNA sample.

A quick search seems to turn up nothing—until you find an oiled wooden brush with large, thick tines like a comb’s. A long strand of black hair weaves through it like the solution to a maze.

It’s not, “oh, you found a brush with a strand of hair in it. DNA.” Instead, the captain’s quarters are personalized and goes the extra mile to make the action more meaningful.

Finally, the genre is science fiction, but there are horror elements that come to life partly thanks to the writing. Arguably, the biggest horror moment is (Spoiler - click to show) the cramped (at least in my mind, it is a cramped space) storage bay. It contains stacks of bodies and a weird object. Everything reeks of death. It's probably really hot in there, I imagine. See how easy it is to visualize this scene? "Stacks of bodies" may not impress you, but this scene was genuinely creepy. There's gore in this game, but mild gore that occasionally turns it up a notch for scenes like this. It always felt like there was thought put into it.

The game is not crawling with NPCs, but there are some interesting ones. Let’s explore a few.

Sahil feels like a concrete NPC, although the game keeps his personality mostly neutral. What I love about his character is the convenience he provides for solving puzzles. Some form, a lot of function. He speaks up when something is worth noting and automatically incorporates bits of accumulated info from the gameplay into his explanations. It’s like having a polite notetaker following you around.

The AI’s assistance is streamlined and avoids feeling like, “talk to me for a hint!” I value games that use that approach, I really do, but I sometimes feel like the character is judging me a little when I ask for the answers. Sahil tells me what I need to know without making me feel lame. (But truthfully, I am thankful when authors incorporate in-game hint systems.)

Our first main obstacle in the gameplay is when we tangle with an android named Trace. She is referred to as the "universe's only sentient android.” That surprised me.

Sahil seems sentient. He may be a ship AI, but I feel like an AI could be dumped into an android body, or something to that extent. If the game's world possesses sentient AI technology, I'd think that sentient androids would be more common. I am drawing broad conclusions, but that leads to my next point: I wish there were a little more worldbuilding, particularly with the story’s technology.

I especially want to know more about Trace’s backstory as a sentient android. It is brief. (Spoiler - click to show) Trace was created by the “Sisters of Infinity,” a group of exiled scientists whom she refers to as her “mothers.” Cool! I’d love to explore that character feature. She is also a member of the *Interstellar Patrol with superhuman abilities for combat. We get a glimpse of that firsthand.

When you first try to access the main deck, Trace stands in your way in battle mode. There are two solutions. If you want to skip the frequency puzzle, you can just battle it out. However, the combat mechanics could be a little tighter. It follows a rock-paper-scissors style of combat where you choose between shooting, activating a force shield, or using a physical attack while managing health points. That was cool.

The issue was with trying to gain an advantage. She has more health points than you, although you have the option of sneaking off mid-combat to heal yourself in your ship before running back to resume the fight. That felt comical, and Trace was really testing my rock-paper-scissors abilities. Fight a few turns, run to the bridge, run to my ship, heal, run all the way back. She’s literally standing there saying, “do you want to resume this fight?” She can do this all day long. And she knows it.

I only did this approach to see what outcome it would lead to. I learned this: stick with the frequency puzzle. It'll take her out the same way. Then, you can decide whether to kill her. I don’t see a reason not to spare her, but you will have to see why. Even though the combat was not a highlight of this gameplay, it is always interesting to see how authors implement combat into the Twine format.

(*Just what is the extent of humanity’s space-faring capabilities and technological advances? For instance, the “Interstellar Patrol” implies that humanity has branched out of our solar system. When the game uses phrases akin to “bring the Crux back to human civilization,” I think of Earth. A few extra sentences for context would be welcome.)

Anyway, this section was longer than I planned.

In a nutshell: Ergonomic, standard issue visuals that consist of a black background, white text, and blue links. But slightly different from the “default” Twine appearance of black background, white text, and blue links. I hope readers know which style I am talking about.

It is a super simple look that functions just fine. I want to make a special note about the text which is always well organized. That may seem like a trivial detail, but when text placement is a mess, that’s all you notice. Fortunately, that’s not an issue here. If anything, it sets a good example for text organization in Twine when you have a moderate word count.

The only flair is the helpful map on the panel at the left side of the screen. It’s a nice reference point.

Final thoughts
In conclusion, Fall of the Achilles is a potent sci-fi experience about a smuggler who found more than they bargained for. The trope of wandering a spaceship after it was purged of life from an incident is common but never one that grows old for me. I have a feeling that fans of the genre will feel the same way. It’s not perfect, but it is certainly a polished and high-quality piece worth playing multiple times.

