Reviews by Mike Russo

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The Absence of Miriam Lane, by Abigail Corfman

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Portrait of a disappearance, January 11, 2023
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2022

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2022's IFComp).

Abigail Corfman’s got an impressive body of work incorporating parser-like mechanics into sophisticated choice-based formats, usually with a fantastical, clever vibe, as in Sixteen Ways to Kill a Vampire at McDonalds and A Murder in Fairyland. The Absence of Miriam Lane has points of continuity, but also departure, from this gameography – there are interesting systems to engage with, and satisfying puzzles with a fair bit of depth to solve. The setting is comparatively grounded, with the protagonist an occult investigator seeking to unravel the intensely-personal disappearance referred to in the title, with the ultimate explanation turning not on supernatural MacGuffins but developing a psychological profile of a seemingly-unremarkable wife and mother.

It’s harder than usual to talk about this game without spoiling it pretty thoroughly, both in terms of how the plot resolves but also the various distinct systems that govern its major phases, so despite the blanket warning about spoilers in my opening post, I figured I’d use this paragraph to give prospective players that if you care about such things, you might want to give the rest of this review a pass until you’ve given Absence a try (and I think most players would find it worth a try).

Okay, no one here but us chickens, right?

While there are no formal divisions within the narrative, in practice The Absence of Miriam Lane is cleanly divided into three pieces, all with related but distinct game mechanics. The first is all about investigating Miriam’s house and looking for non-obvious clues and things that are out of place. In cases of this kind, the protagonist confidently explains, both light and time are often out of joint – by looking for places where shadows are behaving oddly, or objects seem to have been subject to incongruous aging, you identify potentially-important clues (mechanically, this is accomplished by clicking through different rooms and links and sub-links for the areas and objects they contain, using a “thoughts” interface to signal when you think something’s off), and eventually discover where Miriam is.

Or where she isn’t, rather, because it turns out that she hasn’t gone missing in the sense of leaving, but rather that she’s faded away, into the titular Absence – an unmoving, nonreactive white void. In the second act, you need to remind her of who she is by bringing her personally-significant objects. There’s a rub here, though, because what’s led her to her current condition is a failure to nourish the personally-significant aspects of her life, passing them over in favor of obligations to others. So it may or may not make sense to bring her some things that are clearly salient – the spoons she uses to make food for her church’s bake sales, for example – without trying to figure out how she felt about them (you can bring most things to her husband, Arthur, to get what he knows about them, but there are often environmental clues to unravel too).

Assuming you succeed in that challenge, the final sequence involves bringing Miriam back to herself by “telling her her story” – mechanically, this means filling out a long, multiple-choice mad-libs style quiz running through her background, her frustrations, and her joys. Much of this you’ll have sussed out in the course of solving the previous sets of puzzles, but you’ll also need to make some hopefully-informed guesses to do well enough to get a good ending – I believe there are at least three, differentiated by how much of Miriam, if any, you’re able to bring back to reality.

This is a canny setup that winds up embedding a narrative arc in its mechanics. The first section is all about exploration, checking out the house and its contents for the first time. Because the signs that something isn’t right are fairly general, you need to carefully examine everything, without too many preconceptions about where you should be looking – but because the signs are pretty clear once you find them, the player isn’t left floundering and trying to read the author’s mind. Then in phase two, you go back over all the clues you’ve found in the first section and weigh them up, trying to evaluate exactly what they were saying about Miriam’s life to determine whether they’ll be a net positive or negative. There are also some more traditional puzzles in this section, fitting with the overall analytic vibe – many of these hinge on deducing that a particular flower might be meaningful to Miriam, then looking up its attributes in her gardening manual and locating it in the yard via an attractively-designed interface that mimics a plant. All that leads in the final section, where you’re explicitly synthesizing the individual pieces of evidence into a coherent narrative.

It also makes for a well-paced game. The house isn’t especially large, and isn’t inherently all that interesting, so tromping back and forth multiple times could become tedious. But because the context for your exploration shifts over time, and you feel like you’re making, concrete, tangible progress, it was usually exciting to revisit its rooms and understand more of what I was seeing, and how it could be used. Similarly, the interface is pretty streamlined. It’s not miles away from that in One Way Ticket, but navigation to other rooms is always available via a single click, and the list of thoughts and items is typically not that long (in fact, there’s an inventory limit – usually an annoyance, but important here to prevent lawnmowering, and forgivable because you never need to go that far) so I didn’t get bogged down the way I did in that game.

That streamlining extends to the writing, as well. The prose is efficient to a fault, with dialogue even presented in screenplay style, and almost completely devoid of errors (I found one unneeded comma, but that’s it). Given the large number of objects to interact with, this helps keep things manageable, and means it’s easier to pick out what might be significant since the important adjectives aren’t left swimming in a sea of words. The flip side, though, is that I found it a little dry. Fortunately, atmosphere is provided in spades by the always-visible illustrations – I think these are largely photos with the contrast blown way out, which is in keeping with the light/shadow motif that runs through the game (the illustrations also provide clues to some puzzles if you study them carefully, which I sometimes have mixed feelings about due to accessibility considerations, but I don’t think any of them are ultimately necessary to progress).

All of this makes for a solid, engaging game that I liked quite a lot. It didn’t quite reach the level of greatness for me, though, largely due to the narrative design not being as satisfying as the systems design. True, this is partially down to the workmanlike prose and uncharacterized protagonist, which even though I personally found them unexciting are clearly intentional choices. But I also found that my interest in the story didn’t rise over time and peak at the climax; instead it started out high and declined, with the gameplay providing the major impetus to get over the finish line. The opening sequence has the most supernatural elements, for one thing: they’re understated, but feverishly searching for tiny nooks where the shadows fall wrong, or looking suspiciously at a backyard sky that’s different than the one in the front, lends these early stages an uncanny thrill. And the initial beats of the mystery, where you’re starting with the least information and trying to connect the dots between the novel fantastical elements and Miriam’s beyond-mundane life, are pretty compelling.

By the time I was a third of the way through the game, though, I’d figured out the broad outlines of the backstory, which don’t wind up being that complex: Miriam was feeling neglected and overlooked, and somehow (I don’t think there are any clues that even gesture towards an explanation for this “somehow”) became an absence in her own house, an empty, invisible outline lying immobile on her side of the bed. From there, the rest of the game is just an exercise in filling in the details of this overall story, without any new developments to liven things up – and even the details don’t really add much to the player’s understanding of Miriam’s personality. There’s a bit of gameplay and challenge in determining whether she was burned out on gardening but found baking was still deeply rewarding, or vice versa, but it’s not a very narratively interesting question, and one limitation of the way the game’s difficulty is tuned is that the details of some of the potentially most compelling aspects of the story, like Miriam’s relationship with her sister, appear to be left vague in order to add to the difficulty.

Relatedly, I think the difficulty overall might be set too high. Judging by the little gauge at the bottom charting my progress, I wasn’t able to reach a perfect ending, despite playing fairly thoroughly and feeling like I had plumbed all the interesting questions and then some – in fact, the first ending I got was pretty negative. I reloaded a save and tried again, realizing that part of the issue is that you’re meant to spend more time giving Miriam stuff and making her more connected to reality, even after the third section kicks off and you think you should transition into the storytelling portion of the game. Even then, though, the ending was pretty equivocal. I think getting the best result requires you to really chase down every single potentially-important object – and ask Arthur, the world’s most boring man, about each of them – and probably do a little bit of trial and error in the mad-libs section. My brain is pathological enough that I often want to get 100% completion in games – hell, I’ve done that for every Assassin’s Creed game, there’s something wrong with me – but that compulsion never hit me here, since I felt like I’d done all the real work and all that was left was some grinding.

