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Twine

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Hanging by threads, by Carlos Pamies

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A city of webs that is tough to untangle, October 3, 2022

Hanging by threads kicks off with an exciting and clever intro. You and a group of people are traveling to the city of Oban when the tour guide decides to throw a wrench into the game plan: Only one person gets to enter. The decision is made by drawing sticks. This builds the suspense of winning an exclusive and coveted access to the innards of a mysterious realm. Atmosphere has a faint, faint similarity with Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, minus the candy and the kids. Instead, it is a city suspended over a chasm held together by spider webs.

Gameplay
Once you win the sticks drawing (which is a no-brainer) you make an important choice. Do you take a lantern, knife, or binoculars into the city? Each item opens unique content in the gameplay. This also encourages replays to try each item. If you want my take on it, (Spoiler - click to show) the lantern’s content was the most innovative while the knife’s content provides more exposition on the story. Binocular’s content was interesting too but with less pizazz.

After the intro you can explore the business level or the lower level to see some of the locals. Here, the gameplay is descriptive. Life is a tangle of catwalks and ladders. All you have to do is explore.

Story
The overarching story is intriguing. Turns out that Oban is (Spoiler - click to show) slowly falling apart. There is some secrecy about this. You hear quiet conversations in the game room and bar where people discuss an unnamed decision they need to make. An evacuation, maybe? I cannot say for sure.

There is a major weak point that drags everything down. Sudden and abrupt endings. You are puttering around doing this or that when the game ends with (Spoiler - click to show) (see below):

My surroundings seem strange, as if everything is moving and I can't stand, so I sit where I am. There's no doubt now. I don't have time to watch what the others are doing, and being honest I don't care, they should be ready for it, and I shouldn't be living this situation.

____________________________________
End

??? What does it mean by “others” and what did the player do to cause this ending?


The game is fickle. In one playthrough you may step foot somewhere and be fine. In another, you get this message. Experimenting is tricky because you never know when the game will cut you off. Perhaps there is a pattern that I am missing. But after playing and replaying the game, I still ran into the same issue.

Because of this, I have not reached a winning end. Or any end at all besides the one mentioned here.

Characters
I felt like I did not see enough to really experience the other characters. You do get a sense of people’s livelihoods which was interesting. Instead of (Spoiler - click to show) fishing for fish in a body of water people “fish” for birds inside the chasm beneath the city. Surprisingly, we also learn that (Spoiler - click to show) some people are not too concerned about the city falling apart. They just see it as the natural way of things. But when I had the chance to talk one-on-one with another character the game would come in with the abrupt ending.

The protagonist's background is also unexplored. The gameplay is in first person. We know that the PC is male and uses a cane to walk even though he is relatively young. But that does not stop him from braving the floating walkways. He seems ambitious and I would have liked to know more.

Visuals
The game uses a beige background with black text and a black line at the bottom of the screen. It is a simple design, but the game sometimes surprises the player with extra effects.

The most prominent effect occurs when (Spoiler - click to show) visiting the bar by the catwalk with the lantern. The screen and text are black to hide the words from view, but the player’s mouse is surrounded by a halo of “light” represented by rings that conjure up the appearance of a flashlight illuminating a wall quite convincingly. When you scroll over the words they appear. It closely follows the effect found in another Twine game called my father’s long, long legs where (brief spoiler for that game) (Spoiler - click to show) the protagonist uses a flashlight to search underground tunnels. The only difference is that in this game the light is white instead of *yellow. Either way, this is great application of effects to tell a story.
*Correction: I remembered wrong. They are both white.

There are other effects thrown in there, but I will leave those for you to find. The only criticism I have for design is that there are some noticeable spelling errors.

Final thoughts
It has a lot of great things going for it. Compelling beginning, whimsical setting, and the freedom to simply wander. Unfortunately, there are snags that cut the game short. Just as things get going the game decides to jump out and say, "surprise! The end." If this were fixed, I would give this a higher score, without question.

I do think the surreal city setting makes it a game worth playing for a few playthroughs. But playing one that trips you up with random and contextless endings without providing the ability to save weakens the experience.


