Ratings and Reviews by Mike Russo

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Tricks of light in the forest, by Pseudavid

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Middle march, January 4, 2024
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2023

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2023's IFComp. I beta tested this game. Also, this review contains spoilers).

I am very much a city kind of person – so much so that when I went to stay with my uncle in semi-rural New Hampshire for a couple of weeks immediately after moving out of Manhattan, the combination of deep silence and unfamiliar wildlife sounds that characterized the local soundscape gave me insomnia for the first time in my life. And actually I just recalled that when I was still living in the city, even just taking the subway to Brooklyn could make me agoraphobic. Despite all that (or maybe because of it), though, I totally get the fantasy Tricks of light in the forest offers: going into the woods, exploring slightly off the beaten trail, looking closely at every rock and flower and tree and bug, syncing into tune with the world… it’s alluring because it’s such a change of pace, sure, but also because it feels like returning to nature is an antidote to the poisonous distractions and superficial conflicts of civilized life.

My experience is actually not that far off from that of Lara, this Gruescript game’s 12-year-old protagonist; while she embarks on her unsupervised trip into the woods with the insouciance of a born ranger, actually she’d also lived in a city until just the previous year. And for her, getting in touch with nature is even more important than it is for us, as hints in the game’s narration indicate that it takes place after climate-change disasters have wrecked much of the earth, displacing people and animals alike. Not that she’s very concerned with any of that; monitor lizards have always roamed Europe in her lifetime, so she’s just focused on having a fun time exploring, taking some pictures of interesting plants or bugs, and finding something to collect for a classroom exercise.

While eventually a few brushes with danger intrude on this innocent agenda, this is a decidedly low-key game by IF standards, and it sings when it leans into its smallness. There are only a few objects needed to surmount the game’s small set of puzzles, but each of its locations typically boasts at least a few pieces of scenery: a half-dead tree, a heap of trash, a swarm of bees, a cleft in the earth. In addition to examining them, you’re typically also able to take a photo, or touch or smell, or, for portable items, harvest a piece for your sample box. The game tracks all of this, but it isn’t vulgar enough to change the plot based on your actions, much less include anything like an achievement to “reward” you for mechanically clicking on everything. Instead, exploration is worth pursuing for its own sake, or rather for the sake of tiny jewel-like bits of prose:

"There are two kinds of moss on the rock here: both are like carpets made up of green strings, but one has longer, thinner and lighter strings, while the others are shorter, thicker, and a less cheerful tone."

"I kneel under the highest part of the fallen tree. The underside is different from the top. Cold, a bit damp, softened. Eaten by bugs? Small circles of white and yellow fungus thrive in the shade. Some day, not too far, they will weaken the wood so much that the trunk will finally break."

There’s a neat connection drawn between this external poking about and more internally-focused reflection. Often, engaging with an object will prompt an association whose thread Lara will follow over a few subsequent turns, sometimes sparking a memory of her previous life or prompting her to think about her family members or the bigger world. Similarly, most of the big-picture setting details are established glancingly, through these fine-grained observations: noticing some dead trees will reveal that they were probably killed by climate-induced flooding, or seeing the traces of poachers will make Lara recall a conversation where her dad alluded to the political upheaval that predated the current, more stable time. Notably, while it’s clear that the world has changed in generally bad ways, Tricks of light in the forest posits a future where nature has begun to heal, generally assisted by humans. Both of Lara’s parents work in recovery efforts, and while the woods are wilder and different than they are today, they’re still vibrant and a place of wonder.

This quietly hopeful vibe extends to the moments of genuine threat, where Lara encounters untamed wildlife. These sequences are definitely tense, but I don’t think it’s possible for the player to die, and the way you deal with the animals just involves shooing them off, rather than inflicting lasting harm. And while these are puzzles that involve multiple steps to solve, I didn’t find that they detracted from the meditative mood of the piece; you typically only have one or two usable inventory items at a time, and Lara is a resourceful enough character to take initiative and set up the next action in the chain without requiring too much handholding, so the steps are typically clear. The Gruescript implementation does mean that there’s often a fair bit of clicking to manage – getting an inventory item queued up to use sometimes felt to me like it took one step too many – but it’s not awful, and again, this isn’t the kind of game where you feel lots of urgency.

No, things stay contemplative throughout, never more so than at the end. After finding your way back home, you’re given the chance to look over the mementos you acquired during your trip, and pick which one you want to bring to school. It’s a small, satisfying note to finish on – or it would be if it were the finish, but it’s not. Instead, these enigmatic paragraphs are the last writing in the game:

"I’ve been thinking about all I’ve seen: the living things that thrive in the light and the dark, but also the traces of disaster, the secrets of Terror Country, the invading species, the heat.

"I have the feeling that I’m missing something. That there is something to be understood in the middle of all this, which I can’t understand, I can’t even guess."

This isn’t, I’m fairly sure, anything so crass as an indication that there’s a secret ending I failed to unlock; rather, it’s an invitation to the player to reflect on what the game’s presented and see if there’s something visible to them that Lara – who, remember, is twelve – missed. Here, the game’s repeated theme of depth, and its miniaturist mode, loom large: Lara is continually pushing herself to go deeper into the wild (indeed, the navigation system is nearly linear; most locations offer only “home” and “forest” as travel options), while hyperfocusing on each leaf, twig, and bug. And on the internal side of things, she gives us big-picture statements about the world and very specific recollections of particular incidents in her life.

So what’s in the middle of these two spectrums, at the interface of the personal and the global? There are many concepts one could throw out, and find support for in the game: history, say, society, or politics, and the way they create larger-scale shifts to systems. Appropriately, Lara seems innocent of all this, but the player is given more than enough hints to see what’s elided: that reference to the wilderness being “Terror Country” aligns with Lara’s father mentioning “the time when [bad people] were in power. When they threw your grandad and grandma in jail. The Terror,” for example, and forms a still more menacing constellation when you throw in the tucked-away cabin, with its chair with leather straps and generous supply of bleach. Lara’s relatively-safe, relatively-hopeful existence, that is to say, is one that’s contingent; it took coordinated action to achieve it, and it was opposed by the coordinated action of others who had a different vision. The sum of our decisions, as mediated through our civilization, is the single overriding fact: alone, deep in nature, it may be hard to see the city, but it’s not so easy to escape.

(Okay, having written those last two paragraphs, boy will there be egg on my face if actually it’s just that there’s a secret ending I failed to unlock).

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Xanthippe's Last Night with Socrates, by Victor Gijsbers

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
This man knows nothing, January 4, 2024
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2023

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2023's IFComp. I beta tested this game).

In the English class I took as a high-school sophomore, in lieu of formal essays the teacher would have us write little weekly papers in response to a quote he’d pull from whatever book we were reading. Usually the quote would clearly invite a specific kind of analysis, like it’d spotlight a key theme or a bit of character development or what have you, but every once in a while he’d mess with us, like when we were reading Updike’s The Centaur: out of that novel’s heady mix of mythological allegory, lyrical landscape-painting, and squalid small-town depression, he extracted for our waiting pens the bare clause “…a sluggish digestive rumbling.”

This was, so far as I remember, a totally insignificant quartet of words, brought on by one character drinking coffee on an empty stomach or something like that – a mere incidental detail signifying nothing. The upside was that I felt free to write whatever I felt like, and for whatever reason, I decided what I felt like writing was a three-page narration of Socrates’s last hours. I had him run through a monologue about his devotion to philosophy and the ideal, drink the hemlock in perfect equanimity, and say goodbye to his disciples with no great show of emotion. Yet even as his spirit faced its end with calm, I had his body rebel, guts heaving and roiling against the hemlock, lungs desperate to keep gasping down air. The ending line (I was very proud of the ending line) was “what is Truth? Truth is a sluggish digestive rumbling.”