Switching gears back to the literary, I think the last thing that left me feeling more lukewarm than I expected about Absence is the message it ultimately sends about psychological health. As mentioned, the problem is that Miriam didn’t create enough space for herself and the things that brought her joy – an empty-nester treated with benign neglect by her spouse, after her kids went away to college, she threw herself into church functions and found herself consumed by bake sales and raffles, while neglecting the gardening and drawing that nourished her. This is all plausible enough when you type it out, but in practice what this means is that the stuff she was doing with other people, which largely seemed to focus on helping others, is portrayed as poisonous; her connections with her family largely have both positive and negative aspects that balance out in the wash; and it’s only the private, inward-facing hobbies that are unmitigated goods, with success determined by how much you direct her attention to those.

Look, I’m an introvert who was raised Catholic, I get it; the self-sacrificing martyr schtick is ultimately empty, and other people can be exhausting sometimes. But still, I can’t help but feel that this is a dark, antisocial theme to build the game around. Miriam draws but keeps what she makes secret; she plants a lovely garden in her back yard, but no one else seems to spend much time there. Art nourishes the soul, certainly, but in my experience the greatest joy in creating something is sharing it – maybe not with the whole world, but at least with one or two people. And as for the various church fund-raisers and events, even if the process of trying to do good in the world is tiring, and prey to suspect, selfish motives, well, that’s still better than just opting out entirely.

I can well see how other players’ mileage will vary on this stuff; the Absence of Miriam Lane is very well designed, with novel mechanics that draw you in, and I deeply admire that it’s unapologetically focused on a middle-aged woman’s desire to have the dignity and respect she deserves. But still, I wanted the ending of the game to reverse the negation that she’d suffered, to achieve catharsis by reconnecting her with the people who’d abandoned her in the transformative hope that things would be different this time. To call her back only so that she could replace her supernatural retreat with an all-too-ordinary one didn’t seem like progress; maybe that’s down to the theme, or just to not having gotten to the best ending, but either way I was left feeling dissatisfied with the game’s apparent views on human nature even though I’d enjoyed my time with it quite a lot.

Trouble in Sector 471, by Arthur DiBianca

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
A nicely-curated collection of limited parser puzzles, January 11, 2023
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2022

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2022's IFComp).

Arthur DiBianca is surely among the few modern IF authors whose name has become a brand. While his games boast an impressive range of settings, genres, and gameplay styles, there are some distinctive elements that mean he offers something unique: they all have a limited parser, ensuring that guess-the-verb problems are never among the challenges a player faces; they all well-written but tight, setting-first stories; they typically last an hour or so, with a set of optional objectives for players who want to dig deeper; there are well-designed interfaces that cleanly present the information you need; and they’re all of a consistently high quality (ok, that last one isn’t unique to DiBianca, but it’s the reason why it’s worth commenting on all the others!)

Trouble in Sector 471 fits all of this to a T – this time out, you play a plucky little maintenance-bot, out first to restore power to the eponymous sci-fi facility, then zap the infestation of bugs at the root of the problem, and maybe help some of your fellow worker robots along the way. The gameplay twist is that there’s a light patina of metroidvania about proceedings – visible first in the slick automap that takes up half the playing window and orients you towards the places you’ve yet to explore, and then made more obvious as you collect new functions for your humble mechanoid: at first, you’re capable only of zapping bugs and opening communications with other bots, but reaching new areas and doing favors sees you win some important upgrades, including the ability to pick stuff up and interface with the various bits of machinery you find in the facility.

The open map is mirrored in the open gameplay structure; while there are definitely chokepoints at several parts of the game, you’re not funneled towards a final encounter or anything like that, and it doesn’t take long until you can wander over quite a large stretch of real estate, worrying away at half a dozen different puzzles as you track down the bugs and optional objectives. I admit that at around the two-thirds mark, even with all the supports built into the game I started feeling a bit overwhelmed, but found that once I started taking some notes the pieces fell into place quite quickly – there’s a lot to keep track of, but when you break down exactly what you can do and what barriers you’re facing, it isn’t too hard to run down your limited command-set and come up with some ideas for how to proceed.

This is a sweet spot for puzzle difficulty for me; progress feels nontrivial, but once you bear down it isn’t too hard to start feeling clever. There was one place where I needed to look at the hints – there’s a multi-step puzzle involving a museum curator-bot that I wasn’t quite wrapping my head around – and while I got most of the optional challenges, I never came across one, and found one involving unblocking pipes too fiddly to be enjoyable, but overall this is a smartly-designed and satisfying grab bag of puzzles.

Getting into critiques, though, it does feel like a grab bag, rather than the more unified puzzle sets of some of DiBianca’s other games, like the wordplay of Sage Sanctum Scramble or the RPG-aping Black Knife Dungeon. In fact, many of the puzzles feel like the sort of thing you get up to in more traditional works of IF – there’s a fair bit of unlocking doors, figuring out combinations, and trading items to NPCs – which I think make me chafe against the limited parser more than I usually do. In particular, I missed the ability to examine things; you can get more information about any object you’re carrying, but the set of grabbable items is pretty small, and there were more than a few environmental puzzles, or encounters with other robots, where I would have liked to get a closer look at the situation, either for hints to the puzzles or just to get better grounded in the world. As a result, while the different rooms are well-described and the charming cast of robots largely does a good job communicating their personalities through their one or two lines of dialogue, I engaged with Sector 471 largely as an abstract set of puzzles and systems rather than as a coherent place where a diegetic narrative was occurring.

There are definitely worse problems to have, and honestly most of the way through a very story-heavy Comp I found it kind of nice to immerse myself in something close to a pure puzzler – and this is a very well-designed, well-tuned example of the breed. So while I’d recommend other of the author’s games before this one to someone who’s trying to figure out what this limited-parser thing is all about, it’s still a worthy addition to his gameography.

The Only Possible Prom Dress, by Jim Aikin

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
A lovely puzzle smorgasbord, January 11, 2023
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2022

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2022's IFComp. I beta tested this game and didn't do a full replay before writing this review).

I am not much of a braggart by nature, and crowing over accomplishments in the IF realm is an inherently absurd proposition, so it’s saying something that I was tempted to open this review by not-so-humbly pointing out that I’m pretty sure I was the first person on the planet to win The Only Possible Prom Dress. Largely this was by dint of being one of the beta testers, of course, but still, there were other testers and this is a long game – I’m guessing I put in at least 15 or 20 hours, even after getting some hints, and I often had to put it down for a while to let the puzzles percolate so my subconscious could worry away at them and hand my conscious mind some new ideas. Getting to the winning screen after putting in a fair bit of sweat equity over two weeks felt like an accomplishment.