The Absence of Miriam Lane, by Abigail Corfman
Seemingly gone, name forgotten. But maybe there’s hope., October 2, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


John Kills Jenny, by Blind Nycteris
Did John kill Jenny? No one is sure., September 29, 2022
by Kinetic Mouse Car
Related reviews: Sub-Q, Twine

John has been convicted of killing Jenny. He now finds himself restrained a table and hooked up to wires in his brain to self-analyze the murder. Required to play the Rehabilitation Game.

Gameplay
John Kills Jenny uses a third person perspective while you play as John. The gameplay is simple. The player is presented with scenarios about the murder and a list of possible answers in multiple choice form. The player selects A, B, C, or D to input their answer. There is a timer of 60 seconds for each scenario, ticking away at the bottom of the screen. This was a nice touch. Long enough not to overwhelm the player but short enough to create a sense of urgency. If you fail to answer the game chooses for you.

Apparently, in this dystopian world the Rehabilitation Game is the sentence for murder, and the sentence ends once you reach the right ending. Deceptively simple, to put it lightly. The player soon finds themselves in a moral dilemma.

Story
While the gameplay minimizes details about John and his story, the writing sprinkles in hints of the society underlying the story. The game takes place at around 2187. Here and there are mentions of futuristic concepts such as hovercars, household androids, and nanotechnology which add a little worldbuilding. It makes the game a little more immersive.

Implications about the overarching story kick in at the fourth scenario. It asks what John is unable to control, such as the future or past. The reason he cannot change these factors, according to the game, is because he killed Jenny at the first scenario. Everything onwards is shaped by her murder. But the Rehabilitation Game begins question John’s understanding of reality. In having to try different scenarios repeatedly to appease the test he has lost track of what aspects of the murder were real.

The fourth scenario ends with (Spoiler - click to show) “The End” but below it is a link that says, “But the Game’s still there.” Part of me was thinking there was some way of weaseling out of the prompts to find a hidden path or loophole. The game faintly paws at the idea that if somehow this process were interrupted it might allow John to worm around having to murder Jenny in the first scenario. In that case, perhaps a winning (or at least, an alternate) ending could be achieved. Some way to “free” John or reach a conclusion that defies the structure of the Rehabilitation Game.

Okay, so is there a winning ending? After experimenting with different playthroughs I think the answer is (Spoiler - click to show) no. Ironically, the game (Spoiler - click to show) forces the player to replay the entire game just as John does, nonstop until he supposedly reaches the right outcome. John Kills Jenny ends with the Rehabilitation Game (Spoiler - click to show) surprising the player with another scenario: Do they want to reset the test? The only possible answers for the multiple-choice is “Yes.” You are then brought back to the start of the game. It tries to put the player in John's shoes. I think that the game is trying to show an (Spoiler - click to show) exercise in futility. If the Rehabilitation Game is unwinnable, then that leaves John in a rather bleak situation. I was hoping the game would have dived a little deeper down the rabbit hole as it explored these concepts, but as a short Twine piece it still conveys a solid idea.

Visuals
The game uses visuals to paint the picture of being tested at a table. A grey box appears on the screen with a prompt and list of possible answers. This represents the machine piping in scenarios via the brain interface. Below this box are four colourful squares with links that say A, B, C, and D. Such squares are also installed in John’s table. Just as the player clicks on the colourful squares to submit their answer they can imagine John doing the same thing on his table. The game keeps everything else simple. Sticks to a basic black screen, blue links, and white text. No noticeable errors or bugs.

Final thoughts
John Kills Jenny is an intriguing game. Its dystopian themes are paired with a compelling story premise that carries some interesting ideas. It makes you think about John and the points made by the Rehabilitation Game. Content-wise, it does not go too deep, but its structure is consistent and wields some creative visual effects. Worth a few playthroughs.


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

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

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

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

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

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

Say hello.

Climb back down to the barn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tripladin Massacre, by Melanie Rees

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Three new moons ago…no, that’s not quite right, September 26, 2022

You are trying to submit a story to the Salangrazarian Publishing Department. A rather controversial story. But if you want to be a published author you must write and rewrite to please your editors. Especially the rewriting part.