All of which is to say that even to a teenager whose knowledge of Socrates came mostly from The Cartoon History of the Universe, the idea of using him to dramatize the physical nature of man is irresistible: to levy a critique of pure reason (wait, that’s Kant) by bringing the body into the equation, to juxtapose the phenomenology of spirit (oops, that’s Hegel) with the reality of flesh. This is something Xanthippe’s Last Night with Socrates does, and does well – we meet an embodied, earthy Socrates, with a big nose and a bigger belly, and with a taste for wine and food and sex – but it’s also, let’s face it, a sophomoric trick that isn’t actually that interesting: ideas come from people, and people exist in the world, film at 11.

No, what’s interesting in this game isn’t so much what’s done with Socrates qua Socrates, as what’s done with his wife Xanthippe, and therefore with him in relation to her. Xanthippe has come down through history only as a silent archetype, demonized by centuries of male writers as a shrew so vituperative that Socrates turned to harassing passers-by in the agora just to escape her clutches. It would be tempting to flip the tables on this legacy of misogyny by positing a Xanthippe who’s a perfect mate for her husband, someone who’s supportive of his endeavors, an intellectual match for him, and able to create a harmonious home for him as a refuge from the small-minded politics that ultimately killed him. Fortunately, Victor resists this temptation: his Xanthippe is certainly Socrates’s equal, but she’s recognizably someone who gossips would turn into a legendary termagant. She holds a grudge, she knows what buttons to push, she calls him on his BS. It would have been easy to write this game to be about reacting to the great philosopher; instead, he has to react to her.

There’s a lot of skill needed to make this work, though; it’s easier to describe the dynamic between two long-married people than it is to show it, especially when they’re interacting in circumstances as extreme as these (the premise, memorably laid out by the blurb, is that as Xanthippe you’ve bribed your way into his prison cell on the eve of his execution, bent on one last roll in the hay). The game rises to the challenge by slaughtering sacred cows left and right. Almost the first thing out of Xanthippe’s mouth is ”come here, humpty grumpy Socratumpy,” which is a hilarious line but also a statement of intent: these characters aren’t going to be mere figures mouthing stentorian dialogue, but human beings who demand to be understood as such. This does mean that there’s more than a bit of anachronism in the dialogue (there’s a reference to a cuckold’s horns, for example, though I’m pretty sure that figure didn’t exist in antiquity) but the game is more than worth the candle: freed of the need to hew to some imagined Merchant-Ivory portrait, the game has full rein to be funny and sincere.

Indeed, while the circumstances of the characters are quite dire, Xanthippe’s Last Night with Socrates made me laugh as much as any game in the Comp. There are of course philosophy jokes sufficiently accessible that I got them (despite the passage of 25 years, I’m still mostly relying on that Cartoon History for my knowledge of Socrates), little Classical in-jokes (“That’s not what Alcibiades told me”/”You shouldn’t believe everything Alcibiades says”), and parodies of Homer, but the humor really proves its worth in the fights between the two spouses – for of course, whatever you choose, the evening quickly goes off the rails and a lifetime of resentment, regret, and suspicions get dredged up for one final look.

Arguing with your spouse is usually not considered fun IF gameplay, but here, it’s both integral to the story and entertaining in its own right. The marital dynamics here are very keenly observed – I swear that I’ve had some of these exact fights with my wife, especially the one about what counts as an apology, and Socrates’s inability to let an opportunity for a little joke slide or refrain from raising tiny, completely insignificant objections had more than a bit of a personal resonance – but among the heart-truths they sling at each other are enough gags and funny moments to make the conflict go down easily. The game’s also careful to manage the power disparities: neither one is wholly right or wholly wrong, the emotions aren’t allowed to go too far out of bounds, and since the game is necessarily framed by the question of when to sacrifice truth for social expedience (with Socrates’s example implicitly suggesting the answer is “very rarely”), it would feel perverse to try to avoid conflict when there are things left unsaid. As a result, despite being the kind of player who’s almost invariably polite when given the option, here I was gleefully picking the choices that maximized the amount of time Socrates was raked over the coals for slipping and calling Xanthippe a cow.

So yeah, this is quite a fun and funny game – I think this is the only time in IF Comp history when a player character has (Spoiler - click to show)shagged Plato. But as with many of Victor’s games, the comedy is in service of a non-frivolous examination of what we owe each other, what partnership can look like, and how we can imagine saying goodbye to the most important people in our lives. The closing scene is lovely and wraps many of these threads together, positing a domestic origin for the famous Allegory of the Cave that’s sweet and sexy and segues beautifully into the final bout of lovemaking (I know a mid-Comp update added the option to wrap up with cuddling, but that choice feels decidedly non-canonical to me).

For all that it’s set almost 2,500 years ago, Xanthippe’s Last Night with Socrates feels vital and contemporary; just as the questions Socrates grappled with are still ones that haunt us today, there’s nothing in this story that feels like it’s since been solved. Shorn of their dramatic circumstances, these dialogues are ones many of us have, or will have, with our partners – and just as in the game, those conversations proceed a lot of yelling and ill-advised joking that we hope history will fail to record.

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Honk!, by Alex Harby

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Heartfelt clowning, January 4, 2024
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2023

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2023's IFComp. I alpha tested this game).

One of the things I worry about, as a critic, is turning into one of those people who says everything under the sun is a liminal space. It’s a cool-sounding phrase, sure, but it’s one of those concepts that can easily become a crutch, allowing one to say something that seems impressive but doesn’t communicate much beyond “this is a place that’s between other places”, which for sufficiently loose values of “place”, “between”, and “other” can be made to fit whatever you like.

Having written the above paragraph I am now seized with concern that actually I’m already one of those people and just haven’t noticed. …but OK, I just searched my IFDB-posted reviews and only 3 out of 387 use the phrase, referring to trains, bus stops, and public transit, which seems fairly restrained. So I think that means I can burn some of that banked capital and say you know, when you think about it, traveling circuses sure are liminal spaces. At a basic level, they move from place to place, but there’s also a temporal component, because when they’re pitched up somewhere and you visit, you’re sandwiched between its past nonexistence before they came into town and its future nonexistence once they leave. It’s unsurprising, then, that the circus is often positioned as a site of transformation: shuffling through my mental inventory of circus stories at random, you’ve got Big, where Tom Hanks literally enters one a boy and leaves a man; sticking to IF, Ballyhoo sees the player character lunge at the chance to stop being an anonymous punter and take on a new life of adventure.

For the people who work at a circus, though, it certainly can’t function as a one-off engine for change. In reality I’m sure for many it’s just a job like any other, but from a literary point of view, the approach taken by Honk! seems exactly right: the winning cast of this top-notch comedy puzzler are predominantly queer in one way or other, but comfortably so, at peace with an existence that the narrow might say is perennially in-between more conventional alternatives. The main character, a clown named Lola, takes hormone pills; her lover Freda is the circus strongwoman, gigantic and mighty and tender. The magician Adagio changes gender as part of her act, and the goose-trainer, Ken Lawn, clocks as neurodivergent (beyond his questionable decision to spend lots of time with an animal as ill-tempered as a goose as part of his profession, I mean). Against this, the Ringmaster seems a plain-vanilla kind of guy, but hey, he’s nice so we can let him skate by.