I approach it partly as an example of the flexibility of Twine to create parser inspired gameplay even though it is ultimately a choice-based experience. If there are any readers skeptical about Twine’s potential with sci-fi adventures, consider Fall of the Achilles.

If you like the theme of exploring a lost and seemingly lifeless spaceship with a story wrapped around the ethics of mind-blowing technology in the hands of humanity, consider Reclamation. It's an Adventuron game where your task (as a corporate employee, not a smuggler) is to investigate a research vessel that went missing amid a vital experiment. You even get your own AI although he is definitely a different character from Sahil.

Discussion corner
(Spoiler - click to show) Time to bring out the big question: The game assumes that the death and violence aboard the Achilles will only spread if Luisa brings the Crux to humanity. Would that happen?

It's not the Crux itself that is dangerous (unless you kneel in front of it, of course). It just sits there. It's not a weapon. What caused all those deaths were the fighting between people about what to do with it. Ideally, if you had it in a nice little area in a garden where people could join if they wanted to or otherwise carry on with their day, things would be fine. But the likelihood of that occurring- if the ship is any indicator- would probably be miniscule. Plus, Luisa does not field this subject well.

Captain Tomomi Yamashita authorized Elias to be the acting captain if something were to happen to everyone in command. Her final instructions are for him to make sure that the Crux never reaches human civilization. Meanwhile, Luisa managed to weasel her way into becoming the acting captain instead, forcing Elias to camp out in the corner of the ship. She also (poorly) preprogrammed Trace against her will. It is kind of established that Luisa is the “villain” in the game. But does that sentiment apply to the Crux as well? Does it bias the player? There is no easy answer.

On a brief side note as I wrap this up: One of the voices coming from the Crux is Elias’ parents wanting you to tell Elias that they want him to join them. It’s painful. I really, really, really wish the player could do that. He probably would not agree, but that’s understandable. When you go back up through the morgue, Elias is waiting in the medical bay. I just wish there were a way of saying, “your parents asked for you, specifically,” and then leave it up to him. Oddly enough, if you join the Crux instead, you have no way of talking to Elias’ mother about him even though she is your tour guide for the rest of the game.

Thank you for reading!

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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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Rougi, by Lapin Lunaire Games

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Investigate the mysteries of a cursed ballet production, February 7, 2023
by Kinetic Mouse Car
Related reviews: Mystery, Twine

When I first saw Rougi, I thought it was commercial. It is not. But it is a demo.

In Rougi, the Paris Opéra Ballet is getting ready to put on Les Souliers Rouges, a controversial ballet thought to be cursed. And maybe there’s something to it. So far, it has been a string of accidents and delays. That is why you, a mere patron of the arts, have been tasked to find the truth behind the curse.

Actually, I think Les Souliers Rouges ( The Red Shoes) is an actual story with many adaptations in film, music, and other forms. Rougi happens to depict it as a ballet, which I believe has been done as well. But the version in Rougi is especially unique. The storyline is different than what I have seen (on the internet, that is), and I am curious to see its trajectory here.

The game begins with a brief intro before the PC enters the picture. We are merely the passive observer of a reception after a performance of Coppélia where ballerinas and crew members are mingling with the audience in the gallery. Two ballerinas, Élodie Sirand and Laure Bloch, are especially at the center of attention, each with their own crowd of admirers.

Élodie is the seasoned professional. The only danseuse étoile (lead ballerina, or prima ballerina) in Paris. Laure is the new, innocent talent who basks in the praise while Élodie watches her warily. At one point, Antoine de Forbin, a long-devoted patron of considerable power, informs Élodie that he must break off his relationship with her. She leaves. Angry. A young man chases after her. The scene ends.

It’s a pretty good intro. One that leaves you with questions. Both ballerinas are cast in Les Souliers Rouges, BTW. More on that later.

Rougi officially kicks off with some character creation where you decide on your name, pronouns, and social class. There are three social class (working class, bourgeois, and aristocracy) options that mildly influence the writing and character dialog. They also determine how you gain access to the Paris Opéra Ballet.

You’d never imagined you’d be able to enter the Palais, let alone stand in the secret wings behind its glittering halls.

You always begin with a letter invitation. For the bourgeois choice, you used your connections to weasel your way into an invitation, for the aristocracy option, you were simply invited. And if you choose the working class, you were tasked with making a delivery. Playing as different roles is fun and adds replay value.

Regardless of which social standing you choose to play in, your mission will be the same. At one point, you will meet the Director of the Opéra Ballet. He is strongly against Les Souliers Rouges but could not override the decision-making of other influential figures at the Opéra Ballet. He is a superstitious man, or at least when Les Souliers Rouges is involved. He will hardly visit the site while the ballet is in production. But he does so he could speak to you. He wants you to roll up your sleeves and investigate this “curse” before it causes (more) harm.