This is not, I hasten to add, because the game is formally cruel – it’s I believe Polite on the Zarfian scale, with any game-ending events only a simple UNDO away. Nor is it because the puzzles are unfairly diabolical. Don’t get me wrong, many are pretty tricky – and there are at least two, both involving codes, that I suspect most players will need a hint on – but save for that diabolical duo, they feel on the level. When I solved one fair and square, I felt satisfied; when I stumbled into an answer through trial and error, I immediately saw the logic; and when I needed a hint, I slapped my forehead because I realized I’d missed some solid clues that would have gotten me in the right direction.

Funnily enough, the puzzle-solving is also rendered more pleasant by the size. The game starts with many areas locked off, then twice opens up a new, large chunk of the map after surmounting a key obstacle – but even from the get-go, you can go a lot of places, pick up a lot of items, and make progress on a bunch of puzzles. At any given time you might have half a dozen different challenges in progress, and if you’re feeling stuck, often just taking a circuit of the mall and messing around with all the new stuff you’ve discovered will be enough to make progress on at least one – or give you an idea in the meantime. There’s also a good variety in the different things you wind up doing; the game’s ultimately a scavenger hunt, but between foiling security systems, decoding anagrams, navigating mazes (all of which I think have workarounds), messing around with devices, cheering up NPCs, and the good old-fashioned medium-dry-goods business of pushing things around and climbing through holes and inserting thing 1 into receptacle A, you’ll never be bored. The scale of the game also lends it a sort of logic-puzzle vibe, as I wound up keeping a running inventory of the different puzzles I’d encountered as well as a separate list of the different items or other possible puzzle-solving things to try, cross-referencing them and deducing which solution went with which barrier as I went.

Atypically, I’m fairly deep into the review here without mentioning the plot or the theme or the writing. That’s because this is definitely and defiantly a puzzle-focused adventure game, and the plot is honestly something of a shaggy-dog story – the blurb’s setup, that you need to find a dress for your daughter, isn’t exactly a lie, but the steps to retrieving it from the near-deserted mall wind up taking you to some wacky places, with weird technology and more than a bit of magic getting into the mix without the protagonist making much of a comment. But the prose is well done, and the cast of supporting characters, one-note stereotypes one and all, are written engagingly and enjoyably, so they’re fun to interact with even if their role as flywheels to set some of the cogs of the puzzles in motion can never be ignored.

All this is to say Only Possible Prom Dress is an old-school puzzlefest as advertised (albeit more late-90s than late-70s), but a good one, even I think for folks like me who aren’t inherently drawn to the form. It’s perhaps ill-served by being in the Comp, though – this is one to savor.

A Chinese Room, by Milo van Mesdag

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
A darkly compelling tour de force, January 10, 2023
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2022

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2022's IFComp).

There have been a lot of war novels written, and most of them communicate the same simple message: war is a dehumanizing, monstrous force no matter how just one’s cause may or may not be (you’d think this message is in fact so simple that after people had written two or three books like this, there wouldn’t be a need for any more, but [gestures impotently] look around). Catch-22, though, stands out on the list – in large part because it’s funny, but also because it asserts the eternal war-novel truism in the context of a “good” war (WWII), and applies the critique beyond combat, to the mere experience of being in the military (again, even a “good” one, like the American army). The novel has several leitmotifs, but I’d say the most critical is “every victim is a culprit”; it’s a motto that seems, and is, harsh, but it I think accurately conveys how everyone who’s broken down by a brutal, absurd system and goes along with it reinforces the system, and makes it harder for anyone else to resist. Because Heller is an optimist, and primarily writing about characters who live in a democracy, however flawed, the novel’s ending still offers the hope of transcendence, of leaping straight out of the totalitarian negative-sum game and winning individual, and maybe even eventually societal, freedom.

I’m pretty sure there aren’t any Russian war novels that end like that.

A Chinese Room is a hard beast to sum up. The temptation is to start with the gameplay, since that’s probably what’s most distinctive about it. An asymmetric two-handed multiplayer game, it’s designed so that two people pass keywords back and forth maybe half a dozen times over the course of the two or so hour playtime, which encode the decisions each one is making. It’s an elaboration of the system the author used in last Comp’s Last Night of Alexisgrad, though it’s more smoothly implemented here – the passwords are just words, rather than random-seeming gobbledygook, and it’s better-paced for asynchronous play, since there are fewer keyword-exchange points with longer chunks of gameplay in between. Even though I was afraid it’d be difficult to play this one as intended since I’ve got a teething one-year-old holding my game-playing schedule hostage, I was still able to get through it without much difficulty over the course of a day or so (shoutout to @aschultz for being my partner).

With that said, the game can be played single-player too. And to assess whether I think that’d work just as well as playing it as intended, I need to delve into the plot – or at least the half of the plot that I experienced, since the two players guide entirely different protagonists in entirely different circumstances who don’t, I believe, ever directly encounter one another, and I think this ignorance of what exactly is going on in the other player’s story is an important part of the game.
As a result, discussing the narrative even in very broad strokes could constitute a significant spoiler to half of potential players – and actually, I find I want to talk about it in considerably more detail than that. So I’m going to spoiler-block the rest of this review. For those leaving us here, I’ll just say that A Chinese Room is a very grown-up, very intense work that’s sufficiently strong that I’m not overly bothered that the last ten percent kind of falls apart. Definitely read the content warnings first, but if you think you can handle it, it’s very much worth a play.

(Spoiler - click to show)So, the plot(s). Each player picks a protagonist – a woman named Caroline or a man named Leon, with the content warnings flagging that Leon’s story is more descriptive about the game’s shared, dark themes. I opted for Caroline, though after finishing my multiplayer play-through I dipped into the single-player version of Leon’s story to confirm that I understood the basic setup. It rapidly becomes clear that, despite the Western names, the story’s set in a slightly-alternate version of Russia that’s successfully achieved its war aims in Ukraine and is now demobilizing and toggling back to “peace” in order to escape sanctions (in fairness, since this long game must have been started at least several months ago, when Ukraine’s current battlefield successes would have seemed unlikely, it’s unclear how intentional the alternate-reality angle). We’ll get back to Leon later, but Caroline is a civilian on the home front. Indeed, her life at first appears little touched by the war: her husband is an “opposition” politician (he has a government contact who tells him exactly what level of dissent is allowed), her children are students, and she herself is a housewife with a brain and an economics degree but no socially-permitted way of using either.

The inciting incident is deceptively low-key. Her husband’s fixer asks her to serve as a guide for a visiting functionary – a mid-level IMF bureaucrat named Matteo – and show him around. So you do, with a bunch of choices for whether you want to take him to e.g. a European-style restaurant or a hole-in-the-wall local joint for lunch, which reveals different aspects of your society to him, and by extension, the player. In the early stages, things seem corrupt – the opening scene sees Caroline figuring out how to bribe her husband out of a speeding ticket – and ramshackle:

"Now you’re here, the Office of Regional Development looming over you, bright concrete all in sharp lines and steeples, like an uninspired Lego Notre Dame all in white. No choice but to push the doors open, the inside clean and orderly but less impressive than the facade would have implied."

But nothing’s too bad – indeed, while your life isn’t pleasant it’s still fundamentally livable and has its joys as well as its pains. And indeed, this assignment, strange as its genesis seems, is one of those high points for Caroline; again, you can decide how to approach him, but he’s an interested and sympathetic figure who’s curious about your take on everything you see, and his own thoughts without being a stereotypical economist-guy. Depending on how you play your cards, this can lead into a bit of a flirtation, and even possibly an affair, but the player is very much in the driver’s seat.