Actually pretty much everybody is nice, even initially-prickly Ken – except for the Phantom who’s haunting the circus and sabotaging everyone’s acts. The main business of the game involves assisting the three other main characters in their performances, seeing how the Phantom tries to wreck them, and foiling his plans to keep the shows moving (they’re endlessly repeatable until you succeed, this being a merciful game). This is a lovely structure, since it gives you multiple avenues to work on at once without any interdependences, so if you’re momentarily stymied you’ve almost always got another avenue to switch to. It also makes the player feel more proactive than in many parser games, since in practice you wind up scoping out the carnival grounds, then trying the acts to see what the Phantom’s going to do, then going back to the free-roaming section to hatch your plan and prepare.

Honk! is also among the funniest games in the Comp. The author’s a dab hand with farce – pretty much every scene involving the assholish goose left me giggling, for example:

“Completely asleep!” marvels Lawn. “I don’t believe it! How did yaargh fnaaargh,” he continues as the goose wakes up and bites his nose.

But there are also really good laconic, tossed-off jokes:

“It was your day off, you got back late, maybe you didn’t hear from anyone yet,” says the Ringmaster. “The circus is haunted now."

And the best gags to my mind are the ones that play their hand slow, telegraphing the punch line to the player and then drawing out the windup longer and longer and longer until an initially-good joke becomes sublime; it’s an impressive bit of comedic legerdemain that’s totally appropriate to the setting.

The puzzles themselves are a strong bunch, too. Most aren’t too hard, requiring just enough forethought to feel clever; there’s maybe one puzzle that’s a little too hard because it tips into overly-cartoonish territory (Spoiler - click to show)(the bit where a helium balloon makes the rabbit float upwards) but even that is mostly delightful and funny. In fact for all that it’s all mostly standard medium-dry-goods manipulation, the puzzles have a very strong thematic focus – the tools of your trade involve pie-throwing, making balloon animals, and playing around with magic tricks – that make Honk! truly feel like a circus game, not just a game taking place at a circus.

That strong theme comes into play in the ending, too; after a deliriously-escalating climactic sequence, the game’s final text ties a surprisingly-affecting bow around everything the game’s played with – queerness, found family, laughter, killjoys using the law to stop people doing stuff they don’t like. While it never lets its message get in the way of the fun, Honk! is the rare silly parser puzzler that actually has something to say, positing that people who live in liminal spaces deserve a place to call home, too.

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LAKE Adventure, by B.J. Best

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Post-post-modern and emotionally raw, January 4, 2024
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2023

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2023's IFComp. I beta tested this game. Also, this review contains spoilers since it deserves to be discussed in its full context).

I regret not having a stronger grounding in literary theory pretty much any day ending in y, but that lack feels especially excruciating as I turn to LAKE Adventure, because it’s operating within a movement that I’d love to be able to name definitively. Instead, I’m going to have to wildcat this thing and call the game part of the New Sincerity. Like, we all know that modernism happened, right, and dramatized the way that conventional narrative forms and naïve realism were no longer tenable in an increasingly polycentric and polyvalent world, right? And then came post-modernism, which responded to the anxiety that forms might be empty by turning a microscope onto said forms, exalting self-conscious exploration of structure above superficial considerations of plot and character.

But after post-modernism exhausted itself (er, to the extent it has – again, I am mostly groping blindly here) something had to come next, and for many, that something had to respond to the ongoing felt need for old-fashioned emotional engagement and catharsis. But how to manage that in a world where a genre-savvy audience goes into a work knowing all the tricks? Paradoxically, the author needs to meet them where they’re at, and move outwards into ironic distance to create the preconditions necessary to eventually move inwards to identification. Thus the New Sincerity; think of House of Leaves, which for all its metafictional flourishes has as its engine the failing marriage between the two leads. Or of the Sandman comics, which move into an epic register to chronicle the exploits of the Prince of Stories, but ultimately are largely concerned with how he’s a shitty boyfriend. Or – to tip my hand – think of And Then You Come to a House Not Unlike the Previous One, B.J. Best’s Comp-winning game from 2021; a coming-of-age story about the pre-teenaged angst of moving away from your best friend, it could have been saccharine-sweet but for the way its narrative was ramified through text adventures within text adventures (with bonus parallel text adventures as an Easter Egg).

LAKE Adventure is doing something similar, I think, but there’s no risk that anyone will find this game cloying. It’s also part of what I’ve called a confessional turn in recent parser IF (think of this year’s Repeat the Ending and Hand Me Down; also, I really need to stop trying to name things, I’m bad at it), positioning the game the player experiences as a diegetically-created work whose origins are themselves elements of the game’s story. The premise is that the game’s central character, Eddie Hughes, has dug up an old text adventure he wrote when he was 13 (and later revised when he was an older teenager) and, facing the doldrums of the first months of 2020’s lockdowns, is watching on Zoom and commenting along as a friend plays it for the first time.

This is an excruciatingly painful framing device. Like, I am one of the few (maybe only?) people in the world who’s experienced something like this: I presented Sting, my memoir game, to a meeting of the Seattle IF Meetup in 2021, and while they were completely lovely about it, sharing scenes from my actual life as rendered into parser form – in real time – was one of the most embarrassing things I’ve ever done. And that was just a game that emulated how I was when I was a young teenager, rather than one actually reflecting my 13-year-old sensibilities. Unsurprisingly, Eddie is diffident in the extreme, repeatedly asking the player whether they want to stop playing, apologizing for the overly-faithful implementation of his childhood home, and audibly squirming when his younger self-insults the player for turning on the TV by calling them a “vidiot.” No wonder that self-deprecating phrase “I guess” is by far Eddie’s most common verbal tic as he attempts to narrate his lost youth.

For all that LAKE Adventure boasts a note-perfect recreation of a late-80s childhood – there’s a birthday party invitation recognizably created via Print Shop, and the in-game narration focuses with hyperspecificity on the material and brand of young Eddie’s swimsuit – it’s not nostalgic, and in fact is anti-nostalgic. While the few glimpses we get of adult Eddie’s life indicate that it’s unremarkable but stable, his youth was anything but. The plot of the game-within-a-game is notionally just about visiting a birthday party for his best friend’s sister, but it’s haunted by numerous specters, from his parents’ shattered marriage to his own sister’s illness to a history of bullying to the sad fate of his friend. Snatches of this dark reality come in extradiegetic Shards of Memory, which take the player out of the idyllic lake-house setting to experience snatches of Eddie’s contemporary reality, or in adult Eddie’s understated acknowledgement of the ways that the game functioned as an escape from an untenable situation, or from the incursion of graphic violence into a heretofore-innocent story. The game mines pathos out of the implications of the smallest detail or slip of the tongue:

"Your mother’s clothes are on the floor in piles. Some are dresses. Some are jeans. It’s a good thing you know how to do your own laundry!

"Anyway, the bathroom is to the east and my paren—my mom’s—room is west."

And I’m not going to quote it, but there’s nothing in this year’s Comp that hit me as hard as the description of the doll.