At heart, this is a mystery game, and there is a strong investigative feel in the gameplay. On the left side of the screen is a menu containing an inventory and a notebook section for clues. Some clues are added automatically, others only if you deem them relevant. It’s an organized system that is easy to use. The gameplay does use a higher word count, so it is helpful to have something that keeps track of vital details. The demo ends before we can make any real breakthroughs, but we still learn some neat things.

There are some dents in the polish. The only real bug hiccup that I encountered was with the achievements. When you unlock one, a message appears at the top of the screen before it is added in the achievements section. Often the game would say I earned one, but it would never be added to the list. The only achievement (besides the first two that are there following character creation) that managed to show up in the achievements section was:

(Spoiler - click to show) “Your Crown is Falling, Queen: Win Élodie's respect through an unexpected trial.”

None of the others appeared. I was hoping to see what they were. I must admit, I thought I would have to work harder to win Élodie’s respect, but no complaints.

Another error is how whenever you add something to your notebook, this happens: “There is a scrap of red satin near your foot. You surreptitiously pocket it.” If you repeatedly add a clue to the notebook, there will be no duplicate of the clue. But the PC will still pick up pieces of red satin to add in the inventory. They just keep piling up. Every time. Infinite scraps. I think that's an error. Either that or people keep leaving pieces of red satin everywhere.

Oh, and Laure is never added to the “Persons of interest” section. That’s about it.

For context, the story takes place during the Belle Époque, a period spanning from 1871-1914 in France and the European region. In the developer’s notes, the date was said to be 1895 but I’m not sure if that directly applies to the game. Either way, it’s nice that the game gives us a historical context.

In Rougi, a character named Maestro Camille Fauré (or just Camille) wrote Les Souliers Rouges. It is about a young village girl named Clara who receives red slippers that are secretly cursed by the King of Darkness who wants to claim her, etc. Its original premiere is shrouded in controversy. Spoilers ahead.

(Spoiler - click to show) Before opening night, the lead dancer casted as Clara died. Her body was found mangled by the roadside with large amounts of blood on the red ballet shoes in her bag. The production was cancelled. Years later, it was attempted again, but its production was riddled with disasters and thus scraped.

Now, for some insane reason, Camille wants to give this another shot and managed to twist the arm of those needed to permit (not that they agree) such a show. Les Souliers Rouges will be attempted one more time despite everyone's fear of its mere name. Even the Director is convinced it is cursed. He almost has a heart attack upon seeing Laure in her red dance shoes.

That’s all I know about the story through this demo. The author has a blog devoted to the development which is definitely worth a look.

I can tell you that the writing is decadent and descriptive. One of the best parts. It also theatrically captures the drama as it unfolds.

Dancers crowd around the fallen ballerina, outstretched hands fluttering from her to their mouths in the most elegant show of alarm you’ve ever seen.

We can visualize the elegant architecture and lavishly attired guests, but also “staff-only” areas that are less glamorous and maybe… not haunted. Probably not haunted. That’s the perk of the Director giving you the green light for investigating a cursed ballet production. It carries the awe of stepping from the streets into a performing arts establishment of great renown, setting a strong atmosphere.

There are plenty of interesting characters who are eventually logged as entries in your notebook. But so far, the dynamics between Élodie and Laure takes center stage. A rivalry is apparent. Élodie is the best of the best, Laure is new, one of the best, and somehow manages to be the Opéra Ballet Director’s favorite. Besides, they have completely different personas.

Laure is the bright-eyed, up-and-coming new talent. She is clearly dazzled by the high life glamour that comes with being a prominent ballerina. For her, ballet is a portal into this extravagant world. She is giddy and excitable without knowing the grimmer side of fame. As we see at the start of the game with Élodie, fame brings patrons, but patrons can easily ditch their favorites and become entranced with something new.

Élodie’s character is a sharp contrast. She has years of experience, not just in ballet but also the industry. Because of this, she is cynical, sees fakery from a mile away, and hostile towards those who waste her time (so, everyone). But she has secrets and has been burned by individuals. There is, perhaps, a genuine motive, though self-serving, to protect Laure from making the same mistakes that she did as a career ballerina because she knows too well that success attracts powerful people who call the shots.

Perhaps. Élodie strikes me as an individual who dislikes others but is not one to stand by and watch someone, especially if that someone was once her, make the worst possible mistake because of inexperience or vulnerability. Laure seems to be that someone. But it’s just a hunch, and one that may be disproven as the story develops.