Gameplay
Gameplay is linear. The player does not choose what to write. Instead, the protagonist writes a sentence and receives feedback from the editor. Interactivity consists of the player choosing whether to accept or reject the feedback. The only way of making progress is to accept the feedback but the publishing company’s response to rejection is humorous. The player can experiment with this throughout the game to find the different responses. Be aware, some of the story contains physical and sexual violence.

Technically, the game does not delve into a full story. It only consists of a paragraph, but for a short Twine game this is effective enough at conveying this idea.

Story
Initially, it did not strike me that the protagonist was trying to write a story based on an actual historical event. The first time I played the game I simply made the editorial changes without question to see how it would end. It seemed like they were reaching for story cliches, futuristic stock answers for a standard fairytale. Rather than an evil wizard or a menacing dragon in an ancient kingdom you have barbaric ogre-like aliens raiding jungle planets. Then I glanced at the game’s description and played the game with the intent of always rejecting editorial feedback. A deeper story emerges.

Regarding the massacre mentioned in the game's title, (Spoiler - click to show) Salangrazar had invaded Tripladin (which I believe are individual planets). In fact, "invading" would be putting it lightly. The capital was ransacked, and the citizens conquered. Tripladin is still under siege. Thus, why the Salangrazarian Publishing Department is so touchy about the protagonist's story.

The editor, I think, seems somewhat oblivious to the protagonist's true intention with writing the story. Rather than critiquing the story with the sole effort of acknowledging and calling out the protagonist’s attempt at sneaking in subversive content, the editor seems focused on critiquing it from the standpoint of merely evaluating a product that will sell, by nipping at small technicalities. The main giveaway is when (Spoiler - click to show) the player rejects the editor’s comments about the prince assaulting the princess. The rejection message reads, "The truth is out there, but we do not permit it to enter our publishing department." Other than that, they prefer to tip toe around the controversy.

Characters
There are no characters in the classical sense. The only interactions with the publishing company are through editor notes. The PC has no background, but I found it humorous how exasperated they feel as their story becomes increasingly micromanaged. The player in turn, feels prompted to just give up and give the publisher what they want. The irony (Spoiler - click to show) in this is that once you finally hack out a story worthy of being published you learn that you are only going to make $30 in profit. Even worse, the publisher's postal company only sends out payment ships once every 100 years. Oh well.

Visuals
It is a nice example of how you can use a small array of text effects in a simple Twine game. There is a mix of formatting, such as bold and italicized text. Different colours are used and crossed out areas indicate corrections made by the protagonist. Everything is neatly organized against a black screen.

Final thoughts
This game is extremely short and offers some bite sized humor. The premise of submitting a story to a galactic publishing company is a creative concept and could be classified as a “lunch break length” game. The editor’s feedback also opens a window into a variety of unique alien beings in the game’s universe, such as the (Spoiler - click to show) tribes of Rguzar IV or the Kraskan Fleamen, which adds a layer of creativity and light worldbuilding.

I would recommend this game if you felt like playing a short and humorous sci-fi game that focuses more on a general story idea rather than a richly detailed story.


Night City 2020, by Hoper
You can hide in the city. Or you can escape it. Or maybe rise above it., September 22, 2022

Disclaimer: I am not literate in French. Instead, I played the game with translation. I would highlight the entire page, right click, and select "translate selection to English," which did a decent job (I think). Does that overlook the fact that it is a game made in a foreign language? I hope not. I am not trying to distract from that. But it was a game that I wanted to play for a while, and I was excited to find a way to do so.

The premise of the story is that the protagonist previously received a job from a high-ranking executive of a large corporation with the task of ensuring the safety of a visiting nephew. But when this goes wrong the executive goes on the warpath. The protagonist is now on the run, trying to make ends meet with shady jobs.

Night City 2020 is set in a world where only people with upper-class jobs can live in the middle of the city with skyscrapers containing the best cutting-edge technology. Without a corporate job, an individual cannot even indulge the thought of stepping foot into that area of the city. If you did have such a job, it would change everything.