The player has work to do along the way; there are puzzles that keep you busy, but mostly what I found myself doing was reflecting on memory. The game is a palimpsest, with some of the darker elements presumably added in by the late-teenage Eddie who knows how some things end up, changes that retroactively reconfigure what’s come before in a way that makes the original forever inaccessible. Of course, that isn’t even a metaphor – to invoke one of my many strange points of bleed-through with this game, my memories of my sister’s last months are already confounded by all the times I’ve remembered them. Later, in the climax, the player’s explicitly confronted with a series of young Eddie’s most traumatic experiences, and has the option to either embrace or reject these memories – but for those seeking comfort in coming full circle will be disappointed to learn that these choices make no difference to the outcome. Then the tragedy of young Eddie’s disillusionment is driven home by a sequence that runs through all his hopes for the future, from romantic conquests to worldly success.

After all this, LAKE Adventure ends with a coda that could be seen as a final, superfluous twist of the knife. The Zoom session is cut short as Eddie’s daughter comes into the room and kicks him off the computer for an early-COVID remote study session for her ancient history class. She’s uninterested in her father’s half-hearted attempts to tell her what he’s been doing, and the game draws the curtain to leave his final, plaintive question unanswered: “I’d like to know if ancient history matters.”

It’s hard to get to this point and not feel beaten down. Again, this is the genius of the New Sincerity: narrate Eddie’s life from front to back, and we’d roll our eyes at the naked emotional manipulation, but let his pain peek out through the multiple overlapping layers of narrative, and it’s heartrending. This final suggestion that all of this was for nothing is almost too much to take. Yet it’s worth being pedantic about what Eddie’s asking: not whether the past matters, but whether history does. We routinely conflate the two, but in fact these are radically different, for the past is what happens, and history is what we write about it, how we try to wrest brute facts into narrative. While we don’t have details, it’s nonetheless pellucidly clear that Eddie’s experiences have shaped his life for good or ill – hell, just about the only thing we know about his daughter is that she’s named after his sister.

The judgment on history, though, is more equivocal; Eddie spends the whole game running away from or apologizing for the story he’s made of his traumatic past. And yet, even in this reticent, half-unspoken way, he does share his embarrassing juvenilia, and if it is possible for history to matter, surely the necessary first step is for someone to read it.

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How Prince Quisborne the Feckless Shook His Title, by John Ziegler

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
I am definitely shook, January 4, 2024
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2023

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2023's IFComp. I beta tested this game).

I always find it hard to review games I’ve tested, because even when I replay the final, finished version, my first impression is inescapably of a no-longer-extant game still in the process of reaching its ultimate form; I sometimes attempt some mental gymnastics to try to figure out how my sense of a game might differ from that of someone coming to it fresh, but that’s especially challenging here, because Prince Quisborne is a massive game that I haven’t had the opportunity to revisit in any depth, and I first started testing it in February. So my memories are more distant than I’d like, I haven’t refreshed them recently, and I suspect the addition of some new features, like the NUDGE command that points you to areas where you’re able to make progress, or the DESTINATIONS-based fast travel system to minimize the challenge of navigating the large, diagonal-direction-happy map, radically smooth out the gameplay. Nevertheless I feel obliged to write something by way of comment on the most Brobdingnagian game of this, or, perhaps, any Comp, but you might want to take it with even more salt than usual.

Right, with that distressingly on-point intro out of the way, let’s talk about tarof, which is the Persian practice of hospitality. So far as I’ve experienced it (I have an Iranian-American wife and in-laws), the thing that’s distinctive about tarof is its extravagant generosity. The quintessential example is that you’ll be invited over for lunch, and on your way in you’ll maybe mutter some compliment about the nice rug they have in their living room, at which point your host will beam at you and say “oh, it’s a terrible old thing, I hate it, but I’m so glad you like it, let me give it to you!” At which point you might protest a) you weren’t dropping a hint or anything like that; and b) actually you’re no expert on rugs but now that you look at it it sure seems very nice and actually probably quite expensive. But they’ll say it’s kind of you but no need to be polite, actually you’d be doing me a favor if you take it. And as you try to think of what to say, your host will gently shove you out of the way, get down on their hands and knees, and start rolling the thing up for you. The thing is, this is obviously incredibly nice. But it’s also super overbearing – it’s too much, and even leaving that aside, how the hell are you supposed to get that giant rug home?

And so we come again to Prince Quisborne, which combines the vast scope of a mainframe game with the intricate depth of implementation of a short one-room one, and presents its epic story in a prose style that’s prolix to a fault. In some ways this is the dream that animated the early amateur IF scene: a whole world rendered in jewel-like detail, where you could equally well traipse from one side of a kingdom to the other, and pause anywhere along the way to take in a pagelong random event tied to your exact progression through the plot, or stop off at a blacksmith’s shop to futz around with a fully functional forge, or visit a mini area with fiendishly complex logic and word puzzles that could be a whole game in its own right.

I’m not sure I’ve come across anything else that incarnates this vision nearly as well – Cragne Manor is the only plausible contender, and as a game with 84 authors and all the incoherence that implies, it’s not really a close comparison – and the thing is, having experienced it, it’s not obvious that this was such a good idea. Prince Quisborne is a lot; the prologue is manageable, though already shows off the author’s facility with jokey high-fantasy-ish language and love of multiple puzzle solutions, but once past that lagniappe, the full game unfolds and I can only imagine that most players will issue a gulp, much like I did, once they realize exactly what they’re in for: sure, an incredible voyage of discovery where your eponymous protégé will learn to be a grown-up under your tutelage as you unlock ancient secrets, but also puzzles that rely on having searched an unobtrusive bit of scenery halfway around the world, or remembering an incidental detail from a lore dump ten hours ago; or finding the thingabob you suddenly realize you need means remembering whether you first saw it in Chelkwibble or Chedderwicket; and when you hit the big plot-progressing cutscenes to hand, I sure hope you have a drink and snack handy.

As with tarof, it’s easy to look at all of this and just think “it’s too much”, especially in the press of the Comp. But unlike with tarof, which is embedded in complex systems of power, class, and reciprocity that need to be navigated to maintain politeness, there’s really no downside or ulterior motive here: Prince Quisborne is precisely as generous as it appears to be. If a player tries to rush through it in one go, I suspect they’ll resent it, but if instead it’s played over weeks or months, I suspect it’d deservedly be one of the greatest IF experiences you’ve ever had. It’s extraordinarily rich, and the more I played it, the more I appreciated touches like Prince Quisborne’s facility for having a limerick for every situation, or the way his character subtly changes over the course of the journey as experience leads him from callow youth to surprisingly-touching heroism. In fact, I’m not ashamed to admit that the ending sequence made me tear up – while PQ starts out as a comedy character, he achieves real depth by the finish, and the way the game acknowledges his growth is at once a total blindsiding and completely, necessarily obvious. It’s one of the most impressive climaxes to a piece of IF I’ve ever experienced, so if you’re wondering whether pressing through to the end is worth it, I can say that it emphatically is.

PQ also goes out of its way to be friendly to the player, without watering itself down in the slightest: there are all those convenient commands I mentioned at the beginning, as well as an always-on inventory window, exhaustive hints, and a lovely, inviting presentation (for the love of god, play this in QTADS to get the full experience). One doesn’t need to meet PQ halfway, only a quarter of the way at most.

This is still a commitment, let me reiterate! I’d guess this is at least a 20 hour game. But each of those hours will show you something worthwhile, and the accumulation of them accomplishes things very few other games have done. Now that the Comp is over, it’s the perfect time to approach PQ as it deserves to be approached: dedicate some time. Let go of the idea that you need to race through it (or that you should have any shame about consulting hints or the walkthrough!) And get ready to experience something extraordinary.

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GameCeption, by Ruo

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Mind = blown, but maybe not blown enough, December 30, 2023
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2023

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2023's IFComp).

