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Scents & Semiosis, by Sam Kabo Ashwell, Cat Manning, Caleb Wilson, Yoon Ha Lee

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A joy to play, January 2, 2023
by Kinetic Mouse Car
Related reviews: Vorple, Inform

Scents & Semiosis is a collaborative piece about a perfumer leisurely browsing through their personal collection of perfumes to relive the memories associated with each scent.

Gameplay
This game is an Inform Vorple combo, and in this case, it is merely choice-based. Keyboards are not necessary to experience Scents & Semiosis. Just start by picking a perfume. The game will then give you a list of three perfume bottles to choose from. Each lead to a memory and a breakdown if its scent components.

Sweet musk, rough cherry orange zest, pink rose, juicy cinchona. Sadia was wearing it the only time you collaborated.

cinchona feels like the loyalty of progress
rose feels like subtle mentorship
musk could mean enthusiastic arousal
musk is suggestive of Sadia
None of these feel right. Reconsider.

You have no influence over the protagonist’s life and history. Choosing a perfume reveals a memory. What occurred in the memory is set in stone, but you decide how the protagonist feels about it by pairing a specific scent note in the perfume with an emotion or sentiment.

The memory doesn't mean what it used to. Perfumes fade. You set it aside.

Finally, you choose whether the protagonist keeps the perfume or discards it. In other words, is the memory worth cherishing or is it best left behind?

Above all, Scents & Semiosis is meant to be revisited. First time through you may play it until it satisfies your curiosity but returning to it from time to time when you are in the mood for such a game makes its effect enduring.

Considerations on structure
The big attraction with Scents & Semiosis is its extensive use of procedural generation that creates endlessly unique perfume bottles, perfume compositions, memories (down to the details), and scent meanings. I was amazed at how it never seemed to grow dull even as I was zipping through perfume after perfume without abandon. The game contains a link to some nicely organized source code if you are interested.

One side effect of this procedural generation was its broadening of my understanding of possible scents used in perfume. Not that this game is supposed to be a crash course. There is the familiar lavender, rose, jasmine, violet, and sweet pea. But what about hyssop, tonka, angelica, blood petitgrain, galangal, or jonquil? Some of these had me researching them just to see what they look like (and curious of what they smelled like).

Story + Characters
The protagonist is part blank slate, part well-rounded. You do not know much about them personally, but you do have fragments of memories. Just snippets and anecdotes though meaningful ones. What you see is different from playthrough to playthrough, and the game has a talent for painting a complex protagonist whom we realistically know nothing about.

You may find yourself visualizing yourself in the protagonist’s shoes, imaging what their experience was like. The writing, while brief, paints a diverse life. Countries visited, names of colleagues and rivals, lavish events, precarious escapades, humble encounters, of gaining inspiration simply by smelling the fragrance of a passing stranger. All told through perfume.

Visuals
The cover art is beautiful, and its simple but concise design is present throughout the game. This artwork is then paired with honey coloured links and occasional light-yellow backdrops that create a minimalist beauty.

At the end, the game presents you with a lightly illustrated list of scents and the associations you selected for them. The illustrations are not of the scent itself, just an icon to add a pleasing appearance.

Final thoughts
If you just finished playing an intensive 6-hour long puzzle fest game that fried your brain, consider Scents & Semiosis to wind down. It’s like the chamomile (which is also a scent!) of interactive fiction. The subject matter may not appeal to everyone, but there is a sense of tranquility and introspectiveness that carries its own merit. It’s not just a game about perfume. It’s also about memory. Plus, it is one of the most casual games I’ve played. Just you, digging through your collection on a lazy evening.

Even the game’s title has a nice ring to it. Scents & Semiosis....

Anyway. I enjoyed this game tremendously.


The Little Match Girl 2: Annus Evertens, by Ryan Veeder

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Let me tell you, the protagonist just keeps getting better, January 1, 2023
by Kinetic Mouse Car
Related reviews: Fantasy, Vorple, Inform

I've been looking forward to playing this one. It was announced to be released on the 31st if I recall. There is something fun about waiting for a game that is set to be released on a specific date so you can count the days until you can play it. In a way this game is an excellent "present" for the holidays (sorry if that sounds sappy), but guess what? The game’s intro takes place during the New Year, so I think that comparison is justified.