Drama, drama, and more drama
It’s bad enough that Les Souliers Rouges is cursed. Now, two new developments have increased the scandal. (Spoiler - click to show) The first is that Laure is cast as the lead, Clara, instead of Élodie. The second is that rather than having a male dancer play the character of the King, Élodie will. Or maybe the King’s character is changed to female. I’m not sure. Either way, people see this as scandalous- for reasons I’m still trying to piece together- because Élodie claims Laure as a bride via the character roles. Is the gender change part bold, or is it just the rivalry between the two lead ballerinas?

Laure herself is shocked about this news but reassures those in charge that “I would do anything to become an étoile.” Anything? You can probably finish that thought. The demo ends after (Spoiler - click to show) Élodie and Laure dance in a duo piece, which only makes you want to know more of this catastrophic show. Is it really cursed?

The visual design goes well with the atmosphere and subject matter. It conjures up the image of velvet, wine, and... blood? Maybe I’m just jumping to conclusions. Oh, you can also change the colour scheme for the display mode, a superficial feature (in the best way) that wins me over every time. The one I just discussed it the default is called "Nuit," which means night. The other theme is "Matinée," a show that takes place in the day. The colour scheme for Matinée is creme and light blue. The best part is that it all contributes to the concept of performing arts.

More importantly, the text is easy to read. You can also adjust it in the settings. The super fancy cursive is great for flair but having it for everything would eventually be a pain to read.

Final thoughts
I have played games about the performing arts, but this is the first based on ballet. It’s exciting and dramatic with a strong feel for mystery. I want to know the truth behind Les Souliers Rouges.

I recommend it to players interested in historical mystery games with an emphasis on the characters and story. As a mystery Twine game, it steers away from deductive puzzles and instead has the player carefully glean valuable bits of information as encounters arise. If you like the Lady Thalia series, you may enjoy Rougi but know that it is a complete change in tone and technicality.

One more thing: I'm going to be a spoiled brat for a moment. This is another polished, excellent demo that I've seen on IFDB (there are quite a few) that I would love to see continued. The author says that Rougi will be updated over the next few weeks. My understanding is that it was published about a year before it was added to IFDB. So, I am not sure when the next update will be.

I hope it continues to be developed without adding tons of pressure (that’s the last thing I want to do) for updates. If the author is reading this, just know that you have something with a lot of potential. I say that for a lot of games, but I would not say it if it weren’t true.

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The Last Sanctuary, by SjoerdHekking

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
You are on top of the world. That’s not always a good thing., February 5, 2023

Earth is inhabitable. Its ecosystem is destroyed, and high levels of radiation are everywhere. Roughly 1000 humans have been selected to live in an underground bunker until conditions on Earth return to safer levels. The bunk is self-sufficient and designed with infrastructure to sustain a scaled-down version of society. It is thought that it will be safe to leave in about fifty years.

However, this sanctuary requires a particular kind of decision maker, someone to call the shots when something major happens. A neutral party with no personal stakes or biases. A person (you) has been launched into space to live on an unnamed space station with the sole purpose of keeping tabs on the bunker. The surviving humans consult you from time to time for serious matters when they need you to make a decision.

Otherwise, you spend your time in suspended hibernation until you are summoned once more.

Ultimately, the gameplay revolves around one major decision that ends your mission and the game: opening the bunker to allow the humans to explore and populate Earth again. It also marks your death. And no, that’s not a spoiler. The PC knows right from the start that this is going to be a one-way trip. You continue until you expire (this is one of those rare games I’ve encountered where hibernation tech does not preserve your body from aging) or open the bunker door on Earth.

The Last Sanctuary has high replay value and involves strategy. Most of the gameplay involves trade-off decisions where choices are made to preserve one system or resource over another. For every scenario there are two possible options. You may encounter the same scenario more than once, but the repeated success of either decision is variable. It forces you must keep track of decisions that are high-risk and high reward. If your bunker is crumbling away, play it safe. But even that is uncertain.

A stats page with colourful visual indicators is provided so you can keep track of the population size, bunker conditions, supply stocks, data stores, and communications levels. The most important stat is the one measuring radiation levels on Earth. It takes years for it to go down to zero. Your sleep cycles depend on the inhabitants. They may wake you up after six years, sometimes just after one.

When you open the bunker door, (Spoiler - click to show) the game gives you roughly four assessments. Earth’s habitability, genetic diversity based on surviving population size, the level of tech and data remaining, and the long-term state of humanity’s new civilization. This can range anywhere from thriving to dying thanks to radiation sickening within hours. Experimenting with different outcomes will keep you busy. You get a final score that is stored in the game’s high-score page. My highest was (Spoiler - click to show) 815.