But – of course there’s a but – as you play the game, you start to get the sneaking suspicion that none of this matters very much, because for all the different options about how to manage your relationship with Matteo, the password you send to the other player doesn’t seem to have anything to do with any of that. Instead, as one portion of your duties, each day you’re ordered into a room where there’s a machine with a blinking colored light, a chart relating different colors to numbers, and a keypad for entering in the number. When you reach one of these sequences, the game pauses while you wait for your partner to send you a color; then you pick a number and send that along in return.

This is clearly ominous as hell, and you have the opportunity to push for answers – but none were easily forthcoming at least in my playthrough, and besides, it was clear that Caroline had a lot to lose from asking too many questions. Those fears also animated a tense late-game sequence, where a family lunch is interrupted by an anti-war protest that your son drifts to – by this point it’s clear that the war was illegitimate and involved atrocities, but it’s also clear that this is not a regime that tolerates dissent. You can choose to let him stand with the demonstrators, or try to pull him away (me? I thought of my son, and dragged the kid out). But again, none of these decisions get fed into the other half of the story.

This is all very effective, I found. The game elegantly gets you to go along with totalitarianism, convincingly demonstrating the consequences of resistance and the unlikelihood that it would even accomplish anything, since you’re just a humble housewife and who cares what you do? The sequences with the machine add an undercurrent of dread, while the pleasant time you spend with Matteo gives you something to focus on besides how fearful and incomplete everyone around you has become. It’s well-written, too; there’s a lot of dialogue here, and a lot of detail-work around how international institutions like the IMF functions – while I’m not an expert on that sort of thing, I do have a law degree and read a lot of policy papers, and almost everything rang true to me. And the game can wax lyrical sometimes too; here’s a description of taking a train to the capital:

"You sit in darkness for a time then you cross a border and the sky begins to brighten again. Then suddenly all sky is gone, all distance dissolved into a blur of buildings; an endless salute of identical concrete dwellings. The lit windows and the lives upon countless lives being lived out on the other side of them merge into straight lines of light."

It’s a little dehumanizing, but not too aggressively so. And in fact while the portrayal of Russian political society is appropriately dark, there are positive aspects of the culture too – Caroline derives meaning from her Orthodox faith and her love of cooking, and the regular people she and Matteo meet are mostly… well, regular people, with some assholes but many nice folks too (I think the deliberate use of Western names, the very sparing use of details that could feel exotic to the presumed Anglophone audience, are in service of making Caroline’s experiences feel less alien, so it’s easier to sympathize with her and find her society natural). It all feels very plausible, and while it’s clearly an unpleasant life compared to what a Western audience is used to, it seems to work well enough for Caroline – or at least, it’s clear that if you have her step too far out of line, it could suddenly start working much, much less well for her and her family.

It lures you in, in other words; the game pushes your buttons sometimes, but it opens up opportunities too. You’re a victim, you’re a culprit.

Then the shoe drops, and the game starts to lose its footing. I won’t spoil the ways Caroline’s story can end in terms of where she and her family (and Matteo) can wind up, since there appears to be a range of options and anyway these details are less important to the point the game is making, but I will spoil what the deal is with the room with the lights and the numbers – so don’t deblur the next paragraph if you want to experience the revelation for yourself.

What’s going on is that the powers that be have developed a new machine for committing war crimes in a way that displaces responsibility for atrocities. As best I can piece together, over in occupied Ukraine – in Leon’s share of the plot, I believe – there are a group of Russian soldiers and officers who decide, in a purely theoretical way, what should be done with POWs and civilian prisoners who have resisted the invaders in particular ways. These theoretical recommendations are fed into a secure room via a color-coding system, presumably indicating different kinds of tortures. Someone in that secure room then selects a number based on the color they’re seeing, which instructs a machine back in the prison camp to maim and/or murder the prisoners whose crimes align with whatever scenario the soldiers were “theoretically” discussing. Caroline, of course, was one such patsy, and when she unknowingly keyed in a 5 because she saw a light flashing red, she, I’m guessing, was telling the machine to kill innocents.

(This, at last, is the Chinese Room of the title – it refers to a philosophical thought experiment denying the “Strong AI” hypothesis that you could make a computer with the same kind of mind a human has. The idea is that you could train a person to respond to a certain set of inputs with a corresponding set of outputs, without actually understanding what they were doing, even though outside observers would impute conscious intentionally to the observed cycle of action and response).

As a metaphor, sure, this works – Caroline’s a cog in a totalitarian machine, unwittingly but also kinda wittingly participating in a sick society’s crimes. But as a diegetic element of the story, I had a hard time swallowing it. Why would the regime construct this complex mechanism? In the real world, Russia isn’t exactly fussed about covering up the crimes against humanity it’s been committing, and the alternate version in the game doesn’t seem significantly more squeamish; in neither case is it clear how consequences would be enforced. And while there’s a way in which this game casuistically could allow the regime to formally displace liability from respected military officers to disfavored civilians, it’s hard to imagine any Western governments taking this sophistry seriously. Perhaps intuiting the weakness of the arguments here, the game presents them skeletally, in broken excerpts overheard while Caroline is distracted or in distress – it almost holds together as it’s being presented, but it breaks apart as soon as you start thinking about it.

The thing is, the whole device rigmarole isn’t thematically necessary. Even without the metaphor, the game had managed to establish the awful dynamics of life in a totalitarian society! If anything, I found this sci-fi MacGuffin confused things, muddying up responsibility and making it easy to point the finger at the cartoon villains who’d constructed these torture devices instead of reflecting on the choices I’d made to have Caroline protect herself and her family at the expense of what we both knew was right.

It is necessary for the two-player mechanic to work, though – there needs to be some gameplay connection between the two strands of the story in order to make it a multiplayer game, and not simply a single-player story you play through in two halves. It’s true that knowing there was another player making decisions out there stoked my paranoia about what was going on, and decisions in the room with the device do have an uncanny Milgram-Experiment vibe that might not work as well without knowing someone else was going to be doing something based on what I sent them. So this isn’t a case where it’s easy to see how the game would work if you excised the piece that I don’t think works as well – still, I can’t help but wonder whether the game evolved past its initial conception, and perhaps could have benefitted from a more radical late-in-the-day rethinking.

As I said way (way, way) back at the beginning of this review, though, I still found A Chinese Room very compelling – I tore through it, nervous and engaged the whole time – and it left me with a good amount to think about even without playing the Leon portion of the story, which I’m sure has even more queasy scenes of moral compromise (I’m not tempted to check it out, I have to confess; while I’m sure it’s well done, I don’t get on with depictions of torture). Even without its technical elements, the game’s a highlight of the Comp, taking on real issues in a grounded, sophisticated way and leaving the player without easy answers – besides, yes, that war is a dehumanizing, monstrous force and totalitarian regimes make it even worse.

A Walk Around the Neighborhood, by Leo Weinreb

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A charming one-room puzzler, January 10, 2023
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2022

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2022's IFComp).

A Walk Around the Neighborhood has a somewhat deceptive title. Like, close your eyes, picture what you do in the game based just on those five words and knowing it’s a parser game: I mean it’s right there, isn’t it? You take a stroll around some streets, maybe meet some neighbors who have some small problems, carry out some light fetch-questing to the corner shop; possibly there’s a park or bit of woods you can poke your head into, and there’s a little maze or something. But no, there’s a bait-and-switch – instead, what we’ve got here is a one-room puzzler, because while you’d like to go for the eponymous walk with your partner Alex, first you need to find your wallet, and charge your cell phone, and get your keys, and put on a mask… and since you’re working off a days-long hangover, none of this is as easy as you’d think.