Gameplay
This is an RPG game. Stats, character customization, combat, you name it. All in a choice-based format. It also follows a choose-your-own-adventure style. The player is presented with one or more choices that are numbered: If you want to do X click to passage 4, if you want to do Y go to passage 10. This format tends to make the gameplay more generalized at the risk of the player not feeling like they can closely interact with the story. I think Night City 2020 makes up for that by allowing the player to fine-tune their character’s stats and inventory items (as is often the case with RPGs). Without these features the game would have been less engaging.

The game begins with customizing your character with cybernetic implants. Each option gives you a wide range of abilities from built-in night vision to brain-computer interface. However, each implant reduces your humanity score, a stat that affects your ability to connect with other people. This was a catchy way of starting the game.

Gameplay branches out quite a bit, depending on the job you pursue. You can investigate a gangster's missing sister, investigate the disappearance of a corporate official's daughter, or accept a mission to assassinate a former rival. Each route has unique gameplay but later, they start to merge. The game has a score system of 20 points. Not all endings reach a perfect score. Instead, the game encourages the player to try out different routes, adding replay value.

Story
While the jobs feature different gameplay in the first half of the game, they eventually gravitate to the (Spoiler - click to show) same location: the pharmacy, where the endgame occurs. This is where the story becomes streamlined. They all center around discovering a scheme of illegal cybernetic surgery and human trafficking. How the player responds to this is tailored to the job you choose at the start of the game. The story content consists of language and violence. There was one scene with some (Spoiler - click to show) brief graphic sexual content that caught me off guard but most of the game does not include this.

There is some worldbuilding. There is an opportunity to check the news online, and the game will sometimes interject news items in certain scenes, such as when using public transportation. The Neuromat implant also sometimes provides extra information on things you encounter. I think this attention to detail helped make the city setting more interesting.

Design/Visuals
Its appearance is white background with black lines and text. Some dialog is colour-coded for convenience. The left side of the screen has a column with the player’s stats and links with reference guides, such as a glossary, that provides nifty background information without leaving the game. This was one of the first things that stood out to me.

Occasionally, there is art. I did not see the first piece of art until later in the game, so it took me by surprise. The art is basic and done in pencil or ink but does augment the player's imagination of this futuristic cyberpunk world (I guess technically it takes place in the past since it is set in 2020 instead of 2022 as I write this review. Everything in it is still futuristic). I found four total.

Design wise, there are some rough areas. I only found one broken link. When I clicked on (Spoiler - click to show) 305 it led me to a page where the only option was 85, but it was not a link. All it said was "[[85]" which required that I restore to an earlier save. I also encountered two cases where a macro error shows up instead of the link. Other than that, the game seemed consistently built.

Final thoughts
It is not a flawless piece, but it is one that can maintain the player’s interest, especially if they enjoy RPG games. Be aware, if you end up translating the game like I did with my browser, you will probably have a slight less seamless experience. There is lots of stat management with a focus on combat, and its branching gameplay encourages more than one playthrough. Overall, it is a nice addition to the cyberpunk genre.


The Soft Rumor of Spreading Weeds, by Porpentine Charity Heartscape

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Star Yonza, by Betaproject
A sci-fi adventure that needs development before it can shine, September 14, 2022

Our PC is Yonza, an alien protagonist seeking out a life with purpose. Often games opt with human protagonists with diverse alien NPCs, so I like the game’s approach. It is also a game about gender and life circumstances. As Yonza you will explore these issues by interacting with a diverse range of characters.

Gameplay
The decision at the start of the game is to pick between the Rebel Alliance and the Federation. If you choose Rebel Alliance, you go home to share your decision with your family before leaving to find Rebel presence in the city so you can accept your first mission. This part involves hanging out at bars and burger joints until you find the correct password to meet with other rebels. If you choose the Federation instead, you will automatically be assigned to a mission. This too, involves investigating culinary establishments but character encounters have some variation.

The game has the player roll dice for some choices, but dice concept is only used a few times. I am not particularly a fan of games that rely on dice, but if they are going to utilize it, I feel like they should stick to it. This game abandons it early on. The game also does not say that you need dice at the start of the game so you might be left hunting for one after the game begins. Or you can skip but I still gave it a try on my first playthrough.

