Time spent: 30-45 mins
You find yourself in a whale. Survive.
It is not a personal slight to the writers that I was not moved.
The text declares a lot of terror and nightmarish qualities, but fails to describe it, or illustrate any existential threat or urgency to the player character. Even the NPC interactions seem mostly benign. I found little to anchor myself and have an emotional stake in the PC; even less to understand if there was a threat to them at all.
The writing is blatantly transparent about the story’s scope - at every major choice, the player is reminded of the key stat, sanity, and number of passages explored. However, the Sanity stat seems to act as a binary switch rather than, e.g. a way of colouring the PC’s perceptions. (Spoiler - click to show)It was hard to tell which choices reduced it, and there was little to no sense of threat when it reduced to zero. One of the scenes when the PC reaches zero sanity becomes a “get out” clause, which felt reductive - I thought I would have to work through the consequences of my actions.
There were lots of potentially juicy themes that went unexplored. The loss of control, being at the mercy of something impossibly beyond an individual scope, the fragility of companionship… Instead I felt almost detached. The scope presented by the choices at each decision-making point is quite narrow, where one is presented as moving the story forward, as a yes/no decision rather than one between two interesting potential paths.
This game is built on a platform called Plotopolis, where you progress by typing keywords. It behaves like a choice-based game, despite the appearance of a parser, and does not accept what should be synonyms.
I recall similar chat-like software used in choice-based stories in previous years. I presume this is meant to make IF more accessible to people used to chat interfaces. I do wonder how much the IF-naive person interacts with a chat interface expecting prose and narrative, though, compared to how they approach games (a framework and premise; expectations on how the player interacts with the game; a reward for a skill performed correctly or interaction in the “correct” way).
The Whale’s Keeper had potential, but I fear it failed to hit the right notes for me.
play time: 15-20 mins
The reader plays the last remaining priest devoted to an unnamed being, whose worship takes the form of daily ritual.
Loneliness and duty run through the story: this priest houses not-quite-human children, and they too make up part of the priest's daily duties. While there may be loneliness in unanswered prayer, there is, ultimately, solace and a kind of community in this sort of care. And if a religion lives only with belief (deity is an entirely different matter), then the player/character holds existential power.
The overall aesthetic, both in writing and visual design, is appropriately gloomy and formal. There are subtle nods to a deeper backstory, but the focus still lies squarely on the earthly: the priest, the children, the physical setting.
Different levels of choice are made transparent to the reader with the text formatting to indicate its importance in the narrative's progress. The story has shallow branching which converges in a suitably ambiguous ending, as befits a deity which may or may not exist - whose existence may, in fact, depend on the player's choices.
A grieving narrator finds a letter with a secret. Playthrough: 10-15 mins
This short game had the cadence of song lyrics, and I found Texture a good fit for the story: I ended up reading the verb (which, in Texture, you drag to the relevant word in the prose) like a sort of chorus.
The loss is depicted as historic, yet the narrator’s feelings are raw, unaddressed, difficult to disclose to others. That gave the developing story a creeping horror(Spoiler - click to show), one which can be read as literal or metaphysical.
I have only minor gripes related to the aesthetics of the platform itself - I wish Texture would display the text at the same size regardless of the amount of text on screen, and so could be more legible. But this is no fault of the author, and I’m not inclined to attribute it to pacing.
A commendable use of this particular platform to tell a story about an unresolved, malignant grief.
You are a fugitive, running through the woods in search of safety.
A highly branching but short story - I reached an ending in about 15 minutes.
I came up against a number of technical issues: I found the text hard to see against the background, and there were a couple of typos.
An inconsistent tone undermined the game’s mood. This was both in the dialogue and environment descriptions - contrasting with both the internal monologues and the theme. Also, I always expect any customisation options to play an important role in shaping the character, however these had minimal effect on the story.
While the core themes were promising, they felt underdeveloped. Themes of identity and the “us vs them” of humanity vs monsterhood all have great potential - with more focus on the narrator's developing self and how it interacts with other characters, it could definitely form a more focused story.
CWs as given in the starting screen: violence, implied murder, and implied animal cruelty
You are assistant to baker Benoit in this small town, and your first day coincides with the Saving Day Festival. What better chance to get to know your neighbours?