There’s another layer of deceptiveness, though, because again, close your eyes and picture what the game is like based on that description: it’s a tough-as-nails pixelbitchfest, with tons of scenery (a few pieces of which will turn out to be important) and implausible puzzles that take what should be a grounded premise and make it absurd. However – twist upon twist! – A Walk Around the Neighborhood also manages to escape this escape-the-room stereotype. It’s a charming, laid-back game that’s smartly designed so that you can tackle its reasonable challenges in a bunch of different ways, and reach a satisfying, plausible ending even if you don’t feel like following the scavenger hunt to its bitter end.

It takes a little while to realize this, admittedly; I let out a groan when the intro stopped and I realized how long the list of stuff I’d need to collect was, and how concomitantly long the list of living-room furniture to poke at was, too. But that list of objects is pretty much it – there aren’t like sub-items and sub-parts fractally expanding the game space to ludicrous levels. And while many one-room games are dense but “steep”, with a host of puzzles that all depend on each other in a mostly linear sequence, this one is quite flat; there are one or two that need to be solved in order, but for the most part, there’s nothing that’s useless or out of bounds from the off, and wherever you start your efforts, you’re likely to make some satisfying progress.

The individual puzzles are well-designed, too. There are no secret messages or color-coded signals or anything like that, just a jumble of missing keys that have largely wound up where you would expect, and a couple of logical object-interaction puzzles. Sure, you’ll need to LOOK BEHIND and LOOK UNDER stuff, but that’s de rigueur for a game like this, and it specifically prompts you with those verbs so I think it plays fair on that score. A few are a bit more creative, including some that require watching TV for inspiration, but even these are quite grounded, helping maintain the integrity of the pleasant, low-key premise. And if you run into trouble, you can always check in with your partner, who can give you some light, in-world hints while proving a pleasant look what the relationship is like (there are regular hints, plus a walkthrough too).

Despite the simple building-blocks and the relatively short running time – I got one of the two “complete” endings in about 45 minutes – it’s surprisingly deep, too. You see, you’re not stuck on this train until you’ve managed to retrieve all your possessions – there are over a dozen additional off-ramps, where you get sucked into some other activity instead of going on that much-delayed walk. These are all easy enough to back out of with an UNDO, and crucially, they’re not treated as bad ends – sure, your partner might lightly chide you for not getting some exercise, but typically they involve doing something else that’s fun or useful, so it’s enjoyable to try stuff that’s not on the scavenger-hunt list to see if you can discover one of these premature endings.

Tying everything together, the tone is light without getting silly. As the presence of a mask on the list indicates, the game’s set during COVID times, but not in an intrusive or depressing way. And the protagonist has an affable voice that made me want to help them out – as befits the rest of the game, they’re not like aggressively characterized and the prose is by no means show-offy, but it’s technically quite clean and does a good job efficiently putting a little bit of personality into the straightforward descriptions of quotidian things:

>x ring

The key ring currently holds a backdoor key, although it usually also holds a car key, a house key, a work key and a bike key.

Unfortunately, this is a common occurrence. Your key ring doesn’t quite make a full loop, so if you’re not careful with them (as happens from time to time, especially when you’re drinking or out with friends), they fall off without you realizing it.

Admittedly, there are a few items that have a default “you see nothing special about the XX” description, which really shouldn’t be the case in a small albeit jam-packed game like this, but at least it’s for stuff like AA batteries, where the lack of description isn’t holding the player back any. Other than that, I didn’t run into any bugs or implementation oversights. Really, this is a smooth, low-friction game; it’s cheerful and pleasant and rewarding to play. It’s not an angsty, story-heavy game that’s going to tax your brain and challenge your ability to put together a complex narrative, sure, so I suppose you could level the criticism that in some respects it’s a bit lightweight. But with a title like A Walk Around the Neighborhood, is that really what you’d be expecting? No, it does what it sets out to do, and very satisfyingly at that; it’s a quiet but clear highlight of the Comp.

Esther's, by Brad Buchanan and Alleson Buchanan

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Nice mice, January 10, 2023
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2022

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2022's IFComp).

I worry that, just as with people, it can come off patronizing to call a game “adorable,” so I’ve been staring at the thesaurus for the last five minutes. Esther’s is “cute” and “appealing”, sure, but that undersells how winsome it is. Is it “precious”? Nah, that sounds too cloying. “Captivating” and “enchanting” miss how pleasantly low-key it is, and after that, let’s just say the line of proposed synonyms that start with “dreamy” and proceed from there are a bit too adult for this children’s-book-aping Twine game. Sorry, folks – I guess we’re stuck with “adorable.”

In the best picture-book tradition, the game stars two mice, Janie and Harold, and follow them on their way to their favorite brunch spot, the eponymous Esther’s. Said café is run by a little girl who’s a thoughtful host in every way save one – she doesn’t understand the mice’s squeaky language, so always serves them cheese and crackers, rather than the mimosas and avocado toast they’re craving (Janie and Harold must be millennials). Today’s the day when they decide to really make an effort and get through to Esther – and it’s up to the player to help.

This is a cute premise for sure, and it could come off twee, but I don’t think it goes too far. Partly this is due to the lovely illustrations, which wouldn’t be out of place in a real children’s book – they have a textured, watercolor quality and a neat attention to detail: look closely at the opening image, which shows Janie bringing flowers while Harold carries her library books, and you can see she’s checked out Goodnight Moon. And I won’t spoil the one where Janie tries to mime an avocado, but it got the first out-loud laugh of the Comp out of me.

The prose also hits just the right note, with simple, clear sentences but a sly turn of phrase here and there to make it fun for a grown-up to read, too:

"Janie buttered an invisible toast and pretended to nibble at it. Harold stuffed his pretend toast in his mouth. He licked his fingers with pretend satisfaction."

It’s nothing fancy, but the repeated use of “pretend” setting up “pretend satisfaction” is cleverly done.

The interactivity is also nicely gauged – you’ve got a fair number of options to choose from, and while the challenge of getting your order right isn’t a devilish puzzle or anything, the authors have done a good job of communicating just enough information about what each choice might do, while still retaining room to surprise you with how exactly each stab at communication plays out.

Esther’s is admittedly a small thing – my playthrough went quicker than it usually takes me to get through Goodnight Moon with my son, albeit he’s typically doing a lot of wriggling and pointing which pads things out. But it pulls off everything it tries to with aplomb, and I had a smile plastered to my face the whole time I was playing it. There’s no other word for it: from stem to stern, it’s adorable.

Admiration Point, by Rachel Helps

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A nuanced workplace-antiromance , January 9, 2023
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2022

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2022's IFComp).