Overview
The first in the series was simply The Little Match Girl (unless the full title really is “The Little Match Girl, by Hans Christian Andersen” as is the case on the game’s listing). You do not need to play the first game to appreciate The Little Match Girl 2: Annus Evertens, but I recommend it. Essentially, a young girl is ordered by her father to sell matches on a cold day. After no success, the girl decides to use a match to warm her fingers. Upon seeing the flame, she is suddenly transported to another world.

The Little Match Girl 2 follows a similar fashion where flames act as a portal to other places and eras in history. The only difference is that our Match Girl is no longer trying to sell matches on a rainy day. As explained at the start of the game, she was adopted by a well-off philanthropist named Ebenezer Scrooge. She even has her own name now: Ebenezabeth Scrooge. Her purpose? A time-traveling assassin who provides services to clients looking to eliminate heartless individuals.

Gameplay
A young-girl-turned-assassin? I know that sounds gruesome, but not quite. I mean, the clients making the request are a group of sparrows. The game begins in London, 1846. We are in the Scrooge household- a simple but cozy apartment. It is Ebenezabeth’s birthday (or a celebration of when she was adopted), but she has received a sudden request for her services. On the roof are some sparrows who need to assassinate “a disgusting old man.”

The senior sparrow gave this upstart a reproving peck. "Don't be crass. 'Take care of' is how we put it. A certain someone, as I was saying. An old man—Older even than I!"

The player is transported throughout different times and places in history. Past, future, ones that fall out of any familiar timeline. It brings an exciting feeling that you never know where you will be sent next. Here, gameplay is organized into “chapters” that feature a setting. The goal for each is to find or obtain a flame that takes you to a new place. Often this is done indirectly. Rather than explicitly searching a space and its contents for a flame source, it will come to you as an unexpected result of a task or through creative solutions that feel reasonably clued.

My favorite puzzle was correlating the (Spoiler - click to show) cyberskull’s sparking mannerisms with the fossil fuel sludge to create a flame. It was well-hinted and the cyberskull was helpful in filling the gameplay with idle but relevant dialog about the player’s surroundings. A tour guide, really.

Thoughts on structure
The first game followed a “fetch quest” format of obtaining treasured objects for NPCs to advance the game which involved returning to the same locations. The Little Match Girl 2 departs from that model by confining tasks to a single location before traveling to the next area, which adds variety to the overall series. I do miss being able to revisit places, but then again, the worlds in this game are not quite as desirable (inside a (Spoiler - click to show) monster’s stomach, for instance) to return to. So, it works out in the end.

I do think the game loses steam a bit later with the (Spoiler - click to show) moon and (Spoiler - click to show) office locations. I loved finding myself smack in the middle of (Spoiler - click to show) Apollo 12. Interacting with Pete Conrad and Alan Bean (not to be confused with Alan Shepard) in their lunar rover was humorous although it lacked the depth showcased in the previous sections. The final solution with the sun, though, was clever.

The office is a high-quality and creative escape-the-room game with some of the best puzzles* in the entire game. However, it drifts from the story’s initial ambience. Throughout The Little Match Girl 2, Ebenezabeth’s core character is seeped into the gameplay. Here, you feel like you could be playing as a generic protagonist. This section is also considerably longer and more difficult, almost like a standalone game which may burn out players (fortunately, there is a generous hint system). *I was especially impressed with the painting/clock puzzle.


Story
The Little Match Girl 2 is a sampler of topics. You know games that have a strong ambience that compel you to skulk around IFDB in hopes of finding another game that conjures up the same feeling and flavor of gameplay experience? I've experienced this with Greek mythology, certain murder mysteries, dystopian science fiction, romance that was actually not that bad, underdog protagonists who feel that thrill of glory after winning a competition against ruthless NPCs. Obviously, this game does not contain all of that, but I was surprised at how often it conjured up familiar memories about getting into a certain theme or historical setting.

The game carefully navigates gnarlier themes without sacrificing a sense of light-hearted whimsical enthusiasm as this girl takes on challenges across space and time. Given the bountiful content experienced in this game, you can almost forget about your overarching goal of assassinating this horrible man. After all, you have been lugging this (Spoiler - click to show) revolver around for the entire game.