I think anybody who has a job or area of expertise that’s routinely depicted in popular media has a pet-peeve list of things that are continually and hilariously flubbed in said media. As someone with a law degree, I’d put the talismanically-powerful contract waiver near the top of my list: you know, someone’s about to do something ridiculously dangerous and/or ill-advised, but since they agreed to a generic waiver, all is good. So it goes for Ziyan, the protagonist of this stylish choice-based game, who signs his name to a vague waiver saying “We are not responsible for any liabilities and damages that may occur during the games” before entering a reality-TV videogame competition that immediately goes way off the rails. As the battle royale gets way too real and axes, grenades, and body-parts start flying, the question isn’t who’s going to be left standing to claim the million-dollar prize – it’s how fast the survivors and the family members of those who don’t make it out will sue everyone involved back to the stone age, waiver or no waiver.

Okay, okay, that’s clearly not the point – and to a certain extent, the ultraviolence isn’t really the point either, as GameCeption’s thankfully more focused on the relationship between its two leads and the game-theoretical implications of its twist than it is on rendering a Battlegrounds-style game in IF form. Ziyan’s best friend, and partner in the competition, is Airen, an affable, supportive guy who provides a nice counterweight to Ziyan’s occasionally moody nature. There isn’t much time for the two of them to hang out before they decide to sign up for the TV show in hopes of making enough money to pay the rent, but the introductory scenes are enough to establish an easy rapport between them that raises the stakes once things go pear-shaped.

The signs that that something’s off about the production company come early, as the initial interview delves into some oddly invasive questions about how much the duo trust each other – this is effectively lampshaded, though, in a bit that showcases the early, laidback vibe:

“Dude, same,” Airen agrees, scratching his head. “Like are they gonna make us do a trust fall off the side of a building?” Ziyan punches him. “If that really happens, I’m blaming you.”

This introductory sequence does feel fairly long, and doesn’t have too many decision-points, but once the competition starts, things pick up. As you play the game, you’re presented with a series of mostly binary choices; I’m not sure how on-rails this sequence is, but it feels authentically tense. The writing does go a bit over the top, and having the gameplay narrow to determining whether you die or get to continue the story, but this section moves quickly enough that it doesn’t wear out its welcome. And then comes in the twist, which I found fairly predictable but which I’ll spoiler-block nonetheless.

(Spoiler - click to show)It turns out that you’re not piloting a polygonal avatar around, but rather (through some unexplained technology) your buddy Airen; likewise, the other players you’re fighting are real people who are being killed and/or maimed by the ultraviolence everyone is deploying in pursuit of the prize. This ironically brings the video-game battle royale genre back to its cinematic roots, but shorn of its original thematic heft; GameCeption doesn’t seem interested in interrogating the economic, political, or cultural systems that created such a horrifying competition, but instead uses its premise to put pressure on the traditional understanding of player identity in IF: if you’re making decisions for Ziyan, and Ziyan is making decisions for Airen, who’s actually the player?

It’s a superficially clever turn, but this twist didn’t do much for me. Again, it’s pretty heavily telegraphed, and questions of players’ complicity or agency in a narrative are old hat for IF by now; I don’t feel like adding the second-order complexity of one character piloting another did much to unsettle the well-understood IF triangle of identities (narrator, protagonist, player). Even a somewhat-stale theme can still support a good game, of course, but I felt that GameCeption put too many eggs in the metafictional basket: the rapport between Airen and Ziyan largely drops out as the action picks up, and the simple gameplay isn’t enough to hold the player’s interest. And then the ending doubles down by having Ziyan reup with the competition, and using his interest in game-design to implement an even bigger twist for the next season that makes even less sense, and has even less emotional impact.

Bringing things back as we return for spoiler-town, I’d summarize by saying that the game becomes over-reliant on a meta idea that isn’t quite as clever as it seems to think, and becomes a slender reed upon which to rest the second half of the game. There’s some excitement to be had, but I think GameCeption would have been stronger if it had either gone smaller, by staying grounded in the best-friend relationship between the two characters, or even bigger by leaning into the implications of its twist and dialing up the questions it raises about agency and control to 11. As is, I found the game a little too lukewarm to make much of an impact, like boilerplate contract language your eye just skips right past.

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Milliways: the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, by Max Fog

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
A lost sequel, December 26, 2023
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2023

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2023's IFComp).

One thing I’ve noticed when thinking back to my tween years, three decades on, is that things are either seared into my memory or complete blanks. I can still hear what it sounded like, for example, when we got back from a summer vacation to find that a brood of cicadas had hatched while we were gone and had decided to fill the night with a beautiful and threatening cacophony of chirping. And I can instantly recall the squirming, excited embarrassment I felt when the girl I had a crush on me called me one evening because I’d messed with her little brother the day before, telling him I’d found a long out-of-print Dragonlance gamebook that she coveted. On the other hand, I know I must have played months of basketball in eighth grade – I went to a tiny school, everybody was on every team – but I can’t summon up one reminiscence of anything that happened at a single game or practice.

So too it is with Douglas Adams: I was obsessed with him the summer I was 11, blazing through the then-four-part Hitchhiker’s Guide trilogy just as school ended and then chasing down the Dirk Gently books before embarking on a campaign of rereading those six books over and over until I got thoroughly sick of them, which took a while. The first book I remember pretty well, because it’s got most of the iconic moments; the third was my favorite so I reread it like once a week, and as a result I can still run down most of its cricket-based MacGuffin quest. So Long and Thanks for All the Fish, though, didn’t make much of an impression all these years on – the ending sticks, not so much the rest. And the second book, the Restaurant at the End of the Universe mentioned so prominently in this game’s subtitle? Um. I remember the gag about it being stuck in a manufactured time bubble so patrons can swig their martinis as they watch the heat death of all things, but I’m pretty sure that’s actually introduced in the first book. Like I said above: complete blank.

My other relevant Douglas Adams lacuna I can’t blame on advancing age: I’ve also never played Infocom’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy with any degree of assiduity (I think I poked at the BBC illustrated remake long enough to give up halfway into the babel fish puzzle). I suppose I should get around it one of these days, but its reputation as an unforgiving puzzle-gauntlet doesn’t do much to recommend it to my sensibilities. Sure, I remember liking Adams’ writing, but if I wanted to revisit it I’d much prefer to go back to the books than struggle through a style of IF that doesn’t do much for me.

All of this is to say that I am entirely the wrong audience for an impressively-robust fan-made sequel that appears to pick up immediately after the first game left off, and doesn’t provide anything by way of context or motivation. I wouldn’t say Milliways is explicitly nostalgia-bait; from my very vague understanding, it primarily visits situations and characters not covered in the first game (though I think some pieces may be part of the book plots that I’ve forgotten?), and while the troupe of familiar characters are present, they’re off getting hammered so are almost completely noninteractive. But it’s clearly the product of deep affection for the original – so much so that it’s written in the modern incarnation of the language the Infocom Imps used to make their games – and shorn of the pleasant sheen of remembrance, the game often just left me baffled.