Eventually, the game becomes less interactive. Aside from choosing the order in which to talk to people, which does not affect anything, the gameplay consists of clicking on a single link at the bottom of the screen. There is also a lot of text on the screen that can be difficult to process. I recommend playing this game at least twice to experience its content.

Story
The game's genre on IFDB is "Educational," and its description says that its goal is to tackle queer issues in a sci-fi setting. This is an excellent goal. Science fiction opens all sorts of possibilities with alien species, locations, technologies, and political customs that act as a backdrop when exploring present day subjects. For an author, your mind can go wild while conveying important messages to players. In fact, there already are games out there that analyze crucial topics about social issues and human rights through their engaging stories. Star Yonza would be the same way if it did not suffer from unpolished implementation. The idea is still important, but it is too confusing and scattered at the moment for its idea to leave a mark on the player. I liked how the game portrays a diverse range of family structures, such as with Yonza’s family, but the rest felt murky.

There are two story points that the player investigates. The first is (Spoiler - click to show) housing displacement in the aftermath of a civil war, and the second is a lumber resource conflict. The player interviews a selection of individuals for both issues. The most cohesive part of the game is talking to NPCs about their experiences. This is where the game starts to dig in with subjects about housing and economic equality. For each case the game lists NPC responses on the screen so you can compare them until everyone has been interviewed. The gameplay then shuffles on. I found it difficult to outline the game’s story structure and plot elements, but the ending (Spoiler - click to show) is lighthearted. It is about cultivating your own family and friend support system with the people around you. It also a satisfying ending for Yonza because everything seems to click into place.

Visuals
The game sticks to a basic visual design with white screen, black text, and blue links. The text was easy to read though paragraphs are formatted awkwardly.

There are quite a few spelling and grammar errors. I am not referring to pronouns which at first, I thought they were misspellings until I realized that they are intentional. I do like how the author strives diversify beyond him/he, she/her, they/them pronouns in a sci-fi work.

Final thoughts
Star Yonza is a short game (10 minutes) that you should play more than once to get the most out of it. Even though it seems to have (Spoiler - click to show) only one ending there is variation in the gameplay that can be enjoyed. The game is rough around the edges, something that would be alleviated through testing. Regardless, its characters, including Yonza, are still vibrant and its subject matter on queerness is still significant.


BaoBao, by Cass Khaw & James Persaud

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
An unusual yet elegant remembering of one's mother, September 12, 2022

BaoBao follows the trope* of a protagonist digging through a computer only to find a surprise AI. Our protagonist is Aiyo. Her mother recently passed away and she now needs to sort through the contents of her computer. Along the way she uncovers an AI.

Gameplay
Gameplay consists of the player rummaging through a directory system on a computer. There are several directories, such as recipes or notes, each of which contain a file named “baobao” and a string of numbers. The other files in the directories are of no interest. The player only makes progress by exploring the baobao files, but when they do an AI intervenes. The AI prevents the player from viewing the file’s contents but instead adds new commands to the home folder that expand the story.

The game also has the option making a cup of tea before returning to the computer. This added some ambience because the protagonist is trying to stay calm, and level minded in the aftermath of her mother’s death. It adds a nice self-reflective approach. And if the player wants to pause the game itself to make some tea, that is fine too.

The game's description is "A young woman is sorting through her deceased mother’s personal computer and finds an AI in her way." If I did not know otherwise, I would not have said to myself "oh wow, I found an AI!" It is more subtle than that. They only part that screamed AI was when (Spoiler - click to show) the game says, “Aiya, don’t try to hide your face. I can see you know. This computer got webcam. Aiyo. No make-up also,” implying that it is Aiyo’s mother, or at least a digital version of her, is present. These interactions are brief and sometimes it can be confusing to keep track of when the AI is addressing the player and when the player is merely experiencing the Aiyo’s thoughts, especially since they are both shown with the same white text formatting. It does not feel like you are interacting with an NPC. While I liked the subtly, this vagueness may disengage players.