We have minimal details besides his appearance, but once we find him, we start to see the goal’s (Spoiler - click to show) connection with the cover art. There is probably extra symbolism that I am overlooking (yes, I know what a stork means), and I also don’t to spoil everything. Just know, the sparrows are right about this guy. Sure, there are some mildly explicit parts, but even they are exquisite. The ending was lovely.

Characters
Ebenezabeth Scrooge is a cool protagonist, and I don't just mean her name: On the verge of freezing to death, the little girl manifested an ability to travel through time and space whenever she looked at fire.

It is quite a change from her previous self, but the change is believable. You can see an evolution. She may no longer be selling matches, but a common thread of traveling through a mere flame remains. And now her work is more meaningful. It’s one thing to see a character transform throughout the span of a single game, but seeing it occur through multiple games is its own experience. How old is she, anyway?

I was also pleased to see that the (Spoiler - click to show) cat made it into the second game.

Visuals
The Little Match Girl 2 does not shy away from using some fun visual effects which is always nice to see in parser games. Each section has its own screen colour, ranging from tomato red to pale blue, that emphasizes a change in setting as the player is shuttled to the next scene. The game also uses different fonts, notably in the (Spoiler - click to show) journal from the Terrible Dogfish section.

Dear Diary. Some of these crew guys brought up the idea of resorting to cannibalism really fast.

The diary has a dramatic, sprawling cursive handwriting font.

Dear Diary. Luckily nobody had to eat each other.

The journal author’s frilly handwriting and insistence of “Dear Diary” in the darkest of times was humorous.
And on that note, the writing in this game is excellent.

I only wish there was a way of scrolling to the top of the screen- I can’t find the scroll bar- because large sections of text sometimes get cut off when they appear all at once. I end up having to zoom out to read it all before zooming back in. Maybe that’s just me.

Final thoughts
The Little Match Girl 2 is strong addition to the Match Girl series. It’s fun with a meaningful story and diverse puzzles. You may enjoy some “chapters” more than others, but they are all worth your time. Ebenezabeth Scrooge never fails to be an interesting character. If you like this game, consider playing the first one as well.


Even Some More Tales from Castle Balderstone, by Ryan Veeder

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
So much to do! So much to see!, December 1, 2022

Several days ago, I visit IFDB and see this:

News on Even Some More Tales from Castle Balderstone: OFFICIAL PLAYER'S GUIDE November 22, 2022 An OFFICIAL PLAYER'S GUIDE is now available for Even Some More Tales from Castle Balderstone, with all kinds of tips and hints and solutions and maps. - Details

I wasn’t sure if I should cry. I had thoroughly played all the games (within the game) and completed them but one. Meanwhile, I was hearing all about (Spoiler - click to show) some secret bonus game that would be unlocked by completing the first four. The words “tips,” “hints,” “solutions,” and “maps,” in this announcement immediately pulled me back to the game so I could finally play it from start to finish. It also means I can give this awesome game a review.

Overview
This was an entry in last year’s Ecto-Comp and offers quite an experience. My understanding is that people besides Ryan Veeder wrote and created stories that he then implemented into parser to be showcased in Even Some More Tales from Castle Balderstone. An anthology.

It is the first game that I have played that splices Twine with Inform/Vorple. It begins in Twine. You are a guest at Castle Balderstone and are brought to a room where four cover art photos are displayed on the screen with the games’ titles. It felt like walking into a movie theater and looking at the posters. When you click on one you “walk” to an area where the author of the story is getting ready to read the story to an audience. This transitions to the parser where you can play the game. Immersive approach!

During the gameplay a sketch of the author is included on the right side of the screen with a small bio. It helps you appreciate the amount of brain power that went into each story. Even Some More Tales from Castle Balderstone is the amusement park and the games set within it are the rides. It has nothing to do with amusement parks/rides but that is the analogy that came to mind.

Letavermilia
I will discuss this game first because it is the one that I could not complete without the walkthrough.

In Letavermilia you are playing as a bounty hunter tasked to hunt down a hacker who goes by, Letavermilia, the same name of a deadly plague that has run rampant across interstellar space. This is probably the most elegant space bounty hunter IF game I have played. The protagonist has worked their way up to become an “A-list bounty hunter” with high paying clients, and it shows. For one thing, the ship has been upgraded to something classier. If “space bounty hunter” does not sound like your cup of tea- think again. There is something about it that strikes a unique chord. Rather than a typical high action speed chase through space, an emphasis is placed on subtlety. If you try to examine a detail, chances are the game will have something to say about it.