The earliest example is maybe the most telling: the game doesn’t tell you who you are. I feel it’s safe to assume that you’re once again inhabiting British everyman Arthur Dent – the clearest clue is that you can find your dressing gown, which the game tells you you must have dropped in the previous game. But I don’t think ABOUT spells it out, there isn’t actually any intro text, and X ME just tells you “you see nothing special about you” (ouch). It also doesn’t tell you what you’re doing. You start out having just exited your spaceship and reached the surface of a planet called Magrathea (the name’s dimly familiar, no recall of the details); presumably you’re meant to explore, but there’s no narrative telling you that you’re there to look for anything in particular, and the cryptic stuff you find doesn’t retroactively explain why you might have come here in the first place, or what you think you’re doing. By the time I stopped my playthrough, about three hours in, I’d finally encountered the first indications of something like a plot, but it took a lot of unmotivated bumbling to get to that point.

Of course, not every game needs to be Photopia and unmotivated bumbling can make for solidly entertaining gameplay, so long as solid writing and enjoyable puzzles are pulling the player along. Milliways gets mixed marks from me on this front. There are solidly Adams-aping gags sprinkled through the text, like this bit where you look up the eponymous eatery in the Hitchhiker’s Guide:

"It goes on to explain, in extremely vague then suddenly extremely detailed (and obviously copyrighted) paragraphs how Milliways, better known as the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, is the best restaurant you can ever visit."

There are also some good jokes embedded in the parser, like this exchange prompted by examining a painting:

"You look at the painting, which could have been done by yours truly (and I’m not even AI yet). It is of an old mouse wearing a monocle. At the bottom of the painting is a plaque, which reads:

"Reginald Markenplatt
Founder of Magrathea Corps.
86 standard yrs.

“Oh, you like it?” says Percy.

"> no
“Well that’s not very nice.”

While for much of my time with the game, I was basically keying in the walkthrough (more on that later, of course), I had a reasonable time doing so based on the charm of the prose and the efficiently-drawn situations. It’s certainly not laugh-a-minute funny the way that I recall Adams being (…probably best not to revisit and find out whether that impression holds up), but this all makes for an entertaining way to pass several hours.

I found the gameplay often made things much less entertaining, unfortunately. There are some quite good puzzles here, like camouflaging a drink to knock out someone whose keycard you need to steal and figuring out how to deal with a shape-changing alien, but many of them rely on frustrating mechanics – there’s a strict inventory limit, many instant-death timers that end the game if you don’t solve things fast enough, the mechanics for travelling between different areas appears to be largely random, and at least one place that will lock you out of victory if you don’t somehow know which objects will be plot-critical and which are red herrings. Compounding the challenge, I came across some notable bugs in the game; twice, an event was supposed to trigger after waiting for a reasonable number of turns, but both times 150-200 turns of waiting didn’t do the trick (the walkthrough offered a workaround for one, and I had a save that allowed me to replay and eventually get past the other, at least). And there’s a recurring puzzle that appears to quite literally involve guessing a verb at random (Spoiler - click to show)(I’m thinking of the different ways you can escape the Dark; trying to use the “missing” sense is nicely clued, but having learned that my sense of touch is going to be important, I’m was at a loss for how I was meant to go from TOUCH LUMP, learning only that it’s “warmish”, to PUSH LUMP other than just running through all the possible interactions). From inadequate clueing to disambiguation issues, it really feels like the game just needed a little more time in the oven.

With that said, as I hit what seems to be the halfway mark I was starting to get into more of a groove, though this could have been as much my increased readiness to consult the hints as anything else. And I did appreciate the moment when an NPC finally started explaining a bit of what was going on and why it was important. Sadly, almost immediately after that sequence a combination of those frustrating mechanics I mentioned above seem to have killed me – I needed to pick up an object, but I didn’t have the spare carrying capacity to do so, and as I futzed around with inventory a timer ended the game – and, facing the quickly-impending Comp deadline and realizing that a post-Comp, less buggy version, is likely to come out soon, I decided to bring my playthrough to an end.

I’ll repeat that Milliways doesn’t seem to me to be purely banking on nostalgia; there are novel ideas here, and the classic ethos seems to be a matter of intention rather than ignorance. And I can’t help but feel affection for something that’s so clearly the product of unbridled enthusiasm. But without much enthusiasm of my own for its antecedents, the game lives and dies by what it’s able to bring to the table on its own – which is currently a bit wonky and sometimes willfully obtuse. With that said, the experience was anything but forgettable; hopefully I’ll eventually get to finish Milliways, but in the meantime I definitely have a few fun new memories to rattle around in my increasingly-empty head.

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LUNIUM, by Ben Jackson

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
An eminently logical room-escape, December 26, 2023
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2023

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2023's IFComp).

The thing about escape-room inspired games is that you can’t think about them too hard, or they suffer narrative collapse. Like, okay, you’re stuck in a cell of some kind, sure – sometimes there’s a more-or-less-contrived reason the baddie would do that instead of just kill you, sometimes there isn’t, but that’s a sufficiently common genre situation that it’s not too hard to swallow. But instead of one normal lock that keeps you in (and that presumably would have had to be opened to put you there in the first place), there’s a system of like half a dozen different interlocking mechanisms that all need to align? And there just happen to be clues scattered around that make the puzzles solvable, but not too trivially so? There’s no way to rationalize this kind of setup, so instead of being a killjoy clearly you’re supposed to just turn off that part of your brain and enjoy the puzzles.

Major, major points to LUNIUM, then, that I think it basically works? It’s got all the trappings of the genre: you wake up with amnesia, chained to the wall in a room chock-a-block with paintings with mystical symbolism, scraps of paper with numbers and letters scrawled on them, turgidly-written pages of your diary that you can recover piecemeal, and a ticking-clock conceit that requires you to escape before the dawn so that you can stop the killer who trapped you from claiming their next victim. It even adds a layer of complexity by requiring you to deduce the identity of the baddie from a list of suspects to get the best ending, in addition to unlocking the final door so you can escape (I mentioned liking this structure in my Mayor McFreeze and Death on the Stormrider reviews, and I think it works well here too). And yet, when I got to the end and figured out what was going on – it actually all kind of made sense and held together! True, I haven’t gone back and rigorously tested the diegetic plausibility of every single bit of the design, but that’s an unfair standard to inflict on a piece of IF; at least as to the broad strokes, each of these bits of contrived escape-room logic hold up, and in fact things couldn’t have gone any other way!

The elegance here goes beyond the narrative, though. This is one attractive Twine game, with moody illustrations conveying a vibe as well as critical clues if you zoom in to enjoy the artwork, and the interface makes it simple to fiddle with the various safes, locks, and other paraphernalia on display. There are also well-integrated hints (plus straight-up solutions, if you need them), though many players might not need them given the well-judged clueing. There’s a nice range of puzzles here, and if they’re not especially thematic, they’re solidly designed and offer some good variety, so no particular approach overstays its welcome: there are of course a number of code-deciphering puzzles, but some are exercises in pure logic, others rely on deductive reasoning that lend a mystery-solving vibe to proceedings, and a few require a bit of lateral thinking, which lead to some satisfying aha moments while still being eminently fair. I’m not the best escape-room puzzler-solver in the world, but I only needed to go to the hints twice: once when the small screen of my phone meant I couldn’t make out an important clue (though I should say that unlike many graphically-rich Twine games, LUNIUM generally works a treat on mobile), and a second time when I’d mixed up two character’s names and therefore didn’t realize I’d already gotten the solution to the puzzle, I was just implementing the solution wrong.