Story
Game has some interesting themes on femininity, especially from traditional conventions. Aiyo has vivid memories of her mother and philosophies of beauty. Especially vivid ones are the smell of her mother's perfume or the fancy ornate patterns on her lipstick case the surface as she searches the computer. We learn that her mother was (Spoiler - click to show) always worried about her daughter's chances of finding a decent husband, one that would love her and never have affairs since her own husband had a beautiful girlfriend on the side. That was her main priority for Aiyo. She would often say that Aiyo was not pretty enough and that she should take things like makeup seriously. From the mother's perspective, this was not meant to be mean but to ensure that her daughter found a husband who would love and respect her. From Aiyo’s perspective this was stifling, and she was frustrated over her mother's attempts to find her the perfect lipstick shade colour or pressuring her to diet to maintain a feminine size and figure. These differences in ideologies come to light as the AI reveals more about the mother’s view of her daughter. They begin to come to an understanding.

I kept thinking that baobao is a pretty cool name for an AI until I found the translation. 宝宝 (baobao) is a word from the Chinese language that means baby or treasure and can be used as a term of endearment. The application of the word can vary, but this definition was the bulk of the results I found. So, is the (Spoiler - click to show) AI Aiyo’s mother or is it just a model of her personality and interests? Did her mother intentionally create the AI or was it accidentally formed from the clutter on the computer? There is a lot to consider with intriguing implications. The game ends with (Spoiler - click to show) the AI giving the player full access to every baobao titled file on the computer so that the Aiyo can finally see the parts of her mother that were always hidden, the parts where she genuinely loved her daughter but failed to convey it in life. In death it is as if Aiyo is relearning her mother. The game wraps this up on a graceful note that I found to be memorable.

Visuals
The game keeps it simple with the visuals but uses stylization to create the appearance of a computer screen. For these segments the game has a black screen with green text and blue links. Otherwise, it sticks to white text. The creative part was that the player could choose between clinking on links to navigate the computer or type them in. This added some nice interactivity to an otherwise basic Twine format.

Final thoughts
I really enjoyed this one. It is a thoughtful sci-fi game with a contemplative approach to death and memories. The dynamics between Aiyo and her mother were especially compelling and thoughtful. Throughout their lives they always seemed to clash in values but now Aiyo gets to see the possibility that she was closer to her mother than they both realized. Plus, I liked the cover art.

*Binary by Stephen Granade comes to mind, even though it has a different tone and subject matter.


Alco's Infinity, by drakirby

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A human, a cyborg, or an AI? A casual look at different definitions, September 11, 2022

Alco’s Infinity follows Alco, a crewmember on a four-person starship that carries out assignments for the Universal Corps. This is a world where it is commonplace for people to undergo body augmentation to better perform in their jobs and daily lives, and where almost everyone has a built-in assistant AI. Alco’s AI is named Eve.

The game touches on themes about transhumanism and how people view your own expression of self. What does it mean to identify as human in a society where advanced augmentations can make one seem more machine than (hu)man? Is there a boundary between being an augmented human and a machine with a human experience? I was pleased to see that Alco’s Infinity strives to incorporate these ideas into player-character interactions. By no means is this game a comprehensive discussion of this subject. But as a short Twine game it does give the player a taste of possible perspectives.

Gameplay
Note: Technically there is nothing that says that Alco is male or female so I will just refer to them as a gender-neutral protagonist.

Before the game begins, the player is told that they will have four opportunities to influence the gameplay. Normally I like Twine games that are a little more interactive, especially ones with lots of text in each scene, but I appreciate how direct the game is by giving the player an overview of its interactivity and how they should expect it to shape the story. Even though four opportunities do not sound like much it does make it where you feel like you can follow how your choices guide your path in the game. The easiness of exploring each route also adds replay value.

For example, the first choice that you make (Spoiler - click to show) summarizes your life’s mission and determines the sightseeing activity that you do later in the game. The worldbuilding is rich and vibrant. It is the type of metropolitan spaceport that could even attract the player if such as place existed. It is an alien urban setting with noodle bars, creative alien species, museums, and an infinitely diverse range of businesses. The gameplay only devotes a sliver of time to explore these areas, but the author knows how to cultivate a diverse landscape, however brief.