We begin on Ligeia, an oceanic planet where you are vacationing. As you lounge peacefully on the hull of your fancy ship you get an urgent message to track down Letavermilia (the hacker). You are following a trail that she leaves behind. Gameplay involves decoding her messages to find the coordinates for the next planet you travel to. Before the walkthrough was published, I was stuck on (Spoiler - click to show) Zante, trying to decipher the message on the (Spoiler - click to show) etched panel. I feel like I should have been able to figure it out on my own. But I didn’t, and that’s that, I guess. Now I was able to go to the next planet. I was really excited to see what world was in store (and tired of guessing pitifully at travel coordinates). After that, I used the walkthrough on and off.

While gameplay has a narrow focus on one objective at a time, it still injects intriguing overarching story along the way. The big concern looming over everyone’s heads is Letavermilia, the plague. We get a smattering of interplanetary politics. Entire planets infected by the disease are quarantined. Meanwhile, uninfected affluent planets form an alliance called “Isolated Worlds” that cease contact with worlds outside this group.

The player is in a unique position because the PC’s bounty hunter credentials allow access to worlds that would otherwise be unavailable. I feel that the portrayal of bounty hunters in both IF and non-IF (or at least in what I’ve seen) tend to use a profile of a battered scoundrel who accepts shady contracts and walks a fine line with the law. The protagonist in Letavermilia is more privileged with glitzy clients and jobs received from entire governments.

I was not happy with the ending. No, no- It’s a fantastic ending. It’s an effective ending. I disliked it simply because it did not end how I wanted it to end. This may surprise you, but if I were to assess the ending of every story in this game and decide on the scariest, it would be this game without a doubt.

What do I mean by scary? I don’t mean spooked scary where everyone around the campfire screams because they heard a small noise out in the words. The feeling I associate with this ending is deep dread that sets in only when it is too late. You realize what just happened, quietly, without the game having to spell it out for you. (Spoiler - click to show)

Your nose is bleeding.

This bounty hunter had in the bag only to discover that the villain (who, technically, we still never meet) has been holding everything in the palm of her hand. I was rooting for the PC. If it weren’t for the villain, we would be swimming about leisurely on Ligeia. Plus, there is only one ending. In the other three games you can negotiate for happier ones.


This sense of dread is not a sudden event. It develops slowly through the gameplay, and you hardly even know it until it reaches the end. A trend is that (Spoiler - click to show) planet locations generally have small maps that you navigate freely and yet they manage to convey a feeling of being funneled along in a direction regardless of your choices. The anxious man who is a little too zealous about your presence (and your teeth, for some reason) as he escorts you up and down the narrow stairwell to look at the server room. The dust storm that keeps you confined to the area around your ship. The deep elevator (my favorite) that shuttles you deep underground to a concrete room. And somehow this hacker manages to leave her messages before you arrive. You are in control, but ultimately, you are not. The extent of this is not revealed until you paint yourself into a corner. Then- surprise! Down you go. That’s what makes this game scary.

Before I move on, I want to share my favorite planet, (Spoiler - click to show) Ulalume. Here, you are at a planet devoted to the nightlife. While planets are consumed by disease, partygoers continue to live extravagantly without any thought that the vast resources of the Isolated Worlds could be spent- I don’t know- coming up with a cure, maybe? Or maybe they simply want to distract themselves from it. People on this planet have a lot of ways of trying to distract themselves. You use an elevator to reach the bottom level. Its glass walls allow you to see the establishments on each floor. The farther down, the more unsettling things we see.

Now you can see through the haze. Humans are sprawled over velvet pillows, wearing expressions of vacant satisfaction.

No one cares that you are plunging deep underground in an elevator to reach a cold concrete room with a message from a hacker who borrows inspiration from a deadly plague.
Now, that’s atmosphere.

Visit Skuga Lake
Your boss went to write some articles on a little-known town but has gone missing. As her intern, you travel to the town to investigate only to be thrown into a motel closet. Seems like outsiders are unwelcome. I did not need the hints for the Visit Skuga Lake because I had already devoured back when I first found the game. I mapped that place to death. Notes, lists, you name it. I did consult the guide’s amulet/eyestone chart because it is much more organized than the table I created.