The small town with secrets is a well-worn trope of interactive fiction. Different authors and games handle it differently, and in this case this dark side is given a relatively light touch for most of the game. There is signposting throughout the story where the choices get more explicitly horrifying, which I found was a nice tone adjuster
What Let Them Eat Cake did really well was establishing the discomfiting experience of intruding on a close-knit community. Even with nothing explicit going wrong, there is enough awkwardness in the narrator’s interactions with other townsfolk, reaching a satisfying ending in the conclusion when the core secret is revealed.
The game is a good length to replay to try and get another ending as well, or to uncover more about the neighbours. No flashy implementation or mechanical tricks here, but solid storyline, good handling of the themes and enough detail in key characters to be intriguing.
(Warning: This review might contain spoilers. Click to show the full review.)CW: violence - spoiler reveals more specific, but spoilery CWs: (Spoiler - click to show)Abduction, violence against children, abuse
Although the titular character is framed as the bogeymen of children’s stories, to another eye - an adult eye, probably - he is a more quotidian, though no less terrifying variety of criminal. Fairytale elements meld easily with real-life methods of cruelty and control: the strange food and drink; the deserted cabin in the middle of the woods; turning frightened people on each other.
Bogyeman is largely linear, but where there are choices, they are difficult - emotional dilemmas most of them, choices between self-gain and protecting your fellow captives.
In other aspects, it’s simply a good game. Its slick design reminds me of A Good Wick, though much more readable. The layout of choices, especially where they concern exploring a space, are laid out to reflect that space. This has been one of the things that I found difficult when building a map of the story world during choice-based games. The directions I can explore are almost always laid out in lines of text, which I must translate in my head to how they would look on a diagram.
Bogeyman is certainly not an easy-going read, but grim and focused and well worth playing.
CW: gore, violence
You, the narrator, are the monster under the bridge. Prowling in the night to catch unwary travellers.
There is gore; the narrator is a man-eating monster, after all, but the prose reads almost a nature documentary - not revelling in the gore, but framing it as a necessity.
Little bells and whistles: simple text effects which some might find distracting; hand-drawn illustrations which I quite enjoyed.
This story had clear branching and multiple endings which encourages replay, some endings more unexpected than others.
You are a psychic for hire at this grungy late night diner, and you have one job: make people buy Schtupmeister beers.
There seems to be a small element of randomisation. The writing nails the “grungy” mood pretty well, and each character whose mind you read has a bit of a twist.
I think it works well on ink, creating an impression of a continuous unbroken narration - or, you know, one’s train of thought when doing some light voyeurism.
An enjoyable snack of a game.
The storyline is a familiar one, of course. The narrator remains generic throughout, without a place on the lab team, and in fact so do the other characters. The explanations for each choice gives the narration a distinctly self-conscious air.
My overall impression was that it could use more polish. The writing feels rushed in places - as if it was trying to sketch out a scene and ran out of time. There are unfinished branches, which is a shame for a competition entry.
Without being emotionally invested in the narrator as a person, I felt no need to ensure their survival - instead finding all the branches felt like a story mapping exercise. There is definitely potential in the storyline to populate it with perhaps fewer but more realised characters to give the choices some emotional weight.
The Chekhov story is framed as something someone is reading on her phone - this results in a whole lot of text, and multiple parallel storylines.
The decision-making points come in the form of free text, but not like a parser in the sense that you input commands (i.e. verbs) and seem to be largely determining mood. As far as I can tell, though, they don’t actually change the following text. Maybe the choices affect the reader more than the story…? Maybe the act of choosing is part of the game; the appearance of having an open choice changes the interaction.
The elements of this story were intriguing separately: the purple prose surrounding a meme site, a la Imgur; the lottery theme in a late capitalism-type setting. But together I didn’t know how they fit together (especially the juxtaposition of those two threads), and perhaps I missed something; I’m afraid it didn’t quite work for me.
An interesting mechanic, and I would be curious to see how it worked with different styles of story. I would have liked to see it used for more than aesthetics, and it would be even better if such an unusual mechanism tied in with the themes of the story.