My only complaint is with the achievements. When you open The Last Sanctuary, it pulls up a menu page where you input commands, such as “play” to start a new game. This menu includes an achievements page that keeps track of secret endings, how many encounters you have found (including special encounters), and how many general endings you have completed. The achievement reads as (Spoiler - click to show) Locked: (14/22) Endings, which means that there are 22 endings total and I only found 14.

I have no idea on how to get the remaining endings and seems to have reached a wall. My guess is that (Spoiler - click to show) some are about failing in certain ways, but it is actually quite difficult to fail before you open the door because you die of old age before your decisions wipe out the inhabitants. Speaking of which, it is impossible to lose every inhabitant. There has got to be an achievement somewhere for that. Nor can you run out of food or have total failure of the radiation shielding. The reason why I am going the destructive route is because I have exhausted the other (more optimal) outcomes in the game. These are the only unknowns left to explore, but I cannot seem to play the game long enough to see them through. I feel like the game is too tightly constrained in this regard. Plus, there is a secret console achievement that I want to reach.

The premise of The Last Sanctuary reminds me of another Twine game called Seedship. Both put the player in charge of the remainder of humanity after Earth becomes inhabitable and involve making tough decisions. If you like The Last Sanctuary, please try Seedship, and vice versa. They have a lot in common while still being distinct high-quality pieces of sci-fi interactive fiction. Let’s take a closer look just for fun.

Seedship is about an AI of a ship carrying 1000 frozen colonists with the task of finding a new planet for a human colony. Just as the PC in The Last Sanctuary sleeps until woken by the bunker dwellers, the AI snoozes until the ship either reaches the target star system or is awakened mid journey by an unexpected event. You also make judgement calls that often make you sacrifice one thing for another (ex. Do I allow the sleep chambers to overheat or the construction system?).

The player manages stats that include scanners, ship systems, and data storage. Everything leads up to one all-encompassing decision that determines the outcome of humanity: landing the ship on your chosen planet. Like The Last Sanctuary, you get a score on your performance. The AI has cultural and scientific databases that colonists use to retain levels of technology and a heritage to Earth. If these are incomplete the colonies are less likely to build a flourishing colony. This value on preserving human memory is also shared with The Last Sanctuary.

If you have played Seedship, you are probably nodding your head. But this review is about The Last Sanctuary, and it ultimately offers a separate experience. Seedship, being in third person, makes you feel more like an observer. Meanwhile, The Last Sanctuary captures a stronger sense of self. You feel like the PC, and not just because the story is told in second person.

Every time the PC wakes, we get a glimpse into their thoughts, and the writing captures the feel of being a lone person on a space station trying to guide the remainders of humanity on Earth. We start to see what it is like to go from an Earthling to a permanent human satellite with only one purpose. That sort of atmosphere shapes and defines the game.

The Last Sanctuary also allows the player to see the effects of their everyday decisions on the people whom they are responsible for. Frozen colonists* have little opportunities to throw temper tantrums at your choices. But the humans in the bunker have no qualms about talking back, (Spoiler - click to show) starting cults, breaking things out of spite, and (Spoiler - click to show) demanding to be let out of the bunker at their own peril. If you think about it, the only reason you wake up is when they want you to. You definitely get that human dynamic.

*Actually, you’d be surprised at how frozen colonists can mess with an AI, but you’ll just have to play the game.

The game goes creative with its visual design. The screen is just one big animated starfield that makes you feel like you are cruising through space. The settings allow you to control the speed of the stars (which was more fun than one would expect) including stopping them entirely which was smart since the starfield gets distracting. I would just stare at it and forget what I was doing.

Smack in the center of the screen is an illustration of an IBM computer. Appropriately, the game's text appears on the computer's screen, and the font and text colour also contribute to the “digital” appearance. There are even a few computer buttons you can toggle, although they don't seem to have any particular purpose aside from turning the screen off and on. Still, points for interactivity.

Most importantly, the use of computer visuals highlights the fact the protagonist is doing the same thing as you: sitting at a computer screen while weeding through inhabitants’ requests. The coolest part of the visuals was how the game makes an illustration of your civilization when it presents your score.

Final thoughts
The Last Sanctuary is a fun but introspective game where you, and only you, are responsible for providing some semblance of leadership to people you will never meet face-to-face. You call the shots for humanity’s survival and yet you are confined to a space station with no hope of returning to Earth once it has been restored.

But you can look at it both ways. You have the chance to put humanity back on the right track, and these themes were compelling to explore. In essence, it is a strong story with irresistible gameplay.