When I first played Visit Skuga Lake last year during Ecto-Comp, I remember the parser being a tad slow with my commands. It would take about half a second- just enough to be noticeable- for the game to respond. But not really a big deal. When I replayed it a few days ago the delay time was even slower. The longer I played the greater the lag. By the time I managed to (Spoiler - click to show) retrieve the key from the sleeping guard and get the boat running to reach the smaller island it was taking three full seconds for the game to respond to each command. I’m not sure why. This was not a big deal since I already knew what to do, but if this were my first ever playthrough, experimentation would be a nightmare.

This game has heaps of cool content. Every animal, landmark, and found object have important content attached to it. What I like best is how there are plenty of puzzles, but their solutions are flexible. While many puzzles are optional, pursuing them are still relevant to your objectives because they follow a similar concept. (Spoiler - click to show) You collect animal amulets and eyestones. When paired together, they give you powers- a wide variety of powers. Experimenting with them is so much fun. You do not need to find every (Spoiler - click to show) magical item, but it is a welcome task, and one that will likely prove useful later in the gameplay. Experimentation is the main attraction. I hope the lag is just an issue on my end. That aside, the story, gameplay, and characters are excellent. Lag-time or not Visit Skuga Lake is a must play if you feel like sampling the stories in Even Some More Tales from Castle Balderstone.

Singing for Me
Definitely, my favorite in all of Even Some More Tales from Castle Balderstone. It is meant to be played repeatedly and offers a lot of strategizing. My high score is (Spoiler - click to show) $1938. "I suppose this is adequate," said the Waldgrave. I’m still proud of it.

The protagonist is a young man returning home after college. He tells the story through humorous journal entries shaped by the player’s choices. The entries depict an oddball town that grows weirder and weirder in a way that suggests normalcy in its community. If you keep shuffling along with the town’s traditions, you get sucked right in. Next thing you know, the (Spoiler - click to show) Harvest Festival arrives. The ending is delightfully disturbing and unexpected. Even better is the redeeming ending. The game makes the player work for it, but it is fulfilling. I’d share more but I’m already starting to sound like (Spoiler - click to show) Darren.

Nyvo the Dolphin
This game gave me a lot to think about. If you happened to be standing on a tall cliff while staring at the ocean and see a dolphin equipped with a (Spoiler - click to show) prosthetic arm, a (Spoiler - click to show) grenade launcher, and some (Spoiler - click to show) foreign object in its eye, what scenario would play through your head? What explanation would emerge as you try to rationalize what you just saw? Nyvo the Dolphin has the answers. An adolescent dolphin comes across a shipwreck. Not some storybook pirate shipwreck but the wreckage of a high-tech ship carrying (Spoiler - click to show) classified military cargo. The highlight is the writing. It has a dramatic yet clinical tone as it narrates Nyvo’s encounter with (Spoiler - click to show) dangerous human technology…and how he is changed by it. It’s also in third person which makes it even more potent.

You mean there’s (Spoiler - click to show) more?
Finally, this was the moment I was waiting for. (Spoiler - click to show) The bonus content: a FIFTH game. Hunted , if I remember correctly. A stop and start Christmas nightmare. I think. This kid is on the run in the North Pole. When he gets caught* the gameplay switches where you are the “Bad” version of the kid. The Good and Bad version of the kid’s identity battle it out as you flip flop between two gameplay sequences. And then sometimes the parser would kick back to the Twine format where everyone is sitting in a circle to hear a story before launching into more gameplay. It was overwhelming. Cool, but overwhelming. At one point I was in a cozy house, but then that changed. The entire time I was all, “wait- stop, stop, stop. I wasn’t done yet!” I would gladly replay the entire game to revisit it if not for the lag issue I had with Visit Skuga Lake.

Nonetheless, I am so happy to have reached this point.

*Also: (Spoiler - click to show) I found a key that presumably unlocks the office door, but right before I reach it Krampus gets me. Is it possible to outrun him or is failing the whole point?

Final thoughts
A truly ambitious piece. It also defies the notion of quality over quantity, or quantity or quality. It’s a quality game, and there’s lots of it! A lot of planning and care seems to have gone into its creation. Sometimes you may find yourself coming back just to revisit one of the stories. Especially Singing for Me. There is something in it for a wide range of audiences in terms of length, technicality, and subject matter. Make sure you turn on the rainy music that the game recommends before you start playing.



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