Welp, much like with No One Else is Doing This, I come to Admiration Point with some personal experience that makes this “anti-romance” about mutual attraction between married (not to each other, natch) co-workers especially resonant: my wife and I met at work, at a time when we were likewise both coupled up (but not to each other, natch). I can attest that makes for a situation rife with the potential for drama, submerged feelings, and angst, with a hundred different choices every day attempting to balance guilt, desire, innocence, and fulfillment, so it’s an appealing setup for a work of choice-based IF. Add to this an interesting, self-reflective future setting – the main characters all work at a digital museum and spend most of their time assessing and analyzing the online culture of the early 21st Century – and you’ve got some compelling ingredients. I didn’t find Admiration Point entirely successful, due to some significant elements feeling underdeveloped, but there’s a lot here to enjoy and think about, so I’m happy to have played it.

Good stuff first. Much of the game plays out at work, as Maria, the main character, responds to the demands of her work as a exhibition artist at the museum – this means she does things like create 3d avatars for her colleagues when they give talks in online VR, or mock up backdrops or interactive experiences to support exhibits – and decides exactly how far to lean in to her attraction to Sean, a somewhat-older curator. Some of the details of this work can feel a little silly – TikTok clips are ephemeral by their nature, so putting significant effort into preserving them has the air of the absurd – but there’s an impressive attention to the detail that this work would require, and various books and lectures eventually make the case for this study of digital culture.

Throughout, Maria has the opportunity to take on extra projects to get closer to Sean, providing for some engaging choices, and allowing the technological elements of the setting to create unexpected intimacy. At one point in my playthrough, she decided to make an avatar of Sean, building the model from reference photos:

"His knuckles are unexpectedly knobbly, and he keeps his fingernails shorter than the default fingernail length. You adjust some of the knuckle wrinkles, the shade of the arm hair, and the opacity of the skin on the palms."

The relationship with Sean is nicely drawn throughout, in fact. He’s not completely idolized – while he’s smart, charming, and occasionally thoughtful, he can come off a bit smug and patronizing – which adds to the reality of the attraction, and Maria’s physical desire for him comes through in details like those above. In my playthrough I skated on the edge, never pushing for a declaration of love or doing anything that didn’t have plausible deniability, but not losing any opportunities to spend time together, either – so his feelings remained plausibly ambiguous. It’s clear that Maria is getting something positive out of their connection, and sees it as a reason to stretch herself artistically and intellectually, but it also clearly leads to her neglecting her family. There were more than a few moments, playing Admiration Point, when I felt a shudder of recognition at how well the game reminded me of how things were when my wife and I were just co-workers.

There’s one element of the relationship that felt less natural, though, which is the game-mechanical pieces. Once you reach a certain point in the story, a sidebar’s unlocked that shows little icons representing your feelings for Sean, his feelings for you, and his “alert” level. These aren’t explained – Sean’s indicators appear to be based on a weather metaphor, like cloudy to sunny, and since I played it cool his alert level stayed at a question mark. But I found the squiggly circle representing Maria’s feelings for him incomprehensible (though it belatedly occurs to me that might be the point), and the whole rigmarole seemed unnecessary given that the prose was already doing a perfectly adequate job conveying the situation.

Speaking of pieces that fell a bit flat for me, I didn’t find fin-de-21st-Century sci-fi world entirely believable – other than a U.S. that has fragmented into Infinite-Jest-style corporate-branded substates and some scaled-up VR technology that feels at most 15 or 20 years off, not 70, neither technology or culture seem to have moved on that much. That’d all be fair enough – this isn’t meant to be sociological speculative fiction by any means – except for the glaring fact that the game’s gender roles often struck me as a bit retrograde even by 2022 standards. It is established that nonbinary and genderqueer people do have significantly greater acceptance (a major plot point hinges on a study examining how folks from those communities created art in response to a second pandemic in the 2030s), but in terms of how the named cast interact, it feels more 1990s than 2090s. Sean’s instinct is to talk over Maria and treat her ideas dismissively, until he’s called on it; Maria and her husband have a sex life straight out of a period sitcom (he’s gotta have it, she’s mostly frigid); her attraction to Sean is based partially on wanting to take care of him, though “as a woman, [she] like[s] to support other women in positions of power in [her] workplaces” – in fact she often feels “powerless at work.”

Of course, it’s possible that the setting of the game – the Nevadan successor-state of MGM – is meant to be more culturally conservative than future society as a whole. This brushes against another somewhat-disappointing aspect of the game, which is the treatment of Mormonism. The blurb plays up the fact that Maria is Mormon, and so is Sean, as it turns out. But short of her noting the fact that they have a religion in common (without any substantive comment on what that means to her), a sequence where they bump into each other at an LDS event – which could have been equally well set at Shakespeare in the Park or a football game – and one moment where Maria has the option to pray for sleep, her faith and its role in her worldview felt underdeveloped to me. I never got a sense of whether she was a fervent believer, or whether this attraction to someone she wasn’t married to threatened her faith, or if Sean being Mormon as well made flirtation safer, or alternatively, less appealing because it becomes less transgressive. Perhaps the author was worried about making the player feeling proselytized-to – a good impulse! – but I think the game went too far in the other direction; Maria is a strongly-characterized protagonist so having this important part of her identity and experience of the world deemphasized feels like a missed opportunity.

The biggest area where underdevelopment undermines the game, however, is Maria’s home life, which gets maybe a fifth of the word count, and an even lower fraction of authorial attention, of her work. Her husband makes cardboard seem interesting – he never even gets a name over the course of this 90-minute game, and given all the focus on Maria’s job it’s noticeable that we don’t even find out what he does until an hour in (he’s an industrial production manager, god help him). She has a four-year-old who’s occasionally being annoying, occasionally being cute, but who doesn’t seem to take up nearly the space in her attention as most toddlers do in the minds of their parents. But there are very few sequences, or decisions, where these relationships are activated – there’s one point where you need to decide whether or not to stay home from work to take care of your sick child, but it’s primarily framed around Sean (selfishly wanting to go into work to be near him, or selflessly performing familial obligations).

Of course, this could well be an authorial choice, portraying the home as drab and stultifying in contrast to the excitement Maria experiences when she’s with Sean. But often the writing in these segments doesn’t feel like it’s portraying feelings of dullness and artificiality, and is just dull and artificial itself. Like, there’s an interesting subplot at the museum where Maria makes a 3d model of a mommy-blogger to go along with an exhibit of some of her writing; the excerpts are from right after the blogger gave birth, so Maria makes the model a realistic rendition of a post-partum body. This pisses off one of the blogger’s descendants, who wanted a more idealized portrayal. The work sequence is interesting and well done, and gains personal resonance because it’s revealed that Maria had a hard pregnancy with her first child, with a long recovery time, which is one reason she’s reticent to have any more kids even though her husband would like them.

When the incident with the relative comes up in conversation at home, here’s how the dialogue goes, after a prefatory “as you know” phrase establishes that the husband knows about Maria’s work on the exhibit and he asks whether she made the change the relative requested:

“I did not. Postpartum women often sequester themselves and we have few public examples of what their bodies actually look like. Women giving birth for the first time are surprised when they have a baby and can’t fit back into their old clothes after giving birth or sometimes, not ever. My art should depict what we want to exhibit as accurately as possible.”

“Hmm. That makes sense.”

This is not how people actually talk, much less people who are married to each other, much much less people who have feelings about what being pregnant, with the child of the person they’re talking to, did to their own body. It’s a significant missed opportunity, and it’s of a piece with the treatment of Maria’s family throughout, which winds up undercutting the dilemma at the heart of the game – instead of a dilemma hinging on Maria’s desire to be with Sean counterposed with guilt at hurting her very human, very specific husband and kid, her desire is only opposed by abstract considerations of fidelity. This makes the drama significantly less compelling – and, again drawing on personal experience here, it also makes it significantly less true to life.