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Chloe Is Home, by KhairikaSinani

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Pristine, February 3, 2023
by Kinetic Mouse Car
Related reviews: Horror, Twine

Horror with a bite. Poor you.

You share a flat/apartment with friends Kayleigh, Sam, and Meghane. The four of you are discussing plans for later via group chat. Meghane's cousin Chloé is supposed to meet up to join the festivities. Tonight. Her cousin is meeting up with everyone tonight. Problem: Everyone forgot. Exasperated, Meghane goes to add Chloé to the chat...

The mechanics of gameplay are simple. It takes place in a chat group environment where you tap/click the screen to see each text message as they appear in the chat. Sometimes you have opportunities to respond. For these, a menu will appear at the bottom of the screen with a list of responses.

At first all you see is causal, crowded banter. Tap, tap, tap. You are just skimming through the messages while your flatmates argue about cleaning out the fridge. Throughout the game, NPCs will switch between being on and off the chat as they do other things, triggering notifications. It really creates a chat room vibe. Soon, things kick off when Meghane’s cousin is added to the group.

In Chloe Is Home, you are a clueless little player who gets sucked right in the mess. Stay far, far away from this review until you give the game a playthrough. I’m always touchy about “preserving” the suspense, but it’s true. Want the full horror experience that comes with not knowing what is in store for you? Play it first. Otherwise, it will ruin the fun. Don't be all, "oh, reading this review will help me be more informed when I play it." NO. Play the game first.

(Spoiler - click to show) But Meghane's cousin is not the one who joins the chat... Someone else does. Technically, I think the game’s description is a super light spoiler, “A flatmate group chat unknowingly welcomes an uninvited guest into their midst,” although only a stickler will probably feel the same way. No matter. There’s still lots to discover.

Now that the cat is out of the bag, I'll just refer to fake-Chloe as the Stranger or “Chloe” under these spoiler tags. This is the crucial detail: If you take a closer look at the user, it is shown as Chloe not Chloé. See it? It's that little line about the “e.” If you totally missed it, you're not alone. For the first playthrough I assumed it was Meghane’s cousin, although it does not take long for you to have doubts.

Story + Characters
I’m going to use this section to look closer at the story’s pacing and structure which is critical for a horror game. It’s going to be one big spoiler-fest (which I’ll tag), so again, browse wisely.

Pacing is excellent. Mechanically, the game skips pause effects. The rate of text messages is based on however fast the player chooses to tap or click on the screen. And yet, there is a feel of everything speeding up. You feel out of control. The effectiveness of the pacing is achieved through staggering story events.

It closely resembles a horror movie sequence where you know what’s going to happen but see separate shots of Character A being resourceful, Character B cluelessly walking into a trap, the culprit going up the stairs where Character D has just managed to put two and two together. These shots (with other elements) are then woven together to leave you at the edge of the seat in a nervous wreck because you know exactlywhatisgoingtohappen.

Obviously, a Twine game is not going to harness the cinematic techniques used in film, but it manages to recreate this concept closely. (Spoiler - click to show)

The Stranger just keeps getting more unnerving. They inquire about you being home alone and start a game of 20 questions with prompts on your personal information or how you want to die (if you were to, that is). The zinger is when you ask a question about either their pet peeves or whether they are an introvert or extravert. Their act as Meghane’s cousin completely falls apart and they go on a rant of why they hate about people. Then, bam. “Chloe” again.

Oh, and they have your address. You gave it to them, remember?

I'm literally 5 minutes away.

Ha. Ha. Oh no.

The reason behind the Stranger’s presence in the group chat is revealed when Meghane notices that she mistyped Chloé’s (the real Chloé- again, fancy é) number. Which confirms that yes, you’ve been talking to the wrong person, and you warn your flatmates. Meghane adds the real Chloé (whom we briefly meet) and starts searching to kick out “Chloe.” And then:

Chloe changed their name to Chloé.

The Stranger won’t go down so easily. This is where the staggering of events really starts to shine.

It kicks off with the Stranger sending you a picture of the flat before asking Meghane for the code to the door. Now, your friends are a tad sluggish about your warnings because they’ve been on and off the chat for the past half hour. They don’t realize the extent of this mix-up, yet. So, seeing the fancy “e” in the altered username, Meghane assumes that the Stranger was removed from the chat. She happily shares the code.

The code is 3042!

Naturally, she realizes this mistake afterwards. The entire time the player keeps yelling, “don’t do it, don’t do it, just don’t!!!” The suspense is sharpened to a point. The sluggishness of the NPCs only heightens the urgency. Like watching characters in a horror film as they make clueless blunders right when it matters.