An important point near the start of the game is (Spoiler - click to show) when the crew meet with two ambassadors of an alien species that requires both parties to communicate via integrated AI. Halfway through the conversation, one of the ambassador’s AI goes haywire. Alco transfers Eve to the ambassador’s system to run some diagnostics. This brief separation from Eve almost gives Alco a panic attack, but this ends when she returns (I recommend playing the scene in Alco’s hotel room where Eve speaks about this moment while Alco swims in an ocean simulation). Everything seems to go back to normal, but later the story proves otherwise.

In the final segment of gameplay, (Spoiler - click to show) the crew is tasked with investigating an alarm at an abandoned outpost. As they search the area Alco notices that Eve seems to have disappeared. Suddenly Alco and Wen stumble into a room to find an android strangling Aego. On the ground is Brav, dead. The android addresses everyone in Eve’s voice, but it turns out that Eve was never Eve in the first place. This is where the story reveals itself.

Story
When (Spoiler - click to show) Eve transferred into the ambassador’s system to repair the glitching AI, she was altered in a way that would allow her to exercise more control over herself when she returned to Alco. “Eve” explains that the name Eve, along with the female gender, were attributes programmed during manufacture. The identity of Alco’s AI was truly a genderless AI named Api. Being forced to perform as Eve was a frustrating experience for Api but they had no way of conveying that.

Now, my initial guess was that (Spoiler - click to show) Eve did not return after running the ambassador’s diagnostic and was replaced by an imposter AI named Api. This would mean that Eve was still out there waiting to return. This is false. My first reaction to this was disappointment. Previous gameplay consisted of Alco having an endearing relationship with Eve, his trusty assistant. But now I feel like this twist is more thought provoking and interesting. It does not assume that the only role of an AI in a story is to happily assist human protagonists. Nor does it go down the vengeful AI route where Api rains down on humanity, though I anticipated that when we find Brav’s corpse. Api’s intent at the outpost was to inhabit an android body to escape but accidentally triggered an alarm. Api also claims that they killed Brav out of self-defense and asks for Alco to allow them to leave and live an independent life. The last choice in the game is for the player to decide whether to accept that request. Oddly enough, each outcome is a positive one. Whichever choice you make Alco and Api seem to reach an understanding.

The game says it has (Spoiler - click to show) nine endings but that sounds like a stretch. It feels like there are three endings each of which have three small variations in the concluding text. It is the difference between "You have a long and happy life, and feel that you have assisted and loved others as much as you possibly could" and "You have a long and happy life, and feel that you have contributed as much as you could to the universe."

Characters
Alco’s crewmembers are a bit polarized. On one hand we have Brav who is strongly biased and upfront about his view that heavily augmented individuals, including his own coworker, are essentially robots instead of humans. Of all the characters he seemed to lack depth since he is solely portrayed with a stereotypical brash self-centered leadership type that makes the other characters roll their eyes when he speaks. I found the other characters to be more interesting.

Then there is Aego who has more augmented parts in their body than organic ones and is tired of being viewed as a machine with a human brain. In terms of self-expression Aego still identifies as human even if their extensive augmentations make people categorize them as otherwise. This is offset by a somewhat neutral Wu who wants everyone to get along and acts as the peaceful middle ground between Brav and Aego. The player than gets to choose which “side” they are on which influences interactions with NPCs.

The second main gameplay choice (Spoiler - click to show) is your viewpoint on whether augmentations alter what it means to “qualify” as a human being. Later the crew moves to a hotel where the player makes their third choose of deciding if they want to visit one of the crewmembers one-on-one. Your response from your (Spoiler - click to show) second choice determines the dialog that occurs in this scene. I felt that this was a basic but straightforward way of comparing different character perspectives because it encourages you to replay the game to mix and match the second and third choices to explore each NPC’s response.

Visuals
Not much to comment on here, but with Twine games I still like to provide an overview. Uses a standard black screen with white text and blue links. Everything is organized neatly on the screen without any noticeable spelling errors or awkward formatting. Keeps it simple.

Final thoughts
At the time of this review, Alco’s Infinity is the author’s only game. If this is what their first game is like I wonder what (or if at all) work would come next. They have a knack for pairing familiar concepts and ideas about technology into a fun sci-fi game with interesting characters. While I would have loved to explore the setting a little more, I was impressed with the worldbuilding. The gameplay is worth your time, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in the subject.



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