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.
(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.
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.
MacLeod the neighbour has a kelpie - the water horse of yore - the same kind of creature that drowned the PC's aunt.
The story was compact; the writing descriptive and the storyline fairly straightforward. Each decision has realistic moral stakes, and if we're talking about moral decisions in IFComp 2019, this was much more convincing than, say, the Milgram Parable. Overall this was a polished piece of work and very competently done.
This is a game about forming words and the nature of language. You can flick through clusters of syllables to form nigh unpronounceable words which later form the names of languages and places.
It calls to mind, for me, Emily Short’s procedurally generated almanac, The Annals of the Parrigues, as well as the style of 500 Apocalypses. The style is slightly formal, as one might find in a Borges short story. Polysyllabic words dot the prose like raisins in a bagel. HSQ includes the phrase “it's [sic] decipherment like a feverish hallucination”; the same applies to reading this game sometimes.
HSQ will probably make more sense if you’re familiar with linguistics concepts. Languages can be formed with different “basic units of thought”, and so on. And all this would be fascinating if there was a chance to use this knowledge practically.
Dear reader, there was not.
HSQ presents some rather interesting and original ideas, but without a narrative arc to bind everything together, remains an idea - an interesting one, but not quite a story.
[Time to completion: 5-10 minutes]
[This game contains descriptions of gun violence.]
You’re on a boxcar, but something’s not quite right… You need to figure out why you’re here.
Murder on the Big Nothing is told through a series of vignettes, each described with enough visual detail to suggest cinematic inspirations. Indeed, there is a bit of the classic Western of it, from the storyline to the setting.
This game feels a little rough around the edges, and it felt like it ended before I had seen all the story has to offer. There was an implied puzzle (i.e. an obstacle stopping you from seeing everything there was to see), but no way I could figure out to solve it. It’s interesting enough though, and calls the reader to draw their own conclusions.
If you enjoyed this, you might like Niney, another surreal game set on a train (well, boxcars, trains… moving boxes on rails, right?).
[Time to completion: 10-15 minutes]
An SCP - standing either for “Secure, Contain, Protect” or “Secure Containment Procedures“, depending on who you ask - is also a weird phenomenon or creature; an aberration. Known only by a number, SCPs are governed and classified by a generically-named Foundation which is as much bureaucracy and
The majority of the SCP wiki is much as you might expect from an encyclopaedia.
SCP-3939 - the game - follows a familiar choose-your-own-adventure style, making the stakes clear straight away. The wiki’s structure is part of the story, too, since the encyclopaedia entry appears above the game text. The more you find out about the SCP, the longer the article becomes.
What makes this more interesting is the interaction between the story and the game. Not to spoil anything, but the crux of the story hinges on the very self-aware SCP. Good fun, especially if you’re already a fan of the SCP wiki.
This game is described as an exercise in human-mediated computer-computer interaction - based on a chat programme meant to simulate a psychotherapist.
It’s… strange. This game has the disjointed feel of a b minus seven work. Common phrases twisted into unfamiliar shapes give the narrative not much more than a direction, but not any material details. This is the uncanny valley of natural language, and Really If, Really Always delights in it.
Of all the works focusing on singularity - this is one of the most polished… and I wonder what all these works say about our vision of artificial intelligence.
As you drift through time-space, you see sights that no mortal would ever imagine... yet, it's not enough. As a god-like being, you can go out to the depths of the universe, travel wherever you like, eat every kind of food, and yet you're bored.
Aeternal's prose is slightly purple (as is the background), and its circuitous structure drives home its point. It’s a good setup and could have been an interesting setting, were there - for lack of a better term - more human interest. Something to make the player curious. Something to make the player care.
This game branches prolifically, with more content that it might seem, but it never really leads to anything concrete, and it feels like the game could go on forever, and ever, unto eternity…