In many respects these are minor critiques, I should say. Certainly if the good parts of Admiration Point were less good, I’d feel less disappointed by its weaker parts – I can’t help imagine what the game would be like if the quality of writing and characterization were more consistent, so I’ve done my typical thing of harping at length on the negatives in a piece I overall liked. So let me just say once again that there’s a lot to like here, and seeing that the author has written other works of IF – including some that appear to lean more heavily into Mormon themes – I’m definitely interested in checking those out.

Lazy Wizard's Guide, by Lenard Gunda

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
A satisfying off-brand Hogwarts adventure, January 9, 2023
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2022

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2022's IFComp. I also beta-tested this game, but didn't do a full replay before writing this review).

The question of generic knock-offs is deceptively complex. Sure, some of it comes down to dollars and cents: you can save some money by getting store-brand Coke, and it all tastes like malted battery acid anyway, so might as well save a buck rather than pay for the label. But when it comes to an experience rather than a product the label, isn’t just an afterthought, but can be an inherent and important part of the texture – in some sense it shouldn’t matter whether or not we think Pericles, Prince of Tyre is an authentic Shakespeare play, but given its clear status as a lesser work, in a larger sense that’s the only question that matters.

All this is well-trod ground, but the Lazy Wizard’s Guide poses the issue in a curiously inverted form – in offering up an off-label Hogwarts, the game loses much of the richness of detail, and the positive associations some players might have lingering from their first encounters with the books and movies. But it also cleanses this Brand X Wizarding World of the lingering stench of Rowling’s loud transphobia, clearing space for more players to enjoy it in good conscience.

And what’s here is enjoyable, even leaving aside all questions of authenticity. The parser-based magic test is a study formula, and tends to live and die by the strength of its magic system, so the choice to de-emphasize setting and characters by invoking direct Harry Potter tropes with their serial numbers filed off is entirely defensible. Admittedly, said system is also not going to win any awards for novelty, since it uses a traditional mix of spellbooks – to permanently learn new spells – and material components – which can be consumed, putting a limit on the number of times you can spam certain enchantments. Similarly, the hoops your fledgling wizard needs to jump through in order to graduate can feel a bit arbitrary – some are clearly ridiculously dangerous, like summoning a vampire, while others, like finding a lost magic rock, are a tad underwhelming.

These authorial choices mean that the overall framework of the game isn’t especially compelling; you’re solving a test because you’ve been told to solve the test. Fortunately, the actual gameplay and puzzles themselves are pleasantly moreish. There’s a canny mix of difficulties, with a gently-sloping curve that successfully builds familiarity with the system and gives the player some early wins while introducing some more challenging obstacles. Alternate solutions are implemented for many puzzles, some of which work around resource constraints in fairly clever ways. And the custom parser is up to the challenge – it doesn’t recognize “it”, but it does have a well-integrated menu-based conversation system for when you want to talk to not-McGonagall, not-Dobby, and not-Ron, so that feels like a fair trade.

As I played the Lazy Wizard’s Guide, I wound up unconsciously comparing it to an entry in 2019’s Comp, Winter Break at Hogwarts. That game really leaned into a recreation of Hogwarts, boasting a sprawling map that largely coincided with the official plan of the school, with book-appropriate set dressing everywhere you looked. But between some iffy puzzle design and the authenticity generating some bad Rowling vibes, I didn’t wind up enjoying it that much. Lazy Wizard’s Guide flips both those elements and comes up with a much more successful formula – sometimes it’s good that you’d never confuse the generic brand for the real thing.

No One Else Is Doing This, by Lauren O'Donoghue

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A bottom-up view of political activism, January 9, 2023
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2022

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2022's IFComp).

I spend a lot of time in my reviews pontificating about prose style and engagement and puzzle difficulty and all sorts of stuff as though I were some sort of expert, but of course the truth is that’s all just based on having read a bunch of books, played a fair number of games, and written a couple myself – hardly specialized knowledge, since that describes like everyone who writes IF reviews. And subject matter wise I have to confess I’ve never been stuck in an abandoned spaceship, transported to a surreal otherworld that’s a reflection of my undigested trauma, or gone on any sort of fantastical quest at all, so all that’s a strikeout too.

All of which is to say that I was very excited to come across a game where I actually do have relevant experience that most players probably wouldn’t! No One Else is Doing This is all about canvassing – the fine art of knocking on doors (or shooting people an aggressively cheerful wave and “hi!” in a busy public place) to talk to folks about issues, encouraging them to sign a petition, support a candidate or ballot measure, and/or (preferably and) donate to keep a nonprofit afloat. I’ve never been a full-time canvasser, but for many years I worked for an organization that ran outreach operations like the ones depicted in NOEDT across the U.S. (admittedly, the game is set in the U.K.), and besides spending a lot of time talking to colleagues about how they were run, I headed out to turf myself a fair few times to see what canvassing was like. So in addition to assessing the game qua game, I’ll also review how accurately it portrays the experience of canvassing – on its Comp page, NOEDT twice brands itself a “simulator”, so I think this is a fair exercise.

With all that introductory rigmarole out of the way, what’s the game actually like? It’s a short, minimally-but-attractively designed Twine game that briefly introduces you to the situation – you’re employed as a door-knocker by a community union, which I think translates into Americanese as a community-based organization, trying to recruit more dues-paying members to increase your union’s ability to pay its staff and make change (reading between the lines, it appears it works primarily on local issues, primarily housing). After an initial sequence that sees you bundle way, way up – it’s set on a Friday night in early December – you head out on your shift, needing to raise one more five-pound contribution to hit your weekly quota.

Once you hit turf, you’re presented with a dashboard of sorts where you can plan your work. There’s a status indicator up top letting you know how much time’s left in the shift and how much you’ve raised so far, plus warnings if you’re getting too cold or need to use the bathroom. There’s a short glossary explaining some of the (honestly not that technical) specialized vocabulary the game uses. There’s the option to take a break to see to some of the aforementioned needs. And then there’s the list of doors, authentically arranged into two rows of first the odd numbers, then the evens (because of course the most efficient way to work your way down a block is to knock all the doors on one side, then cross and do the other side – this is how pretty much all walk lists are printed).

The meat of the game comes when you select a door. Much of the time nobody will be home (or nobody will answer – not necessarily the same thing!) and you’ll just drop some lit, leaving a pamphlet for the resident in the forlorn hope that they’ll read it instead of chucking it in the bin, and maybe decide to donate to you sua sponte (mostly they wind up in the bin). When somebody answers, you’re given a choice of two dialogue options as you move through your rap (the canned speech you use to tell folks who you are and what you’re doing) and try to make enough of a connection for them to join the union (or just throw money at you so you’ll go away).

Sometimes you’re doomed no matter what you do, of course – the dad in the middle of making dinner for screaming kids doesn’t have time to listen to your schpiel, and the chav in the middle of watching a football game just wants to get back to the telly. And some folks will want to talk to you, but either conclude that organizing isn’t the answer to society’s problems – it’s the fault of bad education/laziness/those Muslims – or that while they’re totally with you, they’re just completely tapped out of time and money. There are a few, though, who will donate if you do a good enough job of figuring out what would motivate them, or at least just get lucky.