Meghane, Kayleigh, and Sam finally get with the program. Pacing intensifies. The Stranger narrates their movements toward the door. Everyone is panicking. One friend is calling the police. One friend is rushing home. One friend is alerting the neighbors. But despite this, you are still the only one at the flat. Then you hear a knocking sound.

An actual knocking sound effect. Followed by someone fidgeting with the door. I often forget/fail to turn on the audio for games. Half the time I don’t even notice they come with sound. But I managed to get the memo this time. It is a basic sound snippet that serves as the finishing atmospheric touch to a chilling horror game.

I’m going to switch things up and chew the fat about the story a little more. Again, more spoilers.

I was hoping for (Spoiler - click to show) more than one ending. After experimenting with multiple playthroughs, I could not find any alternatives. What frustrated me was that there is a pivotal moment in the gameplay that railroads the player into making one choice that ultimately determines the ending. This moment is when “Chloe” asks for the address to the shared flat, claiming that they lost Meghane’s instructions somewhere back in the chat. No matter what, you give it to them. And now they know where you live.

Given the dialog leading up to this point, all (or at least most) of your nerves are whispering stranger danger. Something’s off. The player feels it, and the PC feels it. You can lie about the address, dodge the question, or drag your heels, but this only leads to you having to send the address. Eventually you will.

🗨 Choose a reply
(Send it)

Throughout the game are dialog options that allow the player to tread lightly and approach this “Chloe” with skepticism. The responses involve refusing to dole out information, giving vague answers, or calling out inappropriate statements. The gameplay enables you to read between the lines. So why is it that you are ultimately forced to give out the home address?

What type of ending would I be asking for? It does not have to be a positive ending, just one that recognizes when the player goes the extra mile in assessing the Stranger’s identity. It was clever how you can catch their bluff by claiming that Meghane mentioned that they were going through a tough time without going into specifics. “Chloe” assumes that Meghane was talking about the real cousin and goes along with the charade by making something up. You then respond with skepticism that chips away at their act. I thought that if you pestered them enough, they may reveal their true colours or admit to being someone else. That would probably put the story on a different trajectory.

So… What happens? I think the PC’s chances of survival are not that dire. Then again, a character in a horror movie might say the same thing. The opening words of this game are rather ominous.

Omg, guys kill me. Shanon wants another meeting...

I have always enjoyed Twine or choice-based games that mimic a digital interface, especially personal devices. The idea is cool both visually and in terms of functionality. Sometimes though, there is the risk of this functionality being hindered by design elements like wide margins or awkward scrollbars that do not prevent you from playing but do detract from the polish. Chloe Is Home avoid this. It uses the phone interface idea without overwhelming the player with its features. Note: I love it when authors go wild as long as functionality is preserved.

This game keeps it relatively simple while adding some flair. It tastefully replicates the appearance of a smartphone device with tall but narrow screen dimensions. The borders are purple with shadowed edges that give it a more 3D resemblance. Character text bubbles are colour-coded and set against an off-white screen. A general, strong look.

Plus, some embellishments. Emojis, symbols, and even the occasional GIF!

Final thoughts
Yes, I really enjoyed Chloe Is Home. It has a lot of strengths. Pacing, suspense, clever visual design. Players, I think, will get a rush playing it. There is enough variation in the gameplay to encourage multiple playthroughs (plus, it’s a short game), but when it becomes apparent that (Spoiler - click to show) there is only one ending, players may leave it at that. Regardless, it is a high-quality piece that offers an urgency that is hard to capture in a Twine format. Highly recommended for horror fans (especially choice-based horror).

I hope the author(s) continue to produce more work. This was a great first piece.

If you are interested in any more horror chat room stories, I suggest Disharmony, a Twine game about investigating the absence of a member from your friend group via an online messenger platform by the same name. Worth playing with the lights off.

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13 Laurel Road, by Crosshollow

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Going back to where it fell apart and maybe…move onwards?, January 30, 2023

You play as Noah. Kiera, your sister, texts you with a request. She wants you to visit a relative’s former house on Laurel Road to retrieve items for your cousin, Quinn. But you and Quinn have never had the best relationship. Not ever since they transitioned. Returning there will bring up bad memories, and afterwards, you will have to bring the items to Quinn. Will you do it? Or will you shy away from the task?

There is a genre of games about rummaging through a house one last time after a drastic event to gather items and relive memories. Exploration is largely NPC-less with a profound sense of melancholy, leaving the player to decide one what the PC gets out of the experience. I am reminded of the Twine game Another Cabin In The Woods and the TADS game Past Present. I know there are plenty more out there.