As for the plot, I don’t want to say too much lest I spoil the fun reveal I alluded to above. As is typical for escape rooms, there isn’t much in ongoing narrative, but there is some backstory to discover, and this is parceled out judiciously in between bouts of puzzle-solving. As a Victorian detective, you’re on the trail of a serial killer, and while the outline is quite generic, there’s enough detail given about your previous investigations of the key suspects to give them at least a whiff of personality. There are also some specific themes that keep recurring, like an omnipresent moon motif to go along with the game’s title. As a result it’s enjoyable to read the various document-facsimiles provided, even when you’re largely skimming them looking for clues to the puzzles. This is helpful because it’s this non-puzzle-relevant information that provides the prompts needed to guess the identity of the killer, and while I got to the end with only a tentative guess at whodunnit, the ending prompts pushing me to make my accusation provided another subtle hint or two that let me feel very clever for ultimately fingering the right suspect.

LUNIUM isn’t perfect – I noticed one small bug, where I got some text mentioning the contents of my pockets after I freed myself from the wall despite not having had a chance to look in them yet. But that’s an incredibly minor issue, and I honestly am having trouble dredging up any additional constructive criticism (the writing could be a little more authentically Victorian, I guess? Really though it’s just fine for the purpose it serves). This is an assured game, playable and narratively satisfying in a way I didn’t think I was even allowed to hope an escape room game could be. So I guess that’s my other criticism: it may have spoiled me for other games in the subgenre by making it harder for me to look past it when they don’t make any sense!

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For Eternity, Again and Again, by TheChosenGiraffe

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
Stupid universe, I hate it so much, December 26, 2023
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2023

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2023's IFComp).

Before we talk about For Eternity, Again and Again, we need to talk about lore.

Wait, come back! Look, I often give lore a hard time – by which I mean the generous slatherings of worldbuilding minutiae that get troweled all over many a fantasy or sci-fi setting. You know the stuff: codex entries going into absurd detail about the botany of a made-up tree that’s just there to pad out the skybox, mythologies that are long on incident but thematically inert, absurdly over-worked discussions of political or economic background with no conceivable relevance to the plot… There are better and worse versions of it, but it’s largely waffle, interesting maybe to think up but deeply enervating for most players to have to wade through (I admit I don’t always fall within the most, since I have a soft-spot for the fantasy economics stuff).

Lore makes for a convenient punching bag, because it’s often the sign of an author who’s more interested in sharing their setting notes than telling a story. But I do fear that the pendulum can sometimes swing too far in the other direction, with authors holding back on important information about how their world works for fear of boring the player. The thing is, worldbuilding for its own sake is dull, but in genre fiction it’s absolutely the case that the player needs to have some sense of the rules governing the pieces of the setting that depart from the familiar real-world milieu. Like, the answer to any question of the form “why did X happen in this story?” is “because the author wanted it to happen.” But emotional engagement requires that dynamic to be disguised as much as possible, so that actions feel like they have understandable consequences and the plot doesn’t come off as bare authorial fiat. The context needed for this alchemy to happen isn’t lore, though it might look like it – it’s stakes.

For Eternity, sadly, is one of those games that throws the baby out with the bathwater. This short Twine game riffs on the Moorcockian Eternal Champion premise, with a protagonist who’s endlessly reincarnated in new situations to carry out quests, and who’s joined by their likewise eternally-recurring lover. But in this latest rebirth, there are worrying signs that this rather cozy cycle is coming to an end. Structurally, the game consists of one conversation with the lover establishing the set up, then a quick transition to a second dialogue as things, predictably, go pear-shaped. This could be a tight, efficient way to get to some drama as these star-crossed lovers are cruelly torn asunder. But it lacks much impact because it’s never clear why anything is happening. Per the opening, “the Universe” has something to do with this whole cycle, with mention of dark tendrils holding different timelines together. That’s an interesting – though not I think especially appealing – image, but it’s pretty hand-wavey. That’d be fine if the focus were on what happened within each cycle, but it’s not; as mentioned, the questy bit is entirely bottom-lined:

It is almost the same as every other hero you have lived as before. You fought monsters, almost died several times, and met companions. All the while your lover floats around you, whispering jokes and loving words in your ear. Well, they were supposed to be.

That stuff actually sounds interesting, but those couple sentences are all the player gets. Instead, you’re shunted into one of I think two distinct endgames; in one, the universe is decaying into an entropic end-state, taking you with it, while in the other, it somehow decides it doesn’t like you and brings an end to your reincarnation dealie. The first thing that makes this feel arbitrary is that your choice of dialogue as you groundlessly speculate on what’s going appears to determine which path you wind up on. But since neither scenario is motivated by facts or observations, just tossed-off brainstorming, it feels decidedly coincidental that your stab-in-the-dark just happens to be right. Beyond that, there’s no previously-established reason why the universe would be decaying, or how, mechanically, it can have opinions and act on them. These ideas aren’t terrible in of themselves, but they’re given no context or buildup: when you get to Act III, you can’t have the narrator run onto the stage, blurt out “oh sorry, there was a gun on the mantel this whole time, forgot to mention it”, then speed off just as a character aims and fires. Rather than situations leading to consequences, this is consequences dictating situations. If the universe decides it dislikes me, what’s stopping me from deciding I don’t like it and I’m not going to play it’s stupid game anymore? Who can say.

The overall weak prose means that these narrative problems loom all the larger. There are myriad typos, starting at the beginning of the game’s second passage, and there are often-bizarre images, like this description of your lover:

Soft skin, plush lips, tender touches, and a voice like a music box.

Or this bit of establishing dialogue, which achieves a sort of low-energy camp poetry:

A huff echoes through your mind. “It took a while to look for you. It will take a short time for me to materialize. The Universe is just playing tricks.”

“That you don’t appreicate.” You say, knowing how much they hate the Universe.

Stupid universe, I hate it so much!

On the plus side, sometimes this kind of thing teetered into hilarity, perhaps intentionally, like the bit where the hero, a mighty immortal warrior, gets punked by a lowly goblin because they’re hanging out flapping their gums while backlit by a cave entrance. But this comedy makes the low-stakes melodrama even more bathetic. I repeat, the concept for For Eternity’s narrative could work, but I needed more of a reason to care about these people and their world to make the story hit home.

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Citizen Makane, by Perry Simm (as "The Reverend")

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
I just got why "The Undiscovered Country" is a punny title, December 26, 2023
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2023

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2023's IFComp).

You can’t drop your dick on the first turn 0/10.


I played for five more minutes and turns out you can drop your dick, so okay, we’ll do a real review.

Despite having never previously played a Stiffy Makane game other than the short, semi-high-brow Nemesis Macana, I still knew enough to make that joke because somehow, Stiffy has become a part of IF’s communal lore. From humble beginnings in a poorly-made late 90’s work of AIF, he was thrust to stardom via interactive MST3K mockery, much of which from my understanding centered on the fact that Stiffy’s stiffy was implemented as an ordinary inventory item. Thence his career got odd as different authors took the helm, running from sci-fi parody to filthy-minded philosophical rumination, with a few meta meditations on choice-based mechanics and the uglier side of player empowerment along the way (hopefully this potted summary is more or less correct; checking out the Stiffy oeuvre is on my list, but as I said I haven’t really gotten around to it).

Stiffy has a history, in other words, and for a maybe-new author (one never knows with pseudonyms) to make a Stiffy game out of the gate strikes me as audacious – almost as audacious as naming it after Citizen Kane, for all that that is a simply irresistible pun. And in fact this is an ambitious game. After a brief introduction in which you have a nightmare of being stuck in an eternally-resetting loop of the original Stiffy game, you wake up and learn the premise: you’ve just been defrosted from cryogenic suspension into a future where men are extinct (we lost a literalized battle of the sexes) and a new generation of hopefully enlightened scientists are hoping to study you, learn more about heterosexuality, and find out whether peaceful coexistence as a once-again gender-integrated society might be possible. That means you’ll need to wander around having a lot of random sex, which is accomplished through a deckbuilding minigame, all while solving the problems of the good citizens of Urville, from improving production in the local milk farm to teaching a college course on sexuality to helping the priestess recover a stolen relic.