This all seems super accurate, as do some of the constraints. It’s cold and miserable out on turf when you canvass in the middle of the winter. There are way, way more doors that don’t open than those that do, and pretty much nobody you talk to has any idea of what your kind of organization is so you need to keep the conversations really basic. There’s not enough time to get through all your turf, and while canvassing skill definitely has an impact over time, it’s totally possible to have a night go totally south because you hit a run of bad doors all in a row (the game is kind of sneaky about this, in fact – most players will probably start out hitting the odd doors in increasing order, since they’re presented on the first row. But the early odd-numbered doors are all pretty terrible, with almost all the donors found on the evens side of the street – it’s sufficiently disproportionate that I assume the intent is for a first playthrough to be miserable).

Breaking from questions of verisimilitude for a minute, all of this is presented in unadorned but solid prose that I think does a good job of capturing the experience, and especially the time and place (it’s set in 2020). Here’s a bit from the bus ride to turf:

"You just about manage to jump on the bus before it leaves. The schools have finished for the day and it’s over capacity, teenagers sitting in the seats marked out for social distancing. The elderly man behind you is wearing his mask underneath his nose. You put your headphones in and try to psych yourself up for the next four hours."

This approach extends to the actual door-knocking, where the conversations are compact and to the point, but do a good job of quickly sketching out the rich pageant of characters you’d expect to come across if you met everyone who lived on a street.

The writing is also where the protagonist’s growing disillusionment with the work comes through. They’re getting burned out, it’s clear:

"He shuts the door. You post a leaflet, impotently, through the letter box."

But this isn’t just a matter of worry that you’re behind on your quota (quotas are totally a real thing, FYI) – the protagonist is also questioning whether this work is actually adding up to social change:

"You don’t have the time to go back and see them again, and most of them will never come to a meeting or an action without support. They’ll just cancel their memberships, probably, and then you’re back where you started."

This is where my suspension of disbelief started to take a bit of a hit. Organizations that do this work don’t typically expect door-knockers to also try to get members to take further actions – or if they do, it’s not during the same shifts where they’re working through a walk list. There’ll typically be called a ladder of engagement, with other staff calling folks who’ve signed up as members to talk to them in more depth about issues and campaigns, invite them to events, and move them into doing more and more. If this community union’s organizing model is just “sign ‘em up and hope they do something,” it’s no wonder their staff are unsure what the point of all their work is!

The other reason the protagonist’s burnout is understandable is that the author’s put their thumb on the scales. As I mentioned above, if you run through the doors in the intuitively correct order you’ll struggle with a lot of empty homes and uninterested residents, and probably fail to raise a single pound, prompting a downbeat ending. But even if you, for some obsessive reason, decide to play the game five or six times and systematically mark down which doors are the best ones – then have to play it one more time because your planned-out “perfect run” got derailed when you forgot to stop for a pee break – and run up the scoreboard such that you raise almost your entirely weekly quota in one night, you’re told as you’re checking in with your supervisor that members you’d signed up on previous nights have cancelled their donations, so you wind up below quota after all.

It’s dumb to feel put out by this kind of authorial manipulation, I suppose – spoiler, everything in every game is authorial manipulation – but still, I think it weakens the work. As I mentioned above, it’s definitely possible to be good at canvassing, or just lucky, and have a good night. And I don’t think it’s critical to the protagonist’s gradual embitterment that they fail – after coming in below quota I was expecting the supervisor to fire me, but she was actually quite chill and philosophical about it. Canvassing is hard, grinding work; many of the organizations that employ canvassers think giving people an opportunity to work on issues they care about means they don’t need to be too punctilious about labor rights and practices; and it is the case that while, at least in my experience, community organizing is one of the few things that can create the power needed to win systems change, much if not most of the time systems succeed at sustaining an unjust status quo even in the face of top-notch campaigning. To my mind, grappling with these issues more directly would have made NOEDT’s critiques more incisive (for that matter, what exactly is the title referring to? I wonder whether it’s an indirect indication that the protagonist’s friends and relations think she’s crazy to be doing this work).

Modulo that one niggle, though, I think NOEDT works quite well both as a look into this important but infrequently-depicted vocation, as well as a portrait of a community, lumps and all – as much as I enjoyed seeing the impedimenta of canvassing show up in a piece of IF, similarly to how I’ve felt when knocking doors in real life I also enjoyed the surprise of seeing who was behind each door, and knowing that while most of them would be dismissive or busy or otherwise disagreeable, there’s a chance of meeting at least a few willing – indeed, excited – to have a quick chat about how to make the world better, if only a little.

I’ll wrap up this way-too-long-by-any-objective-measure review with two last PSAs for those who’ve played NOEDT: first, in the US we’re a month out from Election Day, and that means that if you live here you may soon be getting calls or door-knocks from canvassers for one cause or candidate or another. You definitely don’t have to agree with them or give them money by any means, but hopefully this game can be a reminder to treat them like they’re human beings – the difference between a sincere “I’m sorry, I can’t tonight” and slamming a door in one’s face is really really significant! And second, if you ever are doing any canvassing yourself, the bit here where the protagonist goes out on turf alone, with only a rape whistle for protection, is a very bad idea – always buddy up!

Let Them Eat Cake, by Alicia Morote

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Appealing but underbaked, January 6, 2023
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2022

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2022's IFComp).

Let Them Eat Cake lulls you in with a premise that echoes the cozycore vibe of games like Stardew Valley – you’re an apprentice baker tasked with gathering the not-at-all-exotic ingredients to make a cake for a village festival in your new home. The aesthetic is homey as well, with text that unfurls across a background that remind me of my grandma’s old recipe cards, and the portraits of your various neighbors depicted in an appealingly ugly-cute style.

It doesn’t take long for things to curdle, though, since this Twine game isn’t so much folksy as folk horror. The most benign of the villagers is the one who did in her daughter’s fiancé with rat poison; it’s best not to pry into what the farmer’s prizewinning pigs have been eating to make them grow so fat; and the vibes in the mill were so bad I just noped my way out of there before figuring out the exact flavor of wrong that was going on there. It sure seems like your master has got some secrets too, and who knows what really goes on at the festival…

Well, I don’t, I have to admit, since I ran into a bug that saw me stuck in a time loop after bringing the ingredients back to the baker; he told me to make some butter, I did that and poked around the bakery, then the link to gather the ingredients together reset me back to the beginning of the scene, locked into an endless repetition that was horrifying enough but not, I think, what the author intended. Indeed, while the game nails the vibe, it’s in need of some polish beyond just bug-fixing. The prose is evocative, but has lots of typos and is occasionally awkward:

"The farm is run down, as you might begin to wonder that every part of this small, hidden town is. It’s hidden, tucked away so small that it doesn’t register on any of the local maps you’ve seen, but the merchants seem to know where it is."

With that coat of polish, I think this could be a fun, scary game – the contrast between the twee presentation and brutal reality is entertaining, and each of the little vignettes was engaging, with choices that invited me to push my luck (though admittedly the fact that I’d died and restarted a couple times by the time I hit the endless-butter bug, reducing my desire to try the whole thing yet again – since there are so many endings, many of them appearing to be bad ones, enabling undo would probably have been a good idea). So I’ll keep an eye out for a post-Comp release, as I don’t think I’ve yet had my fill.

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