Quinn is the younger cousin of Noah and Keira. They lived their entire life under a different name- of which we never learn- but now go by Quinn. If it was not obvious, they also now identify as “they.”

The house on Laurel Road has been abandoned for months, but the furniture and belongings are still there. It is also a former crime scene. There is a brief intro before you travel to the house. Once there, you can travel from room to room in search of items. For the gameplay mechanics, you either click anywhere on the screen to move to the next passage or click on links when they are offered.

Gameplay involves reliving memories by examining items in the house. There is the (Spoiler - click to show) sketchbook that Quinn used while hospitalized for self-harm (I thought this scene was well done. It does not tip toe around the subject but also treads lightly on the explicit details). A boardgame that Noah thought was dumb, but Quinn liked to play. The home videos that Quinn’s father smashed out of anger. Oh yes, there is a lot to unpack. Overall, I would not say this is a sad, gloomy game, but there is an undeniable sense of tragedy that emerges as you sift through the near empty house.

As I mentioned at the beginning, 13 Laurel Road is a piece where the story is centered around a defining Event that occurs before the game begins. You just merely pick up the pieces of a shattered past. The big plot twist is that (Spoiler - click to show) Quinn’s father, Glenn, shot and killed his wife, Joyce. You are visiting the house months after the incident.

While this is not a graphic game, there are poignant indicators of the violence that took place, such as bullet holes or suspicious looking stains. The game gives few details about this plot element, and it’s unclear if both Quinn and Joyce were shot, or the fate of Glenn. Did he kill himself? The only certainty is that Joyce is dead, and Quinn is now living on their own.

If anything, this story is about Quinn. Nearly a year ago, when Quinn requested to be called "they," Noah screwed up and said some things that hurt Quinn, and then started an argument with his sister, prompting Quinn to leave. Noah has felt bad about that ever since, and yet has not been proactive in making up for his behavior. Hopefully, this excursion into the past to find Quinn's things will be an opportunity to come to terms with what he did.

Sure enough, you end up being the one who (Spoiler - click to show) meets with Quinn in person to return the items. You have a few choices on how to respond to that encounter.

Characters + Themes
Let’s take a closer look at the character dynamics, particularly Noah’s relationship with Quinn since it is a long relationship filled with instability.

Noah never took Quinn’s transition seriously. Not transphobic, exactly, but indifferent to the challenges and implications brought by this personal growth. Quinn came out to Noah and Keira before ever bringing it up with Quinn’s own parents. Noah and Keira were supposed to be a support system, but Noah made little effort to respect his cousin’s change in identity.

In one of the memories, Noah recalls hearing (Spoiler - click to show) Quinn’s father, Glenn, talk about Quinn in shocking ways. While the game never actually uses transphobic slurs, it's implied that such slurs and statements were said in these past discussions. Even worse, Noah also remembers not trying object to (Spoiler - click to show) his uncle's comments or feeling any need to defend Quinn. (Note: This is a good game if you want to explore these ideas without dousing you with explicit content. Such games are powerful but sometimes you may feel like playing something more subtle.)

At the same time, the game highlights the uncertainty that can come with learning about a person’s, transition in gender and pronouns when one (Noah) is unaccustomed to concepts about transitioning. Noah would retreat to the use of Quinn’s previous name and pronouns as a defense mechanism when he felt insecure about the fact that people’s identity can be fluid. It is a big unknown for Noah. Unfortunately, Noah’s lack of open-mindedness caused harm to Quinn, especially as they struggled back at home. It was not until (Spoiler - click to show) Glenn killed Joyce did Noah realize how little support Quinn had.

How the player chooses to engage with this determines Noah’s willingness to admit- really admit- that he was wrong. That he chose the easy route and ignore when faced with his cousin’s requests to use different pronouns.

Though the game features a familiar appearance of white text against a black screen, it seems like the author added the slightest variation to the default stylization. The white text large and easy to read, maybe in a different-from-default font. Paragraphs are neatly organized onscreen. Never is the screen swamped with text. Neglecting paragraph organization and text space is something I see in Twine games from time to time. Finally, the red links offer a nice splash of colour.

Final thoughts
While not particularly advanced in the technical department, 13 Laurel Road is a simple Twine game with a potent story about identity and revisiting a broken relationship. There are a lot of variables to consider. The game shows the impacts, often the more subtle impacts, that come with misgendering someone or not respecting their wishes (hopefully I analyzed the story correctly). Ultimately, it offers redemption but only redemption that is sought out earnestly.

A memorable slice of life game worth checking out.

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