This is of course only a slightly-better worked out version of guess-you-need-to-schtup-everybody AIF worldbuilding (“what if Y: The Last Man, but with a lot more boobs?”), with RPG-light gameplay to match. But the degree of care that’s been taken in implementing the game is impressively far from the notorious shoddiness of the first Stiffy. The minigame hits a just-right level of complexity, being relatively straightforward to understand but taking a few tries to get the nuances, while also striking a good balance between grind and progression. There’s a time-of-day system that gives the city an air of vibrancy without imposing too many annoying delays on the player. And the overall polish is very solid, with lots of synonyms, implemented scenery, and small little Easter eggs, like this one from the time-looping opening:

“Hello, Stiffy. I’ve been expecting you.”

She is naked.

You can imagine where it goes from here.

> imagine

The thing is, you don’t have to. You’ve been through this a million times.

The writing is also well judged; this is AIF, yes, but in normal gameplay it’s content to stay in gentle nudge-nudge wink-wink territory. It’s puerile, but I laughed when I visited Fountain Square and saw a note in the location description about the titular fountain, and laughed again upon examining it:

“Titular” is right. The centerpiece of the fountain is a statue of a beautiful naked nymph, water spurting from at least every orifice.

The first part is obvious, sure, but that “at least” is a good gag.

In the sex scenes the game does get quite explicit, but the randomly-generated text here is far more calculated to raise a laugh than the libido:

"As you slide your hammering hampton in and out of Aubrey with a smooth, steady rhythm, the sound of your loving echoes through the air like a whole volume of books being slammed shut in sequence."

"You burst like a violently vomiting giraffe. The two of you get dressed again."

"The feeling of your protruding pencil stuck deep in her gutted hedgehog is a sensation you won’t forget soon."

(The game’s ABOUT text mentions that ChatGPT was used in some portions of the writing, and I can’t help but wonder if some of these deranged combinations are the fruit of an LLM not knowing how inserting tab A into slot B actually works).

And beyond the tamer-than-it-looks writing, Citizen Makane is actually kind of… wholesome? All the other characters are quite earnest (and generally down to get down with Stiffy – there’s no iffy consent stuff here, thankfully), and you’re written as a laid-back, polite sort of horn-dog. All the game’s quests involve being helpful, and while the recovering-stolen-property one does foil the plans of the thief, she doesn’t wind up holding a grudge and everybody’s cool with everybody else by the end. The best ending even winds up arguing that non-stop sex only gets one so far, and it’s nice to just cuddle or see a movie sometimes too to build a strong relationship. Truly, this is the Stiffy Makane game you can take home to meet your mom.

Qua game, the only other thing I’d note about Citizen Makane is the caveat that the sex minigame does have one obviously-best strategy that’s a little too easy to hit upon and implement, and makes things fell quite mechanical by the end-point: all you need to do is find one rare dominant card and one rare submissive card (cards represent sex acts, and in an effort to keep you from just spamming the same one over and over again, you get a penalty for playing two of the same type in a row), upgrade them each, and then alternate them over and over until you win. Sure, the increasingly-mechanical nature of nonstop coitus is part of the game’s theme, but I think that could have been accomplished narratively while making the gameplay a little more engaging (for example by dealing out a subset of your equipped cards each round rather than having all of them always available).

Those themes are worth digging into, though. Sure, this is a silly sex comedy, but at this point the Stiffy Makane brand, oddly, is at least as much about making philosophical or sociological statements as it is about parodying AIF, so I think it’s worth taking at least a little seriously. We’re not meant to think too hard about the war that killed all the men, which is fair enough, but Citizen Makane does seem to want us to think about the all-female society it depicts. In many ways it’s a utopia – while one character does indicate that Urville’s self-presentation as a post-scarcity, egalitarian, and peaceful society is slightly untrue, the worst we see is that money does still exist in other parts of the world, and some people seem to think that having slightly kinkier sex than others is somehow subversive.

There is one element of the society that is problematized, though. Midway through a history lecture you can wander into and listen to, you get this bit of background:

“Over time, the new all-female society developed a myriad of alternative forms of intimacy. Emotional connections, intellectual stimulation, and artistic collaboration became increasingly significant aspects of women’s relationships with one another. This expansion of intimacy beyond the purely physical realm contributed to significant decline in female sexual activity over time.”

Yes, part of the reason they thawed you out is because Urville, without men, has reached a crisis point of too much cuddling and not enough boning.

Again, this is a standard heal-the-world-through-the-power-of-dick AIF trope, but the game really does dwell on this aspect of the world more than it needs to in order to establish that yeah, random people will want to screw you. And it’s of a piece with a decidedly reticent treatment of people with non-heterosexual orientations; lesbianism is only indirectly acknowledged in the various lectures and documents you find (and when it is, as in this excerpt, it’s implicitly positioned as lacking as compared to straight relationships), and while there are a couple of sapphic orgies you come across (er, not literally, thankfully), there’s only a single, very missable line towards the end to indicate that two characters are in a relationship with each other. For all intents and purposes, it feels like the only real sexuality is straight sexuality, so you’re the only game in town (there’s also no indication that there are any people not on the gender binary, which seems decidedly odd given the setup).

This is an oversight, but I think it’s intentional; to the extent the game has something to say, it’s saying it about male sexuality. The name of the holographic AI who piggybacks on your brain to vicariously experience sex (…I don’t think I’ve mentioned her yet, there’s a lot going on in this game) is called Shamhat, for example, which is the name of the temple prostitute who civilizes the wild man Enkidu through lovemaking in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Shamhat is also a critical part of that climactic scene where Stiffy renounces impersonal fucking in favor of engaging with the humanity of one’s sexual partners. And throughout the game, the player’s interactions with the town’s inhabitants do help bring out restraint in Stiffy; he learns to act professionally even when there are opportunities to push things in a sexy direction in the classes he teaches, for example, and there’s a semen-milking minigame that’s all about teetering at the edge of orgasm without losing control. Without spoiling things too much, the game’s ending also circles back to the beginning, and finishes with an explicit renunciation of the logic of early AIF. To the extent there’s a message, it’s that sex is an important and positive part of many relationships, but it’s just one part of fostering a human connection with one’s partner.

That’s a nice lesson that hardly anyone could object to (if they do – run) but at the same time, it sure doesn’t seem like the artistically-collaborating cuddle-happy lesbians of Urville need to learn it; this is all about Stiffy within the fiction, and out-of-game it sure feels directed at a presumably-male player audience. And I dunno, in space-year 2023, where there continue to be lots of issues around sex and intimacy in heterosexual relationships, but where there’s hopefully pretty broad understanding that similar issues arise in other kinds of relationships too – and, not to be a bummer, where setting up straight relationships as the norm can marginalize people with other orientations and gender identities – that approach does strike me as a little parochial. I’ll repeat, this is an ambitious, well-designed and implemented game that’s about as heartwarming as an AIF parody can get, but I can’t help but wish it pushed the envelope a little further and thought through what, if anything, Stiffy Makane has to say to people who aren’t straight men (I mean, his dick comes off! Someone’s gotta be able to do something with that!)

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